Red Foot, Blue Whale, Popeyes Cigarettes
Sometimes, on sunny afternoons, mom stops at Soo’s Market off 104th, just before the flashing lights. She parks the yellow Mazda hatchback with the orange and red stripes right outside the shop. The bells on the door ring. She walks back to the car laughing about something, carrying a small paper bag. She reaches into the back seat to hand my little sister and me a blue whale and a red foot. Today, instead of hot lips, there’s a pack of Popeye’s cigarettes.
I stretch out the red candy foot until the sole shows little cracks. I swim the blue whale along the car window until sun lights up its entire body, an electric blue sparkle. I pull the tail as far as I can with my teeth before I take a bite, chew slowly, mixing berry big foot and electric blue whale. I save the neat, small pack of Popeye’s until the big turn at 143rd Street, unroll the window and take my first, long drag as we pass the house with the hydrangea bush. Oops, I bite the end right off, so I pull out another thin smooth stick, savour the sweet notes of cotton candy.
I float my arm out the window, and my sister does the same. I see wavy lines of white smoke flowing behind us like clouds.
We drive past the Anderson house, but I don’t see any of the four girls, only their mother clipping leaves in the garden. There’s the side street where my two summer best friends live. Mom catches my eye in the rear-view mirror just as I take another big candy stick
puff, and I can’t remember if she actually says, “Don’t tell your father,” or gives a look that implies it.
I will learn that my mom had been a tomboy, and much to her own mother’s chagrin, had spent most of her childhood days outside in the woods climbing trees with a pack of boys. At my Brownie’s camp, she will be the only woman brave enough to hold a garter snake and show us its colours. Maybe this is why I will never see my mother as small or petite, and will instead feel genuine pity for the handful of people who do. Those few people will foolishly call her “cute,” or worse, will try to lift her 4’11” frame up off the ground, will only try that once.
As an almost teenager, friends will come over to see me and never leave the kitchen. They will swivel their hips on the island bar stools, trying to impress my mom by saying something shocking and risqué. But my mom will only laugh. My friends will leave, projecting their voices just loud enough for her to hear, “You’re so lucky, your mom is so cool.”
I will watch her take time for people, so many people: strangers looking for a cigarette, old women at the grocery store, the man selling encyclopedias at our front door. Most of them will tell her their entire life story, and she will listen until the end. They will leave us with a smile, saying thank you, my dear, lovey, and god bless.
Inside the house, I put my Popeye cigarettes box with the two sticks I have left in my purple purse with the clasp at the top, and I swing the fake gold chain across my shoulder. I sit with my sister and cheddar cheese on the Chesterfield, staring out the front room window. As a station wagon drives by, I decide it’s a good time for just one more. The blue and white van is arriving, mom calls, “Quick, he’s here! Go surprise your dad!” I stuff the pack into my back pocket. We leave cheddar-cheese on the couch and run downstairs.
In the summers that follow, I will become captivated by my father, the stories of his childhood and his father’s stories of Belarus. My mom will smile and shake her head. “Your father isn’t perfect, you know,” but she will let him be that way for me. She will always be selfless this way. Just, cool. She will take on all the unglamorous work of motherhood and let my father be the hero. Let him be the one to share exciting stories and news, the one we go to for advice, the one we excitedly wait for at the front room window before dinner.
But for those first, golden sunshine days of childhood, that summer of warm glowing candy and miniature sugar sticks, the summer I had my first taste of independence, I was completely and unequivocally hers.
“Daddy! Daddy!” my sister and I shout from behind the front door. He stoops to give both of us a hug. The pack of Popeye’s buried deep inside my back jean pocket.
The Pig’s Tail
On pig roast day, I pedal my bike fast up and down the sidewalk, through the spotty shadows of leaves, past our driveway where my father and grandfather, Deda, are working on something strange. I ride in to take a closer look: the pig’s lying there, split open on a table I ask, “What are all those blue hoses for?” but don’t stick around for the answer.
Inside the house Don McLean sings “Everybody Loves Me, Baby” on the record player; I circle around the coffee table and head out to the backyard where Dad and Deda have put the pig on a spit. I sit on the swings with my little sister, and we watch the pig as it turns slowly above red flames.
The air gets breezier, people start to arrive with babies in strollers and big coolers filled with so much ice two people have to carry them. The pig spit is now a meeting place for the men, who stand and talk and joke and drink from bottles with a picture of a village on it red, green, and yellow colours. My dad ties on a blue and white patterned sarong he brought back from a rugby trip to Fiji and keeps a close eye on the spit.
Mom is inside the kitchen with all the laughing women, cutting up potatoes, eggs on full boil, music playing, some of the ladies are singing a baby or two dances on their hips. My mom’s friends ask, “How old are you now? ” and invite me to our red circle table. I get the feeling if I really wanted, I could ask these women anything and they would probably tell me the truth. Only, I can’t think of anything clever to say.
I wait at the top of the deck, kneeling and gripping the rungs of the railing, until Dad starts carving the pig. I make my move—the sun sets purple behind the neighbour’s evergreens as I stride up to the table with my plate. Next to the table, someone’s taken the pig’s head and mounted it on a stake in the ground. A flaming torch glows beside the head.
“Can I have the tail?” “Sure,” Dad shrugs, smiles. He and Deda share a laugh as he hands me the pig’s curly black tail. It tastes just at one would imagine, like a burnt piece of wire. I don’t give up, if only to save my pride. I take another bite. It still isn’t great, but there’s a hint of smoky flavour in the aftertaste—a char, and the char isn’t bad. I don’t have the words to describe this yet, but I’m learning there might be something more, something worth waiting for after the first taste.
Fresh Shucked Oysters
Some might introduce themselves, or spark conversation with the man they have fallen madly in love with over one university semester, but not me. My plan involves saying nothing and impressing the hell out of him with an enormous platter of fresh shucked oysters. Does he like raw oysters? Would he be impressed by a heaping tray of fat, slippery, glistening shellfish? These questions never occur to me.
I call my father and he gives me the run down, the types of oysters to buy and where to get them. I decide on three types: Fanny Bay, Marina’s Top Drawer and Evening Cove. I pick them for their size and the colours and texture of their bumpy shells. I stare into the tank to analyze each one, and act like I know what I’m talking about when the man behind the counter reaches his gloved hand in to collect the ones I point to.
I carry the heavy bag of crustaceans into parents’ house. My dad teaches me how to shuck them, how to wiggle the knife back and forth, rocking it carefully so as not to chip the edges of the shell or pierce the meaty part of my palm. I love the sound the last crack of the shell makes just before it opens, how each one smells the way the ocean tastes. It takes over an hour break each one, to open and maneuver the knife around the fleshy essence of the oyster, unhinging the valves and flipping them onto their soft underbelly. We layer ice on the base platter and stack the oysters on top, shell upon shell, add lemon wedges and put horseradish into two of the empty oyster shells.
I arrive at dusk, just as it starts raining. Step out of my car holding the oyster tray carefully, raindrops peppering the tightly wrapped cellophane. Some friends are sipping beer undercover, just outside the front door, and give a buzzed “Wooah” to tray the shellfish as I walk by. Just as I had hoped, he is there, in the kitchen. I offer him a fresh shucked oyster, and to my delight, he takes two. One for himself and the other for his fiancé.
I resist the temptation to take a cab home in the rain, like a lyric from some moody 90’s song, not only because I drove here, but because it wouldn’t be fair to the oysters. They deserve to be savoured. Instead, I find a spot in that dark room to sprinkle my love with lemon, and feel that small horseradish burn as I drink it all down, and then, I leave.
Natasha Zarin is a writer of poetry mostly. Her work has appeared in The Maynard, Event,
Cloud Nine, Fearsome Critters, Press Pause Press and is forthcoming in Flying Ketchup Press. In 2021, she read at the Emerging Readers and Writers Series in Toronto (virtually). Natasha lives in Surrey, BC with her husband and two children.