Iris wakes clutching her dead cellphone in an outstretched hand. Her arm has grown heavy and numb. She has to lift and shake it with her other hand to revive circulation.
It is insensate from the pressure of being her arm.
She had folded herself into the recovery position on the couch with her full weight upon the one free texting hand. She is wearing a coat and boots, apparently intent on going somewhere. She remembers. She had been upset. Been drinking through the storm. This had all been bad enough before he had come over. He had not been drunk of course.
He is almost never drunk when she is drunk.
Like the first time. Iris had been drinking cheap wine and sketching moose at home. It was a Wednesday evening. There had been no romantic lead-up to the encounter on that particular day. In fact, Iris had been weaning herself from her phone. There was a new guy a work who made her laugh and so she got to thinking that things could change if she changed them.
This night was back when Iris still believed men and women could just be friends.
She was busy being herself in her apartment. Listening to Destroyer records. Eating handfuls of dates from the open fridge. Sticky fingertips upon her brushes. Slow deliberate strokes. More dates. Another glass of Beaujolais. Fingerprints on vinyl. Antlers are tricky. They refuse to reveal themselves. But Iris was certain they would be hers. She was willing herself to see some pattern in her practice. She would keep after it into the night. This was her whole plan. And then . . .
I like smoking with you.
The little box on her phone told her and she smiled, of course. It is a statement meant for smiling. The intention is to curl a lip and maybe a toe or two, and Iris’s lips and toes were still capable of curling then.
We could smoke cigarettes together in the snow.
She should have said no. She had drunk a bottle of red on a half-empty stomach and she should have said no. That night and every night that followed. Last night, too. But Iris didn’t want to seem shy or shitty or a silly girl. And he was so tall. Handsome. Smart. She had been, what was it, hopeful.
Though that hope is waning now.
She pulls herself from the sofa and lugs herself to the bathroom sink. The mirror. Soft pods of flesh hang from her sockets. Sobbing accelerates signs of ageing. Yesterday ticked off brutal behind her capillaries. She splashes cold water from the tap on her face and reads last night’s opus while brushing her teeth. The insides of her thighs hurt and she vaguely remembers having sex. He had kept his shirt on. They had not gotten in the blankets. She had quiet cried after lying on top of the duvet. Before his phone sounded from his inside breast coat pocket. That muffled urgent notification signalling the night would turn sour. Even more sour. For Iris anyway.
And then there was yelling. She remembers clearly the yelling. Hands clenching the back of his coat from the floor after falling over wet footwear in the doorway. The deep shame of begging mixed with savage determination. Slapping her palms against the double pane as she watched him plough himself out of her driveway, rocking back and forth with the urgency of a caught animal in a shakeable cage.
In and out of her in less than an hour.
That’s fucking shocking even for you, she messaged in an attempt to maim him.
The messages she sent in the throes of her bender are actually quite impressive given her level of intoxication. Anger trumps everything. Even alcohol poisoning. Anger and desperation are twin crutches holding Iris up, and she is half grateful for even this unsustainable support.
Iris has seen grown women brought to their knees.
She too has been grounded in a slow miserable stagger. Suddenly scared and embarrassed when upright women attempt to assist her by pulling at her armpits, tugging at her damp hood, wiping back mangy fur-trim slick with puke against her wet face, to help her, they say. The erect urging a crumbling Iris to place her weight on them. The upstanding, having not a clue about the heft of their request, will email each other about the great horrible heaviness of her months later.
Their hurt for having borne her weight momentarily has been determined far greater than her hurt for having carried it nearly three decades.
They don’t have a clue.
They’ve degrees in Earth Science and black-and-white photos of ancestors ages passed. They’ve been, for the most part, happy in a vertical world and hardly ever worried about accidental death. When they drink to drunkenness, it is in celebration; there is liveliness and bear-hugging and smoked salmon and chips.
Their faces hurt for very different reasons.
It would take them by great surprise to discover another quality of living. Their sweet brows, a deep furrow of concern and disbelief, as Iris labours to right herself so as to unburden them.
And like all buckled women, Iris is keenly aware that the shiny women are making themselves feel better for a time by helping her sickly self up when they’ve no real intention to give up their happy access to address the sleek slope that harms her.
Iris knows well enough.
She straddles shiny and sickly every day. Her mother is both, though never at the same time and never believably. Not like our Iris. It boggles Joanne’s fucking mind how fluidly her best friend transitions from one to the other. The light and dark meat of her constantly on offer for those who aim to feast at the buffet.
Men. Men mostly. Mind you, straight men rarely slow to help her up.
The occasional homosexual will have sympathy enough to stop and steady Iris, but rarely straight men. Her stooped nature is a temptation that offends them when forced to face the conditions they’ve created in the wide open. Collateral damage consisting of women and children and dogs. The elderly. The ill.
Iris has overheard scientists discussing intergenerational trauma over lunch.
Shared memory, a kind of genetic recall of shame and hurt.
ACEs, they called them. Adverse Childhood Experiences.
Iris has a pocket full of ACEs.
Teachers always spoke to her in pitiful tones and never called home when a lunch was mislaid, assuming there was no food or no one awake to pack it. Doctors offered birth control to her while she was still in a training bra to curb what was expected of her scrawny body, claiming blemishes were of concern while facing a clear complexion. Meanwhile, dentists with rum on their twisted tongues urged older folk for full clearance, implying Iris’s kin could not afford even the teeth in their heads.
There had never been an expectation of forefathers and there remains no expectation now.
Iris was meant to want nothing, demand less, not more. Her father’s absence laying well the groundwork for the first one and then the next one and then John.
He had told her in honest afterglow that they were not even half a thing.
Not even half a thing, ringing on repeat in her head. One foot in front of the other through the slush on the downgrade toward The Hazel.
Not even half of something.
She has learned to abuse herself in a misguided attempt at thwarting expectation.
You don’t deserve any better.
But very deep inside her body a tiny voice whispers into soft cupped hands . . .
. . . but you do.
Iris needs to get her paycheque and pay her phone bill before they disconnect her. She is determined to stay the course. She hauls the snarl of tangled dark hair from her eyes as she passes houses where she once attended parties. Iris used to be invited and beloved. But she can’t bear to make eye contact with anyone anymore. Every party ends in tears. They will hate her for what she has done. What he has convinced her to do. She harshly counts and recounts her sins. Iris feels poorly.
Though riches, emotional and otherwise, have always made her uneasy.
Sure, even when she has money in her wallet a pervasive impoverishment runs through her. She can’t get rid of it fast enough. It feels stolen. Not meant for her. She thinks someone will take it back. Or worse yet, call her out for being so bold as to expect to ever have money on her person. Who does she think she is? The Queen? No sir. Not Iris.
She played pretend-poorer as a child to lessen the bleakness by comparison. Her Fisher-Price dolls lived on farms far away from any ocean, this being the bleakest thing she could think up as a child. Feeding pigs. Harvesting grain. The thought of such dry vastness made the baygirl scratch an imaginary itch. She has always feared the great plains. She wouldn’t make much of a farmer. Nothing fit to eat would grow. Gnarly vegetables. Self-disgust. And failure.
But baygirls make great waitresses.
They’ve the ideal upbringing for the whole undertaking. Efficiency bred out of necessity centuries ago, refined by capital and industry. Taking too long resulting in sickness and/or death.
Iris had better manage this time, it’s the only time she’ll get. Before she dies dead. Sure, she won’t mind doing all of this. What with all her free time.
Young ones got a lot of time on their hands. That one over there. No youngsters or nothing. Still don’t know how to relax.
Relax! What a waste of time, which is money Iris needs for food to live. Because she’s hungry. So fucking hungry. But she’s not to eat. Don’t dare drop an extra drop in.
That is not for you, girl.
Let the men sit down first. Give your father the biggest pork chop if he’s home.
Eat potato if you’re starved. There are crackers in the cupboard. Iris will have the garden salad. No. A water. No. A steak. No. Nothing for her, thanks.
Because she’s been so bad lately. Iris had been so bad. Is. So. Bad.
Her bread is mixed with molasses and guilt. Good women never eat more than a sliver.
Even if they’ve had so little. Nothin this whole time. Empty sure.
Iris has had to suck a peppermint knob and contempt to sustain herself.
Look’ve her, luh. Tits on that. Useless, useless as tits on a bull.
Hey misses! Hey girl! Hey Iris! Smile sure while you’re at it.
Would it kill Iris to smile while she hands them their food?
Put on a dress, look pretty, eat nothing, have no feelings, never complain. What else can Iris do?
Mississauga is calling. Welcome to the National Student Loan Service Centre —
Ring! Ring! When her phone is actually connected.
The government wants their money back now!
Newfoundland has run out of fish/wood/oil and patience, again. Where did it all go?
Spent on coke and hookers no doubt.
Iris robs light bulbs from the living room to brighten the bathroom. It’s that or pissing in the dark.
Men yell at her from their massive trucks to get out of the jesus road.
Are you stupid, girl? Are you? Stupid!
She could talk back but has been socialized against it.
Instead, Iris sneezes into her sleeve as she sidesteps snow boulders pushed into her way. Sidewalks are for better people, she thinks, as she once again steps onto the slushy street to speed along the journey. Her gratitude for proper winter footwear swells despite her boots being purchased as an act of penance.
Not that boots could ever make up for ruining her life.
Iris dodges a side-view mirror which lies dormant after being snapped from a parked car by a snow-clearing crew full of contempt. Gashes of green municipal vehicle paint tag the driver’s side of a dozen cars clinging to the crusty curb. But Iris cannot be dissuaded.
Her hangover has legs.
There’s a clarity of purpose in its stride. A well-directed hangover, when gainfully rehearsed, will put the fear of god into those who have undone you. Iris can feel her filter falling away with each step. Sliding right off the back of her. What is left is a kind of self-preservation that would shock evolution into sitting up straight. Every man who has ever loved her has attempted to acclimatize themselves to this morning state of her, but no good will come of that.
She won’t have it.
Iris, like every lady drinker before her, steels herself against it. It would be better, gentle man, to not have behaved like a manipulative prick from go. Iris will not feign innocence or blame the universe. The universe does not care for her atrocious decisions.
Excerpted from Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club
Copyright © 2019 by Megan Gail Coles. Reproduced by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher. www.houseofanansi.com