– i –
Here’s Jack, lanky in a cut-down suit, narrow-chested but chippy as life in the rattle scrape east end of Montreal can make an English-speaking kid. He’s got Catholicism in common with the French kids, but they want to know “es-tu canadien or es-tu anglais?” They push; he pushes back.
He doesn’t go looking for a fight, though, not like Ger. A year and a half older, Gerry is shorter than Jack but solid and scrappy. Real tough. Tough enough to take down a big guy older than him, boys and men crowding round to watch him fight. Even the guy’s father, hands by his sides, face like an old sock, a crumpled handkerchief. Jack asks, “why don’t you stop it?” The man shrugs, real tired looking, says it’s a lesson. Next time the son’ll watch who he picks on.
Katie and Helen are working. They have good jobs at the hospital, doing research for a doctor, mixing things in labs, making people well. The doctor made a big impression on his sisters, talking about people dying, and not enough beds for them all. The charity wards are full, and the rest cure is the only thing for the consumption. Worried about his cough, the girls pulled strings for him. That’s how Jack ended up in this place, like a bump on a log. The doctors call it chasing the cure, but Jack knows that’s a load of bull, you can’t chase anything when you’re lying still.
Blue bowl, often white-streaked, often grey. You don’t see skies like that in the city, and his mother and the girls are agog over the beauty when they come to see him. They make the same winding train trip Jack had taken, steam whistle wailing out, sounding lonely as hell and that’s how he feels in this bed, this basket on wheels. He has to lie there all the time, on this porch and in the dark night dormitories full of the snores and farts of strangers, old men and young ones, many no older than Jack.
The blue bowl is inverted, held up by the mountains. On the porch, lying there, all in a row, Jack feels the air cold and oh-so-good-for-you fresh. Out with the bad air, in with the good. But if he’s got to chase a cure, he’d rather be chasing it the way the kids on the block used to chase each other, or the precious puck the French kids stole from them, leaving them with nothing but horse turds to play shinny with, Jack and Ger and the guys on Rachel Street.
Some of the people are really sick, skeleton skinny, coughing themselves hollow. Jack measures the distance down the slope toward the lake when one of them starts coughing. Others are like Jack, here because… Jack is hard-pressed to say exactly why he’s here but there was whispered talk in the pantry over dinner dishes. Ma and sisters that worried about him. The consumption is in the family. Aunt Claire died of it five years ago. Whispering over weak-chested, tall and gangly Jack, wrists out of the suits Ma made by cutting down their father’s old police uniforms. He left a couple of uniforms when he died, the last Ma will have to work with.
How could they send me away? he wonders; I was just starting to make money at the factory, dammit. Man’s money, almost. Not like the message-boy money they were so proud to hand over to Ma when he and Ger worked at the Birks building.
They’d sit in that narrow dusty room with its wood floors that creaked, itching for the bell to ring, to spring them, he and Gerry each waiting a turn to carry something, a message or a parcel, it didn’t matter. To be out running, just flying, through the building, down the alleyways. Ger would beat him to the bell, especially when the message had to go far. They’d wind up wrestling and rolling around on the floor. Jack got the worst of it, Ger was that tough. Beat Jack up bad one time. Ma wanted to know what happened to his face, so Jack told her the French kids did it. Katie didn’t like them fighting, not at all. She was the one who got them the jobs, in the building where she typed all day.
Now she and Helen were working for that doctor. That’s how he got here, the girls put in a word. Ma told him how lucky he was. Lots of people with the consumption, dying of it like her sister, and never enough beds. Less than a hundred here, and a smaller place on the other slope for the Jews, that’s what Albert tells Jack when they first get talking.
Albert used to be a patient. He caught the cure, but he’ll never be well enough to go back to the foundry. They let him work here. He does odd jobs, pushes the meal cart. He wheels beds out onto the porch every morning and every afternoon for the patients to take the air, wheels them back to the long sleeping rooms.
This is no place for me, Jack thinks. It’s fine for the rich snots to lie there reading their newspapers and fat books. They’re used to sitting around, some flunky bringing them their breakfasts. No big deal to have metal bowls brought in so they can wash and shave. Not Jack. He started shaving last year. He’d break the ice on the bucket, the way their grown brothers had, when he and Ger were whippersnappers watching them. No one ever brought him a bowl.
It’s cold on the porch sometimes, other times hot. Buzzing hot, but all Jack keeps is cold. He feels it in his young bones, feels the days line up like boxcars on a siding: waiting to be wheeled outside, waiting to be moved indoors. Nothing ever new except when the doctor walks through, his coat snapping behind him. And visiting days, his sisters going on about people in the parish, Ma sighing over how the mountains remind her of being a girl in Ste. Sophie. It’s always the same slow rhythm. At what point does blue streaked with white become white streaked with blue, a milky bowl?
Once in a while, they bring a different bowl and he has to spit. There’s no blood, never. Albert will say that Jack had none of those germs, the ones that make the consumption, but much later when he helps Jack pack his grip.
Albert jokes with Jack. He calls him the sleepwalker. Pretends Jack’s last name is Dempsey. He’s talking about those first few nights when Jack would get out of bed. He wasn’t doing anything bad – just got up to peer through windows, see what his feet looked like in the moonlight, find out what was beyond that door. It took two orderlies to strap him down, he fought the ties so. Albert puts down the putty knife he’s using for the storm windows, throws his arms and head around, laughing. His hands are open fists. The big orderly, Charlie, finally landed one good punch, Albert says, and Jack didn’t give them any more trouble. Now he settles down peaceful as a babe every night.
It’s long ago to Jack, but the nurses still pin him with their sharp gazes. Not that there’s anything he could do in the white shift they traded for his suit, nowhere he could go. Snow sprawls on the mountains beyond. Sometimes the hillsides are green, sometimes parched like a faded yellow blanket, but always they slope away, out of reach.
He thinks about his family. Ma off to Westmount every day, to do for Mrs. Marler. She brings home Mrs. Marler’s old clothes, still perfectly good, for the girls. Brings home Mrs. Marler ways: doilies on the arms of the sofa, and pass the peas please. His father would slam his fist on the table so the dishes rattled, mouth pursed, his voice shrill: “Mrs. Marler, Mrs. Jesus Marler, for crissake!” But the old man is gone. The pleurisy took him in less than a month, leaving just two sets of uniforms for Ma to make over.
The girls are smart in Mrs. Marler’s made-over clothes. Katie and Helen have good paying jobs. All the girls play piano, like Ma. They have manners like Mrs. Marler’s daughters.
The older brothers are grown and gone to the lumber camp or the merchant navy. Gerry never comes to visit Jack. Scared of the germs, Helen says. He wants to come but he can’t, Katie says. He’s apprenticing with a tile-setter. He’s home only for bed, and for the meat and cold potatoes Ma puts aside on the hob. Time off for Mass, of course.
It doesn’t sound much like Gerry to Jack. He can’t imagine Ger working hard, toeing the line. But everyone has to pull their weight now the old man’s gone.
So, why send Jack away when he’d started to make real money? On the delivery run, he’d race up and down stairs with boxes full of stockings in their paper packets, so quick that Ernie hardly had time to finish his smoke. He taught himself to drive by watching Ernie’s feet work the clutch, the brake, the gas. Ernie sometimes let him drive back after the last deliveries. And the factory paid better. Those three months when he had a fatter pay envelope to carry home to Ma, he didn’t mind the big room steamy from the vats, his fingers wrinkled and hands cramped from putting wet stockings on the forms.
He thinks about Ger working with the tile-setter, handing him tools, learning how to make the pieces go in straight. He has to make himself not think about Ger. He looks at the slice of lake he can see from the porch, counts the trees that block his view, looks at the sky. There’s always the sky, even when it’s years he has to count.
It’s nearly spring again when Jack finally puts his suit back on, feels fabric strain over his chest when he does the buttons up. He rides the train back to the city alone, just like when he came. He never once tested positive, practically a year, that’s what Albert tells him as he leaves.
– ii –
The factory’s not taking on any more men. Jobs in the city are harder to find. Jack takes ones far away. He goes to the Gaspé, then up north in Ontario.
The north is snow crunch and fly buzz: Deep River, Chapleau. Each town another tie on tracks that go on and on, rumble and hum. Every place the same cold stretch of distance, whether there’s white or green beneath the blue bowl.
He doesn’t see the family often. He paces the wooden floors of rented rooms in railway towns, relearns silence in gold-brown liquid at the bottom of a glass and the gentle burn that starts in his stomach. He drinks in his room, or in bars, at tables a little away from the lumberjacks who sing and swear and down glasses, though not with the railwayman.
Montreal, when he goes back for visits, is noisy bustle. Hugs from Ma and sisters, little nephews and nieces, slaps on the back and nights in the tavern with Ger. He pulls Gerry out of fights, or backs him up. When they put on uniforms, they make a fine pair: the tall one and the short one, Air Force and Army. Both broad-shouldered now, and sharp. They turn a head or two.
Then a different trip. Back, for Ma’s funeral. Telegraph poles tick by and the train jostles. The rumble of the tracks builds. There’s pressure in his ears and behind his eyes. Tightness rises from his chest to his throat, squeezes, chokes him. A swig or two from his flask helps, but he doesn’t drink more. He won’t shame the family at the funeral.
But afterwards, his brothers-in-law gone after only one round, Jack roars through taverns. With Ger shipped out to England, it’s not like it was. He just drinks until he stumbles back, waking his sister’s house, roars some more, drops and sleeps.
The next morning, there’s little Maureen showing her brother the hole Uncle Jack punched in the wall. His head is muzzy, and he’s anxious to be on his way, furlough over. He carries the train’s rattle with him to where his unit is stationed.
The buzz stays in his head long after the C.O. comes to the barracks with the news. Gerry, killed overseas. Didn’t even see action, poor bugger. An enlisted man pulled a knife on him, in a barroom fight.
Jack never makes it home again. He knows other cities, lives in one with a view of mountains that make the Laurentians seem like hills. He meets someone at the office where he’s taken a job. She’s a woman from Toronto, but Catholic, and he accompanies her to Mass. She agrees to marry him though they think they’re probably too old to start a family. To their surprise, a baby girl, arrives after they’ve moved to another new city.
He puts down the bottle because his wife says he must. He gets dry and stays dry. There are groups she wants him to go to. He tries them, but it’s all talk. So he goes it alone, never takes another drink.
They have another daughter. Their last move is to the prairie, where the bowl is wide, no hills to be seen.
– iii –
The blinds half-lowered, the blue or milky blue or grey outside is shut out to allow him and the others a discreet snooze, all in their chairs. They’re all old, and mostly women. The people here don’t strap him down. They did in the hospital when it hurt so bad to cough and his chest was full – pneumonia, they said. He kept wanting to sit up and catch a breath. But he didn’t fight the ties, just worked and worried at them until he came here.
What he is doing in this place, so still and quiet? He has a department to run, a family to see to, man’s responsibilities that he shoulders gladly. His children visit, with pictures of their mother. Bitter is the word he finds as he realizes he remembers nothing about her. They remind him again, but gently, that she died last year.
The girls are doing well. He’s proud of them, their good jobs. It was their doing, he remembers now. They brought him. A fine daughter on either side for the long ride – he glowed with pride. But why the hell must he stay, with these old women, staring at flickering colours on a screen?
It’s still now. Jack hears the women’s voices, the quiet clatter of cutlery – at a distance. The years slope away. He is part of those hills.