“Transcendent Expectation” is the Third Place winner for Room’s 2022 Fiction Contest. Of this piece, judge Shashi Bhat writes: “Transcendent Expectation is a story about a modest prayer on a family road trip, felt deeply by its young protagonist. This piece is nostalgic and patient, written with immense charm and insight, capturing the particulars of family and questions of faith through the sensitive eyes of a child.”
Hope is with you when you believe
The earth is not a dream but living flesh,
That sight, touching, and hearing do not lie. – Czelaw Miłosz (1911-2004), “Hope”
Everyone slept. The car purred silently along the empty highway. In the back seat, Dorrie’s grandmother sat quietly, hands on her purse, like the nursery rhyme: “Here are Grandma’s glasses, here is Grandma’s hat. This is how she folds her hands and puts them in her lap.” Her eyes were softly closed behind her silver spectacles. On Dorrie’s other side, her sister Willa’s head lolled forward, then snapped back until she settled, a sweater wedged between her and the window. In the front her mother’s arms held her little sister Coralee, both of their mouths sagging to the side, their bodies given in completely to the release of sleep.
Every other year for as long as Dorrie remembered, her family–her mom and dad, oldest sister Willa, youngest sister Coralee and her grandmother– had made the three-hour trip north to visit her dad’s brother and family at Easter. After spending the day, they would return by the same road, passing through a part of the city, and past the coveted ice-cream stand before arriving back at their own farm.
Dorrie alone sat awake, upright and alert. Her dad, driving, gnawed at a fingernail. Now and then he glanced at her through the rear view mirror; once he caught her eyes and smiled briefly before going back to his own thoughts..
Her eyes closed, shutting out the light, like a theater dimmed to bring the screen to life, and she began to pray, but not audibly. It was more of a visceral yearning–she couldn’t really imagine God, which troubled her, because she easily saw fairies and heard birds talk to her in her summer wanderings and in the books she read, God being only a figure in the stories she heard in Sunday School. “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow” was a song the children often sang. She wasn’t concerned about her height, but she interpreted the formula as pray more, receive more. At the tender age of eleven, still closer to her advent in this world than her leave-taking of it, she felt the tension within her of transcendental expectation and the solemn weight of a god who demanded her obedience but who might not care for her imagination or longings. So far, there wasn’t much evidence in her favour.
“You never get something for nothing,” her father always said. Practical, all business. Dorrie kept testing the theory whenever she had the chance, even though so far, she was no taller or happier as far as she could tell, for all the prayers and earnestness with which she tried to access God. Mostly, she saw more fairies and flowers on the patterned wallpaper when she lay on her back looking up at the sloped ceiling above her bed at night, and her prayers felt as though they rebounded back from the wood and beams. She had vivid dreams, nightmares actually, in which a little gnome-like man came to frighten her into sleepless cowering in the corner of her small bed, and God never came to rescue her from him.
But she persisted. And each time her family made the road trip home, she risked asking God for the thing she wanted most: a milkshake of her own at the Ice Cap stand on the outskirts of the city. Asking father was even riskier, so she appealed to God to intervene.
The long ride north always felt like a journey to a foreign country; she’d never travelled anywhere else outside of her farm and the surrounding fields but once. That one time, taking her rightful turn–Willa had gone the previous trip–she’d ridden with her dad in the truck to deliver pigs to the abattoir in Winnipeg. Not a word exchanged between them, she too busy feeling badly for the pigs’ impending death and her father figuring profit margins in his head.
After leaving the poor pigs squealing down the ramp at the abattoir, they’d returned home, but before leaving the city with its cars and sidewalks, signs and tall buildings she’d gaped up at in wonder, they’d stopped at an orange brick building with an overhanging roof. Near it stood a pedestal that rotated a large orange sign stamped with large black block letters A & W. A friendly looking cartoon bear stood to one side of the letters. This was the place her sister had told her about. Her heartbeat quickened.
They had parked in a stall with a giant lit-up metal box to one side. “Yah, we’ll have a small root beer and a regular one. And a jawg besides,” her father had shouted in his clumsy English into the box, not sure how far his voice needed to carry to convey his order. Dorrie had sat in wonder while her dad counted out a bill and a few coins. Moments later, a girl in an orange shirt and black pants hooked a tray with two frosty mugs of root beer on the truck’s half rolled down window and then handed over a gallon jug.
“One large root beer, one small root beer, and a gallon of root beer. That’ll be a dollar and thirty-five cents, please.” Her father had handed over his coins to the girl and then passed on the small frosty mug to her. They’d sat and drank the bubbly confection in silence, she taking small sips, not wanting to finish too quickly so that she’d have to watch him while her mug was empty. She’d savoured the sweet, thin molasses that bubbled up into her nostrils and considered the sign, turning on its pedestal. “Maybe the letters stand for Abe and Walter?”
Her father had laughed then. Abe and Walter were the neighbours he went fishing with each summer. “Could be,” was all he’d said in return but she remembered the conversation long after, her dad laughing at something she had said, like they were sharing a private joke. He was not warm and affectionate, more business and order, so the individual attention of the trip stayed in her heart for weeks after. Now she remembered, and hoped that when he saw she was still awake, he would remember as well and guess her unspoken longing.
“Have you all used the toilet?” her father asked before anyone was allowed to get into the car. “I am not stopping. Other-wise we won’t get there by noon.” Lunch was at noon, no exceptions allowed. Ever. They packed into the car like geometric shapes fitting into their proper holes in her little sister’s Tupperware shape-matching toy, her baby sister in the front between her parents, her grandmother and older sister flanking her in the back. Whenever she tried claiming the window seat by hanging back when it was time to go, jostling with her sister, her dad gave her a stern glance and that was the end of it.
Her grandmother wore her best–and only–Sunday hat for the occasion, one that resembled a stiff black inverted plant pot with a bit of netting and a rose to one side. In her hands she clutched a matching black purse with a satisfying click closure that contained a hankie, a bag of green peppermints, and an extra plastic bread bag just in case. The peppermints she distributed at regular intervals were the sole diversion on the three-hour trip, a mostly silent ride since the road was monotonous. As it skirted the edges of Winnipeg, all one saw were tall buildings in the distance to one side and miles of fields on the other running forever until they met the sky.
The road eventually turned to gravel the closer they got, looking more like the farm world they came from after the smoothness of the Winnipeg Perimeter Road.
Sitting in the middle meant that there were occasional interruptions, jostles and complaints from her sister: “You’re taking up too much space, move over!” Dorrie’s grandma hugged her to her side and she squirmed in protest, but she didn’t mind really, feeling warm against her grandma’s body.
With nothing but the occasional mint to pass the time and nothing to look forward to at the other end except the relief of getting out of the car, the trip was tedious. Dorrie always made the most of the candy ration, holding it in her mouth and feeling the sugar dissolve bit by bit, unlike Willa, who sucked at it noisily and then asked, “Can I have another?” Her mother was taciturn by nature and offered up no clever games or contests to fill the time. They were not a jolly family, more given to silence than to singing silly road trip songs.
The closer they got to their destination, the more rugged the landscape became: mostly bush and more bush: scraggy pines and the odd deciduous tree still bare in the early spring. There was one clearing where a large log house sat with a large glass window that reached up in a triangle, like a glass tent. She wondered what it would be like to live in such a place and why anyone would want to live out there in the middle of nowhere. She liked it because it gave her something to think about. For eleven, she did a lot of thinking.
Although she was too young to be able to articulate what she felt, living in a family that eschewed the expression of feelings, Dorrie often felt like the aliens she read about, deserted on cold planets. She lived in the world of her imagination fueled by books she read from the shelves of her school’s small library, one by one, starting with A, so she wouldn’t miss a single one.
“Tell me about when you were a girl,” she sometimes said, pressing her grandmother for a distraction.
“Nay, nay, daut vull kjeena hieri,” said her grandmother, shaking her head and patting her arm. Dorrie saw the look her mom and dad exchanged, and knew they didn’t want to hear the stories or her grandma.
“But that one about your brother cutting your ankle with a—”
“Hia, neem ye eene,” said her grandmother, pressing another mint into her hand.
Her father’s brother, Uncle John, had married a girl outside of Rosenfeld, leaving her father on the family farm with Dorrie’s grandmother, an independent, strong-willed woman whose husband had died in a tractor accident, leaving her two small boys in the middle of the Depression. When her father had married a girl from a well-to-do established family near town, the clash of two strong women on a small prairie farm was a storm that unleashed thunder and lightning, even though their houses were separated by wide expanse of grass.
“She tells me how to plant my potatoes! And Ed just stands there,” her mother would complain on the phone to her sister. Then she’d abruptly change her tone, saying, “I just called for Mom’s bread recipe,” grumbling after she hung up that she couldn’t even “have a phone conversation without her listening in.” Dorrie knew her grandmother liked to listen in on the party phone line, and she understood her mother’s indignation. It was all so complicated, it seemed to her. She felt keenly the icy unfriendliness of her mother toward her grandmother when her grandmother came for Sunday dinner, walking in without so much as a knock, Dorrie saw her mother’s eyebrows come together and her jawline set, and dinner, no matter how tasty, always stuck in her throat like the tension in the air. It pained her to see that the two women she loved most in the world could not get along and she was helpless to fix anything. This problem, too, was unresolved by her evening prayers, despite her earnestness.
Her mother, Clara, wore high heels on Sunday and applied a little lipstick now and then when she went to town. Uncle John and Aunt Lydia lived on the edge of civilization in a time warp, as far north of the city as their own farm was south, and her mother stood out like a prickly rose in a field of stubble. As a result, the trips were a grudging attempt to fulfill familial duty but Dorrie was never sure who, if anyone, looked forward to the reunion. It was tradition; that’s what was required. Once, on the way home Coralee, just a baby, sobbed most of the way until they were all frantic with frustration. Only when they got home did they discover her foot had been bent in her little shoe, forced on in a hurry to leave that godforsaken place.
Each time they arrived, up the narrow weedy gravel road and then on to the yard carved out of the bush, Dorrie had to face the dreaded black beast of a dog that bounded on and up and around them, an energetic Labrador they called Jack, as though he were a member of the family. (Although they always had a kitten or two to play with, her dad taught them not to get too attached to them because sooner or later, they’d succumb to some infection. Animals were more dispensable than precious, in his opinion.) The rest of the tribe consisted of the cousins, Lynford and Tom, boys she thought of as small Daniel Boones with their hunting stories and wild ways, and Darlene, the eldest, who laughed and farted in equal volume–loudly–and made fun of them for their shrinking away from the wildness and the dog.
“How was the trip? You must have made good time. Nice weather for this time of the year,” was all Uncle John could muster. A retiring man, and a minister, he wrung his hands a lot and laughed nervously, and Aunt Lydia, a severe looking woman who wore her hair in a tight bun like Dorrie’s tyrannical teacher, Miss. Penner, scared her, even though she was hospitable enough.
The yard, although not untidy, did not resemble their own neat, trimmed acreage, having been carved out of the bush. It was surrounded by alder, birch, and more pines along with the usual farm detritus: machinery, lengths of wood, abandoned bicycles. A small garden had been scrabbled out in the clearing, accommodating as many stones as vegetables, it seemed to her. No one lingered long outside. Everything felt strange and hostile, including mosquitos that surrounded them in droves to capitalize on fresh flesh.
“Come in, come in!” urged her aunt when she saw them all slapping their arms and legs and faces, unused to the hordes of biting insects. The food was equally strange: rather than the familiarity of veriniki, dumplings filled with cottage cheese, or her mother’s soft baked bulki buns and the sweet and cold plumi mousse soup rich with raisins, prunes and dried apples that her mother made only for Easter, her aunt served roast goose, black and greasy, or venison, gamey and wild. On the rare occasion they stayed overnight, they had cereal with milk “that’s still warm from the cow!” her uncle declared; it made Dorrie shudder. She’d fish the bits of cereal out of the milk that tasted to her like the udder of the animal.
Occasionally, her grandma stayed on for a week, bringing her small brown suitcase with her, riding back with neighbours who also had relatives there and were making their own annual family visit. Dorrie could not imagine being left there in that wilderness, and she missed her grandma’s warm presence beside her on those trips. However, there were benefits to these absences for her. Her grandma charged her with watering her plants when she was gone, leaving small prizes for each of the days-six plums in her small icebox one day, a bag of homemade popcorn the next, and a postcard from her olden days box on the one after that, so that was something. She was happiest when her grandmother returned.
In fact, her grandmother was a curiosity Dorrie never tired of, more frugal than anyone she knew, and more fun than any of her cousins or friends at school.
“Measure out a three-by-three square,” she instructed, handing Dorrie and Willa the sides of a Cheerios box. “We’ll use them to cut out the quilt blocks. Then we’ll have a game of checkers.” Or “Hold out your hands like this,” and she’d hold her own arms out to the right width and wind her knitting yarn around Dorrie’s hands into skeins. Sometimes they would play a string game Dorrie had learned from her friends at school, using the leftover ends of wool. Working with her grandma was play for Dorrie and her sister, and Dorrie marvelled at her grandmother’s ingenuity: she saved the bags inside cereal boxes to store her baking, and then used the boxes for Christmas gift wrapping or to cut out templates for her quilts, which were made out of scraps of fabric from the dresses she and her sister had grown out of.
“See these?” her grandmother took Dorrie’s hand and spilled marigold seeds into her palm in the fall. We’ll plant these next spring.”
“Dig a few holes, Dorrie. These watermelon rinds will turn into rich earth in a few months,” she instructed after they’d cut the tops off her grandmother’s prize round watermelons and eaten the red sweet pulp with a spoon. She was Dorrie’s best friend, her kindred spirit. Although she spoke not a word of English and had never had any formal schooling, Dorrie considered her one of the smartest people she knew, besides being the one person who always had time for her.
The boys always showed off their table hockey set, and beat them soundly at Monopoly; Darlene regaled them with wild and strange stories they didn’t know whether to laugh at or shudder about. “Coralee better be careful when you leave tonight. The wolves come right up to the house and eat anything smaller than Jack.”
Once, Darlene had suggested that the older girls — that included her, six at the time–go for a bike ride. “We’ve only got two big bikes, so Dorrie, you’ll have to sit on the handlebars. Don’t worry, I’ve got lots of experience, I do this all the time with my friends who don’t have bikes.” Not one to stand back from a challenge, Dorrie had climbed on to the bars with her cousin’s help, and a terrifying ride ensued on the rutted gravel road down a treacherous hill, Dorrie clutching the handlebars beside her and trying to keep her feet from slipping into the spokes of the front wheel. Everything came to an abrupt end when a rare oncoming vehicle forced Darlene to slam on the brakes. Dorrie catapulted from her perch like a missile, skidding face down along the road.
“What were you thinking?!” Aunt Lydia had asked Darlene when she’d run in, ashen-faced, with the news that Dorrie was lying face down on the gravel road.
“Oh but schrakjlich!” said her mother, who spent the next hour teasing bits of gravel from her face. Dorrie had slurped soup and juice from a straw for a week while her swollen face healed.
That time, the year she hurt her face, she’d not been able to eat supper and she’d tried to remain stoic in the car, willing the tears not to run and mingle saltily into the open wounds on her cheeks. That time her father stopped.
The Ice Cap on the edge of the city, just before the last stretch home along the highway running toward the US/Canada border, was always open, like a lighthouse or a sentinel at the entrance of the city. It was just a little ice-cream stand, nothing special, but she thought the milkshake her father had bought for them all to share that night was the best thing she’d ever tasted. The smell of greasy fried food and the metal clink of the milkshake canisters had caused her to shiver with excitement when she had gotten out of the car. Her dad would not allow food in the car so they stood sipping the shake and watched onion rings, french fries, soft ice-cream cones pass through the small take away window into the hands of customers who were out on a summer evening stroll. The strawberry milkshake had made the pain of the accident worth it all.
“Proove ye doat! “ She’d said, reaching the drink through the back window to share her bounty with her grandmother.
“Nay, nay,” her grandmother had put up her hands to push it away. No food or drink came into the car and she would not break the rule.
“It’s my turn! You’re taking way too much!” her sister said, and then refused to relinquish it after two long draws of her own. Dorrie could hardly complain, because she knew what her dad would say, his dark eyes and eyebrows sternly directed at them: If that’s the way you say thank you, we don’t need to stop again. So she remained silent until her sister begrudgingly passed it back to her when her mother pointed out that “Dorrie’s not had supper like we did, Willa. It’s rightfully hers.”
But since that time, there had been no repeat stops.
After faspa, a supper of buns and cheese and Aunt Lydia’s crabapple preserves, they said their goodbyes, the dog chased the car down the road for a mile, barking all the while, and then they were on their way home along the lonely open silent road again.
Eventually, the lights of Winnipeg appeared, empty streets lit up for the solitary pedestrian or vehicle, but if it was early enough and it was a warm night, as they drove further south, a few more people dotted the streets. Her sister roused to watch the storefronts, but neither of them said a word.
Each trip, when she saw the city lights approach, she closed her eyes and began to pray; sometimes she distracted herself by closing her eyes and telling herself she didn’t really like milkshakes that much. But most times she made up questions in her head: Can we stop at the Ice Cap? It’s not very late. Or Dad, can we stop for an ice-cream cone? It doesn’t have to be a milkshake. And we could share. Once she’d had a handful of coins she’d found on the gravel road on the way to the grocery store and she’d brought them with her, so she’d imagined herself saying, Dad I have some money to buy an ice-cream, so you don’t have to spend any money. Could we stop? Then she’d imagine herself saying it aloud, imagine her dad glancing at her in the rear view mirror, looking at her mom for approval and pulling off the street. But each time the shame of asking pushed down the words. She knew they were getting closer, and on every trip at this point, she prepared the question in her mind. Every time, she couldn’t find the courage to say it aloud. So she waited. And hoped.
Her dad was not absent or particularly unkind. When he spanked them, it was on the request of their exasperated mother. But he could be severe and judgemental, unthinking with words. He called it “speaking his mind.” She thought if she spoke half the words that were in her mind, she’d be dead at his hands as well as the teacher’s at school.
“Those Loewens — they spend all their money going to Winnipeg and then complain about the price of the new hymn books for the church.” He was frugal. He wrote down every purchase in a ledger that he added to the dozens from previous years, oversized notebooks full of lines that criss crossed in reds and blacks and blues – little prison bars filled with precise pencil markings logging grocery bills, wheat and pig deliveries, fabric her mother bought to sew Christmas dresses. The ledgers recorded their daily lives, or rather small monetary anomalies in their otherwise everyday lives in which they tended gardens, processed vegetables for the winter, and ran barefoot with the neighbours around the countryside. Like the hugs measured and meted out for funerals or broken bones (she’d watched in envy when her father carried her older sister to the car after she dislocated her arm playing Fox and Geese one summer night), the jumble of coins in a glass jar that stood beside the radio in the dining room were saved up for trips to town to buy water for the cistern.
And then there it was up ahead—the Ice Cap—the sign shining like a beacon in the late evening dark. The night was still warm for mid April, and she could see a bit of a crowd mingling around the open window. “I have to pee!” cried her little sister just then and her mother, sighing, noted that the stand had a portable toilet to the side, and her dad pulled over. Dorrie held her breath, her stomach in knots, Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus on repeat in her mind. She caught a whiff of fried onions when the door opened and her mom and sister climbed out.
But as suddenly as the miracle in her mind appeared, her sister went to the bathroom, her mom and sister returned to the car, and her dad pulled away from the curb.
Her grandmother reached out in the miserable silence she felt pervading the inside of the car, and tucked a peppermint into her hand. It left a green stain in the middle of her palm where it melted by the time she got home.
That night, after considering the green stain in the middle of her hand, she got directly into bed on her side without saying goodnight to her sister Willa or God.