Mira saw a man who looked like her father across the tracks in the Lucien L’Allier metro station. He walked back and forth as if he were anxious for the train to arrive. When other passengers filtered in, filling the platform around him, the man settled down and stood still. Mira could now see that he was wearing the grey woollen coat that, this very moment, was hanging over the back of a kitchen chair in her apartment. She had taken to wearing it even indoors as the year slid toward winter and her basement apartment grew colder. He was holding the handle of an odd brown box of a suitcase Mira had never seen before. She strained to make out her father’s features. The realization that it was really him came so gradually that by the time she thought to wave and call to him, a train rumbled in. When it pulled out of the station accompanied by three low trumpet-like notes, he was gone.
It was a metro ride and then a transfer to a bus before Mira walked uphill to a brick house, its facade slick with ice. Over the phone, dinner hadn’t sounded formal, or she hadn’t paid proper attention to the address she scribbled onto an empty page in her sketchbook.
“It’ll be fun. You know, some kind of pre-Christmas thing,” Martin had laughed. “Oh, and you can get a look at the art.”
As the bus wound its way up the slippery streets and the houses became larger and more imposing, Mira began to worry. The stone houses of the moneyed were stacked up the side of the mountain that loomed in the centre of the city and teetered there, overseeing a jumble of neighbourhoods below and the flat, silver-grey river beyond them. As soon as she saw the house, Mira knew she hadn’t dressed properly.
Martin opened the door at her first tentative knock. He grinned, looking her up and down. He was wearing a pressed white shirt and black Merino pants.
Mira felt her face redden as a woman behind Martin asked, “Who is that, dear?”
“My friend Mira has come for dinner,” he said. “This is Thérèse.” He was pulling Mira forward from where she had stalled on the threshold. “My mother.”
Martin’s mother leaned on a wooden cane with a carved top. She was a wafting of Arpège perfume, an elegant sweep of dark hair. “We will have to set a place for Mira, won’t we?” Her eyes flickered over to Martin before she extended her hand for Mira to shake.
“Mira’s a painter,” Martin said.
“Well, a student. A painting student,” Mira blurted as Martin propelled her into the living room with its polished hardwood floors and red and tan Persian carpets. Heavy crimson drapes covered the windows, and soft lamps glowed under silk shades. Mira tried to absorb as much as possible of this ample, hushed house where she imagined rooms waited patiently behind other larger rooms and wide silent hallways led off in all directions. She wished she could stop the action, freeze-frame everything around her, and take her time. Linger in these expansive, generous rooms. Brick and wood, plaster and paint insulating a family. Here, there could be no waking up to neighbours’ crashing fights. No cooking smells bleeding through walls as porous as paper. Everything still and muted, but Mira was squinting hard as if a spotlight held her in its sights. And though a fire burned in the fireplace in a room to the right and a furnace hummed somewhere below, the ice cold of her hands extended all the way up her arms.
Tuneless humming in the hallway grew louder until a tall man appeared. Mira could see where Martin got his looks.
“David,” the mother took his elbow.
Mira stood with her hands dangling at her sides as Martin bounded over to his father. “I want you to meet Mira,” he said, gripping her arm hard.
The father smiled down at her and extended his hand. She felt clumsy and stupid as she shook it.
Mira stumbled through dinner. She heard herself babbling about the people in her apartment building and the on-going cockroach problem, though she had no idea how she got onto this topic. Martin laughed, the parents leaned forward to listen, and Mira knew she had to go on speaking. The exterminator had never come, she explained, and the tenants in the building had all taken to trapping cockroaches under glasses. It had become quite a sport, she said, rubbing her cold hands together.
Green and brown and purple landscapes, clumsy echoes of Tom Thompson, lined the walls behind Martin where he sat watching her from across the table. Mira was not sure where it was safest to look. The paintings were hideous. She could think of nothing to say should one of Martin’s parents ask her opinion. Two more in the same heavy, green-gold frames hung on the wall just above the father’s head at one end of the table, two above the mother’s head at the other.
Mira laid her palm on the smooth surface of the mahogany table. Mahogany? She had no idea what sort of wood mahogany actually was, only that it was a word her mother used to love to slide her mouth around when they’d take escalators to the furniture departments of stores on Friday nights. Beatrice running her hand along coffee tables and carefully settling back into sectional couches while Mira obediently stood to one side, waiting for her mother to finish.
Mira supposed there were paintings hanging behind her as well. She didn’t look. As she had been filling the vacuum of conversation at the table, and trying to avoid Martin’s face, which had some sort of strange triumph in it, the parents had been steadily drinking bottle after bottle of red wine, and looking at her like she was an animal in a zoo. Mira could only hope they would both, at some point, lower their heads to the table, and pass out as her own father had so often done. Then she could go home.
Suddenly Thérèse directed a series of shrill questions to either the father or Martin in French too rapid for Mira to follow. Martin’s answers, always in English, were barely above a lazy whisper. “I don’t know, Ma.” He looked at Mira as he spoke, smiling faintly. “Couple of weeks,” he continued. “No clue. I don’t know. Jesus, you ask. I’m getting a beer.”
Thérèse regarded Mira briefly then started in on the father, who sat with his hand clasped around his glass. He opened his eyes, and said, “Whatever you say, Thérèse,” and got up from the table. “Excuse me.” He glanced at Mira and left the room.
Before Mira could worry about what to say to the mother, Martin returned. “You guys kill me,” he said.
Mira felt numbly removed from whatever was going on in French between them. She thought again of her father on the platform of that metro station. He had nothing for her, no message, no comfort or whatever it is the dead owe the living. Mira was sure her father hadn’t seen her because he would have tried to speak with her. Or had he seen her, but couldn’t acknowledge her by speaking or even nodding his head? Perhaps death had already soaked into enough of him that even his ghost was unable to communicate. Was he still down there, riding from stop to stop, sitting on one of those hard orange seats, watching the metro doors open and close? Did he get out occasionally and walk the platforms of various stations? Was he looking for Mira? Did he remember it was her he was looking for? Or had death completely blotted her from his memory?
Mira wiped her eyes and drank the rest of her wine. She tuned to the voices of Martin and his mother, words returning like a radio station emerging from surrounding static.
Laying his knife and fork across his unfinished plate, Martin cleared his throat and declared, “One day you’ll be tossing down your dollars for one of Mira’s paintings.”
The mother jerked to attention, a glint of light from the thin white candles in the centre of the table catching the discreet silver cross around her neck. Just for a second. “Yes?” her head swivelling towards Mira.
“Oh yeah,” Martin plucked the linen napkin from his lap and flung it onto his plate. Then louder and looking at his father who had come back into the room, he continued, “She’s quite the artist, you know.”
Because she didn’t know where he was going with this, Mira kept quiet, but she acknowledged the parents’ stares by jerking her head from one side of that long table to the other. She didn’t meet Martin’s eyes. She assumed he wasn’t finished.
“One day, Maman, we’ll all be spending money on Mira.”
Martin had never said anything like this before. He had never shown much interest in the drawings and beginnings of paintings arranged around her apartment. She supposed some point was being made. That she herself was the point. Was what was being pointed at. And she supposed that Martin was using her in much the way she had been using him.
He was still talking. “We can say we knew her when.”
David folded his hands. “Isn’t that interesting, Thérèse? An artist,” he said to his wife, who sent Mira a tight little smile.
Mira blushed, then let the conversation drift around her for a few minutes before she asked where the washroom was. She didn’t think the word bathroom would be something these people would say, but Martin jerked his head toward the door. “Can’s down the hall.”
“Martin!” the mother exclaimed.
From the way Martin laughed, Mira thought this must have been a private game between them.
Mira found the bathroom all right, but took a wrong turn coming out. As it was, she stayed in there as long as she could. Meeting Martin’s parents was a mistake. Knowing anything more about Martin was a mistake. She didn’t like to think of him as connected to anything. This whole night was wrong. His parents had been staring at her like she was some kind of freak, which Martin seemed to be enjoying. Mira felt pretty freakish. She looked at herself in the mirror, trying to see what they were seeing. She splashed cold water on her face, hesitated over the plush towels. But that’s what they were there for, she reasoned, and quickly touched her hands to a towel thicker than she had ever felt. Then she flicked off the bathroom light and left.
Disoriented, Mira made a few turns and found herself in an unfamiliar hallway. She walked towards a small wall-mounted lamp, thinking it would lead her back to the dining room. When she got there, she found the light hung over a framed black and white photograph of Martin wearing a priest’s collar, which had to be some kind of joke. Mira studied the picture. Martin, somewhere outdoors with tree shadows playing over his face. Martin staring straight out from the photo, looking sad and somewhat older. The familiar thatch of black hair incongruous above the closely fitted charcoal grey jacket.
“Mira?” Thérèse was limping toward her.
“I was lost. I was trying to find my way back.” Mira looked down at her stained, white socks and then back at Martin’s mother, who had moved closer to the photograph.
“What do you think of it?” she said in a softer voice. Mira could smell the wine on her breath. Before she could answer, Thérèse continued. “You’re an artist, so I ask your opinion.”
Mira observed how Thérèse looked at the picture with tenderness. “It’s amazing. The look on the face,” Mira said. She didn’t have to lie, as she would have had to about the awful landscapes in the dining room.
Thérèse nodded and pointed at the picture. “Marie Claire made this.” When Mira didn’t react, she said, “My girl, my daughter.”
“Thérèse,” the father’s voice calling.
“Come,” she touched Mira’s arm to direct her away from the picture.
“But,” Mira said. “Who? Who is this? I mean, is it Martin?”
She blushed when Thérèse laughed sharply, then said with some bitterness, “Martin? No. It’s not. It’s Martin’s Oncle Sébastien, my brother.” Her eyes swept over Mira. A look of contempt, “Mais il est mort,” she said, and walked ahead of Mira toward her husband’s voice.
“It’s Marie Claire,” he called again. “Thérèse come to the phone.” The mother picked up speed, bumping a low table before she disappeared around a corner.
Back in the dining room, Martin slumped in his chair. He looked up at Mira and was about to speak when Thérèse burst in. “Martin,” she said, flushed. “Martin, it’s Marie-Claire. She’s coming home.”
“Tonight. She’s on the phone. Come and talk to her.”
“Later. I think I’ll just sit with Mira for a few minutes.”
When they left, Martin lowered his face into his hands and muttered, “Oh Christ. Christ.” Then he snapped up straight, pushed his hands back through his hair, and looked at Mira. “I want to fuck you.”
“I want to fuck you so bad.”
Mira felt slapped, but also riveted by his voice.
“I want to get inside those skin-tight pants of yours.”
Her face was burning. She felt herself grow wet.
“Oh yeah,” Martin said, tipping over the thick glass salt shaker, and rolling it back and forth between his palms.
Then the parents were back in the room.
“Father,” he began, still eyeing Mira, “It might interest you to know that Mira’s father is in gas.”
David looked over at Mira and smiled. “An oil and gas man, is he?”
“Gas,” giggled Martin. “As in gas station.”
The father’s gaze swung from Martin to Mira and back to Martin again.
“He used to be,” said Mira, looking down at the table, with its beautiful plates of mostly unfinished food. Her body felt enflamed with embarrassment or desire. She didn’t know which. Didn’t care.
“Martin,” David said. “Marie Claire is being released from the hospital. We are going to send a cab out to get her.”
“Yes, of course we are, David. Of course we are,” Thérèse said.
“Where he pumped gas! Where he was a friggin’ grease monkey! What about that, eh?” Martin plucked at his father’s sleeve. “Isn’t anybody listening to me?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Martin,” Thérèse said.
Martin upended his beer to his mouth, and swiped his lips with the back of his hand.
“You really should use a glass,” said his mother. Then she clasped her hands together and said, “Well, if everybody is finished eating,” her eyes darting over to Mira. “Not to rush you, but our daughter, Marie Claire, Martin’s older sister, she—”
“Enough,” snapped Martin. “Mira doesn’t want to know about any of this.”
“It’s getting late,” said Mira, glancing at her watch. “I should be going. Thank you so much for dinner.” She placed her napkin beside her plate, not sure if that’s where it should go, and vaguely worried about the knife and fork placement as well. Utensils to the left? To the right?
David’s voice, renewed and vigourous, cut into her thoughts, “Can we call you a taxi, as well?”
“No,” Martin said. “She’s fine.”
Almost at the same moment Mira chimed in, “Oh no, thank you. I can take the bus. I have a pass.” And for some absurd reason, it even seemed absurd as she did it, she dug into her pocket for her pass.
Martin scraped back his chair and jumped to his feet. “I’ll come with you.”
“Yes, of course,” said the mother, looking away.
They picked their way downhill to the stop at the end of the winding road. Mira clutched at Martin to keep from slipping. “Why did you want me there?”
His smile was mostly grimace. “My mother believes that artists should have suffering in their lives. It helps their art,” he said.
Mira kept her head down against the freezing rain that had intensified over the evening. The birches along the road looked as if they were made of blown glass.
“What do you think of my mother’s paintings?”
Mira couldn’t speak. She stood beside him at the bus stop as the rain fell and the branches of the ice-covered trees clicked together.
“Do you think my mother’s pictures show suffering?”
What was far away seemed farther. What was close, more vivid. The red brick of the houses, the iced-over parked cars, Martin’s face.
He pulled her roughly towards him and rammed his mouth against hers, jabbed his tongue into her mouth, and squeezed her arms and shoulders, hurting her. When the bus finally came, Mira was surprised that Martin got on with her. They sat without touching, Martin gripping the back of the seat ahead of them.
“This is going to change everything,” he said.
“What?” she asked, taking in the expensive-looking leather jacket he had grabbed from a front closet before ushering her out the door. The artful tangle of his dark hair. The taut set of his mouth and jaw.
“Her being on the outside.”
“Marie Claire, who else?” he asked, exasperated.
“What do you mean?”
“Look, you dumb cunt, don’t you know who Marie Claire Zorn is?”
In the days when her father would lose control and slap her around, he’d call her names too. But no matter what he had said or done, she’d never see him again. She felt the beginning of tears.
Martin made a sudden movement beside her, then clutched her hand. “Shit, Mira,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean to call you that.”
Mira was wrenched out of her reverie of her father. “You’re all alike. You think that’s the worst thing, calling us cunts. The worst thing you can think of to call us. Well, maybe we are cunts and maybe we aren’t. You think we’ll just die if you call us that. You think—”
“Mira, Mira,” he murmured close to her ear, because her voice had risen, and people on the bus were looking at them. Mira sank back in her seat, and shoved her fists into her coat pockets.
They transferred to the metro. Mira looked around the platform. Nothing. He wasn’t anywhere. Maybe she had been mistaken earlier. Maybe her father had never been in the metro at all.
“What are you looking for?” Martin asked. Mira just shook her head at him.
The dim interior of the station was a relief after that floodlit feeling of being in Martin’s parents’ house. There was no one in the metro car, and Mira closed her eyes. She felt Martin slowly rub her wrist and knuckles. She didn’t open her eyes. She was trying to recapture the sound of her father’s voice, and couldn’t manage it. Martin was rhythmically massaging her arm and shoulder and neck in a way that she couldn’t ignore. How can he do this? she thought. Make her forget everything. Now she just wanted to touch him. She wanted to open her mouth onto his open mouth. She pushed her palm into his crotch, anticipating the hard-on he’d have waiting. How it was always there for her. How it could be counted on to take her away from herself. Mira thought of the feeling of coming up for air after you’ve been under water too long. Fishing with her dad and Leo that time. They must have been drinking or not paying attention. Mira had leaned over the side of the boat and fell in. What came to her now was the shock of murky cold water and her struggle to get up toward the light. The sound of her dad calling and his arms hauling her up out of the lake. Then that first gasp of air. How grateful she had been. Hungry and grateful for the air suddenly back inside her lungs. And that’s how she felt as Martin leaned in toward her. Hungry. Grateful.
The metro stuttered to a halt and the doors slammed open. The world sped up again. Martin grasped her shoulder as they left the station. When they neared her place, he half pushed her ahead of him. She slipped. He caught her. The street was ice. The walkway in front of the building, which had never been shovelled, was rutted snow, now mounded with ice. A maple tree was down. It lay crumpled and jagged. Mira and Martin sidestepped the ice-coated branches and the buzzing live wires the tree had brought down with it. They pushed though the stinking lobby and hurried down the stairs. They rounded the corner to the sound of the newlyweds fighting, and the drone of the Shopping channel coming from Joe’s place.
“Give me your keys,” Martin was breathing heavily. He shoved her ahead of him into the dark hall that smelled of the oil painting she had started that morning. He put his arms around her and touched her face with his papery, dry hands. He led her into the living room and thrust her against a wall. She tried to push him away. Then she pulled him towards her, dragging him onto the floor. The streetlight illuminated the freezing rain as it fell at a sharp angle, the telephone lines humming and heavy with ice.
When they were finished, Mira let herself think of the paintings on the dining room walls of Martin’s parents’ house. Those attempts at landscape. She couldn’t see the point. Mira painted mostly the human figure, as if in capturing it, she could find something else. Understand something else that was there under the light and shadow. Under the flesh and bone.
She turned to Martin who was having a look around. He sat up, and studied a nearly finished canvass propped against the wall. He flipped open a sketchbook that lay on the floor. He heaved to his feet. “Gotta run. Gotta go greet the prodigal sister.” He zipped his fly then looked back before he left. “I just want to know why someone like you had to get all the fucking talent.” She heard the soft swish whisper of his lighter before he slammed the door on his way out.
He came back a moment later, sidled up to her, and whispered, “Think,” he bit her neck. “Some of those paintings were mine. What do you think of that?” He exhaled a spreading plume of smoke, and then strode out again. “Some of those paintings were mine,” he called over his shoulder. “Can you guess which ones?” This time, Martin closed the door without making a sound.
Mira watched the storm for a while. Then, not knowing why she was doing it, she went into the bedroom and unpacked her father’s clothes. She laid them on the bed and on the floor around the bed. She crouched beside each arrangement of shirt and jacket, sweater and pants, T-shirt and shorts, and made detailed sketches with pencil crayons. She drew until she ran out of pages, and had to make the last drawing on the hard inside back cover of her sketchbook. It was of the sleeve of one of her father’s white shirts, threaded with an old blue and gold cufflink she had found in the top drawer of his dresser when she went through his things after the funeral.
Mira kept anything that had come into contact with him those last months. Her father’s sheets and blankets. His clothes. And she had kept his shoes. They had the imprint of his feet still inside them. She lined them up under the kitchen counter where the ant infestation had been.
Mira pulled on her father’s grey coat and moved back to her bed where she curled up, and cried herself to sleep.
Distant voices pulled Mira upwards through the sludge of sleep. She opened her eyes. The newlyweds were at it again. She heard banging, then a thudding that she took for something being repeatedly kicked. More thudding. Glass breaking. Mira rolled over onto her side. She could hear her neighbour Joe through the wall.
Mira fumbled with the chain on her door. Joe was standing inside his own open doorway, languidly smoking and grinning at her.
“Seems those fun loving kids are at it again.” He held out his pack of Player’s Light. Mira was reaching for a cigarette when there was a series of crashes followed by wordless screaming. The sound closer. Out in the hall.
Joe laughed, “This I’ve got to see.” Mira looked away. He rolled his eyes, “Oh, come on, you’ve got to get your entertainment somewhere.”
Mira shrugged and followed him. Satinder, the landlady, and one of her brothers swung down the hall just ahead of them, muttering to each other.
The door yawned opened. The newlyweds, nearly naked, scuffled out into the hallway. The woman was scratching and slapping at her husband, both of them in their underwear. He was laughing at her as he stumbled, trying to dodge her clumsy swings. He slammed her against the door frame, then they grappled unsteadily until they both went down.
“Stop it!” shrieked Satinder. “Stop it, now! I’ve already called the police.”
The newlyweds looked up, surprised to have an audience. “Vic,” said the woman in something like a normal voice. “Get up.”
Vic stood in front of her as if to shield her. “What the fuck do you people want?”
“You know, some people are trying to get to sleep around here.” Joe blew smoke rings up toward the flickering florescent light that was throwing the scene into lurid purple shadow.
Mira looked at the newlyweds and thought of Masaccio’s The Expulsion from Eden. The crouched, despairing bodies of Adam and Eve, suddenly shamed. Suddenly exposed in the basement of this roach-infested building, in the dead centre of this frozen-solid winter city.
“Shut up, you goddamn faggot!” The woman peered out from behind Vic’s shoulder.
“Touché, little pussy cat,” cooed Joe.
She made to lunge for Joe, when the tread of heavy boots sounded overhead. “Fuck, Vic, it’s the cops,” she yelped, dragging him back into their apartment and slamming the door.
Joe laughed and linked his arm through Mira’s. “Some fun that was, eh?”
When they came to her door, she touched the sleeve of his sweater. “Thanks, Joe,” she said, and headed back to her own apartment.
Once inside, Mira lit what remained of her stubby white kitchen candle, and placed it on a corner ledge of the bathtub. The noise of the newlyweds had died away after the police arrived. The basement was silent except for the rumbling of the water filling the tub, punctuated by the far-away crashing of ice-encrusted trees collapsing under their own weight. Mira eased into the hot water. She stretched out and looked down at herself. She thought of Martin. If any of those clumsy pictures hanging in his parent’s dining room really were his, no wonder he was so furious. But she sighed at the memory of his hands on her. Nothing clumsy there. She slid farther down in the tub, and looked at a bruise on her thigh. Being with Martin was a kind of bruise. A bruising in her life. It was right that Martin was bruising. Or something sharper. More jagged. Something raging with heat and fury.
Mira filled a white enamel jug with water, hot as she could stand it, and poured it over her head. She scrubbed at her hair, and rubbed her skin all over with Ivory soap. Then she lay back in the water, and watched the yellow fluttering of the candlelight play over her body. She looked up at the black square of the bathroom window, slowly thickening with ice. My father is dead, she thought.
Su Croll’s “Pentecost” is from a work-in-progress called Image Hungry, other excerpts of which have appeared in subTerrain, Notebook Magazine and Descant (forthcoming). Her first book, Worlda Mirth, was the winner of the Kalamalka New Writers Competition and was short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Award. Her second book, Blood Mother, was short-listed for Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the Canadian Authors Association Poetry Prize. She lives in Edmonton with her husband and children where she teaches English as a Second Language at an Immigrant Settlement Agency.