A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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As night falls the February blizzard slips through the streets and avenues, to Montreal’s outlying districts, to Pierrefonds and the last line of houses on Pierre Lauzon, where the backyards give way to the eastern woods. Some hours later, after midnight, the boy, Kevin Bourque, wakes sweaty in his bed as the snow ticks against the window of his room. He has a fever, one that will last as long as this three-day storm, and he’s lightheaded, can’t make sense of the cracking, splitting sound of the wind through the woods behind the house. Out of bed, he stands at the window and shifts from foot to foot on the cold, bare floor. His breath is there on the glass, puff by puff, and he wipes a smudge of it away with the sleeve of his pajamas, sees the general darkness of the woods, then, as his eyes adjust, a riot of movement, the trees buffeted by gales of snow. (He’ll see, the day after the storm, the litter of fallen limbs on the floor of the woods, and their neighbor, a man he’s supposed to address as Uncle Freddy, will tell him to call them widow makers. “Like your father,” the neighbor will say and then spit in the snow.)
In the hallway outside his room, Kevin sees that his sister Sylvie’s door is closed, and down the stairs he can hear the murmur of his father’s radio. His mother works for the Canadian National Railway and is away at a conference in Toronto, and his father is restless, though he seems to spend more and more nights with the radio and the sofa even when she’s home. At the top of the stairs Kevin’s feet are numb, and the wood banister is so cold he can’t help but touch it out of curiosity; he’s never felt a bite like it indoors — not so much a quality of temperature but an unusual hardness. The banister holds his attention until he can’t recognize it for the thing it is anymore — the wood, the brass brackets, the slope of it down the dozen steps to the living room — and he wonders if he’s still dreaming, and at that moment the fever shivers him.
Downstairs his father is asleep on the sofa. The portable radio, a Zenith, is on the coffee table, its snakelike cord disappearing behind the sofa, and it’s tuned to a Montreal station Kevin still doesn’t quite understand because although he covets French, the secret language his father uses only with him, he cannot comprehend it spoken by another voice. His mother is Irish Canadian, speaks only English. So does Kevin’s sister, whom his father has never brought into their whispered world; Sylvie is ten to Kevin’s four, and she’s like a small adult, humorless, poised, wary. The yellow light from the Zenith’s dial flickers onto the coffee table, the sofa, and when Kevin touches the top of the radio the plastic is warm. Heat, now that he feels it in the frigid room, is suddenly the odd condition, and he shivers again, startled by this reversal of hot and cold, the simple right and wrong of things. He sits on the coffee table, his hand still on the radio, and watches his sleeping father: the angle of his bent legs under the afghan, his hand and wrist in the sleeve of his robe that’s soft and thick as towels; the robe is open at the neck, and Kevin can see the rise and fall of his father’s breathing, the slow rhythm of sleep in the weak shadows caused by the Zenith’s light. He places his hand on his father’s chest, in the V of the open robe, and he remembers the moment he could no longer touch his mother like this. (No, she told him a month ago on a Saturday night. She wore a black strapless evening gown as she and his father dressed in their room, and she removed his hand, a small fist of sudden anger that she opened finger by finger until he laughed and she tickled his palm with one of her fingernails; then she called out and handed him to the baby sitter. He’ll carry this confusion of sensuality and sexuality with him all his life, and he will always love a woman who will let him rest his hand there.)
Now, in the dim light from the radio, his father blinks, wakes, looks at him for an instant as if he doesn’t recognize his own boy, as if he might choose not to recognize him, and in the hesitation Kevin feels a stir of loneliness that’s foreign to him.
His father quietly asks what’s wrong — “Ç’à va pas bien?” — and props himself up on an elbow. He brushes the hair from Kevin’s eyes and touches his forehead, feels he’s sweating, draws him in and under the afghan.
“Fièvre,” he says, and he seems more troubled by the fever than Kevin is.
The sofa cushion is rough but doesn’t itch like the wool afghan does, and his father’s smell is inseparable from his ovenlike warmth. Behind his father’s breathing and the voices from the radio, Kevin hears the ticking of the brass ship’s clock in the tile hallway by the front door, and coming from the kitchen the sudden stop of the refrigerator; not the normal, regulated pause in its duties, but an abrupt end to its routine whirring. The radio is gone too, the room black without the dial light.
Kevin’s father squeezes him tighter. “Le pouvoir!” he whispers excitedly.
Yes, the power is gone — Kevin can feel it missing from the rug, the curtains, the sofa, the hardwood floors — but the glee in his father’s voice is somehow false and bothers him. (He’s too young to put a name to what he hears: his father is afraid.)
He sleeps then, and he dreams of soft pulsing shapes that match the fever’s throb. The shapes drift and float in a thick liquid that threatens to drown him; he feels it fill his nose and line his throat. When he wakes his nose has run, and the liquid, globbed on the sofa cushion, steams hot as something cooked.
His father has left him but reappears with two pills on a small white plate — but they aren’t pills; they’re cough drops, the lozenges his father likes to pretend aren’t really just candy. Kevin’s mother, if she were there, would ask him if he was a big enough boy for adult medicine, the bottle of Bayer, one white and chalky tablet of it. When his father offers the plate, the cough drops, Kevin shakes his head no.
“Je ne te blâme pas.” His father doesn’t blame him for wanting real medicine, but he simply cannot find the aspirin. “Ta mère” — he sighs, sits on the coffee table, puts the plate on the arm of the sofa — “tout probable qu’elle a les aspirin à Toronto.”
Kevin knows the aspirin isn’t in Toronto, that the bottle is in his mother’s nightstand, but he doesn’t want his father to be wrong, so he stays quiet.
The clock in the hallway ticks, tocks, and his father reaches, squeezes Kevin’s hand and smiles, wipes the snot from the sofa cushion with a used tissue from the pocket of his robe.
Insistent, the fever takes Kevin and lolls him back toward sleep. As he drifts he sees the shape of his father sitting on the coffee table, and this familiar shape becomes a stranger Kevin cannot recognize. (His father is a thirty-year-old man with two children in a freezing house and a wife who will no longer tolerate him, no longer ignore what he is. Last Friday, in the grocery, Kevin heard two women behind them in line whisper, “Sinatra.” They were looking at his father, the curl of hair fallen across his forehead, but his father did not see the women; he was fixated on the boy bagging their groceries, and Kevin thought that the boy must’ve been stealing from them.)
“Je ne te blâme pas,” his father repeats from somewhere far away, and then Kevin hears him blow his nose.
The next morning, the second day of the blizzard, Kevin wakes on the sofa in the arms of his sleeping father. Sylvie is standing at the picture window that looks out onto the street; she has her wool coat on over her pajamas and her auburn hair is wild from sleep. Sylvie has boyfriends who call her on the telephone; once, just after she hung up, Kevin overheard their mother tell her, “You can never be too picky.” Now, at the window, Sylvie beckons Kevin with a finger she curls like a snail. He slips out of his father’s arms and trembles when his feet touch the icy floor. At the window, Sylvie pulls him in front of her and wraps him in her coat. The municipal snowplow is mired in a drift of snow, black smoke rising in curls from its engine. The road behind the plow is temporarily clear, and the lazy snowfall from the relaxed storm has not yet erased the footsteps of the driver.
“There,” Sylvie says, tapping her finger against the window. Down the trail of footsteps in the cleared street the hunched figure of the driver moves slowly away, then vanishes, absorbed into the snowy distance. At the instant the driver is gone, Kevin’s head swims with fever, and he has to lean against his sister.
Their father is up, and when he sees the cleared street he says, “Shouldn’t we go to the store?”
Sylvie sighs, fidgets. “I’ll stay and watch Kev.”
“I don’t think you two should be left alone,” their father says and heads upstairs.
“He’s afraid of going by himself,” Sylvie tells Kevin.
Soon they’re out on the icy street, walking stiff-legged in layers of wool undergarments, snow pants, sweaters with reindeer knit into them, parkas, gloves. The snowdrifts rise on either side of the road like small hills, and the houses, half hidden by the drifts and released from the strict divisions of their yards, seem to have been dropped randomly into the white landscape. The neighborhood is blank, so quiet that Kevin has to make himself believe there are people inside the houses, and he wonders if they will ever come out again. The ski mask that he wears makes his face sweat, though he shivers more and more with each step, and he finally slips on a patch of ice and his father carries him. He buries his face against his father’s neck, and the blown white landscape becomes a place made manageable by a parent’s care. His father tells Sylvie that he once skied to this same store for milk when she was a baby. If Kevin breathes hard through his mouth — his nose is plugged tight, feels enormous — his lungs ache in a way he almost likes. Then they’re under the corner store’s torn canvas awning, next to a newspaper rack and a Coca-Cola machine coated with ice; Kevin grabs hold when his father tries to put him down.
His father laughs and eases him free, whispers in his ear, “Est-ce que je pourrais toujours te porter?” Kevin nods; he does wish his father would carry him always.
Their father leads them into the store, a bell tinkling as the door opens and shuts. The outside light comes weakly through the ad-covered windows — tomatoes, three cents a pound; Labatt’s Lager, twenty-five cents a quart — and falls gray on the cash register counter. The store owner, an unshaven man in a dirty Mackinaw, stands at the register with his arms crossed. When Kevin has been here before, the store has always been brightly lit by lights in dish-shaped metal shades that hang from the ceiling. But now those same fixtures seep darkness down onto the wood shelves and the linoleum floor, and the store owner follows them into the aisles with a flashlight. The shelves have been picked clean: a remaining bottle of salad dressing, a carton of Hi-Ho’s, a torn bag of rotten and sprout-eyed potatoes, the root tendrils pale and wormlike in the beam of the flashlight. Kevin turns and, sickened by the potatoes, grabs at Sylvie’s coat.
“Your neighbors, eh?” the store owner says. “They’ve bought me out.”
“Do you have any medicine?” Kevin’s father asks.
They follow the man’s shape, the quick beam of the flashlight, to another aisle, a shelf bare except for a tin of Band-Aids, a cellophane-wrapped box of Q-tips.
“Aspirin?” Kevin’s father says.
The store owner laughs, and when Sylvie steps away, moves toward another aisle, he catches her with the flashlight, says, “Stay.”
Kevin puts his hand into the beam of light, taken by how it has stopped and contained his sister. (He is unaware that this man is following them because he knows who Kevin’s father is, what he is, that a rumor has spread. “That poor Bourque woman and her queer,” they say, letting the word hang in the air; then they shake their heads with false concern for the ruined children. Kevin has not learned that there are people like this unimportant store owner, who will recognize someone in trouble and do what they can to make things worse.)
Sylvie finds three blue boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese, cradles them in her arms like babies, her mittens hanging from the sleeves of her coat by a yarn keeper. Behind a bag of charcoal briquettes, their father finds and dusts off some cans of condensed milk. Back at the counter he takes a twenty-dollar bill from the pocket of his parka, but the store owner shakes his head.
“Exact change only,” the man says, gesturing at the cash register, though surely it is not empty.
Kevin’s father stares at the man. “Why?” he says, softly and hurt, and Kevin feels how large the question becomes in the dark store.
The store owner shrugs. With the flat of his arm he sweeps the macaroni and milk to the side of the counter. “You come back, eh? After the storm.”
Sylvie pulls on their father’s parka. “Toys,” she says.
The toy shelf is full: dolls and trucks, hockey sticks and footballs, puzzles and games. The sudden richness of goods makes Kevin dizzy, and he closes his hands tight, afraid that if he reaches to touch there will be nothing there but the bag of frightful potatoes. The store owner flicks the flashlight’s beam past Barbies and checkerboards, Monopoly, Scrabble, then stuffed animals — a puppy, a hippo, two small velvet clowns with painted wooden heads and matchstick hands.
“That’s what I want,” Sylvie says, taking one of the clowns, its body halved in orange and red velvet.
The man draws the light across the dark shelves of trucks and skates. “How about a ball for the boy, eh?” he says, spotlighting a yellow rubber ball.
Their father turns their mother’s Irish lilt on the store owner and says, “And what would he do with a ball in this kind of weather?”
“Pick something,” Sylvie says to Kevin between her teeth.
Kevin passes an air rifle, a dartboard, then comes back and takes the other clown off the shelf, this one black and red. The clown’s body isn’t stuffed; the velvet is loose with a wire skeleton inside, and Kevin is confused — toys aren’t supposed to be hollow.
“You want one like your sister’s?” his father asks.
The store owner gives off a short rude laugh. “Son of a tapette,” he says.
Their father tenses, almost speaks, doesn’t.
The man leads them back to the counter, sets the flashlight next to the cash register, then loads their groceries and the two clowns into a paper bag. “That’ll be twenty dollars even, eh?”
Their father slaps the money down, and the bill slips off the counter. The store owner crouches after it, and Kevin sees his father steal the flashlight, stuff it clumsily into the zippered front pouch of his parka, then pick up the grocery bag and hold it to his chest.
“Cochon,” he says under his breath, calling the man a pig, and then he leads his children out the door.
The blizzard is building again, erasing any notion of a horizon. The world has gone gray, a permanent dusk. They walk, and a hundred yards down the road Sylvie stops to put her mittens back on.
“I know what it means,” she says, miserable with embarrassment and anger. Cold and clumsy, she gives up on her second mitten, leaves it hanging from her sleeve, stares bitterly at their father.
“What is it you know?” he says.
They look at each other, and Kevin feels that foreign loneliness again, somewhere close on the icy street. He forces himself to cough; when his father doesn’t notice, he coughs again, pulling with his tongue at the thickness of snot on the roof of his mouth. His father sets the bag on the frozen street, then kneels to adjust Kevin’s ski mask, straighten the holes so he can breathe.
Sylvie waits until their father turns back to her. “I know what tapette means.” She comes quickly to the bag, grabs her clown, then heads off without speaking.
Their father picks up the brown bag with the food and the remaining clown in it. “Est-ce que tu veux tenir ma main?” he says, and Kevin nods his head yes and does take his father’s hand. (He reaches not because he understands forgiveness and comfort — his father’s real, unspoken question — but because he’s four years old and holding hands is how you walk home.)
The fever, fed by the walk in the storm, becomes an ache in Kevin’s ear, burning and heavy as hot lead. Unable to sleep or stay awake, he’s on the sofa again, restless under the afghan with his new toy. The velvet of the clown is soft when rubbed in one direction but stands up like the hair on a cat in the other direction, an irritating touch on Kevin’s fingers, and when he pulls the clown close there’s no stuffing, nothing comforting, just that wooden head and that painted mouth, an absurd crescent of white fencelike teeth and exaggerated red lips that can do nothing but smile. Kevin tries to mimic the clown’s smile, but his face muscles ache. When he succumbs to sleep, the dream boils him into a purgatory of gray pain, and if he could only reach those pulsing shapes through this liquid haze, stop them from throbbing so slowly, from rising like bubbles in syrup, sinking like dough in oil, how much better he would feel.
When he wakes it’s the middle of the night and his father is there, sitting on the edge of the coffee table, putting a hand to his small forehead, smiling sadly. Kevin sees so much sorrow on his face that he’s sure his father is easing the fever away with his touch. And he’s been out; he has on his ski parka, and he radiates cold and the smell of snow as it begins to melt — there, in his hair, snowflakes.
“Ces médicaments,” he tells Kevin, holding out a spoonful of white powder, “viennent de Lena.” From Lena next door, Uncle Freddy’s wife.
The powder doesn’t look like medicine, and the spoon looms large as a shovel, hovering in the air before Kevin. He hesitates, a child’s fear of cures. (Lena, like her husband, is a mean-spirited Catholic and has sent over a spoonful of penance, not so much for the boy but for the larger sickness of the father.)
When his father frowns, feigns impatience, Kevin takes the spoon of salt and baking soda — an old farmer’s remedy — into his mouth and somehow swallows. The sharpness stings and makes him gag, convulsions that crawl slowly down his throat, and his jaw locks so tight he can feel his teeth move. Clutching one of his clown’s insubstantial legs, he wails. His terrified father holds him on the couch, cooing false comforts to him, then gets a glass of water. Kevin takes the glass, drinks in gulps.
“Tu vois comme c’est mieux?” his father says.
But Kevin doesn’t feel better, and, the water gone, he continues to cry. His father sings to him “You Are My Sunshine” in French, then gets another glass of water. Kevin drinks, cries. Soon, in the bathroom, he pees and cries, his father standing behind him with the stolen flashlight; with each sob Kevin shudders, and though he tries, one hand on his little thing, the other still gripping the clown, pee goes everywhere: the floor, the side of the bathtub, his feet, the black toilet plunger under the sink — the beam from the flashlight hectic in the room as Kevin pees. He shrieks when his father tries to take the clown out of his hand so that he can aim with both hands.
Back on the sofa he cries, drinks more water, cries, returns to the bathroom to pee. After an hour of this Sylvie appears in her pajamas, holding her clown by one of its oversized wood feet — it smiles upside down at Kevin (there’s nothing wrong!), which makes him cry harder and push his own clown away, under the afghan. Sylvie accuses their father of poisoning her brother, though she obeys when told quietly to go back to sleep.
Soon his father has had enough. Kevin is slouched, his head resting on the arm of the sofa, his nose and lip jelled with snot, crying now because he can’t remember ever not crying. Suddenly his father takes him by the arm and sits him up straight; when Kevin squirms his father pins him to the sofa, holds him still.
“Finis,” he says (the last time he will speak French to Kevin, the end of their private world).
Kevin wants to cry more, but his small chest will not have it; there is nothing left to summon.
His father stares at him, becomes the stranger who has arrived with this awful storm, and he says, in hard, vacant English, “You have to outlast it. It is just pain, and you’d better get used to it.”
Kevin has never been spoken to this way. He waits, breathing in diminishing gasps, for his father to take away this thing that he said, to step back between him and the growing loneliness he feels.
His father lets go of his arm. “I’m sorry,” he says helplessly. He sighs and moves onto the sofa, stretches out and draws Kevin under the afghan. His father is asleep instantly, his breathing deep, regular.
Kevin sits up, watches the snow streaking by the picture window. He can no longer wait on his father, so he eases off the sofa and goes upstairs, to his parents’ room, his mother’s night table, the back of the cluttered drawer, the bottle of Bayer, three tablets left. He finds his mother’s water glass in their bathroom, reaches to the sink for water; the bitterness of the aspirin, after the salt cure, is almost pleasant. He brings the bottle of Bayer downstairs and sets it on the coffee table in case his father needs the two remaining tablets when he wakes up.
In the dark room he sits on the sofa next to his sleeping father, covers himself with a corner of the afghan. The fever and the blizzard both break in the same predawn hour, and soon after, the picture window lightens by degrees, the first of the winter sun in three days. The refrigerator kicks on, the radio murmurs again, and the feeling of electricity, waiting and useful, returns to inhabit the walls.
Kevin’s clown has become wedged between the seat cushions. He pushes at the velvet legs and arms, that awful round head, forces the doll down into the workings of the sofa. He hops to the floor, over to the window, where the sun has brought a barren calm to the drifts of snow and ice, the shrouded snowplow. In that cold, snow blue light of dawn he wanders through the house: the kitchen, the dining room, upstairs and into his parents’ bedroom again, then to Sylvie’s room, where he opens her door enough to see in. She is asleep, deep in the country of her blankets, and around her pillows are her rabbits, kangaroos, bears. Her clown, though new, is the only toy that she’s pushed to the floor while she sleeps. This is the sister Kevin knows, but he can’t match this sleeping Sylvie to that furious one-mittened girl he saw out on the street yesterday. So angry toward their father. And then there are the words his father scolded him with, what he said about pain. The loneliness creeps back at Kevin; he doesn’t want to have to understand these things. He takes the stairs down to the living room one at a time, holding tight to the banister, and as he works his way under the afghan, next to his father, he lets his head swim with fatigue, returns to the remnant of his fever. Just before he falls asleep, his father’s stern words are blurred beyond consequence, and everything is as it was before the three-day storm, all the unpleasantness forgotten, his world unchanged. (His mother will return from Toronto, and in a month his father will be gone: to Vancouver, then to San Francisco. The first few years will be full of phone calls and arguing, but his parents will find that they have the love of friends between them, and there will be two shared Christmases at a cabin in Montana, the best of times for everyone. In a dozen years Sylvie will choose a medical school in San Francisco to be near him. She will be the one to make the long-distance call in the mideighties, quietly, relief in her voice, telling Kevin their father has finally died. On a boat owned by one of their father’s friends they will spread his ashes outside the Golden Gate, his friends sad, scared for themselves, not sure what to do with these two children, this woman who loved their friend before they knew him. And when he can’t sleep, Kevin will return to 1959, to the three-day blizzard, certain that the groundwork of his life will be found there, in the words his father spoke to him so abruptly, but he will never remember the precise command. Ten years after his father is gone he will stand beside his own daughter’s bed, watch her sleep, and finally tire of missing the answer; he’ll think about the blizzard for the last time, and, finding nothing there but the memory of a father who tried to do his best, Kevin will give in to the fever, let it obscure, once and for all, the warning and the cold.)