Sheila McClarty

Flag Girl

Sheila McClarty

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     The three of us carpooled to our treatments, an arrangement orchestrated by one of the radiation nurses. She discovered our addresses were from the same area of the city and she must have thought, isn’t that a great coincidence what these women have in common - cancer and geographical proximity.  For some reason people believe all cancer patients are soul mates. Not unlike vacationing in some faraway country, meeting another Canadian who has a friend living in your city and they think of course you know them, Oh, so and so lives in Winnipeg, you must know them? Like, I know all seven-hundred-thousand people in my city. Fuck me. 

     But I am digressing. It appears now to be a characteristic of my thinking process. The doctors warn you that your head might be a bit fuzzy for a while and not to worry. Whatever the reason, I can’t keep on topic. The point was I would never have chosen Cassandra and Anika as friends, not even acquaintances. And you can bet your sweet ass, I would be the last person on their guest lists. Regardless, I was crammed into the backseat of Cassandra’s old car, riding bitch, on her insistence, because both seatbelts on the window sides were broken. And God forbid we might get rear-ended and I would be hurt and rushed to the hospital. Laughable, considering.

     We were on the way home from radiation treatment. Rush hour traffic was bumper to bumper. Our treatment only lasted a few minutes, but the travelling time often took an hour each way. Cassandra and Anika were discussing what they should prepare for dinner. Cassandra was a single mother with three bottomless pit teenage boys. Anika had no children, just a husband, Paul, the love of her life. Puke. 

     One good thing, I was on my own and didn’t have to worry about other peoples’ appetites. My boyfriend, Ron, would start dreaming about dinner right after he finished eating lunch. Wait a minute, I should have said, my ex-boyfriend. I gave Ron the boot six months ago. He was always going on about how my anger was eating the two of us alive. What did he expect . . . I would be the same jovial (a stretch) person I was before cancer. Easy for him to talk, he wasn’t the one having his body parts hacked off or his hair falling into a small-animal shape clump in the bathroom sink right after vomiting his guts out into the toilet. Besides if he really wanted to stay, why did he leave so fast? Forget about all his sappy phone messages and texts asking for reconciliation. Actions speak louder than words. 

     All of the food talk coming from the front seat was making me nauseated. A bitter metallic taste permeated my mouth. I leaned my head on the back of the seat, raised my arm to eye level and studied the butterfly tattoo on the inside of my forearm. The poor creature looked dehydrated, mauve wings puckered and wrinkled. I was so unlike a butterfly it was laughable. I had chosen the tattoo when I first met Ron; a pathetic attempt to show him underneath my regulation hard hat and fluorescent overalls there was a smidgen of femininity. Ron worked on the asphalt crew for the Department of Highways and I was the oldest flag girl in the history of the organization. Weird, calling a forty-year-old woman a flag girl, but I was proud of it and my boss can screw himself if he thinks I will accept his offer of a desk job at the end of my sick leave. 

     I traced my finger along the perimeter of the butterfly’s wings as if it would bring it back to life. A shiver ran through my body. Ron used to trace his finger along my tattoo, usually after sex. The first time Ron saw my tattoo, I had blurted out the reason for choosing a butterfly. He had pressed his forehead into mine, confessed his attraction was to my strength and ability to hold my own around a crew of men. Then he had kissed my tattoo, and whispered, I love you, my sweet crazy bitch. It became his endearment to me, not one most women would appreciate, but it suited me just fine. I turned my arm over. What was the point wallowing over some stupid tattoo I had had for nine years?

     The car jolted to a stop. Cassandra wasn’t very good at driving stick shift. She was driving her son’s beater because her car was in the repair shop. I had offered to use my truck, but both women insisted the old car would do for one day. I don’t think they liked being crammed on the bench seat of my truck.  After treatment we all yearned for a little space, some circulating air around us. We’d been nothing but bodies laid out on a tray under huge machines, we needed now to re-establish ourselves as women and that meant, strangely, not being pushed up against each other. Although none of us ever complained. It was an unspoken rule of our small club. No complaining. No talking about the pain we had endured after surgery or during chemotherapy and radiation treatments, no talking about the fear, which like a third eye followed our every move. Hey, our club should have a name. What club exists without a name? Names started to run through my head - Bust Bandits, Chemo-savvy, Rad Riders - while from the front seats the conversation was low fat and antioxidants, turmeric and green tea. Maybe we should have an emblem?  Have initiation rites, what the hell, why not motorcycles too, one headlight. What could be better?

     The traffic light turned green. The car hopped and stalled. A horn sounded behind us. Cassandra looked in the rear mirror, waved and mouthed the word, sorry. I turned and looked out the back window, a dark-haired man wearing wraparound sunglasses and driving a luxury car raised his shoulders and shook his head from side to side. The type of prick, I encountered over and over on my job, always in a hurry, convinced their lives were more important than everyone else’s. I flipped him the finger. The horn sounded again. Cassandra’s voice crackled with more apologies as she fiddled with the gear shift.  The clutch wasn’t fully engaged, but I didn’t say anything. Cassandra didn’t need her mistakes pointed out to her.  The luxury car inched into the passing lane and for a moment was right beside our car. Anika waved tentatively and mumbled sorry to the glaring driver. What? I shook my head. The niceness of those two in the front seat infuriated me. Maybe being too nice caused cancer and I was the anomaly.  If there was a God and I somehow accidentally made it to heaven, I would suggest a policy review.  Our car finally lunged forward. Bravo, Cassandra.

     For another city block, Cassandra and Anika discussed their respective menus. Finally, a decision was made, yellow chicken curry for Anika’s beloved and macaroni and cheese for Cassandra’s brats. I would be eating leftover lasagna from last night and watching movies on the couch until I fell asleep. After Ron’s departure, I stopped watching the sports channels and switched to romantic comedies, a genre I had shunned and ridiculed in the past. On tonight’s agenda was Love Actually, but I would probably end up watching, The Notebook, again. I couldn’t resist Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.

     Anika’s cell phone rang. She reached into her purse, retrieved her phone and said, hello. Anika was so pretty, alabaster skin, moss-green eyes, even her black wig was perfection, shiny and sleek.  She looked ten years younger than her age, more like a thirty-five-year-old than a forty-five. She started telling her husband the plan for dinner. Her voice was sweet and she enunciated each word clearly and carefully as if speaking to her kindergarten class. After a few minutes, she dropped her voice and I couldn’t make out her words. 

     Anika put her phone back in her purse and stared out the window. I wondered if there was something bothering her. After a few blocks, she asked Cassandra if she would mind stopping at the grocery store. Anika explained that Paul preferred green curry and she only had yellow curry paste at home.  Cassandra insisted it was no problem and in fact she wanted to buy a bottle of water. I sat quietly in the backseat and stewed over Anika’s husband’s inconsideration, didn’t he realize his wife was tired and didn’t need extra demands placed on her at this time? What a jerk.

     In the front seat the topic switched to children. Cassandra spoke about her sons and Anika talked about her kindergarten students. Now there was a topic for which I had nothing to say. Not a maternal bone in my body, Ron and I never even considered children. We both worked long hours and enjoyed our freedom on our days off. I wondered why Anika never had children of her own. She was so crazy about her kindergarten students.  It was none of my business, so I wasn’t about to ask. Maybe Paul was shooting blanks, for all I knew.

     The five o’clock news came on the car radio. I was sick of information radio. I wanted a good dose of country music. And if as by magic, Cassandra leaned forward and switched the radio station. The song, Radioactive was playing. What a joke. 


     We walked into the produce section and stopped at the strawberries. The scent of the berries made me more nauseous, which accentuated the taste of metal in my mouth. I left and walked several aisles over to the green grapes. In my peripheral vision, I saw a store employee hovering over the butter lettuce. He kept looking up and staring at me. Every detail of his presentation was shiny, sparkly white shirt and pants, not a hair out of place, an overall shellacked look. Never seen a bald head before, asshole, I thought.

     I don’t even like green grapes but something about their colour and shape enticed me. I picked one off a bunch and popped it in my mouth. The sweetness, almost honey flavoured, masked the bitter taste in my mouth. I plucked off another one and ate it. I would buy this bunch of grapes and eat them during my movie tonight. Something to look forward to. 

     Coming down the aisle toward me was a little girl pushing a kid-size shopping cart. Her mother trailed behind her, reading out loud from a shopping list. The daughter’s job was to retrieve the item and place it in the cart. She went over to the cantaloupes and with some awkwardness lifted one and dropped it into the cart. Even I had to admit the kid was cute. I took another grape and rolled it around in my mouth. The little girl pushed the cart full tilt down the aisle toward me. She stopped, dropped the handle of the cart, stared at me, turned quickly and ran back to her mother. She tugged on her mother’s pant leg, pointed at me, and then hid her face into her mother’s leg. What did the kid think? That I was some freak, the monster from under her bed. The mother bent down and whispered in her daughter’s ear. I bit down hard on the grape, juice splattered inside my mouth. I reached to the dispenser for a bag to put the bunch of grapes inside. It was empty so I walked over to the other aisle and ripped a bag from the dispenser. When I looked up, the small shopping cart was parked at the grapes and the kid was reaching for my bunch of grapes. Her mother went over, grabbed her hand away from the grapes and looked at the store employee. He raced over and removed my bunch of grapes from the shelf as if they were contaminated.  I looked directly at him and mouthed the words, screw you. If it wasn’t for the kid, I would have blasted him and the ignorant mother. I dropped the plastic bag. Cassandra’s wig, a mass of platinum blonde curls was turning down the drink aisle. I hurried to catch up. 

     Anika and Cassandra were standing in front of the drink cooler. I stood behind and counted inside of my head. There was no point in telling them about the grape fiasco. They would probably think I should apologize and why didn’t I wear a wig. I had a host of reasons, too itchy, slips around, blah, blah. I didn’t want to… that is why.

     Cassandra removed a bottle of water. Her hand was trembling. Anika took the water bottle from Cassandra’s hand and told her she should drink something sweet as her blood sugar was probably dropping. Anika reached for a bottle of coke. She unscrewed the lid and handed it to Cassandra.  Cassandra tilted back her head and drank down half of the bottle. Behind us, someone cleared their throat. We all turned to the sound. It was the store employee from the grape section. Immediately, Cassandra started to apologize for drinking the coke before paying. What? Get serious. My insides crackled. It was like gasoline poured onto a smouldering fire. I was so damned sick of being burnt. My thoughts raged and words, mixed in with a mist of spit, fired out of my mouth at the store employee. I couldn’t discern between my thoughts and the words erupting from me. Anika kept interrupting and apologizing for me. Finally, Cassandra grabbed me by the sleeve and tugged me away from the employee. 

     My blood pulsed against the vessel walls of my temples. Both Cassandra and Anika were telling me to take a deep breath and relax. I told them about the grapes. My temper reigned and without thinking, I called them apologetic cowards and said I would meet them back at the car after I got even with the store employee.They stood there with bewildered expressions on their face. What was I going to do?  I turned away from them and walked quickly down the frozen food aisle. 

     I hurried through the dairy products and around the corner to the meat section. I grabbed a package of chicken and tucked it into my blouse. The package slipped neatly into the void on my left side and the coolness soothed my raw skin.I ran down the sauce aisle, through the junk food and broke out into the produce section.

     The employee was stationed at his butter lettuce post, diligently on guard for bald grape stealers. I glared at him, tugged the corner of the chicken package up out of my blouse to taunt him and continued running. After a few strides, I sensed him following behind me. Anika and Cassandra were standing at the exit door. When they saw me, they turned and rushed out of the store. I dodged an elderly couple filling a bag with oranges and around a display of mangoes on sale. Behind me the footsteps sounded closer. I picked up my pace, dashing by racks of freshly baked bread and shelves of cookies and muffins toward the door. The employee was breathing hard and gaining on me.

     I stepped on the rubber mat and the automatic doors opened. Cassandra’s car squealed to a stop in front of me. The back passenger door flung open and I jumped in and slammed it shut. Cassandra accelerated. The employee ground to a halt where the store sidewalk met the parking lot, as if he was a chained dog and had run full tilt into the end of his tether. Cassandra gave him the horn. Through the rear window, I watched the employee turn and walk back into the store.  We had won.  Cassandra made a sharp right and sped down the street. I told Cassandra to take it easy, we were safe, the employee wasn’t on our tail. And then the three of us started to laugh, deep uncontrollable laughter, like waves we couldn’t hold back.

     After several more blocks, Cassandra turned into a back lane and stopped the car. Both she and Anika swung around and faced me. “I’ve never driven a getaway car.” Cassandra’s face was flushed, a healthy pink colour. “It was exhilarating.”

     “So much fun,” Anika said, slowly shaking her head from side to side as if in disbelief.

     “Thanks for rescuing me.”

     “What did you do to make him chase you?” Anika asked.


     “What did you steal?” they asked in unison. 

     I squeezed into the space between the two front seats and removed the package from underneath my blouse and waved it under their noses.

     “Chicken breasts!”

     My cheeks burned. Shit. What had I done? You didn’t have to be a psychiatrist to understand why I had stolen three boneless chicken breasts. I didn’t know what to say. The car was silent. Had I ruined everything? Cassandra and Anika started to laugh and it was like a taut balloon bursting inside the car. They nearly dragged me right into the front seat, our arms around each other, our foreheads pressed together, our bodies shaking with mirth.

     We stood in Cassandra’s driveway. It was Friday and we would not see each other until Monday morning.  For the first time, I didn’t want to leave right away. Cassandra and Anika seemed to feel the same way because each time one of us made a move to leave another one would recount some small detail about my hoist. It wasn’t until Cassandra’s sons opened the front door and called out to her that we began to depart in earnest. We hugged each other goodbye, something we had never done before.

     I sat in the cab of my truck and watched Cassandra walk into the house and Anika get into her car.  The package of chicken was on the bench seat beside me. I should have offered it to Anika. She could have used it for her curry dish. I considered chasing after her, but when I looked up her car was out of sight. Paul probably insisted on thighs, anyways. I didn’t have a bag for the chicken; it was a downfall of theft. Luckily, my work knapsack was in the truck. I reached behind the passenger seat, grabbed my knapsack, unzipped it and placed the chicken breasts inside the outside flap. 

     I started the engine and pulled away from the curb. The thought of going home to an empty house filled me with dread. I had a few hours of energy before the post-radiation fatigue, heavy as an iron blanket, would flatten me on the couch in front of my television, so I decided to drive down to the river and relax on the bank for a while, like Ron and I used to. We would come home from work, shower, and grab a few beers to drink on the riverbank while we watched the sun set.

     I parked my truck and slung my knapsack over my shoulder. I cut down the narrow path leading to the river. No one else was around and I was grateful. I sat down on the bank and wished I had a beer with me. Two mallards floated close to the shore. The river was unusually calm, dark and still. 

     I reached into my bag and pulled out the tray of chicken breasts. I wondered what Anika and Cassandra were doing right now. I pressed my thumb against the cellophane and felt the yielding flesh. Without any warning, I started to cry. Deep, wracking sobs, my ribs heaving and snot mixing with my tears. I missed my breast. Where had it gone, into some incinerator or sealed garbage can marked toxic waste? Our breasts, Anika, Cassandra and mine, deserved better, they were a part of us, our bodies. 

     The mallards lifted from the water. With my forearm, I wiped the snot and tears from my face. I stood up and headed back to my truck for the shovel stored behind my front seat. It was one of those emergency shovels which folded in half. Last winter, Ron had bought it for me. He was always worrying I would get my truck stuck in the middle of nowhere and have nothing to shovel it out with.

     I walked down the bank to the exact spot where Ron and I would sit and drink our beers. We used to say this was where we wanted our ashes spread after we died. It was easier, then, to talk about death when it seemed so impossible. I unfolded the shovel, placed the point of the blade into the ground, and with my foot pushed it down.

     The dry earth gave easily away to the blade, occasionally exposing batches of small stones.  I picked out the stones, shook the dirt off each one and placed them into a pile. When the hole was deep enough, I knelt down and lifted a handful of the fresh earth to my nose and inhaled the woodsy scent. 

     I removed the breasts from the package and placed them gently one by one, side by side, on the floor of the small grave. I stood up and shoveled all of the earth around the grave back into it.  When it was full, I patted the soil down firmly with the palms of my hand. I placed the stones in a circle around the perimeter and then formed a triangle of three smaller stones in the center, one for Cassandra, one for Anika and one for me. For a moment, I closed my eyes and remembered the three of us inside the car hugging and talking about our shoplifting adventure. For that small space of time, we had forgotten about the cancer that had drawn us together in the first place. No small feat.

     I heard voices, people were coming down to the river, but that was okay, I was ready to leave. I stuffed the empty tray and cellophane into my bag and stood up. 

     Ron’s car wasn’t in his driveway, but the garage door was closed so it could have been inside. I walked up the steps of the front porch. An empty case of beer and a lawn chair were on the landing.  The living room curtains were open and a lopsided picture hung above the couch. I stood on my tiptoes and looked through the window of the door. The hallway was dark and shadowed. I pressed the doorbell. 

     In my mind, I rehearsed Anika, Cassandra and my story to tell to Ron if he appeared. He would get a kick out of it, a good chuckle.  I wouldn’t tell him about burying the breasts, not now at least. For the time being, that story belonged only to me. 

     After a few more minutes, I knocked. If this was one of my chick flicks, the leading man would burst through the door and wrap his arms around me. Except this wasn’t a movie. This was my life and I was standing alone on a porch beside an empty case of beer. 

     I sat down on the lawn chair. I would wait. Sooner or later, Ron would come home.

Sheila McClarty

Sheila McClarty of Oakbank, Manitoba, Canada has had her short fiction appear in Grain, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead, Crannog and Carter V. Cooper anthology. Her collection of short stories, High Speed Crow (Oberon Press), won the 2011 Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for best first book by a Manitoba author. Sheila is a graduate of The Humber School for Writers.