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Surplus, 1981 by Marcie McCauley

The ritual of drawing up a month requires the entire kitchen table, two pens (one red and one blue), a wooden ruler, a bottle of Wite-Out, and a cup of tea. The soggy tea bag rests on the metal corner of the sink until it’s needed for the second cup. (Getting two cups from a single tea bag is frugal, stretching it to three cups is a waste of the milk and sugar.) And, of course, the notebook.

My mother uses the same notebooks we have in school: Hilroys—in soft green, blue, yellow or pink—three-hole punched, although we never put them into binders. It’s as though they have some other purpose, unknown to schoolgirls and single-mothers. She lets me have the pink ones, a perfect match for my Pink Pearl eraser, and I hoard those blank books because, in school, you have to take the pastel colour that you are dealt, and I’ll need them someday.

But for now, my job is watching and listening, occasionally passing implements like a surgeon’s assistant, while my mother manages the Budget. The red pen is only required for underlines, exact and succinct, and for deficits. The Wite-Out is delivered in response to a guttural sound of disappointment.

We have cousins sprinkled across three townships and my grandmother lives in Simcoe, just a little deeper into tobacco country than the small town we’ve moved to, and even though my father still has the same telephone number and still lives where we used to live, still sleeps down the hall from the room which I’d believed was mine, my mother doesn’t want them knowing about every dollar and cent.

And I am with her, with my own room: with the same books, the same toys, and the same stuffed animals, but with a new desk pulled from my grandmother’s basement. It’s really a dresser though, so the middle drawer is perfect, but the other four are meant for sweaters not homework, and the empty Tang tins and Rose Red boxes I use as organizers don’t change how quickly things get lost deep down.

There are no title-pages in my mother’s notebooks: no drawings, no colouring, and no maps. On the top line she writes the month and the year and then she makes each double-spread a grid, the lines drawn with the metal side of the ruler. The headers are underlined with red, but the string of dates down the left-hand side is always blue. Everything in ink. Every label, every value: my mother reads aloud.

Certain values are dependable, like the rent paid to the retired couple who live above us, and the only line for income appears above that. She copies the other values from receipts which are tucked inside the cover of the notebook until they are recorded on the corresponding dates. Mothers’ Allowance covers few extras—pop and chips on Friday nights when we watch Dallas and Falconcrest (when the antenna can pull in the signal) and an occasional jar of pickles—but there are always enough figures to require a calculator. Hers is pocket-sized and solar-powered, with buttons in ’70s colours—cream and tan and orange—so small that they disappear under the pads of her fingertips.

Before the new month is drawn up, the previous month is finalized. Each element is itemized and each column totalled. Except for the surplus, which only appears on the screen. When she nears the final calculation, I hold my breath and hope for a plus-result. Once, there was nearly ten dollars.

But often there is a minus-result, which will be recorded in red ink. There must be a relationship between those pluses and minuses, but the Budget isn’t about making sense of things. Once a month is totalled, it’s finished.

Another way of accomplishing the same thing would be to reach the end of the month and empty her wallet, turn it upside down to release the coins from their pouch and fan any remaining bills alongside to tally the remnants. That never happens.

When there’s a plus-result, we discuss our options, often visiting the newsagent’s store in town when we go to my grandmother’s for dinner. Having a few dollars is not just about buying a couple of magazines; it buys you time to breathe and browse, because when you are buying, the old man will not grouch at you the way he does when you are only looking.

He sits on his stool behind the counter, with his back to the window, and stares across the store. His grumbling and throat-clearing are soft warnings, issued around his sticky puffing on cigarettes. At intervals, he reaches into crinkly bags of candy, the jumbo-size that my grandmother buys only on holidays.

My mother’s technique is solid. First, she asks to place two items we have decided to purchase on his counter, as a demonstration of commitment. You still can’t actually read a magazine, you have to make it look like you are just leafing through the pages, assessing whether or not you will add it to the stack. The trick is to memorize page numbers when scanning the list of articles, so you can flip through until you land there accidentally-on-purpose.

I am learning how to look like I might buy. How to make gridlines and how to fill in the blanks. How to pass beneath that shopkeeper’s judgement. How to underline someone else’s expectations of survival. How month after month adds up to a lifetime. I also learn that it is better to sleep on the floor in my mother’s bedroom, rather than at the other end of the apartment in my own bed. And I am learning complex rituals of counting and placement. Which have nothing to do with dollars and cents. Nothing to do with money I can touch. Everything to do with budgeting my breath.

Marcie McCauley has had prose published in Room (Canada) and Other Voices (Canada), Tears in the Fence (UK) and Orbis (UK), and online in The Empty Mirror and The Temz Review. She writes and reads in Toronto, Canada and you can find her online at and on Twitter @buriedinprint.

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