Black Diamond by Barbara Joan Scott
2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist
Barbara Joan Scott has made the 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Black Diamond.
The winner of the 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize will be announced Sept. 21. They will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and win a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point.
If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2024 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions.
Barbara Joan Scott's first book, The Quick, won the City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell Book Prize and the WGA Howard O'Hagan Award for Best Collection of Short Fiction. For many years she taught and edited creative writing and in 2015 received the Lois Hole Award for Editorial Excellence. Her first novel, The Taste of Hunger, published in 2022, won a bronze medal for Western Canada from the Independent Book Publishers Awards and has been shortlisted for Trade Book of the Year by the Alberta Book Publishers Association. It was a Quill & Quire book of the year for 2022.
Scott told CBC Books about writing Black Diamond: "Initially the inspiration was how hard both my mother and sister-in-law, especially the latter, fought for their lives against cruel diseases. I wanted to honour their spirit, but also the spirit of the couple who offered me so much more than food, a sustenance that loosened the grip death had on my heart. It took two decades to acquire the necessary artistic distance to do these people justice, at least to the best of my abilities."
You can read Black Diamond below.
I leave Calgary in evening sunlight, high-rises shrinking in the rear-view mirror to a Lego-land of concrete cubes. The 22X hugs the soft curves of the foothills, my mind anticipating every turn — the deep blue flash of a slough, the sudden opening onto the broken teeth of the Rockies. For five years drought has burned the fields so brown it seemed they would never green again. And yet, here they are, lush from June rains that this year fell as if they would never cease. Sloughs brim over, the fields a brilliant green even after the crisping heat of July. Cattle are fat and brown, ducks so gorged they can barely lift themselves in flight. Bugs splat full of juice against the windshield. Inside all this growth I feel pared to the bone, a skeleton mistakenly invited to the feast. Not two hours ago, my husband and I politely agreed that whatever succour we need will have to come from others. We have nothing left to give.
I do not know if a marriage can survive this kind of admission.
I am not sad, or angry. I am empty. And the landscape's aggressive plenitude reminds me I need to put something into my hollow stomach. A brownie or a cookie from the Black Diamond coffee shop might tide me over. Tide me over until when I haven't considered.
I park across from the coffee shop by the Subway, its lime green panelling and yellow and white sign perched on squat orange stucco. When I cut the ignition along with the air conditioning, heat pounds through the windshield. At least Subway would be cool. And I would be spared the exertion of choice. My parents retired in Kelowna and on the drive there the Golden Subway was often my pit stop, for a pee break and a bite to eat. I know the menu like the back of my hand.
But beside the coffee shop is the grocer's, an old wood-sided building painted forest green that's been there as long as I remember. And a blackboard with a chalk sign: Homemade Burgers $5.50. A burger; that might be nice. But as I open the car door, a man hauls the sign indoors. The barbecue stands in the full blaze of the setting sun. I can't imagine the heat he's endured all day. No wonder he wants to quit. Still, I turn my back on Subway's engineered air, and walk across to see what other edibles the grocer offers.
The store has creaky wooden floorboards and small, crookedly framed windows. A floor fan by the door tries to push the stifling air out and succeeds only in pushing it around. In a glass case are hams, whole salamis and other meats and a hand-written sign: Sandwiches Made to Order. I stare at the array, oppressed by the need to make a decision, until the man asks what I'd like. When I say I'd come for a hamburger but realize he is closing up, that's fine, he says, no bother at all, truly. I follow him outside. The barbecue, a rusty half oil drum, emits waves of heat. Fiery red embers wink through tiny holes in the sides of the drum. He opens a battered enamelware roaster, blue with white specks, to reveal black lumps of meat and chunks of charred onions, bathed in dark juice. Worry flickers faintly. Has this been breeding E. Coli all day? Subway's orange and green box seems to mock me.
He asks if I want cheese and bacon and when I say no seems quite concerned. But I like a plain burger, I say, and they look pretty large. Yep, those are six ounces of pure beef. If I'll just step inside the wife'll fix me a bun. He seems young, mid-thirties?, to be using such old-fashioned vocabulary. Back I go into the stuffy dimness and wait at the counter until a woman emerges from the back. She too looks to be in her middle thirties. As she heads behind the counter a small boy careens past me and grabs a bag of chips. "Whoa there Tiger." She plucks the packet from his hand. "Worth a shot, Mom." He grins then careens back out. My throat tightens and when she asks "Tomato and lettuce?" I can only nod. Ketchup, mustard, relish, mayonnaise? And though I never take relish or mayonnaise, again I nod, as if to say 'load her up.' The man pops in to say, doesn't have to be cheddar, could be Havarti, Swiss, blue. No thank you, I say froggily, I truly do just like the meat. This is only partly true. I have been on a diet of some form or another almost all my life and these decisions to cut back on calories have become instinct, my mother's voice so deeply instilled it's become my own: 'every little bit helps.' Again my throat constricts. I shake my head mutely and back he goes to tend the grill. Now that I'm not taking cheese or bacon, his wife, a compact woman with a lined face, charges me only $4. I discover I've left home without my credit card or paper money, but luckily find four loonies in my change purse.
She places a McGavin's bun on a napkin-lined Styrofoam plate, then with a huge knife cuts a thick slice of bright red tomato that spurts juice and seeds onto the scarred plastic cutting board. From the fridge behind her she pulls a head of lettuce, peeling off two leaves so crisp I can hear their crunching protest at being torn away, and she tears them further to fit the bun. From large jars she spoons neat puddles of sauces, tapping the spoons against the jar rims to knock off the excess, just as my mother used to do, though my mother, never one to let good food go to waste, would always lick the spoons before putting them in the sink.
I take my plate outside and sit in the rickety plastic chair at the rickety plastic table in front of the rusty barbecue where the angry embers hiss and glow. Any worries I had about E. coli are laid to rest by the care with which the man checks the hamburger, presses down on it with the flipper, tosses the onions around on the grill. I sit in full sun, unable even to think about moving to the shade, unable to find shade on that spare porch even if I could conquer my inertia. I sit and watch the man at the grill. He is all string. Stringy hair escaping from a baseball cap, falling past his shoulders. Long legs dangling from a long pair of cutoffs, from which dangle strings of fraying denim.
A couple of young women get out of a car across the street. "Got fresh hamburgers here!" he calls, and when they giggle and go into Subway anyway he shrugs. "It works sometimes."
"It must be hard," I say, tongue thick with making the effort, "having Subway there."
"Yeah." Meat sizzles under the flipper. "I got three boys that always need something for school or hockey, and last month the freezer and fridge both went. Can't even imagine what the bill for that'll be." His voice as matter of fact as the flipping and pressing of the spatula.
Across the street the two young women are placing their order. With eyes once again blurry, I watch them through the huge windows, as they saunter past the glass panes, selecting their protein, cheese, condiment, moving in tandem with the uniformed, plastic-gloved server. I close my eyes, see the precisely weighed meats, separated by squares of paper, the machine-sliced, bloodless tomatoes, the pallid lettuce, the sauces squirted from opaque bottles. I can almost hear the waitress's perky, "It's all good!" as the girls waver between Swiss or mozza, all the while knowing the processed cheese tastes pretty much the same. Over the past three years, as my visits to my mother became more frequent—once a season, once a month, every few weeks toward the end—so did my stops at the Golden Subway. Always the same low-fat, low-flavour order: turkey breast, lettuce, tomato, scrape of mustard. To go. I was flying through on my way to somewhere more important. I needed to be on the road within minutes, could not afford to be slowed down by an unusual taste or variation in the menu, or by any conversation other than the obligatory anthem of the fast food joint: "Have a nice day!" In. Out. Quick and clean.
But now, for the first time in three years, I have no place more important to be. During those years I travelled alongside my mother and sister-in-law, on their long, slow declines, shuttling between Kelowna General Hospital, where my mother received treatment for various lung ailments, and Calgary's Tom Baker Cancer Centre, where my sister-in-law was given increasingly desperate, experimental chemotherapy. Twice in the past six months I have sat at someone's deathbed, seen a person suddenly vanish, eyes snuffed out, body suddenly emptied of whatever made it human: my 73-year-old mother succumbing first, and my 38-year-old sister-in-law following, though the family all fought to deny it until we ushered her out of the world last night. Struck numb by the enormity of loss and grief, for her husband and for the five young boys she has left behind. "Beauty," her nickname for them all.
And, tonight, exhausted and depleted, my husband and I gave one another our emptiness, without the energy to ask, perhaps even care, what that meant.
I let the grocer's words and the sunlight wash over me. He lets me be as still as I want, not asking for a response, then takes my plate and flips the patty on top of the lettuce and tomato, an attention to detail I appreciate. Shovels cooked onion on top of the pile. The burger is huge. Far more than I can eat. I barely remember why I thought I wanted it. It is lumpy, hand-formed, a thick ball with a charcoal crust that looks as though my teeth will never penetrate it, even if I do manage to get my mouth around it.
"Wait a minute," he says, "I'll get you a knife to cut it in half." A plastic knife will be useless, I think. But he has thought of that too. A Safeway's plastic bag encasing one huge hand, a large serrated knife in the other, he steadies the hamburger while he saws through it, stopping just before he saws through the plate, though the napkin beneath the bun is now in two pieces. Then he leaves me to my meal. He has snuck two pieces of cheese onto the plate, one blue, the other pepper Havarti. As though from a distance, my mouth waters, and I tuck the cheese inside the bun.
The burger, against all appearances, is delicious. Moist, with bits of real onion. The grilled onion, which I expect to taste burnt, has had all the bitterness seared out of it, leaving only sweetness. The green relish and creamy Miracle Whip are tastes out of my childhood, but the marinade has imparted a mysterious, elusive savour. I devour it all, each bite filling my mouth with sour, salty, bitter, sweet. I eat for my mother, dead of pneumonia after a lifelong battle with the after-effects of childhood tuberculosis; I eat for my sister-in-law, dead of breast cancer, then lung cancer, brain cancer, bone cancer. Both of them eaten up from the inside. I eat until I am full. When I have licked the last traces of meat juice and sauces from my fingers, I go inside and leave all that I can scrape up from my change purse: a four dollar ten cent tip. And they thank me effusively, as if I am the one who has done the giving.
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The winner of the 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and win a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.