Authors: Claire Holden Rothman
“Your ear's red,” Luc said.
The boy lifted his hand to touch it but still refused to look at him. His hair was shaved so close that Luc could see the bony ridges under his scalp. Pinhead pimples dotted his forehead.
“Hugo.” Luc turned his head away sharply, then turned it back. The crick still would not release.
The boy didn't move.
Luc grabbed the book. “Look at me!”
Hugo looked up, focusing over Luc's right shoulder.
Luc inhaled and lunged.
His son's bones felt like the bones of a bird in his hands. The boy struggled weakly. This was easy; easy and satisfying. Why was his heart beating so hard? He bunched the loose fabric of Hugo's shirt in his fists and forced him down on the bed. He felt, rather than summoned, the grin on his faceâan instinctive grin, a baring of teeth. What was happening? His mouth and hands seemed to have disconnected from his reason. He'd never let loose like this before. Never dreamed it was possible. Hugo went limp. There were tears in his eyes.
Luc released him. A mistake, it turned out, because instantly Hugo scrambled to his feet.
“Prick!” he yelled in English. “Dirty prick motherfucker!” He was crying now in earnest, but the words were still clear. Luc watched in stunned silence as he screamed them, again and again, hateful, foreign things that moved through Luc's ribs and lodged, painfully, dully, in the centre of his chest.
uc was staring at his screen again. Today was no better than yesterday, though so far it had been quiet. He had plugged in his phoneâhe couldn't in good conscience do otherwiseâbut thankfully there had been no calls. He had slept poorly and woken up sweating, with a vague memory of bad dreams. Hugo had risen late, of course, his surliness magnified by the fight. Too late to eat breakfast if he wanted to catch the bus for school. And he'd left on the kitchen table the lunch Luc had taken guilty pains to prepareâa ham sandwich, miniature carrots, the last of the chocolate chip cookies, an apple.
Hannah had a mantra.
“Ne prends rien au plan personnel.”
Luc pictured her shaking her head, accusing him with her big, unhappy eyes. He stretched in his chair. His eyes stung and his head kept sagging against his chest. He should probably take a nap. Instead, he leaned forward, forcing himself back to chapter five.
His narrator was looking for a home. It was a literal search, like Rose-Anna's quest for an apartment in
How he loved that book. People said he wrote well, but he had never come close to
Had Gabrielle Roy known how good it was? Could you ever know that about your own novel, or did you have to take other people's word for it?
His narrator felt like a stranger to his half-Irish wife and their mongrel son. He believed his wife was unfaithful. She was distracted, absent, all but oblivious of their son's recent downward spiral. There was no tender talk between them anymore, no talk at all, really, except recrimination. Life in the four-and-a-half on Lacasse Street had become close to unbearable. Art imitating life. Luc's hero was now an avid reader of the classifieds; he watched for rental signs as he worked the streets of Saint-Henri, retracing his route after his fares got out if he spotted anything promising. It had begun innocently, an idle pastime. But it soon turned into a conscious search. He jotted down numbers, knocked on people's doors, took note of every chance. A real home, a place where a man could lay his head in peace: was that too much to ask? Buildings were being bought up by developers all over Saint-Henri. Luc planned to introduce a character inspired by RÃ©mi, a contractor who purchased cheap properties in the southwestern section of the city, fixed them up in a hurry, and flipped them at exorbitant prices. RÃ©mi had renovated this triplex, which their family had owned since 1950. The market value was now twenty-five times what it had been the year it was bought.
Good places were hard to find. Students and artists had discovered Saint-Henri decades ago and displaced the truly poor, but now even they were being forced out by the speculators. Rents were many times what Luc's protagonist could afford.
Luc was searching for a place too.
He enjoyed walking the streets, especially after dark. He had always liked looking through the windows of other people's houses. It was astonishing how few of them had blinds or, if they did have them, how few were pulled down. He had watched a girl dance topless in front of her mirror, so thrilled by her own gaze that she failed to notice his. He had heard couples shouting insults at each other, wives screaming. At least Hannah wasn't a screamer. That he could not have endured. He'd seen plenty of other things on his walks. Love scenes, for instance, trysts in the alleys, men embracing men. But mostly he'd seen people alone, skin tinged with the blue flicker of a multitude of luminescent screens. Because of Hugo, he hadn't been out on his nocturnal rambles in a while. He wanted Hannah to come back. The clock was ticking. RÃ©mi had said December, and that didn't leave much time.
Until RÃ©mi moved out, Luc had worked upstairs. One of the bedrooms had always been set aside as his office. Hannah claimed not to need one. She was fine in the pantry, she said, and he didn't press the issue. Then RÃ©mi met Catherine and moved to the Plateau. And Luc's life went from good to perfect. For three glorious years, Luc had paid RÃ©mi rent and enjoyed complete peace and comfort in the bottom flat.
But now RÃ©mi and Catherine were splitting up. RÃ©mi was returning to Laporte Street and Luc had exactly two months to find a new refuge.
The telephone rang. “Luc?” The voice was young, melodious. “I thought I'd get the answering machine.”
“Well,” he said, “you got the man. Sorry.” Only he wasn't sorry at all. The voice belonged to Marie-Soleil. He was alert now, the hairs on the back of his neck tingling pleasantly.
“I thought you unplugged in the mornings.”
He looked at his watch. Eleven thirty. “Actually,” he said, “I'm done for the day.”
“I didn't mean to disturb.”
But she wasâif
was the word for it. He could picture her lips, which were the colour of plums. Luc's agent, FrÃ©dÃ©ric Axe, had hired her as a personal assistant two years ago. She accompanied him to literary functions, travelled with him to book fairs in Paris and Frankfurt, sleeping, Luc hoped, in a separate hotel room. FrÃ©dÃ©ric had told Luc with a straight face that he was teaching her about foreign rights.
Luc had left it at that. But recently there had been a shift. Whenever Luc visited the office, Marie-Soleil came out of her cubicle to greet him. She had taken to kissing him familiarly on both cheeks and laughing at his witticisms. And now she was calling him in the middle of the morning at his desk.
“My good luck,” Marie-Soleil said, and laughed. She laughed often. “Yours too. I have news.”
He heard something in her voice, something erotic. Or was it just youth, amplified by the excitement in his own body?
“I've found the perfect place.”
Five minutes later he had hung up the telephone, changed out of his long underwear, and was walking down Laporte Street in the direction of the canal. His teeth were brushed. He had checked his beard for breakfast crumbs. He regretted the grey in it. Beards for men, hands for women: the infallible indicators of age. Marie-Soleil was not yet twenty-five.
The day was bright, surely an auspicious sign. Yet he mustn't raise his hopes too high. Mustn't make a symbol of the weather.
This wasn't a scene from a novel. At Saint-Jacques Street, he turned right and walked west to du Couvent, then south. Not a long walk. Saint-Henri was surprisingly small. Its streets intersected and bifurcated in strange, not altogether logical, ways, often punctuated by parks and squares, but the actual geographical area was not large. Luc quickened his pace. It was good to be walking.
Only people who didn't know him well envied Luc LÃ©vesque. He led a largely interior life, bent over a keyboard, his peculiar form of monasticism that didn't preclude the rightâthe obligation, even, since as an artist he felt compelled to explore every stage of a man's lifeâto procreate as well as to create. But solitude suited him. He was a slow maker of sentences. He compared himself (never out loud) to Flaubert. A hesitater, a chronic victim of second and third and fourteenth thoughts, a perfectionist who, unlike Flaubert, never came near perfection. He often worked through dinner and into the night. He and Hannah could spend a whole day within a few steps of each other and not exchange a word.
He walked past the CinÃ©ma Cartier on grimy Notre-Dame Street. It was no longer a cinema; Dawson College owned the building now. In
, Jean LÃ©vesque had brought Florentine Lacasse here on their first date. Two doors away, looking every bit as rundown and forlorn as it must have looked in the forties, when Gabrielle Roy was walking these streets, was the Deux Records bar, where Florentine's father, Azarius, had made beer-fuelled speeches about the war. This stretch of Notre-Dame held little charm. Even in sunshine, it remained grey and shabby, with a few shrubs or bits of grass to enliven it.
Luc reached Saint-Augustin Street. The discount store with the diner at the back where Florentine Lacasse had served mealsâles 15 Cennesâcrowned the north end of the street where it intersected with Notre-Dame. Les 15 Cennes was a dollar store now.
Plus Ã§a change â¦
Luc didn't like this area. Sometimes, he went to Distribution Alimentaire Aubut for cheeseâthe parmesan was goodâbut in general the southern half of Saint-Henri depressed him. Most of the factories had been turned into pricey lofts, which made him angry. It was only recently, after FrÃ©dÃ©ric Axe moved his office into the district, that Luc had started visiting with any regularity.
Marie-Soleil had instructed him to meet her at the last building before the railway crossing. He knew the house, of course. It sat a few steps from the tracks, a wooden structure tapering at one end like a boat's hull, “twisted, as if to brace itself against life's shocks.” A brilliant phrase, which Luc surprised himself by remembering whole. Gabrielle Roy had compared the house to a sailing vessel, a clumsy one, cleaving waves of industrial dust and debris.
It certainly was a singular sight, squatting there precariously. A perfect place for surly, ambitious young Jean LÃ©vesque, the character Gabrielle Roy had created to inhabit it. Perfect, now, sixty years later, for another LÃ©vesque. Marie-Soleil was right.
He looked across the tracks, but Saint-Ambroise Street, which lay on the other side, was empty. The way street and rail converged here was vaguely nightmarish. As a boy, Luc used to dream about trains at night. Trains coming at him with not even a whistle, and the tracks placed so close together there was barely space between them to stand. Just the thought of it twisted his stomach.
At the moment, a real train was approaching, its horn blaring. The white barrier swung down. The horn gave a second mournful blast. These were the sounds of Luc's childhood: horns blasting, bells clanging, wheels banging, louder and louder as the train drew nearer. The train wasn't longâa snub-nosed engine pulling twenty or so freight cars the colours of a children's paint set. How many times had he come to these tracks with his father to watch the trains roll by? It had been a sport, when he was small, an outing for father and son.
Hot air and noise pushed him backward. He could taste grit in the air. He held his breath and shut his eyes. A man younger than himself was behind the lids, a visibly unhappy man, holding the hand of a child. And then it was over. The hot rush of air subsided, the bells stopped clanging, and the train rolled west, its horn dwindling. The flimsy barrier rose.
Luc looked at the house again. How could he possibly get any work done here? Romance was nice, but he had obligations: a manuscript to finish, bills to pay. He surveyed the modest clapboard houses that lined the western side of the street. How did people deal with such noise? Turn up the volume on their TV sets? Plug their ears? How could they bear it? But in truth, there wasn't that much to bear, was there? Trains were less frequent now than in the forties. Constant, rumbling freight on the rails, ships on the canal: these were things of the past. In
, Jean LÃ©vesque had risen each morning to the lonely cries of ships' horns.
Beyond the tracks, a figure came into view. Dark hair in a pink kerchief, a slender body in a tapered pink skirt. She was waving.
Luc watched Marie-Soleil pick her way over the debris and
gravel. “Salut!” she called out. As she approached, he saw that her lips were smiling, moist.
“I know I should have waited until this afternoon,” she said. “But I couldn't. I had to tell you immediately.” She had moved up close enough that he could smell her. She was wearing something musky and spicy. The muscles of his belly tensed. He turned to look at the house.
“Noisy,” he said.
“That didn't bother Jean LÃ©vesque.” She smiled up at him, obviously enjoying his look of surprise. “FrÃ©dÃ©ric told me,” she explained.
He could picture her standing here with FrÃ©dÃ©ric Axe, gazing up at him in exactly the same way she was gazing nowâ as though FrÃ©dÃ©ric were such a genius.
“But I'm the one who saw the
sign,” she went on, “and of course I thought immediately of you. It's fate, Luc. What else can it be?”
At the sound of her speaking his name, he felt that pleasant tingle again. Fate. He was willing to forgive whatever she had done with FrÃ©dÃ©ric Axe.
He was choosing the words to tell her how pretty she looked when she rose up on her toes and squinted at something behind him.
“Good,” she said. “He's here.”
A corpulent man in a suit was fighting his way out of a blue Chevrolet Cavalier. Once on the sidewalk, he came toward them, walking gingerly, as if his feet hurt, stopping now and then to grimace at the sun. Jowls hung over his shirt collar. Buttons strained. He was probably not much older than Luc.