Short Story Prize
"Autumnal" by Pamela Ferguson
In this shortlisted entry for the CBC Short Story Prize, a woman weighs the pros and cons of potential suitors.
Be sure to come back to Canada Writes on March 19, when we'll be opening the "people's choice" poll for you to vote for your favourite shortlisted story while we wait for the judges' verdict.
It’s the first day of fall, and Gavin meets Eliza in the park with a pumpkin spiced latté. She adds it to the list under pros: thoughtful. But he’s sporting a jaunty scarf with stripes the colours of the autumn leaves. Definite con. Her lists are substantial enough to warrant serious evaluation. Pros: punctual, intelligent, rides a bicycle, likes museums, shares her obsession with John Irving and disdain for Nickelback. Cons: suspiciously tidy, doesn’t own a television, mentions his ex-girlfriend frequently, loves cats, and talks during movies. And now: natty dresser. She tries to see the big picture.
Date number five. They talk mostly of books and films and artists they admire. She tells him that if she were a painting, she’d be Rothko’s #10, though secretly she thinks she’s Christina’s World. If he were a band, he’d be My Morning Jacket. Another con. She likes them fine, but why not dream bigger? Why not The Rolling Stones?
When they go back to her apartment and have sex for the first time, she’s self-conscious in the daylight and has trouble looking him in they eye. He grunts a lot, which makes her laugh. She concentrates on the potted plant near the door. It needs watering. So does she. When Gavin slumps against her, sweaty and spent, Eliza waits patiently for a minute, then asks if he’d like a glass of water, before slipping out of bed.
After two glasses of wine, Eliza always has to pee. Jason watches her slink back to the table. They have the corner booth all to themselves. When she slides in, her skirt rides up, revealing the tops of her stockings. Jason doesn’t look away, so she moves in closer. She likes his voice, thinks it sounds the way bourbon tastes. She asks about the song he’s writing. When he talks, she isn’t waiting to speak, but listening closely, watching the way his mouth moves as he forms each word. If he were an instrument, he’d be a saxophone, she thinks. Pro, pro, pro.
She tells him about the art classes she teaches on Mondays, the best day of her week. When she mentions his job at the hospital, he makes a face. He asks about her plans for Thanksgiving. She orders another glass of wine. Rip it off like a Band-Aid, she thinks. He brushes a piece of hair behind her ear. She tells him her parents are dead. A car accident two years ago. Black ice. Country road. Now it’s just Eliza and her brothers. She asks if he has siblings. A pause, then: No. His sister died of cancer that spring.
They are quiet. He plays with the ring on her middle finger. The waitress brings Eliza’s wine and Jason orders a Scotch. They drink. When he asks for the cheque, Eliza feels like he is a wave and she is the shore.
In the taxi, they cannot keep their hands off one another. His kisses burn her lips. His beard scratches her face. She wants him more than she’s ever wanted anyone. His hands slide under her coat. The driver shouts, threatening to kick them out if they don’t give him directions. They laugh, and Eliza tells him her address. Jason looks at her for an eternity. Two stops, he tells the cabbie. Eliza pulls away, but Jason takes her hand, fiddles with her ring again. He doesn’t say it, but she knows: there’s too much sadness between them.
When the cab pulls over, he takes her face in his hands and kisses her again. It’s long and slow, and Eliza imagines that she’s been dipped in sweet honey that runs down her throat and out to the tips of her fingers. He reaches too late for her as she steps out of the taxi, and she pretends not to notice as she crosses the lawn. He waits with the car door open until she’s inside the house.
It rains for weeks. Adele gets fogged in at the airport, so Eliza walks to the party alone, carrying a stupid rainbow umbrella and wearing a yellow slicker over her French Maid costume. One step away from Slutty Nurse. Salvador Dali opens the door and takes her bottle of wine. Loud music makes the house vibrate. Antoine is in the kitchen, whipping up margaritas. He greets Eliza with a kiss on each cheek, ogling her décolleté and her feather duster. A drink in her hand, he sends her off to circulate.
Eliza sits by the fireplace. Three Musketeers smile at her, but she can’t hear anything over the music. She recognizes Antoine’s friend—a DJ named The Turk. He drops some French hip-hop that sends everyone into a frenzy. Eliza watches Jesus and a Sexy Devil in a dance off, until a baseball player sits next to her on the hearth. She assesses the vintage Yankees cap. Mickey Mantle? He shakes his head. She tries again: DiMaggio? He smiles. Oh, yeah. Pro.
It’s noisy in the living room, so they talk on the stairs. He’s a project manager. Born in Queens, grew up in Winnipeg. Plays center field. Tinkerbell steps over them to get to the bathroom, leaving a trail of glitter in her wake. The Yankee sneezes. Allergic to pixie dust, he says. Eliza uses her feather duster to brush it away. I like your freckles, he tells her. Pro again.
Adele arrives dressed as Carmen Miranda and hands out Jell-O shots. They play Stump the DJ and start a conga line. Eliza krumps with Antoine and does the Time Warp with Adele. The Turk plays Otis Redding, and the Yankee cuts in for a slow dance, until the neighbours complain and the party ends. The Yankee helps Eliza find her stupid rainbow umbrella. He asks if he can call her, and holds her feather duster while she types her number into his phone. She forgets to ask his name.
Eliza’s brother Joey stays for two days in November, en route to visit his girlfriend in Montréal. He’s transferring to McGill. Eliza takes him for dim sum and buys him shoes. He makes breakfast and she eats it, even though the eggs are runny. He’s happy. He’s excited about school. He loves Dominique. He talks about their parents, and only remembers the good stuff. Even though it’s freezing and grey, they take the ferry to Ward’s Island. He tells dumb jokes and snaps Eliza’s picture with his phone. He promises to fix her toilet before he leaves. He asks if she’s depressed.
Just a blue period, she says. She tells him he’s lucky to have Dominique. At the train station, she hugs him tight. You’re squishing me, he protests. I don’t care, she says.
The Yankee doesn’t call. Major con.
Niall asks Eliza to a nice restaurant for their second date. When he picks her up, he jumps out of the car to open the door. He tells her she looks pretty.
At the restaurant, he takes her coat and pulls out her chair. I like your earrings. He pores over the wine list and asks what she fancies. Surprise me. He orders a Pinot Grigio. They stare at their menus in silence. I hear the salmon is delicious, he tells her. She orders the rabbit. She takes in the other couples in the room. Nice blazer, she says when she catches Niall staring at her. When pros feel like cons, Eliza calls them semi-pros.
During dinner, Niall talks about his trips to Belize and Singapore and Bora Bora. Occasionally Eliza asks a question. Enough about me, he finally says, what about you? She tells a funny story about the time her brother Liam got stuck in the dog door. She imitates Joey with a stick of butter and their mother calling the fire department. She laughs so hard she starts to cry. Niall smiles and nods. Maybe you had to be there, she sighs. Their waiter winks at her as he clears away the plates. Which way to the powder room?
After fifteen minutes, Eliza gives up on Adele and starts tramping through snow alone. Christmas lights blink all along the block. She remembers her dad climbing the ladder to hang lights on the big spruce in their yard.
Her phone rings. Where are you? I’ve been standing on the corner for ages!
I’m sorry I’m trying to reach Eliza Fleming, says a man’s voice.
Panic. This is she. Me. Eliza.
This is David.
Pause. The Yankee?
Yes! He sounds relieved. I never called. Stupid. But you didn’t save your number, so I wasn’t sure you wanted me to.
Seriously. I was just heading to Antoine’s, hoping I’d see you tonight, when I bumped into your friend on the streetcar.
Are you with her now?
She’s sorry she’s late. And she wants to know if you’re making a list and checking it twice .
Eliza’s cheeks flush.
Tell Adele I left without her.
Pamela Ferguson is a founding member of Bloor West Writers—a fiction workshop—as well as an alumna of the Sage Hill Writing Experience, and a past writer-in-residence at the Wallace Stegner House. She received an honourable mention in the 2011 Author for a Day contest sponsored by the IFOA and the Humber School for Writers. Most recently, Pam returned from the adventure of a lifetime in South America.
Read our Q&A with Pamela Ferguson »