It’s Blind Willie McTell playing when they carry her out. ‘I Got to Cross The River Jordan’, one of the later, elliptical versions, where he lets the guitar finish half his lines. Nobody can . . . but Lord I got to . . . in that cold clay. Later I’ll get snagged on the morbid coincidence of this and Jody will shrug it off as nothing, point out that pretty much any blues number from his late father’s collection would have seemed fitting. Maybe so. But in the moments before Madame Ayliffe’s door swings open, before the paramedics shuffle onto the far end of our shared balcony and I know to feel otherwise, the McTell song seems assertive, almost joyous, and I’m happy just to be out here, bare-shouldered, tapping the scissors on my thigh to keep time.
Saturday afternoon, the sun sinking into skin like teeth into kitten-scruff. Everyone placid with it, eyes narrowed to dreamy slits. I’m out here cutting Jody’s hair, Jody docile in a fold-out chair with his forearms resting on the balcony railing, head tipped forward so that the snippings fall over the side and are scattered before they reach the courtyard three storeys below.
Birds’ll make nests of that, he says.
Not if they have any self-respect.
On the balcony beneath ours, the Yukon Jack girls. Somehow they manage to put that stuff away by the case, just the two of them. Their arguments, along with their heat, rose up through our floorboards all winter. Now they’re a sprawl of legs and magazines. The Husky One and the Unhusky One. We pass them all the time on the stairs. Nodding hello like we never hear them threatening each other or talking dirty. The ventilation broadcasts everything, indiscriminately, from the weather to sports commentaries to new slang for pussy and whore.
Jody’s listening now while I cut, transfixed by what can be seen of the girls’ bare feet, toes painted fluorescent orange, curled simian around their balcony rails. An outflung arm fanning a copy of Elle Quebec. But they only speak to each other in cool transactions. Just Donne-moi le! and Bouge ta jambe!, and the sound of ice being rummaged around inside a cooler. Nothing juicy or vocabulary-boosting.
These first sleeveless days have slunk in late, a full week into May, no less, where we and everyone else have been waiting to pounce on them with dirty laundry and spritzed Aperol. When Jody rode up from Louisiana he was brown and gnarled with odd muscle he’d gained working on his uncle’s bowfishing charter. There were scratches from the baby ice-box alligator still crosshatching his arms. But five months lived in artificial light have left him just as soft and harrowed-looking as the rest of us in Montreal. No one can stand to be inside today, least of all him. Everyone’s out here showing their paled limbs, their unscarved throats, sunning themselves like anaemic reptiles. Ash branches are flashing new shoots, gaudy as kids’ jewellery. On someone’s radio they’re warning rain, a real spring soaker, but no one can believe that from here.
Only a fortnight ago the ice rinks were still melting. Already the slackliners have taken over, rigging up their webs all through Parc La Fontaine and wavering from tree to tree with arms outstretched. Already the work crews have been dispatched to patch up roads that fissured open during the deep freeze.
Yesterday I passed a freshly paved square of sidewalk outside the Pharmaprix. A woman had pulled up her stroller and was pressing her baby’s bare feet into the wet cement. Holding him under the arms and sort of dabbing him into the grey paste, while he shrieked in glee, though it was then only twelve degrees in the sun.
Put some shoes on that kid, I almost said but didn’t. I suppose some small, still unbitter part of me recognised that most of us have to take posterity where we can get it.
This apartment is old, its radiators mummified under several decades of paint, murmuring like pigeons or clanking like geese, depending on the hour. Marie, my former roommate, took all the curtains with her, and the living room became a big glowing terrarium for anyone who cared to look up from the street. Some of her things still haunt the rooms; enough to sleep on, sit in, cook with, drink from. There’s a recipe for banana crepes in her handwriting taped inside one of the kitchen cupboards, and the bathroom cabinet still smells faintly of her vitamin C. The lease is good until Canada Day, which Montreal reassigns as Moving Day and celebrates by hauling furniture up and down treacherous external stairwells in drenching heat. When July rolls around I can either sell this stuff on to the next tenants or post it online, or I can chop it all down into matchsticks and toss them into the alleyway: Marie said she really couldn’t give a shit.
It wasn’t anything personal. As the city shook its fiery coat of leaves a dread had crept into Marie’s heart, curled up snug and refused to budge. Midway through October she dropped out of Life Sciences and then out of Quebec.
Marie believed she was blessed, and who knows, maybe she was. As a parting gift she blessed me a thumbprint-sized piece of scallop shell and told me it would lead me to Providence. I carried it around in my coat pocket the rest of fall and into winter, worrying at it until all the ridges wore down and it was fingernail-smooth. How many years of ocean, of tumbling waves would that have taken? I felt mighty as the sea, having worn it down like that with only my nervous energy. Now what? I would’ve asked Marie, but by then she had moved back to Renfrew. I was alone with the sound of the radiator and other lives coughing through the walls.
Now and then my mother called from not-even-Oshawa, sounding more and more, to my sharpening ear, like a complete hoser. This appraisal treacherously failed to acknowledge her raising me on Anne Carson and Japanese stoneware and black lava salt, tastes that could only just be sustained with a single, part-time income in public health. She had looked into a lot of hideous mouths to see me through McGill, as she was so fond of reminding me. I’d taken a gap year in Mexico, followed by a second gap year nurturing an acquired taste for eighties telenovelas, and finally my mother said that if I didn’t use the tuition money to learn something she was going to take her girlfriend to see the Panama Canal.
But I, too, dropped out of university, out of Life Sciences. In a misjudged effort at gratitude, I held out until mid-November: two weeks past the refund deadline. Making a farewell round of the preserved sea creatures and foetuses lined up in jars, their eyes and nostrils still sealed, I decided not to tell my mother, not yet. (I could pay her back, I promised her, inwardly. She would escape to Panama after all.) I stayed on in the city, picking up a job folding towels and refreshing rooms at a fancy day spa I could never have afforded to visit. It was the best I could do, and maybe a little better than I could do. I might have fared all right in France, but I barely had enough French to be a waitress here.
The job meant waking at six forty-five every weekday. The apartment next door would already be lit up with French radio. Proof of life over there, behind the complex alarm system that seemed excessive and out of place in our semi-decrepit greystone. Just what are they fortifying? I wondered. Meth lab. Snuff set. Storehouse for rare smuggled reptiles. But as far as I could tell the sole occupant was the flossy old thing who rarely left her apartment. We shared a balcony, though, and once or twice I’d seen her out there, wind lifting her hair to show a high forehead of dark-veined porcelain, the exiled contessa of some vanished nation. The first time we exchanged words, she’d shuffled out wearing only a quilted paisley housecoat to glare towards the mountain. Nearly all of the leaves had fallen from the trees, and now the view was clear to the lurid cross.
T’es encore là? She spoke to the cross, not to me. To me she said, Il te faut un casque, and knocked on her fragile head.
Marie had taken her helmet but left her bicycle, and each morning I carried it downstairs and clattered it over the fissured streets towards the day spa on a route that took me past Leonard Cohen’s house. If my mother called I’d make a point of telling her this, that every morning I rode past Leonard Cohen’s house, evidence that I was still studying.
I spent the first weeks of winter alone, wandering the apartment’s half-empty rooms. Its windows are the old sash kind that mean trouble in the winter, but in the kitchen there are panels of coloured glass that shoot red and amber oblongs across the floor when the sun finds the sweetest angle, so it feels kind of warm even when it isn’t. One morning I stood there, moving my hand through red light to gold, thinking: This is the kind of window where if you just stand for long enough, somebody will come and put their hand on your shoulder. Whoever it is you’ve been waiting for. Then my phone rang, and my heart kicked, but it was only an automated female voice congratulating me on a free trip to the Bahamas. I listened to the spiel of promises, thinking how someone had gone into a studio and recorded these words, understanding how they’d be used. And someone had written the script, and someone had mixed the levels, and someone else . . . on and on. It made me bone-sad, this voice. I hung up on it and called Jody to ask how he was spending the off-season. There was no off-season, he said. But after five months of guiding tourists through the backwaters of Plaquemines Parish to shoot at floodlit gar, of tossing marshmallows at tame alligators to distract whiny tourist children, he’d about had it with Louisiana.
I tried to sell him winter. It took less than fifteen minutes to sell him winter. He’d never lived a real one, a northern one. Never owned a pair of ice skates or salted a driveway.
Cheap post-rock concerts, I coaxed. Nuit Blanche. Poutine (this felt like grovelling). The pastéis de nata at the Jean-Talon market . . .
Okay, okay, okay.
I should have been the one hawking Bahamas cruises. Jody mooched a series of Amtraks up at the end of December, with 600 US dollars and no true winter coat. I snuck a look at his arms when he put them around me at Central, deep in the belly of the overheated station. A little bothered inside the elbows. Aside from the gator, I mean. Not clean, exactly, but clean enough.
Memory had slightened him. It wasn’t till I saw the two of us reflected in a drugstore window that I realised how much taller he was than me. I decided to take this as further evidence of an overall straightening out.
He said that this winter’s work would be liquidating his dead father’s blues collection, he and his sister sharing the take.
We’re selling them off piece by piece. Slower that way but you get more in the long run, according to Cass. Said she’ll wire my share every couple of weeks. Less administration.
Administration, I said.
Her very precious time. One of us is our dad’s child.
Wouldn’t you two be, you know, sentimental? I asked, though I knew he would not be. I’d first met him in a roachy hostel kitchen in Tamaulipas, OxyContined to his eyeteeth, making everybody sandwiches whether they wanted them or not. (You, he’d said, shaking a salsa picante bottle at me. You’re avocado and hot sauce.) Afterwards he’d told me about the meds racket he and a friend were trying to get off the ground. Those were the words he’d used: get off the ground. Ailing elderly Americans with prescriptions to fill. And he objected to the term racket, insisting it would be a civic service. Basically an NGO. He’d be addressing a gross deficit in the health-care system, assisting those who’d slipped down into its many yawning chasms. All you needed was a minibus and the right attitude, a wholesome-looking girl. (That was me: wholesome-looking. An invitation of sorts.) He existed in a constant state of somnambulism, a soothing lassitude, but now and again you’d catch the sharp glint of scheme in his pyrite-flecked eyes.
Look, he was saying now. Dad was Mr Corporate Law. Guy wore a suit to the beach. Wouldn’t have known Blind Lemon from Blind Melon, he just knew what things were worth.
The records had been crated up in storage for eight years, and, as Jody put it, someone might as well be spinning some joy from them.
I admit I was sceptical. But every fortnight we’ve been charging glasses to Elzadie Robinson and T-Bone Walker; rare red wax and Parchman Farm; Ed Bell and his 1930 pressing of ‘Carry It Right Back Home’.
Someone had taught Jody the nines thing since the last time we’d slept together. I’d read about it before, tantric: shallow shallow shallow shallow shallow shallow shallow shallow deep, so she – so I – could go along with him. He never lost count, must have gotten in a fair amount of practice. I didn’t really mind thinking of that. Whoever she might’ve been, she was far away, too far to be jealous of, practically imaginary. It was my name he’d shout, unfailingly, in the instant before coming. Typically American of him, I said. More than any other nationality, Americans all call your name out – it’s like they’re trying to stop you walking into traffic.
Jody was nonplussed by this. Maybe hurt. Hard to tell. It’s just common courtesy, he said.
Often his orgasm would carry within it the dark kernel of a migraine. Jody would pop two acetaminophen straight after to be safe, and a couple of something else for good measure. Partaking? he’d ask, and I would, and we’d drift off together, a tangled raft of random beach junk. He’d rouse when the girls downstairs were at it again. Waking me with a little shove. Hey, what’s that? What’s she saying?
A game he called Fucking or Fighting? I’d listen a minute and then translate as best as I could: one of them wants to get a dog, I think, or: the Husky One thinks the Unhusky One has slept with somebody else.
The Husky One and the Unhusky One. We’d hear them all the time, but their names remained a mystery. Possibly they knew mine, with Jody so courteously hollering it.
That last one, he’d ask. What’s that mean?
Mille-feuille? It’s a kind of pastry, but the way she’s saying it she probably just means pussy. But a bit sweeter than pussy. I mean, nicer than. Ah. You know what I mean.
He did not laugh. He took it all very seriously. Repeating in that methadone drawl of his, milfoy, milfoil, millfoey. French by tenement osmosis.
Five days out of seven I was still getting up early to go and fold towels into pleasing shapes and wonder about the kind of women – mostly women – who would unfurl and ruin them without a blink. Men came too, but not many or often, and I didn’t fall to measuring my life against theirs in the way I did with the women. Especially the women my age, the ones I encountered mostly in the things they left behind: La Prairie hand creams, lipsticks in obnoxious forty-dollar shades, designer underwear, magazines commodifying mindfulness and self-love.
There was a lost-and-found, of course, but usually I either pocketed things or simply unfound them into the trash with disgust.
As winter deepened it seemed crueller and crueller to sacrifice the meagre quota of daily sunlight in the service of these women.
On those night-dark mornings, the radio of our next-door neighbour was a kind of static rope I’d use to drag myself from bed, from Jody, to the kitchen. From there I hoped inertia might do the rest. The radio was loud and clear; I suppose it travelled through the plumbing, sink to sink, like the tin-can telephones we used to make when we were kids. I toasted bagels to a patter of rapid-fire Québécois; a man’s voice and then a woman’s. Topical talkback. Something about the Charter of Values, military suicides. The weather report: neige neige neige, le vortex polaire. I was okay in high school. I got prizes in French. Now, when I tried to speak it, the words would fall out of my mouth like clumps of half-chewed bread. There was better luck listening: the words, more and more of them, floating back up towards their meanings like free divers’ balloons and then hanging there, swollen and luminous. Turnstile. Shooting. Embezzlement.
I’d roll these words dumbly around my mouth, waiting for the coffee to brew, staring out into the dark street to see how much snow had fallen overnight. Marie’s bike was useless now, chained to a railing, squirrel amusement.
Afternoons I’d come home to find Jody compulsively refreshing a web page, following the frenzied final moments of bidding as though it were an NBA playoff game he’d placed big money on. I’d empty my coat pockets of tips and tiny soaps and miniature bottles of rich body lotion, then walk around turning all the thermostats down by five degrees.
If you’re cold, I’d say, why don’t you put on a fucking sweater?
If you hate your job, he’d say, why don’t you fucking quit?
I glanced over his shoulder. On-screen, Ramblinmike73 was winning Memphis Minnie at $392, and there were still ten minutes of scrummage left.
I got us, Jody said.
But I was uncertain whether I wanted to be got. In the bathroom I arranged the gleanings from my shift into the medicine cabinet, where a few of Jody’s toiletries were neatly lined up along the top shelf. Mostly this was comforting.
A cottonwool-swaddled thought: How sinister a spoon looks, lying all alone on a windowsill.
Early one morning, as though a dream had leaked down into Rue Cartier: an old man, dressed in peacock green, gliding across the pond-chain of streetlights. Past the soft mounds of cars, long before any traffic came to churn up the night’s pure drift.
Jody saw this, not me. I just heard about it. He’d caught sight of it from our terrarium window when he got out of bed for a glass of water. That same afternoon he went out and found a flea market on St Laurent and came back with a pair of cross-country skis.
You can ski?
We’ll find out.
Jody had never skied in his life, but neither of us doubted he’d have a knack for it. He picked up a lot of things with a striking nonchalance, drawing on a latent grace he never promised to any particular pursuit with any seriousness. Or maybe it’s agility I’m talking about, not grace. He still ate like a drug fiend. Indiscriminate combinations of overprocessed, microwaveable god-knows-what. A tendency to knife-lick. Didn’t your mother ever . . . But I could watch him move across a dark room forever.
I championed the skis. I mapped out the trails around the mountain. It wasn’t as generous as wanting him to be happy; I wanted him not to be sorry that he had come. He felt asleep here, he’d said. Dimmed and dense-souled, like on dirty horse tranqs, more ketted than benzoed.
You know you burn up just as much energy treading water as you do swimming towards something?
This was information, not a question. I’ve since looked it up and I know for a fact it isn’t true, generally speaking. But it was true enough for Jody.
He said he felt dried out, alligatored by the heating system; left an apple out on the sill to show just how he meant. We watched it shrivel and leather to become a grotesque little face. Accusing.
Late into January, throwing up became my new morning ritual. In the kitchen, quietly so as not to wake Jody. The steel belly of the sink was like an amphitheatre, and from within it I listened to the ghost broadcasts from next door.
. . . a confirmé plus que mille planètes extrasolaires . . .
Providence. Marie had promised. This wasn’t it. Or it depended on your definition of Providence. The blessed piece of scallop shell had long disappeared by then; I turned out all of my pockets but it never tumbled out.
I don’t know how she knew. I didn’t even know know; I was still hoping I was suffering from some kind of virus. But she knew. She saw me out her kitchen window one morning before work, on the balcony, inviting icy air onto my damp face, and she came out wearing floral dishwashing gloves and carrying a thermos, workman style. Once her husband’s, I figured. It was roughed up with the scratches and dents of a day labourer, or perhaps a fisherman.
English is better for you? Maybe you cannot keep anything in your stomach, but this you will manage. I know; often I can manage nothing else myself.
I wasn’t showing, it was much too soon. Even if I had been, there was so much winter goosedown to disguise it. She’d heard me, then, through our little two-way sink system? Or she could tell just by looking. Maybe you gained that power of insight after seven or eight decades in the world. Maybe life knows life, I thought, feverishly sentimental.
You like it, you just say and I will bring more, she said, placing the thermos in my hands. AYLIFFE in faded black marker down the side.
You knock here, like so, Madame Ayliffe said, rapping at her own kitchen window, startling a small tuxedo cat off the inside sill.
At the metro station I unscrewed the lid and sniffed. It was a kind of hot ginger broth, something lemony and spicy and just a little bit sweet. I drank a dozen tiny sips, standing right there on the platform, and my stomach quietened. I finished it off in a corner of the tiny fluoro-lit staff room on my break, and felt replenished and clear-sighted, as though an ounce of grit had been sluiced from behind my eyes.
That same afternoon I was fired for turning in a wonky swan. Really it wasn’t so much the wonky swan as my ‘shitty attitude’ about the wonky swan, about the towels in general. My general carelessness. The wonky swan was just one example. I had little grounds to argue. I finished out the afternoon, resisting the temptation of petty vengeances; mixing up the hand soaps and hair products, folding towels to resemble labia.
Jody congratulated me when I told him, as though my leaving had been a matter of integrity, my personal choice. He insisted on cooking a celebratory dinner. Something had flicked on in him, and though I knew I wouldn’t keep the meal down, I couldn’t refuse. All he really knew how to cook was fish, he said, promising that when spring came and we could crack the windows and doors, he’d blow the roof off with scampi, jambalaya, gumbo, things that wanted all-day bubbling to stickiness on the stove, reeking up the kitchen. But for now he was keeping it fresh and simple: kingfish puffing steam from a little tinfoil papoose; kipflers and some kind of greens on the side.
I chewed slow and careful. During a long silence, I nodded at the skis. Nobody’s going to want those when spring comes, I warned him once I’d managed to swallow. You’re not going to be able to resell them. You should at least try them out.
I’m going to.
You’ll need to get all the other truck, I told him.
Poles and boots. Proper gloves. All that lark.
Truck, he echoed. Lark. Do you speak that way in real life?
This isn’t real life? I asked. Then I realised that if one of us didn’t think so, it probably wasn’t.
Maybe I’ll take them back with me.
What can you do with skis in Louisiana? I tried to sound indifferent, but a slatey, astringent saliva had flooded my mouth. The something-or-other glands, I’d learned in those first weeks of class.
I forced a forkful of the kingfish and another of potato, but the acid in my mouth slurred the flavours of everything, and the textures became repulsive. I gagged, tried to swallow, gagged again, spat into a slice of bread and wadded it up like a napkin. Jody was staring at me.
So many bones, I explained. Like a little pincushion. One stabbed the inside of my cheek, I said, scraping my chair back from the old drafting board we used as a table.
Bones? he asked, prying apart the flakes of his own fish with a knife and fork. Sorry, I thought I got them all. His voice trailed me down the hallway.
In the bathroom I ran water and threw up properly. I rummaged through a drawer, hunting out a mini hotel sewing kit. The jab to the inside of my cheek felt like the prick of a dental injection. Crazy. Did I think he’d ask to see evidence?
Fucking or fighting? he asked when I came back to the kitchen.
What? I tongued the tender inside of my cheek.
He pointed his fork at the floorboards, cocked his head. His hair hung with the sad luster of velour. The yelps of the girls downstairs floated up.
Fucking, I answered, but didn’t bother translating the specifics.
What was real life, then? It was out there, Jody’s version of it. Baling wire and a worthy ache in the arms. Kicking animal feed off the bed of a Hilux, or the swamp seeping into your socks, if you were stupid enough to wear socks. His soles like burred wood, sassafras bark.
Why couldn’t I tell him? Because I was a coward; if I told him, he’d decide on something. A direction, he’d pick a direction. But I didn’t know which direction that would be, and I didn’t trust myself not to follow it.
I slept late, woke to strong light, felt stronger myself. I filled the Ayliffe thermos with tea and took it on a walk up Mont Royal. Cross-country skiers slid past as if on greased rails. When I reached the cross I sat for a while, looking back towards the Plateau for our apartment, but the view didn’t work that way. I took a few mouthfuls of the tea, still hot and oversweet. I had come here to think, but fell into a false, wordless calm, opening the thermos now and then to let the steam breathe up into my face. But I forgot it on the bus coming home. My general carelessness, my carelessness in general.
Pas bien fait, pas bien fait. The swan, the thermos, this other thing.
Winter lingered impossibly, and still we managed to squander it. I had thick Russian classics and some design software to master. I thought if I could just get into the kind of work that let me live out of a laptop . . . I got twenty-eight pages into War and Peace, and the software never made it as far as an upload. Jody’s skis stayed vertical. There was talk of what to do once the roads thawed, working holidays we could take. In whose car? A bus, then, a train. Apples in the Okanagan? Apples was fall. Oranges, then. Or what comes first – asparagus? Jody looked disgusted. Down south it was strawberries.
Anyway, we never got away; winter held us close. We drank. We fucked. We downloaded old disaster movies from our childhoods and skipped straight to the quake, the volcano, the aftermath.
Coming back from the SAQ one Sunday we met Madame Ayliffe taking on the outside world. Reaching her little lavender-gloved paw out to be guided down the last few ice-glazed steps at the front of our building, where snow had obliterated the hessian grip our landlord cheapskated in place of rubber. Jody passed me the rye and ran up ahead, crooked his arm into a wing for Madame to hold on to. He led her down step for step, all southern charm, delivering her to where the sidewalk was freshly gritty with ratbait-green salt. She grazed me with eyes blank as coat buttons, in that moment possessing no special knowledge about me, perhaps not knowing me at all. Unconcerned by thermoses, missing or otherwise. To Jody she gave no thanks in any language, just nodded her tiny marzipan head and tottered down towards the avenue. We watched after her a while, to make sure she remained upright. Her solid black shoes planted definite as small hooves.
By then I’d taken up Jody’s schedule, waking at ten or later, the sun already sliding through that coloured glass. Hours too late for Kitchen Sink radio, though there would be other noises from Madame Ayliffe’s side of our shared wall – dish clatter or running water, sometimes wailing. I was alarmed at first, until I placed it: cats. Cats in heat, whose yowlings always sound like maniacs doing bad impersonations of cats. Now and then a scrawny tabby appeared on Ayliffe’s windowsill, twitching its tail, ears flattened. I imagined the other cats huddled in a coven at the apartment’s heart, gently rising and falling as one heap of multicoloured fur.
Spring crept up on us. Bird noise then insect noise then cheers from the bars on Mont Royal as the Habs beat the Bruins in the second overtime. Stray cats lounging on stoops like sleazy little drunks. Sticky fiddleheads nudging up through the earth, unfurling to bright fronds within seconds.
Now: everything’s moving, everywhere you look. Squirrels rippling up telephone poles, laundry being cranked along antiquated pulley systems, someone flapping out a bright string hammock and anchoring it between railings. Down in the alleyway, winter’s hockey nets have been repurposed for soccer, and kids run back and forth between them, screaming a sweet patois. A woman in the building across from us is drying a load of dishes, bringing each cup, plate, bowl to her back door and standing there half drunk with photosynthesis, rubbing meditatively with a nubby yellow tea towel.
I finish with Jody’s hair. There you go, I tell him, spring coat. Ruffling my hands through what’s left of the shaggy brindle. It isn’t a great job, but if I go any further I’ll just make it worse. He won’t care anyway. Or if he does, he won’t say so.
Released, he bounds inside for beers, comes back with them already popped and sweating.
We’re just going to look at them a moment, he says, gone all reverent, laying them just out of reach. We’re just going to take a minute to appreciate that it’s really finally beer weather. Then he slides his icy fingers slow over my wrist, slow up to the inside of my elbow. Simple; like he’s undone a zipper. I could push him right off the balcony. But there are the voices next door, and I take my arm back, wanting to see her emerge: this woman whose radio I’ve stopped waking with. Her balcony door opens a crack and I wait for her to shuffle out, mentally polishing a few phrases I might use, witty responses to remarks about the weather – L’hiver ne nous a pas tué!
From our kitchen McTell begins singing tinnily through laptop speakers, of cold wide waters and lonesome journeys, and it makes a strange matinee of the whole operation.
They must’ve come through the front. We would have noticed them going in, otherwise. We guess it’s discretion they’re trying for now, discretion that has moved them to brave the spindly swizzle stick of the fire escape, instead of the straight- up-and-down of the front stairs. A couple of days ago, even yesterday, they might have gotten her out quietly, with no one but the stray cats to flick their ears at them. But now they have a whole amphitheatre of us, gawking. That woman with the dishtowel holding it at limp half-mast. Down in the laneway the kids have stopped their game, are all shining the little moons of their faces up this way. By some kid instinct they know something’s up, and that it must be something wonderful, because a few of their parents are already trying and failing to call them in.
The bag that is holding Madame lies on a stretcher borne by a stocky man and a tall thin woman, whose trouble is kept hidden under a thick ledge of bangs. They must be work, those bangs. A lot of heat and product. An effort that seems both noble and impractical given her profession.
I’m expecting the hand with its lavender glove, or perhaps a tuft of snowy hair, to be peeking out of the bag they’ve folded her into. Some confirmation that it’s her in there. But she’s zipped up tight, barely causing a crinkle in the stiff plastic strapped hard to the stretcher.
They have her tilted at a ridiculous angle. It won’t work; she’s going to slide right out, feet first, go barrelling down that staircase like a sled in a luge run. The neighbouring balconies have all turned to opera boxes, everybody’s hands over everybody’s mouths, as the paramedics reverse back up the stairs. They’re giving up, we think. But no, they swing around, swap places. They try at a different tilt. Headfirst, I guess, with the tall woman backing down gingerly, iron railings under her thin rubber soles. When they finally get the stretcher to ground level, someone gives three short claps that ricochet around the courtyard. Someone else joins in. An awkward, open-mic- night smatter. The stocky man looks up, smiling sheepish as though he really might bow. The woman just shakes her head. The bangs don’t move, sprayed solid. The kids do what we all want to, trailing them out to the street to watch the stretcher being packed into the ambulance.
I’m thinking of the runtish apple Jody left to wither, his experiment to show just how the heating leaches the moisture from everything. I get a flash of gums shrinking away from teeth, taste iron, push the image away.
It’s only a few minutes later that the landlord emerges with a bulky orange tough bag. Sagging with cats – at least four or five of them, judging from the bulging sides of the bag, where you can see the knobby arcs of several spines showing though. And we realise: that long. It had let up weeks ago, all the yowling.
The cats, like herself, are spirited down the fire escape. We think the landlord might dump them in the garden to deal with later, but he swings the bag right into the back of his black BMW and drives them away, as if they are evidence of violent crime. We pull on our beers, watching him round the corner. All that time she just lay in there – did she just lie there? And the cats, did they . . .? I close my hand tight around a railing, my stomach pitching. Her kitchen window shows only clean white countertops, crockery stacked neatly on the draining board, a desiccated maidenhair fern on the sill.
The ambulance pulls away, sans sirens. We stay outside another couple of hours, watching the kids carry one another up and down the fire escapes. Taking turns at being swung by their hands and feet, taking turns at being dead. Dead is the most coveted role. There are accidents, of course. More than one body is dropped and, forgetting it is a body, cries out. Nothing serious. I take one more swallow of beer, but it isn’t sitting right, and I pass the bottle to Jody.
He accepts it, attention still on the kids going through their rescue and recovery manoeuvres. After a moment he brushes the back of his hand against my belly, where my shirt no longer hides the swell.
He says, It’ll be easy, you know.
It’s just winter gain, he says, still not looking at me. It’ll drop off without you even trying.
When I find no good way to answer, he takes a swig, embarrassed.
Not that you’re not, you know, carrying it nicely, he assures me. What I mean is, you don’t have to go depriving yourself.
I manage a nod, and he nods and knocks back the dregs.
A parent calls down from a third-floor window to shame the children for their disrespect, and they mug convincingly hangdog for at least a few minutes before resuming their game.
At five o’clock the pressure crashes, and the storm the radio promised boils towards us so fast it’s as if we are rushing to meet it, standing at the bow of a great ship. Banks of cloud like a mountain range rearing up to engulf the sky, blotting the light. Leaf litter confettiing the air before the rain stamps it down in warm silver violence. The kids run circles around their yards, whooping and yelping, crazy as rain dogs.
We go inside and turn all the lights on. Then we turn them off again and just lie down to listen. It rains us right into sleep, and when I wake hours later in the morning dark, it is still raining. Outside, the yellow haze of the city’s light is spread through the wet air like mustard gas, and I can see from the shape of Jody’s hair across the pillow how bad I’ve botched the cut. I’ll offer to try again, to fix it; it will seem excruciatingly important that I fix it. But he’ll say no, it’s no thing. He won’t get it. He’s what you’d call easy. They all are, these people you can have but not keep.
In another room his laptop is still looping those five-hundred-dollar songs. McTell singing us down to hurricane season. Aluminium and wax. Fried food and petrichor. That’s what it sounds like. Creosote and damp, rotting wood. Things I want but will not ask for. I get up, shut the laptop off so there’s just the rain and the radiators; the sound of doves and applause, like a magic show without the ahhhh.
A few more weeks and the air here will fill with down from the poplars, tiny seeds riding in airships of white fluff. A different kind of snow. My lungs filling like wet goose-feather pillows as the swallows carry mud up to the eaves for nests. Homes built with pellets of mud and grass and shit and fur – that’s what’s holding everything together. That’s what’s holding everything together. I will watch this alone, shadows of the skis against the walls.
In the kitchen I stand at the sink. I lean in, lower my head right into the stainless-steel basin, where everything is amplified. Feel the blood roll to my skull. Listen. For Providence, or anything.
Just this warm, oceanic drift where language once was. Fathomless. I think of nostrils sealed over, eyelids near-translucent. Treading water: I was, I have been, but that’s done with. Here’s my foot brushing something slick and muscular, down there in the dark. I kick. We both kick.
‘Real Life’ is included in Josephine Rowe’s latest short story collection, Here Until August.
Image © La Belle Province