The Constant City
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER EIGHTH. I had to fly from Boston to the Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport in Montréal and then connect to the Sept-Îles airport before I remembered why I hate coming home. Well, aside from the obvious reasons. From Sept-Îles, it’s still an hour-and-a-half-long bus ride to Ville Constance. I’m sitting on a Greyhound with a cold cup of airport coffee and staring out the window, remembering these familiar winter skies above me. I imagine my parents inside the warm Donhelle home right now: my father sitting in his chair watching the hockey game while my mother prepares dinner. Same as it always is in the Constant City.
I decided on Wednesday night that I would make the trip home this weekend. A few days away from everything that was falling apart around me in Boston would certainly be good for me right now. I haven’t been home since last Christmas, but even that was three years removed from the time before. I remember coming back to my apartment last year and telling Claude that my parents would be coming to see me the next time. He didn’t care though, he was just happy to be home too, after spending a week at the Nickwelters’ house.
This time around I don’t have to worry about who’ll be looking after him while I’m gone.
From the Greyhound station in Ville Constance, I place the pre-arranged phone call, letting my parents know that I’ve finally arrived. The conversation is short, and my father tells me he’ll come pick me up just as soon as the first period is over.
Across the street from the bus station is Saint Francis Elementary School. That old familiar hedge may be iced over, but it still taunts me. I wonder how many kids have cut their faces and scraped their knees and torn their coats since I’ve been through there? I think about carrying my bags over to the school right now and giving it another run, but then I remember just how good change has been for me lately.
There’d been no sign of Templeton Rate or Professor Nickwelter for the rest of the week. No further visits from Anton Frye or Detective Dunphey. I hadn’t followed up with Jerry Humphries about the strange goings-on in the south lab, and I completely forgot about those six swans covered with the tarp until now. The death of Becky Chandler had been made public on Wednesday morning, and I had a long talk about everything that afternoon with Steffen James. At first he didn’t want to discuss it, but I think he could tell I needed to talk to somebody. Uncomfortably, he listened to me drone on about my relationship with Templeton, from start to finish. He sat through everything I had to say. And after it all, Steffen was the one who convinced me to take some time off.
Now I’m standing alone in the dark and cold and empty bus depot. Even the Greyhound has left by the time my father pulls up in the familiar family car. The same car since I was twelve.
Same as it always is in the Constant City.
He pops the trunk open and steps out as I toss my bags in the back. “ ‘Allo Bella! It’s good to see you again.” He gives me a hug, which I have to admit, is a nice feeling, and one that I haven’t experienced too often outside of Ville Constance. But he is quick to let go. “Hop in. We can still make it back for the second period.” A part of me was hoping that Dad would have grown his beard back by now, but he still keeps his face shaved clean to this day.
We’re home in another seven minutes, which included a minute more of conversation at the most. My father is happy to tell me that the Boston Bruins are playing in Montréal tonight, and they play each other again tomorrow in Boston. He calls it a ‘home-and-home’ series, which strikes a strange parallel in my mind: I think that this weekend will be my own personal home-and-home series.
“What’s the score Dad?” I ask, but no possible answer could really make me care either way.
“Zero-zero,” he says, stepping on the gas.
Touching the freezing window with the tips of my fingers, I peer through the glass. As much grief as I give this town, I’m honestly still surprised that nothing appears to have changed at all. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt however, since it is dark outside, and it doesn’t seem as though they’ve ever put in more than the familiar six streetlights I recognize along this road.
As soon as I enter the house the smells hit me. It’s pine trees. It’s lemons. It’s roses. It’s a roast beef cooking in the oven. It’s the hardwood floors that have just been washed and waxed, the carpets that were recently vacuumed. The footprints that were sure to have been on the carpeted stairs have all been carefully brushed away; all of the fibers no doubt meticulously combed forward. I want to run my finger along the top of the picture frame, but I know exactly what I’ll find: nothing. The cork coasters are already pre-set and waiting for me on the coffee table.
And then Mom comes out of the kitchen, in her famous pink ‘MOM’ apron, arms spread wide as a Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans). As dismayed as I sound, I look forward to the oncoming embrace, and hope I can get a bit more from my mother than what my father had graciously provided earlier.
“Bella! It’s so good to have you home, sweetheart!”
“Hi mom. I guess it’s about time, isn’t it?”
“At the very least, you could start returning your mother’s phone calls.”
“I know. I’m sorry about that.”
“Why don’t you get your father to take those bags upstairs for you?”
We both notice Dad has already sunk back into his chair and all attention has been diverted back to the hockey game. “That’s okay. I’ll bring them up myself.”
“Okay. Make sure you wash up too.” She turns back to the timer on the oven, although I’m sure her internal clock is far more accurate. “Dinner will be ready in six-and-a-half minutes.”
“Of course it will.”
“Oh, did you see how nice the table looks?” My mother proudly directs my attention into the dining room. It’s the same table setting they’ve used since I was nine.
Same as it always is in the Constant City.
“Very nice. It’s good to see you mom.”
Opening my bedroom door, I’m not the least bit surprised to find that the sheets on my bed are the same ones that were there when I’d left twelve years ago. Nothing that used to be in this room seems to have been taken out, and nothing new has been added. At first glance, it appears as though my old bedroom has been unaffected by time, yet I can tell that something is, well…off.
My reading lamp sits in the same position, angled just so I could read my Power Of Science textbooks and the Audubon Society Encyclopedia before bed.
My stuffed pig remains on the top of my dresser, eyes to the door, exactly where he has always sat.
The same cutout paper stars still hang from the same ceiling light.
The same old tape player sits on the ledge beneath my window, the ledge where I would sit and wonder what kind of a world was really outside; out beyond Ville Constance. One night I saw the neighbors across from us making out in their kitchen, which I considered to be pretty exciting when I was twelve. I see their kitchen lit up now, and all I can visualize is Becky Chandler with her head in the sink. I close the same old curtains to try and block out that horrible reminder.
A few colored drawings I scribbled in school when I was eight are still pinned on the same spot of the same corkboard above the same small desk where I would sit and do all of my homework. There’s a drawing of our house, with me standing outside by myself. There’s a pond of ducks, even though I can tell now that they’re horribly inaccurate and extremely off model. There’s even a drawing that Antonia herself had scribbled during one of the dozens of times that she stayed with us. I think it was supposed to be an elephant, but it’s hard to tell since it has far more spider-like qualities. I remember telling her that I would pin it up at this very desk, so she’d never lose it. But Antonia’s not here anymore and her purple pachyderm-arachnid is.
There’s some notches carved into the doorframe that marked my growth spurts when I was young. Tiny dates are scribbled beside each notch in pencil, in my father’s printing. I can visualize myself getting younger and younger as I follow them down with my fingertip. There’s a few more that had been added by some of the children who stayed with us, but they never returned to see how much they’d grown. They would find new homes, where they would probably pick up in their new rooms where they left off in mine. Those marks are scattered all around in the middle, but mine dominate the highest points.
There’s one mark that’s slightly above where the top of my head is now, and I remember adding that one the last time I was here. I don’t know why I did it, but I smile a little when I think about it now. Of course, the reason as to why I appear to have shrunk since then is a mystery. I try to remember what shoes I was wearing a year ago, not that my mother would let any shoes go beyond the front entrance.
Everything is as it was. And yet there’s still something in this room that feels oddly out of place. Something unusually usual, and I don’t know what it could possibly be.
I turn off the light and walk back out into the hall. There’s a boy, maybe seven or eight years old, coming out of the other bedroom. I guess I’ll be sharing the bathroom with him for the next couple of days.
“Hi there,” I say to him, realizing I don’t really know how to talk to kids any more.
“Hello!” he says with unexpected jubilation. “Are you my sister?”
“Well, I am for this weekend. My name is Isabelle. What’s your name?”
“Claude.” Of course it is, I think to myself. Why wouldn’t it be? “And it’s dinner time!” he yelps, and he runs down the stairs like he’s been waiting his whole life to be fed. He’s about as excited for dinner as Dad is about the hockey game, as mom is about her table setting, and as I am about taking these next three days to avoid my life back home in Boston.
The four of us sit around the table passing plates of roast beef, mashed potatoes and corn. Mom scoops servings onto my brother Claude’s plate, and he gobbles it all up at practically the same speed. Dad continues to watch the game from the table, which my mother would never have allowed when I lived here. The conversation is typical, and I have to put on a brave face when they ask me about work and Claude.
“Who’s Claude?” asks the boy of the same name. The name that’s almost making me sick at this point. The name that’s got me craving yet another cigarette. I actually bought my first pack last week, and brought another one with me for this trip. It’s lying inside my bag upstairs, just waiting for my first moment of weakness. The familiar pink plastic lighter sits in there too, having returned to its hometown now as well.
My mother explains that it’s the name of my parrot, and the kid is curiously amazed at the coincidence. Even if coincidences are almost entirely beyond his understanding at this point in his life.
Picking at my corn, I somberly say, “Claude is dead mom.” At that exact instant, the Montréal Canadiens score a goal. Dad cheers and accidentally flings a piece of roast across the room. My mother loses a bit of potato from her mouth as her jaw drops open in reaction to both my comment and the food on her floor.
“Did you see that?” my father asks anyone willing to listen. “What a goal!”
“That’s…awful,” my mother says, resurrecting the conversation. “I’m sorry. When did that happen?”
“You know, I don’t really want to talk about it mom.”
“Oh. Okay then sweetheart.”
“A parrot is a bird.” Claude says, as bits of chewed-up corn spew from his mouth. As oblivious as this kid is to my feelings on the subject, I have to give my father some credit for being even more oblivious.
“That’s right,” Mom tells him, wiping his face with her napkin. “Isabelle teaches people all about birds. That’s her job.”
“I know everything about birds,” he says to me.
I’m almost impressed by his enthusiasm. “Well, you probably know more than some of my students do,” I try my best to not think of any one student in particular.
With his fork, Claude spears what’s left of the roast beef on his plate and holds it up to me inquisitively. “What kind of bird is this?” he asks.
After my parents have gone to bed, I sneak outside onto the front porch to have a cigarette. Smoking has been the only thing that’s kept me relatively calm all week. Steffen James was considerate enough to pretend he didn’t even notice. My parents don’t drink coffee, and I’ve gone almost all day so far without a cup. I had a cup at the Tim Horton’s in Sept-Îles, but that’s a far cry from the Starbucks I’ve grown used to in Boston. At least at Starbucks you can control your own cream and sugar ratios; the girl at the Tim Horton’s insisted I decide between ordering it black, single-single, double-double, triple-triple or any of the combined variations. As if the commoners could not be trusted with their own cream and sugar. Canada seems so strange to me now. My muscles have been twitching all evening, so I’m hoping that a cigarette will help put everything at ease for just a bit longer.
It’s not long before my mother comes outside and catches me. It shouldn’t be a surprise though, she probably heard me coughing from her bedroom. I hide the cigarette behind my back, worried about getting busted, and that she might send me back up to my room.
“What are you doing out here sweetheart? It’s freezing outside!”
“I’m just doing some thinking mom.” It’s the most generic answer I can give, and only I hope it’s enough to satisfy her curiosity. But I should know that nothing much gets by my mother, ever since she told me she’s always known it was a hickey that she found on my neck that one Valentine’s Day so many years ago. “What are you doing up?” I ask her.
“I was just washing the floors,” she responds, and follows that by sniffing at the air outside on the porch. “Is that smoke?” she asks. “Were you smoking?”
Embarrassingly, I swing the cigarette back around to show her the evidence. God, I don’t miss being a kid at all anymore. “Yeah mom. I’ve picked up a few bad habits here and there along the way.”
“Are there any good habits?” my mother asks, as though she’s already accepted the fact that her daughter could possibly be flawed. Or maybe as an indication that she’s acknowledged her own bad habits over the years.
Either way, I take another puff, hoping that the smoke will be enough to take the blame for these tears in my eyes. It’s not though.
“Are you okay Isabelle?”
“That’s a tough one to answer mom.” It’s hard to admit anything to my mother. And especially hard to admit that I’ve finally changed after all these years, since I left this small town behind me. “I guess I’m just hitting a rough patch.” Not that she can relate.
“Everybody hits those patches, sweetheart.” She sits down on one of the two cold, frosted plastic porch chairs. A feeling comes over me: the strangest feeling that I should’ve already had this conversation with my mother. Like we were supposed to have had this talk years ago, but just accidentally missed out on it.
“I think this is a bit more than that,” I confess. I go on to tell my mom all about the foolish affair with Professor Nickwelter: how it all started, and even how it ended. I tell her about my birthday a month ago, and when I met Templeton Rate and how I thought a change would do me some good. I tell her how wrong I was. I tell her about the awful night in the Salem graveyard on Halloween, and that a student of mine was murdered. Murdered! I can barely even believe it myself as I say the words. I tell my mother how I ended things with Templeton because I was afraid of losing my job. There was far too much at stake. A relationship shouldn’t feel so costly, should it? I listen to myself ramble on, and I think that maybe I’m being selfish. I’m hoping for nothing more than a relationship, when there are people in this world without anything at all. A woman has been killed. Professor Nickwelter, a good friend of mine like it or not, is accused and missing. There’s a litter of angels in Ville Constance, just hoping for a family.
“Sometimes things change,” is what I get from my mother. “Whether you want them to…whether you think they should or not.” But I don’t want to hear that. Especially not in this town. She stares out into the street, lit only by the dimming lights of the neighborhood. From somewhere, there’s a warm breeze that sweeps up onto the porch. It carries a leaf that whirls around the corner of the house. I’m convinced that I’d seen that very same leaf fifteen years ago. Same as it always is in the Constant City.
I toss the cigarette into the neighbor’s yard. When I turn back to my mother, I’m surprised to find that she’s now holding one too, and trying to light it up behind the shield of her hands.
“Mom? What are you doing?”
“Everyone’s got habits,” she says with the cigarette hanging out of her mouth. Finally, she lights the thing, and leans back in the porch chair with a smile. “But not all of them are this good.”
“When did you start smoking?”
“I always have. Sometimes things don’t need to change in order to appear different. Sometimes things remain the same, but go unnoticed.”
I don’t know what to say to her; I just find myself trying to imagine my mother and I sitting on this same porch fifteen years ago sharing a cigarette together. But I can’t. It’s just too implausible. I don’t have to come up with anything more to say though, because she’s not through yet.
“Your father and I are getting a divorce.”
“What?” Thanks mom. Thanks for the perfect capper to my week. “What are you talking about?”
“Things haven’t been working for a long time Isabelle. We finally decided that we’d both be better off if we were apart.”
If my mother had been telling this story, it would be bursting with the unexpected.
“Like I said,” she continues. “Some things always remain the same, but simply go unnoticed.”
“I don’t know what to say. When were you planning on telling me?”
She takes a long drag and exhales it like a seasoned pro. “Maybe you should call your mother back every once in a while.”
Thanks for not holding a grudge Mom. That’s sweet of you. “The night Claude went missing, I also noticed that my phone had been unplugged,” I tell her. “The more I’ve thought about it though, the more I’ve considered that maybe it was Templeton who had done it. Even if I can’t figure out why.”
“Honestly Isabelle, it doesn’t sound like this man was a very good choice for you.” She’s right of course, and more I think about Templeton Rate, the more I realize he scares me more than anything. “What are you going to do when you get back to Boston?” she asks.
Finally, I sit down on the chair next to her. What am I going to do? I think back to the last conversation I had with Templeton, in the university parking lot. He told me that everyone would always believe in something different. And he knew about Professor Nickwelter, even before the whole horrible story had been made public. In the cemetery, he told me he believed in angels. He told me that he couldn’t force me to believe in the same things he did, but that he could make me accept them. I remember the night he told me he loved me. I remember waking up to find him by the window with tears in his eyes. The morning we sat on the sidewalk outside his apartment, he told me that he could see traces of life everywhere, when I could only see death. The dead pigeon. The wilted flowers left for the dead girl. The frog purse. Casualties of life, is what he called them. He asked me what was more important: life or death? But I didn’t have an answer, and he never gave me one. We were only a block away from The Strangest Feeling. From the place where he told me there wasn’t any right answers for anything in this world. He told me the amount of things that we don’t know outnumbers the amount of things we do. He told me if I was going to spread my wings I’d better have a safe place to land. He told me he was better than stale cheese bread and watery pea soup. He made his first appearance in my classroom and told my entire class that molting can be psychological. A temporary change, or a permanent one. He once asked me if I’d ever dreamt of flying. And I told him everything he wanted to know. I told him all my dreams. I opened myself up and told him everything I believed in. And in return, I believed every word he said to me.
I try to narrow down the exact moment where I went wrong. That one critical event that I can blame for getting me to where I am right now. It wasn’t when I tried out for the Doneau High basketball team. It was much, much later.
I’m certain now that it has something to do with all of the blue checkmarks. Templeton Rate knew far more than he should have known, and I blame myself for that.
My mother’s question still rings in my head. What am I going to do when I get back to Boston? “I’m going to figure out the truth behind Templeton Rate,” is what I tell her.
Before I head back upstairs to go to bed, I recall the feeling that something in my bedroom had felt out of place. But I couldn’t put my finger on it until now. I ask my mother, “You’ve been sleeping in my bedroom, haven’t you?”
“Yes. Ever since you left here twelve years ago.”
If I hadn’t left Ville Constance.
“Good night mom.” I kiss her on the cheek, and I go back inside the house.