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Birthday Suit

The convent was gone, burned to the ground in a kitchen fire years ago. In its place, a waitress at the local restaurant had told them, was a nursing home for the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, a motel-like brick building perched on the cliff overlooking the Bay of Fundy. Lisa and Joel sat in the car arguing about the propriety of going to the door without an appointment. There was a strong breeze from the bay, rocking the car slightly and blowing the odors of salt and balsam through the windows. “We planned this all along,” she said. “Going to the convent.”

“It’s not a convent any more,” he said. “Sick old women don’t like to be taken by surprise.” He resettled on his head the green felt hat he’d bought on the drive up, at L.L. Bean. The rim of the hat bristled with his hand-tied trout flies. “Let’s go on up the coast a ways,” he said. “We can call from a pay phone and come back tomorrow – give the sisters some warning.”

“You just want to go fishing,” she said. “This trip was something you said you wanted to do for me.”

He got out, slamming the door. She followed; they walked in silence to the

building. Beyond the cliff Lisa could see the shimmering sheet of water, blue as Mary’s veil, just as her grandmother had described it.

She glanced at Joel, his rigid profile, the trout flies. “Take off that hat,” she said.

He removed the hat with exaggerated care and held it in front of him as if it were an offering.

An aggressively cheerful nurse heard their petition at the door. “All the way from North Carolina! The sisters will be so pleased.” She led them to a dayroom where a group of elderly women in bathrobes were arranged around a small television. A game show was on, a suave male voice and bursts of canned laughter. One of the nuns – bald beneath a small wool cap—was moaning, “Help! Help!” in the direction of the ceiling. There was a faint suggestion of Pinesol in the room.

“Perhaps Sister Marie Virginie can assist you.” The nurse steered them toward a slack- faced woman who was seated by a window playing solitaire. Sister Marie Virginie was wearing a rumpled habit and her wimple was askew; a few iron-colored hairs had escaped from it onto her forehead. The lenses of her glasses were thick and smudged with fingerprints.

The nurse introduced them – an American couple in search of information about a relative –then hurried out of the room to prepare the nuns’ lunch.

Joel put his hat on the table and bent over the row of cards. “You’re in a

good position, Sister. Very clever. Haven’t been cheating, have you?’” he said with a wink.

She grinned up at him.

“Sister, we need your help,” Joel said. “My wife is dying to find out about her grandmother. Felice Belliveau,” he said, enunciating clearly. “She lived here – a boarding student –when she was a young girl, isn’t that right, Lise?” He smiled at Lisa as if they were on the coziest of terms.

“She was an orphan,” Lisa said. “A blond girl with braids to her waist and blue eyes. Do you remember her? She won the Latin prize three years in a row.” Lisa held out the photograph they’d had copied at the archives in Halifax: a picture of the original convent building, wide- hipped and plain. On the front steps were two rows of people: one of nuns, one of girls, their faces tiny in the picture. “Do you recognize any of the girls, Sister? Felice Belliveau? Her parents drowned at sea.” Sister Marie Virigine laid the photograph on the table and bent over it, pushing her glasses higher on the bridge of her nose.

“The picture was taken in the 1930s,” Joel said.

“The 1930s.” The nun shook her head, as if it were a decade of which she disapproved.

Lisa looked at Joel; he gave her a sympathetic smile. The hat had flattened his gray hair, making the bald spot more pronounced. He was a handsome man, with his strong jaw, the bright blue eyes that were sometimes deceptively attentive, but he looked tired today. Neither of them had slept well, after the fight. He’d gotten mad because she’d forgotten to take the birth control pills – for a couple of days, she confessed – and he’d had to go out at midnight, scrounging around Halifax – his ridiculous verb – in search of condoms. He’d come back with a shiny package he’d gotten at a gas station, but they’d ended up not making love. He said she was undermining their sex life. She’d wanted to say, why shouldn’t she be, given the circumstances, but they were, by unspoken mutual agreement, not talking about the circumstances.

“Do you recognize anyone, Sister?” Joel prompted.

“I have to find her,” Lisa said, her face going hot.

The nun tapped the image of the tallest nun with a card. “That weedy Sister Mary Owen. She wanted to become Mother Superior. Ha! She had to have her liver out, you know.” Sister Marie Virginie fixed Lisa with her gaze, her eyes wobbling with the effort. “Is there some medical emergency? Sometimes there is an emergency in these cases, a mitre in the heart, for example.” She handed Lisa the photograph. “Go see Edouard Belliveau, He has a mind like a steel trap and will know all your Belliveau history. He lives out Corberrie Road, a grand old house surrounded by larches. You can’t miss it.”

Corberrie Road knifed through a thicket of second- growth pine interrupted by occasional trailers and houses painted in Easter egg colors. The Belliveau place was a few miles out on the left, the nurse had told them, just beyond the Robicheau fish packing plant.

As they drove, Lisa tried to imagine the road seventy years earlier – unpaved, muddy when it rained, with deep ruts – and oxen-drawn carts instead of cars. Her grandmother – only two when her parents drowned and she’d “gone to the nuns” – would have jounced along in a cart, alone on the back seat, her face somber and delicate, like her own as a child. Lisa had inherited her grandmother’s features and her fair coloring along with her name; when she was growing up, Lisa had liked to pretend that her grandmother, and not the aloof woman who governed the household, was her mother. Ever since her grandmother died – just before Lisa’s high school graduation – she had wanted to visit the setting of her girlhood, the Nova Scotia convent about which her grandmother had told such vivid stories. What had been a wish became an obsession last spring, after the abortion. Joel had been glad to make the trip; to cheer her up, he said. He felt guilty, she privately thought, but he always liked an adventure, too.

When they’d driven twenty miles out Corberrie Road, Joel stopped at an unmarked shack to inquire. Lisa watched him talking to a man in the driveway – both of them with their hands on their hips, studying the ground as they talked. He always unconsciously adopted the body language of whatever man he talked to. A charmer, her grandmother would have called him.

He walked back to her smiling, pointing in the direction from which they’d come. She hadn’t been easy on him about the baby. His point of view was legitimate: he already had a child, he was ten years older than she, he was trying to start his own business.

She touched his arm when he got back in the car. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Let’s get along.”

He gave her a hug: the familiar textures of scratchy cheek and the wool shirt that still smelled of cigarettes, even though he’d quit two months ago.

“Fish plant’s gone.” He started the car and made a U-turn. “The place is about eight miles back, on the right.”

They found the house -- two story, with peeling blue paint – and parked on the road beside a yard overgrown with weeds. The front porch of the house was shrouded in plastic.

“Deserted,” Lisa said. “I should have known.”

“We might as well have a look. Come on, sweetie. ”

She took his hand as they walked along the uneven stepping stones to the house.

There was no doorbell. Joel was about to knock when the door was yanked open by a white-haired woman holding a tall glass filled with what appeared to be Scotch. She was wearing an expensive- looking beige dress and dark lipstick, heavily and unevenly applied.

“Hello,” Lisa said. “We’re looking for Edward Belliveau?”

The woman glanced back and forth between them. “Dead for years,” she said, taking a sip of the drink.

“My wife is a Belliveau,” Joel said, “Her grandmother was Felice Belliveau – she attended the convent school in Meteghen. Have you heard of her? We’ve come all the way from North ....”

The woman clapped a hand over her mouth. Some of the drink sloshed onto the floor. She turned and shouted into the depths of the house. “Sylvie! Julianna! We have relations!”

Joel winked at Lisa. “What did I tell you?”

The woman turned back to Lisa, and pumped her hand. “Babette Watson, nee Belliveau. And you are?”

“Lisa -- Felicia – I was named for my grandmother. And this is my husband, Joel McClendon.”

“How perfectly extraordinary.” Babette pulled Lisa into the parlor. “Your grandmother Felice...” She put a bony finger on Lisa’s chest, “and my father Edouard...” She pointed to herself. “Cousins!” She swayed a little, and gulped at her drink.

Lisa held her breath as she took in the room: a horsehair sofa, two chairs covered in worn grey velvet, an upright piano. Her grandmother had played the piano. “Did Felice visit here?” she asked.

“Oh oui. On many occasions. With her poor mother.”

“Her mother? But she was an orphan. Her parents died at sea when she was a baby.”

“Sylvie, Julianna!” Babette started across the room, catching at furniture as she passed.

“ Maybe we’re at the wrong place,” Lisa said. Her excitement began to drain away.

“The old gal is just confused,” Joel said, “She’s drunk out of her gourd.”

Babette reappeared with another woman whom she introduced as her sister

Sylvie, “Also your cousin.” Sylvie was short and broad, with a damp forehead beneath frizzy hair. She had on a full-length white apron that was smeared with what looked like blood.

“This is the birth date of Sylvie’s daughter Julianna. Sweet sixteen! She would come to meet you but is very shy.”

“Are there other Belliveaus out this way?” Lisa asked. “I’m just wondering, if we have the right family.”

“Of course we’re the correct family. We’ll sort it out over dinner. You must stay for dinner. I am serving my master creation. We insist, don’t we, Sylvie?”

“Oh, oui.” Sylvie wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.

Babette attached herself to Joel’s arm. “You look like a man who wouldn’t mind a cocktail. Is this so?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said.

Lisa gave him a look, which he ignored. He’d promised her a sober trip.

“We must have champagne!” Sylvie said, and headed to the back of the house again.

“Please sit.” Babette waved Lisa and Joel toward the horsehair sofa. She poured Joel a Scotch from the small bar on a side table, refreshed her own drink, and perched on a chair near Joel. “What is your profession, may I ask?”

‘“I work for the state of North Carolina in wildlife management. I’m hoping to go on my own though, as a hunting and fishing guide.”

Babette leaned past Joel and gave Lisa’s arm a little pinch. “Tell me-- where did you find this gorgeous man? My husband was a handsome man, God rest his rotten soul.” She lifted her glass and drank.

“Do you have a family Bible?” Lisa said. “We might figure out the genealogy that way.”

“Bible?” Babette looked dubiously around the room. “Maybe so.”

“You know some family names don’t you, Lise?” Joel said. “Did your grandmother ever mention Edward?”

“I don’t remember an Edward. She did talk about her brother John.”

“John Belliveau!” Babette crowed. “An important man. He was my uncle.” She lifted her glass again. “A leading poet of Canada. Dead now, of course.” She stood, wobbling in her high- heeled shoes.

“I have a book of his poems!” Lisa said. “And Maud. -- Have you heard of Maud? That was her aunt.”

“Naughty Maudy! Ran off to Boston.” Babette sucked at her empty glass.

“With Felice? Maud was a dressmaker?”

Babette nodded. “Yes, you see? We are cousins, as I promised.” She said something in French, then staggered back toward the kitchen.

“The oracle is about to pass out,” Joel said.

“But this is it,” Lisa looked around the room again, at the platform rocker covered in striped fabric, a red fringed cloth on top of the piano, a cupboard glowing with amber glassware. Everything seemed more vivid, as if suddenly injected with color. “I guess this is really the place, then.”

“Of course it ‘s the place,” Joel said.

Lisa went to the piano, sounded a C major chord. The piano was out of tune and a musty odor arose from the keys. But she sat down and began to play the first two-handed song her Grandmother had taught her: “Our boat goes sailing, over the bay, we sing a song of springtime and May…”.

Babette entered the room with Sylvie, a young girl behind them. Sylvie was carrying a tray, on it a bottle of champagne and fluted glasses. “And here we have the birthday child, my niece Julianna. Say hello to your cousins, Julianna.” She gave Julianna a little push forward.

Lisa and Joel introduced themselves; Julianna stared, but said nothing. As Sylvie poured champagne Lisa kept glancing at the girl. With those washed-out blue eyes, hair so blond it was almost white, and skin the color of milk, she looked like a photograph she’d seen of her grandmother as a girl, a pale version of Felice.

An image of the clinic came to her: cold light slanting through the window, branches of trees casting shadows on the tile floor.

Babette, Sylvie and Julianna sat down; there were toasts to Julianna, and to newfound cousins.

Lisa brought out the photograph. “That’s the convent all right,” Babette said. Sylvie found a magnifying glass; she and Babette scrutinized the figures and pronounced them indecipherable.

“Please tell me about Felice and her mother,” Lisa said. “I’m confused.”

“Felice would be dead of course?” Babette said.

“Yes, she died when I was seventeen.”

“What took her, in the end?”

“A stroke.”

“Ah, a stroke.” Babette drank to that.

“But what about Felice’s mother? I thought she drowned. My grandmother said she drowned.”

“Drowned? No, perished in her sleep, poor lamb. When was it, Sylvie? Twenty, thirty years ago.”

“But my grandmother told me she’d died at sea -- her mother and father both drowned, she said. In the Bay of Fundy, on a ship. Marie and Phillipe Belliveau?”

“No, no. Phillipe ran off to the States and left Marie with the three children. Marie took two of them to Halifax with her -- she found a job in an office there -- and put Felice in the convent. Three was more than she could manage.”

“No – that’s not possible.” Lisa looked to Joel for confirmation; he lifted his shoulders in an elaborate shrug. “ Grandma always told the truth,” she said. She thought of her grandmother’s eyes, honest blue behind her rimless glasses. “Maybe she just thought they drowned.”

“No, I believe not,” Babette said. “The true situation was quite well known. And, as I said, her mother visited here with her on occasion.”

“Could that have been Maud?”

“Maud was in New Brunswick during those early years. Usually Felice would have come alone-- my father Edouard would deliver her from the convent in the surrey. She liked to skate on the pond across the road. Quite a graceful skater, they say.”

“You didn’t know her yourself?”

Babette shook her head, and covered her mouth as she hiccupped. “I’m younger than you might suppose. It’s not an easy life in the Maritimes, when your husband is a scoundrel. Don’t marry a scoundrel, dear – ah, but you haven’t, have you?” She leered at Joel. “Relations!” She raised her glass. “I must give you some of my pickles.”

“I think we’d best go see to the dinner.” Sylvie stood and took Babette’s elbow. Babette rose shakily.

“I’m afraid we’re imposing,” Lisa said.

“Non non,” Sylvie said, gesturing with her hand that she should remain on the sofa. “This is a royal occasion for us.”

“You must let us help, then,” Lisa said, but the women were already trooping toward the kitchen.

Joel lit a cigarette.

“I thought you’d quit,” she said. “Drinking, too.”

He bent down to peer out the window. “Nice pond over there. Maybe they’d let me wet a hook.”

“Her parents didn’t drown,” she said. “I can hardly believe it.”

“You sound so tragic,” Joel said. “Drowning would be a bummer, wouldn’t it?”

Lisa rubbed her palms against the horsehair sofa, a miserable, punishing texture. Perhaps her grandmother had sat here doing the same. She would have been lonely and frightened. Abandoned. Lisa held perfectly still. Unwanted, dumped in a convent. She would have been ashamed of that. So she’d invented the story about her parents’ drowning: it made sense.

Sylvie called them to the dining room. The table was elaborately set, a lace tablecloth, crystal goblets, ornate, tarnished silverware. Sylvie sat at the head of the table, with Lisa and Joel on one side, and Babette and Julianna on the other. Babette’s masterpiece was an enormous cauliflower she’d grown herself. Covered with a curdled looking cheese sauce, it lay in a large serving platter in the middle of the table. The smell of the cauliflower turned Lisa’s stomach. There were other bowls of vegetables -- peas, onions, turnips, squash -- and a basket of rolls. Sylvie apologized for the absence of meat.

“There was a bit of meat,” Babette said. “But I spoiled it.”

“No you didn’t, dear,” Sylvie said.

“Yes I did, I quite quite spoiled it.” She reached for a drink. There was nothing but water. Sylvie must have hidden the Scotch, Lisa thought. She was relieved to see there was no wine either.

Sylvie cut the cauliflower into sections with a cake knife. She passed the first plate to Lisa, on it a huge wedge of cauliflower. It looked like a section of brain. She put other vegetables on her plate as they came around, took a bite of peas.

There was silence as they began to eat. Lisa had the feeling that the women regretted having invited them.

“It’s so kind of you to have us,” Lisa said. “To be where my grandmother was -- she must have eaten in this dining room many times.”

“I would think so,” Sylvie said. She patted the surface of the table. Silence fell again.

“Felice was a strong woman,” Lisa said. “Quite independent. In her young days she was a dressmaker, a modiste like Maud. She had her own shop in Boston until she got married. She could make anything – even my grandfather’s suits.” She turned to Joel. “Joel, did I ever tell you about the suit she made for my birthday one year? It was lavender, with a velvet collar – very grown up.”

“Yes honey, I believe you did. I’m sure you looked beautiful in it.”

“She taught me to play the piano too. I played for her on that birthday – a Chopin etude. I was your age, Julianna.”

Julianna ducked her head. Sylvie murmured a pleasantry, then there was nothing but the sound of cutlery against plates. “One of my grandmother’s favorite stories,” Lisa went on desperately, “ was about a tongueless man who lived near the convent. Do you remember hearing about him?” She looked at Babette, then Sylvie.

“A man with no tongue?” Sylvie said, taking a bite of cauliflower.

“A shipwreck survivor. Grandma said he was famous in Meteghen and people came from miles around to see him.”

“That would be Jacques,” Babette said. “But my dear, he wasn’t tongueless, was he, Sylvie?”

Sylvie shook her head. “He had a tongue all right. Just no arms or legs.”

“His tongue was quite intact,” Babette said. “But he never spoke. That was the thing -- he never told his story.”

“Grandma told some whoppers,” Joel said.

“Don’t that say -- whoppers,” Lisa snapped. “She was protecting herself from the truth.”

“How would that explain the tongueless man?” Joel asked.

“I think Grandma had an off -color mind,” Babette said.

“What do you mean?” Lisa said.

Babette flicked her tongue rapidly in and out of her mouth.

“Babette!” Sylvie said. “Mr. McClendon, may I offer you more cauliflower?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He handed his plate across Lisa to Sylvie.

“Do the lovebirds have any chicks?” Babette said, her eyes darting between Lisa and Joel.

Lisa felt a hot spike down her spine. “No,” she said.

“Ah, quel dommage. I hope you’re not infertile. That was my trouble.”

“Ssh!” Sylvie said, giving her sister a look. She cut a big wedge of the cauliflower, put it on Joel’s plate, and handed it to Lisa.

Lisa looked at the grayish white mass on the plate, feeling that she might be sick. Everything was wrong.

“Babette, you’re as fertile as a stone, he used to say.” Babette waved her fork in the air. “So that was the reason, I suppose, that he felt free to take his seed to more promising ground.”

“Stop it,” Lisa said.

“Lisa!” Joel reached for her arm.

She shook him off. “Why is it only your timing that matters? What about mine? I’m thirty four.”

“It was a mutual decision,” he said.

“Not all that mutual.”

“Perhaps I should excuse myself.” Babettte stood, wavering. Then she crumpled.

Her hand hit the table, knocking over a glass of water, and she fell into the chair, her head

bent forward.

Sylvie quickly picked up the glass and slid a napkin under the tablecloth to catch the spill. “If you could perhaps....” She looked at Joel. He was already out of his chair. The two of them carried Babette into the living room. Lisa could hear the sound of Sylvie’s murmuring voice.

At the clinic, she’d had a long wait, by herself. She could have gotten up and walked out. There had been that impulse.

Joel came back into the room. “Out like a light,” he said in a low voice. “But she’ll be okay once she sleeps it off.”

Sylvie came in soon after, carrying the cake. There were no candles, and apparently no gifts. Sylvie wiped the cauliflower off the cake knife with her apron and cut the cake with it.

They ate hurriedly. The icing was so sweet it made Lisa dizzy. She mashed the last bit of cake with her fork. The china was delicate, almost translucent, with tiny pink flowers around the scalloped border. It had been a girl, she’d known that somehow.

Sylvie and Joel were talking about their staying the night. “You really must,” Sylvie said. “If Babette should wake in the morning and find you gone she’ll be quite mortified. And angry with her sister. I’ll make up the guest room.”

“Maybe you wouldn’t mind, then,” Joel said, “if I tried out your pond?”

Sylvie looked puzzled.

“He wants to go fishing,” Lisa said. “He’s a fishing fool,” she added, in a voice just loud enough for him to hear.

“Oh, please please. You know your grandmother skated on that pond,” she said,

looking at Lisa.

“Yes, Babette mentioned that.”

“They say she could do a figure eight, and all those fancy things.”

“You must let us help you clean up,” Lisa said.

“I do best on my own in the kitchen. Julianna and I will quickly tidy up.”

Lisa and Joel walked through the living room. Babette lay snoring on the couch beneath an afghan, her mouth open, one foot just touching the floor. It struck Lisa that except for the drinking Babette resembled her mother.

They went out, stopping at the car for Joel to get his fishing gear. “I know there are bream in that water,” he said. “I can smell them from here.” He found some bream flies, put his hat on, and they crossed the road to the pond.

It was almost twilight. Even so, the dark surface of the pond reflected the shapes of trees around it. Joel cast out with an expert flick of his wrist. The long graceful whip of line uncoiled above the water, then settled.

Lisa breathed in the fragrances of pine and fresh water. There was the sound of a night bird, a soft, fluttery call. This place had the mystery of origins, she told herself; she was descended from this place. If she’d had a daughter, she would have brought her here.

But she didn’t have a daughter. She hugged herself, shivering. It was pathetic, trying to replace the present with the past. A fabricated past, at that.

Joel came to stand behind her. He put both arms around her and kissed the back of her neck. He reeled in the line, then cast it out again over her head.

“Do you ever think of our baby?” she said.

“ It wasn’t a baby yet.”

“It should have been.”

“It’s always my fault.”

“I’m not talking about you.” She ducked from beneath his arms, and stepped

out of her shorts.

“Hey, Lise, what the….”

She kicked off her sandals, stripped off her shirt and underwear. The air slid across her like cool silk. “I’m going swimming,” she said, and waded in.

He whistled. “Now that’s what I call a birthday suit.”

The water was shockingly cold. Her feet went numb and the chill climbed her legs. She’d had a spinal anesthetic for the abortion.

“Hey,” Joel said. “Aren’t you going in? You’re going to freeze your fanny off, just standing there.”

The chill rose up her back as she waded further out, up to her thighs. She ducked down to immerse herself up to the neck. The frigid water defined her body; she could sense its shape, a warm thing fixed in ice.

She stood and plunged forward. The water was so dark she couldn’t see the

bottom. She surfaced and started swimming, kicking and pulling hard to get her blood moving, then turned over and floated, looking up at the pale sky. Joel was shouting something at her from what seemed a great distance.

She lay motionless in the cold water, her arms and legs going heavy as she imagined Felice on the frozen pond in her skating costume, her skirt belling out as she executed a figure eight, the sharp blades of her grandmother’s skates slicing across the place where her body now lay.

The Chicago Tribune: Printers Row

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