LONG before she was a wife, or a business owner, or a person who wore sandals in the rain, Gretta Klimstra was a librarian. Then her father died, the summer she was 27, and Gretta Klimstra sold the house and moved to Montreal to study picture-framing. People who knew her wondered amongst themselves whether her decision was a rebellion against her dead parents, or a reaction to grief, or some smart career move no one else in Turgrove had thought of.

She gave her notice at the library right after the realtor sold the old house, so no one much saw her that last month. If she was in bad shape without him, or just reveling in the inheritance, no one knew. But even the worst gossips were inclined to think the best, really, with all that Ed suffered and his home nurse saying such nice things about “the daughter.”

Gretta would have laughed about all this, if she’d been a laugher, because Turgrove was such a strange tiny suburb, it was really like a village. She knew everybody, and she knew there could only be so many things they would think about a pretty girl with no family. Plus everyone knew she was a good librarian. In truth, she didn’t have a thought of rebelling against anything in the world, though sometimes she wished she did.

She did wonder, though, after ten years with books, and reading everything on the shelf, if she was smart in that way at all, or even cared to be. The idea of making picture frames seemed closer to her actual nature. Her father had had a woodshop in their basement, where he made cabinets and chests. She missed the smell of sawdust.

She sat on the train with her hands folded in the hammock of her grey felt skirt. Gretta did not intentionally dress as if it were 1965—she went to the same Hudson’s Bay as everyone else—but that’s just how it worked out. She had two books with her, one about D. H. Lawrence and the other about belt sanders; she knew which one she’d probably read when she got sick of staring into space. She checked herself periodically for fear, but couldn’t find any.

The apartment she took was a railway flat—a hall-less series of rooms that opened onto one another. You had to walk through everything to get to the bathroom. She thought of privacy, guests wandering through her bedroom, even though she knew no one who might visit.

After settling in to Montreal, she had time to kill, lots of it. It hadn’t seemed worth mentioning to anyone back home that it wasn’t a full-time program she was entering—just one day a week. She thought maybe it would seem embarrassing to her relatives and former coworkers that she had moved to another province to take what seemed like a hobbyists’ class. But Gretta knew she could learn whatever she needed to know from anyone who knew it.

Gretta got into town on Saturday and the class didn’t start until Friday. By Tuesday she had the phone hooked up and had collected a bare minimum of used furniture and dishes. Then she went shopping and bought three pairs of straight-legged blue jeans, and half a dozen men’s button-down workshirts. The Bay had these things, too, it turned out.

She had another two days until she had something to do.

So she took walks and looked at Montreal—her French was passable, though she was even less chatty in another language. She resisted comparing her new city to Turgrove, with its six churches and two malls and highway to Iria if you wanted Chinese food. She answered her new phone and talked to her aunts and former colleagues at the library. Almost everyone asked about her love life. They did this when she was home too: “How’s your love life?” the same sort of mindless question as “Cold enough for you?” She never answered either.

The truth was, Gretta Klimstra had had enough love life to carry her through for a long time. In high school, she had ridden on the backs of motorcycles, held hands at choir practice, made out and made up, and found notes full of rhymed poetry stuffed between the slats of her locker. In grade 11, she had lost all the versions of virginity she could think of, with a boy who took her out to the woods. The only part of the sex that wasn’t a cliché was the tie-dyed cotton he brought them to lie on, instead of a picnic blanket. Throughout university and her career at the library, she could scarcely turn her eyes from her current beau before some hearty male specimen would approach out of the General History aisle and ask her out to dinner.

She was a slender girl with no breasts to speak of, but that flatness only enhanced the long tall length of her, draped in chocolate hair. Her face was wide, her ears large and flat against her skull—there were those who waited on the rare summer days she put her hair up, to see those ringless ears. Gorgeous and quiet, a nearly silent librarian—was it her beauty or the challenge that attracted them? She was content not to wonder about that much, and played to type. Until she moved away, Gretta was quick to say yes to hand-holding promenades through public parks and into restaurants where she talked, or at least answered, about books, about the town, about people she had known in high school, about the weather. She was not a talkative person, but she was a good listener—she’d been told this over and over. Mainly she waited to be seduced, not only because she liked to be (though she did), but because it was familiar.

Gretta missed none of these men and would not have said she was homesick or lonesome in Montreal; she was not longing for what was familiar but what was new. So she was brightly awake on the first day of “Introduction to Framing,” in jeans and a work shirt and a fresh new kind of deodorant. She put a pair of work gloves in her purse, and went to the metro, her feet bouncy in sneakers, so unlike the stiff flat loafers she had worn at the library. Per the instruction packet she’d received, her hair was firmly pinned up, and the naked white curve of her neck felt oddly cool.

The classroom was large, and fluorescently bright. Pieces of machinery mainly rested on large wood-block tables, though some were free-standing, cluttered with bits of wood, matting, unrecognizable tools—the messiness that comes from actual work being done. People milled around chatting eagerly, as if this weren’t the first class but somehow midway through the semester.

The teacher’s name was Margo. Her thick grey hair was braided down the left side of her head. Her clothes were shapeless, but not loose; she wore sturdy expensive-looking boots. Her voice was the rat-tat-tat of Anglo Montreal, fast and fierce.

“Hello, welcome to Introduction to Framing. We are here to learn to frame a piece of art with pre-beveled pieces, a mat, glass, and backing. I realize that many of you are artists, from the university. While you may not think of framing as art, it does matter. It is a science. A bad framing job can disguise, diminish, even physically damage a lovely painting or drawing or photo. Please do not devalue your own work by devaluing mine—if you don’t work hard on your frames, your art will suffer.”

Some students were nodding, others rolling their eyes. All but Gretta seemed unsurprised that they were being addressed thusly. She realized the reason for this pleading lecture as soon as she saw the syllabus. It was truly a hobby class; no assignments would be graded. And Margo’s sternness didn’t even work—while they were being assigned their first workstations, three young men in snug cardigans walked out the door chatting, cigarette packs in hand, and Margo didn’t say anything. She did move to the big silver blade-wheel of the mitre saw as soon as she saw them leave, though—perhaps she was hoping they’d later be sorry for having ditched the safety lesson. But the lesson was just to bolt the clamps firmly and keep one’s fingers out of the way, so probably not.

Once Gretta had been assigned her own mitre saw, she settled in to examine her classmates. Most were very young, but one fellow had a full beard, and looked to be at least in his late twenties. She caught him looking at her—he had the same sort of warm, rewarding stare that she caught from the historical men at the library, the ones who wanted to buy her nice pasta and touch her elbow as they walked to the car. This man was cowed by the mitre saw, though; he had been assigned one of the mechanized ones, and when his partner pulled the blade down it made a metallic screech that startled him enough to take a step back, every time. The girl making the cuts seemed startled, too. She kept yanking the blade up too soon, so her cuts were ragged or incomplete. After each one, she jerked her hands back as if scalded.

Conversation whirled as they attempted the machines—everyone seemed to know each other. “Herkingburger’s assignment…” “…the department social caliber…” “…Miriam’s famous breakdown” and so on. Gretta felt as though she was the only one present who was not an artist, and wondered why no one had bothered to tell her this bit of news. Her jeans were cleaner, free of spatters, but theirs were better cut, and probably not from The Bay.

She turned her attention to her saw. Gretta had been assigned to one of the manual saws, actually a box with a saw on top, with nice yellow grips. She had been assigned a partner too, but the young woman with amber hair and steel-frame glasses had disappeared as soon as the teacher said, “Ok, give it a try.” As Gretta lined up the blade with her pencil line on the wood, she spotted her partner across the room, rummaging through a bin of end-cuts. The girl glanced up suddenly, directly at Gretta, who zipped her gaze to her own wood. The blade was level with the mark, so she began to carefully rock the saw. When she’d neatly cut through, a voice behind her said, “Have you done this before?”

Gretta shook the sawdust off her wood—she thought it would have seemed preen-y to blow on it. “No, but I’ve used other sorts of saws. It’s not that different.”

She turned. Her partner had her chosen scraps clutched to her breasts: a dozen small pieces, slipping out of her hands. Gretta reached out to catch one. “I’m Gretta. It’s your turn. Margo gave us some end-bits for practice. What do you need those for?”

“I’m Danja.” She shuffled to a table and dumped the wood with a clatter that made the teacher turn around, briefly. “I do a lot of crafts, besides the actual art. I make… stuff. I thought I could use these, if they’re just free for the taking.” Danja seemed not particularly young in her face, but her movements were young, unconfident, clumsy.

“It’s your turn.”

Danja couldn’t get the clamps fixed properly, and even after Gretta helped her, still mangled the wood. She didn’t seem too distressed though. Gretta cut another piece to show her, but Danja mangled the second piece, then the instructor declared an official smoke break.

It seemed okay to walk out beside Danja, though she had not been invited. Gretta figured that would be better than remaining alone in the classroom. Either everyone in the class smoked, or they just didn’t like it there—even Margo shot out the door.

Gretta was pleased, and a bit surprised, when Danja smiled at her and offered her a cigarette. She shook her head and asked, “How long have you lived in Montreal?”

“Just a year,” Danja said through an exhale. “I’m second year of the MFA—you first? I’m acrylics, mainly, a little oil. People think I’m old-school, but I’m not. What’s your media?”

“Frames.” Gretta tried it out, to see how it would sound. “I’m not an artist. I want to be a framer. That’s why I’m here.”

“Oh, seriously? You want to do this, like, full-time?”

Gretta nodded. It had seemed like a modest, reasonable, vocational decision in her head, but it sounded very strange in front of this smoky face and gleaming hair. “Yes. I think I’d be good at it. Not a lot of people do it, professionally, in a serious way.”

“Did you get burned on something? Like, a show or a review or something?”

Gretta performed a mental scan of her body, searching for the bits of exposed flesh that might appear scarred. It took several of Danja’s inhales and exhales before she got it.

“I’m really not an artist. I don’t actually know much about art. But I like things that look right. I like to get things right. And just… my dad had a woodshop, he taught me some stuff. I thought I might be okay at this.”

Danja tipped her head to the side a moment, then laughed. “It’s good that you’re not an artist. There’s too many fucking artists. And less conflict of interest this way. A framer who’s also an artist might be jealous of a brilliant piece, and make a terrible frame for it. Like a bride making the bridesmaids wear ugly dresses, to kill their beauty.”

Gretta didn’t process the metaphor until that evening, but she nodded anyway. “It’s worth a shot.”

Back in the classroom, the instructor was waving a piece of grey-green matting, and saying, “Before you go at the saws with decent wood, let’s talk about matting. Here is where the artists go ape-shit. You have to choose a piece of matting that will complement the colours in the piece you’re framing. And then you have to choose some wood that complements both of those. This decision should take maximum 20 minutes, including time spent carrying your materials back to your bench. Seriously.”

Most of the students began opening their portfolios and gently pulling out dreamy watercolours, or stiff posterboards with slashes of bright graffiti. Gretta had only a postcard of the Oratoire St-Joseph she’d bought there the day before. It was a pretty postcard: the huge grey hunch of the dome against a cloudy blue sky, the pilgrims and tourists tiny dots shrunk down to the colour of their t-shirts. The other students were handling their pieces with reverence, flat palms and gentle fingertips.

She figured it was a good sign if you loved your work so much you feared hurting it. She figured that was something to work towards.

At about 4:55, everyone in the class began to drift out the door, as if in response to some inaudible signal. Margo was restacking leftover handouts and ignoring the students, so Gretta followed the bearded fellow down the stairs. His shoulders through his shirt were thick and dark; his stride was jaunty.

In the street, the main group headed east, so Gretta stood beside a rusted wheel-less bike locked to a stand, watching them walk four abreast, forcing kids and dogs into the street. She felt both impressed and condescending: her classmates seemed so very young.

The beardo turned, and Gretta suddenly realized she must look neither impressed nor condescending, just pathetic. He nudged Danja’s arm and said something. Danja turned to yell, “You want dinner? We’re going to eat dinner. Come eat dinner with us.”

There were kids playing basketball somewhere. They weren’t visible, but Gretta could hear the thump-thump-thump of the ball and, more faintly, the shouts. The sun looked as if it hadn’t even started to set, and Gretta’s shirt was already damp against her body. Gretta walked up the street to the artists in their skinny paint-splashed jeans. The bearded guy introduced himself as Forrest. Gretta had never met anyone with that name before.

• • •

“That’s it, a trade, something you can do with your hands that other people can’t—make money off the effete bourgeoisie.”

Gretta took a bite of her shish tawouk. Why not tell the truth? “I’m sure people will come with their graduation pictures and painted velvet clowns, but also… people like you guys.” She thought for a moment, and then offered, “People who work so hard on the art that they’ll pay for a perfect frame for it.”

Forrest was already laughing, and another guy named Dave, too. Danja grinned. Danja’s teeth, as it turned out, were small and yellowish even though her hair was glossy and perfect. Smokers always surprised you.

A tall blond girl named Luca said, “Oh, yeah, we’re a market after all. Or we’ve always been, really.” She shrugged. “Inevitable.”

Gretta wondered if she’d said the wrong thing, and decided to say nothing further. Instead she nodded and chewed. The pause went on so long that Danja mentioned a television show and the conversation turned, and Gretta had a moment to think.

She thought about the food. For all she knew, shish tawouk was available in Turgrove, just not in the restaurants she was invited to. She went out to dinner with anyone who suggested it, but never alone. Alone, she ate at home, things she liked: squash, red sauces, grated cheese, chicken thighs. But it turned out she liked this sandwich, too.

Forrest laughed—he was watching through the window as a man rode past on a bicycle, leading a dog on a leash. The dog, oblivious, had halted to eat something in the gutter, tipping the rider off his bike. Forrest’s shoulder jiggled against Gretta’s as he laughed. The way the thin fabric of his shirt floated a few millimeters from his skin indicated that it might be a hairy shoulder. If so, then his chest would certainly be. His chest was wide, like someone who lifted things, but not necessarily weights.

• • •

The next class wasn’t for a week. The inheritance covered all she needed and more, so Gretta had decided not to take a job before she knew how much schoolwork she’d have. She realized now it would be almost nothing and felt a bit stupid. She didn’t need money, but she couldn’t sit in her cramped apartment all week with nothing to do. So she got a job in a bookstore within a couple hours. It wasn’t what she wanted, but her skillset was limited, and she wanted even less to spend days looking for a job.

It was a long week. Gretta imagined the discussions back home of how she needed to have more friends; it wasn’t good not to air her thoughts or at least chat. She wondered if she had aired her plan to move to a strange city for a six-week hobby class, could someone have talked her out of it? She was assigned to Children’s Books at the store, which was even more abominable than at the library because she had no desk to command from and was forced to wander amongst the parents. The dads invariably hit on her, and the moms commanded her to not only find their books but also their children.

• • •

Danja beamed at Gretta as soon as she entered the classroom, and Forrest handed her a doughnut, and everyone chatted about what had happened in class that week. Not the framing class, but their Concordia art classes, which they mostly all shared.

It was a relief to be included in a conversation, though of course she wasn’t actually expected to talk. Gretta sank into the talking with silent gratitude until the instructor yelled, “Seats, people, we have a lot to cover today.”

They did, actually, have a lot to cover—they were joining the corners and inserting the backboard, which everyone found difficult at first. The class was funny, friendly, and Gretta got a lot of, “Oh, yours looks so good,” and “Gretta, sorry, could you help me? Margo keeps rolling her eyes when I ask.”

She felt maternal when she tugged the nails out of Audrey’s bad join or wiped the bits of glue Forrest had missed. His warm hand brushed her fingertips when she handed him back the wood.

“So what do you do, when you’re not in class?”

“I work in a bookstore.”

“But, for fun?”

“I just moved to Montreal. I haven’t figured out what to do here yet.”

“Before that?”

She blinked at him with her long eyelashes, which was usually all she needed to do for flirtation. Forrest looked away, but only for a moment. “I only know artists and artists…and all we ever do is work, and look at other people’s work. And drink—but that comes from working too much.”

“Do you really have so many assignments? And then you have to take this course, too?” She gestured at the buzz of saws and fretful conversation.

“No, I mean, yeah, there’s a lot of schoolwork, but also, like, I want this new series I’m working on to really do something with light, you know? And when I can’t get the canvas right, it messes everything else up, too. I don’t want to work anymore but I can’t let it go. I get tired and I go on Facebook, but the whole time, my brain is like, that angle is fucked, that angle is not accurate. And I wind up working even when I’m too tired to actually accomplish anything, just staring at this piece of shit and picking at little details that don’t matter, and painting over, and then it’s four in the morning, and you’ve eaten everything in the fridge except the mustard and you’ve played every game on Facebook and the painting looks worse than when you started, and you have a fucking class presentation at nine in the morning, and you barely have the energy to shower.”

Gretta had been assigned one of the best mitres that day. She cast the red laser line onto her beveled wood and gazed at the beam. “I guess that’s why so many artists burn their work.” She zipped the blade through—these mechanical ones were so simple they could be operated by kids. “No, that sounded… I didn’t mean it that way.”

“I know. And I didn’t mean that just because you aren’t an obsessive freak like me, you don’t do anything.”

“Oh, I do things,” she said, laying out the cut pieces. “But I do things that, when you’re done you’re done, you know?” She reached for the glue. “Once I glue this and nail it, it’ll be done. Even if there’s something wrong with it, it’ll be done.”

“You can always fix it, can’t you? Take out the nails and start over?”

“You glue first, then nails. You’d have to smash it to get it apart.”

• • •

She had loved her father in the way one loves a sunset at sea or the scent of roses: more often in the abstract than in the particular. But his presence in the house, the quick nod when she walked through a room he was in, the smell of sweet white bread toasted nearly black, a pair of leather slippers by the door when he was out—these things meant the possibility, probability of love, affection, support whenever she needed or wanted it. She rarely did—the probability was enough.

At home, now, in Montreal, the shoes by the door were only hers, and everything was where she left it. And her shoes weren’t that nice and as the days passed, the laces got thick with sawdust. She started going to the gallery shows and performance shows and weird little street shows and “guerrilla” shows. It was all right. The only experiences Gretta could personally claim, previous to Montreal, were either boring or in books or else sexual, but those were enough to allow her to feel a touch superior to her classmates. She knew the feeling was mutual.

At a gallery opening for no one she knew, Gretta stood with Danja and Forrest, who were binging on artisanal cheese and rye crackers, and making fun of people. Gretta had been getting nauseous after these parties and was starting to think she was lactose intolerant, so was sticking to white wine. A man approached her elbow, the elbow furthest from Forrest and Danja, and said, “It’s lovely, isn’t it?”

He raised his drink towards the painting where Gretta had been resting her gaze. It was of a tree denuded of branches, like a very tall stump. There were some smaller stumps in the background, and a murder of crows flying above. “Oh. Yes.”

“It’s so naked, vulnerable.” The man edged closer. He was wearing a suit, but wasn’t yet thirty, she didn’t think, and had piercings in his eyebrow, nose, lower lip. His hair was spiked, except one spike that drooped onto his forehead, like Superman’s.

“I think it’s, yeah, interesting. Phallic.”

His silver-encircled left eyebrow shot up. Gretta had skipped ahead by several steps—she hadn’t done this in a while. He recovered. “Oh? What makes you say that?”

She grinned, let her teeth show. “Like you said, the vulnerability, the nakedness…” She let the sentence end; it was never necessary, or wise, to say too much when one was being seduced.

“Absolutely. You really… I totally agree. May I get you a drink?

“Of course. I’ll have—”

“Actually, come with me. They have a strange selection up there at the bar.” The bar being a table draped in a white cloth, with coolers underneath and undergrads in tight white aprons bending for bottles. “I might not be able to get what you want.”

“I’m sure you’d figure something out,” Gretta said, nevertheless straightening up to follow him.

She heard a cough, something like a retch, and turned to find Danja doubled over and Forrest flat-palm whacking her on the back. After a few rather violent blows, a small wad of chewed orange cheese appeared on the floor beneath Danja’s face. She stayed bent for a moment, wheezing and spitting, before rising to embrace Forrest.

“You saved my fucking life, buddy.” Her arms clasped so firmly that Forrest’s jacket rode up. Then Danja turned and embraced Gretta, too. “Oh, my god, it’s true, your life does flash before your eyes. I remember everything.” She stroked Gretta’s bare arm and when she pulled away, her eyes were wet and glassy. “I have to tell you guys, oh my god, I have to get out of here. It’s all too much.” Leaning on Gretta’s arm, Danja began to walk unsteadily towards the door. Forrest picked up everyone’s bags from the corner, nodded solemnly at the man in the suit, and darted after the girls. Gretta shrugged at the man, and let herself be pulled out the door.

On the street, Forrest returned everyone’s belongings and they walked for half a block in silence. Then Forrest burst into guffaws, a nearly literal burst of hilarity from his mouth that included strands of saliva getting caught in his beard.

Danja embraced Gretta again, a flopping, friendly arm across the shoulders this time, and gasped through laughter, “Oh, god, we saved you, eh? You owe us, Gretta, we saved you from that shark.”

Gretta was not entirely sure of the joke, or that she wasn’t the butt of it. “Shark?” she said, as Forrest embraced her too, from the other side. She took a moment to savour his warm heavy hand splayed across her back, as comforting as she had imagined.

“What’s a little performance compared to the safety of a friend? Of her virtue? We couldn’t let you get sucked in any further; he was about to rip your dress off right there.” Danja tugged her hand, beaming.

Forrest actually bent and kissed Gretta’s hair before pulling away—a slight pressure of lips through curls. Then they were walking again, and he said, “He was the sort of guy who goes through these parties like a whale, just filtering the krill until he gets a girl who’ll go to bed with him.”

Gretta took her hand back from Danja. She wanted a sentence to warm up, so she said, “First off, that metaphor makes no sense. How does filtering krill fit with anything that just happened back there? You meant—”

“Shark!!” finished Danja, bouncing off a newspaper box. “You meant shark but you said whale by accident, and then you just had to go with it.”

“No, I did it on purpose. I’m tired of using the shark metaphor for all scammy guys. We need more than one metaphor—there are so many guys who just want to find a nice pretty girl at a party and take her home and fuck her, and never call her again.”

Gretta wanted to say, “What’s wrong with that?” but she didn’t. But then she did—it was what she thought, after all. “What’s wrong with that?”

Forrest laughed, but stopped when he looked at her, standing still on the sidewalk. “Well, nothing, I guess. If that’s what she’s into.”

“Right.” Gretta nodded once. “It’s the nice girl’s choice.”

They all stood there staring at each other. Were they fighting? They were only just becoming friends—they didn’t know each other well enough to fight. And they didn’t want to fight, anyway. So they continued along the sidewalk, and eventually went into a diner and ate pancakes and talked about music and pancakes and their parents, and then all went home late, cheerful and alone.


Rebecca Rosenblum is the author of two collections of short stories, ONCE (2008) and THE BIG DREAM (2011), as well as the story chapbook ROAD TRIPS (2010). Her new book, a novel in stories called SO MUCH LOVE, is forthcoming in 2016.

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LF #071 © 2014 Rebecca Rosenblum. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, October 2014.

Guest editor: Trevor Corkum. Image from The Noun Project.


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the framer

by rebecca rosenblum