EXCERPT: February by Lisa Moore

Each day this week, CBC Books has been presenting an excerpt from one of the Canada Reads 2013 contenders. Our final excerpt is from the book representing the Atlantic Provinces: February by Lisa Moore. Comedian Trent McClellan will defend February during Canada Reads 2013.

This passage is set in February 1982, just after Helen O'Mara has lost her husband, Cal, in the sinking of the Ocean Ranger.


By Lisa Moore

The Valentine, February 1982

There's something in the mailbox, Helen said. A bright red envelope, big enough to hold the lid up about an inch.

Louise was leaning forward, holding the wheel. She wore her fox-fur hat and black suede coat and matching gloves, and she had on a dark lipstick. They had come from Pier 17, where the bodies were, and Helen had not gone inside to see Cal's body.

Louise had pulled into the parking lot and they had just let the car idle. Helen couldn't go inside. But she was glad to be there. Louise had picked her up and hadn't said much, and they'd just stayed there is all they did. They stayed for a while. The radio was on, and after some time Louise turned it off. She wasn't in a hurry. She took off her hat and put down the visor and smoothed her hair and put the visor back up. They didn't have to talk.

Louise reached over and opened the glovebox and rooted around, and there was a packet of tissues and she slit the plastic with her nail and tugged one out and Helen took it. Louise opened her purse and got out a cigarette and pushed in the lighter and waited until the lighter glowed orange and popped out.

She lit the smoke, her cheeks caving, and pushed the button so the window went down a crack, and she blew the smoke out the window. After a while she threw the cigarette outside into the snowbank.

Cancer sticks, she said. They watched an ambulance pull up and park, and someone got out and went into the building and the door closed behind him. After a very long time a woman came out and there was a man with her and he had his arm around her. He brought her over to a Buick and opened the door and the woman got in, and the man trotted around the front and got in himself and started the car, and they drove off.

Helen said, Okay.


Let's go, Helen said.

You're not going in, Louise said.

I should get home, Helen said. She blew her nose as hard as she could. Jesus, Louise, she said.

I know, honey, Louise said. You're my baby sister.

And now they were sitting in the car outside Helen's front door. Louise's husband was a car salesman and they'd always driven a Cadillac because Cadillacs were big and safe, and Louise liked a luxury car.

A pickup truck came up behind them. The road was narrow because it wasn't plowed properly, and the truck waited for them to move.

Louise watched the truck in the rear view. She narrowed her eyes.

The guy tapped his horn once.

Go around us, you bloody fool, Louise whispered. Then she pressed the button and her window rolled down and she put her hand out and waved him around. Her hand outside the window did two slow turns and she pointed with one finger. The finger looked stern and mocking in her black glove. She drew her hand back inside the car. The cold air came in and all the noises of the street. She took two fingers of her glove in her teeth and pulled it off and then she tugged off the other glove, one finger at a time.The driver of the pickup didn't attempt to go around them because there wasn't enough room. Only one side of the street had been plowed. Louise opened her purse with a loud snap and found the pack of cigarettes again without taking her eyes off the rearview.

Look at that fool, she said. There was a group of teenagers coming down the hill too. They had their coats open and their breath was visible in the air and they were bright-cheeked and loud. A scrawny girl at the back was full of shrill giggles. She was running to catch up with her friends and her boots slapped loudly on the pavement.

Helen knew the mail in the mailbox was a valentine from Cal. He always sent a card on Valentine's Day. He liked to mark all the occasions with a card. He liked the card to arrive more or less on time.

The lighter popped and Louise lit her cigarette and turned her head and blew smoke out onto the street. Then she tilted the mirror to watch the guy in the truck.

He pressed his hand into the horn. He kept the horn blaring for as long as he could, and then he let up and then he pressed it again. There was traffic behind him now and he couldn't back up. And he couldn't go around. The kids coming down the hill had stopped and gently collided with one another, their heads all turned, trying to see what was going on.

I guess I better go on inside, Helen said. But she didn't move. She felt like she couldn't move. Or that she had moved, had got out of the car, had lived out the rest of her life, and had died and was dead and was back in the car, a ghost, or something without musculature or bone. Something that could never move again.

The guy was out of the truck now and he slammed his door. He was in a fury and he brought the flat of his hand down on the roof of Louise's car and it made a hollow boom.

He bent down to look Louise in the eye and his face was very close. But Louise kept looking straight ahead. She took a draw on her cigarette and blew smoke at the windshield. The man might have kissed her temple if he were a couple of inches closer. His eyes were a pale watery hazel and he was bald, a pale face with high cheekbones and a weak chin, and his lips were pressed tight.

You're blocking the goddamn road, he said.

My sister's husband was on the Ocean Ranger, Louise said. We were just up identifying the body. But actually she didn't go in.

Louise, Helen said.

The man stood back from the window.

We're just sitting here now because we're worn out, Louise said.

The man looked back at his truck.

I don't even smoke, Louise told him. She was looking at the cigarette as if she didn't know what it was. She dropped it out the window.

It's a dirty habit, she said.

I should help you, the man said.

Oh, we'll be fine, Louise said. Helen put her hand over Louise's hand. Her sister was holding tight to the wheel. Louise always drove leaning forward slightly, gripping the wheel. She drove as if she required the seat belt to hold her back from something she wanted.

I'm going now, Louise, Helen said.

The man came around the front of the car and he opened Helen's door for her and he held her by the elbow as she walked as if she were an old lady. Or as if she was leaning on him. Helen was leaning, because she had a feeling she couldn't walk. She felt drunk. It took her a long time to find her house keys in her purse. Finally the man took the purse from her and dug out the keys and he opened the door and put the keys back, and he was standing there holding the purse. The traffic all down the road was backing up bit by bit and turning around and finding side streets. When the door was open, Louise toot-tooted and drove off.

Helen let herself into the house and it was quiet. The kids had gone to school that morning. They must have discussed it amongst themselves because they hadn't awakened Helen. They'd let her sleep. She took off her coat and hung it on the banister and she put her boots by the heater. The heat was off in the kitchen and she turned it on high. Sheput on the kettle and dropped a teabag into a cup, and she drank the tea without taking out the bag because she forgot to take it out. She had taken a butter knife from the drawer and it was lying on the table next to the red envelope. There was also a phone bill and some kind of flyer from a pizza shop. Then she just opened the red envelope.

There was a card with a picture of a big bouquet of red roses on the front. The words were in gold swirling italics and they said For My Wife on Valentine's Day. Inside there was a greeting-card poem that didn't rhyme about love. The poem touched on the meaning of a life and generosity and kindness and all the good times, and on the back, in extremely small print, it said the card was a product of China. Cal had written over the top of the poem, My Love, and he'd signed it at the bottom, xoxo Cal.

Excerpted from February by Lisa Moore. Copyright Lisa Moore, 2009. Reprinted with permission of House of Anansi Press.

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