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Authors: Alice Zorn

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BOOK: Five Roses
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“That's why the owner is selling. His son killed himself here.”

“His son,” Fara repeated.

Yolette skimmed a glance at the white-and-gold ceiling fan, and as quickly away again.

That
wobbly fixture of gold paint and plastic? Fara nearly scoffed. It wouldn't hold the weight of a purse, much less a person.

“It happened more than a year ago but he still won't step in the house.” Yolette tried to sound concerned, but Fara could tell she had no idea how suicide rent your life — how you were forever marked by the guilt that you weren't there when someone close to you chose death over life.

“He's selling as is,” Yolette said. And more carefully, “His son's clothes and belongings are still upstairs.”

Fara felt the cool edge of the blade again and willed herself not to. The clothes and belongings of a person who'd chosen to die were the detritus of a life that had been rejected. Winter boots and summer sandals jumbled at the bottom of a closet. A coffee mug that had been a gift. Fridge magnets. Photos. Mementos kept for years — but not worth staying alive for. Why should they mean anything to Fara if they'd meant nothing to Claire?
No, not Claire
. This boy.

“He's asking hardly anything,” Yolette said softly. “Only a hundred and fifty.”

“A hundred and fifty thousand for the house?” The condos they'd looked at last winter were a hundred and sixty. “What's wrong with it?”

“Nothing. He and his son started renovating, so the plumbing is all new and the wiring on the first floor has been redone.” Yolette knocked on the wall. “This is drywall. Insulated. Upstairs you've still got the original plaster.” She opened both hands like an emcee. “You won't find a house this size for this price anywhere else in the city.”

“Why is it so cheap then?”

“People won't buy where there was a suicide. But you two are looking for an empty house.”

Frédéric walked into the room and winked so Yolette didn't see. Fara could tell he liked the house. He crossed to the kitchen, where he gushed water into the sink.

“The counters need to be replaced,” he said, leaning against the door frame.

“I was just telling your wife,” Yolette began, then waited, as if Fara might want to tell him herself. Fara didn't. “The owner's son killed himself here.”

Frédéric gave Fara a sharp look. Yolette glanced between them.

Still watching Fara, Frédéric said, “We don't want a house —”

“Can we see upstairs?” Fara cut him off. Daring herself. Not sure if she could.

Frédéric gave a small shake of his head.

“I want to see upstairs,” she repeated.

He looked at her an instant longer, then motioned for Yolette to precede them. He cupped Fara's elbow and leaned close to whisper, “We can leave.”

“I like the house. And he's only asking a hundred and fifty thousand.”

“But won't it make you think about your sister?”

Fara didn't answer. No one thought about suicide until it happened. Then, once it had and your ears were attuned, you discovered that people were killing themselves all the time — among your friends, their families, at work, down the street. There was always someone who couldn't endure the despair of yet another day.

Yolette dropped them off at a diner to talk. She would return in an hour. Fara and Frédéric slid into a booth by the window. Orange vinyl seats and a chrome-edged table. “Holy 1950s,” Frédéric said.

The waitress looked as if she'd worked there since the 1950s. Her posture was stooped, her neck wattled, but her hips were girdled tight and the remains of her bleached hair had been teased and pinned into a wispy beehive. Frédéric asked if she had espresso.

“Coffee.” Her voice grated from the catacomb of a three-pack-a-day habit.

He ordered Pepsi. Fara asked for tea.

The paper placemat advertised hot hamburger with fries, club sandwich with fries, fish sticks with fries. “Do you think the spaghetti comes with fries?” Fara asked.

“The Plateau isn't far away. If we want to eat out.”

In the upstairs of the house Frédéric had tested the taps and flushed the toilet. Fara had never before realized how obsessed he was with water pressure. The door frames canted, but the doors closed, and they were solid. All the condos they'd visited had hollow-core doors.

Fara had walked from room to room, gaze levelled high, trying not to see the bed with its turmoil of grimy sheets, the tangled clothes on the floor — legs and sleeves wrestling to be rid of themselves — the clutter of empty beer cans and the rubber mask of a devil's face in the kitchen. Those were all
things
that could be packed up and thrown away. They weren't the house. A house was a shell that, in itself, didn't carry memories. She and Frédéric would paint the walls, sand the floors, decorate. Make the house theirs.

Frédéric stirred his straw through the crushed ice in his glass. “Are you sure you're all right about the suicide?”

She heard how he kept it at a distance:
the
suicide. She should learn that trick. A horror you named but didn't claim.

“It's been years.” The metal teapot dripped when she poured, soaking the white paper doily under her cup. What a time warp — doilies and beehive hairdos.

“What if the house reminds you?”

“You mean ghosts?” She blotted her cup on a napkin and sipped her tea. “If Claire's ghost never haunted me, why should this boy's?”

“As long as you're sure you're all right.”

“Are you sure you're all right about cleaning up his stuff ? I can't help you.”

“I don't expect you to.”

“His father …” she began.

“What about his father?”

She remembered having to pack the clothes in Claire's closet. The flowered summer skirts. The black suede jacket with the pansy embroidered on the pocket. A metal hanger bent from the weight of a dozen pairs of jeans Claire would never wear again. Fara had punched the clothes into bags, arms rigid, face wet. Shoved the bags down the maw of a charity bin.

She made a face now. “His father's lucky you're doing it.”


Am
I doing it? Have we decided to buy the house?” His wide-eyed trusting and trustworthy look. Ready to lead or follow. She had only to give him the sign.

Seven years ago she'd been trudging through snowdrifts down a sidewalk behind a man who leaped up the steps of the apartment building where she was headed. Through the glass she saw him batting snow off his sleeves and shoulders.

She opened the door, shook snow off her tam, eyeing him sidelong as she stomped her boots. “Ever seen such a snow?” What a silly thing to say.

“Crazy night to go out,” he agreed. As if a snowstorm ever kept a Montrealer home.

Fara had crossed her fingers inside her mittens, hoping he was coming to Tom and Karin's party. She liked his boyish face, broad cheekbones, and lively eyes. He was taller than she was, too. She had nothing against short men, but it didn't feel as sexy when a man had to lift his head to kiss her.

When she began to climb the stairs and he followed, she asked, “Are you following me?”

“You're following me. I'm being polite and letting you go ahead.”

Both stopped before the door with the music and laughter. Fara blushed that her wish had come true so easily. Hold on! she told herself. Just because he'd arrived at the party alone didn't mean he was single.

When he tugged off his brown toque, she asked, “Is that a helmet liner?”

“It only cost two bucks. I didn't know it was a helmet liner.”

“I think it is.”

“How can you tell?” He turned it inside out and squinted at the washing instructions.

“A
helmet
.” She clamped a hand on her head. “Like soldiers wear. Inside, it's got a liner. You can buy them at the army surplus store.”

“Ah!” He smiled. “I thought you meant a designer name — like Hugo Boss.” And affecting a British accent, “Excuse me, is that perchance a Helmut Liner?”

Another point in his favour. A man who could laugh at himself.

They walked into the crush of bodies and noise where separate friends hailed them. From across the room Fara tracked him. She wasn't sure but she thought he did the same. No one seemed to claim him. They circled closer.

Et voilà
, here they were, seven years later, married and about to buy a house.

“And you're sure you're sure?” Frédéric asked. “Because you weren't so keen on the idea of a house, and now this one, with a suicide …”

“I like the house. I think I'm okay about the suicide. I should be, right? It's been seventeen years.”

Rose

Rose didn't have to start work at the hospital until two. In the morning she took the subway to St-Henri and walked past the discount stores, the pizza-slice and roti shops, the beer trucks unloading boxes. She turned down the wide street where a factory with a smokestack had been refurbished as condos. The brick had been cleaned but still looked old. The high, gleaming windows mirrored the sky. She had to take great steps over the converging and criss-crossing rails of the train tracks. Before Kenny explained that they curved north to skirt the mountain and south to the rail yards and downtown, she saw only a puzzle of parallel lines narrowing in the distance.

The first morning she unlocked the door by herself, she hung back. The dark room wafted with ghostly movement. Shadows hulked. She told herself it was only garbage. Planks and metal junk. She darted across the room to jerk aside the canvas curtain. Out the tic-tac-toe window she saw cyclists and the canal.

She'd been to the studio a few times now, and the view from the window was growing familiar. Between her and the bike path was a rusted chain link fence. Grey skies tarnished the water silver. Every few minutes a jogger or cyclist passed. If Rose craned her neck, she could see the sculptor near the loading ramp. Often he was working, bent over his stone with a chisel or a rasp, but just as often he had visitors and stood talking.

Rose banged the heel of her palm against the stiff catches on the lower panes of the window until she'd forced a few open. Fourteen panes across, four high: fifty-six panes of glass, each one filthy. She would need a ladder to get to the top rows.

She'd brought rags and a jug of bleach she'd carried from her apartment, on the bus and the subway. She was smarter when she realized she could buy a broom and bucket in St-Henri.

She couldn't find a stopper for the sink, so twisted a corner of rag into the mouth of the drain. She filled the sink and poured in bleach. Inhaled its good smell as she scrubbed the rusty tap and sink. The hardened dribbles of paint — the crimson splashes that looked like blood — had bonded to the porcelain, but the sink was clean now.

She swiped at the cobwebs she could reach. Stooped and lifted. Dragged the cracked boards and corroded spines of metal across the room to the door. Now and then she stopped cleaning to listen. She heard the tap and scrape of the sculptor's tools. A faint crescendo of drumbeats through the ceiling. The greedy keen of gulls. People on their bikes having a shouted conversation.

How her life had changed since she'd left the cabin in the woods and moved to Montreal. She no longer woke before dawn to birdsong, shoving aside her woven blankets to start a fire in the stove. Now she stayed up late to watch movies with Yushi. Life was both easier — a kettle that only needed to be plugged in — and stranger. Could she ever have foreseen claiming a room in an abandoned factory as her own? Or being a small yet necessary cog in the intricate network of a busy hospital? Sometimes, while she waited for the bus, she flipped through a circular rack of flowered dresses on the sidewalk. Yushi had made her taste mango, avocado, pomegranate, and papaya. Her life, once so austere, unfolded now with variety and sensation. It was all a surprise. All wondrous and new. Only, sometimes … a moment yawned — when she sat on the bus, watching an elderly man grip his shopping bag between his bony knees — and she knew she was adrift without attachment or family.

Kenny always asked when they were going to the country to get her loom. Not yet, Rose said. She had a pile of garbage she didn't know where to take. She couldn't reach the top of the window, which hadn't been washed for decades, without a ladder — or get rid of the spider webs that drooped from the ceiling. Spiders, Kenny joshed. Don't tell me you lived in the woods and you're scared of spiders? Spiders, she said, get into the yarn.

She was coming down the street on the way to her studio, as Kenny kept calling it, and saw a man sitting on the front doorstep. She thought it could be him but wasn't sure until he lifted his takeout coffee in greeting. When she got closer she said, “Why didn't you tell me you were coming?”

“Didn't know if I was till I did. Come on.” He heaved himself up. “See what I brought.”

In the hallway stood a metal ladder. “Where did you get that?”

“I told you, I've got connections.”

She unlocked the door and he carried the ladder inside. “Wow! You really cleaned up. This looks great.”

“Except for that.” She pointed at the heap of wood and metal.

“I'll figure it out.” He swung through the door.

The legs of the ladder opened easily enough, but Rose had to arm-wrestle with the mechanism to lock the legs. She wrapped a wet rag over the head of the mop and climbed the ladder to swab the corners of the ceiling. Kenny had propped the door open and was dragging away the garbage, sliding and bumping it down the hallway.

Rose pushed the ladder farther along, rinsed and wet her rag anew. She heard tapping she ignored until the person called, “Rose!” She looked around the room, then over to the window where she saw Yushi's tufted black hair.

“How did you find me?”

“The guy hacking at the stone said this was your window.” Yushi's green bike leaned against the chain-link fence.

“The sculptor? I've never even talked to him.”

“Your boyfriend does.”

“He's not my boyfriend.”

“That's what the sculptor called him.”

“Because he doesn't know he's not my boyfriend.”

“How do you know he doesn't tell people he is?”

Rose wanted to say he didn't, but how did she know?

Kenny walked into the room and over to the window when he saw Yushi. “Hi, I'm Kenny.”

Yushi held up a paper bag. “I brought some brioches.”

“I'll show you how to get in.” Kenny pivoted and jogged out.

“He's not usually here,” Rose said. “I didn't know he was coming today.”

“You didn't know — or you don't want to know?”

“He's helping me.”

“He sure is,” Yushi said dryly.

“Hey, Rose's friend!” Kenny called from the loading ramp.

“He's never” — Rose began, but Yushi was already striding through the knee-high weeds toward Kenny — “tried to kiss me.”

Rose steered her cart as close as she could to the wall, so she and Kenny didn't seem to be walking down the hallway together, though he kept pace step for step. He needed to borrow a piece of equipment and had followed her to three nursing stations already. The unit coordinator at the last one told him it would be easier if he went directly to the Inhalation Department. He thanked her cheerfully and stayed with Rose.

“You're not going to paint the walls?” he asked. “Because I can help you with that.”

She hadn't thought of painting. She shook her head. “No.”

“Yeah, you'd have to plaster first. Those walls are wrecked.”

An orderly, pushing a stretcher toward them, glanced at Rose and pursed his mouth at Kenny. Meaning what? Kenny was just being Kenny, wasn't he? She didn't believe he told people he was her boyfriend. The sparks and yearning weren't there. When he touched her, it was a game to get her attention. She couldn't explain why he was so willing to help her. Didn't friends help each other? She had too little experience of friendship to know.

“Basically,” he said, “you're happy as long as your studio is clean, right? You don't want it all pretty and nice. You're going to be working there.”

“I'm going to be weaving.” She didn't think of weaving as work.

A woman walking past, swinging her stethoscope, said, “Hi, Kenny.” And smiled at Rose. Everyone in the hospital seemed to know him.

Rose had only one bag of cans for the next nursing station. She carried it to the med room. When she returned, Kenny was gone. The unit coordinator signed her clipboard. “Your friend said he'd see you later.”

Rose pushed her trolley to the elevator slowly, unable to pass two elderly women who scraped the floor with their walkers, legs swollen beneath the drooping hems of their gowns. The women didn't talk. It took all their focus to stay upright and keep moving. Had they become friends, Rose wondered? Both ill, lonely, and sharing a hospital room.

BOOK: Five Roses
13.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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