Hannah Brown was born in Hastings County, Ontario, and currently lives in Toronto where she has taught English and film classes at the college and collegiate level. She has two degrees in film from York University and is the author of several screenplays, including How to Call Cows, which won first prize in a National Film Board contest. She wrote a brief memoir about her brother, “The Education of a Class A Mechanic” which appeared in This Magazine and has recently written a novel. “On Any Windy Day” is her first published short story.
On Any Windy Day
for Ms Alvarez
Up on top of my building, if you look, there are clotheslines that go from our roof to a sister building across the alley. Up there, on any windy day, sheets are flapping like flags. Like after someone declares peace. When I put sheets on a line, I get a feeling right away that I am good, and when I grab and pull the line, hand over hand, it’s like I’m sending proof of my goodness out into the world, into the air.
In The Odyssey, my favourite story is Nausicaa. Nausicah-ah, the perfect woman, the young one who wakes up one morning and asks to do the all the family laundry. All the shirts. All the sheets. Everything in the palace.
I like laundry, but I like ironing better. Ironing takes skill and special equipment. At my house, I have French lavender water, dilute, in a plastic spray bottle, a padded pocket for sleeve work, starch in a spray can, a press cloth, and a sheet of paper to insert between layers. My steam iron is Dutch. I brought it with me from where I worked, The Golden Tulip Hotel, in Havana.
I met Frankie’s dad Joseph there. He was on holiday from his job with the CN. He’s an engineer on the trains. His friends thought he was crazy to bring me here, to marry me. He thought I was crazy to bring that iron with me, but— I still have the iron and I don't have him. He has the younger jineteras, who knows how many, when he goes to Havana now, and I have Gustavo, a man of the left.
And an ironing board. With the best padded cover: thick and smooth. You know hard hard it is to find these. I was in The Bay, in Scarborough Town Centre. I was in Linens, looking around, sheets and pillowcases, towels. Casting my judgment. Keeping up. And I saw it: on the floor, half-torn out of its package. Like that, I took it to the counter. The clerk gave me a discount. It has red poppies, nodding down like they are sleeping. It is perfectly smooth. Thick. I have never seen another like it.
* * *
You know what drives me crazy? A man in a wrinkled shirt. Gustavo packs everything, everything into the washer and the dryer. He’s clean— but he’s cheap, and his shirts come out with wrinkles that are fixed like your plans for revenge. You know the ones.
When he comes to my house, he is very respectful, he brings food for me and for Frankie. Bananas, which are easy on Frankie's stomach. Frankie was born with a pyloric stenosis—the opening to his stomach was growing closed. So, he has a scar from the operation, and I have to watch him.
I built a bunk bed for Frankie with a slide from the top. I covered it in carpet so he could get a grip with his feet when he used the rope to haul himself up, hand over hand. He has to keep his muscles, his arm and leg muscles strong. Who knows what else will come his way?
Frankie does what I ask: he brushes his teeth, he puts on his pajamas, and once he has climbed into bed, he asks, Can you hand me my little bata from Havana?” He always adds ‘from Havana.’ The drum has a shape like an hourglass, and he only pats the little end of it at night when the drumming starts downstairs. “I’m not really playing, Mami,” he says, when I say bata is not for playing at night, not in Havana, not here.
In the apartment below, every night, the Indians practice their war drum. City Indians. Nice boys. You never know how many there will be in the morning. You have to step over them. They are very polite and laugh quietly.
One afternoon, Frankie put his drum under his arm and went downstairs before I could stop him. They were practicing. Ayyyyy, yah, yah ayyah. He knocked on their door, and when it opened, he said, “I’m part Indian, Ojibwe.” They let him stay.
When he comes back up the stairs, he is serious, head high, triunfante, drum under his arm. He has connected himself to the man side of his life, you can see it on his face, and in my mind I’m thinking, on that drum, Frankie, you are connecting to the man side of my life, too, my little Cuban, but in his mind, he is making a father out of Joseph, a collage of all the little pieces.
* * *
Gustavo always waits until Frankie is asleep when he comes to see me. Gustavo was born here, in this city, not far from the Sick Kids. Downtown Toronto. I met him at the hospital, when Frankie was having his operation. Gustavo is always angry about something. He shouts on the phone, he shouts on the street. This man, he acts like he’s mine, but he won’t say so. He’s not dignified. He kicks over signs in restaurants.
Joseph, Frankie's dad, has dignity. Like a lot of men born poor. He said, ‘Never take your business in the street.’ Joseph grew up just north of the city. Near a small cold lake. He told me all the things he learned when he came to the city. Don’t go out into a hallway if someone is crying. Don’t open your door. He thought I needed to know how to live in Toronto because he had to learn this. But I am from Centro, near the Malecon— if you know Havana, you know what I’m saying to you.
Frankie got on one of Joseph’s trains by himself, in Oshawa. He put his hand into the safe hand of the conductor, no backward glance. He went to the front to be with Joseph in the engine. Frankie got to push the button that makes the train whistle sound. A lot, he said. I waited at the Oakville station, and instead of walking down the steps, Frankie jumped into my arms, beaming. The conductor, the same one, was also beaming at the top of the stairs, like he knew a secret about me, about Frankie, about Joseph.
Joseph said he always liked going somewhere—and coming back. Now he has gone somewhere, away from us, working out of Hornepayne. He says he doesn’t like it but he is aiming for that CN pension. He doesn’t call, doesn’t visit.
When we first met in the hotel, he said he liked my colour, hard toffee he said, that needs a smack on the wall. This was a joke, he never hit anyone. It’s just how you eat the toffee candy here. It comes in a red cardboard package with plaid on it and you smack it on a hard surface to break it into pieces. No one likes it, it’s a cheap candy.
Frankie has Joseph’s colour, brighter than mine. Higher cheekbones. That last time, when Joseph told Frankie he had to live away from us, Frankie’s face was so still. After Joseph went, he put his small head, all those curls, like mine, only soft, soft, he put that small head down right on the stair carpet and cried, like a star in an telenovela, beyond hope. “I am never going to see him again. Never. Never.”
Gustavo says he does not have hope. He says hope is for suckers. He says he works to make things happen. He’s a big man, a blonde beard, and angry, but not scary. He really would like things to be good for everyone. He likes me because I am poor, partly, and because of how I look after Frankie. And, okay, he likes me because I am very good to him in bed. And I make him laugh, which is a big job. He likes what I know, how to surrender. I can just let go. He is blind to how much I need to let go. How much I have to watch my life, every second, in case I have to take Frankie to Sick Kids.
* * *
A month ago, Frankie has a fever. It won't go down, even with ice water in the tub, but I get him to Sick Kids in time. He has a fever in his spinal fluid but I get him there in time, no spinal meningitis. Now you see why my shoulders are up around my ears. I have to be ready. I have to watch how Frankie is.
I watch Gustavo, too. Once, twice, we make love and then he falls asleep. He tells me he loves me when he is in bed with me, when he is inside me. He says, "You should see your face." But during the week, he never says nothing, nothing affectionate. He never hugs me, he never tells me my hair looks good. Once he said I had a beautiful back. I know some of his friends are jealous. I heard Mario say to him, where do you find these women? So I know I’m not his only one.
But to me, he is like a boulevard, a place. A place to not be worried, because he doesn't ask me how I feel about him, he's not interested in emotional things. Neutral ground, like you say in New Orleans.
So. After he’s asleep, I tiptoe to the chair where he throws his shirt and pick it up. Lightly. I tiptoe to the tub where I always have cold water waiting.
The first time he saw it, Gustavo asks me about the water in the tub, and I just said, “Frankie,” and he accepts. Frankie stops a lot of conversations, I don't have to explain a lot. Just say, ‘Frankie,’ and we're done.
I throw the shirt in the tub and close the bathroom door so slow, all you hear is the click. Then I swish the shirt a lot, como una serpiente, grande y suave my aunt used to say, like a snake in the water, no squeezing, and I put it on a hanger, pull everything tight, smooth, and hang it to dry above the radiator. I glide to the living room that I share with Tomas and Pamela and read. I turn the pages quietly. I think I slow my breathing down, so no one wakes up, not Tomas, not Pamela, not Frankie, not him, Gustavo. I am still, still.
The book is Labour and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, by Harry Braverman. I like saying this whole thing, it makes me laugh. This man, Harry, he likes who he writes about, you can tell. I had seen the book in Gustavo's backpack. The white and green and orange colours attracted me. Gustavo said, “It's one of the seminal books on labour.” I wanted to know what he knew, so I bought my own copy. The clerk was my age. He told me in a kind voice that there were easier books on the same subject and I told him he was the kind of man who held people like me back. He blushed with shame, and I was glad. I think Frankie being sick has made me angry. I am scared and I have to make everything safe and good for him. I found out what seminal means. There is no word for the egg part, the woman’s part.
I go and check on the shirt. It's not dry, it’s almost dry: perfect. I set up the ironing board. When I first got it, I oiled the hinge with WD40 and blotted it with paper towels, so there was no opportunity for oil on my ironing. No chance of it shrieking when I pry it open.
So— the iron is hot, it hisses. This is how I do it:
First the collar, along and out to the points. Mist and starch as it needs. Lightly. I do everything lightly. Pick the shirt up, lightly, throw it quick over the rounded end of the ironing board for the shoulder and the top part of the right sleeve. Then the same for the left, then fast— pick up, don’t let it touch the floor, the yoke, the cuffs, extra starch, no puckers along the seams.
Now the bottom length of the sleeves, the dangerous part.You pull the material tight away from the seam. You iron outward from the seam, the point of the iron almost to the other edge— almost. Like driving on a pass through the mountains, it’s narrow and you don’t want to go over the edge— you see why I like ironing.
Then the left front, down the placket, pulling it taut, next the back, extra steam and starch along the dip of the hem, and last, the right front, the point of the iron around the buttons. Maybe you do it differently, but this is my perfect way, light and fast.
I hang it on a hanger, and slide one button lightly, quick, into its slit. It’s almost four, the birds are starting, who knows where they live, and I go back to bed.
In the morning, he thanks me for hanging up his shirt, but I am not sure he notices it has been ironed. He might think that hanging it up makes it look good. He is not a watchful person.
But this is my house. No man leaves my bed with his body not honoured, no man walks out in the morning, from my house, with his clothes not honouring his body. A man leaves my house looking good, like he was cared for, like someone wanted his body— if it had to be out in the world and away from someone— to be respected.
* * *
I still see him on the street sometimes. Now, he says, he’s not so angry. They call him Gus at work.He has a regular job, like he always wanted, talking to others at the water cooler at City Hall. He says his struggle continues there, but he has that softness now, someone who knows he has moved up in the world, and he is not on the outside, like I will always be, like Frankie will always be.
I think he has a service, because no woman lives in his house. I think the ones who did live there, two or three, they were not the kind to do shirts. Now his shirts look okay, no crease in the sleeve, but not really clean.
I never put a crease down the sleeve. That's how you can tell whether a woman knows what she’s doing. Anyone can iron a sleeve without a wrinkle if she puts a crease down the middle. Not me. My shirt sleeves are perfect, just like he was for me, a long time ago. He didn't really pay much attention to me, he didn't have to, and —he wouldn't have thought I was worth it. I was free to do what I wanted, so I did, as long as he let me.
Clothes are for honour, like when the hero meets Nausicaa in the book Gustavo— Gus— wanted Frankie to have after he said he wasn’t coming back. I didn’t want to take it, a book from a man who wasn’t coming back. The Odyssey, a big book for Frankie to have, from a man who wasn’t coming back. It was too much, but his face crumpled like a small child’s when I didn’t put my hands out to take it.
“It’s important that he have it.”
Not ‘I want him to have it.’
Not ‘I want to give him something.’
I didn’t want to take it. It wasn’t important, it was insulting. He wasn’t coming back into my house, to Frankie and Pamela and Tomas sleeping, not ever coming back, to my house, to my bed.
But I didn’t want him walking out of my house that way, with that face.
I read it to Frankie sometimes, and even now, when I am ironing, I think about how some of the parts are the same. Lots of baths for the men. The sea, always dangerous, dark as wine. The women always give clothes to the men, and they always lose them. Once the hero is home, the serving maids are hung on a line, like laundry.