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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Measurement Listings in the Catalogue of Memory

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 27, 2003

Emily Schultz was born and raised in Wallaceburg, Ont. (pop. 11,500), with her American parents, and now lives in Toronto. She is the editor of Broken Pencil magazine and of the fiction anthology Outskirts: Women Writing from Small Places. She is the author of Black Coffee Night, a short-story collection published by Insomniac Press in November, 2002. She is 29 until March 2004.


Measurement Listings in the Catalogue of Memory

There is something both comforting and unsettling about knowing your death is arriving.

Leigh's mother is making lists. Things Purchased. Things Still to be Bought. Uncertain People. Miscellaneous Items. Dinner Menu. Card List. People to Call.

They are not unlike the lists she made when Leigh's Grampy died. People to Call. Funeral Details. Expenses. Estate Details. Thank-you Card List. Etc.

Leigh is sitting opposite her mother making a list of her own. In her lap the Christmas catalogue lies open to the household section, as there are very few passable clothing items for someone of Leigh's sensibilities. If anyone had told Leigh that she would still be coming home after all these years to choose her own presents and mark them out by code number at her mother's insistence, even as a little girl Leigh would have told them to go dunk their heads.

Leigh's life can be divided neatly in her mind. Things That Happened Before I Jumped in the River. Things That Happened After the River. These last three years, she thinks of it with an almost-ritualistic fascination, a mix of horror and nostalgia. The river, like a tight passage of dark skin, broken. The canal between her childhood and her adult life.

Leigh wonders if her mother has another set of lists tucked inside the desk drawer in her bedroom. Lists for her own funeral. Her mother's, that is. Leigh's mother's lists for her own funeral, set conveniently on top in a marked envelope so that Leigh and her father, Hank, will find them as soon as it has happened. Maybe right there on top of the rose leather address book her mother has continued to use and update these last thirty years. As long as Leigh can remember.

Before the river incident, Leigh had a premonition. Not long before, maybe ten or twenty minutes. Just before she and her friends drove to the riverfront. It wasn't a planned thing, understand. Just something that happened that she knew was going to happen. That somehow, even though they had no reason to go and no one had suggested it, Neil would turn the car and drive down that way. That someone would say the thing she knew they would say. Were supposed to say. The thing that would set her off. Nothing her mother hadn't said before. And then, that Leigh would make an excuse to get out of the car so she could jump into the river. Just as she was supposed to. It was pulling her. Closer and closer. Really. Pulling her in.

It sounds so pre-meditated, she might think it was. If she wasn't herself, that is. It would be easy to think this was her way of avoiding responsibilities for her actions. For plunging into a frozen river, and Gage winding up vaulting the rail two seconds later to get a hold on her. Her nearly getting them both killed in the dark seamless silver ribbon of water, holding hands with ice chunks, unable to pull themselves out. But the truth is, Leigh's truth: it was her birthday; she was menstruating; there was a full moon; there was water; she was pulled.

It's true, she had those few minutes in which to stop herself. Before they drove down to the water. Those moments of knowing. Yet there was nothing she could do. It was one of those surreal yet ordinary revelations-like looking at the telephone and knowing it was about to ring and then, of course, it ringing. She could have opted not to pick it up. But it was ringing nonetheless. Just like she knew it would. Still, she sometimes wonders if her will had been stronger, could she have mentally turned the entire car and headed them all in some other direction?

She pauses over the coral-coloured gravy boat. Even though she is a vegetarian. She writes down the code. Its shape is exquisite. Squat, bulbous, feminine.

Her mother is looking over her shoulder. Deborah, as Leigh has taken to calling her since the diagnosis. She knows her father has noticed, that he thinks Leigh cruel-her way of distancing herself before it happens-always gives her that one eyebrow sliding down, a grey black needle from the spool of his head towards his eye. And then he closes his eyes into slitted buttonholes and creases.

The truth is Leigh is beginning to see her mother as more. As a woman, rather than the vessel by which she was freighted into the world. As more than a set of washcloth thumbs and napkined lips, a coil of telephone vocal chords, a supply of bandages and dollar bills. Deborah. Disappointment, humour, hope, anger, appetite, will. A life. A life, but only glimpsed as it passes. She sees her mother's life only as her mother prepares for its ending.

"Here," Deborah says, turning the pages as rapidly as she is able, "you have lots of kitchen things. You need some nice clothes. Something you can wear for that big interview." Leigh hasn't lined up any big interview as of yet. She works part time in a small bar on Cass Avenue in Detroit. If she dressed up she'd never make it from her car to the door. The rest of her time is spent doing web design from home. She doesn't even meet with her clients most of the time, they come by referral from other small-scale businesses, and if she does meet with them, they cater to that 18- to 30-something educated hip demographic anyway and the frumpier she looks probably the better.

She needs clothes for the funeral. She needs to be prepared for what they know is going to happen.

It is as though the ten minutes before her own brush with death has stretched itself out over the span of nine months. As if before she jumped, she'd had time to see a doctor, and the doctor had told her what she already known, that yes, indeed, it was inevitable: the dark water was about to pull her in. As if she'd had time to meditate on the details of all that would follow her jump, time to plan who should be contacted, who should be told before, and who after. Yet regardless of the advance knowledge, the events would still play out the same way, a black loop of video tape, or round shaky reels of film spliced to repeat. The telephone endlessly ringing.

Deborah picks it up. Deborah talks into the receiver, and Leigh listens to her mother's voice from this end, the uncanny closeness as she hears the tone changes reserved for telephone conversations, the ones she is usually on the other end for instead of in the same room. But she is here. She is still alive. Her mother is still alive. Planning for Christmas, and not her own wake, yet.

Leigh looks at the outfit her mother has turned to. Ankle Length Straight-Cut Skirt with drawstring waist, rust-proof steel-tipped baubles. 50% Cotton 50% Polyester. Back pockets. Side slits. Khaki only. Sizes XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL. Leigh flips to the size guide a few pages back, and realizes with chagrin that she will have to order L in spite of the fact that she has always been an S or an M, and even then, petite in length. She hates the way the sizes change each season. She should be able to order 28", 28" for her whole life, shouldn't she? Nice and simple. Instead of having to match numbers and letters to fashion model eating disorders.

"That would be wonderful," her mother is saying into the telephone. It's one of those old rotary phones that are considered retro. Except that Leigh's parents don't know they're trendy again. They still have this one from 1980 because they didn't like the electronic "ring" of the one they put in upstairs.

Leigh flips back to the blouse and blazer her mother wants to buy for her. Realizes the problem with the skirt sizing is because the skirt is a younger style, meant for the Canadian equivalent of "juniors," women who are at least ten years younger than Leigh. Women who are still girls.

The blouse on the other hand, is sized for women-sized women. High Necked Eggshell Lace Blouse, invisible back zipper, attached camisole. Bust sizes 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44. Easier, Leigh thinks. Men's Style Jacket, double breasted, double back slit, shoulder pads. 60% Rayon 30% Wool 10% Polyester. Dry clean only. Available Black, Heather Grey, Ecru, Loden, Plum, Fuschia. Bust sizes etc etc. Leigh wonders if Loden will be a slight shade different than Khaki. Always better to go with black, she decides. She surveys the outfit with great skeptism. The pockets probably are just stitched on slips of material for fashion, and the shoulder pads she'd better be able to cut out without ruining the lining. It's no Betsey Johnston, but as her mother says goodbye to Aunt Ann, Leigh writes down the numbers. To make her mother happy. She can live with it.

What Leigh wants, though, what she really wants is the coral gravy boat. Because her mother knows she doesn't need it. Because Leigh can't cook anything but dry pasta with canned sauce. She adds fresh garlic and bell peppers to feel gourmet. Soon, Leigh can have her mother's gravy boat, a blue willow china one, originally her grandmother's. But the blue willow looks like her grandmother, not her mom. And Leigh wants to know her mother would buy this just because Leigh wants it. As if it could compensate for all the early years when her parents bought her boxes of chocolate almonds, Precious Moments figurines, bottles of Electric Youth, and Gap sweaters after it had become obvious she was an anti-corporation, Debbie-Gibson-despising, lacto-intolerant atheist.

"A gravy boat. You don't eat meat," Deborah says, when Leigh hands her the list.

It's nice to know her mother finally gets her. Leigh wonders if she'll indulge the whim.

What Gage and Neil and Maggie don't know is that it's never left Leigh's mind. Every day she has thought about the river incident. The moments before, when she felt like the world was spinning at a standstill, waiting to ring, and the moments when it happened. The water, with her body like a needle plunging into the unwound bolt of thick black wool.

What she remembers most clearly was that feeling of having made it. Never, in the waiting or the during, was there fear. That only came after. She has a vague recollection of her arms flying up when she reached the rail and flew over it, like a runner crossing the finish line and breaking the tape. A strange sense of victory.

She wonders if this is what Deborah will feel. The difference, of course, is that Deborah's death is real. Her exit quieter. None of the hoopla and heroics. For now, the wheelchair. Later just the bed, the breathing breathing breathing slowly stitching itself out, until that loose end on the spool finally flips free, leaving the wooden bobbin body. Deborah's thread passing through Leigh's eye. The mother and the daughter. Leigh's body-the needle on the machine, still pumping frantically up and down into the cloth-will keep stitching after the thread is gone.

These are not the first tears, but they feel it, as they always do, with their rawness. Like relatives when they are coming for dinner, their long-awaited arrival, and then something else needs doing and something else, and somehow by the time they're at the door it's not quite an expected entrance. But unlike Leigh's relatives, her tears don't come in carloads. They come one by one, without hugs or kisses. Alone, in the shower. The only private place in her parents' house. Her father's house, soon. ROBTv Workopolis