Better Than Life
by Margaret Gunning
Published by NeWest Press
288 pages, 2003
Better Than Life celebrates all the blessings and bruisings of blood ties, exploring with poignancy and wry humor the emotional misfires that can hamper the most precious of human connections. It's a story of family and how compassion and reconciliation have a way of winning out in spite of all our hell-bent intentions.
The sleepy little town of Harman is just beginning to awaken to the social turbulence of the late 1960s. Harman, Ontario is an Anytown and an Everytown, a character in its own right, and just below its placid surface bubbles all the stuff of human misadventure.
Who are all these strange-looking young people in their jeans, tie-dyed shirts and long hair? Are they really so short of cash that they have to pass one cigarette around? Most of the townsfolk can't figure it out at all. Most confused of all is Aubrey Connar, who has lived in the same old red brick house with his cantankerous mother Min for all of his 54 years.
Min is not half as Irish as she wants you to believe, even though she does have a pedigree that goes all the way back to Portadown. Her hobby (or vocation) seems to be finding different ways of staging her own death: "Min Connar died several times that year," the novel opens. "The first time she died, on a mild April morning in 1968, it threw a bit of a curve at Aubrey." These faux deaths seem to satisfy Min's insatiable craving for drama.
Min has money, and all the Connars know it, even though half the clan is not speaking to the other half. (Aubrey has not seen his twin brothers Barlow and Dwight in fifteen years, and is having trouble remembering what their feud was about.)
In a last-ditch attempt to bring the family together, Min orchestrates a reunion in Gribble Park for her ninetieth birthday. For Harman, in which the biggest thrill of the past ten years was the opening of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, it will be the social event of the decade.
Min hopes to rope in a number of stray Connars who have settled in nearby Horgansville, which is planning a rival celebration of its own ("Horgie Days") just to give Min a run for her money. These include her estranged daughter Eileen (whom Aubrey describes as "six foot two, with a chest like a pouter pigeon and a personality like an express-train"), who has five last names, each representing a past husband, and more children than anyone can count. When Eileen comes charging back into the picture, trailing memories of the long-ago, passionate love affair that produced her first child, Min is sure she's only after her money.
But like everyone else in this story, Eileen is motivated more by human need than greed. Her one great love, the reclusive 70-something novelist Shelton Gramercy, still lives in Harman, hiding out from those pesky fans while he writes smutty novels about all the goings-on in a fictional small town.
But in the midst of all this, a stranger comes to town, a pleasant-looking young man with long hair and a backpack. Dot, an eccentric old lady with multiple cats, is the first person to see him in the Belgian bakery which functions as Harman's social nerve-centre. She takes one look at him and exclaims: "Christ!"
That's because the young man, Bob Hemphill, bears a startling physical resemblance to the famous portrait of Jesus that hangs on every Sunday-school room wall in the country.
Who is this Bob? What connection could he possibly have to Aubrey and his family? Is it true he's on a "mission"? Will Shelton Gramercy worm the secret out of him, so that he can exploit it in his next novel?
Min Connar died several times that year. The first time she died, on a mild April morning in 1968, it threw a bit of a curve at Aubrey. The breakfast tray sat untouched by her bedroom door for ever so long, the tea getting a skin on it, her favourite Pep flakes turning to something resembling wood pulp in the bowl. Min was always up by 8:30 on the dot, but by the time Aubrey had finished reading the Harman Standard at a quarter after ten, the tray was still sitting there, a few fruit flies hovering around the bad banana she insisted he include with her cereal ("There's more flavour to them once they've gone black." "Yes, Min." "Now don't you go giving me those terrible green ones." "No, Min." "Too much snap to 'em. I like my bananas soft." "Anything you say, Min." "And don't be so impertinent. Pretending to agree with me. I know what you're really thinking. And don't call me Min.")
He tapped on the door. She didn't like Aubrey coming into her room even at the best of times. What if she were standing there naked? He pictured her long bluish-grey hair bursting out of its bun, snaking its kinked, untidy way down the length of her caved-in body like an obscene parody of Lady Godiva, and winced at the thought.
But hadn't he helped her in and out of the claw-footed, brown-streaked tub more times than he cared to remember? Though she'd always insisted he keep his eyes closed: "Don't peek!" "Min, I won't peek. I have a weak stomach, remember?"
Tapped a little louder. No response. Not even her famous wall-shaking snore. Tried the doorknob. Locked. Oh, Min, Min. Can't bear to leave the door open even to your own son? Went into the kitchen to find the skeleton key behind the green glass jar full of the square brown oatcakes that reminded Aubrey of roofing tiles. (Even at eighty-nine, Min still baked on occasion, using ancient Irish recipes as brown and crumbling as the oatcakes themselves.) Fumbled the bedroom door open and stopped short. Something wasn't right. There lay Min with her snaky hair nicely arranged on the pillow around her face. Wearing her new nightie from the Metropolitan, pink floral print with a little bow, still free of pee-stains and food-spills. Ancient as she was, there was something of the young girl about the sweet composure in her face.
Aubrey realized he couldn't hear the little nose-wheeze that indicated she was still breathing. Grabbed the long-handled, silver-backed mirror, the one Cousin Norah sent over from Portadown when Min got married in 1900, and held it under her nose.
Nothing. No fog, no moisture, no trace of living.
"Merciful Jesus." Aubrey was shocked and deeply shamed by the surge of relief he felt in his solar plexus. Knew he should do something, not just stand there like a halfwit.
Well, what do you do when somebody dies? What's the proper response? Isn't there some sort of certificate or something? Bliss. That's it. He'll take care of it. He and Min liked to trade obscene flirtations during his interminable house calls, even though by now withered old Doc Bliss must have a penis like a stick of pepperoni.
"Dr. Bliss. Connar here. No, not Conner Bryan. Aubrey Connar. You'd better come over right away. Min is . . ." (What should he say? "Stiff"?) "She's in a bad way. You'd better hurry."
For the next twenty minutes he sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for Bliss. Not a stir of life in Min's dry old body. When the doorbell rang he ran to the dim front hall which always seemed to smell faintly of wool coats and pumpkin pie. The two exchanged curt greetings and strode single file into the bedroom.
"Well, Min. Tut tut tut tut tut. This won't do at all."
"Dr. Bliss," Aubrey gasped. "Min's . . ."
"Better get the brandy bottle, Aub."
At that, Min cracked a marbly green eye. Aubrey had never noticed before how much she resembled a desert reptile. A Gila monster, maybe. Jerked herself up to a remarkably erect sitting position for one whose spine curves like a dry wishbone.
"Carman. I want to change my will."
"Oh, Min. For heaven's sake. A little snort will fix you up. Aubrey's gone to get it now." (Indeed, he had fled the room, suddenly overtaken with a fit of coughing.)
"Call Dan Ryerson. I want to cut this ungrateful son of mine out of my will."
"Min, be reasonable."
"I am being reasonable. I'm giving it all to my grandchildren. Eileen's brood&endash;how many of them does she have? Sixteen?"
"I think it's eleven, dear. Here's Aubrey with the hooch. Now, you just take a sip of this, Min, and --"
Min swiped the glass out of Aubrey's hand and tossed the brandy back in one huge, open-mouthed gulp.
"Call Dan Ryerson now."
"Min, let me listen to your heart." Dr. Bliss warmed the bell of the stethoscope in his hand, not wanting to chill the old buzzard so soon after her "crisis." Min looked drunk. Her greenish eyes rolled upward in a grotesque parody of flirtation. Vivien Leigh trying to seduce Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind.
"Are you going to be naughty, Carman?" Min's eyes gleamed in anticipation of the doctor's warm hands fumbling with the front of her fresh new nightie from the Metropolitan. Aubrey noticed a humming in his ears, faint at first, then louder.
He fled from the room, then out the front door, finding it almost impossible to breathe. Stood taking gulps of air on the slightly sagging, white-painted front porch. Neighbourhood children thought there was something strange or special about this house because one of the bricks by the front door had a cat's-paw imprint on it. And of course they'd heard rumours that there was a dead dog in there that used to belong to a crazy old man. To Aubrey, the house was nondescript, just the place he had lived in for all of his fifty-four years, so much like every other little old brick house in Harman that he could think of nothing that set it apart.
Except its location. It was right next door to the Belgian bakery, which served as a nerve centre for the entire town of Harman. Aubrey had a sudden, overwhelming urge for a cup of coffee and one of Guillaume's potato-flour doughnuts. Having caught his breath, he headed down the street, dodging a pack of whooping teenagers in bell-bottomed jeans and garish T-shirts. Hippies, Aubrey thought. Shouldn't they be in school? Until the past year or so, these same young people were getting good grades, going bowling on weekends, obeying their elders.
Aubrey heaved the door of the bakery open, noticing with annoyance the ancient, dusty wedding cake in the front window with its calcified bride and groom.
"Guillaume. How are you, my good man."
"Aubrey. How is Min?"
"Took a spell this morning. Had to call Dr. Bliss again." He made a face. "Coffee and a spudnut, Guy."
Guillaume served up a long, narrow doughnut glazed with gleaming cerise icing, and a white mug of coffee strong enough to stick your teeth together. Aubrey ambled over to one of the round, gold-flecked Formica tables. A mother and her two young children sat nearby. The kiddies whining, of course. Snot running down their faces. Aubrey thought: this is almost as bad as putting up with Min. And then the bakery door jangled again.
Worse and worse. It was Dot. The whiff told you before you even saw her. Armpits and stale burlap. The young mother grabbed her son's grubby hand and pulled her daughter protectively closer.
Dot was in full regalia with all her bags and tatters. She shuffled up to the counter and began to count out pennies from an ancient woven change purse. Probably found it in somebody's garbage. Every town had to have a Dot, Aubrey guessed. But this one made you more uncomfortable than most.
"Of course, Dot. Ten cents."
"I'll check in the back." There was a sort of understanding that Guy would save her all the superfluous items, the lopsided eclairs and broken cookies, the cake marked "Happy 90th Birthday Bernie" that no one ever collected because Bernie suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack, the witch's fingers that no longer sold as of the first of November. Guy came back with a paper bag of kaiser rolls that had probably been sitting there for a week.
Dot's arm shot out and she grabbed the bag of buns the same way Min had snatched the brandy out of Aubrey's hand. It reminded him of a National Geographic special he'd seen in which the slow-motion camera caught the lightning-fast snaking-out of a chameleon's tongue, a frighteningly precise snatch-and-grab. Dot shuffled over to a table near the two little children, who were now asking embarrassing questions of their mother.
"Mummie, why is that lady wearing so many sweaters?"
"Shhhhh, Denise, that's not polite."
"Mummie . . . what's in that bag? It's moving."
And indeed, one of Dot's multitude of holey jute bags did seem to have a life of its own. The sides of it were seething as if she had a snake tunnelling around in there. Maybe one of her cats, Aubrey thought. No one even knew how many cats Dot had, and it was understood around Harman that an unwanted cat could be left on her doorstep. "More than three cats," Guillaume often opined, "is a sickness," and Aubrey tended to agree.
Then a small, rat-like head appeared at the top of the bag. Little Denise let out a scream.
"S'okay," Dot slurred. "It's just my chinchilla."
"Chinchillas, Dot!" Guy cried. "Are you raising them for profit, then?"
"I have two," Dot said in a gruff sort of way, as if to discourage further questioning on her latest enterprise.
"Where's the other one?" the little boy said. His mother shushed him, too late.
"Can't find him. I don't have any cages yet. This is the female. Can't leave her alone in the house&endash;might scare the cats." She pushed the rat-head down into the unspeakable clutter of broken stuff in the bag. The sides heaved for a moment, then fell still. Probably asphyxiated, Aubrey thought, by the fumes of all of Dot's rotten old junk.
"How's Min?" Dot fumbled around in the pockets of her fringy sweaters for a cigarette.
"Took a bad spell. Doc Bliss is with her now."
"Well, at her age." Dot coughed raucously, then spat a wad of phlegm into her yellowed handkerchief. Aubrey was surprised it wasn't the floor. Putting on manners for the kiddies, he guessed.
"So, Aub. You won't be coming into that fortune for a while yet, then." Dot could really shock you. She wasn't nearly so slow as she seemed, and when there was money involved, she was sharp as a chest pain.
"Now, Dot. Don't believe the rumours. Mother's been a widow for a long time. Surely Dad's money is all used up by now."
"Used up, my kneecap," Dot wheezed, sucking on her lit Camel. "Everybody in Harman knows she's sittin' on a bloody fortune. Keeps it in a mattress in the attic."
"Dot, that's nonsense. There's no mattress."
"Eileen'll be after it," Dot declared. "How many kids does she have? Sixteen?"
"And all by different husbands?"
"There were only five."
"And what about . . . what's their names anyway? The twins?"
"I haven't seen 'em in fifteen years."
"Shame on you, Aubrey. Blood is thicker than water," followed by a gale of coughing. Strange for her to say this since as far as anyone in Harman knew, Dot had neither kith nor kin, nor chick nor child, anywhere in this wide world. "What was that feud about, anyway? Property?"
"The Connars don't have any."
"It was a question of honour." Aubrey didn't want to talk about his estrangement from his brothers. Half the Connar clan wasn't speaking to the other half anyway. Everyone in town knew that, and took delight in commenting on it. You'd think they were worlds away from Aubrey and Min, but most of them lived somewhere around Horgansville, less than an hour's drive from Harman, and didn't Aubrey sometimes drive all the way into Toronto with his girlfriend Pearl just to go hear that Jon Vickers fellow shout his lungs out at the opera? That was the way people thought. The good folk of Harman excelled at disapproval.
Then, thank God, the bell jangled again, relieving the knot of discomfort in Aubrey's gut. Doc Bliss strode in, beaming. "Aub! Don't worry. She's out like a light. Left her sleeping like the dead, if you'll pardon the expression. That's pretty good stuff you got there. Hello, Dot."
"Carman." What was it about her tone, that little curved inflection in her voice? Decaying remnants of seduction. It gave Aubrey the creeps.
"Guess I'd better get back," he mumbled.
"Aub. Sit down. Enjoy your coffee. Do you want me writing prescriptions for you next? For your nerves?" Dr. Bliss pulled up a chair right next to Dot, who was smiling enigmatically, as if she'd won some small victory.
"But Mrs. Barham can't come in for a month."
"Mrs. Barham had a nervous breakdown, Aubrey, and do you know why? She ran to Min's beck and call, that's why. Mrs. Barham, get me some licorice allsorts. Mrs. Barham, there's a funny smell in the bathroom. Why haven't you cleaned it? Mrs. Barham, these are the wrong digestive biscuits. And so on, and so on. Now I see it happening to you, and it concerns me." Dr. Bliss raked a hand over his nearly bald pink skull, slicking down his stringy black comb-over. Dot blew out her cigarette smoke a la Bette Davis, in a gesture that probably went back thirty years. The bag at her feet heaved and Dot kicked it.
"What've you got in there, Dot? A rattlesnake?"
"Cobra," she said, narrowing her eyes. Come to think of it, her eyes were a touch exotic, like a photo Aubrey had once seen of Emily Carr. He felt a strange stirring and quickly squashed it as Dot stubbed out her cigarette.
"So how's that sister of yours, Aubrey?" Everyone in Harman seemed to think Eileen was much more interesting than Aubrey. All those husbands, he guessed, while Aubrey had stubbornly remained unmarried. Yes, he had Pearl, an open secret, but that wasn't the same. Nearly twenty years with the same girlfriend was too predictable, even though they did dare to travel together as Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
"Having trouble with the kids."
"How many -- "
"Eleven. So one of them is bound to be in trouble at any given time."
"Wasn't one of them -- you know, the youngest girl, the teenager -- "
"Well, I wouldn't quite put it that way."
"How would you, then? You're a doctor. 'Knocked up?'"
"Aubrey. You're getting irritable. You'd benefit from the Librium, you know."
"Pills. And a brandy chaser, then. Is that what you want?"
"Of course not, Aubrey. We know you only keep it in the house for Min."
"Is that what people say? Why does it even come up?"
"It doesn't, Aubrey. Everyone thinks of you as a model citizen now, believe me."
"Except I still keep it in the house. For Min." Aubrey was surprised at the rawness of his nerves. Maybe he did need a break. Suddenly Dot put her veiny old hand on his forearm. A subversive thrill jolted through his whole body and went right to the spot. He had forgotten how he used to drink with Dot. A murk of memory stirred, an unbearable mixture of pleasure and despair.
"I've got to get back," he gasped, and clanged out the door.
A moment later Dr. Bliss turned to look at Dot with a little furrow of professional concern in his brow.
"D'you really think he's on the wagon?" | February 2004
Margaret Gunning was born in Chatham, Ontario. Her broadly varied writing career began with the publication of a humour column in the Hinton Parklander in 1985. Since then she has published hundreds of articles in periodicals from Victoria to Montreal and she is a contributing editor to January Magazine. Her poetry has been published in blue buffalo, Room of One's Own, Prism International and Capilano Review. She has also published short fiction and appeared on numerous radio and television programs. Better than Life is her first novel. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.
Chapter One from Better Than Life (2003) by Margaret Gunning. Reprinted by permission of NeWest Publishers Ltd.