“Grand Jeté” was the 2007 Short Story Contest winner in Other Voices magazine.
The staircase spiraled up four stories. At the top, a skylight filtered late day sun, providing the building’s only light. Was there another power failure, Nathan wondered. Or was his landlord too cheap to turn on the lights? He plodded around the curve and imagined fifty years of tenants sliding their hands up these walls. He had never seen anyone clean the place. At the third floor landing, he paused to adjust his grocery bags. Sweat from exertion and the heat dripped down his eyeglasses. These ten foot ceilings must add a dozen steps to every floor. One storey to go. He resumed his climb, rounded the final curve and gasped. On the landing sat an angel.
Nathan blinked. Idiot, he told himself. The angel was a young woman in a white dress, sleeves and skirt draped over her arms and legs. Ivory shimmered on her fingernails. She reached under her hem and pulled a cigarette pack from the strap around her disco boot.
“Would you have a light?” she said.
“Oh well.” She dropped the Export A’s in her lap. “They aren’t good for me anyway.”
“They’re sure not.” God, he sounded like a prude. Nathan clutched the grocery bags.
The girl stretched her legs. “You’re new to the building.” Her sandaled toe grazed his trousers.
“I moved in last month.”
“From Toronto?” Her fingers toyed with a diamond earring.
“How did you know?” He glanced over her cropped brown hair. She was likely a friend of the art student in apartment 4B. With her high cheekbones, long neck and straight white teeth she could be his model.
Artist models posed nude. This might explain the gown which would slip so easily over her shoulders.
She lifted the hem of her skirt. It was grey with grime.
How do you like Montréal?” she said.
“It … it’s different.”
Her mouth puckered. “En tout temps on s’adapte.”
“You’re French?” He realized she had said Montreal with the accent.
“Pure laine. Pure wool from La Gaspésie.”
“Do you’re parents still live there?”
“They’re dead.” She rubbed her boot. “En tout cas, they’re both dead to me.”
A rumbling noise in the hallway rescued him from a reply. Alex appeared on his tricycle, his face shadowed in the dull light. His eyes brightened when he saw Nathan.
“Wanna ride home?” the boy asked.
“Vroom.” Alex made a half circle turn and vanished down the hall.
The girl stood and brushed the back of her cotton dress.
“By the way, I’m Nathan.” He readjusted the paper bags, wishing he could extend his hand.
“Véronique.” She nodded to her right. “I live there.”
“I figured 4A was empty,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone enter or leave.”
Véronique walked toward the door and touched the knob. “That would be me you didn’t see, going nowhere.”
Alex zoomed up behind him. “Want to ride now?”
“In a minute.”
The door closed on apartment 4A.
Nathan set down his bags and leaned over the tricycle. His long fingers covered the little ones gripping the handlebars. With one foot on the rear bar, he propelled them down the hall and dragged the vehicle to a halt in front of Margaret, who smiled, revealing stained and crooked teeth.
Nathan watched the boy pedal down the passage. “Aren’t you worried he might fall down the stairs?”
“I told him to stay away from them,” Margaret said. “Alex minds, unlike most kids.”
“He’s only four -”
But then, Nathan, even at four had pedaled a straight line, his mother said, so different from his sister.
Margaret tucked her blonde curls behind an ear. “Why don’t you join us for dinner? I made extra spaghetti.”
“I left my groceries down the hall. The ice cream’s half melted already.”
Nathan edged past Alex’s returning tricycle. This wasn’t much of a playground for a kid. At least his own childhood apartment building had a yard with a swing set and tree to climb. His gaze fixed on apartment 4A, he squatted to pick up the groceries. Nathan loped down the hall toward the pasta scents. The one thing he missed about Toronto was his mother’s cooking.
Margaret had made extra spaghetti. Home cooking. Kid playing in the hall. Margaret waiting at the door. Was this a setup?
She smiled. “You look roasted in that business suit. Go and change. By the time you’ve put the groceries away I’ll have dinner on the table.”
“No … No, thanks. Some other time.” Nathan peered into a bag to avoid her fading smile. “I bought too much. I’ve got to use up this meat.”
He skulked into his apartment and collapsed against the door. Why had he ducked out on dinner with Margaret? He stared at the blank wall. The “C” units ran the hallway length and faced a side alley. To his right were the kitchen and the living room with an alcove that touched Véronique’s apartment; to his left were the bathroom and his bedroom next to Margaret’s place. Through her wall, he had heard fast tempo music playing on her stereo and thuds which could be Alex jumping from a sofa. Nathan’s bedroom window opened to a fire escape. Véronique’s room might be visible from the ledge. Like she would be interested in a guy with a bobbing Adam’s apple and glasses as thick as paperweights.
He carried the bags to the kitchen. The ice cream felt like mush. He crammed the container into the fridge freezer coated with ice that desperately needed defrosting.
Nathan changed into a T-shirt and shorts and stepped out his bedroom window to the fire escape. The stairs coiled down to the alley, which was shaded by the adjacent building. From the ledge, he had a clear view of Veronique’s blind, which was drawn. Since her living room looked out to Tupper Street, that must be her bedroom. He could leap to her fire escape, if he didn’t worry about the four storey drop.
In the kitchen, Nathan grilled the steak on the gas stove. He carried his dinner plate and glass of beer to the TV table in the living room, flicked on the set and settled on the sofa to watch the Olympics. Tonight’s highlights featured gymnastics at the Montreal Forum, a couple of blocks from here. Nathan chewed a wedge of leathery beef. Nadia Comaneci back-flipped along the beam. He held his breath. One, two, three. She landed perfectly, no wobbling.
He washed the last chunk of sirloin down with creamed corn and beer, returned his plate to the kitchen and scraped the remains into the garbage. Thanks to Margaret’s advice that he place cereals and rice in twist-tied bags and immediately scrub dishes clean no bugs had invaded the kitchen. He turned on the tap, left the water to fill the enormous sink and walked to the bathroom. The shower curtain blocked the window, which let little light into the long, narrow room. The curtain hid the tub, but Nathan knew the creatures crept up the pipes when the room was dark. He pictured them crawling over the porcelain. Nathan flicked the switch and decided, in the future, he would leave this light on constantly. Utilities were included in his rent. He waited while the cockroaches scurried down the drain.
C’est le mois d’auot. Briefcase in hand, Nathan bounded down the apartment building stairs, practicing his French. Je vis. Tu vis. Il vit … A month ago, after meeting Véronique, he had signed up for French lessons and had been spending his weekends exploring the city, learning the lingo. He had walked north to the cross on Mount Royal, south to the river and west through Westmount, the wealthy English zone, but preferred the subway, that is, le Métro, which he caught in the park between the Forum and Children’s Hospital. The blue cars carried him to the east end, where he had walked by the Olympic Stadium. A crane still hovered above it. He had purchased soft drinks and chips in a dépanneur. C’est combien, ça? Une piastre. Not dollar as he had learned in high school.
Outside, Nathan stumbled on the bottom stair. “Fuck.” He gripped the railing and corrected his curse. “Tabernacle.” The French swore with religion – Sacrifice, Calice – not sex. While catching his breath in sooty air, he watched a taxi pull up to the hospital. A mother and child got out. As a boy, he had made a dozen such trips with his mother and sister.
Nathan’s hobbled down Tupper Street. By the corner, his walk turned into a stride. A townhouse window sporting the Quebec flag – Blue with a white cross and fleur-de-lis – signaled the home of a separatist. His mother pictured them roaming the streets, shooting the English.
“They call us anglophones,” Nathan had told her. “Most francophones aren’t hostile. In stores, the minute I open my mouth the clerks switch to English.”
That wouldn’t happen next year, when he was fluent. He crossed St. Mathieu to the Grey Nuns’ convent. Le couvent des Soeurs Grises.
Couvent. Was that the correct word? It sounded masculine, but might be feminine for nuns. Les soeurs.
On Dorchester, the little man gripped the nuns’ iron railing. Nathan passed the gymnastics display every morning on his way to work. Bend and stretch went the stocky legs. Plié, they called it in ballet.
“Ballet words are French,” said his sister’s voice. Nathan halted.
Strange that he had remembered that. He can’t have been more than five when Bonnie said it, before she got sick. She was taking ballet lessons and had taught him the movements – plié, arabesque, grand jeté. In his teens, long after she died, he had taken out a Ballet book from the library. Grand Jeté: Take off from one foot, jump high and far and land on the other one.
A north gust ripped through his suit to his bones. The forecast called for heat later today. August mornings were cool and office towers shaded most of this stretch of the sidewalk to Peel, where he stopped for the red light and crowd from the Lakeshore train. Nathan merged with the anglophone commuters in Dominion Square. He looked up at the Sun Life Building, tiered like a wedding cake and, his cubicle mate said, the tallest building in the Commonwealth, when built. Fifteen years ago, cross-shaped Place Ville Marie surpassed it.
Inside, Nathan rode the elevator to his cubicle for another day of calculating death probabilities. A male smoker, aged thirty … Jacques, his cubicle-mate, smoked constantly; every weekend he went drinking in bars and got laid and would likely outlive me, Nathan mused as his colleague ranted against les séparatistes.
“If those guys win the next election,” Jacques said, “I hear a rumour Sun Life is going to move all of us to Toronto. I don’t want to live there away from my family.”
Did Nathan want to live there close to his? It would make life convenient, he thought that afternoon as he left office. His parents expected him to take the train to Toronto every long weekend. They wouldn’t cross the border to visit him. His folks hadn’t ventured from Ontario since their family holiday in Cape Cod, twenty years ago. They had hoped the seashore would perk up Bonnie after the chemo.
Nathan wove through Ste. Catherine Street crowds, his throat aching from Jacques’ smoke. Approaching Steinberg’s grocery store, he decided he wasn’t up to cooking and felt too tired for an evening of verb conjugations.
Présent. Passé composé. Future dim. Imperfect was his only tense.
He trudged up the apartment stairs, his heart rate rising with exertion and hope at the possibility of seeing Véronique. This past month, they had met on the stairway several times, but exchanged no more than “hellos’ and remarks on the weather. She had been dressed in jeans or business clothes and had seemed in a hurry to get somewhere. Twice, from the fire escape, he had seen her silhouette behind the blind. The first time, she had came into the room, taken an object from her dresser drawer and left; the second time he had watched her stretch her arms, pull off a sweater, unfasten her bra, slide down her slacks. He had slunk into his bedroom. Voyeur.
At the fourth floor landing, he paused to stare at her apartment. He had never heard a peep from it. Down the hall, Alex sat facing Nathan’s door. The boy waved and held up a colouring book.
“We can both draw,” he said. “There’s two pages beside each other.”
Margaret appeared and crossed her arms. “Alex, don’t bother Nathan.”
“He’s no bother,” Nathan said. “Except tonight’s my class and I have to leave early to grab a bite to eat.”
“I’m making Chicken Kiev, with extra for leftovers. It’s nothing fancy, but beats junk food, if you’re interested … ”
Her eyes filled with the hope that must have brimmed in his as he toiled up the stairs.
Garlic aromas wafted from her apartment. French class would give him an excuse to leave right after dinner. And Margaret, who talked to everyone in the building, must know more than he did about Véronique.
“Give me a minute to change,” he said.
In his T-shirt and jeans, he followed Alex into their apartment. Her kitchen, twice the size of his, had a built-in dinette and view of the hospital and park. Childish drawings covered the fridge. Stick people stood beside houses with curly-Q smoke rising up from the chimney.
“You’re a good artist,” Nathan said to Alex.
The child nodded, his black curls bobbing. “I drew them at my school.”
“Are you old enough – ?”
“Day care,” Margaret said.
A small TV in the corner cabinet blared images of Robert Bourassa surrounded by reporters. One of them thrust a microphone under the Quebec premier’s pointed nose. Camera lights flashed off his glasses. His Adam’s apple wavered.
Margaret switched off the media scrum. “We don’t need BooBoo Bourassa in here. Imagine, forcing those poor little Italian kids into French schools.”
“Jacques, a guy I work with, says Bourassa has to do it or Lévesque will beat him.”
“Never.” Margaret pounded the chicken pieces with a mallet. “I swear, if those separatists get in, I’m outta the province, if I can possibly manage it.” She sprinkled pepper on the flattened slices. “You must be sorry you left Ontario for this nonsense.”
“I’m not political.”
“You will be, if you stay in Quebec.”
They ate in the dinette, Nathan next to Alex, who chattered about day care.
“There’s a slide outside this tall.” Alex stretched his arms, knocking Nathan’s glasses. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” Nathan said. “They get in my way, too.”
“Alex’s school is more expensive than I’d like.” Margaret sipped some wine. “But it’s only a block from Miracle Mart, where I work.”
“I buy my kitchen stuff at Miracle Mart,” Nathan said.
“I buy toys,” Alex said. “My school has a hundred toys. It has trucks and cars and airplanes – “
“That’s enough,” Margaret told him. “Finish your dinner.”
As they cleared the table, she sent Alex to her bedroom to watch the colour TV.
“I’ll have to leave for class in about fifteen minutes,” Nathan said. “Can I help with the dishes?”
“I’ll do them later.” Margaret plugged in a kettle.
“What about, uh, you know.”
“Cockroaches? Silverfish? I haven’t seen the pests since they fumigated last year.” She dropped tea bags into a flowered pot. “Have you talked to Gilbert, the landlord, about your little visitors?”
“I left a message with his secretary.”
“You don’t think he’ll return my call?”
Was the landlord Mr. Gilbert or M. Gilbert, Nathan mused while pouring milk into his teacup.
Margaret’s apartment, like his, had only one bedroom, “Which I need for my private space,” she said as they walked to the living room. Alex’s cot lay against the wall that separated their unit from Nathan’s bedroom. On the sofa, two GI Joe figurines wrestled. Margaret frowned at the mini-men and moved them quickly to the wall unit stuffed with toys, children’s books and records. Nathan wondered if she had rushed to clean up while he was changing.
Since the living room had no chair, he sank into the sofa that faced a window and door to their shared fire escape.
Margaret slid a record from the wall unit. “Do you like Janis Ian?”
Whoever she was. With the money he was saving from cheap rent, he ought to buy a stereo and discover singers besides his parents’ old favourites, Bing and Frank.
Margaret dropped to the sofa and grinned over her cup.
Nathan stared at her crooked teeth. So, she needed dental work. He couldn’t criticize. Without glasses he was legally blind. When Margaret closed her mouth, she was pretty, with her wide blue eyes, wavy hair and full lips.
Janis Ian crooned mournfully about life at seventeen.
Margaret placed her cup and saucer on the coffee table. Her olive sweater stretched over her generous breasts.
“I might skip French class,” Nathan said.
Orthodontists could do wonders with braces and caps. Sun Life provided a good dental plan. Did Margaret’s employer, Miracle Mart, have one?
She shifted position, edging his way. “I suppose, like you, I should be studying French.”
He hadn’t noticed her flower-scented perfume at dinner. Had she dabbed it on when she went to the bathroom after dessert?
“Didn’t you say you were born in Montreal?” Nathan said. “You must speak French reasonably well.”
Margaret stroked her hair. “Not well enough. More and more customers come into the store demanding service in the parlez-vous the ding-dong.”
He chuckled and eased closer.
“I put in for a transfer to a Lakeshore branch,” she said. “My boss is blocking my move. He hates me.”
“If he hates you, he should be glad to see you leave.”
“He does it to spite a tête carrée.”
Nathan studied her face, which was remarkably square – carrée. His head, like the rest of him, was long and thin. Jacques joked that he could be the son of Premier Bourassa, who was pure laine French. When Nathan walked around Montréal or rode the Métro, he couldn’t tell from appearance what language people would speak.
Margaret moved to his cushion, bouncing Nathan. Tea sprinkled his fingers.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Never mind.” He placed his cup on the coffee table and dried his hands on his trousers.
Above Alex’s cot hung paintings of bug-eyed children. Montréal street vendors sold the velvet art.
“Alex’s father bought those for the baby’s room, when I was pregnant,” Margaret said.
“Does his father see him often?”
“He gave me the pictures and split.”
A TV voice in the bedroom drowned out Janis’s voice.
“Those commercials come on so loud.” Margaret rested her elbow on the sofa back. “Are you glad you took the transfer from Toronto? Do you find head office work more interesting?”
“Life insurance is never interesting.”
“The city is more interesting than Toronto,” Nathan said. “It’s much livelier and this building -”
“- is a dump.”
“It has character.”
“Complete with roaches.”
Nathan laughed. He was laughing at roaches? It must be the wine. “This apartment is convenient, close to my office and everything – stores, restaurants, movies.”
“Do you get out to many movies?” Her hand brushed against his shoulder. “I wish I could, but it’s hard to get a sitter for Alex. Have you seen any good ones lately?”
He had watched dozens on TV. What had he seen recently in the theatres? “I went to this action flick that was pretty good.” He couldn’t remember the title of it. “I like Woody Allen.”
“You do?” Margaret grinned. “I think he’s hilarious.”
Outdoors, a siren screeched. It was followed by another one and another. Both turned toward the sounds.
“That’s the trouble with downtown,” Margaret said. “All the noise and pollution.”
“The building’s quiet, at least on our floor. I never hear my neighbours.”
Margaret glanced at the cot. “You don’t hear Alex at night?”
“He has the odd bad dream.”
After his sister died, Nathan had wakened regularly with nightmares. Margaret had referred to Alex’s father. He could confide something personal or –
“I’ve only met our neighbours a few times,” he said. “There’s the art student in 4B and the girl in 4A -”
“Do you know her?”
“As well as I want to.”
“She looks young.”
“She’s about twenty. Same age as I was, when I had Alex.”
That made Véronique six years younger than him. “Is she a student? Does she work?”
“You could call it work.”
A curl to her lip made Nathan want to hold onto something. He reached for his cup and saucer.
Margaret leaned closer. “Véronique is Gilbert’s mistress.”
“What?” Cool tea spattered his fingers.
“Our elusive slumlord – “
“What do you mean by mistress?”
“He pays her rent, buys her clothing, jewellery … ”
Nathan cleared his throat. “Is Gilbert married?”
“What do you think?”
“Is he older?”
“Her type has no use for guys her age.”
The day they met, Véronique wore diamond earrings. “Is Gilbert rich?”
“He must be.” Margaret’s arm swept the room, taking in the cot, velvet paintings and shelves littered with toys. “He owns this magnificent mansion.”
“What do mean by type?” Nathan noticed the music had stopped. He leapt up from the sofa, banging his leg on the coffee table. “On second thought, I’d better get to class.”
A couple walked down the stairs, holding hands. Nathan nudged the wall, making space for the pair who had moved into apartment 4B on Labour Day weekend, replacing the art student. Véronique might have gone as well. He hadn’t seen her in a couple of weeks and was trying not to think of her. Il essaie de la barrer de ces rêves.
Or something like that.
After six weeks of French lessons, Nathan knew he would never master the language. Was this staircase – l’escalier – male or female? Odds were he would guess wrong. His English head was clogged with gender neutral stairs and thoughts and dreams. Le rêve? La rêve?
His dream was féminin.
She sat on the landing dressed in blue jeans, platform shoes and a knit blouse tucked into her waistband. Yellow capped sleeves showed off her slim arms and the remnants of a summer tan. Earrings bobbed from her lobes, almost grazing her shoulders. Nathan didn’t try to hide his joy.
Véronique smiled. “It’s nice to be back.”
“You were away?”
“To a friend’s cottage.”
A friend named Gilbert? He couldn’t ask. “Did you have a good time?”
“We went swimming and fishing. He likes that.” Her finger circled the inside of an earring hoop. “Did you take a vacation this summer?”
“I only went to Toronto, for the long weekend.”
“To see your relatives?”
“Do you have a big family?”
“Just my parents and me. I had a sister.” He cleared his throat.
Véronique patted the floor.
Nathan sat beside her, glad he had no briefcase or grocery bags to maneuver. Legs awkward but hands free.
Her finger returned to the earring. “You had a sister?”
He touched his Adam’s apple. “She died.”
“Oh no. I’m so sorry.” She let go of the earring. “What happened?”
“It was a long time ago, nineteen years.” The word still stuck in his throat. “Leukemia.”
Véronique’s fingers slid to the chain around her neck. The stroking released an apple blossom scent. No cigarette odour. Had she given them up?
She pulled a cross from beneath her blouse. Her pink fingernails glittered against the silver. Some nail polish came from fish scales, Nathan had read, scraped from the creatures’ backs.
“My sister was bright, a real live wire,” he said. Unlike me. “My mother never suspected anything until Bonnie bit a corncob and lost a tooth. The bleeding wouldn’t stop.”
Véronique gripped the cross. “How horrible for her. For all of you. Fuck. Life is full of shit.”
Before he left Toronto, Nathan had visited Bonnie’s grave with his parents every Sunday. The stones beside hers had crosses. His sister’s was etched with a flower.
“My folks never got over her death,” he said. “Dad tried. He played catch with me, took me to hockey games. Even as a kid I could tell that his heart wasn’t in it.”
“What about your mother?”
“She watched me like a hawk. I understand why she’s like that, but -”
Véronique, French Canadian, would be Catholic. His mother would disapprove and be even more hostile to her nails. That glitter is not for you, she would say.
A saxophone wailed from Véronique’s apartment.
“That’s the stereo.” She jumped up. “I have to go in now.” She said good-bye and hurried to the door.
To Gilbert? Nathan wondered. The sax music continued. It sounded live, rather than a record. Was it some kind of signal?
The side hallway was empty. Since that dinner at Margaret’s, he had met Alex several times, but hadn’t seen her. Was Margaret avoiding him because of his hasty departure? He could smooth things over with a Woody Allen flick. One was playing nearby at the second run Seville theatre. He hesitated in front of Margaret’s door and knocked. No one was answered.
The next day as he climbed the stairs, Nathan hoped not to see Véronique. He wished for Alex in the hall, which was empty. When he knocked, no one came to Margaret’s door. Were they away on a trip? Day care must close by 6:00 PM. Did Margaret work evenings? If and when she did, who looked after Alex?
Nathan passed his evening with boiled chicken, mashed peas and the Friday Night Movie. Through Dr. Strangelove, his thoughts drifted to weekend plans. He would catch Margaret tomorrow morning, assuming she wasn’t on holiday, and suggest dinner and a film. If Margaret couldn’t get a sitter, they could go to a children’s movie and a restaurant Alex would like. As he crawled into bed, rustling noises in the hallway suggested Margaret’s return. He heard a child’s voice. Nathan eased into sleep.
A cry jolted him awake. He reached for his glasses and listened in the dark. The bedside clock ticked. 12:05 AM. He opened the door, saw nothing but the light wafting from the bathroom and padded down the hall. He had thought the cry had come from the direction of the living room, but it must have shot through his bedroom wall. Alex, on his cot behind it, had a bad dream.
Nathan returned to bed, recalling the recurring nightmare that had followed his sister’s death. In those dreams, he had stood beside a grassy mound. It cracked open. He peered down at a skeleton swarming with bugs. Dizzy, he started losing his balance and woke up.
He shivered under the blankets. Someone rapped his door. Margaret? Did she want help with Alex?
He put on his glasses and bathrobe. She knocked again. He tiptoed past the bathroom.
“Who is it?”
“Me.” A woman’s voice.
Nathan turned the knob. “Véronique.”
She scanned his robe. “I thought you were up. Your light was on.”
“Only the bathroom one. You can see it from your window?”
“I… I was on the fire escape.”
“In the middle of the night?”
Her black sweater hung over slacks that hugged her legs like tights. She tapped a high heeled shoe. One gold hoop bobbed against her neck. The other earlobe was bare but crusted with blood. Her crimson fingernail stroked the lobe.
“We had a fight,” she said. “He ripped the earring off.” She glanced down the hall. “He refuses to leave. It’s his place, he says. I have nowhere else …”
Margaret’s door opened. She stood in the door frame, dressed in a pink robe. No sign of Alex, who hadn’t cried. He would be peacefully asleep.
Véronique glanced from Margaret to Nathan. “I understand,” she said. “Could you loan me cab fare? I’ll pay you back.”
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Maybe my parents’ place.”
The day they had met, she mentioned her parents. “In the Gaspé?”
“Papa lives in Montréal.”
“You told me he was dead to you.”
Margaret crossed her arms. “You can stay with me.”
Véronique looked at her. Margaret’s eyes narrowed. Nathan couldn’t see Véronique’s face.
Her type has no use for guys her age.
Véronique turned to him. “Merci quand même.”
She started to leave. Nathan touched her sweater. He stepped back and let her in.