It’s late May when James arrives in Rose-Marie, fresh from Antigonish, where he lives now. He shows up without fanfare. Without flourish. Without so much as a phone call to let me know he’s coming. He is simply, suddenly, standing before me in the grey light of a late Monday morning.
It’s late May when James arrives in Rose-Marie, fresh from Antigonish, where he lives now. He shows up without fanfare. Without flourish. Without so much as a phone call to let me know he’s coming. He is simply, suddenly, standing before me in the grey light of a late Monday morning. He flicks on the overhead lamps, which I prefer to leave off on days like today, and makes his way behind the counter to hug me.
“You’ll go blind doing that in this dark,” he says. Chides me like a child. Even though I’m older than he is. He ties an apron on—forest-green, with our surname embroidered on the front in fraying gold thread—and falls into step, tempering the chocolate and handing it over to me. I draw the steaming liquid up into syringes and fill tin moulds, starting with simple solids and progressing quickly to centres and creams as my fingers become familiar with the rhythm of this spring ceremony. We work the way we did when we were kids: giddy, disbelieving of our luck, dipping our fingers into too-hot pots and licking spoons clean before we wash them. James drops cherries into his mouth and chases them with shots of dark, melted chocolate. I pluck naked caramels from a wax-papered tray, leaving a checkerboard of candy behind, waiting to be dipped.
By week’s end, the bonbons will be sinister as something overdosed on, and we’ll work without distraction, but today—at the start of the season, after a sweets-less winter, during this calm before the short summer storm of tourists—our appetites are endless. And, unlike when we were kids, we can indulge without fear of being caught by our parents.
Edmund, my Komondor, lazes on the deck as we work. After a while he rises and walks himself down to the beach where he stands in the surf to cool off. Locals shout his name. A vacationing family, too early for any of the handful of seasonal attractions that won’t open for weeks, poses for pictures with him. The kids, encouraged by his calm demeanour (a characteristic that meant we always had Komondors growing up), point at him and pet him. They braid his dreaded fur. Heartened by their attention, he carries rocks to them in his mouth. The kids throw the stones toward the water. Edmund runs into the ocean after them, kicking up rust-red clouds of sand, dips his face below the surface, and turns his head from side to side, searching the bottom. He delivers the rocks back to the shore and shakes off. The kids squeal and run from his dog-shower—dishwater-dirty and cold—but he follows them and begs, with a cocked head and wagging tail, for more. They oblige. Eventually they tire of his game, and Edmund ambles back to the shop to dry off on the wooden deck. When he follows James and me home at the end of the day, he leaves miniature dunes behind—little molehills of red sand, much like the ones that lie all over the floor of my parents’ house. My house.
With its plaster walls, slanted ceilings and narrow staircase, my house is in the best shape of all the buildings my dad bought. To the right of it stretches the rest of his crumbling empire. His listing legacy. His empty nest egg. A full block of neighbouring properties that were meant to provide my parents with projects once James and I moved away for good. Two are rented to fair-weather tenants who view the minor decay as charming. One acts as storage for my mother’s out-of-control vintage furniture collection. The last sits empty except for the rear sunroom, which is filled with the detritus of James’s pet projects. Ideas that excited him, enchanted him, deserted him, and died unrealized. The trashed tomato plants out back, remnants of last summer’s organic farm, are evidence of this. So too are the heat lamps from the chicks he raised, at the age of ten, until the alley cats ate them.
I remember how my dad knelt between my sobbing brother and the mess of bloody down in the chicks’ toppled cage.
We were supposed to go for a fishing lesson that afternoon. James had never been. I had, so I knew what kind of carnage would be involved if we were lucky with our lures. I wasn’t surprised when my dad suggested we postpone the trip, but James insisted we go.
He was the only one who caught anything. On any other day this would have ignited my sense of sibling rivalry, but on that day I congratulated him as he pulled a small, silver herring up out of the water, a thrashing thread of mercury in the midday sun.
I helped him remove the hook with a set of brass pliers and nodded when he said he thought we should let the fish go because it was too small to fill anyone up.
“I think that’s smart fishing,” I said as he leaned over the gunwale, holding the fish carefully in his hands.
My dad looked at me above James’s head.
“Agreed.” He smiled.
When James and I open on the sixteenth of June, the cold storage is full. The glass display case exhibits perfect rows of gourmet chocolates, laid out in delicate papers. White, dark, milk, and chili. Piped icing in pastel colours. Chocolate characters skewered on sucker sticks and wrapped in cellophane.
We spent the morning cleaning a week’s worth of ignored mess, so the chocolate factory is something out of a Victorian fable this afternoon. Burnished wood and copper candy kettles gleam in the dim light. The antique cash register, equal parts decoration and (dys)function, ca-chunks as it rings in purchases. Customers leave with crisp, white paper bags that, in the heat of the day, quickly become streaked with cocoa.
Chocolate has always been a romantic notion, but never so much as it is here. The factory makes people want to leave their lives for mine—a career of candy. Their reactions help me to understand my dad’s motives for opening the place. They imagine, as I’m sure he did, sweetly-scented days spent mixing, melting, testing, tasting, creating, combining, dipping, and delighting in the velvet sight of so much liquid chocolate. It’s easy for outsiders to forget the finer details. The science of melting points, the cost of cavities, the barely-there income that accompanies a summer season only three months long. The business end of being a small-town Willy Wonka.
Today, however, a blond woman peppers me with questions while she browses. As she juggles bags of saltwater taffy and souvenir sweatshirts from the gift shop down the street, trying to make room in her arms for a bouquet of chocolate roses, she comments that this must be a labour of love for the both of us.
“That or a substitute for it,” James replies. “You know what they say about women and candy.”
She laughs and I wonder if she thinks James and I are a couple. I worried about this all the time when we were teenagers and made loud, regular comments about our parents—shared, collective, one and the same—to set people straight.
“So?” she asks. “Which is it? Labour or substitute?”
I smile as I hand her a sample of peanut brittle, drizzled with chocolate.
“Somewhere between the two,” I say.
My dad was born in Rose-Marie. He only lived there until he was ten, but when he married my mother, they bought the cottage, now my house, so we could spend our summers on Prince Edward Island. Every August, when we returned to the city, I cried. I bargained. I begged to stay.
“Why can’t we just live here?”
“We’d love to, Lora … ”
“Well, why don’t we?”
“Because Daddy’s job is in Ontario.”
“Why can’t he find one here?”
“It’s not that easy.”
But, as I eventually deduced, it was that easy. He quit his job the year I turned six.
His boss, Mr. Leack, was stunned. One didn’t walk away from the kind of career my dad had. Particularly not when one was being groomed, as my dad was, for partnership.
“Moving where?” Mr. Leack asked. “Rose-Marie? To do what exactly?”
“Chocolate,” my dad said. “We’re going to make chocolate.”
The day we pulled away from our Beaches-based duplex, I was ecstatic, quivering, victorious, freshly amazed by my dad as he sat behind the wheel of a moving truck.
He steered us through the eastern provinces via long, slow back roads that stretched a thirteen-hour trip over three days. A never-ending Sunday drive. We passed fieldstone houses with tin roofs, and small shuttered cottages on the St. Lawrence. We spent a night in Quebec City and had dinner in a restaurant where my parents ordered in confident, textbook French. It was the first and last time la fille voudrait le raclette because my eyes proved bigger than my stomach, which expelled le raclette as soon as we got back to our hotel. “Cochon,” my mother teased as she tucked me in afterwards.
In Alma, we picked up lobster lunches and backtracked up a rollercoaster of a hill to a picnic site in Fundy Park. My mother, six months pregnant with James at the time, looked every bit a lady in tortoiseshell sunglasses and a sherbet-shaded dress, but she plundered our paper plates like a barbarian. “Finished?” she asked as she cracked open the tiny legs we’d given up on. “Done here?” She sucked the salty flesh free.
“Watch out, Lora,” my dad joked. “You could lose an arm.”
Once on the island, instead of driving twenty minutes south to Rose-Marie, we headed north and circled the province almost entirely, something we’d never done before. In the past, pressed for vacation time, we’d always taken the most direct route.
“I just love the lighthouses here,” my mother sighed, staring out the window as we went by the white concrete tower at Shipwreck Point. “Imagine being a lightkeeper?”
“What a quiet life,” my dad said.
“What a lonely life,” my mother said.
“A hero’s life,” I whispered, imagining dramatic storms and narrowly averted ocean spills.
“I don’t think it’s quite as thrilling as all that anymore,” my mother said. “Especially these days. I think they’re automating everything. I would bet a lot of it is pretty mundane work.”
“No way.” I shook my head.
“I think your mother’s right,” my dad said. “Most of it is probably grounds work. Painting the place. Cleaning the windows. Mowing the lawn.” He laughed. “Hey, if all that is so exciting, you can be the keeper at the cottage from now on!”
I crossed my arms, pursed my lips and narrowed my eyes toward the front seat. My dad, still chuckling, winked at my glare in the rearview.
The storefront my parents purchased was two doors down from our cottage. Formerly a bakery, the bare bones of the chocolate factory were already there. The original glass windows, rippled and funhouse, needed cleaning, and replacing in some cases. The wide pine plank floors needed sanding and varnishing. The plumbing and electric had to be ripped out and reworked. Everything was to be painted according to my mother’s vision— gold and forest green.
“It’s just such a classic combination,” she said.
That first summer, I ran rowdy through the village with Hetty (formerly my best summer friend, now simply my best friend) while my parents, dressed in matching overalls, worked straight through to August. My mother practically birthed James from the top step of a ladder where she painted her spruce-coloured trim, twelve feet up.
Rose-Marie hadn’t had a new boy since Hetty’s older brother Benjamin was born nine years earlier, so James was the unofficial first son of the village from day one. Even when he moved to the opposite coast to go to school in Vancouver, even when he skipped a chocolate season one summer, even though he never lived a full year in Rose-Marie after the age of seventeen, he retained his islander status. It didn’t matter that I’d put in half a decade before James arrived on the scene; didn’t matter that I was the one who stayed, year-round, year after year. I was always the daughter from away.
When I went back to Ontario to get a degree, everyone harassed me about going.
“Can’t take the city out of the girl, eh?” Matty Foord called from the stoop of his jewellery shop.
The only time I didn’t get grief about leaving was the fall my dad died. Longing for the white noise of city, I fled to Toronto and moved in with an ex-boyfriend who became current for the seven months I was there. I had planned to skip the summer completely, but panicked one night in April, loaded Edmund into my Hyundai, and arrived in Rose-Marie just before lunch the next day.
James stays for two weeks. The days are long, but busy, so we lose all sense of time. At night, we force ourselves to be social, but never get more than a half-hour into conversation before falling asleep in the living room, on couches and in armchairs, bottles of beer wedged between the cushions to keep them from spilling.
His last night in town, we go for dinner at Delaney’s, where we try to jam weeks’ worth of catching up into a single evening. I tell him how RoseMarie’s residents are at the throats of the summer populace over a proposed three-storey hotel. The village sees it as an opportunity for jobs, for increased tourism. The summer folk who live along Second Street won’t stand for it because it will interfere with the view.
“Forget them,” James says. “They’ll just build higher.”
He tells me about his new girlfriend, a songwriter he met at a house party in December. I raise my eyebrows at the words “house party” and he confirms she is much younger.
“Are you … ” he looks down, likely sorry that he broached the subject to begin with. “Are you seeing anyone?” I can tell he’s embarrassed to acknowledge that his sister might have a love life. He doesn’t need to worry.
“What about Charlie Hagan?”
“What about Charlie Hagan?”
“Nothing. What’s wrong with Charlie?”
“Well then … ?”
I shrug my shoulders and shut my mouth about the handful of times I’ve slept with Charlie in the last few months. It’s nothing and therefore nothing James needs to know.
“He thinks you’re amazing,” James says.
“He’s easily amazed.”
“Come on, Lora. He’s had a crush on you for a decade.”
“He’s easily crushed.”
James picks through the basket of sweet potato fries in front of us. They criss-cross each other like a pile of greasy kindling, dusted with chili flakes. A plastic cup of cinnamon-spiced mayo sits on the side to douse the heat.
As James rises to use the washroom, Matty Foord slides into the chair across from me. His head is down, a cap pulled low on his brow.
“Mind?” he asks. “Just until they leave,” he motions toward a couple at the door of the bar. “Victorians. From B.C. Very uptight. I’m making her a necklace, they’re leaving early, blah blah blah. I assured them until I was blue in the face I’d have it ready for tomorrow, but they’re on a tight schedule. Practically had to gag them to shut them up and get them out of the store!”
I smile into my pint.
“Matty, the day you try to end any conversation, I’ll … ”
He looks at me sidelong. “You’ll what?”
“I’ll start one.”
“Is it finished?”
“Is what finished?”
Matty nods yes, slurps his beer, shakes his head no.
“Well, not physically, but it is—” he pauses, sips his beer, flexes his fingers, “—all right—” licks his lips, “—up here,” taps his temple beneath a thick curl of white hair. “It’s beautiful. Just a matter of stringing it together.” He cocks his head and asks if he’s ever told me about the Beautiful Baby Pageant of 1955. He has, probably a dozen times, but I tell him no.
Matty waves at Sean, the bartender, for a round of shots. “It’s a quick one. About your dad,” he says. I wonder for a minute if that’s meant to explain the shots, but Matty doesn’t generally feel the need to explain shots. “Way I figure it, he’s to blame I never married. No woman around would have the ugliest man in town.” He laughs. “Anyway, each of us— your dad and I, barely a year at the time, 1955—each of us was entered into that pageant by our respective mothers.”
He raises his whiskey and I do the same.
“Your dad, God bless his pretty face, placed first and yours truly? Well, I had the misfortune to come in dead last! He got a medal, and me? The dubious distinction of the year’s ugliest baby!”
Matty tips the shot back and stares at the bar’s rough-hewn ceiling beams. “’Course, no one remembers we were the only two kids born that year.”
“I eat chocolate every day and I’m losing weight!” my dad used to gloat. At first, it was an insignificant amount. Nothing to worry about. Not until the thinness became noticeable in his face; not until he had to buy three new pairs of pants in a matter of months because his old ones came to look cartoon-y. Like the chest waders he wore, for comedic effect rather than functionality, when he took James and me fishing as kids.
From there, it happened in fast-forward. He lost his appetite and lay in bed, skeletal, starved. His skin yellowed and opened easy as old newsprint for my mother’s needles, which grew stronger and more frequent. In order to avoid the obvious, I talked endlessly about the day-to-day operation of the factory. As long as my mouth monopolized the silence I could keep the conversation on solid ground. I gave him local gossip, told him about everyone who came through the door, asked questions I’d never considered (should we start doing marzipan?), went after answers I already knew (where are the paper cups for the peanut-butter balls?). My dad went along with my ruse, happily scratching out lists of chores, orders, methods, and general candyland maintenance.
That was four years ago. My mother stayed in Rose-Marie for six months and then moved back to Ontario. She visits sporadically: sometimes pre-season to help James and me open; sometimes in the middle, like a tourist; sometimes during the soft, silent days of winter when RoseMarie’s population dwindles to 73. When she leaves, she always says the same thing: “I’m glad we did this, Lora,” as though we take breaks from our lives to visit the chocolate factory. As though none of us live here anymore.
The husband from Victoria shows up at the chocolate factory the next morning. He’s killing time while Matty finishes his wife’s necklace.
“How does that guy stay afloat?” he asks as I hand him a bag full of butter creams. “I knew it wasn’t going to be finished.”
“How does a personality like that run a business?”
“Better question might be how does a personality like that run a town?” I say. “Matty’s the mayor.”
For a moment, the husband stands in front of me, mouth open, still irritated. A beat. Two beats. I push the cash drawer closed. He shakes his head slowly, laughs, thanks me, and leaves.
I’m making espresso when James stops in on his way out of town. I hand him a bag of chocolate hearts. “For your teenage girlfriend.”
He gives me the finger, hugs me, and promises to be back for closing in September.
The daylight hours are busy, so I stay until dark to catch up. I stay until Edmund, hungry, starts whining out on the deck. It’s ten o’clock, but even during peak season, the street is empty at this time of night. We’re alone as we walk home, leaving a red trail in our wake like Hansel and Gretel. Behind us, the lighthouse at the end of the pier blinks an automated warning, its reflection mirrored in the left-hand window of the factory.