Kurt came into some money. The usual way when this sort of thing happens. A widowed aunt with a soft spot left him twenty grand. He got a letter from her lawyer. Really fancy stationary. Gold embossed lettering. Big fat cheque.
‘Fuck me,’ Kurt said, turning the cheque over in his hand. He examined it from several angles. Held it up to a light bulb. Eventually convinced himself it was the real deal.
The teller at the bank didn’t bat an eye when he slid it towards her.
‘The works into my chequing account.’ He was proud and pumped. He wanted to ask the teller out but then got a glimpse of the rock on her finger.
A few days later he paid off his car. A few days after that he took Harry, Maria, Steve and Anders from work out for supper and a good piss-up.
‘It’s on me,’ Kurt declared when the hill came.
‘What the Christ?’ Harry said. ‘You come into some money big man?’
‘Well… truth be told,’ Kurt said.
They all had another.
A week later he took a month off from the post office. He booked a flight to Rome. A Roman holiday. Twenty-eight days. The first time he’d been out of Ontario since he was a kid. Twelve years old back then his dad packed Kurt, his two sisters, and mom into the car and they drove to Prince Edward Island. That was years before the bridge, of course. Took them three days. Stops in Cornwall and Edmunston. They drove straight through Quebec. Kurt’s older sister Sheila had two years high school French. She interpreted road signs. ‘Est’ was all the old man cared about. A week on PEI followed. Red soil. Lobster traps. Salt water. Ann of Green Gables. Japanese tourists by the busload. The works.
The drive back to Ontario’s belly was even quicker: one night in a motel just ouest of Trois-Rivieres. ‘Three Rivers’ Kurt’s dad insisted.
Six months later the old man called it quits on a marriage of fifteen-plus years. Fucked off somewhere in Alberta. Kurt pictured cowboys and grizzly bears and his dad roughnecking in an oil field. No letters. No tears from his mother. A few cheques over the years without return addresses, most of them rubber.
From Rome Kurt took in some major stops: Florence, Genoa, and Venice. Kurt and a bunch of senior citizens in an air-conditioned bus. He didn’t look at what the tour operator told him to look at. He drank wine at the back of the coach. Got a bit boisterous now and again. Puked once in the toilet in the back.
The final week he spent in Rome. He sat in cafes, crosslegged, laughing to himself. He pretended he understood Italian, nodding his head as he eavesdropped on conversations. He whistled at women passing by. Drank very strong, very expensive coffee. Didn’t sleep much. Started to grow a beard and let his face get good and tanned. Bought himself some gold jewellery from a vendor on the street. Haggled just a little.
Three days before he was due to fly back to Toronto he met Rena on the Via Crescenzio, not far from the Vatican. She was eating gelato. Had her sunglasses propped back on her head, keeping her hair out of her face. Kurt pointed at her shoes and made a face that said: ‘Beautiful shoes you’ve got there.’ Rena looked down, held her right leg out at an oblique angle and smiled. Half an hour later they were drinking wine and getting on in broken English. She was at least ten years younger than Kurt. Her father was dead. Her mother was veiled in black in a small town in the north. Sisters, brothers, dispersed here and there. One in Switzerland. She had cousins in Canada. ‘Winn-i-peg,’ she said. She knew it was cold, nothing more. Couldn’t care less where the hell Winnipeg was. She laughed at Kurt’s facial expressions. His splotchy beard. His slurred Italian phrases. Let him follow her home. Let him into her cluttered flat. Let him drink her wine. Let him spend the night. Let him do pretty much anything he wanted.
Three days later Rena was haggling with the ticket agent, booking a seat on Kurt’s flight back to Toronto. Sometimes it really is this simple.
The karaoke night two weeks before the wedding was Harry’s idea. But Rena caught the wrong bus and ended up at Limeridge Mall. Kurt waited for her for over an hour and then decided to panic. She made it home eventually. A bus driver named Frank – second-generation Canadian – gave her the proper route number. Kurt called her at home. She answered on the first ring, on the verge of tears.
There was the shortest of honeymoons. Niagara Falls, of course. After all, it’s so close. Rena couldn’t believe it was just sixty kilometres away.
‘Winn-i-peg. Nia-ga-ra Falls,’ she said. ‘I thought-ah the water would be-ah froze all ah the time.’
Kurt laughed and took her on the boat, the Maid of the Mist. Blue raincoats. Water vapour. Thundering falls. Later, dinner and a motel room. Heart-shaped bathtub. Great big bed. Satin, leopard-spotted sheets. Rena said it was ‘so stylish.’
At the movies a week later Rena gave Kurt a hand job. They didn’t sit in the back row. They were somewhere in the middle. The film was ‘so boring,’ Rena said. Life is Beautiful. It was the last thing Rena wanted to see. Kurt kept asking her if the subtitles were correct. Some people got up and left in a huff halfway through. Kurt untucked his shirt when the lights came on, covering the wet spot on his jeans.
Rena said: ‘Take me to a Canadian movie next time.’
Kurt laughed and thought long and hard about that. The last Canadian movie he’d seen was Cronenberg’s Crash. He’d rented it for the soft-porn value and then recognized the highways in and around Toronto. ‘Next time, next time,’ he assured Rena and home they went, jiggetty-jig.
The first time it snowed Rena burst into song: ‘White Christmas.’ Christmas wasn’t for another month or so. Kurt said, ‘maybe,’ then told her that the first snow never lasts.
Rena wanted to hear Bing Crosby.
‘I’ve only got Sinatra and some Dean Martin,’ Kurt said.
Rena pouted. She wanted Christmas music.
Kurt told her Dean Martin was really named Dino Martini. ‘He was Italian,’ he said, trying to boost her spirits.
Rena looked up at him from the chesterfield; arms folded in a funk across her bosom. She couldn’t care less if Dean Martin was from Mars. Didn’t give a hoot for Sinatra.
The next morning she slipped on the walkway on her way to the grocer’s. She sprained her wrist and bruised a knee. She learned to hate the snow along with everyone else. Like Kurt said, the snow didn’t last. It rained Christmas day. It snowed between Christmas and New Year’s. Then it went down to minus twenty-five and everything froze solid. Rena didn’t want to leave the house. Kurt took time off from his postal route, the Christmas rush over. He finally persuaded Rena to leave the house. Drove her to Niagara Falls New Year’s day. He pointed out the ice. Rena couldn’t believe the water was still falling.
‘Never stops,’ Kurt said, teeth chattering.
They checked into the same motel, for old time’s sake.
Rena told Kurt to invite the guys from work over one night to watch hockey. Maria came too. Kurt ordered pizza. By the end of the second period the Leafs were down and out and Harry was good and drunk. He wanted to dance with Rena. Anders protested. He said the Leafs still had a chance.
‘They’re down three goals,’ Harry said. ‘Let’s put some music on and liven things up a little.’
Anders watched the rest of the game with the volume turned down. Rena danced once with Harry – just the once – to get things going. Then she took Kurt’s hand and led him round the room.
‘Play me some Dino Martini, then,’ she called out. ‘Wasn’t Martini,’ Harry corrected from the couch, beer bottle wedged in his groin. ‘It was Crocetti.’
Rena glared at him. ‘I like-ah it better Martini, like-ah the drink.’
Harry shrugged and took a hit from his beer.
Kurt put on ‘Relax-ay-voo’. Old Dino sang along with Line Renaud. Rena squeezed Kurt with all her might. Bit him right on the ear, right there in front of everyone. Maria smiled. Harry fell asleep on the couch. Anders watched the Leafs lose 6-2 to the Phoenix Coyotes, the team formerly known as the Winnipeg Jets.
In the summer, Rena started a garden. Tomatoes, peppers, green onions. She made fresh salads all summer long.
Sitting in the shade of an apple tree, Kurt watched Rena at work in the garden. She was bent over crops. She was sweating. She was whistling ‘White Christmas’. She was wearing the flimsiest of summer frocks. Sweat visible on the backs of her brown thighs. An apple fell from the tree to Kurt’s left. He remembered his mother, suddenly. He’d have to call her one day soon and invite her round for supper, introduce her properly to Rena. Kurt’s morn had been in hospital at the time of the wedding. She wasn’t fit for a shock of any sort. She still didn’t know Kurt and Rena were married. Kurt’s morn was divorced now more than twenty five years.
From the garden Rena called to Kurt. She yanked a carrot out of the ground and held it up.
‘Beautiful-ah carrots,’ she said and smiled.
Another apple fell from the tree. Kurt looked up at the branches above him. The sun pummelled his face. Blinded for only a second, he tried to find Rena’s image again. He could hear her voice. He could imagine her yellow frock. Her eyes. Her tanned legs. The precise point where her legs became ass. He blinked twice, three times. His vision cleared, eyes watering a little. And then there she was, like she’d been standing there all his life.