Authors: Claire Holden Rothman
“Monsieur LÃ©vesque,” he said, sticking out a hand. His
grip was stronger than Luc had anticipated. He nodded at Marie-Soleil.
The man's name was Gagnon. They followed him up the broken concrete walk to the door, where he stood jiggling the key, trying to turn it in the lock until his face went red. Eventually, he got it open. The house seemed to exhale, releasing the mixed and not entirely pleasant odours of industrial cleaner, paint, and something under the chemicalsâsomething stale and dark. Dampness? Mould? Luc turned his face away, looking over at Marie-Soleil. She didn't blink. If she smelled anything, she was too polite to show it.
The walls were an atrocious hospital green. He would have to whitewash the whole first floor, pretend he was a student again, purchase rollers and a tarp. Gagnon sensed Luc's disappointment. “The previous tenants left this place in a terrible state, I am afraid to say. I was glad to be rid of them. Indians or Pakistanis or something. So many of them crowding in here all at once, I couldn't keep track of them. They do that, you know,” he said, stopping midway up the stairs to the second floor and turning to Luc. “You rent to one in the morning, and by nightfall there's half a dozen of them camping on your property, waiting for the government to tell them they can stay for good. They get medical care. School for their kids. Free French lessons for themselves and their wives. They're not stupid,
. They know a deal when they see it.”
Luc and Marie-Soleil exchanged a glance. Slurs like this were commonplace, not that this excused them. Back in the fifties and sixties, when Gagnon would have been young, like Luc, Montreal had been predominantly white. Now it wasn't.
Gagnon probably had no clue how ignorant he sounded. Luc watched as he turned his big body forward and wheezed up the remaining stairs.
The staircase had no runner, which was probably a good thing if the previous tenants had been as unhygienic as Gagnon claimed. The floor in the hall upstairs was oxblood red, but at least the walls were white.
The bedroom was the only room with more than one window. Luc had seen enough by then to deter any rational prospective tenant. If the appearance weren't enough, the smell ought to have been a warning. But he swept these impressions to the back of his mind. He was standing inside a place he had imagined in loving detail, had never failed to mention to every class in a decade of teaching. A place of legend. Physical ugliness was appropriate here. It ought to smell and look like poverty. The place was exactly as he had pictured it when he'd opened the novel for that first, magical reading years ago. It was exactly as Gabrielle Roy had described. He glanced at Marie-Soleil, trying to telegraph his gratitude, but she was busy tapping the walls and testing the light switches. He imagined his desk pushed up in front of the larger of the two windows, the one looking east over the tracks. There would be morning light in his workroom. He would watch the sun rise, the beautiful fragile first glow. The corner was not big, but he was certain his desk would fit. It had to. Yes, it was perfect.
“You did an excellent job cleaning up,” Luc said, to be agreeable.
Gagnon held up fat fingers. “I had to hire three guys. Three guysâcan you imagine?âto get it into shape. Top to bottom, paint, exterminators, the works. I even installed a new toilet.”
“Fine job,” said Luc, tapping the bedroom wall. Exterminators. He looked more closely at the crack separating the floor from the wall. There didn't seem to be bugs, at least not in daylight. He hoped to God there was nothing bigger.
The oxblood floor tilted. Drop a pencil and it would roll. The rent Gagnon wanted was criminally high. But Luc LÃ©vesque was in love.
Marie-Soleil had not said a word. She was pacing now, hands clasped behind her as if forcibly restraining herself from joining in the men's conversation. Monsieur Gagnon glanced at her, mildly amused.
“There will be just the two of you?”
Marie-Soleil stopped mid-step. Then she laughed.
“Just me,” Luc said quickly. “I'll be using it as an office.”
Monsieur Gagnon frowned. “This is a residential space, monsieur. Not commercial.”
“That's perfect, then. I'm not a commercial man.”
Marie-Soleil laughed again. “He's a writer,” she said, taking his arm and giving it an appreciative squeeze. She was flirting with him, verging on proprietary, but Luc didn't mind. He drank in the warmth of her touch.
Monsieur Gagnon stared.
“You've heard of him, I'm sure.” She pronounced Luc's name again, in full this time, for the fat man's benefit, her tongue darting and pink, like a cat's.
“Forgive me, Monsieur LÃ©vesque! What an honour this is!” Gagnon said, speaking fast. He confessed that he hadn't actually read any of Luc's books, although he certainly would, now that they had met in the flesh. He didn't read books as a rule, you see, not fiction at any rate, just newspapers and magazines, but
he had certainly heard of Luc LÃ©vesque. Seen him on television. Luc had won a prize, hadn't he? Refused it? Monsieur Gagnon couldn't remember why, but it had been in the papers. What an honour it would be to have him as a tenant â¦
Gagnon was talking about the Governor General's Award Luc had refused on nationalist principle. Luc wouldn't go into it now, wouldn't say anything to jeopardize this deal, although Gagnon was probably a nationalist himself. But maybe not. People surprised you.
Marie-Soleil interrupted Luc's thoughts. Since Monsieur LÃ©vesque would be on his own, she said, writing his books in peace and quiet, surely Monsieur Gagnon would consider lowering the rent.
Monsieur Gagnon looked from her to Luc. “She is your daughter, Monsieur LÃ©vesque?”
Luc reddened and shook his head.
Gagnon chuckled as though he'd just been clever. “Whoever she is, you must keep her.”
He reduced the rent by ten percent, and Luc wrote him a cheque to cover the first month. After Monsieur Gagnon had reinserted himself into his Cavalier and driven off, Luc had the inspiration to give Marie-Soleil a victory kiss. They were standing together on the sidewalk outside the house. He felt happy, more vigorous than he'd felt in years. Marie-Soleil had put on her sunglasses. He leaned in, aiming for a cheek, but she turned unexpectedly and their noses collided. Luc pulled back, but Marie-Soleil didn't. She was a head shorter than he was and had to stand on her toes to reach him. And reach him she did, planting two moist, dark plums on his mouth.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said, pulling out her cell phone. She pressed a button and held it close to her face. “
â¦ Yes, yes,” she said. “He's right here.” She pulled out a notepad and scribbled something.
The street was deserted. Luc was glad no one was around to notice his semi-hard-on. In twenty years, the only woman who had kissed him like that was Hannah, and it had been a while.
“FrÃ©dÃ©ric,” Marie-Soleil said, snapping her phone shut.
The semi-hard-on vanished.
“Apparently, someone has been calling the office all morning trying to reach you. It's urgent.” She looked down at the notepad. “Serge Vien,” she said. “Mean anything to you?”
annah stepped back to avoid the spray. She was standing on a patch of soggy grass across the street from Sunnybrook Hospital. Beads of water shimmered like sequins on the sleeves of her suede jacket. The hems of her jeans were spattered with mud. She had just emerged from the ravine, damp with rain and her own sweat, but pleased. It had worked.
She'd walked here from her parents' home in the posh neighbourhood of Lawrence Park in just over an hour.
It was October 2, a warm, wet, windless day, her fifth in Toronto. The path through the ravine had started off as dirt, which the rain was turning into mud. As Hannah walked south, the surface had changed occasionally to gravel or asphalt, with patches reverting to dirt. The last bit had been an intricate system of boardwalks constructed over a marshy tract called Sherwood Park, a lovely and unexpected artery of green running through the bituminous heart of Toronto. Just now, she had spotted a pair of pheasants. She had also seen cardinals, a woodpecker, flocks of chickadees, and everywhere Toronto's
plump black squirrels, less rat-like, somehow, than their thin grey cousins in Montreal.
The walk had been calming. For a time, Hannah had forgotten her troubles, the most pressing of which was her father, who was waiting for her in the narrow white hospital room where she had left him the previous evening. She had also managed to forget her mother, Connie, who was probably sitting in the visitor's chair beside him, reading the newspaper, making comments about Hannah's lack of punctuality and general level of inefficacy compared to Benjamin, their super-organized son, who had flown in to help them the week before. And then there was Luc, back in Montreal, with whom she barely spoke anymore. She wasn't sure what was happening, but for months, now, they'd been in some kind of trouble. And, of course, there was Hugo.
For much of the walk, she had been alone. At one point, she'd spotted a man with a schnauzer some distance away on the path, but as soon as his dog urinated, he had scuttled back to street level. He'd looked vaguely afraid, as though the ravine might swallow him and his little pet whole.
A breach opened suddenly in the traffic on Bayview Avenue. Hannah steeled herself and stepped into it.
was a small city of newly built and renovated beige pavilions, some squat, some several storeys high, separated by sprawling parking lots. City buses drove through the grounds, stopping at the front doors of each building. Hannah passed the Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Centre and walked purposefully toward the main building, or M-Wing as it was called, which
housed the Emergency Department, the Intensive Care Unit, and rooms for patients like her father, recovering from recent trauma. She hoped she looked like she belonged here, like a good and dutiful daughter come to visit, and not some strange, dripping creature, hair full of twigs and leaves, recently crawled up from the ravine.
The guard sitting inside the entrance did not even give her a glance as she entered. She kept her pace, striding with a steady stream of other people down the wide, well-lit corridor. Her father was out of intensive care. He had been moved to the fourth floor and assigned a private room. Hannah didn't know whether that was good luck or the residue of Alfred Stern's past prominence.
She passed a snack shop with the snappy name of Bistro On the Go, and inhaled smells of coffee and sugar-laden pastries. She was hungry. And she had to pee. She stopped at a washroom. Over the door, a mural of water lilies hung: a failed attempt at good cheer.
The elevator was brand new and made of glass, ascending a see-through tube in the middle of the courtyard separating the old hospital building from a recent addition. As part of the renovations, immense wooden butterflies had been suspended from the ceiling. They were supposed to make you think of nature, but to Hannah they looked menacing, a squadron of pterodactyls waiting for the signal to attack.
By the time she reached the fourth floor and stepped out of the elevator, the muscles of her back and neck were tense. She walked quickly down the hallway to her father's door. It was closed. The handwritten sign Connie had put up yesterday was still taped to it: Family Only. The
was lopsided, dwarfing the other letters.
For several days, there had been trouble with visitors. The news of Alfred Stern's stroke had travelled fast. People came at all hours. Former colleagues and clients, judges, professors from the law school at the University of Toronto, where he'd lectured, old friends, and two women who identified themselves as former secretaries.
Connie was worried about hands. She could control her own hygiene, and Hannah's too, to a certain extent. But other people were impossible. The day before Hannah arrived, a judge had pranced in (Connie's words) and proceeded to blow his nose before taking Alfred's hand in his own and clutching it with great feeling.
A woman in a pink pantsuit came down the hall pushing a meal trolley taller than she was. Hannah watched in alarm as she moved quickly and sightlessly toward an orderly wheeling an empty bed in the opposite direction. At the last minute, the orderly called out to her and disaster was averted. A bell rang in the nursing station. A monitor beeped in a neighbouring room. The names of doctors boomed over the public address system.
. In other words, herself and Connie, now that her brother had gone back home. It had been years since Hannah had felt anything more than a perfunctory connection to Alfred and Connie. They kept in touch. She dropped by when she had business in Toronto, and occasionally she called from Montreal. But was this what
amounted to? It had been four years since her parents had last seen Hugo. Seven or eight for Luc.
She opened the door. The room was bathed in soft grey light. The curtains were closed, and all the lights were off save the one at the head of the bed, for which there was no switch.
Her mother was not there. Alfred Stern was alone, propped on a heap of pillows, his mouth open, snoring.
He looked shrunken, smaller than yesterday even, when they had moved him here. His eyelids trembled and his skin was yellow.
Hannah moved closer to the bed. Her father slept in snatches now, day and night. Connie had hired a night nurse, who wasn't technically a nurse but was skilled enough to sit beside an old man until the sun rose. “He doesn't sleep much,” the woman had told Connie, who repeated it to Hannah.
As Hannah reached for the clunky green visitor's chair, her father's eyes opened.
“Good morning,” she said, smiling. It was afternoon, long past the hour at which she had told Connie she'd be here.
He didn't respond, just looked at her with wide brown eyes. They reminded her of her son's eyes, direct and unwavering.