Read My October Online

Authors: Claire Holden Rothman

My October (2 page)

BOOK: My October
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“Hugo? What is this about?”

The boy did not look up. He was staring at a crack in the pavement that had appeared the previous winter and in the spring widened into a hole. Lyse had mentioned it a couple of times, suggesting they fill it in before the frost came and widened it further. Someone could get hurt.

“There was an incident,” Vien said quickly. “It's okay now. He's fine, actually.” He turned around and gave Hugo a smile that the boy didn't acknowledge. “He was checked by the school nurse. She said everything's normal. But it could have been serious. You were lucky, my man.” He gave Hugo a light, awkward punch on the shoulder. The boy flinched and kept his eyes fixed on the hole.

Heat surged up from Luc's chest. “He's talking to you,” he said to his son. “Look at him.”

Hugo lifted his gaze and looked not at Vien but at his father, with an expression that verged on venomous.

Vien laughed nervously—the honk—and Luc remembered the irritations of long ago.

“It's okay. Really. He's had a tough morning. No harm done. And it gave me a chance to drive down here and see you,
mon ami
. How long has it been? Thirty years? My God, more? Let me do the math.”

Luc's eyes had adjusted. It was one of those autumn days that felt like August. Across Laporte Street, the trees in Saint-Henri Park had turned, but the fountain was still flowing. That wouldn't last. The city would turn it off soon, most likely in the next week or so. But for today, there was water. Luc could hear it under Vien's chatter, water flowing through the spout below Jacques Cartier's blackened statue.

Vien stopped for a breath.

“Come in,” Luc said. Vien stood on the step, looking uncertain. “This is where I work.” Luc pointed at the outdoor staircase leading to the second storey. “We live upstairs.”

“Your mother's old place?”

“No, she's still in the middle one. The top one's ours.” He started to turn, then paused and said to Hugo, “You. Upstairs.”

The boy obeyed.

“I'll be up soon,” Luc called after him. “After I'm done with …” He turned back to Vien.

“Monsieur Vien,” said Vien, almost apologetically.

“Monsieur Vien.”

He led Vien inside, switching on lights as he went. He could feel his visitor looking around, and as he walked, he saw the flat with new eyes. It was makeshift, ugly. Vien sat down on the ratty corduroy couch, which, for obvious reasons, Rémi hadn't taken to the Plateau. Vien was trying to look at ease,
but the way he was perched made it plain he would rather be standing.

“Coffee?” Luc asked. “A glass of water?”

Vien shook his head. “I've got to get back.”

They looked at each other, shy now in the intimacy of the interior.

Vien was the first to break the silence. “He fainted,” he explained, turning the conversation back to the issue at hand. “On purpose. It's a thing they do. In groups, usually in the schoolyard. But Hugo chose to do it differently this time. This time, it was in the classroom, right under my nose.”

“Whoa, whoa,” Luc said. “He's in your class?”

“You didn't know? I figured you'd seen. My name is on his course list. He's in my homeroom.”

Luc shook his head. Hannah handled those things, and she wouldn't have recognized Vien's name. Vien looked vaguely hurt—but just for a moment. He resumed the story. He had been at the blackboard, writing notes with his back to the class, when he heard a thump. When he turned, Hugo was on the floor.

“Blacked out?” said Luc.

“For a few seconds, four or five at most. Everyone in the class turned when he hit the floor. We all heard it. By the time I got to him, his eyelids were already fluttering open. The rest of the kids didn't even have time to react. They only did that after, when Hugo was sitting up. He was sweating, but he knew where he was and everything. No worries there. The nurse shone a light in his eyes and checked his skull.”

“Easy skull to check.” Luc hated the concentration-camp look.

“Unlike ours.” Vien took a fistful of his own grey curls and shook them, smiling like a clown. “The nurse also gave him a lecture. Brain damage. Death. Told him in no uncertain terms how lucky he was.”

“How did he make himself faint?”

“There's a whole procedure. You hyperventilate, basically. Then empty the lungs. Hugo can tell you the steps better than I can.”

“Right.” There was a pause. “You got kids, Serge?”

“Fifteen hundred of them.”

In other words, no. Luc frowned. “They're overrated.”

Vien honked again. He was wearing shiny black shoes and a cheap tie. His sports jacket was rumpled. He was what passed for authority at the Catholic school where they had once been friends, and now he was teaching Luc's son. A small world: too small for words.

So Hugo had pulled a prank. A stupid one, but stupidity was the essence of pranks in high school.

“You shouldn't have taken this trouble,” Luc said. “You should have sent Hugo back to his desk and given him a detention. You probably won't get any lunch now.”

“There's a protocol at the school,” Vien explained. “If a kid faints, he gets sent to the infirmary and then home. No one picked up when we called your number. We were going to leave it at that, wait for you to call back, but Hugo told me you never pick up when you're working.”

Luc reddened. “My wife usually answers the telephone.”

“But she's out of town, Hugo said.”

“In Toronto. Visiting her parents.”

There was a pause while Vien digested this, but Luc wasn't
going to indulge him with any more personal information. Yes, his lifelong companion and helpmate was an Anglo. Yes, her parents lived in Toronto. Life was a bowl of paradoxes. Surely Vien had lived long enough to understand that.

“You do that every morning—unplug?”

“All day, sometimes,” said Luc. “Depending on how it's going. Otherwise, I don't get anything done. If someone needs to get in touch, they can do it through my agent.”

Vien laughed, nodding as if impressed. If he felt guilty about his intrusion into Luc's working day, it didn't show. “I love your books,” he said. “I've read every one of them. It's amazing.”

“What's amazing?”

“That you did it.”

“Wrote books?”

“Not just books.
Tanneur tanné, La mort d'un rêveur.
You're the voice of Quebec, Luc. That's what they call you. The voice of a generation. Our generation.
Les boomers
. And I grew up with you. I knew you way back when.”

“You did,” said Luc, smiling magnanimously. This type of talk used to make him want to run. Now, he just let it wash over him. Water off a duck's back. He had a talent, that was all. He could tell a story. But he still woke up at four
worrying about money and the health of his prostate gland. His hair, formerly thick and black, was still going grey. The muscles of his stomach were still thinning and turning incrementally into fat. It wasn't as though writing saved him from anything. At one time, he'd thought it might.

This had changed when Hugo was born, so tiny and dark, so utterly foreign, that Luc had actually felt a shiver of revulsion. It shamed him now to remember. The birth of his son had
shown him how little control he had, not merely over extraneous things, but over intimate ones as well. Writing, he'd once thought, sharpened the sensibilities. It rearranged the interior world, making space for empathy and love.

As he watched Hugo emerge from between Hannah's legs, covered in blood and wax, he hadn't felt anything even approaching love. After the doctor had cut the cord and the nurses had cleaned him, after Hannah had taken him in her arms and held him, crooning, against her breasts, Luc was offered the chance to hold him too. Hugo had looked up at him with enormous, worried eyes. His brow was mottled yellow and pink, the skin wrinkled like an old man's. He had resembled in that moment the poster of Franz Kafka hanging above Hannah's desk: saucer-eyed and Semitic. Not a trace of the Lévesque bloodline to be seen.

Vien's chatter brought Luc back to the present. He was describing the details of his life: the house in Longueuil on the South Shore; the daily drive over the crumbling Champlain Bridge; the wife who had walked out a year ago. He still lived in the bungalow by the river they had owned together.

“You're lucky to have this,” Vien said, motioning at the room with both hands. “Not the office,” he clarified, following Luc's eyes. “I mean Hugo. Your wife. A family.”

Luc didn't answer. Vien had always been a sentimentalist. Playing father to a fourteen-year-old son and husband to a woman you'd lived with for over twenty years wasn't unadulterated bliss, not that he was about to go into it.

“Well,” said Vien, as the silence grew uncomfortable.

They walked to the door.

“He's a good kid,” said Vien.

Again, Luc said nothing.

“Boys go insane at that age.”

Luc shrugged and shook Vien's hand, which felt surprisingly spongy. Too many years at a desk marking papers. He watched him walk to his car, a Toyota with a rusting hole above the rear wheel. Vien's back was slightly bowed, his step small. At fourteen, he used to bound down the stairs, taking them two at a time, kicking at the chestnuts that littered the front walk. Life had done its work. Vien was freighted now, slow. He walked by the chestnuts without even seeing them. Luc tucked in his chin, threw back his shoulders, and pulled himself to his full height. He hoped to God he didn't look like that from behind.

Vien's horn tooted twice as he drove off, back to the Collège Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Where he worked, teaching Hugo. It was hard to fathom.

A memory came floating to the surface, a cellular memory of the scratchy ill-fitting uniform Luc had been forced to wear for five years. Luc had not liked high school. He'd had reasons, not all of them related to Collège Saint-Jean-Baptiste itself. The face of his old principal, Monsieur Hervé, rose up in front of him. A fierce, pockmarked man. Or was the fierceness, like Vien's lazy eye, like the honking laugh, just a distraction from the good man underneath?

Luc put away his notes. Too bad it was Monday—a short day might set the tone for the whole week. Where was Hannah, anyway? It had been four days, but it felt longer. If she'd been here, he would have been spared all this. Or maybe not spared, not utterly. He would have wanted to see Serge Vien again, even though it made him sad. Those soft fleshy hands. He took one
of his own hands in the other and squeezed. He could still feel his bones.

His wife should be here. This was her responsibility: Hugo, school, health. Especially health. She would have reacted strongly. Dragged Luc into a long, unnecessary discussion about the risks Hugo had just taken, with her father skulking in the shadows behind every word. Maybe it was best she was away.

Nothing bad had happened, after all. Hugo was his usual sullen self. He seemed fine. It had been a stupid, juvenile prank, that was all. Luc put on his outdoor shoes. He wouldn't get angry at his son, even if the boy had cost him a day of work. He opened the front door and stepped outside into the blazing sun. As he climbed toward the second floor, where Lyse lived, the rays felt good on his shoulders, and he chastised himself for his indoor life. It was like summer. He should get out more. Just above him was the flat that Vien had once known so intimately. Vien had practically lived with Luc's family during his unhappy years as a boarder at the school. Lyse had procured a letter from Madame Vien allowing him to have dinner with the Lévesques on weeknights. And most weekends too, Vien would be there, sleeping on an inflatable mattress beside Luc's bed.

At the second-floor landing there were two doors, one to Lyse's place, one to Luc's own home on the top floor. He opened the latter and took the indoor staircase two stairs at a time.

Hugo's scuffed shoes lay upended on different steps. Luc collected them, placing them neatly next to one another, removed his own shoes, and arranged them likewise. You have to stay calm, he told himself. And be firm. He turned his head sharply to the right and then to the left. Sometimes he could get it; there would be a satisfying little pop right up at the top, where
the vertebrae connected with the skull. The axis vertebra. Wasn't that the name for it? No pop today. He tried again. Nothing. He opened his front door and stepped into a din of gunfire.

“Hugo?” he called out. He stood for several seconds, listening. No answer. Only the guns.

The place smelled of garbage. He had forgotten to put it out on Friday in the rush to get Hugo out of bed and ready for school. The truck would come again tomorrow, a fact that Luc had written in his agenda in bold red print. That was what turning fifty was about: writing things down in red ink.

Hugo's door was shut. A green copper cobra fanned its oxidized hood at the level of Luc's hand. Rémi had bought this ancient ornamental door handle in India and given it to Hugo for Christmas. Luc knocked and the guns fell silent. There was some rustling. Luc reached for the snake's head and pushed.

The computer was dark. There was a house rule: Hugo wasn't allowed to be at his computer until evening, and then only after his homework was completed. He was on his bed, scratching the plastic cover off
The Guinness Book of World Records
with his thumbnail. His school uniform—an updated version of the navy shirt and pants Luc himself had once worn—lay crumpled on the floor. He was wearing jeans now, his boxers exposed at the waist. Luc picked his son's school pants up and folded them.

“So you made yourself faint.”

Hugo's eyes remained fixed on the book. His right earlobe was puffy and red. That had been their last fight. Hugo had visited a piercing studio on a dare with two of his friends. Hannah had been annoyingly calm about the whole thing. The school had not been so accepting; the stud had to go. Hugo had gotten rid of it, but, predictably, the hole was now infected.

BOOK: My October
12.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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