A man in his thirties stands behind two children on a swing set, holding them by their clothing. He’s getting ready to set them swinging like pendulums. Even with his cap on you can see that his gaze is cast downward and only one corner of his mouth turned up. It’s not quite a smile. The children hold onto the swings’ chains. They’re barefoot, tough looking, but seem to be having fun. A ball sits forgotten on the gravel. Behind the children the sun shines through the shrubbery. “Summer 99” is written on the back.
We’re squatting stolen land, our money ones and zeroes on a mainframe, every unearthed relic a reminder that everything we can see—this leaf in our hand, these clothes on our backs, these trinkets, these treasures—will all end up faded and buried.
There’s a white brick building at the end of the street. Six or eight apartments. Not a single window or balcony faces the park, they all open onto an interior courtyard. When we first moved to the neighbourhood we laughed at the building every time we passed by. We’d talk about it for the minute or so it took to get to the drugstore or the market, picturing an architect who’d lost his license, fallen off the wagon. We despised the slumlord who let the drywall molder in the corners and took two weeks to change burnt-out hot water tanks in the basement. With your windows in plain view like that there’d be no way to walk around naked after getting out of the shower or have sex undisturbed in the living room. And what would the neighbours say if you closed your curtains in the afternoon? That those neighbours were having sex again, surely. Then we’d go back home to our two-bedroom and make dinner and forget all about the white building.
On garbage day we have a field day. People leave furniture, knick-knacks and tools in the alley and we come by and salvage whatever we like. Nothing too dirty though. Some stuff deserves to be thrown out—rain-soaked mattresses, broken dishes, spaghetti-stained Tupperware microwaved until the bottom warps—trash ripe for the garbage truck’s gaping maw. Other things end up on the sidewalk with nary a scratch. Then we would crown ourselves honorary garbage men, redeemers of junk, repossessors of the rejected.
That was before winter. Now we don’t laugh at the white brick building any more.
A cat sits on a rock in front of a lake. Its tail lies outside the frame, its back to the camera, its face is turned toward it. An ordinary cat, black and brown with a striped face. The rock must have been carefully placed on this perfectly mown lawn. Behind the cat stands a clump of trees whose leaves take up half the photo. The other half shows a calm lake, a few cottages here and there. “Sept. 86. Frisson. Beaulac.”
My child is a wonder—everyone says so, and they don’t know the half of it. He doesn’t do anything special. He’s my window onto a locked world. He makes me notice just how strange everyday things can be, how slender our purchase here in these times of stroboscopic darkness, with people we love so listlessly that we stop seeing them, because today overwhelms us and tomorrow looms, planned out in full, another day to strike off on the calendar. Our cat cries at night. It’s sort of my fault. It never used to go out—a purebred—and then one day it ran away. We thought we’d lost it but then it came back and ever since we’ve let it do what it wants. It got to like this freedom and now it never stops meowing at the door to be let in, and I can’t sleep. The coming morning isn’t always quite the same pastel colour. I don’t know if it’s these soft hues that distort the perfectly normal things in my apartment but sometimes I’m afraid even to go to the bathroom or have a drink of water before jumping back under the covers with my girlfriend. There’s something lurking there, grey or ochre, waiting to come creeping in through the curtains. Maybe it’s our mortality, which we pretend to forget by living our tightly packed lives. When I can’t sleep I sit in the living room and look at photographs. It’s the way of the world as we know and live in it: parents die first and their children take their place.
Sometimes, after a month or two has slipped by, I notice my girlfriend again. We’re both there again. I say to her: I don’t believe you. You chose to spend your life with me and that impresses and embarrasses me, takes me back to the basics, my senses. Glass is cool; cork coarse; parsley crisp. In these moments of weakness I feel the weight of unspeakable events around every corner. I’ve dreamt my death a few times, both asleep and awake. The last time three generations of our family were sitting at a table on the back deck. The sky was so densely packed, so full, that we breathed in the little drops that formed on every surface, and the silence weighed heavy and when the lightning struck we knew it was the end. The transformer on its pole in the back of the yard sparked and crackled like a Roman candle, lighting up the opaque cloud cover at irregular intervals. The world looked like a tarnished daguerreotype. A Boeing passed low overhead before crashing in Montreal North. Panic set in; we all scrambled for home. But we may as well have stayed put—a new missile was hurtling toward us so fast that nothing else was audible. I was going to lose my family. A father unable to help his son. When the plane had finally annihilated us everything was slow, silent and painless, as if suspended.
Some fifty scorched tree trunks emerge from a bog. Most of the vegetation lies low, as if afraid to stray too far from the muddy water. Several trees have fallen over but others are still standing, unburnt, narrow leafless branches bent every which way, bark split and peeling off in strips as if clawed off by a bear. A section has been cleared. The water reflects a sky much darker, surely, than it really is. “August 86. Lac à vase.”
Nothing is new at our house. It’s a museum of brown, the most unassuming of colours. That’s the price you pay for free stuff. On July 1st we always celebrate, not gloating that Quebecers wait for Canada Day to move but rejoicing that they leave so many shards of the past behind in the streets and alleyways. We take our fill with a clean conscience. Harvest lasts a week; high season. At any other time of year we can only assume something has gone wrong—a breakup, a lost job, a move back to the parents’ basement—you learn to smell the end approaching. Like many mammals garbage hibernates so winter finds are rare. This winter we got something though. At the end of the street, next to the dirty white brick building, a complete array of furnishings lying in the snow—gutted cardboard boxes spilling out utensils, dime-store romance novels, drapes and floral curtains still clinging to their rods. An entire apartment spat out and a sidewalk snow plow pushing it into a manageable pile to be picked up by the city or torn to pieces by a snowblower.
If my own death is just nothingness I can accept and face it without fear. But I will not brook the death of others. When we get back to the things that matter and I notice my girlfriend again I tell her: I don’t know what would become of me if something happened to you. My son will be just fine. He does somersaults and bashes his head on whatever stands in the way. A few quick tears and a bump and he gets right back up. He’s just as vulnerable as we are. In the pastel hours I can’t sleep, I clutch my girlfriend for warmth and lie in dread of the horrible things that will tear my son from my arms. Maybe one day we’ll be walking past a guy with a huge dog that will attack the stroller for no reason and sink his teeth into our son’s face, so much like my own. Dogs are unpredictable. An ancestral lupine rage comes over them sometimes. “Your son did something wrong, my dog felt threatened!” the man is yelling in self-defence as I kill him with my bare hands. Maybe one day as I do the dishes I’ll drop the butcher’s knife and it will pierce his tiny caramel-smelling neck and plant itself between his cervical vertebrae. Maybe one day while we’re driving our number will come up. Hanging upside down in the heap of crushed metal, suspended in the air by the seat belt, I’ll hear the radio still playing but no cry from the back seat. Maybe one day an illness will disfigure him, an illness that was biding its time in our genes, passed down from father to son, just waiting to crop up, deform his body and wreak havoc on all our lives.
But nothing happens to him except beauty; nothing is really ours except slowness. It’s important to remember.
A woman has replaced the cat in front of the rock but the photographer has moved. A medium-range shot. She’s blinded by the sun, squinting—yet the trees behind her are in the shadows. She wears powder blue slacks, a white sweater with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, a white scarf with red flowers tied like a cravate, huge white earrings. Her cheeks are red, she’s almost smiling. White hair in braids. The lake is darker than the sky. A few fat clouds seem to float. A dock leans out from the shore. “September 86. Me, age 67, next to the cottage.”
We took the alley, our son in his sled. The plow had finished piling the apartment’s remains and sputtered off. Our joy at this windfall subsided when we understood what we were looking at: the worldly possessions of an elderly woman who had evidently died alone. No one to sort through her things and dispose of them with even a modicum of respect. The landlord had thrown everything into the alley while her corpse lay in a drawer in the morgue next to the other unclaimed bodies. It was too cold to go through everything so we decided to pay our respects by saving a piece of her past. We took one box. When we got home we surveyed its contents: a flower pot, some embroidery, four photographs.
I watch people through the window, press up and sweat against my neighbours in the Metro, ignore the other people in a lineup. I can’t do anything for them, wish nothing upon them. I know we’re all cursed. The proof is in the asphalt fumes, the ubiquity of violence, the victory of numbers over letters. We are nothing amid the concrete and the oil; they will crush us if we stand in their way, no matter who we are—academics, refugees, old-age pensioners. The most sublime landscapes remind me I will soon be food for worms. What I think of as mine can be taken from me at any moment, by law or by force. A tiny nudge is all it takes, one last straw.
But I can’t give up altogether, even if the ties that bind me to others have come undone and my body’s similarity to those around me no longer means anything. My conviction of generalized failure is battling with another feeling, one I thought long disproved by my worldly experience. Hope. It disappeared in my twenties with the long-held illusion of fundamental human goodness. When my son was born it returned as something private. I hope he will stay healthy. I hope my girlfriend will escape the fate of so many women and avoid the cancer that will rot away at her insides before she can even retire. I hope my dad isn’t too unhappy in his bachelor apartment. I hope when my friends celebrate they do it for the right reasons. After embracing the whole planet my hope has slowly contracted to cover only my immediate surroundings. I hold out my hand in the cacophony, that I might occasionally touch someone or something. The worst successes of our era—keeping the pyramids standing while airplanes crash; individualizing hope. A minute hope, diffused, exposing the world’s false appearances like the glow of my alarm clock when I can’t sleep, coals without heat, pointing toward an exit, portending the arrival of the pastel morning light. You have to hold this tiny hope in your hand until it burns your palm, until it turns red from blood, or maybe shame, who knows. Sometimes I can see who I am. The room always grows dark again. My son is beautiful and will stay that way a long time surely; he is everything that is human in this land of dried out husks. I’m waiting for the catastrophe, the great impending chaos. I’m waiting for the full moon when the bells of the last churches yet unsold ring out to summon all those who still remember what it means to be together. If my son is old enough to choose and wants to join them I’ll give him my blessing and then I’ll set off, with anyone who cares to come along, somewhere we can survive a few months longer, probably up north.