When Dolores schemes to get rid of her abusive partner, all does not go as planned...
With a feeling of immense relief she turned into the yard and pulled up in front of the garage. Her hands trembled as she picked up the control and pressed the OPEN button. The garage door jerked upward obediently and once inside, she quickly pressed the control again to close the door behind her.
She could have died out there in that incredible cold! How could she have run out of gas when the gauge had shown that the tank was full? “It’s easy,” the old man had told her. “It could be just a loose connection. It happened to me once. I thought I had lots of gas when my tank was near empty. But I was lucky. I didn’t get stalled when it was forty below. And not on a quiet road like this one. You could of froze to death.”
Her car had stalled near the end of the lane that led from the highway to an old-fashioned farmhouse. It had been a desperately cold walk - a quarter of a mile at least - from the car to the back door of the house. She was afraid she would never make it. He had answered her frantic knocking right away and, observing her acute distress, ushered her immediately into the warm kitchen. “Give me your coat and go sit in that chair by the window. The sun’s shining on it pretty good right now and that makes it the warmest spot in the house. Then he leaned into an interior hallway and called upstairs, “Matilda! We got company. Can you come down?”
“Coming.” A clear voice sang out from somewhere above and a moment later, a diminutive, white-haired woman with a light step and snapping black eyes arrived in the kitchen. She had a welcoming smile for this unexpected visitor. “My goodness! It must be something really important to take you out on such a cold day as this.”
“I needed to get home,” Dolores replied. “I’ve been away for over a week and was afraid my entire household might be freezing up.” She didn’t explain that her husband had been badgering her with daily telephone calls, each one detailing fresh evidence of her failings as a homemaker.
“Her car stalled down at the end of the lane,” explained the man. “I’ll go down to see what I can do. It’s likely the gas line’s froze up or maybe she’s just out of gas.”
“It shouldn’t be either,” protested Dolores. “The gas gauge shows FULL and I’ve been using that gas line antifreeze stuff all winter.”
“How far have you driven since you last filled up?”asked Matilda.
“Oh, quite a long way. All the way from - Oh my! Then the tank wouldn’t be full would it. Oh dear! All at once I feel so stupid.”
“Not at all,” assured the man. “Maybe you’ve got a job that keeps you hopping. It’s easy to overlook one thing when you have a whole lot to look after.” He was getting dressed for outdoors. “But it’s beginning to look like you might of run out of gas. So you just sit tight here with Matilda. If you twist her arm a little she might make you a cup of coffee. So I’ll be off. With any luck, I’ll be driving your car back up here in fifteen minutes.” With a suggestion of a wave, he was gone.
Matilda was already making coffee. “He’s awfully good with motors,” she said proudly. “He’s forever fixing something for somebody. He loves tinkering and figuring things out. He’s just so pleased when he gets some machine to work the way it should. Getting you back on the road will make him feel good right up until bedtime.”
“What will he do? He didn’t take anything with him. No tools or anything.”
“He knows what he’s going to do. The first thing he’ll try is to put in some gasoline. He’ll go to the shop to pick up a can of gas. There’s one out there that we use for the lawn mower. It holds only a gallon or two, but there should be enough in it to get you to a gas station in town.”
“I don’t need to go that far. I live on this side of the city - right on this road in fact - on an acreage about seven or eight miles from here.”
“So close? Then maybe we’ll see you again. If Walter gets your car going, we’ll follow you with our truck just to make sure you get home safe. Then we’ll know where you live.”
“I’d like that, but I don’t want to put you folks to any more trouble.”
“Trouble? Sitting here having coffee with you is trouble? What a ridiculous notion! And Walter, he’s doing what he likes best. And just wait. If he gets your car going, the first thing he’ll say is that we should follow you into town.”
“That would be lovely, but how do you know what he’ll say?”
“Because we’ve lived together for so long, we’ve learned to think alike.”
“How long does that take - learning to think alike?”
“I think it started the first time we were out together. That was more than fifty years ago. And we’ve been getting better at it ever since.”
Dolores could only ponder on how it was that she and Clarence had learned to think so differently from each other. Had there ever been anything that they would agree on? Not that she could remember. Everything about their marriage, right from their wedding night, had been such a dreary flop. Her mouth twisted wryly as she recalled the dismal beginning of their life together. That was when she first realized that Clarence felt he had done her a great favour by marrying her. True, she was not a raving beauty and had never had a line-up of matrimonial hopefuls to choose from. But beauty is only skin deep. Dolores shrugged. She had other assets. And she had learned to look out for herself.
She accepted a refill of coffee and another oatmeal cookie. “I hope I’m not keeping you from anything. You were working upstairs?”
“I wasn’t working. I was just packing a suitcase. It’s done now, except for closing it up.”
“You’re going away. And I’m holding you up. That is too bad. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t fret. It’s okay. We’re not sure yet exactly where we’re going - either to Winnipeg or Brandon. Walter’s cousin died last night in Winnipeg. That’s where they’ve been living for the last four years. But, before that, they farmed for forty years just out of Brandon and that’s where they still call home. We think the funeral might be there and we’re just waiting to hear.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. A death in the family is always a blow. And now you have this long drive ahead of you. It’s so sad.”
“It’s not so bad. Walter and his cousin grew up together and have always kept in close touch. But the cousin was dying from cancer since last summer and now he’s gone. And that’s that. At our age, you don’t worry about death. You just look it straight in the eye and keep on doing what you’ve got to do. But Walter really wants to be at the funeral. There aren’t many left on his side of the family to be there.”
“But it’s such a long way and it’s so terribly cold.”
“That doesn’t matter. Our truck is fairly new and Walter is a good driver. Anything mechanical always behaves itself for him. We’ll have a good trip.”
“I certainly hope so. But if anything goes wrong, I hope you have a survival kit.”
“We’ll have our parkas and winter boots. That should be all we need. But here comes your car. I guess Walter found out what was wrong.”
In just another minute, a beaming Walter was back in the kitchen. “You were out of gas all right. I’ve given you close to a couple of gallons. It was all I had, but it should get you to a gas station.”
“I can’t thank you enough. But there is something I can do. First, I’m going to pay you for the gasoline right now. This ten dollars will be barely enough. I would gladly pay you fifty, but something tells me you wouldn’t take it. Second, I insist that you take the survival kit from my car and put it in your truck. Just for this trip. You could run into a blizzard with blocked roads and all that before you get home.”
Walter started to protest. “What about you? You might need it yourself.”
“Not before you get back. I’m going to be tied up here for the next month at least. And the only place that car is going is back to the dealer to get that gas gauge fixed. Now, in the trunk of the car, there’s a bundle and a box. The bundle is a sleeping bag and an old fur coat. The box has some candles and matches, some things to eat and some bottled water. If you get caught in a blizzard, you’ll be glad to have it. Please take it. I’ll feel so much better if you do.”
Walter and Matilda’s eyes met. There might have been the slightest of nods. “Okay,” laughed Walter. “We won’t argue. Let’s do it. I’ll bring the truck around and we’ll make the switch. Then we‘ll follow you home.”
“But you’re waiting for a phone call.”
Matilda patted her hand. “They have our cell number, dear. If we don’t answer the house phone, they still know how to find us. So let’s get going.”
That’s how it was done. Matilda and Walter escorted Dolores right to her driveway and then, after farewell waves, drove on, heading for somewhere in Manitoba. And now, Dolores thought, she could look forward to a guarded reunion with Clarence. She supposed that he had spent the day concocting new and creative ways to be obnoxious. What would be the issue this time? Her indifference to his career? But she wasn’t indifferent. She wished him every success with his architectural practice, just as she was successful with her dress shops. It was the dress shops that were keeping his practice afloat. Not that he would ever admit it. To hear him tell it, he was generously allowing her to invest in his business. “Just so her money will be safe,” he had told her mother. “Far better than money in the bank. It will grow and be there for Dolly’s future.”
Dolly! That was another thing. She liked her name. Dolores. It wasn’t common like Mary or Jane. And besides, it had turned out to be a great name for her growing chain of dress shops. You couldn’t beat that. No one but Clarence ever called her “Dolly” and he did it only because he knew she hated it. When she was little, her cousins on the farm had a mean-tempered pony they called “Dolly” that Dolores remembered with bitter revulsion. It had bit her once and had dumped her off the only time she had been cajoled into trying to ride it. So all right, she had a complex about “Dolly”. Who wouldn’t? She could live with it if she had to.
It was still early afternoon. Too late to go into town to check on the shop, but she’d phone to let the staff know that she was back home and would be there in the morning. She’d have to do something about gasoline before she ventured out again. There would almost certainly be gasoline somewhere on the premises. Clarence had enough gas-powered playthings here on the acreage to equip a half-dozen farms. There would have to be a drum of gas somewhere - in the shop probably. But she wouldn’t mess with it. She’d get Terry to do it for her. He knows where everything is and he’ll know how to go about it. And he’ll be around in the morning to look after the llamas.
She smiled. The llamas were Clarence’s most enduring agricultural blunder. In the rosy but mistaken belief that he could make some easy money by selling breeding stock, he had bought a pair of weanling llamas, brought them home and promptly forgot about them. Because she couldn’t stand to see them neglected, Dolores found herself to be their reluctant caregiver. To her surprise, she came to enjoy them. They were gentle and affectionate and uncomplaining. She named one Ricardo and the other Rosita. That was ten years ago and, to her secret amusement, the pair had yet to produce any young. It become a part of local folklore that Clarence, for all his claimed expertise in animal husbandry, had selected two does as a breeding pair. It made a good story, one that was told and retold with every recurring calving season.
Terry lived on a nearby farm which, bit by bit, he was taking over from his parents. “As soon as I’m twenty-one,” he confided to Dolores, “the folks will turn the place over to me. Dad figures I can handle the work now, but they’re not sure how I’d manage the financial end of things. I’m eighteen now, so I have three years to learn.”
“Twenty-one. By then you’ll be married and settled down with the farm overrun with babies,” she teased.
Terry blushed. “Not me. I don’t know what to do around girls. I just stay away from them.”
She had hired Terry when he was sixteen to help out on the acreage. Initially, he was supposed to help look after the llamas, but as he tended to go ahead and do whatever he saw needed to be done, Dolores had come to depend on him in a dozen different ways. Without him, life on the acreage would have featured far more frustration and stress.
Clarence had been determined to live on an acreage, but once he had one, he took no interest in it. “The demands of my profession,” he explained, “keep me going flat out. I simply don’t have time to muck around with strawberries and chickens and wheelbarrows and spades. But I had to buy this place for Dolly. She won’t live anywhere else.”
The odd thing was, Dolores mused, that the acreage had increased in value so much since they had bought it. It was now worth at least three times what they had paid for it. She would sell it tomorrow if only Clarence would agree. A condo in the city centre would suit her perfectly. She had recently seen two that were almost ideal.
But the afternoon was moving on. Her suitcases were still in the car. She brought them in and carried them up to her room. She’d unpack later. She had stopped at a grocery on the way home to pick up a tortiere and some corn on the cob. That, with a salad, should make a decent dinner. Dessert? If there isn’t one, he’ll complain, but if there is, he won’t eat it. There should still be some ice cream in the freezer. He can make do with that.
She grimaced as she heard the familiar sounds that signalled her husband’s return home from the city. “ Oh hell! He’s home early. Better get my guard up.”
True to her expectations, he was in a challenging mood. “So, home at last! And how are all the fashion queens? All queer as ever?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “I can’t wait to have dinner so I need you rustle something up now because I have to get back on the road. It will be dark soon and I have a long way to go tonight.”
“Where are you going?”
“To Wapiti Lake. I have the drawing and specs for their new school.”
“Can’t that wait until this cold weather breaks?”
“No. I have to be there tomorrow. There’s a big meeting with the Indian Affairs brass, the band council and the committees. They want me to present in the morning.”
Dolores knew her question would be provocative, but she asked it anyway. “So why wait till now to leave?” She guessed that he was already late and under pressure.
His temper flared and she knew she was right. “That’s none of your damn business. You stick to buttons and bows and I’ll stick to design.”
“I’ll fix you a quick dinner while you pack. Do you want to take something to eat along with you? That’s a long lonely road through a lot of wilderness between here and Wapiti Lake.”
“Do you think I don’t know that? I’ve been over that road enough to know what it’s like. There hasn’t been any new snow lately, so the road will be clear and that’s what matters. I should be in Wapiti Lake by ten o’clock or a little later. I’ve booked a room in the motel there and will go out to the reserve in the morning.”
“Okay, I’ll get some food ready. Will instant coffee do? It will take a little longer if I brew some in the pot.”
“Brew a lot. Then you can fill a thermos for me. Strong, with lots of sugar. I’ll pack a bag and I’ve got to switch my stuff for tomorrow’s meeting from my car to the Ford.”
“To my car? Why?”
“Because I need to, that’s why. The alternator on my car needs to be replaced. I’ve made an appointment for you to take the car in to Gibson Motors in the morning to have the job done. You can do that before you go to your brassiere emporium.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you. Thank you so much.”
“Oh, you’re most welcome.” He was almost at the door, but turned to face her, grinning in anticipation of the marvellous barb he had nurtured all day. “And how was Edmonton? Did you see anyone you know?”
“Of course I saw people I know. That’s why I went there.”
“Oh yes indeed. The new store. Dolorous. Dolorous. That’s getting to be quite a big name. Almost a household word, Dolorous for the Dollar-wise. Now there’s a slogan for you. Or should we say, ‘for the dollarless’?” He lingered, hoping for a sign that he had scored a hit. It didn’t come so he gave up. “I suppose the Ford is ready to go. Lots of gas in it?”
Dolores hesitated for the barest second. Then the lie came so easily.”Lots. I topped it up just before I got home.”
“Okay, I’ll see to a few things and the come down to eat. I won’t be long.”
As soon as Clarence was out of the room, Dolores went to rummage in a trash basket where she expected to find the dead cell phone battery she had discarded weeks earlier. There it was. She slipped it into her apron pocket. So far so good. But she had better get the meal underway. It had to be ready when Clarence came down.
She moved quickly and quietly, listening intently to determine just what he was doing. She heard him close the bathroom door. This was the time. She picked up his brief case, which was there by the door, and looked through it. There was no phone. She closed the brief case and returned it to its place. Where would it be? In either his suit coat, which he had on, or his overcoat which was right there draped over a chair. She quickly felt through the pockets. There it was. She took it out, replaced the live battery with the dead one and then put the coat back where it had been.
When Clarence came back to the kitchen, his dinner was on the table. He sat down to eat.
“It’s strange,” Dolores reflected on what she was doing. “I’m not in a murderous rage at all. But if I didn’t already have something better under way, I could slaughter him right here right now. If I could just press a button to blow him to bits, I would. Quite without passion.” She smiled at the thought.
“What are you grinning about?”
“A very private joke. One that you wouldn’t appreciate.” She was spared from further inquisition by the ringing of the telephone. It was one of her store managers. Dolores settled down to talk business while Clarence finished his dinner and prepared to leave. Dolores watched him as he rose from the table, donned his overcoat and checked the pockets, picked up the briefcase and headed for the door where he paused and looked at her as if to speak. She pretended not to notice. Without a word, he went out the door, pulling it closed behind him. She watched him go, grimly satisfied that she had done all she could to ensure that she would never have to see him again.
It would take a little while for all this to play itself out. She couldn’t just sit and wait for the phone to ring. There was work to be done. Her bags needed to be unpacked, for one thing. And she should eat something. She could take her time about making a nice little celebratory dinner. Maybe open that lonesome bottle of champagne? What would she eat? Lamb chops? Broiled? Frozen solid now, of course. Could be a little tricky. What else? A quiche! There are eggs. Smoked salmon and frozen spinach. That’ll do it. The poured herself a glass of scotch and set the spinach to defrost in the microwave.
Some company would be nice. She’d love to get to know Matilda. And Walter, too, of course. What a perfect couple! They’re so fond of each other. And she is so proud of him. In fifty years has either one ever said anything hurtful to the other? Certainly not. Never. Why couldn’t her marriage have been like theirs? Hadn’t she tried hard enough? Did Matilda and Walter have to try? It seemed so effortless for them to love and be good to each other. Now that she had discovered them, she would make sure to develop a friendship. If she reached out to them, they would reach right back. Especially with Clarence out of the picture. Clarence. That greedy, sarcastic, self-important, bumbling boor would make it impossible. He never made friends. He drove would-be friends away.
By now her Ford should be running out of fuel. Far enough up the Wapiti Lake road, she hoped, that it would be out of sight and sound. “My best wishes to you Clarence, in that great drafting room in the sky where you can draw pictures of houses that look like jails and are as secure as bank vaults. That’s your kind of house you creep and that’s what you made of this house. It’s like a fortress.”
She had been setting out the makings for her dinner. Everything was laid out and ready, but it was still a little early to start the quiche. She set the table. What to do next? She could have another scotch and then there was still the unpacking to do. Glass of Highland Park in hand, she made her way down the hall. Along the way, she remembered the champagne. It was in the little cupboard under the stairs that she was about to pass by. She would like it chilled. She could take it upstairs with her and set it to cool out on the balcony. But she’d have to be careful. At forty below, a bottle of wine would freeze solid in just minutes. She found the right bottle and took it with her.
Upstairs, with the champagne now set on the balcony, as she proceeded with her unpacking, she remembered how she had set the table. Quite unconsciously, she had set it for two. For her and Terry? Of course! She smiled delightedly. So he was that much on her mind. Terry. Terry, with the slimness and smooth cheeks of a boy, but with the quiet demeanour of a man. Terry, betwixt and between. Terry, betwixt youth and maturity. Terry, between her sheets. Wow! She caught her breath and decided that she’d better get on with her unpacking. All that other business would have to wait.
But not for too long. She’d have her way with him. She knew it. But Terry would have to think he was having his way with her. That was important. Not crucial, perhaps, but still important. With his coming every day to do chores and with Clarence out of the way, there would always be grand opportunity. She would have only to set the stage and then give him that subtle little nudge to set things in motion. Then it all would just “happen”. She shivered in anticipation.
Unpacking done, she carried the suitcases to a storage closet. It was still early. Lots of time for a shower and a change. She had been in those travel clothes since early morning and was aching to get out of them. She went back to her room, undressed and laid out fresh underthings. What else? She shrugged. Why bother? No one else was coming. But still, what if he did? She chose a pair of grey wool slacks and a stunning green cashmere wrap-around sweater. A loosely-knotted belt could easily come undone. What then? She imagined the sweater falling open and smiled again.
She was taking her time, luxuriating in the shower when she thought of the champagne. It would be freezing! That wouldn’t do. Hastily, she stepped from the shower, towelled herself off and went to the bedroom where her fresh things were laid out. But she never dressed in a hurry. Dressing for her was always a ritual that took time. She’d rescue the champagne first. All she would have to do is reach out from the door. Just a long reach would be all.
Still naked, she stepped out onto the balcony and recoiled at once from the intensity of the cold. It hurt to breathe and her eyes blurred with tears. The champagne was a little further off than she had thought. She took a long step, and reaching out, inadvertently let go of the door. There was just a whisper of sound as the door swung shut and then a solid click as the lock took hold. Dumb with dismay, Dolores dimly recalled Clarence going on about his spring-loaded hinges and automatic locks. “Absolutely burglar proof,” he had boasted. “A team of commandos couldn’t break in.”
Some time later, the silence on the balcony was broken by a sharp crack as the heavy champagne bottle finally split under the mounting pressure of its frozen contents. But Dolores was not disturbed, for she, too, was frozen solid.