The day that Doreen’s husband announces that he is leaving her for a nineteen-year-old nursing student happens to be the first day of Summer. Nina is away camping with friends. Beams of sunlight pour down like cream coloured banners onto the living room rug, illuminating the pages of the Sunday paper. She puts on her clogs and goes into the backyard to water the peppers and the carrots. Poppies and black-eyed susans stand in neatly arranged rows and lazy bees swarm around her ankles. An hour later, Doreen drives to the shopping mall for vodka and sleeping pills.
Back home, she balances a transistor radio on the edge of the bathtub and falls asleep to gardening tips on the CBC. Days later, in the hospital, they arrange appointments with counsellors and social workers. They tell her she’s lucky to be alive.
In Vancouver, affordable housing is a problem. She has a part-time bookkeeping job, and makes a little extra by cleaning houses. The only place in her price range is a bungalow in a bad part of town. It has cockroaches and leaky taps and fuses jammed with tinfoil. But it’s close to the major bus routes.
At night there are screams in the alley, the sound of shopping cart wheels on gravel. To fall asleep, she reads mystery novels and listens to sentimental songs on the oldies station. She paints the kitchen ivory and yellow; plants rosemary in a cracked teapot.
The first spring in her new home she digs up a part of the backyard for vegetables and flowers and uncovers seventeen used needles, a headless doll, some old condoms that remind her of the jellyfish that used to wash up on the beach in front of her parents’ cabin.
Her ex-husband drops their daughter off on Friday nights and picks her up on Sunday afternoons. Nina is almost fifteen now. She has green hair and heavy make-up and low-plunging tops and black gloves with the fingertips cut off. She is pale and sullen and bored and inhumanly beautiful. Usually they argue about report cards, boyfriends, curfews. Sometimes they share a plate of fries at Helen’s Grill and go shopping for costume jewelry at Sally Ann.
On Tuesday nights Doreen attends a creative writing class put on by the school board. She thinks she might be able to write a pretty good mystery. The instructor is a published poet and short story writer, maybe twenty-five years old. He has a motorcycle and a master’s degree from U.B.C. She writes nearly every night, long into the night, but somehow her characters never really come alive.
The instructor tells her to write about what she knows. She writes about stealing apples from a farmer’s field and performing in Christmas pageants. She writes about making love in the back of a Fargo wagon, about getting pregnant at eighteen, losing the diaper money at the laundromat, selling pot to make enough money to cover the rent. The words come flooding through the end of her pen. She writes about swimming naked in a cold running river, about heat lightning in the sky above Williams Lake, about her daughter’s asthma attacks, about love and regret and betrayal. She writes about the way that sunlight feels on your arms, the way that a mother and daughter can occasionally share a joke.
She writes about how the best times are when you smile for no reason, and suddenly feel that you might, sometimes, be lucky to be alive.