Opulence and Gravy
BY Heidi Wicks
From under the Plexiglas dome inside The Hotel Newfoundland, the outside sky is a navy velvet blanket bedazzled with stars.
The Courtyard, an ecosphere bursting with a bouquet of chlorine and tanning-bed-toasted skin, is a man-made oasis, tucked inside from whatever fresh hell threatens from beyond the hotel walls. They could be anywhere – Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver – that’s the thing about hotels.
An umbrella of artificial elms so-called sprouts from between cement-tiled floors, the summer-green leaves dewy with soft white twinkle lights. The girls wear sleeveless, floor-length gowns made of silk and satin back crepe. With leg slits.
The boys wear tuxedos – most of them black, a few of them white, one or two rogue-cool guys with colours to match their dates’ dresses. Every guy wears a matching corsage from Allandale Nurseries in Churchill Square. It had to be from there, the girls said, or it was no good.
The helicopter view on The Courtyard is a sea of pastels and jewel tones – baby blue, royal blue. Bright red, pale peach. Emerald green, hospital-wall green. The girls’ toenails match their dresses. A fanned-out card deck of wrist corsages laid over the shoulders of the girl next door, smiling into the camera flashes like they’re at a Hollywood premiere.
“It’s friggin’ ridiculous is what it is.”
Caitlyn’s father is appalled.
“Here we are, a province poor as anything, and they’re lettin’ these youngsters have a a prom, and at the hotel? Jesus, sure we never got to even come in the Hotel Newfoundland unless we were here to clean the toilets!”
“Our class raised the money ourselves, Dad. “
The Class of 1997 waited for this night – this night, so magical, so pivotal, this rite of passage, this year, this entry into their next phase of life – from the moment they started high school, they waited for it.
“Bloody wasteful is what it is. You could’ve done up your own gymnasium, at your own school. Had a lovely time there. That’s what we did.”
“Well just because it’s something you did, doesn’t mean it’s what we do. Get with the program.”
She can’t help herself. Her father tramps through the sliding doors next to her, cock-a-the-walk. Seething. Aflame. Without even looking, Cait knows his face is as crimson and shiny as her red silk dress.
His hand is on her arm and he leans into her ear.
“Don’t. You. Dare. Start with that sauce.”
Her smirk slides down her throat and settles to satisfaction in her belly. She thrives on getting under her father’s skin. She yanks her arm away from and waves over to her English teacher, Mrs. Morris, standing next to the bar, sloshing back a glass of wine. Striding away from her parents, leaving her mother to snuff out her father’s flame.
Mrs. Morris is the most crooked woman Caitlyn has ever met. Short. Stout. Sweaty. Tonight she’s wearing gangly brass bracelets and Christmas-red lipstick, a Christmas-green blouse with pearl buttons. It is the month of May.
She directs a curt nod in Cait’s direction.
“Looking lovely, my dear.”
She tosses a mini pepperoni stick through a hula-hoop lipstick mouth and yaps through
“- lovely you’re all here celebrating tonight in this opulence and gravy,”
Chomp chomp. Gulp-swallow.
“- but have you finished Random Passage yet? Quiz on Monday, don’t forget.”
Cait is smug with the knowledge that she is Mrs. Morris’ favourite student.
“Yes, I finished it. I loved it.”
She plucks a glass of punch from the bartender’s hand. He’s quite cute. Some might call him a ‘pack’. Clark Kent, Superman when night smothers day.
Mrs. Morris slops back red wine and a plop drops on the swoop of her bountiful breast.
On moisture-whipped nights, the Class of ’97 huddle around a fire drinking Labatt Blue
Star near Outer Cove Beach. The fire is next to The River, which contours the base of a steep bank of trees and stumps and rocks. They bounce down that bank on their arses, shoes sometimes boinging into oblivion during the descent. With every rainfall, the bank erodes a little bit more.
“Not a chance I’m staying in Newfoundland after I graduates.”
Bobby Day of Portugal Cove whips a bottle cap into the fire. Nods in the direction of
Matt Bohmer, who stands with his arm around Cait’s best friend, Jess. Jess snuggles into him, his plaid coat soaked in campfire.
“Where you goin’ to, Bohmer?”
Bobby hawks a loog into the fire.
“Queens, I think.”
Jess’ heart sinks as sparks leap restlessly, threatening to stab her in the face, and she
squints her eyes and holds her breath as the smoke blows towards her nose and mouth.
Her and Matt have been together for a year, and she’s not going to Queen’s. She’s doing education at MUN. She knows the long-distance thing will be hard, if it even happens.
One lunch break a week, she walks down to Nan’s house on Baltimore Street for peanut butter toast. They watch The Young and the Restless and Nan complains about Katherine Chancellor, that rich snot.
On July 1, 1992, Nan rallied with throngs of vicious fishermen and plant workers on the wharf in Bay Bulls. In the lower intestines of the CBC archives, there’s footage of Nan. Shaking her fist in the face of the federal fisheries minister.
“How come we didn’t bring in interim support for fishing families so we didn’t have to show the colour of our God damn underwear to every Tom, Dick and Harry up to social services for five-hundred and twenty-two dollars!”
Nan’s plaid-clad arms jiggle, her hairnet-adorned silver head bobbles, her quivering
voice, her eyes springing with tears, on the CBC news. Her index finger, jabbing at the minister’s face like she’s Ashley Abbott and he’s Katherine Chancellor.
“You don’t have to abuse me! I didn’t take the God damn fish out of the water!”
His tailored jacket, the Old Spice suffocated with salty water and salty tears, the
fishermen and women and plant workers’ guts and souls and way of life, splattered all across the wharf. Nan and Pop lose their car. Nan can’t drive Pop to his lung cancer treatments.
“I knows it’s hard to live here sometimes.”
Nan smoothes Vaseline Intensive Care lotion over her hands, ensuring each crevice
receives love. Jess crunches her teeth into the peanut butter toast.
“A lot of my friends are going away for university. I wish I could.”
They bundle into taxis and roll from The Hotel Newfoundland up to Signal Hill. Cait and Jess are in different cars and they wave to each other as they both step into the parking lot.
“I gotta pee.”
A couple girls are already on Ladies’ Lookout with their drawers dropped, arses
towards the Atlantic, faces towards St. John’s. The lights of downtown are a dotted line around the harbour. The Narrows are just blackness, beyond is unknown. In a few minutes, there’ll be light.
Jess stumbles, the bare derriere cheeks nearly touching the frigid rocks on the top of Ladies’ Lookout. Cait catches her and they laugh and stand and haul up their jeans. They link arms and join the rest of the crew. The group of fresh teenage faces gawking towards the black ocean.
The sun peeks over the horizon, tickling the dark, at first timid and unsure. It notices people are watching, counting on its appearance. Soon its stretching across the sky, reaching its arms wide, sprawled across its canvas. A brash, thermonuclear blast of orange energy.
None of them know what’s next.
An orange ball, surrounded by a pink sky, a calm around the heat, the heat amidst the cold winter sky. Sun rays crown thy pine clad hills. They’re awash in it and it’s gorgeous and it’s terrifying and other-worldly and it’s a comfort all in one blast. This giant rock that is their nucleus, and they are family and they are home.
These are excerpts from Heidi Wick’s upcoming novel, Melt.