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Bad Ideas

Contents

Why do they do it?

Part 1

Trudy

Because it had been years

Because the air became water

Because they had no right

Because everything stopped making sense

Because never is a long time

Because sometimes you can see things coming from a long way away

Because everyone makes mistakes

Because it would kill her mother

Because small towns are unbearable

Because enough was enough

Because some solutions can fix more than one kind of problem

Because you can’t help looking

Because the black water wanted to swallow you whole

Because the light at sunset can make anything look golden

Because sometimes you have to set the world on fire

Because not everything has to make sense

Because not all unicorns have horns

Claire

Because you can’t just lay down and die

Because it wasn’t called “The Number Two” for nothing

Because love at first sight is real

Because there was no stopping it

Because you can definitely make the same mistake twice

Because memories are more important than remembering

Because hate can be love

Because the sadness can just start leaking out of you

Because Mama needs love

Because you never get a moment to yourself

Darren

Because trouble will find you

Because everything inside you has been rearranged

Because you don’t get to choose your dreams

Jules

Because it’s hard to tell the difference between flying and falling

Because everything looks left behind

Because in the country, birds make an unbelievable racket

Because you can only do some things for so long

Because so many sad stories are almost the same

Trudy

Because even monsters can be lovable

Because you should be careful what you wish for

Because you learn something new every day

Because it doesn’t take much

Because that’s life

Because real love is always mixed with terror

Because everybody remembers everything

Because if you look hard enough it is probably there

Tammy (and Fenton)

Because there is another skin beneath your skin

Because you don’t know what makes it happen

Because you’re nobody’s baby

Because it can never be far enough

Because you feel the only feeling you can bear

Because sometimes it all mixes together

Because sometimes you don’t know what’s happening until it’s over

Because the impossible is not the possible

Mercy

Because nothing is ever quite the way you want it to be

Because dreams can march right into the daylight

Because there is always someone eager to deliver bad news

Because you just keep making things up until they seem true

Because a little progress would be nice for a change

Trudy

Because you never know what you might see in the moonlight

Because nobody will ever love you enough

Because there is no point in lying

Because you think you’re so fucking good

Part 2

So Long at the Fair

Because the end of summer means the beginning of something else

Because what goes up must come down

Because there are rude surprises in this life

Because sometimes it’s better to just turn around and walk away

Because joy can fill you up and send you right up into the sky

Because you don’t always want to hear what other people think

Because some rides are too rough

Because sometimes you just want to go home

Because the sun on the water looks like diamonds

Because a tumour is the last thing you need

Because Sunday is the Lord’s Day (not yours)

Because the hospital is never fun for long

Because the new day is pink

The Circus

Because you think you know what you’re in for

Because nobody invited you

Because time travels in both directions

Because family can get on your very last nerve

Because crying when you are happy makes no sense to children

Because sometimes you lose the thread

Because sometimes you feel like a sheet on the clothesline

Because you don’t want to hear it

Because it’s always just the beginning

Because the years come charging in

Because love is weird

Because sooner or later you have to make your move

Because it will all end one way or another

Because they’re only numbers

Because there are two kinds of surprises

Because sometimes it seems like there is only one kind of luck

Because some things just don’t feel natural

Because some people never learn

Because it has always been serious

The Stunt

Because maybe they really are trying to kill you

Because you don’t have to see people go to know they are gone

Because sometimes you can smell a rat

Because you made it this way

Because some people are harder to love than others

Because it has already happened without you

Because the wind makes your eyes water

Because you wouldn’t

Because you don’t even know who to be mad at for what

Because it is just a body in the end

Because there are no diamonds

Acknowledgements and thanks

About the Author

Copyright

For John & Cathy, Don & Dave

Why do they do it?

Why do they do it? What makes them drive their fists through walls, through windows, into each other’s faces? What makes them press the burning ends of cigarettes into the backs of their hands while staring into each other’s eyes? Why do they ride wild horses, bucking bulls, motorcycles, whatever crazy, dangerous, stupid thing they can climb onto? And when they are thrown, trampled, broken to pieces, what in God’s name makes them get back on?

What makes a man imagine that he can drive a car up a ramp and fly over bales of hay, buses, creeks, canyons and forget that he will break his ankles, his ribs, puncture his lungs, bounce his brain off the inside of his cranium when he lands? If he is lucky. If his sorry life is spared one more time.

And why are these the ones? The ones making noise, wasting space. The ones that are covered in scars, that should be dead. The ones with less than half a brain inside their heads. Why are these the only ones she ever loves?

And here comes another one — sad story and all. His jeans riding so low, his T-shirt so thin, his eyes so dark. Jesus Christ. She’s a goner.

Again.

Part 1

Trudy

Because it had been years

When those strangers walked into the Jubilee restaurant, Trudy Johnson was twenty-two years old and she had not had sex in five years. Her horniness was closing in on her every thought. It was making her edgy, irritable. But she had made herself a promise. She had decided to forgo the physical for a while. She was in recovery.

Trudy had the kind of body that caused no end of trouble. Her mother had the same one. Her sister Tammy had it. And her little niece, Mercy, would likely have it one day, too, God help her. The kind of body that grew up too soon, that alienated you from your later-blooming classmates. That attracted the attention of the wrong men. Or maybe it made men act wrong. It made them call you a goddess but treat you like trash. Impregnate you and evaporate. The Johnson family had, at this point, three generations of females living in their house and zero generations of men.

She had the kind of body that, if you lived in it long enough, confused you about love. It could lead you to believe that any man who really cared for you would not want to have sex with you. Because he would be able to see that sex was not your only purpose. That you had other things to offer. So far, she had not met such a man.

Except once, in a way.

Once she had met a man who was not the least bit interested in having sex with her. Maybe because he saw people naked every day, all bodies — even hers — had lost their magic. Dr. Noel Cameron had saved her life once. No questions asked. Every time she saw him in town, he nodded at her, then looked away. The sun always seemed to be behind him, shining all around his big head.

That was it: one shining exception to the rule. One good man. The rest, Trudy was pretty sure, were complete bastards.

Because they had no right

It was April 1978. Mercy was only four years old and it seemed like the whole town had turned grey. The grey river washed against the grey shore. The grey trees stood against the grey sky, biding their time, refusing to bloom. Trudy and Mercy were sitting in a booth at the back of the Jubilee, and Mercy was peeling the cheese off her slice of pizza and cramming it into her mouth, her little hands covered in sauce. Trudy was smoking, staring past Mercy out the front window of the restaurant, when the door opened and the bells jingled. Two men came in, laughing so hard that they staggered and bumped against each other as they made their way past the front counter.

Both tall. Both lean.

Both dressed like they were from somewhere else. Lower, tighter jeans. T-shirts with dumb slogans.

I’m with Stupid. Keep on Truckin’.

One of the men was pale and freckled with curly dark hair and giant sideburns. The other man had broad shoulders and a broad smile. His skin was a deep, rich brown. This was a show-stopper. Every single one of the eight hundred inhabitants of Preston Mills was as white as paste — of English, Irish, Dutch, or German extraction — and not one of them had ever seen a black man except on TV.

“What?” said Mercy, seeing Trudy’s eyebrows lift. “What are you looking at?”

Trudy scowled at her and shook her head, reached across and touched her finger to the little girl’s lips. Quiet.

Mercy wrapped her hand around her aunt’s finger and pulled it aside. She whispered, “Trudy, what?” Not waiting for an answer, she rose to her knees to look over the back of the booth.

“Sit down, Mercy.” Trudy ground her cigarette out in the ashtray and took a sly look around at the other patrons. Nine or ten others, mostly men. Frozen. Staring. That giant fool, Jimmy Munro, pushed his chair back from the table, stood up, and lifted his chin at the strangers. He was always looking for a fight. Trudy could see him sizing up the newcomers, assessing his chances. Mercy brushed a fly off her forehead and looked from Jimmy to the strangers and back again. Jimmy said, “Can we help you with something?”

The freckled one pushed his hands deep into his front pockets, rocked back on the heels of his boots, and smiled. Trudy could see a good three inches of tanned skin between his belt and the bottom of his shirt. She could see the shadowy trail of dark hair down the middle. Like an oasis in the desert. Unable, or unwilling, to take her eyes off this welcome sight, she reached blindly across the table and tugged at the back of Mercy’s shirt so that the little girl dropped back onto her seat.

“You know what?” said the stranger. “That’s nice of you, but we’re just here to see our friends.” He caught Trudy’s eye and nodded. Then he and his companion walked right over to their table and sat down.

As if it were true. As if they had any right.

“Thanks for letting us join you, ladies. Such a friendly little town.”

Trudy knew she was being observed. Her feelings about this stranger were equal parts rage and attraction. And she was painfully tired. Her eyes were burning from cigarette smoke. She had a full night shift at the factory ahead of her and she had been chasing Mercy all day. And now she found herself in the middle of this ridiculous standoff.

“Listen,” she said.

“Jules,” he interrupted.

“What?”

“Jules Tremblay. That’s my name. And this is James.” James nodded. Trudy thought she would die of irritation.

“Listen, Jewels. And James. Nobody in this restaurant believes that you are my friends.”

“Why not?”

Trudy sighed. “Because they all know me, and they know I don’t have any friends.”

“I’m your friend,” said Mercy.

“Right,” said Trudy. “I have one friend.” She looked over at Jimmy and his table of galoots. Flipped her middle finger at them. They looked away. “Time to go, Mercy. Say goodbye.”

“Bye, friends,” said Mercy, quietly.

“You guys should probably go, too. Nothing good is going to happen here.”

Trudy grabbed her jacket. The men stood to let them out of the booth. Mercy looked back at them and waved as Trudy dragged her to the front of the restaurant to pay.

And she knew it already. Trudy knew that even though it was indefensible, even though he had done nothing to distinguish himself, even though she knew nothing about him at all, she would think of him.

She would think of him and little else until she saw him again.

Because everything stopped making sense

Before he had shown up, bringing with him the tight green buds of springtime, things had been alright for Trudy. Boring, maybe. But alright. Mercy was hard work, especially when she was smaller. Pulling on Trudy’s pant leg. Tearing the house apart like a little animal. Trailing chewed-up food and snot wherever she went. Still — it had been just the three of them, and things were simple. Trudy’s mother, Claire, worked the early shift at the linen mill. Trudy worked the late one. They looked after Mercy in opposite shifts: Trudy on days, Claire on nights. At least, that’s what they had done since Trudy’s sister, Tammy, had fucked off into the ether and left her progeny behind.

Trudy spent hazy days on the couch, drifting in and out of sleep, TV on, one ear on alert for Mercy. Sometimes, out of nowhere, the little girl would bounce onto her, knocking the wind from her lungs, and then settle her warm little body behind Trudy’s knees or in the curved hollow of her belly.

The nights passed in a blurry clockwork dream. Seated at her machine, fluorescent lights humming above, she sewed pillowcase after pillowcase. A straight seam up the left side, crank the wheel, sink the needle into the fabric, lift the foot, rotate ninety degrees. Lower the foot onto the fabric — pink or blue or green or some pastel paisley print — and sew a straight seam across the top. Needle in fabric, rotate ninety degrees, straight seam down the right side. Lift foot. Cut thread. Slide the pillowcase across the table into the bin.

Next.

One foot in front of the other, day after day, night after night. A carton of cigarettes, purchased each payday. A stack of packs, each cellophane wrapper unwound and discarded. Silver foil removed from one side then the other. Ashtrays filled and then emptied. Until he came along.

Then everything got complicated.

Because never is a long time

In a town like Preston Mills, people would say that a girl had “a reputation.” There was only one kind. Trudy had known what this meant for as long as she could remember. Her mother had a reputation. And Trudy didn’t want one. She had developed a defense. When adults asked if she had a boyfriend, she told them that she didn’t like boys. They were disgusting. She almost believed it. By the time she was thirteen, adults stopped asking her about boys, and kids started calling her gay or a lez — Preston Mills–speak for lesbian. She let them believe it. Any boy permitted to touch her was usually from out of town (sports tournaments and visiting cousins provided the occasional make-out partner), sworn to secrecy, and threatened with death.

And she never, never went all the way.

This strategy had worked through most of her teens. Until Jimmy Munro finally wore her down.

Jimmy Munro’s face looked like it had been hit with the back of a shovel: dented brow, crushed nose, chipped teeth. His dark eyes glittered with bad intent and he wore his hair Elvis Presley style: slick with Brylcreem and combed back over his ears. Trudy had known Jimmy since kindergarten. (She had known everyone since kindergarten.) In their first year of high school, he started hounding her. Sitting next to her in every class, goading her relentlessly.

“Hey, Trudy. You gay?”

“Shut up, Jimmy.”

“What a waste. With that ass? Oh my God.”

Trudy would stare straight ahead, trying to focus on the teacher.

“You don’t know what you’re missing, Trudy. I could show you something. You wanna see something?”

“Gross. Not interested.”

He persisted.

Every class, every day, an endless stream of increasingly obscene banter. Until the words became meaningless. Until they stopped making her angry. Until there was something comforting about the tirelessness of his pursuit. It made her like him a little bit. Plus, he made her laugh. And hanging out with Jimmy — who was gigantic — deflected the advances of other boys.

Even when he was only fourteen or fifteen, Jimmy had been built like a bull. Thick broad shoulders and tiny ass. He was so top-heavy it seemed like you could tip him over with just a little nudge. But you couldn’t. Trudy knew it. Sometimes when they were goofing around, she would throw herself at him in a wild tackle, to no avail. She would just rebound off him. He was as immovable as a mountain.

Then one day, walking home from school, she caught him off guard. She saw him walking down the path behind the Catholic church, about fifty feet ahead. She took a running leap at him at a slight angle and knocked him to the ground. Whump! She rolled on top of him, laughing. “Victory is mine!”

“Jesus, Trudy! You scared the shit out of me.”

She leapt up, fist in the air. “The winner! Thank you. Thank you.” She swept low, taking a deep bow.

He stood up and lunged after her, grabbed her from behind. He pressed his shovel face into her neck and whispered in her ear. “Trudy Johnson, will you never fuck me? Really? How can that be?”

“Never.” Famous last words. “Now get off me.”

Because sometimes you can see things coming from a long way away

Trudy had quit school when she was sixteen to work at the mill. By the time Tammy was pregnant with Mercy, Trudy had already been working there for a year. One year that felt like forty. Every night that summer, she left early for work so she could go swimming. She would throw her bag over her arm and set out walking.

Ten at night and everything would be dead quiet. The sky was always black, the silver stars sparkling, the streets deserted. Almost all of the houses dark. The soft summer breeze smelled like the river.

She would walk right down the middle of the street, slowly, daring a car to come, daring the universe to break her perfect record: in the whole time she had been working at the factory, she had never once seen a car or a person on the street at this time of night. Straight ahead, up the hill, past the park, she could see the lights of the mill. But instead of going straight, she would turn left, cut through the school parking lot, across the baseball diamond, and down the gravel road to the beach. Each night of the summer, she would walk to the far end of the beach by the pier and the boathouses, place her folded towel on top of her bag, take off all her clothes, and walk into the water until it reached her neck. She would stand there, shivering a little in the black water, watching the moon’s reflection on the surface until her heart slowed down.

A moment of cool peace between the heat and noise of home and the drone and glare of work.

She could see the lights of the factories across the river on the American side, and she could see the towering shadow of the hydro dam to the west.

One night, she stood there, about twenty feet from shore, her toes pressed into the silky clay of the riverbed, when she felt the rumble of a ship engine coming up through the ground. A green light flashed at the top of a buoy straight ahead. She heard the ship’s horn and turned to the east to see the glimmer of it in the distance. She stood rooted as the ship took form, the vibration growing stronger, rattling her body. She was thinking about how long you can see things coming sometimes — sometimes for your whole life — when she turned and saw him standing on the shore.

Jimmy looked around, making sure nobody was nearby, and took off his shirt and then his pants. With the glow of the town behind him, he was just a shadow. But Trudy knew exactly who it was. She knew the shape of him. Looking at him standing there on the shore, she felt something brush against her ankle under the water. She kicked at it and took a few stumbling steps toward shore. She felt it again, slick and muscular. Higher on her leg now. Was it an eel? She lurched forward again, her bare breasts now well above the water line. The ship was right behind her now, easing past, stretching across the horizon. The ground was shuddering. He ran into the water, splashing, tripping forward, until he fell at her feet.

And that was it. The end of reason. Three years of firm resistance overcome by his hand on her knee under the water. His breath. The bubbles fluttering up her bare legs.

Once, she told him. And never again. And she really did think that she meant it.

Because everyone makes mistakes

The Johnson house, rented from Trudy’s grandparents, was so small as to be comical. A tiny cube covered with fake-brick asphalt siding, topped with a pitched roof. The ground floor housed the kitchen and the front room that doubled as Claire’s bedroom. (Every morning, she removed the sheets and tucked them into the side table, folded the hide-a-bed mattress back into the couch.) Stacked on top were the bedroom shared by Trudy and Tammy — and later, Mercy — and the closet-sized bathroom. Shag carpet in every room. Wallpaper, too. Wood-grain wallpaper, floral wallpaper, even (in the bathroom) fairy wallpaper. A birch forest mural featuring a waterfall on the back wall of the front room.

Small, carpeted, wallpapered to death and stiflingly hot.

By the end of that summer, when sixteen-year-old Tammy was eight months pregnant, Trudy thought the house was feeling even smaller than usual. She also felt that her sister was using her condition as an excuse to take liberties. She had decided to draw a line.

“Why are you such a bitch, Trudy? Just get me some ginger ale. I’m thirsty.”

“I said, get it yourself. You’re pregnant, not crippled.” The smell of cabbage rolls was fumigating the house. Claire had been crying and furiously cooking for months. Ever since Tammy’s pregnancy had become undeniable. Claire had been a mother at seventeen and now she would be a grandmother at thirty-four. She was beside herself with shame and worry. Frenzied. The freezer was as packed with casseroles as Tammy was with child. Trudy felt like she was going to vomit. Why was this house always so disgustingly hot?

“You’ve always hated me. Always thought you were better than me. Some big sister you are.”

Trudy stood up, her body suddenly beyond her command, a machine carrying out its simple unstoppable function. She walked over and pushed the heel of her hand against Tammy’s chest, pinning her against the couch. She could feel Tammy’s heart beating, her clammy skin sweating under her hand. “What did you say to me?”

“Get off ! Mom!

“Girls?” Claire’s nervous voice from the kitchen.

Trudy straddled her sister, a knee on either side of her thighs on the couch, pushed her hand harder into Tammy’s chest, feeling the slight give of the sternum. Why was she doing this? Her breath was shaking. “Shut up, Tammy. Why don’t you ever think of anyone but yourself? God, you’re right. I do hate you sometimes.”

Trudy pushed herself off the couch and turned away. The thick funk of cooked cabbage filled her throat. She bolted up the stairs.

Retching into the toilet, the idea spread through her like a stain.

Biggest mistake of her life.

Fucking Jimmy Munro. Of course.

Because it would kill her mother

“Trudy, are you OK? Let me in.”

“Leave me alone, Tammy.”

Tammy sat in the hallway with her back against the bathroom door, her giant belly pressing the air out of her lungs, forcing her to sit up as straight as possible just so she could take a breath. “Oh my God. Are you pregnant, Trudy?”

The door opened suddenly, throwing Tammy off balance. She almost toppled over. “Get in here. Don’t say that. Do you want to kill our mother?”

“Well, are you?” Tammy sat on the edge of the tub. “It wouldn’t be the end of the world, you know. We could raise our kids together! Happy families.” She said this last part in a loopy singsong voice.

Psycho, thought Trudy. She put her toothbrush in the dirty mug by the sink and turned to her sister. “Tammy, you have to have sex to get pregnant. You know I don’t do that.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I’m just sick. I need to see the doctor.”

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