Fiction, Vol. 7.2, June 2013
Fancy dreaming you owned the whole world and wanted to put it in your mouth. Adam walked early and he ran soon after—a source of pride as well as annoyance for Laura. She chased him around the house, prying décor from his greedy fists. “No. Not for Adam.” She was very plain about it. There could have been no confusion.
When the doorbell rang she left Adam playing with his toy backhoe. No more than sixty seconds and he’d slipped from the den into adult space. Laura found him standing on an arm of the sofa, clutching the black porcelain cat—the cat, le Chat Noir, as depicted in the famous poster for the Paris nightclub! Adam toppled. Le Chat struck the corner of the coffee table.
“Damnit!” she shouted, running.
The cat’s glossy black face was smashed. No more than a jagged hole remained between its wide, wary ears. Gingerly, Laura touched the white rim of the wound.
On the sofa Adam struggled into a sitting position. He stared at Laura, stunned and disbelieving.
“This was from Paris. France Paris! I use to live around the corner from a… where… Never mind.” Laura looked levelly into her son’s eyes. “No. Not for Adam. Not for Adam!”
His face crumpled and he burst into tears. This time, this one time, she refused to comfort him. Surely, from the great modern parenting book in the sky, she was allowed one tiny, traumatizing exception. Laura bent to the ground and gathered shards of pottery.
“Don’t move,” she said. “I don’t want you to cut your feet.”
Joe suggested she buy another black cat.
“I can’t. You know where it’s from.”
“Check online,” he offered. “You can buy souvenirs from home these days. Isn’t that a riot?”
Watching him smear peanut butter on his bedtime toast, Laura felt the morning’s anger boomerang back. “I can’t deal with your son anymore. He’s totally unreasonable!”
“Babe, he’s not even a year old. You’re great with him. You’re a great mother.”
Over the next week, Laura boxed up the last of the breakables. Still, she felt unsettled. Unsafe. She rented Last Tango in Paris but fell asleep halfway through it and dreamt that she was running through Père Lachaise cemetery like a pinball in an arcade game, knocking over tombstones. She watched Adam pull out his blocks and his zoom-zoom cars and his stackable eggs, the joyful centre of an explosion of toys. His purpose, she realized, the very essence of his being, was to destroy order.
“I’m worried about you.” Joe had been watching television, or so she’d thought. “Are you nervous about going back to work?”
Laura pulled off her glasses and rubbed the lenses. She’d imagined that returning to the agency, going back to a working routine, would return her sanity. Now that the time was upon her, she could see that she was going to remain cracked and broken and fretful, that she was simply going to carry her new strangeness out into the world.
Replacing her glasses, she looked around the den. Castle playtent in the corner, chock-a-block shelves of books and toys, snail-grey carpeting stained by various juices and craft materials. The window was decorated with trucks shaped from fluorescent goo.
“I’ve been thinking this room needs a makeover.”
“What kind of makeover?” Joe asked immediately.
“Wouldn’t you like something more civilized?” Laura waved her arms in an attempt to suggest diverse, necessary changes. Secretly, she saw something baroque-classical, yet airy. Perhaps Provençal-inspired. She had fabric samples in her purse. “I can get a few quotes,” she said.
Joe hit mute on the remote. “Don’t you think a renovation is a little premature? You’ll be back to work soon. Adam will have to adjust to the daycare routine. For us to come home to dust flying and hammers…” He shook his head. “Let’s not do this, Laura.”
“Other people with young children renovate,” she said staunchly.
Joe kept his eyes on Tina Fey, shouting silently through the television screen. “Actually, I spoke with Quentin Coleman today. He was telling me how much strain their reno caused. And his kids are teenagers. He and Nicola have invited us to a gourmet evening, he called it. Adults only.”
“Hm. So they survived to host another day,” she muttered.
Laura watched the High Park houses and townhomes whiz by. Quentin had been Joe’s boss before the restructuring. Laura remembered him as a quiet, creative type. She’d never visited the Coleman’s home, which must be one of these expensive vintage brick numbers that didn’t exist in the suburbs, the kind with high, plaster ceilings and elegant window casements. Perhaps they’d installed heated floors in the bathroom. Updated the kitchen?
Joe eased to the curb in front of a large house with a burgundy door.
“I wonder who else they’ve invited,” she said, undoing her seatbelt.
Meena and Matthew were visiting from Ottawa. Meena had lustrous, jet-black hair and large, attentive eyes. Matthew worked in politics, though he wasn’t a politician. The two sat together on the couch like matching jigsaw pieces.
Nothing about the sitting room seemed refurbished. Or the kitchen, where the women pulled up stools to drink mai tais.
Meena smiled encouragingly. “You have a little one, don’t you?”
Instinctively, Laura checked her blouse for stains.
“No, no,” Meena giggled. “Nicola said.”
“Adam’s one,” Nicola informed Meena. “So cute.” “Eleven months,” Laura clarified.
“God I miss that age,” said Nicola. “So innocent. And you can dress them in adorable outfits.
“Are you going to have another?” Meena asked. She appeared enchanted by the prospect.
Growing up, Laura had imagined the family she would achieve: a Dad, a Mom (her), one son, and one daughter—solid yet comfortable together, like a lovely four-poster bed.
God no. Laura mouthed her straw. “Probably not.”
Nicola’s eyes twinkled. “Well, Adam’s young yet. Meena was hoping to meet your little one. I had to break it to her gently—gourmet nights are reserved for adults only.”
“You wanted to meet Adam?”
Meena’s face reddened. “I love children.”
Supper was lamb lasagna served with roasted squash and a spinach salad. Laura had two helpings, all the better to absorb the wine Quentin was plying her with.
Across the table, Joe faced Matt. “Back to that basic point. A guy’s private life is simply not indicative of his ability to do his job.”
The latest media scandal involved a cabinet minister whose girlfriend had ties to Hell’s Angels.
“Elka’s tarnished his reputation,” said Matt. “And how the public views his private life is indicative of his ability to do his job.”
Quentin leaned closer to top up Laura’s glass. “Like my salad?”
“Um. Yes. These pecans!”
“They came coated with that caramel,” he admitted.
“—gambling rings, possible prostitution, drugs!” exclaimed Matt.
“No, I don’t think she’s tarnished his reputation,” Joe insisted. “I would kill for that kind of social life. Not really. But he’s what, going on sixty? I say good for him! I like my politicians human. I actually like that he has a wild side.”
Joe’s lasagna and salad were half-eaten on his plate. He’s as drunk as I am, thought Laura.
“You would kill for that kind of social life?” she said.
Joe looked over, unsmiling. “Not really. I said ‘not really.’”
Nicola laughed hoarsely.
Implacable Joe. In the early days of Adam, Joe came home from work to find mother and son wailing in each other’s arms, dirty dishes piled high in the sink. Sometimes he came home to nobody because Laura was driving Adam around the neighbourhood. Even if the baby didn’t fall asleep, the motion soothed him, and she found she could occupy her own mind for a while, drinking an extra-hot latté. More often than not, though, Joe came home to a zombie buried in laundry. Not once had he complained about domesticity! Why hadn’t he said something? Hey, don’t you feel like getting out for a martini? Sharing a doobie? Sex on the picnic table? They might have suffered through Adam’s infancy together, at least; they might have colluded, plotted an escape.
There had been only one night when Joe raised his voice. Stacking the dishwasher, he’d demanded to know when the plates had all become chipped. The condo, he said with disgust, had never looked like this. When Laura pressed him he’d backed down. The omelette had put him in a bad mood, he claimed. Who ate omelettes for dinner? They were for Sunday brunch, along with a mug of coffee and The New York Times.
“Do you like omelettes?” Laura asked Quentin. “I’m just curious. You being a ‘gourmet’ sort of person.
“Hmmm. Very much,” he said. “In Paris, I loved this café, off the Victor Hugo square…and I forget the name of it. This café made the best omelettes I’ve ever tasted. Best! Café Hugo?” he wondered.
Laura believed she’d been there, to that very café. She didn’t remember what she’d eaten, except that it had been excellent. She said so to Quentin, thinking all the while of her Paris apartment—in quite a different, shabbier, quartier—and the strange, tangy beers at the brasserie on Rue Clé, the very establishment that had once been Le Chat Noir, now selling posters of Le Chat Noir behind the bar, and porcelain statues. All of that, the man with the notebook who looked on from the corner table, that Paris was impossible now, not merely far away.
“Adam broke my chat,” she said flatly.
“Excuse me?” Quentin’s mouth hung open. “Um. I didn’t catch…”
“It was a porcelain figurine of the famous black cat. Joe thinks they’re kitsch. Ha. Now it’s kitsch in a million pieces!
“Oh,” he said slowly. And methodically, “That’s really too bad.”
Quentin was obviously a kind man. A crinkly eyed, kind, sensitive man who also thought fondly of Paris cafés. She skimmed away a tear in formation. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Adam didn’t hurt himself.”
Laura searched for something else to say. Anything to eject the two of them from her private, ludicrous hurt.
“How often do you have sex?” she asked.
“Whoa,” he replied.
Laura bumped her wine glass with her elbow. It tipped in slow motion before the six of them, pouring its contents onto the centerpiece.
Nicola ran for paper towels. “It’s fine! It’s fine!”
Meena began clearing the table. Obviously, the tablecloth would have to go.
“You’re cut off,” Joe announced.
“I’m so sorry,” Laura repeated again and again. She jumped up, dabbing at the stain with her napkin. “I don’t get out enough.” She peeped at Quentin. Slumped in his chair, he was staring absently at the backs of her knees.
Their hostess swiftly moved the plates to the sideboard and gathered the stained tablecloth in her hands.
“Nicola goes out dancing.” Quentin’s voice sounded oddly cool.
“I don’t ‘go out’ dancing.” She looked away. “Recently, I went to a nightclub.”
“By herself!” Quentin tapped the table. “She comes home, complaining about these guys all over her, feeling her up and whatnot. Some goof whose hands kept…right on her ass!” His raised hands held imaginary buttocks. “And then she goes back the next week!”
“Wow,” Laura said. “I haven’t been out in ages.”
“You’ve mentioned that,” said Joe.
Nicola hurled the tablecloth into the kitchen and Meena scurried after it. “And what’s so attractive about staying in, Quentin? What’s so fun about bumming around here?”
“HBO?” Matt said, chuckling.
Nicola seemed unable to stop herself. “His favorite activity is snuggling on the couch with his daughters.”
“Snuggling?” Joe repeated.
Laura shot him a hard look.
“Snuggling and chit-chatting,” Nicola went on. “Sometimes they watch that fucking horse movie.”
Quentin’s eyes flitted around the room as he poured himself the dregs of the merlot.
Returning from the kitchen, Meena put a hand on Nicola’s shoulder. “It’s soaking in the sink.”
“So! Show us the new…room,” Laura suggested, unable to sit down again. “Joe says you’ve renovated.”
“Ah,” said Nicola. “Joe used the past tense, did he?”
“All right. Let’s show them,” Quentin said gamely.
It turned out the Colemans were renovating the playroom, now that their kids were older. Everyone trouped upstairs past a bathroom, to the second, closed, door on the right. Inside, they picked their way over dust-covered heaps of plaster and wood trim.
“Now,” Nicola announced. “Let’s not prejudice their opinions, Quentin.”
He looked about to laugh, or maybe cry. Shit, Laura thought, this is serious.
At first, she didn’t see anything unusual about the wall. They’d decided to connect the room to the adjoining one, and a third of the shared wall had been removed to make an archway. But the top cut was uneven, she noticed now—how could she not have noticed that? The lintel of the large doorway sloped steadily from left to right. Neither of the corners quite made a right angle.
“Ouch,” said Joe.
Quentin’s cheeks had turned a vicious red in patches. He shook his head a little when his eyes met Nicola’s.
“You wanted them to see it!” she wailed.
“You know, I’m just really impressed that Quentin is tackling these renovations himself,” said Meena.
“I’m not impressed,” said Nicola. “I told him twenty times to hire a builder. We have the budget to hire a builder. Who wouldn’t hire a builder?”
Quentin clamped his mouth shut and scratched at his goatee.
“We haven’t been able to use this room for six months,” Nicola went on. “He still hasn’t hired anybody to fix it.”
“I think we can live with the wall as-is,” Quentin said softly. He glanced from the floor to his guests.
“Oh,” said Meena.
Laura moved closer, until she was standing almost under the archway.
“Could you live with that, Laura?” demanded Nicola.
She sensed Quentin’s eyes on her. “Would it take much to fix it?” she asked. “Would you have to tear down more wall?”
Nicola spoke slowly and meaningfully. “No, you’d have to hire a builder.”
“Know what? Laura has a bright idea,” said Quentin. He drew back and punched his fist against the wall. Then yelped in pain.
“Fucking plaster!” He dove into the corner and brought up an iron crowbar.
The plaster shattered where the crowbar landed, gouging a ragged line. Quentin levered the crowbar against the opening and yanked, tearing away a strip of pale wall that slumped to the floor like a lolling tongue. They waved away dust.
Nicola announced, “I’m going downstairs to plate the dessert,” and stalked off.
“What is that?” asked Joe, looking into the broken wall.
Laura had noticed something too, on the ground between two of the studs.
Quentin bent over. “What? Holy shit.” With his hands, he tore away another chunk of plaster.
Laura knelt in the debris. Suddenly her lungs weren’t working hard enough. Inside the punctured wall lay a shell-like dome, a nest of greying bones. The little collection was held together by a blanket so threadbare almost none of it remained.
“Oh my God,” said Matt.
“A baby.” Quentin wiped a hand over his mouth.
Laura felt the tears come. A baby hidden in a wall, sealed off in a wall. For how long? Someone, Joe, caught her under her arms. He moved backwards, kicking aside debris.
“Oh my God,” said Matt.
Five of them, downstairs around the kitchen table.
“We should call the police,” Meena said again. She looked over at Matt.
“We can stay at a hotel tonight,” he assured her.
“What’s Quentin still doing up there?” Nicola muttered.
Laura dabbed her nose with a ratty Kleenex. “Crying,” she replied. They could hear low, gasping sobs through the grate in the ceiling.
When the percolator beeped, Nicola rose. “Nobody wants the cheesecake?”
“Do you think somebody…murdered it?” Laura asked them.
“This is an old house,” said Meena. “Maybe it died of consumption, poor thing, or one of those other old diseases.”
“Then why didn’t the family bury it?” Joe asked.
Meena’s face hardened. “Such an awful waste.” She yanked out her pony tail and her hair curled down onto her shoulders. Matt shut his eyes, sighing.
“Should I go get him?” asked Joe, looking up. Nobody answered.
“What sort of a person would…” Laura stumbled. “I mean, they didn’t want that child. They just left it. Alone.”
“We don’t know what happened,” Joe said. “Maybe she had no choice.”
“She? You think a woman could do this?”
Nicola banged a tray of mugs down on the table. “Does it really matter?” She glared at Laura. “We have to live here!” She started scratching at the collar of her blouse.
“Hey, this isn’t Laura’s fault,” Joe objected.
Nicola looked down at the coffee in its cups. “No.”
“You need to call the police,” Meena said. “Nicola?”
Their hostess nodded.
On the drive home, Laura closed her eyes. Joe was silent. The only sounds were car sounds—a constant rush-hush of tires on pavement; also, subtle noises she’d never noticed before. A deep rumbling as they accelerated, the slight whine that built when braking.
Had it been a girl or a boy? She kept seeing the wee basket of rib bones, kept overhearing the police officer say, “No signs of blunt force trauma” into his cell phone. “Most likely,” he’d told them all, “the body was deposited there when the house was under construction.” He’d spoken so casually. Officer Harry seemed more concerned about the adults than the dead baby.
“Well, the roads are faster at four o’clock in the morning,” said Joe, entering the highway.
Laura opened her eyes. She gazed ahead, down the long lanes of pavement pulling them toward home.
“Let’s bring him into our bed tonight,” said Joe.