Jane at sixteen was all flaming youth and cheekbones. Bold to her betters some’d say, mostly Rilla, by way of apologizing for her daughter. Jane would never be sorry for a goddamned thing, but Jesus! That girl could turn the head of a stone angel.
Now you didn’t usually see her kind in Demerett Bridge, Mi’kmaq had their place up in Indian Brook, but Rilla had that thing going with her white man Amos so you couldn’t very well say no. And Jane? Half white so no one minded her checking herself out in windows up and down Commercial Street on account of her good half being on the outside. So, Girl don’t you be giving me any business, was all she’d get from King Duplak for sassin’ him and saying she’d make that ol’ catalogue dress and wouldn’t buy it in his shitty fiveanddime even if she could. She ripped the page right out of the T. Eaton book and slipped it into her pocket so she could paste it on her mirror.
Rilla was searching through cans on the shelf and Duplak said, Hey now, it took the wife some time to get them all facing right like. So Rilla counted out nickels, going red at the cheeks ’cause she’d been caught looking for cheaper prices in behind. Be glad when this strike’s over, Mr. Duplak.
Christ, she’s going to want this on account, King was thinking, knowing full well what no rails coming off the foundry lines meant. Wouldn’t be enough for Amos Stearns to feed his harem over there on Kirchoffer Place, specially since he’d been off sick. Amos’d been the security man at the foundry, sort of like a policeman with a lot more hitting power, but what good was that if you had to spend half your day in the crapper? When Amos’s poor stomach became a regular thing, there was talk of a pension or something, then the manager, Urban Dransfield – who everyone in Demerett Bridge now hated because of the strike – said, Thank you very much you can’t work any more here’s a watch with your name on it.
That was before the strike, and now, not so many potatoes for the stew pot. No paycheques in a town controlled by the Maritime Foundry Corporation meant Amos’d been unable to meet ends with the boarders in that place of his. Must be why his old lady was back on the road. King’d seen for himself Stearns’s Mi’kmaq whore in that old Ford of his. Heard she was doing washing as far north as Raven River for those German yahoos up there. Hey, honest folks were hurting too and thank Jesus they’d rather starve before swabbing out skivvies and bedsheets for River people. Yeah, right. If washing was all she was doing. King smiled, remembering the old days when Rilla wasn’t looking so hard-ridden. Why if it wasn’t for the wife out back, he’d show Amos’s squaw his own laundry shed.
He counted each coin again. Didn’t matter that the woman had been a customer for over thirteen years. It’s not like she was Stearns’s legal wife. Indians got no credit no how, so Jane didn’t need a new dress and no, added Rilla, you’re not getting your hair bobbed either.
Daylight flooded through the open door catching the dust unawares. Barely reaching the latch, Harry had shadowed Rilla and her girls into the store. He was too young to be captivated by Jane’s adolescent charms or to know he shouldn’t stare at the other sister, well, halfsister, the one who wasn’t as pretty as Jane. Normally the ugly one sat out on the front porch when she came into Demerett Bridge shopping with her ma and Jane. Sometimes she’d colour with chalk on a writing tablet. Once when she did it, Harry stopped carving his name in backwards letters into the steps of his dad’s pool hall across the street, came over and looked. Said she couldn’t draw and why didn’t she draw boats? He might like them better if she did boats, but the girl, Elva, just said, Go away. She didn’t sit outside today because there were men on the corner, shouting now, looking to make trouble for someone new around these parts.
Elva had trouble breathing on hot days or when she got herself worked into a lather, so when she turned away from the window and said, You have to help him, it came out all huffy.
Rilla stared at the Elva girl. What was she thinking, giving orders to Mr. Duplak?
Jane flipped another page in the catalogue. Big deal. It wasn’t like anyone was going to take notice of her.
“Help who and stop that wheezing.”
It took ages for Elva to get out, “There’s a man on top of the clock. Went up it like a caterpillar. He’s jabbing it with an army knife.”
How could he do that and hold on to the clock? Jane wanted to know, but more men were tumbling out of the pool hall and crowding around the clock so Elva didn’t say. They were grey and furry like rats, Elva said and added, “There’s no more poison and there’s rats in the cellar.”
Jane reached over and pinched her arm.
“What’s he doing now?” Mr. King Duplak came over to the window to see for himself.
The pole sitter was showing the others a silver timepiece, one of those really oldfashioned watches on a fob that used to sway like a garland across fancy waistcoats. From the window where she watched, standing on her toes to be as tall as Jane, Elva guessed the watch had once been broken and maybe he’d repaired it. Probably thought he could set the town clock too. Some people are born that way. Wanting to fix things even when they don’t want fixin’, only the man no one had never seen in Demerett Bridge before didn’t know about the clock being sacred and you don’t touch it.
“Is he cute?” Jane asked.
“He’s kind of pasty and he wears funny glasses but he’s dreamy.”
Jane was always saying dreamy this or dreamy that, so lately dreamy
was Elva’s favourite word. Then she got all short for breath again when the men outside starting throwing rocks.
“He’ll fall and break his glasses!”
“Show’s over,” said Mr. Duplak, drawing the blinds. The town clock hadn’t kept time since the hurricane of ’04, and according to King Duplak, he’d no business up there in the first place. The rusting timepiece was a tribute of sorts, but less to the Nova Scotian town surviving the storm and more to the prevailing Scottish thriftiness that didn’t see the need to pay for a monument when a perfectly useless clock would do.
“Pinkwhiskered Jesus! Like a pack of dogs been through here! Who’s going to clean that?”
It hadn’t been enough for li’1 Harry Winters to follow Elva into the store and stare at her. No. He had to go to the counter for a penny jawbuster, then wander over to the corner where he stood wideeyed and sucking, oblivious to the trail of black muck from his shoes. Goddamned tar ponds! A mecca for boys of Harry’s age, wanting to throw stuff in, or worse, drag dead things out. Now Harry’s cublike marks were everywhere.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Miss Elva by Stephens Gerard Malone. Copyright © 2005 by Stephens Gerard Malone. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.