Grief comes with a lot of "supposed to" attached to it. You're not supposed to be a mess. You're not supposed to ever laugh. And you're definitely not supposed to solicit a space-time wizard on Craigslist to connect you back with your lost loved one. But Elsie Jane is not a "supposed to" kind of woman, and when she loses her partner Sam to drug poisoning, nothing is quite what anyone, least of all Elsie Jane, could have expected.
The star of Chelsea Wakelyn's debut novel, What Remains of Elsie Jane (Dundurn Press/Rare Machines), Elsie is a protagonist to love. A widow, a mother, a woman capable of deep and wild love, neighbourly subterfuge, and much more, her story is darkly funny, achingly raw, and utterly heartbreaking.
Wakelyn's storytelling, from the shattering reality of unexpectedly becoming a single parent to the absurdities of trying to re-enter the dating scene, is pointed, smart, and truthful. As Elsie argues with ghosts and becomes obsessed with a mysterious local murder, readers unravel a portrait of grief and motherhood as genuine as it is spellbinding.
We're sharing an excerpt from What Remains of Elsie Jane today, to celebrate its publication and give readers a glimpse into one of the most exciting novels of the season. Here we meet Elsie as she tussles with a neighbour about her overgrown yard and finds an unexpected, grimly funny, and not entirely welcome, connection with a stranger.
Excerpt from What Remains of Elsie Jane by Chelsea by Chelsea Wakelyn:
The first dead body I ever saw was my mother’s, so vandalized by cancer that her face was grotesque. Her cheekbones were Ping-Pong balls, her eyes sunken. She died with her mouth wide open, so one of my aunties put a rolled-up towel under her chin to keep it closed. That was an important thing to do, I figured, in case a little animal decided to sneak in there and build a nest.
Meanwhile, the other auntie was busy prying the rings off my mother’s dead fingers. “Can’t leave them on too long, Elsie. Her fingers’ll puff right up!”
My grandmother sat in a chair in the corner of the room.
“She was such a good girl,” she was saying over and over. “Such a good, good girl.”
My grandmother’s name is Ada May, and since my mom died back in 2006, her brain has slowly been turning to Swiss cheese. She held on to her marbles long enough to bid farewell to her youngest daughter, and shortly thereafter the cheesing began. Her mother, Grandma K, had Alzheimer’s, too.
I think about this a lot, this brain-cheesing process called Alzheimer’s, mostly because I expect to follow suit one day, if I’m lucky enough to reach old age without some form of cancer snuffing me out first. And I’ve reached the conclusion that there is actually a beauty in forgetting. Not to diminish the pain it causes to family and friends — not at all. But for the person — for the cheese-brain — I think it is a way of getting to let go of life and all its attachments without actually having to say goodbye. It’s slipping back into the void slowly, the personality dissolving at a gentle simmer, the mind drifting up into the heavens years before the body stops. The whole thing sounds pretty good to me.
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Ada May is still beautiful. Some old people are decrepit, with their jowls and eyelids sagging like sideways vaginas, but not Ada May. Her cheeks are still full and pink, her lips plump, her eyes bright. It’s just that now she’s an old, cute baby. She doesn’t remember that her husband has been dead for sixteen years — she wouldn’t believe you if you told her she ever had a husband at all. She doesn’t remember her brother, her parents, or falling in love, or giving birth five times or being a nurse or travelling the world or even her own middle name. But she is happy. I think she’s the happiest pretty old baby I’ve ever seen, if not the happiest person I’ve ever seen. Actually, that’s not true. She gets mad sometimes, mostly at the health care aides my uncle hired to feed her lunch and help her to the bathroom. Also, she’s kind of a bully. She hurls books and teacups and lamps when she doesn’t get her way.
I haven’t seen Ada May since Sam died. She didn’t come to the funeral because it would have required her to take the ferry from Vancouver, and she doesn’t know what a ferry is anymore.
Sam met Ada May just once. It was right before she was totally swallowed by the Alzheimer’s. We had a barbecue on my uncle’s patio. I introduced her to Sam, and she sat there with her little Yorkie on her lap, wearing the same bemused and elegant expression she always had. I told her about the house we had just rented together, how it had a walk-in closet just like she and Grandpa had had in their old townhouse, how Lark loved climbing the enormous fig tree in the backyard. She nodded politely, but the comprehension was mostly gone by then.
“She’s still quite beautiful,” Sam said in the car on the way home.
“She is. She has kind of a timeless grace about her, doesn’t she?”
“If you look like that when you’re old, I’ll still ravage you every day.”
“I know. I’ll probably look more like a confused elephant, though. Will you still love me?”
“You betcha, baby.”
Hunting for meaning is the most natural thing to do when you’re confused, and I find myself confused a lot these days. Luckily, I’ve learned that meaning can be found in just about anything, if I concentrate hard enough.
One trick I like is to stand in front of a bookshelf. I close my eyes and run one hand along the book spines until I get the feeling that it’s time to stop. Whatever book my hand is resting on is the one I pull out. My eyes remain closed as I flip through the pages, and the sentence my index finger lands on is “The One.” It’s the sentence that illuminates the meaning of the day, a Very Special Message from the Universe to me.
Today, I pull out Ozma of Oz:
Finally, in despair, she decided to leave it entirely to chance.
See? Could it be any clearer?
There’s a guy coming over this evening to talk about fixing my overgrown disgrace of a backyard. I like its shameful appearance. Starla does not. She is convinced that the three-foot-tall weeds are attracting all the neighbourhood rats to gather and plot against her. She keeps knocking on my door to tell me about how the rats are all my doing and are making her afraid to go outside.
I’m a slob, but I don’t leave garbage in my yard, and I keep the recycling inside until recycling day. The rats aren’t my problem — they’re not my fucking problem — and I’m getting really tired of her thinking up ways to get me to take responsibility for her rodent prejudice.
“They’re not my rats,” I told her for the hundredth time when she banged on my door like a cop at eight the other morning. I’d answered groggy and confused. “I don’t have pet rats,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “I went into your yard when you were at work, and I could see their little trails through the weeds you’re growing back there. They’re getting through the fence into my yard, and I need you to take care of it.”
“I like my yard natural, and dandelions are important for the bees, but I’ll cut them down if it would make you feel better.”
“Thanks. It would.”
I called my sister to complain.
“My neighbour is being fucking crazy again. She’s convinced I’m breeding rats over here.”
“Just get the yard cleaned up, Elsie. It’s got to get done anyway if you’re going to sell the place. I know a guy; I’ll text you his email.”
“Oh, so should I shave my armpits, too, if Starla thinks they’re attracting rats?”
“Your yard is a jungle — come on.”
“It is not! It’s a garden of common weeds and grasses — a garden, not a jungle.”
“Just call the guy, Elsie. His name is Trevor. He’s good. Anyways, I’ve gotta go. I’ll text you.”
She said she would text me, so I was expecting a text, but after twenty minutes of waiting and seething over Starla basically saying that I’m a disgusting rat person, I decided to do something useful.
I found a piece of construction paper and made a flyer, which I folded up and placed in Starla’s mailbox:
From: The Rat King
Where: Next door
When: Now (or whenever)
On the inside, I drew a little picture of a friendly rat with an eye patch and sharp fangs, and a text bubble saying YOU ARE INVITED TO RAT WORLD! Underneath that I listed some of the best things about Rat World:
• Lots of garbage to eat!
• Mazes! Prizes!
• Rats! Rats! Rats! Rats galore!
• Disease-friendly! Free hugs and kisses!
Trevor the Yard Guy arrives with a clipboard and a measuring tape, his jeans secured with a belt high above his belly button, his T-shirt tucked tight. He is a tall and tidy man with a crushing handshake and teeth like yellow coral, and he is currently tromping around my yard, looking at things. He keeps saying you guys, as in, you guys could get some landscaping rocks, you guys could save some money by filling this area with gravel, you guys should try power-washing this patio.
Once it’s time to talk money, he seems nervous to be throwing numbers around. He keeps glancing over at the back door of my house, as though he expects a hairy husband to burst out and yell, Hey, that’s a rip-off! You trying to rip off my wife?
I tell him I’d like to book right away, hoping that nailing down a date will help him feel less squirrelly, but nope, he’s still being all weird and looking at the door.
“I’ll just leave the quote with you and let you guys discuss it — how’s that?”
“I’d like to just book it now.”
“You don’t want to discuss it with your husband?” Bam — there it is.
“No. Can we just book a date now, please?”
It’s not computing; I can see him short-circuiting.
“I’m seeing a lot of toys in the yard,” he says, trying out loud to make sense of this crazy puzzle. “You have kids obviously, eh? I just thought —”
“Yeah. Single mum.”
“Oh, okay. Well, this’ll be a good deal for you, then, eh?” He scratches out his quote and replaces it with one for fifty bucks less. “My wife’s ex is a real piece of work, eh? Gives me grief all the time, and it’s been five years. I hope your ex is treating you right.”
“He treats me great.”
“Oh, good to hear.”
“He died last Christmas.”
“Aw, jeez. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Dead people are nice. They always treat you right.”
He grimaces, then nods earnestly like we’re at church and I’ve just quoted some Bible passage that stabbed him right in the Christ bone. I’m really expecting him to flip open his calendar and pencil me in now, but he doesn’t; the idea of the dead husband has relaxed him, and he sits down in a patio chair, leans forward with his elbows on his knees and hands clasped, and looks at me mournfully. It’s a look that says, Baby, we’ve known each other for a few months now, and it’s about time we had a little talk about us.
“Look, I’m gonna be real with you for a minute,” he says.
“It’s crazy that you’re going through all this. It’s a crazy coincidence, eh? ’Cause I’m having a real hard time right now, too, so I know what you’re going through.”
“Yeah. My dog just died of cancer. We tried to save him, but there wasn’t nothing we could do, eh? Twelve years old. Just had to let him go.”
His eyes are welling with tears.
I sit down in the chair beside him, and we gaze at the weeds together.
“Yup, nothing fair about it. He was my best bud. And me and the wife are going through some stuff right now too, because ’course, whenever it rains, it pours. Wife’s mom’s in the hospital because she fell off a stool and hit her head, so that’s real hard because now we gotta visit every day. And then my dad, Christ. He just had a hip replacement, and the food in the hospital is so bad it almost poisoned him to death, and we had to bring in A&W every day, eh?”
“Man. Yeah, that’s a lot. Sorry about your dog.”
Trevor says his dog, ZZ Top Dog, was a beauty, just a beauty of a boy, eh? A mutt with a heart of gold who could open the fridge with his paws and help himself to whatever food he wanted. ZZ Top Dog danced, too — did I ever meet a dog who danced?
“Yup, he danced all right. To the beat and everything.”
Trevor also tells me that 2016 has been a real bad year for a lot of people.
“Real bad year,” he says. “Something’s in the water, eh?”
“Yeah, in the water.”
“I’m always delighted to hear that a lot of other people are having a bad year,” I say.
We settle on a date, and he talks a bit more about his dad and the hospital food. Then he stands up and vigorously brushes some invisible sawdust off his pants. “Gotta go pick up the wifey now.”
“Okay. Thanks for coming.”
He offers his hand for another shake. I take it. It is uncomfortable. It goes on far too long, it’s too tight, and he’s looking deep into my soul, smiling intensely with those yellow teeth.
“Nice meeting you, Elsie.”
“Nice meeting you, too.”
He climbs into his white utility van. It doesn’t have windows in the back.
I feed the kids a frozen pizza. In the living room after eating, Lark performs a dance she learned at school, and I pretend very hard to seem interested, which is difficult.
My children have become blurs that squawk and orbit around me making demands, and even though I don’t fully see them anymore, I respond as though I do. Still, I have the sneaking suspicion that they’re the only things tethering me to the Earth.
I make it through the bedtime routine. Somehow I’ve done that every night since Sam died. The muscle memory of parenthood — baths, storytimes, forehead kisses. Then I settle into my insomnia routine of blasting Sam’s favourite songs in my headphones, pacing the house, yelling at him, smoking cigarettes, and crying.
I fall asleep at 3:45 a.m. and dream of Trevor the Yard Guy. I am floating through the underground parking lot of the SilverCity Cinema when I see him unloading something from the back of his van into a wheelbarrow. It is a human body wrapped in a blue camping tarp, tied up with rope. I know it’s a human body because I can see the hair, matted and dark. ZZ Top Dog is there, sniffing things like a good boy and following along as Trevor wheels the body into the forest behind the theatre. He dumps it in a small, marshy clearing, then he looks at the sky.
“It wasn’t me,” he whimpers. “I just found her that way.”
Excerpt from What Remains of Elsie Jane by Chelsea Wakelyn, published by Dundurn Press. Copyright Chelsea Wakelyn, 2022. Reprinted with permission.
Chelsea Wakelyn is a writer, musician, and mother to two lovely, eccentric humans. She lives on Vancouver Island.