The Melancholia Vine

by Catharine Leggett

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Jean picks her way along Wellington Street, arms straight and stiff, her hands on either side of the box, clamping it, careful not to jiggle the tarts. All morning she worked on them, her first attempt alone, following along with her grandmother’s handwritten recipe handed down through the family.

She passes the Wellington Street United Church and the closed paint factory with its weed-infested yard and boarded-up windows. Aunt Denise will be pleased the crust turned out flaky, continuing the family tradition of good bakers. The merest rattle would crumble the delicate shells. The bus shelter isn’t far now, just another block, and she’ll be able to rest.

Her scalp is on fire where the sun beats down on the center part; she should have worn a hat. She doesn’t usually go out in such heat. What if the sun softens the tarts? Aunt Denise never liked runny filling, said it was the sign of an inferior baker; Jean has family tradition to uphold.

Three boys mill about outside the bus shelter—teenagers between fifteen and seventeen, she guesses. One of them strikes a match and lights a cigarette. His pants ride low on his narrow hips and display an underwear band of skull and crossbones. Another spits off to the side and examines it; he appears enthralled by his body’s secretion. The third picks a scab on his arm, then suddenly kicks the shelter wall with his black unlaced boot, rattling a chain that dangles from the pocket of his shorts, his thin chest lost inside a sloppy t-shirt that says Dirk’s Bar.

Jean enters the shelter and sits at the far end of the bench to avoid an ugly blotch that might be excrement. Heat sprouts a patch of perspiration across her forehead. Dizziness overcomes her, but is it any wonder? She’s taxed herself with her mission; she isn’t used to walking distances. Perspiration dribbles down the folds of her belly under her floral muumuu, her breathing heavy and belabored. Her weight, her constant companion, keeps people away, protects her in a way that starving herself never did. She no longer seeks invisibility. People turn away from fat people; they’re repulsed by them.

A blast from her puffer offers some relief as she takes furtive glances at the boys who are now engaged in a strange dance of milling, pacing, throwing each other the odd punch, strutting about like agitated chickens. She places the box on the bench and pulls it in close to graze her right thigh.

Another day when it isn’t so hot would be a better choice for visiting Aunt Denise at the Shadow Lawn Nursing Home. Cousin Ruth, Aunt Denise’s only other surviving relative, wrote to Jean over a year ago informing her of Aunt Denise’s move from Grove Corners and how Uncle Ron’s generous insurance policy allowed her the best of care. Ruth intended to visit the old woman from time to time and she encouraged—encouraged!—Jean to do the same. Yes, Jean wrote back, she would go, but so far she hasn’t. She marked today on the calendar as the day she would visit, no matter what. Her guilt for not visiting would only be exorcised once she lived up to her familial obligation. While Aunt Denise lived at Grove Corners she seemed as far away as another planet, with no possibility of ever coming to this one. But now she is here.

Uncle Ron told stories about “the olden days”; he said he and Jean had much in common since his father left when he was very young, leaving his mother and aunt to raise him. “Come, sit on my knee, and I will tell you.” His hand spread across the bare skin beneath her sun top and felt warm. Since her feet couldn’t reach the ground, he prevented her from falling. Insurance.

He grew up on the prairies on a farm, watched calves being born, fed chickens, got lost in wheat fields; it felt like swimming in a sea of plants. Then they moved to Regina and everything changed. Kids picked on him because he had big ears, a big nose, and droopy eyes. They called him Basset, after the dog, and treated him like an outsider, an outcast. He rubbed her shoulder with his rough hand. “Kids can be very cruel, Jean.”


“What’s in the box, lady?”

She squints up into the sun. One of the boys hovers over her and points down at the box. “There a bomb in there or somethin’?” His head blocks out the light and his face comes into view, his beautiful blue eyes fringed with long lashes, though his skin is badly broken out. Too much junk food, though she’s one to talk. His skin will clear up; he’s young, but he needs to change his diet, give up the cigarettes, too.

The freckle-faced boy with red eyebrows, his brush cut so close to his head it barely shows its red tinge, laughs. “Yeah, a bomb. No doubt.” He turns to the third boy who is now watching, and lowers his voice, “She’s a fat old terrorist,” he snorts with laughter, horks another gob beyond the sidewalk, watching it to see how far it gets. “A bomb. As if.”

The joke, if that’s what it is supposed to be, isn’t worthy of the attention Spitter gives it. He’s carrying on for Acne, obviously the leader. Spitter wants to impress him and strokes his ego.

What would be the harm in telling them? “I have tarts in the box,” she says as Acne stubs his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe, even though the sidewalk looks like one big ashtray.

“You taking them for a walk?” The third fellow, who hasn’t so much as looked at her since she sat down, picks away at the scab on his arm. Blood bubbles up along the old scrape.

Jean smiles to feign amusement but he wouldn’t notice, he’s so preoccupied with his old wound.

“If that’s what you’re doing they must be restless tarts.” Scab looks up, his face invaded by a cockeyed smile. “Myself, I like restless tarts.”

That gets them all going, and their bodies twist and writhe with their misguided sense of cleverness. They’d think she was too old to pick up on the innuendo; youth often mistakes age for naiveté.

“I know how to make a tart less restless,” Acne says.

“Me too.” Scab crosses his hands over his crotch, thrusts his pelvis back and forth, his tongue hanging out. Spitter chimes in with grunts and gasps.

Scab steps outside the shelter and calls for the other two to join him. He points to something up the street.

Jean inhales deeply, relaxes a little. Hopefully they won’t come back inside the shelter and its unbearable heat.

She tries to imagine how Aunt Denise will look. She might have put on weight, though she was always slim, which was surprising considering all the baking she did, every day except Sunday.

Jean’s mother said baking made her sister feel useful and productive—it had to do with her barrenness. Jean imagined Aunt Denise standing on the edge of a vast plain of tundra, the kind her social studies teacher said gave early settlers no amount of hardship. A great, flat expanse of unproductive land. Jean thought of Aunt Denise as a kind of geography—quiet, without relief, her personality lacking hills or valleys. She suffered from melancholia, a condition that made her seem sad. Melancholia was a vine with grasping tendrils that could extend and engulf.

Jean was Aunt Denise and Uncle Ron’s favorite child, on loan to them every summer, though Jean would never fully appreciate how much she meant to them, her mother said. They looked forward to her visit at their cottage high on the bluffs of Lake Huron more than anything all year long, and it was up to her to behave and not spoil anything for them, and to appear grateful no matter what. No matter what. Her mother said she must remember that the only time Aunt Denise’s sadness eased a little was during Jean’s visits, and it was a lucky coincidence it worked out for her too. She didn’t have to pay to have Jean farmed out to someone, as she put it, while she was at work.

Despite the heat inside the shelter, a long slow shiver ascends Jean’s spine like a dormant root stirring from somewhere deep and dark. A drop of sweat splotches the tart box lid and Jean imagines a bug splattered against glass.

Acne steps into the shelter and approaches her. She recoils slightly and hopes he doesn’t notice the persistent tap of her pulse in her neck. He shoves his pack of cigarettes in front of her face and bends low enough she can feel his breath. “Smoke?” The question articulates through his nose and not his mouth.

She leans away from his hot breath. “No. Thank you.” Her eyes slip to her lap then to the box, to avoid eye contact. Any reaction could have the misguided effect of egging him on.

Acne moves in closer, his dark hair flopping over his blue eyes. “Maybe if you smoked you’d drop a few pounds.” Spitter and Scab, back inside the shelter, congratulate his insult with riotous laughter.

This thing they are doing, this performance, is acquiring its own energy and feeding itself. They’ve no idea of the dangerous course they encourage each other along. She must shut it down before it takes them beyond fun and games and teasing. She places her hand on her chest to disguise its sudden rise and fall.

“Have you seen the number 8 bus? Do you know when the last one went by?” Hopefully, they didn’t detect the quiver in her voice. She’ll give them something to think about, a problem to solve, and they’ll quit their disgusting display.

“The number 8. Hm.” Acne strokes his chin. “Can’t say as I have, have you?” He faces Scab.

Her plan is working. They’ve become contemplative, almost quiet.

Scab shrugs. “Come to think of it, yes, yes, I have. Let’s see, when was that?”

Now Spitter says, “Last week, weren’t it? Oh wait, or was it last month?” They all talk at once, their voices melding into one as they huddle over her question, the reasons for which must be transparent to them.

Acne sits down on the bench on the other side of the box. He opens his hand and runs it over the lid. "Hmmm,” he tries for seductive overtones but doesn’t come close. “Feels like a tart, all smooth and slippery.”

A droplet of sweat beading at her grey hairline dribbles down her face.

A young man around their age walks by the bus shelter and they all rush out to talk to him, someone they know. They’re busy, distracted, no longer interested in her.


Aunt Denise let Jean watch while she cut fruit and made pastry, explaining how it could not be overworked or it would become tough, and good pastry was flaky pastry. Jean was not allowed to participate and get her hands dirty. After Jean dried the dishes, they went for what Aunt Denise called her quiet time.

Jean lay on the day bed beneath the window on the sun porch and leafed through old issues of Woman’s Day magazine, wondering if she’d ever be as pretty as the ladies in the pictures.

Aunt Denise changed her routine when Jean became old enough to take Uncle Ron his sweets in his workshop, a green and white outbuilding frilled with hollyhocks that attracted humming birds and hundreds of bees and looked so cute it might have come out of a fairy tale or a postcard from England. The bees bashed against the window as if they wanted to get in. Why were they beating themselves to death?

“So, here’s what I don’t get.” Acne stands in front of her and Scab and Spitter fall in behind, the fellow they’d been talking to on the sidewalk now gone. “Why does someone take tarts on a bus?"

“What if you get hungry during the ride? Then you got something to eat. Looks like she gets hungry a lot.” Scab thinks he’s struck the idea of the century, cocks his head to the side and gives a goofy grin. Jean knows he’s thinking, That’s a pretty good joke. I’m funny. He kicks at the dirt with the toe of his unlaced black boot and dislodges a stubborn pebble. “She don’t trust the taxi to take her, that’s why. Thinks he might try to swindle her, steal her tarts.”

The idea of taking a taxi has never crossed her mind. Disability payments only stretch so far.

“What if you have to stand on the bus? Won’t your tarts get all busted up?” Spitter’s head glows orange in the sunlight like a balloon, orange on the outside, empty on the inside.

“I will hold on tight,” she says.

“She’s going to hold on to her tarts tight. You hear that boys?” Spitter says.

Scab removes a wallet on a chain from his back pocket, and gives it a twirl, swivels his hips at the same time. “She must be one of them. A tart that likes tarts. She kind of looks like one of them. Wait. Do I see a moustache? Maybe she’s a man-woman.”

They step back to appraise her, cross their arms, stroke their chins, but she stares straight ahead, mouth rigid, eyes unblinking, her breath coming in such short spurts she thinks she might choke. They aren’t just testing her to see what they can get away with, they are testing themselves.

Perspiration sprouts dark blossoms on the front of her muumuu. Fearing they will notice the enlarging stain makes her sweat more; it tickles as it meanders between her breasts and stomach folds. She dares not scratch, as she can only imagine the crudeness that would encourage, and quells the urge to step outside the shelter and catch whatever breeze there might be. Has the heat ruined the tarts? she wonders.

“Who you taking those tarts to anyway?” Spitter asks from the shelter door.

“My aunt.”

“She must be some kind of special. I always want tarts brought in, but I can’t never arrange it.”

So much for them giving up on their vulgarity. But why would they when she was their audience and source of amusement? Why not carry on with the filth and squawk like chickens at what they mistake for original thoughts.

A motorcycle passes and takes their attention away. They talk about machines, choppers, and hogs; Jean is thankful for the short diversion.


Aunt Denise called from the kitchen with a cup of tea and a plate of desserts, enough for Jean and Uncle Ron, then slowly climbed the stairs, the floorboards groaning under each deliberate step, and went to her room, opposite Uncle Ron’s and next to Jean’s, for her quiet time.

Jean asked her mother why they slept in separate rooms, as her girlfriends’ parents slept in the same bedroom and so did the couples in the Woman’s Day magazine.

Aunt Denise’s two conditions—barrenness and melancholia—required a great deal of solitude, space, and silence. Rest was essential for her health. “If she doesn’t get it, she’ll fall completely apart, and I doubt she’d ever come back together again.” Her mother made Aunt Denise sound as fragile as the crust on her baking—she could not be over-handled.

Acne slides along the bench until he is beside Jean and places his hand on the box lid. “Lady,” he says, his face down, his hand rubbing the box, “look what’s happening to the tarts. There’s sweat all over the bottom of the box.” He looks off into the distance and appears to be thinking about something. “My mother used to make pies. Delicious pies. Her own crust and everything.” His voice is soft, vulnerable, unlike the voice he’s used in front of the others.

“Why did she stop?”

“She left when I was eight.” He falls silent, then mutters, “No more pie.”

“That’s grease on the bottom,” she tells him.

Spitter steps back into the shelter. The large gap between his front teeth and his protruding ears makes her think he would have been teased and bullied when he was younger. Bullied children are more likely to become bullies themselves.

“I do believe those tarts are getting runnier, wetter, hotter.” Scab pulls up his t-shirt, thrusts his chest out, massages his nipples, and moans, his head tipped back, eyes closed. “I know how to heat up a tart and make it runny.”

Spitter shifts about as if he’s standing in a patch of stinging nettle.

They pretend; how they pretend. They don’t know the first thing about sex, their immaturity so apparent by their vulgarity and outlandish display.

An old man advances towards the bus shelter, pulling a bundle buggy. He lingers in the shade of a maple a few feet away, pulls a hanky from his back pocket and dabs at his forehead.

Acne rises from the bench and joins Spitter and Scab outside, and once again they lose interest in her. She takes a deep breath and feels her jaw slacken. She looks at her watch. Visiting hours are over at 4:30 precisely at Shadow Lawn. The receptionist informed her as if giving her a warning, adding that it took time to feed the residents and get them ready for bed.

Her aunt is lucky to be in such a place, she supposes. Since Uncle Ron was in insurance, he would have made certain she had the very best coverage, in the event of his dying first. Which he did.


“What is insurance?” she asked as Aunt Denise rolled out pastry.

“It means you are well looked after and don’t need to worry. Uncle Ron makes sure I never have to worry.”

Jean loved the sound of that. Since she was at their home for the summer, and since she was so important to them, as her mother kept reminding her, she imagined Uncle Ron wouldn’t want her to worry either. Her mother worried all the time. Jean’s father left when she was three; her only memory of him, his red plaid slippers.

His departure left a huge hole into which her mother poured endless worry. How would she make ends meet? Would they end up in the poorhouse? The bailiff would come knocking at the door at any moment. Sometimes a wolf prowled outside the door but somehow, they managed to keep it away. When she was old enough, during the school year, she stayed alone in the apartment while her mother worked or went out with friends. She turned her chair to the door and kept an eye on it as she watched TV, just in case the wolf came leaping through. She wished her uncle would wave a magic policy over their apartment and wrap them up snuggly in insurance.

The old man has resumed his journey along the sidewalk and passes the shelter, ignoring all of them as if they weren’t even there. When he shuffles far enough along, Spitter strikes a dominant pose at the end of the bench, his hands on his hips and legs akimbo. “Slide your fanny, granny,” he says.

She is a puppet being jerked around by their boredom. She’s been played before; she knows how it goes. Since she sits at the end of the bench she can only slide towards the center, forcing her to sit on the disgusting blotch. Spitter sits down beside her, close enough she can smell him, a boyish scent of cheap cologne and BO. Scab sits down on the other side and she is bookended by the heat of their bodies. Sweat drops from her chin to her chest. She picks up the tarts, balances the box on her knees, and stares straight ahead at the maple tree on the other side of the street, hoping her unlikely fascination will escape their notice.

“Wow! She sure is gripping her box tight. I imagine that feels good. I can grip your box for you, if you like,” Acne says, while the others groan and say, “Gross!” He stands in front of her, obstructing her view of the tree, but she continues to stare straight ahead. “My hands are free,” he offers, and raises them, fingers splayed, then wriggles the middle digits. “Diddle, diddle,” he says. The other two gag and pretend to throw up.

She concentrates on the electric buzz of a cicada, a thin drone about to snap.

At the lake, the sound of the cicadas made her think nothing was going on in the world, as if time stood still and everything was suspended in motionlessness. From the day bed under the window, she listened to the continuous interplay between the cicada drone and the inevitable lap of water as she waited for Aunt Denise to call her into the kitchen, a plate of butter tarts in her hand. “Take these to your Uncle Ron. I’m going to lie down.”

When her feet almost touched the ground, she thought she shouldn’t sit on his lap any more, an idea she got from something she read in Woman’s Day magazine. She asked her mother about sitting on his knee, whether she should still be doing it. “You ask the most ridiculous questions, Jean! I’ve no idea what you mean. Put that question out of your head.”

Jean was being stupid, saying stupid things, and she should learn to keep her mouth shut, control her thoughts.

Acne gestures towards the box, as if to open the lid. “Let’s have a look.” She jerks the box away in a protective gesture. “Oh. Aren’t we just a little touchy? No touchy my boxy?”


“Touchy time now, Jean.” Uncle Ron slid his hand over her back. “Does that feel good?” She nodded yes, nibbled on a tart. He rubbed her shoulders. “Such smooth skin, just like your Aunt Denise. You’ve inherited good skin.” He rubbed her back every day that summer, and rocked beneath her, sometimes singing songs he learned when he was a little boy.

She asked her mother if touchy time was okay. There was no mention of such things in Woman’s Day, though she went looking. Her mother said childlessness made Aunt Denise and Uncle Ron sad in a way that was impossible for Jean to understand. Uncle Ron was treating her like his own daughter—Jean should feel very lucky and very special. Her mother said she didn’t like what Jean might be implying, though she hadn’t been implying anything and thought she was asking a question. She said if Jean’s thoughts—vulgar notions really—continued along in the same vein, there’d be consequences. “I’ll take you for a talk with the minister.”

Jean lay awake nights fretting about what kind of terrible mind she had that would have her ask such a horrid question. A mind she could not trust.

Uncle Ron started putting his hand under her shirt at the front, but since she was only starting to grow there, she didn’t think it counted. All summer long he rocked under her as she watched the bees swarm around the hollyhocks and pound the glass, trying to get in or trying to kill themselves.

“Come on, let me into your box. Let’s get it opened up; I want to lick your tarts,” Acne says.

Aunt Denise said, “Today, I will tell you how to make the butter tarts and I will watch you make them, step by step. Never over-handle the shortening and make it warm, always use the coldest of water, best with ice, and never use too much or the pastry will be tough. Don’t be afraid to get your fingers in there. But touch lightly, rub lightly.”

His fingers in there. Just to check he said, nothing to worry about, more a medical thing, he assured her. I insure you. Her heart racing, her thoughts questioning, but he was in the business of taking care of people, making sure they never had to worry; he would know. She could not be trusted! She had terrible thoughts and jumped to hideous conclusions.

Aunt Denise let her stir. The butter swirling in the pan, the corn syrup, cornstarch, raisins, egg, brown sugar. Thick and rich. “Just the right amounts, especially the starch. Your uncle doesn’t like the center too runny.”

He licked his fingers to remove the crumbs. “You made those, did you? Carrying on a family tradition, are you? They were perfect, not too runny.”

Wood shavings from a birdhouse he was making for Aunt Denise’s garden lay in curls on the floor. “Lean back. I’ll tell you a story.” Once he’d gone into the attic of the house they moved to in Regina, when he thought there was no one home, and found his sister and a boy together in a way meant for older people. “She was your age.” His breathing changed; he rocked harder beneath her.

They are having a tug of war until Acne pulls the box from her hands and throws back the lid, sticks his finger into the center of one of the tarts. “Runny, soft, and juicy. Succulent.”

Runny, wet. His breathing harder, his hands down the front of her shorts. He is rubbing and she is crying and frightened, but all she can think is, I am a bad person. She makes up things, she gets ridiculous ideas in her head! She is wrong, not him!

Suddenly she shouts through her sobs, “I didn’t make the tarts by myself! Aunt Denise told me how!” As if that would make everything right.


It’s over and she doesn’t really know what happened. A roar in her ears, an explosion, like the crashing waves on Lake Huron during the worst storms, and the blinding whiteness of lightning. The sensation of being cut in two. One rages and destroys, the other watches, detached, cheers the other on, delights in its violence, encourages it to keep going, keep going.

She bends over panting, struggles to catch her breath as her whole body shakes. Butter tarts drip down the glass of the bus shelter, splotch the sidewalk, smear the bench.

Butter tarts splatter Spitter’s torn shirt. “Lady, what the hell was that?” He clutches his arm and tart filling dribbles down it like blood.

Acne’s hand covers a red mark on his cheek. A butter tart is mushed into his hair and runs down his face. His blue eyes are filled with confusion and vulnerability, the way he should look as he steps out from behind a dark, misleading façade.

Scab says, “Holy fuck, holy fuck, holy fuck. I’ve never seen anyone go off like that before. You’re a fuckin’ freak.” He wraps his arms around his middle and bends over. “I’m calling the police,” he says.

“Leave it,” Spitter says, facing her. His squinty eyes burn into hers, but he doesn’t say anything.

She stares back, doesn’t blink, overcome by calmness, a sense of order and control. She did this. Her chaotic frenzy, her explosion, made them stop.

It took her weeks to tell her mother, weeks to build up the courage to say where Uncle Ron put his hand and how he rocked his body against her. Maybe she should have chosen another time, another day and not a Friday, the end of the work week when her mother was tired. She looked at Jean in shock. “Your Uncle Ron?”

She pushed away from the kitchen table, stepped over to where Jean stood, and slapped her. Slapped her as hard as she’d ever slapped her before. “You watch your filthy mouth! Why do you make up these terrible stories? Is it for attention? Is it because I leave you to go to work? Am I being punished?”

After she developed the habit of not eating, she became too sick to go back to the cottage ever again. They never came to visit. Not once.

The three boys whimper like children. But that is just it, isn’t it? That is what they are, and she has reminded them they are boys, not the sexual predators they pretend to be. She looks at their shoulders curved inwards, their slim waists, imagines the many times their hearts will be broken, how much real pain and sorrow they will endure. Her heart breaks for them, it really does, these adolescents, their innocence under siege by something monstrous, something evil. Run, she thinks, run, and let this be a fair warning that this game you so casually play could take you somewhere deadly. Go home, slip out of your costumes, be who you are and forget this phoniness that keeps you from truth, that keeps you from yourselves. Your sweet, innocent selves.

The cicada drone picks up; the world is once again suspended. She turns her back to them and walks away, her hands empty. She would never see her aunt; her aunt had never seen her. None of them had. The family traditions they so staunchly upheld, their betrayal of her. They were a disgrace.


end of story

© 2019, Catharine Leggett Go to top