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Authors: Barbara Gowdy

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BOOK: Helpless
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Barbara Gowdy

Table of Contents

Cover Page

Title Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six


About the Author

Author Biography

How I Write by Barbara Gowdy

About the Book

An Interview with Barbara Gowdy

Read On

Works by Barbara Gowdy

Web Detective

An Excerpt from The White Bone



Also By Barbara Gowdy


About the Publisher

Chapter One

afternoon in early June, Celia Fox stands at the railing of her deck and smokes the second-to-last cigarette she’ll allow herself before going to work.

The apartment is small and stuffy (one of the drawbacks to living on the third floor of a Victorian house) but at least she and Rachel have this deck with its overhanging horse-chestnut tree whose glovelike leaves are already big enough to shade the entire front yard. From the railing of the deck you can see both the street out front and the lane that runs along the back of the stores on Parliament Street. Usually there’s something going on in the lane, although right now, because it’s so hot, not many people are out: only a legless man, dozing in his wheelchair behind the Shoppers Drug Mart dumpster, and the muscle-bound dog walker who holds all his leashes in one fist like a charioteer. An appliancerepair van drives by, and Celia wonders if repair places sell used air conditioners. Except she can’t afford even a used one. And anyway, she has to finish filling in the modelling-school application if she wants to make the deadline.

she want to make it? She hasn’t decided. Nine
strikes her as a little young to start trading in on your looks, although, if she chooses to believe the guy from the modelling agency, nine verges on decrepitude. When she told him Rachel’s age he said he’d have put her at seven and a half, eight at the outside. “But that’s okay,” he said, eyeing Rachel as if she were a used car, “she can pass.”

By this time Celia was regretting having let him buy her and Rachel iced teas in Java Ville, but he’d chased them up Parliament Street and he’d seemed, in those first few minutes, so boyish and pleasant.

“Little girls are a big deal right now,” he told her. “For certain high-end ads they’re pulling in close to a thousand, plus residuals.”

Rachel’s head snapped up from her book. “A thousand dollars?”

“That’s right.”

“I could be paid
a thousand dollars?”

“Once we get that face of yours out there.” He assured Celia that for girls with Rachel’s potential the modelling school waived its fee.

“What does ‘potential’ mean?” Rachel asked.

“Beauty,” he said. “You know you’re beautiful, right?”

Rachel shrugged.

“Take it from me.” He looked back and forth from her to Celia, clearly wondering the same thing everybody who met them for the first time wondered.

At which point Celia picked up the pamphlets and application form. “We’ll have to read all this over,” she said. She had no intention of satisfying his curiosity but she wasn’t offended, either. Didn’t she herself live in perpetual amazement that she could be her daughter’s biological mother? She
pushed back her chair, then saw by the inclination of Rachel’s head that he was going to be set straight after all.

And here it came: “Some people ask if I’m adopted. Well, I’m not.”

“Okay,” the guy said.

“My father’s black. Which is probably obvious.”

“It would have been my guess.”

With a new inflection of pride or challenge, as if she’d only recently figured out that this information
so predictable, Rachel said, “He’s an architect in New York City. His name’s Robert Smith.”

“Cool,” the guy said. “An architect in New York City.”

Or a veterinarian in Hoboken…Celia has no idea. She isn’t even sure that his last name is Smith.

She goes inside and reads a depressing fiction piece in
about a husband indulging his wife’s bizarre mental breakdown. Then she shoves the cat off the piano and practises “Besame Mucho” for about half an hour, after which she forces herself to take another stab at the modelling-school application. She’s still on the first page (“Would you describe your child as overly sensitive to criticism?” “Is your child afraid of dogs?”) when Rachel arrives home, calling that Leonard wants to be a model, too. In exchange for free piano lessons, Leonard Wong accompanies Rachel to and from school. He’s twelve years old but acts forty, a terrifyingly high-minded boy who sends his allowance to an orphanage in Shanghai.

“He’s not really model material,” Celia says tactfully.

“I know,” Rachel says. “He needs braces. I didn’t tell him, though.” She comes over and presses a palm along Celia’s bare, sweat-sticky shoulders. “Hey!” She has seen the application. “What’s this still doing here?” She snatches it up.

“I’ve been having second thoughts,” Celia admits. “Would you like some lemonade?”

“Not right now,” Rachel says stonily.

Celia reaches for her cigarettes. “Let’s go outside.”

“It’s like you don’t even care if we’re poor,” Rachel says, following Celia onto the deck. She drops on the sofa and starts tugging foam from a hole in the cushion.

Celia has gone over to the railing. “Stop that—” nodding at the cushion. “We’re not poor.”


“We’re thrifty.” Celia lights her cigarette. “Do you want to be a model? Forget the money. Do you want to spend all your time after school and on weekends rushing around to auditions and sitting for hours under hot lights and hardly ever having any fun?”

“The guy said a thousand dollars.”

“It’s not your job to worry about money.”

“When you die from smoking, it’ll be my job.”

“I’m cutting down.”

“Liar.” She jumps up and comes over to Celia and hugs her arm. “Liar, liar!” she cries theatrically. “You smoke more than Mika, even.”

Mika, their landlord and closest friend. “He’s a social smoker,” Celia says. “He doesn’t count.”

Rachel releases Celia and starts spinning around the deck.

“So,” Celia says, “can I rip up the application?”

“You’re the one who brought it home.” She throws herself against the railing and slumps there.

“Good. That’s settled then.”

Rachel straightens. Something in the lane has caught her attention.

“What?” Celia says, turning to see. The guy in the wheelchair is gone. Across the street two pigeons peck at a dropped ice cream cone. “What are you looking at?”

“You don’t have enough clothes on.”

“Nobody could tell from there.”

Rachel scoops up Felix, who has just strolled out onto the deck. “I think I’ll go with you tonight,” she says.

Chapter Two

jobs. Mondays to Thursdays, from ten to six, she works at Tom’s Video, a small, independent store owned by an easygoing ex—boxing champion named Jerry. (Tom was the dog, dead ten years ago now.) It can be dull sometimes, but it’s close to the apartment and Jerry has no problem with her changing her hours if Rachel is home sick or has a day off school.

Until last September she worked Fridays as well, and then, on a tip from a customer, she landed a job performing jazz and blues standards at the Casa Hernandez Motel on Lakeshore Boulevard. She does this Friday and Saturday evenings from five thirty until nine thirty, after which Bernie Silver, who has been playing there since the early seventies, takes over.

It’s the first time in her life she has played for money, or even tips. Always before, she was the person who accompanied Christmas carollers and drunken singers at parties. People used to tell her that if she ever made a record they’d run right out and buy it, so after slogging through two years at York University, she gave up on her declared (though never
burning) ambition to be a sociologist and decided to concentrate on her music instead. But she hadn’t even settled into a practice regime when she found out she was pregnant. She was only twenty-one. She was working part-time as a checkout clerk at Valu-Mart and living in a tiny two-bedroom apartment with her mother, whose knees had gotten so bad she’d been forced to cut back her hours selling lingerie at Eaton’s. Worse, her mother had seen this coming. Every time Celia had arrived home late after a night out with friends, her mother had lectured her about birth control and abstinence and how raising a child on your own was no picnic, take it from her. Once, when all Celia was doing was lying on the sofa smoking a cigarette, she said, “You’ve inherited my sex drive.” It was out of the question to let her think she’d been proven right, not that this topped the list of Celia’s reasons for wanting an abortion. Still, she vacillated, secretly making and cancelling appointments at a clinic in Parkdale. Then one Friday night toward the end of her first trimester she dreamed she’d given birth to something inhuman and furry, and that settled it: she made an appointment for the following Tuesday. “This time,” she promised the nurse, “I’m showing up.” And she would have, she’s certain, except on Sunday night, while she and her mother were doing the dishes, her mother suffered a massive stroke.

Celia never actually believed that the stroke was punishment for her lethal decision of two days earlier. It only felt that way. Her mother held on for six and a half months. Three times a day Celia went to the hospital to feed her. With an expression of infantile astonishment her mother watched the cutting of the food, the approach of the fork. She knew enough to open and chew, but that was about it.
She wore diapers, which Celia changed, saying, “This is good for me, Mom, this is teaching me the skills I’m going to need.” Her mother looked on, interested, drooling, giving a start when Celia’s tears hit her bare skin.

Death came the day before the birth, which meant that the funeral had to be delayed until Celia was up and around again. There weren’t many mourners. Aside from an older brother who lived in Australia and sent a telegram, Celia’s mother had had no living family. Celia’s father certainly didn’t count. He left when Celia was eight, took off for Florida with a woman named Hazel Beals. For almost three years he phoned every Sunday night, and gifts arrived for both her and her mother at Christmas and on birthdays, good gifts—cashmere scarves, jade bracelets, a white leather cinch belt—all chosen by Hazel Beals, no doubt, but her mother could live with that. “It’s
money,” she pointed out. And then he lost his job as a paint salesman and disappeared from their lives so completely that although Celia knew he now lived in Fort Lauderdale and her mother had always believed he’d come crawling back, she herself dreaded the thought of talking to him and even for her mother’s sake couldn’t bring herself to track down his phone number and deliver news she suspected he’d welcome. In any event, the little chapel was only half full: thirty people, some of whom tried to console Celia with the idea that, considering the timing, the baby might be her mother, in spirit anyway. Celia said she didn’t think so. She refrained from admitting that the prospect of her mother and baby colliding in the ether had, actually, occurred to her as she was going into labour and then again—but only for about two seconds—when she saw the blue eyes.

is a twelve-year-old two-door Toyota Tercel with ripped plastic seats, no CD player, and a stuck passenger door. To get in or out, Rachel has to climb through the driver’s side, over the gearshift. But at least it has air conditioning. Mika, who could afford air conditioning, says that Happy and Osmo prefer outdoor air, meaning
prefers outdoor air. Ever since her mother told her that Mika sometimes speaks through the dogs as a way of letting himself off the hook, Rachel has noticed how this seems to be the case. Yesterday, when her mother returned from the hairdresser with her hair short and spiked and asked Mika what he thought, he looked at the dogs before saying, “Very smart,” and, of course, that turned it into their opinion, not his, as her mother later pointed out.
hates it,” she said, laughing.

Rachel doesn’t exactly hate it, but her mother’s head now seems weirdly small and more of her scalp shows. Is she going bald? Rachel leans over the armrest to give her a closer look.

“What?” her mother says.

“Your earrings,” Rachel lies. Her earrings are tiny pianos. “They’re so cute.”

Her mother shoots her a nervous smile. Driving makes her mother nervous. Everything makes her nervous, which is why Rachel didn’t tell her about the fat man in the baseball cap. She wonders what he was doing, looking up at their deck…or maybe he was looking at the whole house—it’s one of the original Cabbagetown houses and has a historical plaque. But then why did he duck behind the dumpster when her mother turned around? Well, maybe he just didn’t want to be caught staring. If her mother had seen him she’d have called the police. George, the cook at the
motel, is always saying that her mother needs a boyfriend to calm her down. Is her mother beautiful? Rachel thinks so, but nobody ever says she is. Her feathery little head makes Rachel sad. “Would you go out with Mika?” she asks. “I mean if he wasn’t gay.”

Her mother shifts gears. “I’ve never thought about it.”

“You love him, don’t you?”

“Of course, I do. Just not in that way.”

“I love him in that way.”

Her mother glances over. “You do?”

“If I was like, twenty, and he asked me to marry him, I’d probably say yes.”

Her mother keeps glancing over. “Really?”

“Then we wouldn’t have to pay any rent.”

“We don’t pay much as it is, let me tell you.”

“But then we could all live together in the whole house. You and me and Felix and Mika and Happy and Osmo.”

“Oh, I get it. This is about the animals.”

Slightly offended, Rachel looks out her window. Mika teaches science at a private boys’ school and is home by five o’clock on Fridays. So sometimes, instead of going to the motel, she goes downstairs to his place and they have supper together. Afterwards he likes to listen to her practise the piano, and then they watch
The Simpsons
on his flat-screen TV. Mika laughs at parts she doesn’t find funny. She thinks it’s because he’s from Finland.

Yesterday, when she thought she was going to earn a thousand dollars, she told him she’d be staying home tonight. Now she feels she had better go to the motel and help her mother earn tips. Children aren’t allowed in the Starlight Room, but nobody minds if Rachel looks in from the hallway
and once or twice a night sings along. There’s a Polish man named Tom who walks around slapping people on the back and shouting, “How are you, my friend!” and one time, after she and her mother had sung “Unforgettable,” he stuffed a fifty-dollar bill into the tip vase. That made her mother happy but no matter how much money they get she still says she’s a bad mother for bringing her daughter to a bar. “I don’t go
the bar,” Rachel reminds her. Mostly she plays video games or watches TV in the motel office or she sits in the kitchen with George and works on her drawings while he tells her about growing up in a Greek village and being so poor and hungry that one time he ate the raw garlic his mother had sewed into his underpants to ward off the evil eye.

Her mother’s pay includes supper, anything on the menu, which George hasn’t changed since 1973. They eat in the kitchen between the first and second sets. Tonight they both have French onion soup and mushroom quiche, while George stands at the counter and slices strips from a big hunk of meat. “Yuck,” Rachel says. She’s a vegetarian.

“Listen to her,” George says. “The little girl who has never known hunger.”

After her mother has finished her coffee and gone back up to the bar, Rachel takes her pad and markers out of her backpack and draws George as a boy in Greece. She gives him a wishing well and a stone house with red curtains in the window. When she shows him, he says, “There were no curtains.”

“Not even rags?” she says.

“The rags were on our backs.”

Her mother is playing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” It comes down to them in bursts every time the bar
door opens. George, as he always does when he hears this song, starts singing along: “You are the apple in my eye.”

my eye,” Rachel says. “You are the apple
my eye.” How many times does she have to tell him? He has a terrible voice. “Okay,” she says, “I’m going up.”

From the doorway she can’t see all the customers, but she counts eleven, eight of them men and one a black man, sitting by himself at a table. There isn’t any money in the vase yet, only the five dollars her mother puts in to get the ball rolling.

At the end of the song, with just the waitress and the black man clapping, her mother goes straight into the opening chords of “Besame Mucho.”

“Rache, do you want to help me out?” she says, aiming the microphone toward the doorway.

Everybody looks around. Rachel lets her mother start, then comes in at “Each time I cling to your kiss…” The whole room has gone quiet. An old lady with frizzy pink hair like cotton candy conducts with a stir stick, but when the song is over and her mother brings the microphone to her mouth and says, “My daughter, Rachel, ladies and gentlemen,” the lady swivels back to the bar.

Rachel smiles at the other customers, all of them clapping, and a woman scoots across to the vase and tucks in a blue bill. Five dollars. The black man gets up and puts a ten in the vase, then comes over to Rachel.

“I just want to tell you I think you have a beautiful voice,” he says. His own voice is deep and important sounding.

“Thanks,” she says.

“I’d like to shake your hand,” he says, “if that’s all right with you.”

They shake. Her hand in his is almost white. She gets a delicate feeling, as though she were made of thin glass. “You wouldn’t happen to be from New York City,” she says, “would you?”

“Afraid not. Why do you ask?”

“Just wondered.” She looks at her mother, who has started in on “Sophisticated Lady” and is watching her and the man.

“Rachel has to leave us now,” her mother says. “Perhaps she’ll join us later, before we both have to say good-bye at nine thirty.”

“Thanks for the song,” the man says. “You take care of yourself now.”

He returns to his seat.

Rachel rubs her hand on her skirt. The hand he shook. One day she’ll run into a black person who
from New York City and who will know her father. For a reason she can’t explain, she’s certain this is going to happen.

BOOK: Helpless
8.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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