The Fiction

Cleaning Up

From the Winter, 2019–2020, issue 

(No. 44)

Matthew Daley

When Liette stepped out of work the heat hit her like a soggy sponge. Thick, humid, unbearable—just like it had been that day in 2007. Along Saint Laurent, people’s faces glistened.

Customers had complained all day as Liette scanned their items at the cash, but the air conditioning refrigerated the store so completely that the heat was a rumour she couldn’t quite believe. Now, sweat soaked her eyebrows and melted her steps, her sore feet thirsty for the cool hose she’d put on as soon as she got home.

As she walked up the block she could make out something in front of the six-plex. Now what? Probably it was paperbacks and T-shirts strewn on a blanket for another sidewalk sale. Or else Anton, serenading passersby on the harmonica, with his artwork spread out at his feet.

A young woman on her hands and knees was chalking the sidewalk like a kid making a hopscotch. She wore short shorts, and her breasts bubbled out of a bikini top.

“Hey, Liette. You like her?” Anton came out with two tall beer cans and gave one to the girl.

She looked young, like all of grey-haired Anton’s girlfriends, but what did Liette care. It took her a minute to realize he was referring to their drawing.

It billowed with waves of hair and arms. A woman held something different in each hand: a glass of coffee, a bagel, a guitar, a laptop, a telephone, a beer.

“She’s Our Lady of the Coffee,” said the girl.

“Our Lady of Mile End!” corrected Anton. “Give her your artists hanging by a thread, your trendy young professionals, your gamers, and your walking tours. You’ve got to admit, she adds some magic to the pavement.”

“She adds something, I suppose.”

Liette stepped around the squatting girl and through the front gate to the six-plex that she and Anton shared with their neighbours. The ugly white-brick building dated from the seventies, when it took the place of two old triplexes that had burned down. That was long before anyone had thought of heritage regulations or cared about the way this part of Montreal looked; back before the neighbourhood had its own name. As she turned back to latch the gate she caught Anton rolling his eyes.

She went inside to get away from the artists and their wavy woman. This meant walking right past her coiled hose and the oasis of cool mist she’d pictured for the entire walk home.

It had started that summer, a dozen years ago. Cleaning was the only thing that helped. She’d always kept the front yard tidy, if you could call the uneven stretch of asphalt a yard. But that July was when it had become a ritual. She liked to spray her flowerpots, rinse the paved yard, mist her feet. Watering the pavement calmed her.

When fall came, she raked after work and before bed. Making piles and bagging them to keep the cracked surface clutter free quieted her pounding heart. Sometimes, pulse racing, she got up and went out at midnight to pick up the drifting yellow leaves from the Norway maple next door. One by one, she collected every leaf. It helped her almost sleep. The yard spanned the width of the six-plex. On a block where every centimetre was in demand, this space was hers. In the winter, she shovelled it clear and then turned to the broom to brush away the quiet white.

Now she opened every window. No breeze. She doused her face at the sink, peeled off her dress, and lay down on the floor underneath the ceiling fan. Not cool enough. She got up and stood in front of the open fridge, wishing again it was possible to store up some of that icy a.c. from the store and feel it now. It didn’t work that way. There was no holding onto anything for later.

Liette looked out the front window. She had to clean the yard before the police showed up. They usually came before the anniversary, and they hadn’t been around yet. She had to spray the hose, but Anton and friend were still out there with the chalk, talking and laughing.

She lay back down on the floor, in her underwear, the fan spinning overhead, the rug rough against her back.

The doorbell yanked her awake. Half naked, she tugged on her dress.

A man outside her door pushed aviator sunglasses up onto his bald dome. The rims glinted like the chain inside his white shirt, which was open at the collar.

“Sorry to disturb,” he held out a tanned hand, the Ferrari horse prancing on a gold ring. “I’m just here to say hello. We’re the new owners. We bought the building from the Carusos.”

“We? Who’s that?”

He patted the pocket of his chinos.

“I don’t have a card with me right now. We’ll be doing some renos, but I’m sure we can come up with a good solution for everyone.”

Liette looked over his shoulder and saw a large S.U.V. double parked in front. She’d known that Mr. Caruso’s kids were selling. Liette, Anton, and their neighbours, all paying seven hundred dollars a month each, would have to go. New owners paid tenants like them to relocate during renovations, then quadrupled the rent.

“We realize a number of you have been here for quite a while.”

“Twenty-seven years.”

“For you.”

He held out a white box.

When her arms stayed at her sides, he set the box down on the steps.

Liette watched the man get in his big car and drive away. No sign of Anton now, of course, when she wanted to know if this new owner had already talked to him. She slipped on her flip-flops and stepped outside, her foot catching the edge of the white box.

The cream filling was dense and sweet, the shell light and crisp. On the front steps, as the sun was setting, Liette ate three cannoli. She wondered if Anton got a box, too. He’d been there about ten years now, arriving a couple summers after it happened.

A minute of misting made the terracotta of the geranium pots give off the smell of wet clay. Robin had shaped her a pottery bowl, in art class, for Mother’s Day, in Grade 4. The teachers always got them to do something. He’d been excited, hiding the surprise in his room, putting up a sign—keep out don’t look it’s secret—and making a big fuss over presenting it, wadded in ten layers of plastic bags, watching her as she opened it, to gauge her amazement. Later, he hid other stuff in his room. There’d been no more signs—none needed. The message had been clear: Keep out. Stay away. That’s when she should have gone in. She should have pressed him to talk to her about what he was doing, where he went when he stayed out all night and with whom. Mother’s Day always gave her twinges, the seasonal displays of flowers, chocolates, and cards reading “to mom” in loopy cursive or fake kid writing made her tight heart thump too fast.

Her fingers gripped the lever on the hose nozzle. Today was just as bad, kind of like Mother’s Day in July. Where were her annual visitors, anyway? They always showed up to say they hadn’t forgotten. If she moved, like Big Car Cannoli had in mind, how would they find her?

Spray caught her feet and felt so good she turned it to mist her torso, legs, face.

Dripping, she loosened her grip so the water turned off as she stooped to picked up cigarette butts. An endless supply blew over from across the street where smokers sat on benches outside the terrasse of the café.

“Don’t you think it’s wasteful, Liette?” Anton had asked more than once. “They say Montreal loses half of its drinkable water through leaks in the infrastructure, and you’re spraying the other half on concrete.”

She turned it on full and blasted the asphalt.

The water pooled and a trickle ran under the fence, into the hair of the giant woman they’d drawn all along the sidewalk. Bright water coloured with chalk dust ran off the curb into the street. Tired from the heat, the day, that guy at the door, she watched the colours float.

“Liette! Stop!” Anton slammed through the gate and grabbed at the hose. She turned away

from him and water sprayed everywhere.

“What the hell? We spent hours on that. Turn it off, you fucking crazy anal bitch!”

Anton grabbed the hose and flung it on the ground. He shoved her shoulder.

“Don’t touch me.”

“You idiot. You’re such a loser. Watering the pavement. You’re pathetic!”

He jabbed his finger at her sternum, as his girlfriend tried to grab his arm.

Liette stumbled back.

“Get away from me. I’m calling the police.”

Still dripping, her flip-flops squelched the cannoli box as she ran for her phone. Damp fingers slid on the screen as she pressed 911.

She looked up from the phone and there they were, filling her doorway. “Already? How—?” The large policemen came into her front hall.

“How are you, Madame Morin? Is there a problem?”

They were here. Their appearance was not miraculous, she realized. They’d been en route, they were here for the other thing.

“Nine one one. Nine one one,” the voice on the phone repeated.

“Oh!” she looked at the screen jammed the red circle to end the call.

“How have you been?” said the older cop, Passard . . . Perreault . . . Tétrault . . . she searched for his name. She had his card somewhere. Silver tinged his temples now. “We understand it’s hard. We just want you to know, we’re still on it. As we’ve told you, sometimes the perpetrator of a drug-related shooting is not tracked down for years.”

“Twelve, even? Twelve years?”

“It happens, Madame Morin. File’s still open. I’m not giving up.”

Every year, the same exchange. They knew their lines. What else could they do.

Her phone was ringing. She refused the call. It rang again. She saw it was 911 and thrust the phone at him.

“Community Relations, Officer Tétrault,” he answered. “We came to the address for an unrelated visit.”

He listened, nodding, and assessed Liette.

“Is anyone in any danger?” he asked her.

She shook her head, wondering why he wanted to know. It was a dozen years too late to do anything about it. Anton’s shove came back to her, resurfacing as if floating up from under water.

“Under control,” he said into the phone.

Liette sat down and looked at their big bodies and giant boots in her living room. The young one was especially big.

“How old are you?” she asked him.

He looked at Tétrault.

“Twenty-eight,” he said. He had light hair, shaved close.

They’d moved in when Robin was two. He’d played outside in front. He had a tiny slide. In the summer they filled up a little plastic pool. She was so happy to get a place on the ground floor, even if the yard was paved. At least there was a fenced-in space for him to run around, like a mini-playground. She kept the stroller inside the front door and the sled for pulling him to daycare in the winter by the steps outside.

“Robin would have been a year older now. I mean, a year older than you. He had big feet too.”

The years spun away from her as she spoke. Twenty-seven years here, she’d told the man. Where would she go now? How could she leave? How had she stayed this long? She stared at Tétrault’s partner’s boots.

They watched her, as if waiting for her to come up with something else. She just kept nodding. That seemed to be all she had to say. Robin would have been twenty-nine. He had big feet, too. He didn’t anymore.

“Madame Morin.” Tétrault reached out a hand and squeezed her clammy fingers. “I wish you a good evening.”

“Wait! Here!” She went to get the dented box from the front. “Take one!”

They looked in and gave her a quick glance.

Liette’s T-shirt dress was damp with sweat and water from the hose and it stuck to her body like a wet bathing suit. She looked and saw the pastries in the box had been mashed flat, their creamy guts spilled out of splintered cylinders.

“I suppose they don’t look too appetizing anymore—”

Tétrault reached in, scooped up a handful, and popped the goop in his mouth.

“Mmm. Thanks,” he said, as if it was the best treat—as good as an ice-cold beer—as if he weren’t accepting the loopy offer of a deranged lady. A pathetic fucking crazy anal bitch.

She blinked, tapped the back of her hand to her eyes.

In the dusk, out front, the officers walked past Anton, who said something to them she couldn’t quite hear.

Tétrault stopped, spoke to him, gestured to the door where she stood.

Liette held up her hand, a static wave.

She sat down on the steps. Dusk settled over the block. It was still hot. The terrasse of the café across the street was quiet except for a few smokers around the outside edges. Most customers were inside now, enjoying the air conditioning. They used to prop the doors open on hot nights, and she’d lie in bed and listen to the clack and thunk of balls on the pool table. They got rid of pool years ago, to squeeze in more tables for more coffee drinkers. Young guys who worked at the video game company had moved to the street, as well as new families with fancy cars or those bicycles with boxes on the front big enough to carry a couple kids. When the new owners got them out—her and Anton, the Russian families, and the two old couples upstairs—they would renovate and rent to people like that. Unless they fought it, Liette thought. Maybe in the morning she’d talk to Anton. Whatever the new landlord offered next time he came around, they could refuse it. The tenants could get together, go to the rental board. At least buy some time.

“Liette.”

Anton came toward her and then, before he got close, he stopped. His face was blurry in the half dark.

“I didn’t know. I mean, I knew about your son, but I didn’t know what day it was today. The cop told me. I’m sorry.”

The asphalt yard was still damp in spots. Liette got up and walked over to the gate. The girlfriend had a flashlight and was doing touch-ups to their wavy woman with all the arms.

“Maybe you should give her a hose,” Liette suggested.

The girl nodded.

“I can add another arm.”

“And a shovel.”

“Broom?” Anton asked, digging out his own piece of chalk from the pail.

“I think so.”

Liette opened the gate and stepped out of her enclosure to get a better look at the woman juggling so many different things.