Family Circus: Short Story

New Work

By Shawn Syms

I’m going to take the kids away from all of this for good. Tomorrow. But for now, just get through tonight.

July 29. It’s 3 am and the apartment is full, rife with the gagging stench of nail-polish remover. The reek of Big Kathy’s pungent Camels wafts in from the kitchen, mingling with the chemical haze rising from the aluminum baking trays. There’s a tinge of mould in the air. And endless chitchat from the other girls in the apartment.

What’s worse is I’m used to it—the dizzying odours, the absence of quiet. Sammy is too, and he’s only eight. I put him in the living room. There’s a door that shuts; he’s probably still watching TV. I keep Cindy in the crib in the back bedroom when we wash the cheques, so the fumes don’t get to her.

Still, I keep the place pretty clean. The crystal helps with that. I know I need to get off it, but for now speed actually makes me a better mom. I manage to keep things tidy and focus on working the mail, and the money we get from the mail lets me feed the kids. Rent, methamphetamine, beer, food—in that order. And then clothes and toys for the kids. Oh, and formula for Cindy. I know it wouldn’t be safe for her to take my breast milk. I’m not stupid.

In the kitchen, Big Kath opens the envelopes and extracts all the cheques, taking slugs of Carling Ice as if it were water, chain-smoking. As she sorts through the stolen mail, Kath makes piles. The largest one contains people’s account information: bills and credit applications. Next to that, a stack of cheques. On the yellowed linoleum floor at her feet, everything else. The account numbers go to Rhonda, sitting at the computer in the front bedroom.

The cheques go to me. I soak them in acetone long enough for the ink to evaporate, then rewrite them in the name of Edna Windecker—an identity Rhonda created on the computer. “Edna” has a birth certificate, a health card and driver’s licence. And an account at Crosstown; we figured a credit union would be lower profile. Rhonda told us she could make her a SIN card too. Zeke and I laughed at the thought. Why declare any income? Rhonda said if we had any sense we’d be buying RRSPs.

Zeke and Duarte are out on their last run of the night, boosting bags of garbage from behind the Osborne Street Cash Mart—they don’t shred their paperwork there. The guys will throw it in the back of the red pickup, cover it with a tarp. They shouldn’t be gone much longer.

Zeke will want to fuck when they get back. I hope we can shower first—everyone’s got that ammonia drug smell leaking out their pores. I’ve never met anyone as horny as Zeke. I bet he’s even fucked Duarte’s hairy ass. He had to do something to keep himself busy when I was pregnant. Cindy’s his. Sammy isn’t.

Lise, the new girl, sits next to me. She’s got a pretty face, I’ll admit. Her skin’s light brown and her hair is long and straight. Her upper lids are heavy with blue eye shadow. One of her front teeth is crooked. Zeke dropped her off with the last batch of mail, but it seemed like they already knew each other. A hooker from the corner of Furby and Ellice, I’m sure. Probably a glue sniffer. She wipes her runny nose with the back of her arm, staring up at me blankly.

When Zeke and I met two years ago, I would’ve been jealous at the thought of him with another woman. Now I’m relieved. All I can think of is the coming calm. Gimli is quiet:  a town on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, where the people number in the low hundreds. Sammy and Cindy will love it. I grew up there. Mom’s there. She’ll help me with the kids, especially seven-month-old Cindy. I’ll need a while to sleep off all the meth—then we’ll start over. I’ll bring a baggie or two with me so I don’t fall asleep at the wheel on the two-hour drive. After that, I’m done.

I quit tweaking when I was four months pregnant with Cindy—till a few weeks after she was born. Stopping was hard. She cried a lot at first, but she’s okay now. I gave her a couple spoonfuls of cough syrup to make sure she’d sleep through tonight’s freak show. Robotussin, my only reliable babysitter.

Lise’s syringe sits on the coffee table in front of us. I’ve been doing lines instead of shooting up tonight. Gotta keep my wits about me for tomorrow. Once I cash the cheques in the morning—while everyone else is crashed out—I’m going to pick Sammy up from school at lunch, stop by here to get Cindy, then keep driving till we reach the water’s edge.

Next to Lise’s rig are three large aluminum baking trays from the Provencher IGA. The trays are full of acetone. That’s where the cheques go. A small bottle of bleach sits on the shag rug next to the coffee table; it gets the ink that doesn’t come out with the acetone. There’s also a yellow chamois scrap and an ink eraser I sometimes use for touch-ups. I’ve gotten good at this.

“Get over here, motherfucker!” A shout from upstairs, followed by a woman’s wordless shriek.

Fuck’s sakes. It’s that wrinkly weirdo in 13B and his drunk old bitch. One more reason to leave: I’m determined not to end up as pathetic as them. Maybe I’ll be a doting old grandma by then. I hope no one calls 911 on them, not with everyone down here. I don’t think he ever really hits her anyway. A heavy thump from above, and then nothing. Maybe I was wrong about that.

I get up, lurch toward the open window and stick my head out into the starless sky. On the street, a kid with a Mohawk revs by on a red motorbike. The tidy, yellow-brick façade of this building misleads: this is nothing but a slum. If you live here, you’re either a struggling student, a whacked-out head case, a deadbeat on welfare or some kind of crook.

I inhale through my nose, taking in as much clean night air as my lungs can hold. I wipe my brow and pull my fingers through my brittle hair. At least a half inch of black roots have forced their way through my blonde dye job. When I get out of here, I’m going to grow it back out past my shoulders.

Anyway, back to teaching the new girl how to forge cheques. I turn toward the coffee table. Lise sits cross-legged like some gnarly hooker Buddha, injecting some of Zeke’s speed into a vein in the sole of her foot. I wonder if she slams there for vanity’s sake—her arms don’t look so bad. As she pulls the needle out, Lise looks up at me, all brown almond eyes with big vibrating pupils. Now that she’s spun, maybe she’ll pay better attention.

“That weird girl with the funny glasses came out of the bedroom. She looked rough.” Lise means Rhonda, the hacker at the bedroom PC, with her vintage horn rims. I could hear the sporadic clatter of her keyboard clicks from here. Rhonda’s a bit kooky, yes—but her computer skills have come in handy.

She works at Value Village—by her nerdy wardrobe, she obviously shops there too. She’s a rapid-fire typist—because she’s high like the rest of us. Even over the chemical odors, I swear I can catch a whiff of her trademark BO-infused-polyester scent. I may shoot up a lot, but at least I know how to bathe. Christ.

I sit down next to Lise and address her slowly. “I want you to pay attention now, okay?”

She stares in silence. She actually looks a bit frightened. I ask her age.


Oh boy. Anyway. “Take the piles of cheques and divide them up by the type of ink. Anything felt-tip—like it was written with a small marker—put it in one pile. If it was done with a ballpoint pen, make one pile for blue ink and one for black. Anything else weird, just put it in a separate pile. Got it?” I hand her the cheques and she begins to separate them. She laughs and hands me one written in pencil.

“That should be easy enough to erase!”

“No. Pencil leaves trace marks grooved right into the paper. We’ve gotta throw those away.” She drops it to the floor and continues sorting. Maybe she’s not so dumb after all. I show her how to put the cheques in the wash one at a time using the tongs.

Sammy trudges into the living room, clad only in Underroos. Startled, I grab a newspaper and toss it on the coffee table, covering Lise’s needle. He’s carrying a tube of something. Toothpaste? “What you got there, kiddo?”

“Cindy’s got a sore in her mouth. It’s called Oragel. I put it on the red spot when she wakes up crying. You didn’t hear her, did you?”

Without waiting for an answer, he walks up to me—and I put my arms out, thinking he needs a hug. Instead, he unscrews the Oragel tube, puts some on his finger and lightly touches my dry, chapped lip, smearing me gently with the numbing cream.

“Where’d you get that stuff, Sammy?”

“I asked Mrs Rainders.” The next-door neighbour. He kisses my cheek and turns around. Passing Lise he pauses, reaching toward her trio of piles. He moves a mislaid blue-ink cheque from the black-ink pile to its proper place.

Sammy retreats to the living room and closes the door. Lise stares after him, smiling. “What a beautiful little boy.”

I hold a bump of crystal on my house key up to my nostril, and snort it back hard. After the initial bite of pain as the shards hit my nasal membranes, warmth spreads from my face through the rest of my body. I hadn’t heard Cindy cry with all the racket. I oughta check on her more.

“I had a baby girl once,” Lise says with a distracted look. “When I was fifteen. But they came and took her away.”


“Winnipeg Child and Family Services. They gave her away to a white family.”

I thought she’d looked kinda native. Métis, maybe?

“My mom called them on me. I wasn’t even living at home anymore. She heard about the baby from my sister.”

Rhonda steps out of the bedroom wearing only a pair of panties, waving a trembling hand in front of her face. Her body’s slick with perspiration. “The FTP server cacked out again.” She stumbles on her feet, sweat running off her face and breasts, dripping onto the carpet by the cupful.

I yell into the kitchen. “Kath!”

Big Kath gets up from her chair, lifts Rhonda like a toothpick and efficiently transports her to the bathroom. I watch her nude form shake as she babbles in the older woman’s muscular grasp. “Am I gonna die?” she sputters.

Christ, not again. Stupid bitch. I step behind them, look the girl in the face and say in a loud voice “You’re not going to die, honey.” Kath will make sure she cools down, and doesn’t drown or convulse. We’ve been through this twice before with Rhonda.

Lise carefully lays out washed checks on the paper towels next to the trays. She looks closely at one of them and puts it back in the wash. I’m impressed. There’s a light thud from the bathroom, then the sound of the running shower. The phone rings. Zeke sounds wired. “I’m coming home.”

“You got mail?”

“Yeah, I almost lost Duarte though.”


“He was taking a piss behind the Cash Money on Portage. Standing at the dumpster with his dick hanging out, a bag of their garbage on either side of him when a fucking blond Nazi cop showed up. Duarte talked his way out of it, but we took the long way home in case they were tailing us.” Paranoid as usual. I can’t wait to get away from him.

“We’re coming home,” Zeke repeats himself. “Got lots of stuff. Everyone still working?”

“Rhonda’s having an OD in the bathroom,” I report. “Kath’s taking care of it.”

“Good. Lise there?”


“Okay, see you in ten.”

I hang up the phone, and head back to the can, hoping to find Rhonda has not turned blue. She’s naked in the shower, head lolling to one side. Hosed down, she still smells. “She’s asleep,” Kath tells me, washing her hands in the sink.

“Thank fuck.”

The apartment door rattles and pushes inward. Zeke and Duarte barge in with goofy grins on their faces. At six-five, fair-haired Zeke has to duck his head to get through the door. Swarthy, bearded Duarte is shorter than me. They each lug big garbage bags in both hands.

“It’s Christmas, kids!” Zeke drops the bags off in the kitchen, giving Big Kath that three-part macho handshake I’ve never been able to get straight.

“Ho ho ho!” says Duarte, slamming the door with his foot. They must be drunk and high. Zeke heads my way.

“Com’ere, baby,” he says. Is he talking to me or Lise?

I never find out because he doesn’t make it all the way across the room. The front door—which the guys didn’t lock behind them—slams on its hinges, kicked open. Two police officers: a short, black woman and a tall, blond male.

“No one move!” the man bellows.

“Fuck—not you!”

In a minute they’ve got both the guys on the ground. The male cop bellows at me and Lise. “Back on the couch. Sit down and shut up!”

“Shit—the kids!” Whispered through clenched teeth.

Lise grabs my hand and squeezes. “I’ll protect them,” she hisses, slipping toward the back of the apartment. The cops, subduing Zeke and Duarte, don’t notice.

The black officer leans down and twists Duarte’s arm behind his back. “Lay off, cunt!” Duarte yelps.

She pulls out her nightstick and gives Duarte’s ass crack a vicious thwack, then smiles. He shuts up. She leans down in his face, all teeth. “Like that, you faggot?” Duarte mutters in Spanish. She puts him in handcuffs to match Zeke’s, and kicks him in the side.

Sammy runs into the room, followed by Lise. She tries to scoop him up in her arms, but trips and falls instead, banging her forehead on the edge of the coffee table. She’s down. I watch as she starts to bleed from the head. Sammy lunges forward.

“Baby, stop!” He ignores me and heads right for the male officer. Before the cop can react, Sammy reaches up and slams him in the nuts with his fist. With a surprised, angry yelp, he grabs his groin. Sammy throws his arms around the cop’s right leg and bites into his flank through the dark blue pants. “Jesus fuck!”

His partner reaches over and grabs Sammy’s arms, pulling him off and holding him in the air away from her body. He continues to kick and yell. “If you send my mom to jail, I’ll fucking kick your fucking asses!”

She puts Sammy face down on the ground between Zeke and Duarte. The male officer steps forward and stomps his foot onto Sammy’s back, immobilizing him. He keeps yelling. The officer kicks his kidneys. Sammy shuts down but I can see his body heaving like he’s going to hyperventilate. I feel numb.

The female cop, weapon drawn, heads back to scope out the rest of the apartment. Lise rouses on the floor, wipes her bloody face and crawls over to join me at the couch. Rhonda walks into the room, head down, and sits next to us. The tip of Lise’s syringe pokes out from underneath a pile of cheques on the coffee table. Rhonda can’t take her eyes off it.

Big Kath sits in the kitchen and fixes the male officer with a surly stare, her large hands trembling in her lap. He surveys the contents of the kitchen table. Next to a stack of cheques sit a half-dozen baggies of speed. Putting on a latex glove, he slips the drugs into an evidence bag.

Lise leans in toward me. “Cindy is safe,” she whispers.

I stare at her, uncomprehending.

“I hid her in the laundry hamper. They won’t find her.” She grabs my hand. “I put all her blankets on top of her. They’ll never find her. She’ll be safe.”

The female officer’s voice calls out from the back bedroom. “Jackson, call an ambulance. Now!”


The psych ward at Johnson Memorial isn’t quite by the water’s edge, but I can still see Lake Winnipeg from my room. I’ve slept through the past three weeks.

I could say a bunch of other stuff, but fuck it. Mom told me everything. Cindy stopped breathing but was revived. She’s in the hospital back in the city. Zeke and Duarte went to jail. Sammy’s in a foster home. Mom said she’d look into adopting Sammy and Cindy. I told her don’t bother. They’re better off with someone else. After all, I did what I planned to. I got them out of there.

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Shawn Syms

Shawn Syms is an Associate Editor of the Winnipeg Review.