The first week of school, we dressed in our summer clothes and the teachers kept all of the windows open. An easygoing feeling prevailed thanks to the spillover of hot August weather. We laughed easier, lunched on depanneur junk food, and went to class casually late—close enough to the bell that we avoided trouble for the most part, but long enough after its ringing to feel a slight measure of freedom, of power. While the weather had something to do with it, I think the main reason for the blithe mood was the fact that we were older, finally starting our last year of high school. On the Friday night, we capped off that first week of school by going to see Aliens.
The movie theatre was in a building unto itself in the vast parking lot of Carrefour Laval. Terry Stahl’s mom drove right up to the front entrance and, as the car idled in the fire lane, she warned Terry—and, by extension, us—not to make her wait once the movie was over. She was going shopping, but the mall would close before the end of the movie. Irritation coloured her voice. “I’m looking at twenty, maybe thirty minutes with nothing to do.”
We got out of the car and Terry’s mom drove away. We took turns parroting her last line in exaggerated, high-pitched voices.
Keith Porter was waiting for us inside; his dad had dropped him off at the movie theatre, straight from Keith’s swim team practice. Keith had his learner’s permit and he was excited to announce he’d done the driving. “Eleven kilometres,” he reported. “Mostly autoroute.”
Of all the people I knew, only Keith would have noted the distance of the drive. We really gave it to him for that.
It was dark by the time we went back outside after the movie. There was a line of cars in the fire lane with their headlights on. We found Terry’s mom and the guys started climbing into the car. I was still out on the sidewalk when we realized there wasn’t room for everyone. Keith’s presence hadn’t been accounted for. He ducked his head to speak through the passenger-side window. “I’ll call my dad.”
“I can’t just leave you alone,” Terry’s mom said.
“I could stay with him,” I volunteered.
“Do you need a quarter?”
After Keith got off the payphone he looked at his watch. “We’ve got half an hour. Let’s explore.”
I could not imagine saying something like let’s explore. Especially to someone my own age. I was too careful, too guarded, to expose myself to the ridicule such a statement might prompt. Keith, however, had no filter for corny, enthusiastic statements. We teased him for it, called him The Cheese Factory, but he never acted like it bothered him. Comfort in his own skin was Keith’s greatest strength. I could never tell him, but I envied him for that.
I let let’s explore pass without comment. Being alone with Keith, what would have been the point?
With the mall closed for the night, we headed for the Sheraton, which was also located in the parking lot, a few steps from the theatre. A pair of automatic glass doors opened to a brightly lit hotel lobby of leather couches, chairs, and plastic plants. A wide, dark red carpet led to the front desk. Off to one side was a stand that sold snacks, postcards, and other small items. There was a wide jar filled with cigars, each individually wrapped in transparent plastic. A round orange sticker on the jar said 50 cents. I was a quarter short but Keith covered me.
We took our cigars outside. Keith unwrapped his and wedged it in the corner of his mouth. He flashed me the resulting open-mouth smile. We walked to the edge of the parking lot, where the concrete gave way to weedy grass. A short slope led down to a long chain-link fence that separated the parking lot from the autoroute. On the other side, cars and trucks sped north and south. It felt like we were hidden away—too low down in the grade to be seen from the parking lot, too insignificant to be noticed by anyone passing by on the autoroute. It was still warm out. We lit the cigars. I inhaled little gulps of smoke. It was pungent and I coughed a little and I felt buzzed.
Keith took short drags on his cigar, making kissing sounds. His ember flashed red like the taillights on the other side of the fence.
“Do you remember that gum I swallowed on my ninth birthday?”
I had been friends with Keith since kindergarten. I had probably gone to all of his birthday parties when we were in elementary school. One year there was a round cake with white icing, decorated with red gumballs in the shape of the number nine. The dye from the gumballs had seeped into the icing, forming little puddles of pink. After blowing out his candles, Keith had plucked one of the gumballs from the cake and popped it into his mouth. His mother was cutting pieces of cake and passing them around the table on paper plates. Keith announced he was going to swallow his gum. His mother asked him if he had shit in his brain—Mrs. Porter was the funniest; she swore unapologetically in front of kids. A chorus of laughter erupted all around the table. Keith bobbed his head like a chicken and swallowed.
I told him I remembered the gum. “What about it?”
Keith flicked cigar ash onto the grass. “Seven years is nearly up. My birthday’s in two weeks. It’s almost out of my system now.”
I smiled, recalling the rest—really the beginning—of the story. Not long before Keith’s ninth birthday party, at school, a kid named Patrick Lamontagne had been caught chewing gum in class. Patrick was a year older than the rest of us because he had failed a grade. He was persistently in trouble. He was once suspended a whole week for selling torn-out pages of his father’s Penthouse magazines for twenty-five cents apiece.
Mrs. Woods told Patrick to throw out his gum, but he swallowed it, claiming he’d never had any. Without missing a beat, Mrs. Woods said, “Oh, good. Because for a second there I thought you’d swallowed it. Gum takes seven years to digest, you know. It just sits there in your stomach. For seven years.”
Our teacher was trying to scare him, but Patrick had only snickered, saying, “That’s so cool.”
Keith kissed at his cigar. “It’s weird,” he said between puffs, patting his stomach, “I’m sort of, like, sad that it’s nearly all gone.”
I thought it was just a myth, that gum takes seven years to digest, and I was about to say as much, but I stopped myself. Keith had been waiting for this moment nearly half his life. I didn’t want to rob him of it.
We stomped out our cigars and walked back to the movie theatre to wait for Keith’s dad. When he arrived, he got out of the car and handed the keys to Keith. I slid into the back seat, feeling stupid for not having my own learner’s permit yet. I watched Keith prepare, meticulously, to drive. He fastened his seatbelt, adjusted the rear-view mirror, checked the side mirrors (he announced he was doing this), started the engine, and turned the headlights on. He signalled, and the car began to move.
A couple of times before leaving the parking lot, right after stop signs, his dad said, “Try not to rev it so much.”
But Keith could drive. My envy only grew.
On the autoroute, his dad told us we smelled like cheap cigars.
“Very cheap,” Keith replied.
I saw the back of Mr. Porter’s head quiver and I heard him chuckle. I was amazed he wasn’t angry. From the glove compartment, he produced a pack of Dentyne. He held out a piece for Keith. “Your mother won’t be very happy with you if you come home smelling like that.”
Without turning around, he reached back over his shoulder with a piece for me.
“And you, Joey? I don’t suppose yours will be pleased, either.”
I took the gum and muttered a thank you. The rest of the ride was quiet. Mr. Porter must have checked the blind spot out the passenger window a hundred times between the mall and my house.
I signed myself up for a driving course that October. It started with theory classes, given once a week at the driving school in a big room with plain, white walls and grey industrial carpeting. The class was made up almost entirely of kids from school, all jammed into the one autumn session offered in English. The teacher, Vincent, could speak English well enough but he liked to tell jokes in French. Half the class would laugh politely or groan. The other half, which included me, barely understood a word.
There was a depanneur across the street from the driving school and we flocked there during the ten-minute break Vincent gave us halfway through class. Chocolate bars and chips and Cokes. Some of the kids, the rockers especially, smoked cigarettes out on the sidewalk during the break. They looked rough with their long hair, jean jackets, and Kodiak boots but I had known some of them for so long that I could recall very clearly what they had looked like two feet shorter, with bowl haircuts, wearing soccer uniforms.
Natalie St-Onge was in the driving class. She went to my high school but I only knew her enough to say hi. She had dark hair and dark eyes and a pouty bottom lip. She had a little mole on the edge of her cheekbone and, if you looked past the layer of foundation she wore, a forehead full of acne. She owned at least twenty wool sweaters, different colours and patterns. She had a job at the Burger King. I’d had a crush on Natalie St-Onge for so long it was hard to remember what it felt like to not have one.
The second week of driving class, during the break outside the depanneur, I decided to stand near Natalie. As close as I could get without being obvious. Or creepy. She was talking to a friend. I stood right next to her, but at a casual angle. My heart was beating so fast.
Natalie had a pack of Thrills. She shook out a piece. My head turned slightly toward the sound of the gum rattling inside the box. “You want one?” she offered me. “They taste like soap.”
I felt flushed. I couldn’t manage a response. I just stood there. Natalie reached out and grasped my wrist, firmly but not violently, and turned my palm upwards. She placed a piece of gum in it. I put the gum in my mouth and started to chew. I wasn’t sure what soap was supposed to taste like, but I said she was right, it tasted like soap. Her eyes widened and she smiled.
Totally weird, I replied.
The gum lost its flavour quickly but I chewed it throughout the rest of class, thinking about Natalie’s fingers, how they’d touched the gum.
After class, I swallowed it.
The next week, when we went outside on break, I caught up with Natalie again. I asked her to explain a joke Vincent had told in class.
“The one about tea?”
“It was about tea?”
“Don’t you know any French?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“You want a gum?”
When we returned to class Natalie sat in the seat next to mine.
The next day at school, while I was fishing around in my locker, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. Natalie said hi. She was wearing a baby blue turtleneck sweater. Her cheeks were tinged red. She was with two friends and they dragged her away, the three of them whispering and stifling laughter.
We started talking on the phone at night. There were a few moments of silence at first, shy pauses as we sought common ground, things to talk about. I’d clear my throat or say um to fill in some of the gaps. Natalie told me about her family—her mother, father, and an older brother. They had a specific arrangement with languages at home. Not rules, just the way things worked. With her mother and brother, she spoke English. With her father, everyone spoke French. I was quiet for a moment as I thought about this. “But what if you’re all in the same room? Do you speak English or French?”
“It depends who you’re talking to.”
“I couldn’t imagine talking to one of my parents in another language.”
“What do you mean, another language?”
I knew exactly what I meant, but I couldn’t put it into words. Not, I realized, without sounding completely idiotic.
We took turns describing our friends to each other. A lot of mine had nicknames and I told Natalie the stories behind how they had been acquired. She said The Cheese Factory was a mean name to call Keith. But she laughed as she said it.
I found out Natalie had a whole subset of friends from the French school, who worked with her at the Burger King. I asked her if it was legal for people who were not of royal descent to wear a cardboard Burger King crown. Natalie giggled. I asked her if her manager called the police whenever the Duke of Doubt showed up or if the staff removed him from the premises themselves. I asked her if the Whaler was made with the meat of actual whalers or with the meat of Hartford Whalers. Natalie laughed so loud her mother told her to get off the phone.
“See you at school tomorrow,” she said.
“Can’t wait,” I said, hoping and yet terrified she would read into my reply.
It was quiet on the other end of the line. I thought Natalie had already hung up. But then I heard her speak, quickly and nearly inaudibly.
And then the line went dead.
My father and I had a misunderstanding about driving school: I assumed he’d pay for it and he assumed he could be a dick and still command some amount of respect. When I’d signed up, I told the school I’d bring a cheque the following week. I kept making the same promise, week after week. After four weeks had gone by, Vincent was having no more of it. “You pay next time or you’re out.”
On Saturday I left the house early. I made my way on foot to the centre of town. I went into three gas stations and the McDonald’s, but it was futile. I could barely string the words together in French to ask for a job application. At the Harvey’s the manager was sympathetic, in a powerless sort of way. “If you don’t have a lot of French … ” He didn’t need to complete the thought.
The Burger King was just up the street but I was too humiliated to even try.
For a while I walked aimlessly, passing the pharmacy, the video store, the Pizza Hut, and other businesses where I could not get a job. I had always been terrible in French at school. I could conjugate verbs but I didn’t know what half of them meant. Madame Tessier, my Grade 9 French teacher, told me I’d never learn the language. She said I was bloqué. It was like a licence to fail. And, thanks to my laziness, it was the only license I’d have for the foreseeable future.
Outside the hardware store, a familiar car slowed and came to a stop beside me. Two short bursts of the horn drew me closer. Keith was at the wheel of his father’s car, alone. I got in.
“You got your licence.”
I tried to sound happy for him.
“Let’s drive,” Keith said. His voice was baritone, like he was delivering a big line in a movie. Like he’d been waiting forever to say this to someone. Cheese Factory.
Keith made his way to the autoroute and we headed north. I asked where we were going.
We drove for a long time, past Mirabel and Saint-Jérôme, through Prévost. We were in the Laurentians, climbing long rises and gliding down seemingly longer inclines. The mountains rose on either side of us, conifer greens mixed with the oranges, reds, and yellows of changing leaves. The sky was a crisp, bright blue. There were but a few scattered clouds, high and white.
Keith had Rush playing on the tape deck, the Permanent Waves album. I thought how great it must be to just get in a car, put on some music, and go somewhere. Anywhere. The synthesizer parts in “Entre Nous” were so beautiful I knew that if I had been alone I’d have let myself cry.
Keith exited at Saint-Sauveur. There was a cluster of fast food restaurants and shops not far from the autoroute. Keith pulled into a parking spot near a depanneur. He turned to me. “Cigar?”
“I got it.”
We sat on the concrete parking curb in front of Keith’s dad’s car to smoke. Keith left the car windows down, the tape deck playing loud enough so we could hear. There was only a hint of chill in the air. When I’d woken up that morning I had no idea I’d be in Saint-Sauveur by noon.
It seemed like there were endless possibilities in the world and the thought made me feel a little sick in the stomach. In a good way.
“Let’s talk,” Keith said, emulating the same corny tone he’d used when he picked me up. “So. What have you done?”
After some hesitation, I said I had done everything. “With Natalie St-Onge.”
“Are you serious?”
“Tell me more.”
What Have You Done?
The strange thing was, when I told Keith what I told him, it sort of felt like I was telling the truth. Because, I was convinced, it was going to happen. Eventually. So, while one part of my mind was busy fabricating epic sexual exploits, the other was hard at work justifying the lie: my dad wouldn’t give me a penny, I couldn’t get a job, and I was on the cusp of being kicked out of driving school. I had no control. I decided I deserved something good, a little credit—and more credit than I’d have earned by providing a glowing report about what nice telephone conversations Natalie and I were having. So what if I said we’d done it twice already? What difference did it make, in the grand scheme of things, if the report of the act preceded the act?
It turned out it made a huge difference.
Monday morning at school, the first sign of trouble came courtesy of Terry Stahl. He was waiting for me at my locker. He raised his right arm in the air, offering me a high-five. He nodded his head slowly, in approval of what—at first—I did not know. I hesitated to return the gesture. My friends and I were not the high-fiving types. We often laughed behind the backs of boys who were. Terry wobbled his high-fiving hand. “Come on,” he encouraged.
I thought he was fooling around. I gave him a feeble high-five, our palms pressing awkwardly from lack of practice.
“Nice work.” Terry’s tone was salacious. He raised and dropped his eyebrows in quick succession. He made an O with one hand and stuck the forefinger of the other through it.
I felt queasy. I had asked Keith not to tell anyone. He had assured me he wouldn’t. It appeared Terry Stahl was not anyone.
Neither, apparently, was Dean Cousins. “Is it true, Joey?” he asked. Then, in a whisper, “Did you really fuck her?”
My brow felt prickly, my cheeks hot. “Look,” I said, “whatever Keith told you guys—it’s totally private.”
“I certainly hope you did it in private,” Dean purred, laughing at his own joke. Terry high-fived him.
Just then Keith arrived at the lockers.
“You told these clowns?”
“I wasn’t supposed to?”
“I told you not to tell anyone.”
“But I was happy for you.”
My mind was racing. The guys all looked confused.
The bell rang and I dug into my locker to get my books out. Someone poked me in the back, hard. I turned around. Natalie was standing there with her arms crossed, hugging a textbook to her chest. Her whole face was red. My heart sank. It was like she was trying to hide behind that book. “Did you—?” Natalie cut herself off and glanced at Terry. Then at Dean, then Keith. The looks on their faces. Like little kids with their fingers in the pie. Natalie turned to me again. Tears welled in both of her eyes. “What have you done?” Her eyes blinked in quick succession and, as she raised a hand to wipe them, she turned away.
I felt like puking.
I watched Natalie walk away from me and thought about how I would smack the guy in the head who would tell such stories about her.
The Voyage Home
During Christmas break, Keith drove a few of us to see the new Star Trek movie, The Voyage Home. When it was over, we emerged from the theatre to falling snow. On the way back to Keith’s car, we ran and slid in our boots on the new snow in the parking lot. We squabbled over who left the longest tracks.
Terry Stahl started in on a William Shatner impersonation, making a case, in Captain Kirk’s halting speech pattern, for being the most skilled parking lot slider. The other guys chimed in with Kirk imitations of their own. I had enjoyed the movie. The gloom that had been hovering over me for weeks was still there, but I allowed myself to feel a little bit giddy.
There was a white, two-door hatchback parked near Keith’s dad’s car. I noticed it because of its radio antenna. It was extremely long; longer than any antenna I’d ever seen. It extended from above the driver’s side window to just past the back of the car, drooping from its own weight. It was an obvious modification—no car came with an antenna that long. “Why,” I began, pausing like Shatner would, “does … that car … have … an antenna … the length of … a telephone pole?” The other guys looked where I was pointing and they started to laugh. Terry suggested the car’s owner was compensating for something. This elicited another rowdy chorus of laughter.
While Keith brushed the snow from his windows, I made my way over to the white car. I took the tip of the antenna in my hand and pulled down on it, feeling the resistance build. I let go. The antenna rapidly sprang back up and reverberated in cartoonish fashion. The other guys were cackling. I was pleased with myself.
From behind us somebody yelled. “Ay!”
It was a short, angry shout, like a dog bark. There were four guys our age, maybe a little older. Bigger than us anyway. Long hair, jean jackets, and Kodiaks. One of them had a moustache. They quickened their pace.
“Get in the car guys,” Keith said nervously. I dashed to his car and we all scrambled inside. I slammed the back door shut.
“Hogues,” Terry said from the front passenger seat. We called the rockers at our school rockers. We called French rockers hogues. I have no idea where the word came from, only that it allowed for distinction.
Keith gunned the engine. His tires spun in place, too fast to gain any traction. The hogues were running toward our car. Without really thinking about it, I started to roll down my window. Keith tried going forward again, slower this time. We started to move. I leaned my head and my two arms out the window and twisted myself to face the hogues as we drove away. I gave them the finger with both hands. Then I rotated my hands inward, so that both of my extended middle fingers pointed at each other. Then I pointed them both down. And up again. The rage on the hogues’ faces was discernible from a good distance.
Keith, ever the professional driver, stopped faithfully at every stop sign on the way out of the parking lot. The hogues, their long antenna bouncing atop the car, were right behind us by the time we merged onto the autoroute.
Their driver was more reckless than ours. They tailgated us. Keith’s windshield wipers swept at top speed. Our pursuers’ high beams lit up the interior of our car. Keith adjusted his rear-view to cut down on the glare. He looked nervous yet determined. He tried to trick the hogues by signalling for the Sainte-Rose Boulevard exit. He nudged toward it but at the last possible moment veered back onto the autoroute. The hogues were not fooled. They flashed their high beams on and off in mockery.
“Take them into Montclair,” I suggested. “We’ll lose them on the side streets.” I had this notion that familiarity with the territory would somehow put us at an advantage.
As we took the exit, Keith, eyeing the rear-view mirror, said, “Maybe they’ll give up.”
I could not explain why, but I found myself hoping they would not.
The hogues chased us into Montclair. Keith weaved through street after street, but he could not shake them. At one point, we passed my house. “Could you just drop me off?” I joked. Nobody laughed.
On a curve on Elmwood Street, our tires caught an icy skid. Keith fought the steering wheel but could not regain control. Elmwood turned but the car kept going straight. We left the road to a loud crunching of snow beneath us, the floor vibrating beneath our feet. The snow brought us to a sudden, jolting halt in the middle of someone’s front yard.
Two feet from the front bumper, the thick trunk of a tree, branches overhanging and bare, loomed ominously. The snow had stopped us just short of it.
Terry, in the front seat, was the first to say something. “Oh, look. They’re coming to help us.” I checked the back window. The hogues had pulled up beside the yard. They were exiting their car. Keith said to lock the doors.
The hogues beat on the roof of Keith’s car. They pounded on the windows with their fists. The one with the moustache trudged through the snow to my side of the car, pointed at me through the window and then spat on it. He began to slam the side of his body against my door.
I sat there, stomach sick with fear, unsure of what would happen next, and thought with no small amount of satisfaction that I had made all of this happen.
Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers, both from Exile Editions. He is a past winner of the 3Macs carte blanche Prize and Geist’s Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. His piece in this issue is part of a project in progress, a collection of connected short stories about the suburbs called Dreamers and Misfits of Montclair.