Roberta Rees's Long After Fathers

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of Writers

An early view of Calgary's exhibition grounds and race track, later home to the Calgary Stampede. Victoria Park is to the right, and the Elbow River is in the foreground. The Stampede Grill in Roberta Rees's story collection was located on 2nd Street East (aka MacLeod Trail), across the street from the entrance to the Stampede. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

An early view of Calgary's exhibition grounds and race track, later home to the Calgary Stampede. Victoria Park is to the right, and the Elbow River is in the foreground. The Stampede Grill in Roberta Rees's story collection was located on 2nd Street East (aka MacLeod Trail), across the street from the entrance to the Stampede. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

Jessie Morris is a survivor. She grows up too fast in Victoria Park in the 1940s: a working-class neighbourhood of two-storey wood-frame houses squeezed between the train yards, warehouses and factories of East Calgary. When she’s eleven, a stranger abducts her. Three weeks later, her mother dies, and then meningitis steals her beloved big sister. At thirteen, Jessie sets out on her own. She leaves her father to drink himself to death at the St. Regis Hotel downtown and finds a room in a boarding house. Jessie shows up for work at the Stampede Grill, a hangout for racetrack jockeys and the place where her life takes yet another turn.

 

Every day for a week the girl comes into the café just as the jockeys pick lettuce and tomato out of their teeth, throw back their fourth cups of coffee, “Can’t gain weight, Jessie, gotta stay light, know what I mean,” rush out the door, “See ya Jessie kid, keep a steak on ice for me kid, when ya see me sittin’ big in the winner’s circle, throw ‘er on the grill,” spring across Second Street East, through the Stampede Grounds, to the track.

Steam and burgers and onions and mustard and fries and ketchup and vinegar and horses. Horses. Jessie wipes the grey arborite tables, wipes the drips off the ketchup bottles, pockets the dimes and nickels the jockeys hide under their cups.

Warm, she rubs her thumb over their surfaces, breathes deep through her hose. Horses and the sweat of tight-muscled men. Boys, most of them no older than her.

 

Roberta Rees, “Hand of A Thief,” Long After Fathers (Regina: Coteau, 2007)