ILLUSTARTIONS BY HUGO DUBON

Cafeteria Mentality

Winner of our 2011 fiction contest.

By Elaine Hayes

 

Inspired by the events of March 1, 1965, in LaSalle, Quebec.

Ahead of us, street-sweepers generated clouds of soot that brought traffic exiting the Mercier Bridge to an abrupt halt. My little brother Wally gave up pretending to smoke his pencil, and he yanked his T-shirt up to cover his nose. He asked about the barricades and the soldiers in camouflage fatigues patrolling the perimeter of the disaster site.

They’re there to discourage looting, Dad said, yanking the station wagon’s directional signal up and down before changing lanes. I pressed my forehead to the window and peered at stacks of splintered wood—window frames, table legs, dresser drawers—that reminded me of the twig teepees I’d made at Girl Guides to earn my campfire-starting badge. What’s left to steal? I wondered, as bulldozers scraped and raked piles of debris, as they unearthed rimless tires and cushionless sofas. Cushionless, unfamiliar sofas.

Grandma’s Bergevin Street apartment in LaSalle had disappeared. Poof. Just like that and it was gone. Two weeks earlier, an explosion had blown it to smithereens, killing 28 of her neighbours, and that was sad. Now, though, we were headed to Keelson Manor, her new apartment building with wall-to-wall carpeting in every unit. 

In the hallway of Grandma’s building, Wally raced ahead of me. Your new slacks are going to match the banana cream pie she promised to make for me, he yelled, without any consideration for Grandma’s neighbours and their peace and quiet. 

My new bell-bottoms flapped against my shins. Lemon-yellow cotton twill. An almost invisible side zipper. Mom had worried there wasn’t enough material on the bolt I’d selected at The Fabric Bin, a tiny store on Wellington Street with a window display crammed with merchandise and screaming sale tags. We’ve never measured your inseam, Mom said, navigating around rows of tables overflowing with cottons and wools and linens that all smelled like vinegar. I held the fabric against my hip. Sure there is, I said, determined not to be the last girl in Grade 5 to get bell-bottoms. And look, Mom, it’s been marked down. 

Grandma would admire my new bell-bottoms. She would say I was a real fashion plate, would say hubba hubba, would laugh when I told her no one said that anymore. 

Grandma had a deck with 52 cards and a box of crayons with a built-in sharpener and 64 unbroken, unpeeled crayons. And she had real milk for Wally and me, too, not the powdered stuff that Mom bought, the stuff that coated my tongue like a grey flannel blanket. 

My mother is spoiling the kids, Mom said once to Dad. All the new toys—

It won’t hurt them, he replied. And she’s got all that insurance money now.

But what does that teach them? Mom said. I worry—

They’re going to think about the accident with or without the toys, Dad said. We drive by the site every time we go into Montreal, every time we run errands, every time we need her to babysit.

In Grandma’s new galley kitchen, a plastic tablecloth matched the plastic curtains she’d snipped to fit above the radiator. And she’d used the excess plastic to make a dropcloth for Perry Como, the new canary she’d bought and named after some slow-singer she listened to on the radio. But she covered Perry Como’s cage with a towel, because, she said, he’d smother under plastic, and she didn’t want that to happen even though he drove her batty with his chirping. 

Wally hadn’t peeked under the towel yet. Instead, with his arms crossed and his lashes damp, he sat at the table and stared at the clock.

Time stands still at Grandma’s, Mom said once. I had to agree, especially when Grandma decided a certain young boy was naughty or out of line for calling me “banana legs” just because he wasn’t getting the pie he expected. Not when Grandma doled out the punishment of Watching the Clock. 

Wally probably noticed the logo and how it slanted down a little on the right side. He’d have noticed first, though, that Grandma’s new clock didn’t have a second hand.

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Grandma’s old clock had ticked a little fast. Just the way I like it, she’d said, explaining that the extra minutes ensured she’d be one of the first in line at the Bergevin Street bus stop each morning. Because her shift started early, Grandma slept in pin-curls on work nights. She took a break on the weekends, though, and on the Saturdays when we visited, her hair was always relaxed and soft and wispy like she’d slept on a balloon. Sometimes, if I nagged her enough, she’d spritz and pin-curl my hair and let me sit under her bonnet-style hairdryer. (While I was under the bonnet, Wally would yell at me—and sometimes pretend to yell at me if Grandma scolded him—to see what I could and couldn’t hear.) But, even though Grandma and I both had short, straw-coloured hair, mine always refused to curl or even wave, and it ended up kinking and jutting out at right angles like the hair on an Etch-a-Sketch girl. 

On the day of the accident, Grandma wore her dark navy coat. She carried her purse and a shoe bag that held her best work shoes, not quite broken in, the black leather still resisting the pressure of her troublesome bunions and corns. 

She pushed against the crowd of commuters crammed inside the front door of the bus. The passengers, as usual, ignored the exasperated driver’s commands: Push to the back, attention à la porte, mind the door. Grandma squeezed past the other standees and hoped a gentleman or some nice young lady, maybe one who sat in front of a typewriter all day, would offer her a seat. But everyone sitting was too sleepy, too bleary-eyed to lift their gaze. 

I thought of my mornings and the squeals and shrieks on the school bus, the crush of kids fighting for seats at the rear, the crude language and fingernail-drawings on mornings when March frost coated the windows. 

With Wally’s punishment over, Grandma set the table. She shuffled her new napkin holder to the side to make room for our dessert. Chocolate cream pie. My favourite.

Incentive to finish your meal, Dad once said of Grandma’s habit of placing dessert on the table before serving the meal. Cafeteria mentality, Mom said. 

Dad nodded. Occupational hazard, he said, laughing just a little and explaining to Wally and me that desserts in self-serve restaurants are always displayed first. To tempt customers while there’s room on their tray, room in their stomachs, he said.

Even though Grandma had put in 20-odd years at the steel company’s cafeteria, and even though she would never be entitled to a pension—unlike Dad, who was a union member at Monty’s Mufflers—she claimed she would never quit her job. 

That’s right, even though my nails can’t ever be polished, she told me. And even though my hairnet crushes my pin-curls. 

That’s right, even though my varicose veins make me look like I play street hockey without cardboard taped to my shins, she told Wally.

The job saved my life, she explained. They’ll have to force me out. 

Mom said once she was sick of hearing about Grandma’s life-saving job and that day Grandma left her apartment, tugging, as always, three times on the handle to make sure the deadbolt caught. Grandma obsessed about too many things, Mom said.

On the day of the accident, Grandma’s lucky money, which totalled 41 cents (one quarter, one dime, one nickel, one penny), had been loose in the bottom of her purse. Dad had placed it inside the purse before we gave it to her on Mother’s Day a few years earlier. 

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It’s bad luck to give someone an empty purse, he explained, cutting the tape with his teeth as Mom struggled to hold the wrapping paper. Mom shook her head, winked, told me later that the coins-in-the-new-purse story was an old wives’ tale, invented by old wives to get extra spending money. No one ever saved those coins, she laughed. 

In her wallet that day, Grandma also had her “mad money,” a crisp five-dollar bill in the secret slot. She hasn’t had anyone to get mad at since my father died 20-odd years ago, Mom said. 

Grandma tucked paper napkins under our forks. All her cutlery sparkled; she didn’t even have a spoon bent from ice cream excavations. 

Don’t listen to your brother, Grandma said to me with a wide smile. Your new slacks are groovy-groovy. But be sure to hang them out on the clothesline, dear. Don’t put them in the new dryer I’ve bought for your mother.

Two days before the accident, in her old building’s basement laundry room, Grandma had discovered that the dryer closest to the door wasn’t as hungry for coins as the others. She’d removed an entire load of bone-dry towels after just one 10-cent cycle. 

Grandma shared her discovery of the curiously efficient gas dryer with her neighbours: Alice Wellman (married, with two preschoolers, Linda and Trudy, and third-grader Sandra, who didn’t leave for school until 8:40 a.m.) and Judith Harrington (widowed.) They promised not to say anything to the other tenants. And no one would dare tell the building’s super. Loose lips sink ships, Grandma warned them.

Grandma boasted that in her new apartment complex, the laundry room had six washers and six electric dryers, and that she could fill as many machines as she had loads. 

We need a row of machines like that, Mom said once.

Without the coin slots, I added.

Time’s up, Wally, Grandma said, holding her new spatula. Who wants some pizza pie? 

Grandma, no one calls it pizza pie, Wally said. It’s just pizza.

Yeah, I said. Calling it pizza pie would mess up the saying we use in science class to remember the planets: My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizza—Pies. 

Grandma laughed and said maybe someday scientists would discover a new planet beyond Pluto. Then she bowed her head and gave thanks for the pizza pie, wink, and thanks for time spent with her wonderful grandchildren. And she said Wally and I should give thanks, too, for a safe place to go home to, for a home heated by electricity, even if that new home was in the middle of a muddy-suburban-nowhere and too far from her apartment and not even accessible by city bus. 

Mom agreed that we were too far from civilization, although I’d never hear her say that to Grandma, which was sad. They could’ve had something in common, something to say other than “Really” and “That’s nice” and “Yes, milk is so dear now.” Even though we were getting new neighbours all the time—English-speaking neighbours, too, but so far ones with only boys, boys that scavenged with Wally for fort-building supplies at the construction sites—Mom found it difficult to recruit people to attend her Amber Jewellery home sales parties. Everyone is so house-broke in the suburbs, she’d sigh while rinsing dishes. And then she’d stare out the kitchen window at the vacant lots behind us, as though she could see beyond those lots, beyond the builder’s signs promising Fresh Air and Wide Open Spaces.

An explosion blew it to smithereens, killing 28 of her neighbours. And that was sad.

When Wally and I finished lunch, Grandma cleared the table and placed her new single-serving stainless steel teapot, with a lid that clapped shut and dribbled tea, on a saucer. In her old apartment, her teapot had been a scratch-and-dent that she’d borrowed from work. It had needed a saucer, too.

The steel company was not in the four-mile radius that felt the rumble. But in the cafeteria, Grandma had heard the radio’s “live coverage” over the gurgling kettle, the scraping of dishes, the hiss of steam tables.

She waited for an address. There were dozens of apartment complexes that matched the description. Bergevin Street, the announcer finally said. In the “shadows” of the Mercier Bridge. 

Grandma’s stomach cramped, but not like a menstrual cramp. (She explained that we don’t have periods when we get old, just like we don’t have them when we’re young. I wondered why The Young Girl’s Guide to Growing Up—the pamphlet Mom had given me—hadn’t mentioned that old ladies didn’t need feminine products.)

As Grandma listened to the broadcast, her uneasiness grew, and she considered asking her supervisor if she could use the phone. But what could anyone do? She wondered, too, if anyone had tried calling her, but consoled herself with the realization that everyone knew she was at work, safe. In the remains of the day, she scrubbed the wall behind the fryer and the floor of the larder, and she didn’t stop for her coffee break.

Grandma clocked out at 3:30, as usual. At the bus stop, she fought the urge to buy a newspaper. Isn’t that crazy? she asked, her voice lifting. As though yesterday’s paper would have the story.

The bus driver and his passengers discussed numbers—dead, wounded, missing—and grumbled over the delay in transit schedules due to the snarled traffic near the accident site and near the LaSalle Recreation Centre, which the authorities had turned into a temporary morgue. Grandma pressed to the back of the bus, clutching her purse against her chest, feeling the bulge of the unopened rolls of coins, the rolls left over from her trip to the laundry room. 

Grandma admitted that, most of all, she missed her cookie tin of family photos. And her button jar, she quickly added. It won’t be long before I’ll need a new button, she said.

She was grateful, though, to still have her purse, shoe bag, coat and uniform. And she had a brown envelope stuffed with insurance company cheque stubs for the reimbursement of her restaurant meals and a Montreal hotel room where she’d lived, she said, like the Queen of England herself. She also had boxes of donated clothes and blankets that smelled very much like donated clothes and blankets.

I helped her pick out a scrapbook—with a night-time skyscraper scene on its cover—at Woolworth’s, and, at her new kitchen table, we ate green jellybeans and thumbed through newspapers. Grandma’s coworkers had said she should keep the entire newspaper, that the “ephemera” would appreciate only if kept intact, but she ignored their advice and wielded the blades of her new scissors with an unsteady hand. I held the clippings flat as she pushed the gaping rubber mouth of a glue bottle onto the back of a headline: “Gas Line Rupture—Rescuers call off search for survivors.” My fingers left black, ashy-looking smudges in the margins of the scrapbook’s pages, but Grandma said not to worry, no one would notice.

Later, Mom said it was too upsetting for us to look at the scrapbook and those articles, time after time. I have to draw the line somewhere, she told Dad. The kids don’t need those constant reminders.

We stopped visiting Grandma. We’ll visit her again when she gets more settled, Mom said, dragging Wally and me along on fun Saturday outings like getting Dad’s work boots resoled, or picking out a chuck roast at the butcher’s, or buying grass seed and loam at the nursery.

But Mom couldn’t keep me from watching the news, because Miss Laviolette, my teacher, insisted her students keep abreast of current affairs. (Wally, just like the idiot boys in the back of my class, snickered at that.) The TV reporters offered solemn commentary, speculation, diagrams. And they presented a series of still shots: “before” file-photos of the U-shaped apartment building and its gravelled roof, taken soon after it was constructed, before shopping carts littered the laneways; “after” shots of the gaping crater, the smouldering debris, the cinder-block walls. And then they presented film that zeroed in on the zigzagging fire escapes that no one inside had had time to use, and my breath caught and I thought of all the time I’d wasted counting steps to emergency exits and practicing stop-drop-and-roll exercises, and, years earlier, cowering under my desk during atomic bomb drills.

And I stared, mesmerized with the film taken from the helicopter. Shadows of its rotating blades spun backwards and forwards and backwards again like wagon wheels on Bonanza, flapping like the cigarette packages Grandma used to save for us to peg to our bicycle spokes (until Mom decided we shouldn’t do that anymore, that it might encourage us to pick up bad habits).

I wondered if Grandma kept some of the articles that, in the following weeks, the reporters called “human interest” stories: the aid organizations that withdrew calls for blood donors, citing a backlog and begging citizens to donate cash instead of used blankets and clothes; a kitten with a singed ear, wailing from its cage in the pound; an earthenware flower pot that tumbled to the ground from the windowsill of a home more than a mile away from the blast. 

And had Grandma collected all the obituaries? Had she finished pasting them, with ragged scissor-cuts on the columns’ margins, into her scrapbook? Did she pat each one of them down, her hand lingering just a moment as though laying it to rest? And had she found photos of little Linda, Trudy and Sandra and the other 12 children who had, as the reporters said, “perished” in the explosion? 

Grandma once said she hated that word—perished—because it sounded as though her neighbours, those poor souls who’d been at home that fateful day, were over-ripe vegetables or meat left out to defrost too long on the counter. 

Elaine Hayes, born and raised in Montreal, now lives in Calgary. She is currently editing her first novel, White Margarine.

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