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Mrs. Barlie’s house was the kind of thing you’d expect to find in the middle of a forest: all teary paint and littering shingles and leaning to one side. Full of cats and piles of things and smelling like damp, plus that anti-sweet sour smell of best-before dates, of age and something gone wrong. He knocked. She came to the back door in her nightgown or something that looked like a nightgown and she let him in and they had a little chat just beyond the doorway, at the kitchen table, because it wasn’t the kind of situation where you were invited farther in, he knew that, you didn’t want to go farther in anyway, whatever living room was there was no longer a living room, at most just smoky pictures of people in silver frames, people who used to be, and things best left forgotten, besides he was fine where he was, just fine, they talked about all the snow that winter and about her grandchildren, both of whom he went to school with. The older one was the fat giggling type who’d already failed a grade. The younger one was the kind who liked to smash bottles and smoke stolen cigarettes and point out how nice the teacher’s tits were. Of course these were not the things they talked about.
Mrs. Barlie offered him a cookie. While he ate it, she pointed out some figurines on a high shelf by the sink, these figurines she’d saved from Red Rose tea boxes, little owls and badgers, and he said that his mom saved those too but that he had to get going now, to go do his paper route. Two blocks away he was already thinking about supper.
He don’t know how it came about but a few days later his mom was on the phone talking to someone about Mrs. Barlie. For his mom to be on the phone at all was unusual – the phone was this thing anchored to the wall with a short chord, and you had to go into the bathroom for any privacy, meaning you never had privacy, because someone was always in the bathroom, there being nine people in the house, altogether, so when you were on the phone you might as well have been standing on a soapbox, and his mom was not a soapbox kind of person, in fact she was very much the not-outgoing-and-not-going-out type, besides there was nowhere to go in that little town. But even just half-listening with his half-aware brain to this one-sided conversation he knew there was something going on, that he was being enlisted in some kind of enterprise, something to do with Mrs. Barlie.
Sure enough, the next Sunday he found myself standing at the pulpit of the local United Church, reading a hastily written essay about his visit, about taking a plate of baking to poor old Mrs. Barlie. He didn’t say poor old Mrs. Barlie but that was certainly the tone of the thing. At the end of it he felt queasy but everyone assured him afterwards, in the basement, at the buffet table with the jellied luncheon meats, that he had done a good thing and that he was a very nice young man indeed. Of course his mom wasn’t there because she never went to church herself, being more of a sender than an attender.
And it was that week too, that Wednesday, that he found myself in some kind of singing class at school (was it called Glee Club? Choral? what was it called?), Grades 5 and 6 all squished together on portable stairs, him standing in the back row, there with Mrs. Barlie’s grandkid, the aforementioned giggler. Not hard to make him giggle at all. Especially when this teacher (and yet she wasn’t a teacher either, was she? because she only came in for this music stuff, every once in awhile, so what exactly was she?) was making them sing from musicals, stuff she thought was cute and that the kids would like, but instead they hated it and thought it was stupid, songs from the Muppet Movie or Puff ‘N Stuff or something, he'd change a few words and add some commentary and the giggler was off, just giggling like mad, as were all the kids around him, and that’s when this teacher, or non-teacher, Mrs. Gordon, stopped conducting (would you call it conducting?) and threw down her music sheets and started yelling at him, telling him to shut up, and how could he be so sweet on a Sunday and so rotten on a Wednesday, shaking her head, foamed spit at the corners of her mouth, and that’s when he decided, very quietly, all to myself, that he would stop talking to people. That it wasn't worth it.
And he did that for about a year. More or less. He did it for the rest of that grade, and then all through the summer, and into the next grade, until his mom came home from parent-teacher interviews (she always went to that, no matter what), came home and found him on the living room floor, sprawled out on the carpet, watching television, quite happily not saying a word, and she kicked him in the ass and asked him, are you doing drugs? And he wasn’t. So then he had to start talking again.