The following story was longlisted for the CBC Canada Writes Short Story Prize.
DAWSON CITY, YT
First, I met the girls.
“You’ll want to spend a day or two just watching,” Irv said. “See how it’s done.”
Ginger, Vivienne, Halo, Destinee, Kat. Me, the nameless newbie. Six of us in the little room above Irving’s Hardware in downtown Dawson that wasn’t so dank as I’d thought it would be. There was a window. Each girl had a desk and a little cubicle with her own regular office phone. The rolling chairs were ergonomic.
“Ladies,” Irv said to the room at large. “I leave our new charge in your capable hands.” He spoke to us like that, like the headmistress of a British boarding school.
“You’re leaving already,” I said, grabbing at his wrist. One of the girls, Kat, looked up at me over her cubicle wall.
Irv tugged at his beard. “There’s the store to run,” he said. “I’ll see you tonight.” Then he disappeared down the stairs, shutting the door behind him.
Two months before Dawson, it was Christmastime in Mississauga. I was home for the holidays, not that I had far to come. It was my third year of studying dance at York.
My mother still wrote From Santa on the tags of our Christmas gifts; my younger brother got the tablet he’d been asking for. I hadn’t asked for anything, and so I got the same tablet, with a hot pink cover.
My father was into spy-gear and self-defense; his gift was a can of pepper spray disguised as a heart-shaped tube of lipstick.
“You can never be too careful in the big city,” he said, smiling fondly while my mother rolled her eyes.
During a lull in conversation at dinner that evening, Auntie Barb lit up and called across the table, through a mouthful of potatoes, “Oh, Stephanie! I ran into Nancy Hayes at Safeway the other day. She told me about David!”
“What about him?” I asked. David Hayes was my high school boyfriend. We hadn’t spoken in two-and-a-half years.
“He’s getting married!” Barb said. “Some girl he met at school. She’s a dental hygiene major.”
“Right, yeah,” I said. “I think I did hear that somewhere.”
Later, while my mother and Auntie Barb did the dishes and my father showed off his new night vision goggles to Uncle Bill, I downloaded apps for three dating sites onto my new tablet.
Irv, screen name yukonjack82, was one of the first men to message me. Six weeks later, I dropped out of school and got on a flight direct from Pearson International to Vancouver. From there, I took another flight to Prince George, where I met Irv face-to-face for the first time. He was waiting at baggage claim with a bouquet of carnations and a teddy bear from the gift shop.
I called my parents that night from the motel.
“Stephanie, listen to me,” my father said, as my mother wailed in the background, “you’ve been brainwashed. This man, this Irv, he’s not what you think he is.”
“He’s nice, dad.”
“Thirty-two-year-old men don’t go with nineteen-year-old girls for any nice reason.”
“I’ll call you when we get there,” I said. Then I hung up.
Most of the time, the hardest thing about it was keeping a straight face.
“What are you wearing, baby?” a gruff voice would inquire.
Different girls answered in different ways. Halo was demure; “Just the bubbles of my bubble bath,” she’d say, scratching at a scab on her forearm and resting her faux-Ugg-booted feet on the desk.
Destinee had a more direct approach; “I’ll tell you what you’re wearing, baby, and that’s my pussy on your face.”
My first call, I was wearing my sweatpants and parka, and when the question came, I realized I had no idea what to say. What was something sexy women wore?
“Uh, ah, a teddy,” I mumbled.
“Teddy!” Kat squealed over her cubicle once I’d finished the call. “That’s you, baby. That’s got to be you.”
The rest of the girls crowded around, cheering and chanting, “Teddy! Teddy!” I felt warm, knowing I was one of them.
We took our cigarette breaks huddled in the fire escape; Irv didn’t allow smoking indoors.
“I guess he’s got to have some kind of standards,” Ginger told me. At twenty-six, she was the oldest of us. She worked summers at a local bar when tourist traffic was high, then winters with Irv to round out her income.
“I came here for a man, same as you did,” she said when I asked how she ended up in Dawson. “Most of these girls are tweakers. But careful what you go asking ‘cause not everyone’s keen to talk about the past.”
Vivienne and Halo lived together in an apartment above the coffee shop down the street; Kat lived in her mother’s house with her young son; Ginger lived in the trailer park. Destinee never told anyone where she lived, and we didn’t ask. I lived with Irv, in the little apartment behind the hardware store.
My universe had gone from the size of Toronto to the size of a single building in downtown Dawson. I called my parents once a week from the payphone at Klondike Kate’s. My mother would cry and my father would threaten to involve the authorities. Really, there was nothing they could do.
I managed to find out that David Hayes was having a spring wedding. Spring in Dawson was still far away; not nearly so far in Southern Ontario.
At night, I lay in bed next to Irv and wondered what David’s bride would look like on their wedding day. I pictured her as everything I wasn’t, with a fitted lace gown and a blank spot for a face.
I wondered if she knew about me, or the night David and I rode our bikes to the Cooksville Go Station to fool around in the empty field next to the parking lot. A few of his friends were there, and I took turns having sex with them. That’s what they said happened, anyway, and I was branded a slut, and my mother homeschooled me for the last half of grade twelve.
Clearly, David had moved on. I wondered if he knew I was in Dawson. I wondered if he even knew Dawson existed.
“Do you like it there?” my father asked one afternoon over the phone at Klondike Kate’s.
“Yeah,” I said. “I like it a lot.”
“Why?” I thought for a moment.
“I like that it’s nothing like Mississauga.”
My father sighed.
“Will you be coming home to visit at least? What about the rest of your education? It was your dream to study dance at York.”
“It was something to do,” I said.
“Stephanie...” he trailed off. It felt strange to hear that old name. It belonged to someone else’s life.
Movement in the alley across the street caught my eye; a woman had been thrown to the ground and a man was standing over her, fist raised.
“Dad, I’ve got to go,” I said, and hung up before he could answer.
The little bell over the door of Klondike Kate’s dinged as I stepped outside into the forty-below. The sound caught the eye of the woman in the alley and she looked up; it was Destinee. I couldn’t hear what the man was saying over the wind, but his voice was sharp, and his fist landed a hard punch into Destinee’s left eye.
I threw up my hood and ran across the street towards them, trying not to slip on the slick winter road. I bit off a mitten so my hand could find what it was looking for in the pocket of my parka.
The man didn’t even notice me until I was an arm’s length away. “Stay outta this, lady,” he started to say, but he was cut off by the stream of pepper spray from the pink lipstick tube container. He screamed and clutched his eyes; I grabbed Destinee by the sleeve and hauled her onto her feet. We ran, clutching each other, to the back door of Irving’s Hardware.
Once we were inside the little apartment with the door bolted, I got a bag of peas from the freezer and handed it to Destinee. She pressed it against her swollen eye.
“What the hell was that about?” I asked, when I finally caught my breath.
She looked at me and away again. “Just one of those things,” she said. I sat down heavily at the kitchen table. “I tell you one thing, though,” she went on. “I’m gettin’ the fuck outta here come spring.”
I nodded. “I’m thinking I might do the same,” I said.
The rumbling of wheels on the floor upstairs sounded a little like distant thunder. Destinee and I sat in silence for a while, listening.