This week, The Globe and Mail is running a series of excerpts from the five books shortlisted for the 2011 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Today’s offering is from Michael Christie’s short-story collection The Beggar’s Garden, which consists of nine linked stories that unfold in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside; this is from a story titled The Queen of Cans and Jars. The Beggar’s Garden, Christie’s first published collection, was on the Scotiabank Giller Prize long list and last week won the $2,000 City of Vancouver Book Award. Michael Christie lives in Thunder Bay.
This is the third excerpt in the series. Christie's fellow nominees are Clark Blaise, Patrick deWitt, Dan Vyleta (whose excerpt appeared on Tuesday) and Esi Edugyan (whose excerpt appeared on Monday). The winner of the $25,000 prize will be announced on Nov. 1 in Toronto. The winner of the $25,000 prize will be announced on Nov. 1 in Toronto.
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On May 14, 1978, while sorting laundry in the basement of their building, Bernice had found a dry-cleaning ticket in the pocket of her husband’s trousers. She stopped into the cleaners on her way to work the next day and exchanged the ticket for a green evening dress with a mink collar, almost twice her size. She laid the dress over the kitchen table that evening and waited in the living room doing a crossword. Gus came home from work and entered the kitchen. She heard his keys on the counter. She heard the icebox open and close. Then, without a word, he left their small apartment. She waited up, but he did not return, that night or any other.
Some weeks later she quit Woodward’s after twenty years there and set up a thrift shop just three blocks away in the basement of New Westminster United. She began by handing out the sweaters and slacks Gus had left swinging in their closet to some old down-on-their-luck drunks and went from there. Shortly after she left Woodward’s, the department store slid into decline, and she liked to imagine it was due to her absence, though it was probably the malls and ever-bigger stores she’d heard were going up all over. Woodward’s finally declared bankruptcy in 1993, and with it died the last reason for decent people to come down to this neighbourhood, once the teeming commercial hub of the city, now staggering deeper and deeper into the woods of poverty, neglect and despair. All the old businesses on Bernice’s block had long vanished, swapped for cheque-cashing places, pawn shops and convenience stores. Over the years, through her thrift-store window, she’d watched the crippled loggers, hobos and drunks – battered leftovers of the city’s industrial heritage – joined by the heroin junkies, who were joined by the crack addicts and then by those suffering every other variant of destitution. It became a neighbourhood at which people in their downtown-bound cars gawked like they were on safari. She’d seen social services come and go like occupying armies, stuffing her mailbox with their optimistic, densely acronymed brochures. Most of them seemed out to get the poor wretched people more money, which to Bernice was much like heaving a thirsty man overboard, but she tried not to judge the social workers either. They were all trying their best.
The decline had only deepened the need for her services, and Bernice had to find volunteers like Tuan just to keep clothes on the racks. Busy as it was, the store only narrowly broke even. “As long as you need it,” Bernice would say to her pitiful customers, punching No Sale, a button more worn than any other on the register.
Excerpt from The Beggar’s Garden © 2011 by Michael Christie. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Michael Christie reads with the Writers’ Trust nominees at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, Oct. 26; and in Hamilton, Oct. 27 ( www.readings.org).