Portrait of a Crossroads
Since finding her father’s body at the bottom of the basement stairs, Annette’s been drifting through her days, watching cars pass down the rural Ontario crossroads beside her house. Her brothers have no great ambitions, but Annette remembers a time when she did. She just can’t remember what they are.
Then she meets her neighbour, Sadie, a tattooed, world-weary, newly single portrait artist. Something about Sadie awakens something in Annette—the essence she captures in her subjects, perhaps, or the way the old familiar crossroads seem so fresh and promising from the view out Sadie’s window.
Annette begins to help Sadie, cleaning brushes and filing invoices between long lazy afternoons of conversations and shared silences. Soon, though, Annette wants more from her enigmatic neighbor, and their slowly heating friendship melts into passionate nights. Somewhere along the way, Annette discovers that her lover has illuminated for her, as with the people Sadie paints, not just her essence but her own endless worlds of possibilities.
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Sitting on her bed in her upstairs bedroom, Annette heard a moving van pull in next door.
She didn’t have to look to know what it was doing. Living near the four-way intersection of two country highways, she was used to the nuances of the sounds vehicles made. She knew the deep rumble of transport trucks and the whooshing sound of their air brakes at the corner. She knew the jangled sound of cement trucks and the way they squealed when they stopped. Then there was the frequent hum of cars as they traveled the road between Burford and Brantford, Ontario. The intersection wasn’t populous enough to have a name. There were only six houses on it, all lined up on one corner. The other corners were farm fields.
Curious, Annette stood and looked out the window. A Ryder truck had backed up to the two-level brick, a house she’d always liked to think of as old until her father, before he’d died, had popped that bubble of romanticism. “It was built eighty years ago, tops,” he’d said. “Cracks in the drywall. No foundation.” Annette suspected he hadn’t really known what he was talking about, but she’d always listened and nodded.
She supposed it was time to go downstairs. It was early July, and the summer days were dripping by. She turned off the fan before she left her room—there was the electric bill to consider, after all—and on her way down the steps heard Christian’s motorcycle pull into the driveway.
She reached the front porch in time to see him take off his helmet. In those moments, when he removed the headgear and his hair blew in the breeze, she was proud he was her older brother. He was twenty-four now, six years older than her and three years older than her other brother, Angel. Christian hauled his leg over the bike and took heavy steps up to the porch.
“New people moving in, huh?” he said, looking back at the van.
“No,” Annette said. “One of them is moving out.”
“Which one? The one with the tattoos?”
“I don’t know. There were two women. It just looks like one of them is going.”
Christian popped a cigarette in his mouth as two men carried a loveseat up the ramp to the van. “They can’t keep anyone in that house more than five years. Cracked drywall. No foundation.”
Annette said nothing as Christian headed into the house. Sitting on the swinging seat, she used her feet to create a gentle rocking. She looked down at her favourite sundress, which was white and flowed around her slender legs. She’d just shaved her legs using a fresh pink razor. She tried to get the most use she could out of them before she had to count dimes to buy a new package. There were no stores nearby, and Annette currently had no job, and it was the sort of thing Christian and Angel never thought to grab when they shopped.
Overhead, a plane from the Brantford municipal airport sounded like a cross between a Toyota and a Cessna. When the planes were small, as they often were, it was hard to tell whether the sound was a vehicle or an aircraft. Hearing one now, she couldn’t help but think of the day she’d found her father. The air show had been on, and large B-52s had loomed overhead like menacing birds, their engines loud enough to rattle the dishes. She’d listened to the cups and plates tremble in the cabinet as she’d stepped carefully down the uneven basement steps and saw him hanging from a rafter.
Looking over now, she saw a lithe woman walk out with the movers and gesture toward the truck. Annette leaned forward and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. That was one of the women who lived there. She looked tall, and her olive-toned skin bore a hint of a deeper tan. A tattoo of a vine climbed one of her lean calves. Annette assumed the other woman was moving—the one with the short platinum hair—because she’d wheeled a large suitcase down the driveway and thrown it in her car. She’d driven away, and Annette hadn’t seen her since.
The tattooed woman turned slowly toward her and Annette realized she was staring. She took a quick breath and shifted her gaze to another cluster of cars lining up single file for the light. They were mostly family cars: Chevys and SUVs. Some of them were probably going to the beach, Annette figured, but there’d be none of that for her today. She sat back in the swing and rocked it with her bare foot until Christian opened the screen door.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m going to barbecue. Terri’s coming over. Can you help me peel potatoes?”
Annette got up and headed into the kitchen, where Christian already had a pot of potatoes in the sink. He’d stripped down to his tank top to show the dagger tattoo on his shoulder, the same tattoo every man in her family had, a tradition started by their grandfather. She remembered seeing it on her dad’s shoulder when he walked around without a shirt in the summer, his leathery skin sunburned a deep red that turned the tattoo from pale blue to purple.
Christian handed her a peeler and they stood at the sink, peeling potatoes in unison. For long moments, they shared the same comfortable silence Annette had always associated with her brother. The only vehicle they had was his motorbike, so when Annette needed to go somewhere, she climbed on the back. When she thought of him, she thought of those long rides with only the sound of the rumbling engine between them and the wind that blew her shirt sleeves like sheets on a clothesline. They seemed happiest without words.
An hour later, Annette sat in the backyard with Christian, Terri, Angel, and a few of their friends. They all smelled of leather and fresh beer, and had colourful tattoos poking out of their shorts and shirt sleeves.
Annette saw the woman next door standing in her backyard, her dark hair tied in a short ponytail, her hand shading her eyes as she looked upward. Annette turned and looked in the same direction and saw a small plane in the sky.
“We should invite her over,” Annette said, watching Angel lick chicken wing sauce off his fingers.
“The woman next door?” he said. “They’re fucking dykes, man.”
Annette watched the dark dusting of stubble on his face as he took a swig of his beer. His bottle-blonde girlfriend sat next to him, her tanned breasts exposed by the low cut of her tank top. Behind him, Christian hoisted Terri over his shoulder and smacked her ass before she shrieked and he put her down.
Annette looked over at the woman again, wondering if she would look back. But she just nodded to herself, as if satisfied, and headed back into the house.
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