On a Sunday morning at the end of March, with the sun shining for the first time in what seemed like weeks, Marybeth sat on a bench in front of the depanneur at Plaza Montclair, smoking a wine-tipped cigar she’d thieved from the pocket of her stepfather’s jacket. Black cherry flavour. Her skull felt pleasantly squeezed.
There was a stillness about the strip mall. In the parking lot, so early in the morning, the lampposts outnumbered the cars. The few vehicles that did pull in parked over near the Provigo. Quick trips in and out for eggs and bread. A carton of milk. A tin of Maxwell House. And then gone again.
Marybeth plucked the woolen tea cosy she wore for a hat from her head and placed it on her lap. It was knitted in a checkerboard pattern of bright blue and white. There was a puffy pompom on top – white with bright blue speckles – and, on one side, a slit for a teapot spout. She’d been wearing it all winter; a joke from the bottom of a kitchen drawer, a joke her mother and stepfather failed to see the humour in. Her mother had asked her why she didn’t just go ahead and wear oven mitts, too. Her stepfather said don’t give her ideas.
Marybeth ran her fingers through her hair, encountering a few scattered knots. She tugged at them gently, loosening them, enjoying the resistance each knot offered. Once done, she clamped the cigar gently between her pursed lips and squinted from the smoke. With both hands, she fitted the tea cosy back on her head again, snug.
The sidewalk out in front of the stores was damp but free of snow now. So was the parking lot, except for the far edge that met with the top of a hill overlooking the autoroute. There, a line of snowbanks remained; sooty, twelve-foot piles from November and December and January and February, a whole winter’s worth of parking lot clearings. The snowbanks were melting but sleepily; a series of slender rivulets flowed forth from their bases in dark, winding paths. Some of the streams merged near the boxy concrete pedestal of a lamppost. The collected water twisted slightly and washed down the squared holes of an adjacent manhole cover.
Marybeth smoked and watched the slow melt of snow. She listened to the autoroute hum beyond the snowbanks. She speculated vaguely on the genesis of rhythmic gymnastics. Her pleasant stupor was interrupted when, to her side, something caught her eye. From around the corner of the Provigo came Jono. Jono, Teenage Wino.
His hands plunged inside the pockets of his usual khaki trench coat, Jono sauntered in the direction of Marybeth’s bench. His black boots were salt-stained, the laces undone. Jono’s hair was black and his bangs were long and his lips were flat. His eyes were pretty. He had been absent after Christmas break, absent until early February. Rumours circulated at school. An ambulance in the night; a pumped stomach; rehab. The truth had proved far less glamorous. A divorce and a move to Repentigny with the dad but the dad had changed his mind and sent Jono back.
“Hey,” Marybeth said.
“Hey,” Jono said. He stood before her. “You got another one of those?”
Marybeth glanced at the smouldering cigar between her fingers. “It’s my only one.” She held it up in offering.
Jono smoked from the cigar. “Thanks,” he said, barely exhaling. He stared past Marybeth, at the depanneur’s windowed storefront. Then he looked down at her. “You don’t happen to be eighteen, do you?”
“I’m not even seventeen. Why?”
“Doesn’t matter.” He wasn’t looking at Marybeth anymore. He was looking at the depanneur again. “Just asking. Just in case.” He returned the cigar. He walked around Marybeth’s bench and, after a few steps, entered the store.
Marybeth pivoted on the bench to look through the depanneur window. The portly clerk behind the cash counter had a moustache and some amount of hair on his head. He wore a yellow uniform polo shirt with a nametag pinned to the breast. Jono arrived at the cash register with a bottle of wine. He placed it on the counter. Marybeth puffed on her cigar and watched Jono and the clerk have a discussion. Jono put some money on the counter. He pushed the bottle a little closer to the clerk. Then he pushed the money closer. The clerk crossed his arms and rested them on top of his gut. He shook his head. The two stared at each other. Jono reached into the pocket of his trench coat and drew a yellow water pistol. He pointed it at the clerk.
Marybeth got a stomach cramp.
The clerk did a sort of belly flop onto the counter, upsetting a little wicker basket of single-serving fudge squares. The wine bottle was knocked against the Tic Tac display. The clerk slapped the pistol from Jono’s hand. Jono looked surprised. The clerk, lying on his stomach, rocked his hips from side to side and slithered backwards until his feet reached the floor behind the counter again. Marybeth found this equally funny and grotesque. The clerk turned to his right and scurried around the counter. Marybeth saw Jono, during the two or three seconds that the clerk’s back was turned, snatch the wine bottle from where it lay on the counter and conceal it beneath his long coat. On Jono’s side of the counter, the clerk smacked Jono’s head once with his palm and once with the back of his hand. He pushed him toward the exit. The door flung open and Jono stumbled outside. Standing in the doorway, panting, the clerk announced he’d call the police if Jono ever set foot in his store again. Then he lumbered back inside.
“You are completely insane,” Marybeth said.
“It’s not like I was going to shop there my whole life.”
“Want the rest?” Marybeth held out what remained of her cigar. Jono pinched it from her hand.
“I’m climbing those mountains.”
They walked across the parking lot. Jono took a final haul from Marybeth’s cigar and flicked it away. They began to scale one of the snowbanks. Jono slipped on the way up and, before she realized he was only pretending, Marybeth grabbed his wrist. Jono pulled her tea cosy down over her eyes and they laughed. They reached the top and descended a few steps down the other side. Jono removed his trench coat and laid it on the snow like a blanket. They sat on it.
Jono unscrewed the cap on the wine bottle and offered Marybeth the first drink. She took a sip. The wine was red and tart and it was still morning and it warmed her throat in a bitter kind of way. She handed the bottle back to Jono. He drank several uninterrupted swallows from it. When he stopped he exhaled happily and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. A third of the wine was gone. He offered Marybeth another drink but she didn’t want to have any more so she said, “Not right now.” Jono tipped the bottle to his lips and drank again.
They looked at the autoroute and, beyond it, the roofs of houses in the lower part of town. Further to the south, far away on the horizon, stood the skyline of Montreal. The skyscrapers looked as small as toys. To the right, dwarfing the buildings, was Mount Royal. Saint Joseph’s Oratory’s domed roof stood out from the mountain’s foliage. Marybeth extended her right arm before her and made a fist, except for her thumb, which she left pointing upward. She closed her left eye and positioned her thumb in such a way that the Oratory disappeared behind it.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” Marybeth dropped her arm to her side again.
“Come on, what is it?”
“It’s nothing. Really. Forget it. It’s just a thing. A thing my dad showed me when I was little.”
Marybeth exhaled loudly, pretending to give in. “If you close one eye, you can hide the buildings behind your thumb.”
“You can what?” Jono laughed.
“Just try it. You’ll see.”
Jono closed one eye. He held out his right arm and turned his thumb up. “Aha!” he exclaimed. He swivelled slowly from side to side. He laughed for each building that vanished behind his thumb.
Marybeth couldn’t help but smile. The game had never failed to entertain children and anybody who was drunk.
“Whoa,” Jono said suddenly. “Check it out.” His voice was steeped in awe. “If you look with both eyes open, you can see the buildings through your thumb. It’s like fucking X-ray vision!”
At Jono’s repeated urging, and with more than a little reluctance, Marybeth tried this modification of the game. Indeed, keeping both eyes open produced the illusion of seeing right through her thumb. But it only made Marybeth feel slightly dizzy and vaguely annoyed.
After some minutes of silence and – on Jono’s part – drinking, Jono got giggly. He declared it was time to get his spring tan. He removed his shirt and flung it in the snow. This was very funny to him. Marybeth got up to retrieve the shirt. When she came back, Jono was lying on his back, on his coat, both hands clasped behind his head. Except for his armpits, he was pretty much hairless and he was skinny. He had a birthmark near his right nipple that looked like a nose in profile.
“You’re going to catch pneumonia.” She attempted to cover him with his shirt but he pushed it aside. Then he craned his neck and tried to kiss her. Marybeth turned her face away. “You’re drunk.”
“You smell like a cigar.”
Later, the bottle was empty. Shirtless, Jono dozed. Marybeth sat beside him in silence, her arms clasped around her drawn-up knees. She stared at the autoroute below. A blue minivan sped by. Marybeth turned her head to follow its progress. With every passing second, as it drove further and further away, the minivan grew smaller. Soon it was tiny and soon Marybeth couldn’t see it at all. She imagined the people in the minivan: she pictured parents in the front seats and daughters in the back. They didn’t know they had just disappeared.
Jono snorted. He shifted slightly. Marybeth held the back of her hand to his upper arm. His skin was like ice. She sat Jono up and worked his shirt back on him. She took the tea cosy from her head and slipped it over his. He mumbled a bit and tried to kiss her again but gave up easily enough. Marybeth threaded Jono’s arms into the arms of his trench coat. With some encouragement and some shaking, she convinced him to stand. Taking his arm, she guided him delicately over the hill of snow and down the other side again. He stumbled a few paces into the parking lot and he wanted to rest. She steered him to the concrete base of the lamppost near the manhole. There Jono vomited. He made horrible sounds. Marybeth tried not to look but she saw some of it. It went on for a long time.
After, she led Jono to the sidewalk in front of the stores. She took him to a bench near the Provigo, the furthest bench from the depanneur, and helped him lie down on it. He went right to sleep. Marybeth reached for Jono’s head but stopped herself. Asleep on a bench, wearing a tea cosy for a hat, Jono looked destitute and warm.
Marybeth rummaged through the pockets of Jono’s trench coat. She found his phone. She bent forward and angled her head next to Jono’s, where the scent of alcohol was heavy. Holding her breath and holding the phone aloft, she took a picture of herself with the sleeping Jono.
She straightened and examined the result on Jono’s phone’s screen. Her own smile stunned her. How genuinely happy she looked.
She set the picture as Jono’s home screen image, slipped the phone back into his pocket, and left him sleeping on the bench.
Marybeth walked out of the strip mall parking lot. She turned in the direction of the overpass that connected the upper and lower parts of town. Halfway across, she stopped. She leaned against the ledge overlooking the autoroute and rested her arms on the concrete slab. The cars coming towards her grew larger until they disappeared loudly and abruptly beneath the overpass. Cars going away became smaller and, like the blue minivan, gradually vanished.
A white Jeep was driving away from her. Marybeth focused on it. She imagined what might be seen in its rearview mirror.
Now it was she who was growing smaller.
So was the overpass. The strip mall, too. Soon the entire town of Montclair, with Marybeth somewhere within it, faded completely from view.