Maria was nervous. Having been a single mother from the age of twenty, it was a condition she was well acquainted with. After she landed a good administrative job at the local university, things became blessedly easier for her and Nora, her only child. But in this country in this day and age, every step forward meant an additional worry of falling back. And Nora was about to take one of those steps.
Alone in the office lunchroom, Maria sat twirling her long, black hair around one finger, picking at the boxed salad she brought from home with the other hand, moving croutons around. A typical Thunder Bay winter roared just outside the window and Maria sipped thoughtfully at her hot cocoa. Nora was on her mind —or, more specifically, Nora’s new boyfriend.
Nora had been seeing him for a few months now, but Maria had yet to exchange as much as a “Hello” with the young man. She’d seen him pick Nora up from the house a few times, but she always ran out to meet him, he never came inside.
The glimpses she’d stolen of him, from between cracks in curtains, all suggested that Cory was the average sixteen-year-old. That is to say, lanky and long-haired with a blank expression on his face, an expression that seemed to encapsulate everything about him; Cory was a mystery every bit as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s smile. Without the smile. And can you trust a boy who doesn’t smile?
Maria stabbed a cherry tomato and stopped chewing her lower lip just long enough to eat it. Of course she had asked Nora about him, about where they went, what they did, and so on, feigning idle curiosity. But under the placid expression on her face Maria was as ravenous for answers and details as a starving dog before dinner time.
Weeks ago Maria recalled asking over dinner, “So what do his parents do?”
“Um… I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? But you’ve been seeing him for weeks now. Haven’t you asked?”
“Well, don’t you want to know?”
“Why? I’m not dating his parents, I’m dating him.”
Maria regrouped, chagrined at being a bit superficial, and tried again: “Does he have any brothers or sisters?”
“One older brother.”
“And… what’s he like?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t live at home. I’ve never met him.”
And so it went. Every time Maria tried initiating a conversation about the boy, it never got off the ground. As the weeks and months rolled by, Maria couldn’t help painting different pictures of Cory in her mind. And with very little in the way of facts to go on, her imagination had been working overtime. The top three contestants on “Who is Cory?” looked like this:
—a wrist-slashing punk rocker with an eating disorder, absentee parents, a drug addiction, two dozen ghastly tattoos and piercings, and the head of the missing high school basketball team captain in a bowling bag under his bed.
—an over-achieving robot of a boy being driven by helicopter parents to get straight As and enroll in every club, association, and council that his school had to offer ahead of becoming pre-med at the country’s top university.
—a quiet, sensitive, haiku-writing vegan who hates meat, doesn’t eat anything that casts a shadow, and has plans to become a journalist after high school but will end up a starving artist working part-time in a bookstore.
Maria knew which one she preferred, of course, but also that not one of these guesses was likely to be accurate. She sighed and finished her salad. Soon enough her imagination could rest. Cory was coming over for dinner next week.
Maria looked up. Sandy from accounting came in, smiling as always, and took the seat across from her.
“How’s it going?”
“Oh… alright, I suppose.”
“Why just alright?” Sandy asked, unpacking the panini and latte she’d brought from the cafeteria two floors down.
Maria had previously shared her musings about Cory with Sandy. She leaned forward, looked up through her lashes and said, “Well, The Boyfriend is coming over for dinner next week.”
Sandy froze with her sandwich halfway to her mouth.
“Well, that’s great! You can finally put all your worrying to rest.”
“Or have it confirmed.”
“Will worrying make a difference either way?”
“No, I… I suppose not. You know, I really don’t care what he’s like. If Nora is dating him, then he must be a decent boy —I do have some faith in my daughter’s choices.”
“You should tell her that,” Sandy interjected as she swigged her Starbucks.
“I just wish… Well, I know there’s no way to guarantee this, but I wish there was something I could do to make sure he treats her properly.”
“Oh, is that all,” Sandy said. “That’s the easiest thing in the world. I know how you can do that.”
Maria looked up in surprise.
“Sure, it’s simple. And I know it works. I do the same thing every time my daughter brings home a new boyfriend. All you need is a gun.”
“A what!?” Maria squeaked, her head jerking back.
“A gun,” Sandy said simply.
“I’m not going to shoot him!”
Maria knew that blonde, blue-eyed, pony-tailed Sandy hailed from rural Alberta, but this was the very first hint of red she’d ever glimpsed on her colleague’s neck.
“Of course you’re not going to shoot him.”
“Then what do I need to buy a gun for?”
“You don’t need to buy one. I’ll loan you mine.”
More red. Maria’s eyebrows knit and her mouth hung open as she watched her friend munching with incongruous calm at her lunch. She couldn’t make out whether or not Sandy was pulling her leg. Maria folded her arms, relaxed her forehead and said,
“Okay,” Sandy said, putting her sandwich down and leaning over the table toward Maria, “here’s what you do. Before Cory comes over, you borrow my shotgun and mount it on the wall of your living room. And don’t worry about the legalities. I never bought ammunition for this shotgun and it doesn’t even work. It just looks big and old —that’s all you need.
“Then, when Cory comes over, you wait until it’s just you and him in the living room. You look over at the shotgun and Cory will, of course, ask about it. When he does, you point to it, stare at it, and with your best poker face you say,
“‘That gun belonged to my grandmother, Cory. Back in 1925 on the plains of Alberta she used it to bring down a rabid buffalo charging at her two young sons. She killed that beast with one shot from hundred yards. The very next thing she did was chop off that buffalo’s testicles with her butcher knife and throw them into her woodstove. Had she not done as she did, I wouldn’t be here today. After the close encounter with the buffalo she insisted that all her children know how to shoot that gun. I admire my grandmother, Cory. She was a kind and gentle woman every single day of her life, but the second something threatened her family she didn’t hesitate to pick up a gun and pull the trigger.’
“Then you channel a little Clint Eastwood, look Boyfriend in the eyes and say, ‘Know what I mean, Cory? Understand?’
“And then after little Cory is done acid washing his own skinny jeans, you’ll never have anything to worry about.”
Sandy returned to her lunch. Maria’s mouth hung open once again.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“But… But Nora will tell him I lied, that the story wasn’t true.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Sandy shrugged, her mouth half full of panini. “He’ll still think you’re bat shit crazy and that achieves the same effect.”
“But… What if he is a decent boy and I scare him off?”
“So what? If you do scare him off, then you know one of two things: he wasn’t going to treat Nora well or he didn’t feel strongly enough about her to tolerate her having a slightly eccentric mother. Do you really want someone like that hanging around?”
“Well… No, I guess I don’t.”
“And if he does hang around, you automatically know two things: he genuinely cares for Nora and he isn’t going to mistreat her. Bingo!”
Maria’s eyebrows shot up like roller blinds.
“See what I mean?” Sandy said. Then with a smile she added: “Easiest thing in the world.”
Maria sat back and considered for a few moments before asking,
“So… when can I see this gun?”