by Christina Kilbourne
2002 Over-all Winner
After Hamar died, I took the kids into town for pizza. Gunner had been to the pizza restaurant lots of times before, but the other kids never had. So we dressed up in our best clothes, the same we wore to the cemetery for Hamar’s funeral, and piled into the truck. Gunner drove with the twins and me in the front seat: the boys sat in the truck bed with their backs against the cab and their arms hugging their knees. It was a warm day and the sun was burning strong. I felt good with a bit of Hamar’s money tucked in my pocket and my kids smiling and chattering with excitement. Gunner looked proud to be driving us, going out to dinner like a family from a TV show, and I was proud of him, my eldest. I knew I wouldn’t often spend the money on stuff like this, but now and then I thought we deserved it.
Gunner parked down the street from Napoli’s Pizza and helped the twins onto the sidewalk, while I helped Finn down out of the truck bed. Carl and Axel had already jumped out and were waiting with Gunner, their hair combed neatly to the side and stuck in place with so much of Gunner’s hair gel the wind on the ride into town hadn’t moved a single strand. I held onto the twins’ hands, Gunner made sure Finn stayed close by and we walked down to the restaurant, pushed open the glass door and waited to be seated. The restaurant smelled of hot dough and cigarette smoke. Finn and the twins, who rarely got into town, gawked around like they had landed on another planet. Gunner was used to town because he was there every day for school or work, and Carl and Axel pretended it was no big deal to be going to eat dinner at a restaurant in Port Hope, even though it was for us. As for me, I just felt awkward and out-of-place the way I always did when strangers were around and kept my eyes to the ground as much as I could.
We got a table at the back that was big enough for all of us and there was plenty of elbow room so the boys didn’t have to push and shove. There was a short squabble over who got to sit beside me and who got to sit beside Gunner and in the end we sat this way around the table: me, Finn, Axel, Carl, Gunner, Freya and then Anna back on my other side.
The waitress brought us big vinyl menus that folded like books and smiled at us kindly. She asked what we would like to drink and when the kids looked shy and I said nothing, Gunner ordered us all Cokes. Then Gunner looked at the menu and together he and Carl decided to order a large pepperoni pizza and a large Hawaiian. While we waited for it to arrive we sipped our Cokes out of striped plastic straws and looked around. We didn’t say much, which was normal for us since none of us were very big talkers. When Carl and Axel started blowing bubbles into their Cokes through their straws and the younger kids were about to do the same, I said, “cut it out you two, were not a bunch of pigs.” They looked up at me sheepishly and stopped. Gunner looked relieved.
When the pizzas arrived on flat round trays, the twins’ eyes almost burst out of their heads. Then when the waitress started slicing them into wedges with her cutting wheel, Finn started to squirm in his seat and ended up on his knees, leaning so far over the table I thought he was going to spill his Coke. Gunner served a piece of pizza onto everyone’s plate using a triangular spatula and we used our hands to eat it. At first I thought we should use the knives and forks the waitress had brought us, but Gunner said it was okay to use our hands.
“I’ve eaten in here tons of times. I always use my hands and nobody ever said anything about it. Besides, that man over there is using his hands and he’s wearing a tie.”
When the waitress came back to ask if we were all doing fine, I ordered another round of Cokes. But when she was gone I warned everyone to drink more slowly because this was their last. I think they were surprised to be getting a refill in the first place. I expected the waitress to bring a big bottle of Coke and pour it into our glasses, but instead she brought us new glasses and took away our old ones. The ice clanked against the side of the glasses and the straws bobbed on top.
There were still four pieces of pizza left and we were full so the waitress took them away and brought them back in a flat, square box to take home. I knew there was going to be plenty of fighting later on when the kids got some room back in their bellies, but I figured I could cut the bigger slices down the middle and make enough for us all to have a piece. Gunner took the bill and the money from my pocket, then left enough for the food and drinks and a little for a tip because he said it was the right thing to do. I trusted he knew better than I did and let it alone. Then we filed out of the restaurant and I smiled when the waitress told us to come again, because I knew we would.
When we got home we watched The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Hour and digested our pizza before I set the boys to doing their chores: feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs, feeding the goats and cleaning out the chicken house and goat stalls. I scrubbed up Freya and Anna and put them into bed and when the boys got back in the house, I sent them to do the same, except for Gunner, who usually stayed up late and kept me company.
That night, with the kids tucked asleep in their room and the warmth of the day clinging to the nighttime air, Gunner and I went outside to look around the place, to see what sort of shape the fences were in, how much hay was left in the lean-to, how far along the corn was. I breathed in the damp mist rising past our feet and into the night and looked above us at the stars glittering in the black, moonless sky. The only real light was spilling from the windows of our house.
“No offense Hamar,” I said up at the night-sky, “but we can’t keep living here. It’s been home to us all these years. We’ve been warm and dry. But it’s too small and too run-down and now that we can afford it, we’re gonna move.”
Of course, Hamar didn’t answer.
“Do you think we should move?” I asked Gunner, knowing he would give me an honest answer, steer me in the right direction. He looked at me, almost down at me he had grown so much, and thought for a long, hard minute.
“The Clyde’s place is for sale down at the main corners and it’d be just the thing for us. I was in it once before, when I brought Ben home from school one day last year. It has three bedrooms, so there’d be one for the girls, one for the boys and one for you. And I could build myself one in the basement.”
“It’s got a kitchen with a whole wall of cupboards, a bathroom with a bathtub and a shower, and a living room with a big window overlooking the main road.”
“No more baths in the metal tub?”
“Nope. And no more leaks in the roof and no more taped-up windows and no more snow drifting into the living room when the door blows open.”
“Is there room for a chicken coop in the yard?”
“There’s already a chicken coop and a big garden out back. There’s even a little shed you could keep the goats in if you wanted.”
“Do you suppose we could afford it?”
“With what Hamar left us I’m sure we could. But …” His sentence trailed off and I knew he was too embarrassed to say more. I was still surprised Hamar had tucked away so much money in his metal trunk, that we hadn’t been as poor as I’d always thought, but even that money, more than I had ever imagined having, I knew wasn’t going to last forever.
“I need to get a job,” I said finally.
“I don’t think my job at the gas station will be enough. Especially in the fall when school starts up again,” Gunner admitted, with equal parts of regret and relief.
“What can I do?” I asked, because I had never had a job before and really didn’t know.
“Anything you want. You could get a job like that waitress in the restaurant or maybe be a checkout girl at the grocery store. Or maybe even in one of the other stores in town. But …” Again he hesitated.
I wasn’t sure I could get a job like Gunner suggested. I worried about being around so many strangers every day, had never really known anyone outside my own family, but I knew I didn’t have a choice. I had six kids to feed. So I swallowed my fear and said, “First I gotta learn how to drive.”
“And I gotta learn to read better.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to keep teaching you, Winnie, it’s just that…”
“It’s not right that a kid teaches his own mother to read, Gunner. I gotta find someone to teach me properly.” I didn’t want him to feel responsible. He was already a sixteen-year-old with too much pressure weighing down his life.
“Maybe Mrs. McKenzie will teach you. She’s really nice. And smart. I bet if you asked her, she’d say yes.”
The thing about Gunner that always surprised me was how smart he was. He’d be the first to argue and say he wasn’t any good at school, was only smart when it came to his body knowing how to do things, like play basket ball. But if he wasn’t smart, then he was wise and I knew that came from our blood, a gift passed down from our Chippewa ancestor, the great Muske Uke. And so at that moment, with Hamar dead only a few days and my future big and scary and hiding in the shadows so that I couldn’t glimpse what it might be, I wasn’t as afraid as I might have been because I had Muske Uke’s blood and Gunner to keep me safe.
About this Story
Published by BookLand Press 20026
• Winner of the 2002 Muskoka Novel Marathon.
• Winner of a 2003 Works In Progress, Ontario Arts Council Grant.