Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
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Plastic pail sloshing with water. Two squirts of Palmolive Coconut. A squeegee, a rag. Mr. Poirier starts you off on the sidewalk, and if you don’t quit in the first fifteen minutes—because of the pinpricks of ice blowing against your cheeks or the hot water soaking your gloves or the realization you are not tall enough to reach the top of the windowpane—when you have finished, Mr. Poirier lets you inside to sweep.

Poirier’s Bakery, Spring Garden Road. The Poirier family has owned this bakery for eighty years. Milly, Mr. Poirier’s extremely shy wife, fashions every single pastry.

Inside the bakery, glass cases display the party-colored creations spun from Milly’s imagination. Éclairs, macarons, gâteaux de fêtes. Maple scones, too, if Milly is in the mood. Behind the counter, girls in gingham dresses and white aprons wait for the customer to decide, and when he does, a girl bends low to lift his pastry to a waiting pink box. She fastens the box with baker’s twine spun from a golden bulb.

Your job is to keep those pastry cases so transparent, so clear, that the babas au rhum, the four-inch-high opera cakes, resemble jewels treasured in a crystal vault. But customers point to what they want, touch the glass, leave a mark, a smudge. The children worst of all, palming each inch, pressing their chubby lips to the glass. Sometimes even their tongues. You want to say, “Really, lady? Control your kid.”

Uniforms must be purchased, which basically means you work a week for free. Stockings. Mr. Poirier prefers nude but you can wear white if you want. Of all the girls, you look the best, because after your first day your mother took the uniform to her sewing machine downstairs, altering it to fit the shape of you.

She doesn’t want you to work, not really, not wanting this painful world to make its marks on you. You tell her things will be fine. You say you will give half your wages to help with the household expenses. Your mother objects, though the objection is half-hearted, and after you trample it she looks secretly relieved.

Six months pass. Mr. Poirier allows you on the register. “I trust you,” he says.

Poirier’s has its regulars and the regulars are where Mr. Poirier makes his profit. Customers who come even when the wind blows the rain horizontal. One of these customers is a priest, and when he arrives at the end of a thunderstorm to collect his raisin brioche, he hands you a dollar. You fold it in the jar shared with the rest.

“Don’t be stupid,” Mr. Poirier unexpectedly says. “That dollar was for you.”

If a pastry is malformed from the oven, broken, Mr. Poirier lets you have it. You bring the box to your fatherless home for your mother and sisters to share. Your mother does not agree with the aggressive color of the macarons, the vermilion frosting on the petit fours—whatever did Milly use to make them so red?

Your mother prefers natural.

Despite the garish colors, somehow those broken pastries get eaten.

Not by you. Never by you. Pastries like that will make you fat. Fat as Milly. Instead, only the tip of your tongue you touch to the sweet cream.


The first thing the girls do at Amanda’s house is let their school clothes drop to the floor: the plaid skirts, the navy blazers, the loafers clunky as red brick. After changing into jeans and long-sleeved t-shirts, the girls arrange themselves on Amanda’s bed, Chris curled at the foot and Amanda at the head, textbooks and paper and pencils jumbled together in the middle.

They never study at Chris’s house. There the only flat surface is the metal table in the chilly kitchen, and even then, plates and cups, yesterday’s mail, must be pushed to the side. Chris’s mother comes often up the stairs from her shop to check on them. She hates silliness.

Amanda’s house is perfect for studying. There the furnace actually works. Her mother, an international lawyer, is away a lot so Amanda is looked after by her great aunt, Aunt Gail, who lives in a one-room cottage out back.

This afternoon, Amanda parcels out the geometry homework. She’ll do 1–9, Chris 10–18. Brows knitted, Amanda grasps the mechanical pencil. Her fingernails are large and pink and oval, temporarily white in the parts where she pushes against the pencil. Her light-brown hair is perfectly straight. Often she lifts and holds her hair away from her long, pale neck.

The first problem is like a rhombus and a parallelogram shaking hands.

Amanda, like Chris, has no trace of a dad.

The bedroom rides high above Robie Street, as if the house were a ship on the sea. At times, Chris pulls back the stiff curtain, feels winter’s bite through the glass. Only rarely does a pedestrian slide his way along the slippery sidewalk constricted by snow. At 4:30, Aunt Gail calls them down for tea and blueberry grunt. That summer she had walked deep into the woods, searching for patches of blueberries so that even on the briefest winter afternoon, Amanda can still enjoy blueberry treats. The girls dawdle and Aunt Gail waits to whip the cream until they are actually sitting in front of her.

In Chris’s mouth, the tart blueberries mix up with the sweet crumbles and the smooth coldness of the cream. Chris’s mother doesn’t like to cook and if she did, the food would not taste like this. This is overwhelming, this makes it impossible to think.

After tea the two girls return to the room, the bed. No homework after tea, not unless it’s an emergency like another stupid oral presentation on the history of the Confederation. Amanda throws herself on the mattress, on top of the books and paper. “I’m stuffed,” she says. If the two girls lie on the bed a long time, talking, the nubs on the cotton bedspread leave marks on Amanda’s delicate skin.

Amanda returns to her favorite topics: boys she dearly hopes will come to the school dance and the sandals she will get once summer finally comes. Chris leans close. Her finger, as if animated by its own will, presses Amanda’s soft forearm, those tiny red marks. The sight of her own hand dismays Chris—so small, so brown, a hand that could never possibly be indented by mere cloth.

With wide blue eyes, Amanda watches. “What’s that, eh?”

“Sorry.” Chris pulls her hand away, not understanding why she did that, why she touched Amanda’s skin. Face reddening, Amanda pulls together the graph papers. Poor Amanda. Most days all she has is Aunt Gail, bright ribbons in her hair, even though her hair is gray. At least Chris will always have her sisters.


That night my father put me in charge and I led my brothers into the yard, the oldest one with the roasting pan and the two youngest holding measuring cups. Wet clumps of snow fell from the sky. We knelt beside the hockey rink, the smooth rectangle my father had flooded with the garden hose. I demonstrated how to scoop fresh snow into the pan and press it flat, though not much time passed before my brothers started scooping snow into each other’s faces. Then into mine, though I was stronger than all three put together. Our yells, our shrieks rose high, floating far above the black Atlantic. Our city is at the edge of the world. Snow got down the baby’s neck and made him cry, so we came in, leaving the roasting pan on the back steps. Fresh snow packed tight and cold in a metal pan. Daddy’s icy workbench.

My mother believed me elsewhere: a neighbor’s home, queuing up Disney videos for a different set of children. Unrelated ones. Tonight she sat at her kitchen table, coat unbuttoned, fine handwork on her lap, sewing even after the five o’clock close of the shop downstairs. My being here, in the house of the man who broke her life apart, could not be imagined or accepted. That was why my visits were secret.

My father called his red-headed boys to the stove. Julie warned them to stand back, they might get spattered by boiling maple syrup, but Daddy said, “Come close.” My father had planned to make the maple taffy outside, the way it’s always been done, creating happy Canadian memories for the boys, but Julie decided it was too cold. “Outside feels more natural,” my father said, even as he arranged us around the stove. He unscrewed the crimped top of the sirop d’erable tin, and tilted the clear, brown liquid into the pot, releasing its scent, strong and sweet. The blue flame rose and danced, miniature bubbles blossoming round the edges. My father stirred and bigger bubbles boiled up. The syrup transformed itself, the dark brown lightening, turning to foam. Daddy said, “Get the pan.”

Outside, the pine branches were weighed down with white, the air icy against my face. I got the pan of snow, set it on the table. “Look,” my father said, “it’s time.” The foamy syrup had turned glassy, reflecting the kitchen lights overhead. He carried the pot to the snow-filled rectangle and poured six initials, one for each of us, the cold snow shocking the hot syrup into taffy. I picked up my J, showed my brothers how to stretch theirs a foot long, made them laugh by licking all its length. My letter tasted like maple trees and sunshine.

I forgot my mother then, the pincushion of her heart, the burning heart that made my sisters flee. Instead, I thought of myself and the things I planned to take from this life. The things belonging to me.   

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