The scent of detergent bit into Oksana’s nose like straight pins. Momma worked Tuesday to Saturday in Major Appliances at the Bay downtown, but on Mondays, Momma spent all day feeding laundry through the rollers with a long-handled wooden spoon while the kids, Mykyta, Mirka, and Oksana, were at school. Gloria Steinem had opened a discussion with women about rights and exploitation, but the discussion hadn’t yet trickled into the Buzikevich home.
Poppa got up in the morning to roll the hulking white wringer-washer from the furnace room, hooked the hoses to the kitchen faucet, and then went back to bed. Poppa’s other task was to attach lengths of clothesline to nails that had been hammered into the top of the bathroom door frame, stretch them the span of the hallway to nails in the door frame of the bedroom he shared with Momma. He stayed up after his night shift to drink coffee and think, so he had to sleep during the day.
Oksana and her family lived in a three-bedroom, two-story row house in the project. Stanislaw had moved them there two years earlier, while Lena and the kids were in Saskatchewan visiting her family. They had spent a month on the farm, chasing chickens and coaxing milk from cows’ teats, then returned to Vancouver to a new home. Their unit in the project was third from the end, which meant they were in the least dense area of the project, and their neighbors across the laneway lived in actual houses, with proper yards and fences that surrounded their properties. In other parts of the project, in the thick of it, row houses faced row houses or parking lots. This proximity to houses didn’t mean that kids from the houses socialized with kids from the project.
Mirka and Oksana were home early—it was the last day of school before summer break. From where Momma stood before the machine, she would have been able to watch them through the kitchen window as they cut across the small plot of grass between the laneway and the back door. Momma was a petite woman with delicate features, but she never let that stand in her way.
“Good,” she said when Mirka and Oksana crossed the threshold. “I need your help.”
Oksana’s heart leapt. “Can I feed the wringers?”
She was dying for a chance to feed wet garments through the big rollers, watch the water squish out, listen for the clothes to drop into the basket on the other side of the machine. She’d watched Momma do it a billion times. She’d learned by watching, wanted to actually be able to work the machine.
But no such excitement. The real reason: she couldn’t rouse Poppa from bed. Momma resorted to her secret arsenal—“The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace, a song about a massacre on the streets in the Dirty Thirties, set to an oddly upbeat melody. This was one of Poppa’s favorite pieces of music.
Momma lifted the needle gently into place on the record, turned up the volume. “In the heat of the summer ni-i-i-i-ight, in the land of the dollar bill…. C’mon, Mirka. Sing!” She swayed her hips in time to the music, lifted her reddened hands to shoulder level. “When a man named Al Capone…. C’mon, Sana! You know the words!”
Sana tried out some of the dance steps she had seen on American Bandstand at her friend’s house.
“Should I turn it up louder?” asked Mirka. She pushed her glasses higher on her nose.
“Yes!” Face flushed. Eyes wide. “LOUDER!” The music became distorted through the speaker’s vibrations.
They played the song three or four times before Stanislaw got dressed, made his way downstairs. He stood at the foot of the stairs for a moment, pale and defeated. He stood 6’2” in his brogues, which he wore every waking moment. The timbre of his voice carried below the distorted music. “Lena. What the hell are you doing?”
“Good! You’re up,” said Momma. She clapped her hands together once. “We need to put away the machine.” She turned off the stereo.
“After my coffee,” said Poppa.
Then he headed straight to the kitchen. Cup of coffee—Nescafe freeze-dried instant. Lightened with Coffee-Mate. Back to the living room, turned on the TV, sat in his spot on the couch, where his tin of tobacco and ashtray were within reach. He made a clicking noise with his throat as he rolled a smoke. This made Oksana think of crickets.
“Sana. Come sit with the old man.” He lifted his arm, made room for her to rest against his chest. He made the cricket noise once or twice. Mirka followed Momma to the kitchen; they both disapproved of Oksana delaying Poppa.
Oksana and Poppa sat in silence. She tried to make her breathing match his. Breathe in. Breathe out. The show Poppa liked was on—no music, no sound effects, no cartoons or silliness. It was about a type of doctor who listened to people talk in an office with a couch, a chair, a coffee table, but who never took their pulse, never listened to their heart.
Oksana’s eyes wandered to the books on the shelf beside the couch. Poppa had made the bookshelf himself out of cinder blocks and plywood planks he had stained Red Oak. The bottom two shelves held sets of encyclopedias—an old set bound in brown cloth with gold lettering on the spine, and another, newer set with hard, glossy white covers. The top shelf held a huge dictionary that Poppa had protected with a clear plastic sheet folded as a jacket cover. Beside it, propped against the wall, were school photos of the kids from eldest to youngest, taken last September: Mykyta, Mirka, and Oksana. Oksana sighed.
“Poppa? Why didn’t you give me a name that started with an M?”
“Shh, Sana.” He hugged her closer. “You’re a gift.”
He listened to the show—the doctor listened, a woman talked. She talked about rape, a word that was new to Oksana. The word was used as a noun and as a verb. Oksana had learned in school last year that not only did each word have a definition and spelling, but also a label. This new piece of information Oksana found interesting, but not something she needed to know.
“What’s ‘rape,’ Poppa?” she asked.
Poppa didn’t respond. Maybe he hadn’t heard her. “Poppa, what’s rape?” she asked again.
Poppa made the cricket noise. “Look it up in the dictionary,” he said.
His tone wasn’t the usual tone he used when he suggested the dictionary. He sounded a little bit angry. So Oksana wasn’t certain if she should stay where she was, pressed against Poppa’s warm chest, feeling the steady beat of his heart, or if she should do as she was told, even though it might make him angry. She didn’t like to use the dictionary. She preferred to figure out what a word meant by reading it in a sentence.
She decided she’d better do as she was told, extracted herself from under his arm, walked the long way around the coffee table so as to not have to ask Poppa to move his feet from the coffee table, although it meant she’d momentarily block his view of the TV and the woman who spoke of the word she had to look up.
Oksana pulled the heavy, plastic-bound Webster’s from its home on the top shelf, all 1,724 pages of it. She sat in the easy chair catty-corner to Poppa and opened the dictionary in her lap, the length of the spine resting in the dip between her thighs. She carefully turned the onion-skin-thin pages, located the word ‘rape.’ Read the entry twice:
rape, v.t. [AS. & OF. raper, fr. L., rapere, raptum.] 1. Archaic. To seize and take away by force; to plunder. 2. To commit rape upon; to ravish. – n. 1. A seizing by force; robbery. 2. Law. The illicit carnal knowledge of a woman without her consent.
She had trouble fitting the definition into the conversation that took place on TV, between two calm adults in an austere office that looked like a living room. There were too many other words that should also be looked up: carnal, illicit, ravish, plunder. This could take the rest of the day.
Poppa was silent, eyes glued to the screen. It seemed there would be no discussion of this word in their own living room.
What if Poppa asked her to use the word in a sentence? Oksana decided she should leave as quietly as possible so as to not draw attention to herself. She crept upstairs to where Momma hung laundry. “Where’s Mirka?” she asked Momma, but it was too late—Mirka’d already left for Comix Emporium.
“Go get changed out of your school clothes,” Momma said.
Later, after Momma and Poppa had left for groceries, Mirka returned, dumped a stack of comic books on the coffee table. Mykyta was outside, hitting a tennis ball against the wall. That was all he ever did—practice his swing, and read.
Sana clamped her tongue between her front teeth. She wanted to flip through them, start to devour the contents.
Mirka shouldn’t throw things around, even used comic books. But Mirka looked like she was in a foul mood. Her eyeglasses slipped down her nose a notch. She pushed them back in an angry way. She glared at Oksana. “Plaid-Belly grabbed my front bum,” she said.
Plaid-Belly was the sweaty mass of flesh that seldom moved from behind the counter at the Emporium. They named him Plaid-Belly after his never-changing grease-stained shirt, a booger shade of green plaid that barely covered his middle. The Emporium was just two blocks away, on the Drive, its street-facing windows blanked out with posters, magazine covers, and comic covers. Nobody could walk by without wanting to check out the latest trades.
“No, he didn’t,” Oksana said, uncertain why he, or anyone, for that matter, would want to do such a thing.
Mirka snorted. “Never mind,” she said. “I’ll show you next time.”
Oksana had forgotten about the incident by the time they finished her stack of comics, but Mirka reminded her of it as they walked to the Drive the next weekend. She delivered a hushed reconnaissance as they stood outside the dark, dusty shop: “You pretend to look at comics in the first row when we go in, and I’ll go to the second row. Don’t look at him until he starts to walk down the aisle.”
Plaid-Belly never walked down the aisles, but Oksana did as she was told. A bell over the door tinkled as they entered. It was dark and cool in the shop. Traffic noise from the busy Drive outside was muted by the paper-clad windows. Mirka followed the plan she had outlined and gravitated to the second row. This was where the best comics were displayed: Archie & Friends™. Oksana flicked through floppy books in a couple of the plywood square bins painted black. The first row held comics that Mykyta liked, with lots of dark scenes, ka-POWs, and capes. She drew her initials through the film of dust along the edge of the bin. The shop seemed different, somehow. The comics didn’t seem quite as enticing. They seemed a little grubby; an odor of must hung in the air.
Bored, but wanting to keep her eyes from Plaid-Belly, Oksana checked Mirka’s back while she waited. She was still a bit taller than Oksana, but even she knew that wouldn’t last much longer. She was slightly rounder, too; this extra weight seemed to hold her closer to the earth. They both wore sleeveless striped shells with shorts in a solid color that matched the stripes—Oksana’s were turquoise; Mirka’s, orange. “Tangerine,” Momma called it. The outfits were made of a modern double-knit fabric. Next summer, Mirka would hold a hot clothes iron in place too long, scorching the tangerine-striped shell after it had been handed down. Oksana would spend all of next summer with a shadow the shape of an elf door on her stomach. The crowning touch to their summer get-ups was the stupid matching bows on the hairpins Momma stuck in their bangs. Hairpins were for girls who were allowed to grow their hair; Poppa made them keep their hair short like boys’. Despite the little-girl get-ups, Mirka’s eyeglasses lent her an air of maturity.
Barely a minute had passed when, from the corner of her eye, Oksana saw Plaid-Belly haul his body from his chair, which squeaked and groaned in relief. She looked at him now, as Mirka had instructed. How odd to see him upright, in transit along the aisle like a great undulating pasty wave in search of a shore. It was as if Oksana wasn’t there; he had eyes only for Mirka, a silly little grin on his florid face as he labored his way toward her.
From where Oksana stood, Mirka was in partial profile. Her neck bent in a gentle way as she pretended to inspect comics. Her upper lip held a graceful curve where it didn’t quite cover her front teeth. She looked no different than any other day, yet she had promised to show Oksana something she couldn’t yet fathom.
Mirka carefully selected a comic book from the stand before her. She must have watched Plaid-Belly from the corner of her eye, too, or maybe she could hear his wheezes as he drew nearer. He wriggled the fingers of his left hand—white, fat worms. When he was only half a step away from her, just a tad further than arm’s reach, Mirka whipped around and pressed her back against the black plywood box. At the same time, she positioned the scant comic book like a shield before her orange shorts. Jughead and Veronica, frozen in awkward adolescence, stood guard over Mirka’s front bum. Plaid-Belly’s knuckles glanced off Jughead’s crown. In a glorious act of defiance, Mirka looked old Plaid-Belly straight in the eye. His silly grin twisted into a scorn, but he didn’t break stride. He continued to the end of the aisle, then returned to his desk via aisle three.
Mirka turned her gaze to Oksana. Buck-toothed, a pixie cut that would twist and curl and never lie flat, stupid orange velvet bow pinned to her bangs. This could be Oksana in twelve months, dressed in Mirka’s hand-me-downs, deflecting Plaid-Belly’s gropes. She had had enough of the Show and Tell. She wanted to leave.
“No!” Mirka rolled her eyes. “I haven’t chosen my books yet,” she said. If there had been a dictionary for appearances, Oksana would have been able to find the word rebellion for Mirka’s attitude at that moment.
She stared hard at Plaid-Belly when she finally made her trade; he didn’t look up from his desk once during the transaction. From where Oksana stood, she inspected the shiny crescent profile of Mirka’s eyeball behind the glass barrier of her corrective lenses. Watched as it examined Plaid-belly’s every movement.
It was the most thrilling moment of that summer.
Oksana wanted to go again, wanted to witness each play-by-play as Mirka dodged Plaid-Belly’s sickening advances. But Mirka said they were too old for comic books. Mirka said they should be reading proper books. Mirka started to take Oksana to the library, instead. The closest branch was a long, hot, twelve-block walk, there and back, but inside the library was clean and bright, with endless, white dust-less shelves of countless solid books.
Shelley Sheremeta has several publishing credits under her belt, including Room, THIS Magazine, Geist, Alive Health Magazine and forthcoming in Panorama. As well, she’s pleased to have read at Vancouver’s annual Word on the Street Festival and got her kicks out of performing standup comedy in BC and Alberta. Currently, she does her writing from her mother’s orange rumpus room on the left coast.