“I met my mother for the first time at her funeral.”
Kari Pierre leaned back in her chair and stared at her laptop screen. There was nothing else she could write, nothing more she knew about her mother’s life other than what she’d learned in the past twelve hours. She stood up, walked over to the bed behind her, and picked up her jean jacket. Her notebook, which contained the names and contact information for several people she’d met at the visitation, was tucked inside. “To keep in touch,” she’d said, after she’d told visitors she was a friend from out of town—not a journalist and the daughter of the woman about to be buried.
Earlier that day, inside a modest, one-level funeral home in a small town hundreds of kilometres from the familiarity of her Toronto apartment, Kari had looked at her mother’s face for the first and last time. Standing at the edge of the casket, she’d dragged her fingers across the cold, grey silk of Alana’s blouse, fingered the hem of her sleeve. She’d noted the fold lines in the fabric. The blouse was new, likely purchased specially for the burial. Who had chosen her clothing, the modest pearls at her ears? Undertaker or loved one?
Looking down at Alana’s face, Kari expected to feel something, some kind of outpouring, but felt little more than a pang of guilt muted by curiosity. An Internet alert for her mother’s name had arrived in her in-box when her mother’s obituary was posted on-line.
“It is with great sadness we announce the sudden and tragic death of Alana George.”
The visitation was the next day, which was to be followed immediately by the burial. Kari had packed an overnight bag and reserved a rental car. That night, she had not slept. When her alarm went off at 6 A.M., she’d showered, dressed, and set out for Essex County.
On February 21, 1975, at Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital, in Windsor, Kari was born to her mother and immediately put into her father’s arms. Her mother never held her once. “I’m not ready for it all to be over.” The words Alana had spoken to her husband, Lev, as they drove to the hospital that night. Seven months before, the same week she’d learned of her pregnancy, Lev’s test results had come back. The doctor spoke to them both in pathologies and percentages. During her pregnancy, Alana had calculated her own percentages and made the decision to leave once the baby was born. Still young, she’d reasoned she could start over. “I refuse to be a widow and single mother by the time I’m twenty-five.” So, only hours after she’d given birth to her first child, Alana was gone—the joint bank account she shared with Lev emptied and a suitcase of clothing taken from their home. It took a week for him to discover her wedding ring, threaded onto the bottom arm of the cactus on the kitchen windowsill. He left the ring there until the plant, watered once a month for years, overwhelmed it—the thin, gold band enveloped by spiked green flesh.
Kari stood up and looked out the window of her seventh-floor hotel room. Across the river, the lit buildings of Detroit—a mix of turn-of-the-century Gothic and glass-scaled skyscrapers from better times—sparkled against the darkening sky. Whenever she thought of home, she thought of the hard silhouette of that American skyline, what she’d looked at every day for twenty years, not the city she lived in. What lay across the river seemed more real than the ground she stood on.
It was almost midnight. A kilometre west of the hotel, Lev was asleep in his home. Kari had not told her father she was going to be in Windsor, let alone the reason for her visit. After Alana left, Lev had never spoken her name again, as if he could erase her existence by not saying the word. However, in that constant effort to forget her, he lived with the spectre of his wife. He’d never married again, instead spending his life enduring an endless stream of doctor’s appointments, operations, and hospitalizations, and raising his only child. If he ever wondered about where Alana had gone, if she’d flown back home to Cardiff, started another family, married another man, he never let on.
On the river, a freighter glided between the two cities, lights blinking like a felled skyscraper. Kari drew the curtains closed and sat down at her laptop. Her fingers hovered over the keys. Looking down at Alana’s face earlier that day, she’d searched for any resemblance that would tie her to the stranger. After brief consideration, she’d settled on Alana’s upper lip and touched it gently with her forefinger. The upper lip was hers. She could begin there. Her hands settled on the keyboard and she began to type.
The facts of a tragedy are often clean and unadorned. A patch of thin ice. The wrong pills swallowed. Ricochet. Undertow. A man walking out into the middle of a road. The tree-lined ditch.
When Alana George left her home for the last time, she was wearing a simple black knit dress and a pair of red rubber boots. She’d driven to the pharmacy in town to pick up a prescription and spent ten minutes talking to a friend in the parking lot. It had rained the night before, and puddles dimpled the uneven asphalt. Before driving the twenty minutes back to her home on Middle Side Road, Alana had picked up a large Earl Grey tea. Interviewed months later, the first responder on the scene would say that the inside of the vehicle had smelled of bergamot.
Kari read her words again. It had been a month since the funeral. What information she’d gathered about her mother since could be contained on two single sheets of paper, although that wasn’t all she knew. Over the years, she’d pieced together small details, her prized find a photograph. For all her searching, it had appeared unexpectedly one day in the Windsor Star twelve years earlier. The image was small and grainy, and she could barely make out her mother’s face, but there was no question it was Alana. “Mothe resident Alana George stands beside prize craftwork.” Her mother had left her family, but she hadn’t even crossed county lines. Kari had clipped the photo out of the newspaper, folded it into her wallet, and carried it with her. She’d never told her father.
Kari closed her laptop and pulled out her phone. She dialled Lev’s number. “Hello? ” she said on hearing his voice, but it was his voice-mail message. She looked at the clock. It was just after seven. He was likely having dinner at Mr. Ragnarsson’s, as he often did. She called back several times just to listen to his voice, its familiar gravel and drown, only leaving a message when she called back a fourth time: “Call me.”
On the table, the battery light on her laptop dimmed and brightened with each breath. She watched it, breathed in time with it, then angled the machine away. The apartment had grown dark. The storm that had raged earlier was now gone, leaving behind a low, muddy sky. While it remained humid outside, cold air poured from the vents. Kari shivered and searched her closet for a sweater. Tired, she sat in the low chair by the front window, her head pressed against the glass.
Whenever a storm hit Toronto, she felt something was missing. The sound of windows rattling, the wind whistling through the gaps and cracks. The single panes of her youth that had threatened to shatter with every storm that passed through. In her apartment, the windows were doubled up, thick, and reached from floor to ceiling. An extravagance of glass. Kari pulled a blanket up around herself and placed her phone in her lap in case her father called during the night, or someone called about him, which was more likely to happen. She picked up a previously discarded book from the floor and read until she fell asleep.
Just after one in the morning, her phone rang. Kari woke with a start, panic rising in her chest. “He’s dead.” This always her first thought. She looked down at the small screen. “UNKNOWN.” Already making a mental list of what she needed to pack and who she needed to call, Kari took a breath and answered.
The line crackled. A pause.
“No. You have the wrong number.” Kari listened and heard uneven breathing. “Wrong number,” she repeated.
A woman, possibly elderly, spoke in another language. Another pause.
Kari hung up and closed her eyes. By the time the rain started again, well after midnight, she was asleep and dreaming of endless tree-lined ditches.
“Is it time for the shadow edit? ”
One of the editorial interns stood in the doorway of Kari’s office. Kari pulled her headphones off.
“Sorry, what? ”
“The shadow edit? You said four o’clock.”
Kari looked at her watch. Hours had slipped by.
“I did. Sorry. Give me ten minutes.”
Kari put her headphones back on and resumed typing. She’d been asking for another ten minutes for three hours now.
Liz nodded and shuffled back to her desk.
Since she’d returned from Essex County, Kari had spent most of her time researching the details of her mother’s life, beginning with her death. Deadlines went unmet, invitations unaccepted. At home and at work, she chased the smallest thread to its end. However, she’d now arrived at an impasse. There was little else she could uncover without talking to people, and then, what would she tell them? If she asked questions, wouldn’t they, in turn, ask questions of her. Why would she be looking into the life and death of someone who, on the surface, had lived a quiet life?
Kari clicked on the bookmarked link to the article on Alana’s death that had appeared in the town’s weekly newspaper. unidentified pedestrian on road causes driver to veer into trees. The article went on to report the only reason the police even knew about the man was because he’d called in the accident from a pay phone a kilometre away from where Alana lay dying or already dead. Kari searched through her notes for the phone number of the police station in Mothe and dialled it. On the third ring, a woman picked up. After ten minutes of creatively trying to explain what she was looking for, Kari was curtly told someone would call her back. Knowing they wouldn’t, she found the article again. The writer’s name was John St. Henri. Kari pulled up the Web site for the Mothe Echo, found his E-mail address, and typed a message.
As soon as she hit Send, her phone rang.
She ended the call without saying a word.
Kari packed up her things and slipped out of the office without Liz seeing her. She’d planned to do more research at home, but instead fell asleep in her clothes, her computer still on. As was becoming the norm, she woke to the sound of her phone going off. More and more, she found the details of her life funnelled through the small device. Notes, messages, alarms. It gave her both the ability to make and thwart contact depending on her mood.
The text was from the publisher.
Kari thumbed back a message that yes, she was up, and leaving shortly. She’d forgotten about the interview. Her phone chimed again almost immediately.
“Take a cab. Don’t be late.”
Kari dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. She pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail and brushed her teeth. The host of a morning radio show had scheduled her to speak briefly about an article she’d written on counterfeit transit tokens. For a short time after each article, she became a lay-expert in a series of niche topics.
Once she was ready, she called for a cab and went down to wait. The morning was still dark and the streets nearly empty except for several taxis speeding back and forth. Just as the car pulled up, Kari realized she didn’t have that familiar weight in her back pocket. She ran back upstairs and grabbed her phone. Three new messages.
“There yet? ”
Back at street level, out of breath and running late, she climbed into the cab. “The corner of Wellington and Front.”
The cab driver nodded and pulled away from the curb with a lurch.
Kari shut her eyes and put her head back. She’d only slept a couple of hours. During the night, the woman looking for Hamad had called back three times. The calls had interrupted dreams of her mother, dreams she’d had as long as she could remember. It was never her actual mother—always someone she’d seen that day. A woman on a sidewalk, in the grocery store, at the office. The mothers in her dreams were never the same and varied in age. In one dream, Alana was a child and Kari stood with her at the edge of the river watching the ships go by. But when she woke, the sun burned off the details of the dream like fog.
The taxi pulled up to the corner of Wellington. The driver’s eyes met hers in the rear-view mirror.
“Here you are.”
Once inside the building, Kari took the elevator to the third floor and sat in the green room, which was little more than an alcove with a coat rack hanging in the corner. A lonely boom box on a table played the morning show. She tossed her bag onto the floor and sat down on the couch. As Kari waited, her hands nervously pressed between her thighs, she listened to the steady beat of footfalls moving up and down the hallway.
When it was nearly time for Kari to go on air, a producer came into the room and nodded. He escorted her into the studio where she took a seat outside the booth. Waiting. Then a wink and a nod by the host, Matt, a slight man in a slim-fitted dress shirt and jeans. It felt, as it always did, too sudden. She took her seat across from the host and put on the headphones. While she didn’t need them, she preferred the physical reminder of what she was doing, that this was not just a conversation between two people.
Matt, smiling, nodded again. The interview was going to start. Kari nodded back and mouthed, “O.K,” but felt unfocussed. All she could think about was her mother, the next person she would contact. How easy it would be if she could just ask a question of the listeners. At least one of them would know something, a detail. Or someone that would.
“So when you were researching your article, you met with some of the counterfeiters. Your piece says they acted no different from a family running a restaurant or small business. Can you tell us what they were like? ”
“Well, I—,” Kari started, but stopped. Her thoughts drifted. She took a breath and started again, trying to reel herself back. “Let me try that again.” Her usual focus absent.
It wasn’t until she was in a cab on her way home that she turned her phone back on. It trembled to life and alerted her to the half dozen texts from her publisher and that her voice mail held several new messages. She dialled her voice mail first. The first message was the old woman asking for Hamad, the familiar crackle of the line. In the background she could hear a child crying. The next two messages were from her father’s V.O.N. nurse, telling Kari that she had to come home. “It’s Lev.”
Lev Pierre entered the world weighing less than a pair of shoes. At two pounds and two ounces, the nuns at the hospital predicted he wouldn’t live another day and fluttered about his incubator while his parents prepared themselves for the loss of their first born. In preparation for his impending death, a priest was brought in to baptize him. Each of the nuns on the floor gave Lev their first names as his middle names. Six months later, Lev Esther Matilda Marie Pearl Ann Pierre went home for the first time. When his mother laid him in his crib for the first time, he was still smaller than most newborns. She looked at her son, and in that moment, saw his future.
“You won’t be lucky, but you’ll have luck.”
When Lev turned sixteen, he got his first tattoo. He’d skipped school using a poorly written note and knocked on the door of a small, dilapidated house on Prince Road.
A man with a long, grey beard and an orange bandana tied around his head answered the door.
“Come on in.”
Lev nodded and followed the man down into the basement. A large biker flag was nailed to a rafter at the bottom of the stairs.
Chad pulled the curtain aside to let Lev into his basement studio.
“So what are we doing for you today? ”
The studio took up half of the basement, the other half blocked by several shower curtains stapled together to form a massive wall of hard-water-stained plastic. There was a tool bench identical to the one Lev’s father had at home, but this one housed tattooing materials instead of tools. Bottles of ink, bandages, transfer paper, and markers. The walls were papered with tattoo flash. Dagger-pierced hearts. Serpentine jaguars. Gold anchors. Women with tip-over, peekaboo breasts.
Chad himself was a piece of flash. Dressed in jean shorts cut off at the knees and a black T-shirt worn inside out, every visible part of his body was tattooed. Lev looked at the drawings, but snuck sidelong glances at Chad. His chest felt tight, his face hot, but he couldn’t leave.
Noting Lev’s fixation on his large neck tattoo of a black bear’s face, Chad pointed at a snarling wolf’s head on the wall. “Maybe this? ”
The bear’s mouth appeared to move whenever Chad talked. It made Lev feel dizzy. He pulled off his backpack and set it on the floor. He unzipped it and pulled out a horseshoe.
“This,” he said. “Can you do it? ”