I don’t live in Montreal anymore, but I have friends that do. One of these friends called the other night. “Hey Tommy, it’s Charles,” he said. I hadn’t heard from Charles since I left Montreal two years ago. We worked together at an advertising agency down on René Leveque Blvd. He had news about my old partner, Derek.
Derek was sick, and Charles wanted me to come down and see him. That in itself surprised me. Before I left, Derek’s wife, Maggie, said they never wanted to see me again. “Just go away,” she’d said, and that’s exactly what I did. I moved to Toronto, got a job, hoping all this would pass. People do crazy things. We weren’t the first. Maggie should have known that before she married Derek in the first place.
I sent them a Christmas card last year, figuring enough time had passed. Charles said it might not have been forwarded. They weren’t at their old address anymore. They’d packed up the twins, the dogs, and moved down to her parents’ place in the townships. Charles said Derek hadn’t worked in a long time. No agency would touch him after what we did. Then, last December, Derek found out he had Lou Gehrig’s. It was probably around the time I sent the Christmas card.
Charles and I talked for about an hour, mostly about what was happening with Derek. They put him in Maggie’s old bedroom. She’s been staying home, taking care of him. For some reason, I started thinking about the last time I called Derek. It was just before I left Montreal. I wanted to tell him I was going. Maggie answered and I just sat there. I couldn’t think of anything to say. “I know it’s you!” she yelled. One of the twins was crying in the background. I hung up and poured myself a drink.
I didn’t blame her — or the agency, for that matter. Firing us was the smartest thing they did. We weren’t done, though. We got drunk, then went back to the office and trashed the place. I left Derek pulling over a filing cabinet. He wouldn’t stop. Someone called the police and Derek was arrested.
Maggie said I deserted him. She said other things, too. He wouldn’t have done any of those things if I hadn’t encouraged him. We encouraged each other. I didn’t say that, though. I didn’t get the chance. She told me to leave them alone. “Disappear,” she said.
I left Montreal a few weeks later. That’s the last I heard until Charles called.
“He’d like to see you, Tommy,” Charles said.
What could I say? My friend was sick. “I’ll be there,” I told him.
I took the train down the following morning. It rained all the way. Everything was turning green, like any spring day. I used to like spring, the grass growing, the birds in the trees. Now the whole world looked sad. Maybe it’s because Charles sounded so sad on the phone. Nothing looked promising, in other words.
Anyway, I got down there, checked into a hotel, and met Charles at a bar on Rue Bishop. He was still the same old Charles, tweed suit, hair down over one eye. Charles was our account guy. He used to say, “How are my two lovelies today?”
We’d be working away, me writing copy, Derek doing layouts. Some days Derek’s hands shook. It all depended on the night before, what we considered reasonable behaviour, or slightly over the edge.
“I’d appreciate your presence this noon hour,” Charles would say when he came into our office. “Preferably with a wonderful campaign in hand. What say you, lads? A little work for once?”
Charles and I talked a bit about that, the crazy days, him hoping we’d put work before pleasure, as he used to say. “It wasn’t easy keeping you two majesties in line.” Then he handed me his car keys. He wouldn’t be going with me tomorrow. “They just want to see you,” he said. “No accounting for taste.”
Later, sitting in my hotel room, I wondered about that. I’d asked Charles the same thing at the bar, but he only shrugged. He knew I was thinking about Maggie. “She’s a changed woman, Tommy,” he said.
I couldn’t imagine Maggie changing. Not the Maggie I knew. She hated Derek being in advertising. She hated the way we acted like children. Our trashing the office showed how far we were willing to go. We got what we deserved.
The next day, I find Charles’s Volvo in the parking lot across the street. I didn’t get up until after eleven. Charles said early afternoon would be fine. I start south, following directions Charles drew on a napkin. Along the road, I see fields being plowed, gulls doing lazy circles in the sky. Off the main highway, there’s a flower stand. Charles suggested I buy some for Maggie.
“A token gesture, Tommy,” he said.
So I bought some tulips. I didn’t know if Maggie liked tulips or not. I put them in the back seat and carry on down the road to a dusty lane. Through the trees, I can see a house with a Widow’s Walk, a barn, a silo right next to it.
In front of the house, I see children’s toys on the lawn. Below that is a vegetable garden. Two Golden Retrievers come running around the side of the house. The screen door opens. Maggie comes out wearing a man’s work shirt. Her hair is up except for a few loose strands. She looks the same, big-eyed, pointed chin.
“Any trouble finding the place?” she asks, picking up a kid’s plastic pail and shaking out the sand. “Some people drive right by.”
“Charles drew me a map,” I say. “Where are the twins?”
“With my parents, shopping,” she says. She puts the pail on the porch railing. “Come in,” she says, pushing the dogs back as we go inside.
I bring the tulips, handing them to her in the hall. “Thanks,” she says, leaving them on a sideboard. “I’ll put them in water as soon as I get you two settled.”
She takes me through the foyer and up the stairs. At the end of the hall, I see a room with big windows. They’re open. A breeze blows the curtains back.
Derek’s on the bed with some kind of knitted blanket over him. I don’t know how to describe him. He’s got this expression, sort of like a look of wonder. There’s a smell in the room, too. I realize it’s baby soap.
“Guess who’s here,” Maggie says to him. “Remember this guy?”
Derek makes a rattling sound in his throat. He flops his hand on the bed.
“He’s a bit cranky this morning,” Maggie says. “Go say hello, Tommy. You remember Tommy, don’t you, sweetie?”
Derek makes another rattling sound in his throat.
“Hey, Derek,” I say. “Long time no see.”
I look around the room. On the dresser, there’s a television, a VCR, a stack of videos. Most of the sleeves look like children’s movies. I imagine Derek watching them with the twins. Maggie sees me staring at the videos.
“This is his favourite,” she says, picking up E.T. “I don’t know why he loves it so much. If you run out of things to talk about, turn this on.”
She picks up some used Kleenex and puts them in the wastepaper basket.
“Can you stay for supper?”
“I should get back,” I say. “I’ve got Charles’s car.”
“Okay,” she says. “I’ll leave you guys to it, then. Call if you need anything. I’ll be in the garden.”
She disappears down the stairs, every sound echoing. I hear the screen door slam. I glance outside. Maggie is walking across the lawn, putting on work gloves.
Derek’s eyes follow me the whole time.
“Maggie looks good,” I say.
Derek’s eyes flutter and his hand flops.
“You want some water or something?” I ask.
He just keeps staring.
I pick up Derek’s glass and go to the washroom. I fill the glass and bring it back. Out the window, I see Maggie digging in the garden. Every so often, she wipes her forehead with her sleeve and looks up. I pull back and move over to the bed.
“Charles tells me you’re settling in okay,” I say, sitting down at the end. “We got together last night at Grumpy’s. Remember Grumpy’s?”
His eyes flutter, his hand flops. I don’t know if that means anything or not.
I get up, sit down, get up again. I can’t stop moving.
“I’m freelancing now,” I say. “Feast or famine, right?”
I get up and lean against the window frame. The dogs are barking off in the woods, running back on the lawn, then disappearing again. Down past the garden is an arbor falling over and a swing set with a broken chain. I watch the trees, a few birds flying around. I go over to the TV and pick up the E.T. video.
“Maggie says you like this,” I say. “I’ve never seen it. Spielberg’s okay, I guess. Jaws was a bit much. Thought you’d be more into Martin Scorsese.”
Derek just stares at me.
I put the video in the machine, turn it on, then sit on the bed.
The credits come up with this big moon. A bicycle goes across it, one figure pedaling, one in the front basket. Derek’s chest is going up and down. We watch the movie. Towards the end, a soft rattle comes out of his mouth. Then his eyes close.
I turn off the television, put the cassette back in its box, then go downstairs.
Maggie looks up when she hears the screen door. She shades her eyes with one hand. The dogs run over and wiggle around me. “What’s Derek doing?” she asks.
“He’s asleep. We were watching the movie.”
“Did you talk at least?”
“I tried,” I say. “Is it okay to leave him alone?”
“I’ll go check on him in a minute.” She takes off her gloves. “You’ve lost weight, Tommy. Charles tells me you’re not working.”
“Freelancing’s been slow.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“What about you? How are you doing?”
“Not great, obviously,” she said. “Charles offered us some money last week.”
“Did you take it?”
“I wish I had now. Derek needs a machine to clear his lungs.”
“I didn’t know, Maggie. I’m sorry.”
“That on top of everything else.”
“My parents are old, Tommy. This is a lot for them.”
“I can imagine.”
“The garden was my idea. I thought I could grow our own food.”
“Can I do anything to help? Out here, I mean.”
“You’re not exactly dressed for it.”
“I’m okay. What can I do?”
Maggie looks across the lawn.
“There’s some bags of manure behind the barn. You can bring those down. Dad shouldn’t be lifting heavy stuff anymore.”
“Where do you want the bags?”
“Here’s fine,” she says. “Are you sure you can’t stay for dinner?”
“I should get back.”
“You’ll come in and say goodbye, I hope.”
“Sure, I’ll say goodbye before I leave.”
Maggie starts up towards the house.
“Call the dogs, Tommy,” she says. “I don’t want them jumping on Derek.”
I call the dogs and they follow me around the barn. I find the manure bags stacked up next to a bunch of old tires. There’s a rusty wheelbarrow turned upside down. I take six bags down to the garden, then six more. The sun’s just above the trees. I sit down on a stack of tires. I hear a car coming up the lane. The engine stops; a door slams. I look around and see the dogs wiggling around the car. Maggie’s parents get out, then the twins. I lean back, close my eyes. The sun feels good.
After a few minutes, I hear someone coming.
“Got yourself a perch,” I hear a man’s voice say.
I open my eyes and see Maggie’s father standing there. He’s wearing old work pants and a white shirt. His hands are dark brown up to the wrists, then almost white beyond that. Same below the neckline of his shirt. He’s got these light gray eyes. He comes right up with them twinkling away.
“I’m Howard,” he says. “Maggie’s got you doing manure duty, eh? Hear you can’t stay for supper. I could have used some male conversation.”
“I’m taking a train back to Toronto tonight,” I say.
“They got roast beef on that train of yours?” he asks. “Maggie’s mom makes a pretty good roast. I think we could feed you and still get you on that train.”
“I don’t want to be a bother,” I say.
“No bother,” he smiles. “Maggie’s bringing Derek downstairs now. He roped you into watching that alien flick? Aliens eating our chocolate bars. Maybe we’ll hash out this alien thing over dinner.”
“I’ll just finish up here,” I say.
“No hurry,” he says. “We’re not on any schedule.”
Everyone’s putting stuff on the table when I come into the house. Derek’s at the end, Maggie next to him. The twins are between their grandparents. I wash my hands in the washroom and sit down across from Derek. They start passing me plates of roast beef, potatoes, and green beans. The kids are quiet while we eat. Then Derek gets fidgety.
“He’s tired,” Maggie says. “Time for bed, sweetie?” He grunts and she puts down her napkin. “Help me take him upstairs, Tommy,” she says.
I get Derek under one arm, and Maggie gets the other.
Upstairs in the bedroom, we talk. Maggie and me, anyway. Derek’s eyes seem to wander around, a look of wonder still on his face.
“He likes listening,” she says. “His mind’s still sharp, isn’t it, sweetie?”
Derek grunts, and Maggie puts her arm around his neck.
“You should come back in the summer,” Maggie says. “We’ll have vegetables by then. Won’t we, sweetie?” she says to Derek. “You like tomatoes, don’t you?”
“How often does Charles come down?” I ask.
“Every weekend. He’s been a rock for us, Tommy.”
“That must help a lot.”
“It does, actually. More than we realized.”
I watch them sitting there. I feel like I’m intruding on something. I don’t know what. Maggie seems to understand. She thanks me again for coming down.
“I should go thank your mother for the dinner,” I say.
“She’d appreciate that,” Maggie says. “I’ll be down in a minute. Tommy’s going, sweetie. Can you say goodbye to him?”
He flops his hand on the bed.
“Bye, Derek,” I say.
I thank Maggie’s mother for dinner, say goodbye to the twins, then go out on the porch. Howard’s there unwrapping a cigar. “You’re off?” he says, sticking the cigar in his mouth. “You want one of these?” he says. “Better than pot.”
“I’ll have a cigarette,” I say.
Howard’s staring at the sky, looking at the stars. “Neighbour down the road has a big telescope,” he says. “Showed me Pluto once. You ever seen Pluto?”
“In a photo.”
“Hell of a way off. Millions of miles. Whole galaxies beyond that. Maybe whole civilizations. Hope they don’t all want our chocolate bars.”
He winks and puffs on his cigar.
“Where’s Pluto?” I say.
“Out that way,” he says, pointing with his cigar. “Beyond Jupiter. That’s the big star over there. Not sure about the rest. Ned — my neighbour — he’s the astronomer, not me.”
I get down off the porch and walk across the lawn.
“Pluto’s over there?” I say.
“Believe so,” Howard replies.
The screen door opens, and Maggie comes out on the porch. She stands next to her father with her arm around his waist. “What are you doing, Tommy?” she asks.
“He’s trying to find Pluto,” Howard says.
“You won’t see it from here,” she says.
Howard puffs on his cigar.
“Don’t let her put you off, son.”
I walk further out on the lawn.
“I should get Ned up here with his telescope,” Howard says.
I look back and see the glow of Howard’s cigar. He clears his throat and says something to Maggie. I look up at the light in Derek’s room, the shadows moving across the curtains. Maggie’s mom must be up there with the twins. Maggie goes back inside. It’s just Howard and me standing there.
“Want a cup of coffee before you go?” he says. “You’ve got time.”
I look up at the sky again.
“Pluto isn’t going anywhere,” he says.
“Sure, coffee sounds good,” I reply.
We go back inside, and Howard pours coffee. I don’t remember what we talked about. Pluto, probably. On my way out to the highway, I’m still looking up at the sky. I’ll look again on the train. Like Howard said, Pluto isn’t going anywhere. I can look for it all the way home.