[A short story I finished toward the end of 2013.]
Mom and Dad’s new apartment was in NDG on the third floor of an ugly yellow building right by the train tracks. When her parents first moved in, Thea had resolved to visit at least once per week, as a sign that she was not bothered by what had happened to them, but a month had gone by and she hadn’t visited at all. Of her sister Mathilde this was expected, but not of generous and dutiful Thea. Her father phoned late on Thursday night and complained. He said he totally understood that she must be very busy, what with art school, part-time work, friends, etc., but still, not to visit your parents for a whole month…
Thea made her first visit the following Saturday. There was a wiry, grimy guy in the building lobby mopping the floor, and instantly she knew he was going to talk to her—she could tell just from the way he gave her that sly smile.
“I love your beautiful summer dress,” he said.
Thea looked down at herself, at the summer dress that was the object of his admiration. Then she looked up at the guy, and was about to say something, but he interrupted her.
“It’s not any girl that could wear that dress like you do.”
“Thank you,” she said, reluctantly granting him half of a smile.
“Who are you visiting?”
“My parents,” she said.
He set down his mop in the bucket and moved toward the console where there were two rows of buttons to buzz the twenty-four apartments in the building.
“I’ll buzz them for you,” he said. “What number?”
She was hesitant. Now he would know too much about her.
“Number fourteen,” she said.
He pressed on the buzzer. Her father’s voice crackled through. She said, “Hi!” and he said, “Come on in, Thea!” and the manager pulled open the inner door, bowing his head as he did so, as if she was royalty and he was the loyal subject.
The next weekend, she visited again. She took the train to Vendome and started walking toward the ugly yellow building. Sure enough, just her luck, there was the manager. He was outside with a pail of yellow paint, trying to cover up a tag that somebody had sprayed onto the wall. The tag said THUG. There was no way up to her parents’ second floor apartment without first subjecting herself to the manager. Maybe she could call her parents from the nearby cafe and ask them to meet her there? She felt stupid, standing here prevaricating. She launched herself in the direction of the building entrance at a brisk pace. As soon as she was level with the door into the lobby, the manager’s head turned.
“The beautiful girl!” he declared.
He put down his pail of paint immediately. Thea nodded at him perfunctorily and moved on. She headed inside and was at the buzzer console within seconds. The manager was now holding the outside door open and looking in at her. She buzzed number fourteen and waited.
“It’s too cold today for that beautiful dress of yours,” said the manager.
“It did turn cold,” said Thea, despising her civility.
“You should be a model with a dress like that,” said the manager. “I am telling you. I know a photographer in the business.”
What was he talking about—you should be a model with a dress like that? Either a person is a model or they are not.
“Sure, thanks,” she said.
“I think you look more like your father,” said the manager. “Can I say that?”
He was taking off his grubby hat, as if expecting to be talking for a while.
“People say that,” said Thea.
Speaking of her father, why was nobody answering the buzzer? She pushed on the button again.
“Do you smoke?” asked the manager. “If you’re waiting, we can have a smoke.”
Thea did in fact smoke, but she wasn’t going to let the manager know. She made a mental note, now every time I visit this building I cannot be seen smoking.
“I don’t smoke,” she said.
“You’re a good girl,” said the manager.
A shudder went through her so hard she had to try and camouflage it as a cough. She was only twenty-four, for God’s sake. Someone of the manager’s age should get back to painting his fucking wall!
“Nobody home?” said the manager, after a short silence.
“I guess not,” said Thea.
She buzzed a third time.
“What does your father do?”
“He had an art supplies store,” said Thea.
“And now what?”
“He ran a business making greeting cards,” she said. “They were the most beautiful cards in the world.”
“I can’t wait around anymore,” Thea suddenly declared.
“I’ll tell them you came,” said the manager. “There must have been some misunderstanding. Nobody should be making a beautiful girl like you wait.”
She phoned her parents that evening. It turned out that her father had thought the plan was to meet at two o’clock on Sunday, not two o’clock on Saturday. He had been out grocery shopping with Mom when Thea visited.
“Just our luck!” Dad said.
“I’ll come tomorrow then,” said Thea.
“Sure,” he said. “Only Mom won’t be here.”
“This whole confusion over your visit threw her off… She’s agreed to some extra work tomorrow. She didn’t realize you’d want to try and visit again!”
“What kind of work?” Thea asked.
“Just a little sideline to her regular job,” Dad replied.
“She’s cleaning a house in Westmount.”
Thea said nothing. She was finding this hard to picture, her proud mother on her hands and knees, scrubbing a tub.
“How’s your job search?” she said.
Her father’s tone brightened.
“I just scored a job on the West Island in charge of shipping-receiving for a paint company,” he said.
“That seems appropriate!” Thea said, encouragingly. “Do you like it?”
“Didn’t start yet,” Dad said. “No matter. Until things turn around, it will be OK.”
The next day, Thea headed back to Vendome. Outside there was a fine, persistent drizzle. Members of the grim-faced crowd dispersed into the residential streets or into waiting buses. She approached the ugly yellow building cautiously. It was as quiet as a mausoleum.
Inside apartment fourteen, her father showed her the small improvements that had been made since last time—a new shelf in the kitchen and a mirror in the hallway so you could check your appearance upon arrival and departure. For a couple of seconds, in front of the mirror, Thea suddenly noticed that her father had a little paunch sticking out over his belt. He had always taken care of himself, so this new development was troubling.
“Let’s have a sit-down lunch,” Dad said, turning away abruptly from the mirror, as if he too had noticed his transformation.
Thea was hungry, having eaten nothing more than a piece of toast before going to the university studio to work on her mid-term project. The table was already set. There were boiled eggs, bread, a bean salad, and two large fried chicken breasts. Thea could not remember her parents having ever served take-out chicken before.
“Where did you get the chicken?” she asked.
“There’s this new place called Chick-King. Two words, Chick and King. I got this on special for only nine bucks!”
He was wearing an ironic grin.
“Sounds great!” said Thea.
“Let’s sit down and eat it while it’s still hot.”
While they were eating, Dad told Thea about how useless the building manager was. There had been an agreement that, before Mom and Dad moved in, the manager would paint the walls of the apartment, but when they showed up on moving day, not a lick of paint had been applied.
“The manager says, ‘Oh, don’t worry. I’ll paint it tomorrow.’ Your mother says that’s unacceptable. We decided to do the work ourselves. We went to Home Depot and bought paint and rollers and started work. We finished the job by the end of the next day—at close to midnight. We had headaches and our eyes were stinging from the paint fumes. But guess what? We gave the manager the bill for the paint but he still hasn’t paid us!”
“I can’t believe it,” said Thea.
“Every time I see him I remind him about the money. And every time he says, ‘Tomorrow, I promise.’ But tomorrow never comes! The current excuse is that the expense needs to be approved by the building owner who—just our luck!—happens to be in Florida. I said to the manager, ‘Surely the owner can approve this expense from Florida. You’re aware of this invention called the telephone?’ But the manager swears to God he has no clue how to reach the owner in Florida. No clue!”
This monologue had given Thea time to clean her plate. Having fallen far behind, Dad turned his attention to his own plate, sinking his teeth into the chicken with rather a famished-dog look. Thea went to the washroom. She sat for a while on the toilet seat, needing a breather from Dad. Eventually she stood up and flushed, but the plastic toilet handle broke off in her hand. Oh please…
“Dad, we have a problem,” she said, re-entering the living room-slash-dining room.
She showed him the toilet handle in the palm of her hand.
“This happened just now?” he said.
“It just came off in my hand,” she said.
“You managed to flush everything down OK?”
“Yes, I did.”
“We need to fix this,” said Dad.
Thea felt her chest tightening. His use of the word we bothered her. It wasn’t her fault the handle broke.
“The useless manager should fix this,” she said.
“The manager!” Dad exclaimed. He got to his feet and went to the washroom. He kept on talking as he inspected the problem, but his words came out constricted as he leaned over and his paunch pressed against his belt. “The manager is about as useful as… as… Well, you shouldn’t expect too much from him. No matter. This is an easy fix. We’ll go to Home Depot and—”
“Spend more money that won’t be reimbursed?”
“We will be reimbursed,” said Dad, standing up straight again. “The colours of the walls is one thing, but a working toilet is non-negotiable!”
She looked at him, at the tiny red veins in his nose that in recent years stood out more distinctly, and at his eyes, with pupils that had always seemed a tad small to her—small and lost in a haze of blue-grey—and she wondered if this face was going to seem, over time, even more fragile.
“Get your coat on,” he said. He was now talking pretty much incessantly in his cheerful, anxious way. “I know what we need to buy. It costs next to nothing.” Their footsteps echoed against the stairwell. They reached the front door. Sure enough, the manager was outside, standing under the awning with a cigarette. The smoke had that particularly pungent smell it always has in the rain.
“Happy Sunday!” the manager said, with a sudden smile, nodding to Dad, and glancing only for a second at Thea.
“It would be a happy Sunday if our toilet didn’t just break,” said Dad.
The manager frowned. His forehead made a lot of very fine wrinkles—at least six of them in a neat row.
“How did that happen?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Dad. “It’s cheap crap like everything else.”
“I can fix it,” the manager declared. He reached out for the plastic toilet handle, which Dad was holding up with his thumb and forefinger, as it were a lab specimen. “I will go to Home Depot right now and get a new one.”
“That’s funny,” said Dad, pulling the toilet handle out of reach. “We were on our way to Home Depot because I just assumed you wouldn’t help.”
The manager glanced quickly at Thea again. Then he looked at his cigarette, which had been been smoked down to a stub.
“I am always here to help,” he said.
Dad shook his head disbelievingly. He handed over the toilet handle. The manager took it, looking resentful.
“I will come to fix the toilet before four o’clock,” he said.
When they returned to the apartment, Dad was in high spirits.
“A small victory against management,” he said. “Let’s have tea and—hey, let’s do some painting!”
Thea found herself rebelling against the idea of painting with her dad. She had more than enough painting in art school. But when she murmured even the slightest disagreement—a vague complaint about needing to get back to the studio—her father waved his hand in the air dismissively and ordered her to fetch the easels out of the storage down the hallway. The easels were a joke. Her easel had been purchased for her when she was a child, so it was way too small. And his easel had a damaged leg that he hadn’t fixed and so had to be propped against the couch. They faced the window that overlooked the street. Beyond de Maisonneuve was a row of trees by the train tracks, drooping like exhausted guards.
For a while Thea sketched the outline of everything she saw, conscious that her job was simply to keep Dad happy and to wait with him until the manager came back. She had no illusions about being able to finish anything worthwhile. She wondered if keeping Dad happy was in fact the whole point. What was art if not an exercise in pleasing others? She then thought about how she would appear to the manager when he arrived. He’d probably get that sly smile on his face; he’d find it cute that she was painting with her Dad.
She wanted to abandon the work right now. Just set down her pencil and say, “Look it’s not working out and I am late to get back to the studio.” It was already after four o’clock. She must have let out a deep sigh involuntarily. Dad said, “Is everything OK?” She said of course everything was OK. He didn’t peek at her paper because that was the rule. You couldn’t look unless you’d been invited.
What she had on the page was a fairly accurate sketch of everything alongside de Maisonneuve, right up to the big office building. The last tree before the building was not like the others—it wasn’t one of the city-stunted trees, but instead, about four times the size, standing away from the train tracks. The more she looked at the tree, the more it looked to her like a monster, a monster in the form of a Weetabix. The monster was opening its big mouth and was about to devour the next-door building. No one was going to see the form of the monster hidden in the tree unless she painted it properly.
She worked quickly, so that the monster would fully emerge in time for the building manager to see it. When she was finished, she had a garden-variety urban landscape into which the Weetabix monster had appeared—a creature from another realm. She had given him the eyes of Saturn Devouring His Son. She had thought the painting would be funny but it wasn’t funny at all.
She stood up and looked out the window.
“Finished?” asked Dad.
She laughed somewhat nervously, unclipped the painting from the easel and turned it toward Dad.
“It’s… it’s awful, Thea,” he said. “I mean that in the nicest way. How did you see that, how did you see that in the tree?”
He too looked out of the window, as if not quite able to believe it. Then he looked again at the painting. Her arms tired eventually of holding it, so she set it down on the kitchen table.
“Well, I’m not showing you what I did,” said Dad. “I’m no good at this. I need to leave this to the professionals.”
Thea tried half-heartedly to dissuade him from tearing up his painting, but he pronounced it a failure. He had attempted to turn the outside into a landscape with far more colours than it really had, searching for all the shades of green and grey and ending up with a weird tapestry that was closer to wallpaper than painting.
It was five o’clock when they finished their second teapot of tea.
“The manager has screwed us again,” said Dad. “He’s not ever going to show up is he?”
Thea felt strangely deflated, like a kid in class who tells a clever joke at the teacher’s expense but the teacher never hears it. She left her painting on the kitchen table, a decision she almost immediately regretted. A few weeks passed and eventually she called to ask if Dad could drop off the painting when he had a free moment.
At the end of the semester, her class put on an art show. She had been out drinking until late the night before and had brought home an American boy. Waking up late, she showered and put on the only dress that she could guarantee was clean—her summer dress. Fresh flakes of snow started to meander downward as she hurried to the gallery. Several landed on her black peacoat and turned immediately into a patch of dampness. She slowed down just before arriving, not wanting to burst in like some eccentric. A couple of her classmates were coming down the stairs. She apologized for her lateness and then pitched in to help set up. Everyone was rather on edge because a graduate student had laid claim to the entire far wall of the gallery, saying he’d been promised access to this space weeks ago for a show of his own. He was a photographer who had enjoyed some success in the fashion industry; the success, everyone knew, had gone to his head, making him an asshole.
Thea hung “Nature versus the City” with her four other paintings. When other students asked about it, she said, “My intention was to portray exactly what I was feeling at the time.” Five o’clock came around, the hour when their liquor permit kicked into effect, and a box of red wine was opened up. Thea drank her first glass very quickly. She couldn’t remember if, while drunk last night, she’d told the American boy about this show. Hopefully she hadn’t, because his smell and his smirk this morning had reversed her earlier opinion of him.
At six o’clock, the gallery was close to full. Friends and family had wandered in, cold and wet from the street, and were glad to have red wine and warmth. Thea knew she wouldn’t see her own parents because they were both working late. Because she was still feeling quite sick, she stood apart from everyone else, guarding her paintings, her smile straining like that of a bored retail clerk. She had been looking forward for weeks to unveiling “Nature versus the City,” but now the few comments of praise she received meant nothing to her. What did she work for—praise? That seemed awfully shallow. She didn’t want to talk; she didn’t want to mix and mingle. The idea came to her to leave and go to bed early.
Just as she was thinking she might literally fall asleep on her feet, the building manager walked in. He was unmistakable, dressed in a big, dirty parka, which he declined to take off when the coat check girls asked him.
It took him only a second to spot her.
“That summer dress!” he exclaimed. Then, perhaps sensing his eyes had gone too quickly to her figure, he looked up to her face and said, “Thea, right?”
“From number fourteen!” he exclaimed.
“It’s my parents who live at number fourteen,” she corrected him.
He made an exaggerated sad expression.
“You never visit anymore,” he said.
“I’m busy,” she said.
She stepped a little to the side so that he would have an unobstructed view of “Nature versus the City.”
“This is a fantastic coincidence,” he said.
“What brings you here?” she asked.
“My friend I told you about—the photographer. He’s here. I’m lending him an old lampshade that I found in the basement. He wants to use it for a shoot. Hey, you should meet him!”
Thea glanced over anxiously to the end of the gallery that had been screened off. She hadn’t seen the photographer emerge from there in quite a while.
“Maybe later,” she said, hating the regression to her usual politeness.
“Come on—he could use you for a shoot! I’m sure of it!”
A voice in her head was shouting at him, look at my fucking painting, you dolt! Do you think I want to be a bimbo in a photo? She gulped back another glass of wine.
“I need to stay here, Mr. Manager,” she said. “Please don’t introduce me to anyone. I’m here with my paintings.”
She couldn’t remember having ever pulled off such a sarcastic, cutting tone. The manager raised his eyebrows as if she was crazy—and maybe she was.
“OK, OK, no problem,” he said, and made a big deal of taking two steps backwards. “I was just trying to be nice and make an introduction but…”
She didn’t catch the rest of what he said. He disappeared behind the screens. He never did see her painting.
Top image: Saturn Devouring His Son. Francisco Goya.