The second-place winner of the 2013 Quebec Writing Competition.
At twilight you’re freed from your cubicle inside the labyrinth of global tombs. You cut across the city park and take the steps to the library. Chris stands in front of a shelf. His pale hand reaches for a spine. Suspended in the shadowy aisle, Chris peers at the book. What if it’s by David Foster Wallace?
The sightings occur when you’re released from the noose of your day-to-day. Chris turns up in an airport departure lounge. Or he’s drinking by himself in a corner of a bar. He once stood behind you in the cordoned line-up to a film. A solid, almost stocky figure of average height, Chris never wears the suit anymore, just the windbreaker and jeans. He’s always alone, his face shaved and his hair cut short. It’s the pallor of his skin that first catches your eye.
Every sighting forces you back, mining memory for details and assessing. You first met Chris at a corporate function, one of those morale-building sessions that nobody wanted to attend. Newly transferred to head office, he was appointed in charge of social responsibility. Rumours preceding his arrival suggested some sort of meltdown and months of sick leave. At the dinner, Chris strutted and shook hands, cracked jokes and boasted about how he’d improve the company’s brand. “I’ll make good corporate citizens out of all of you.” You recall wondering whether the arrogance was a cover-up. When he moved into the cubicle across from yours, he set up framed photographs of his sons and wife on his desk. You wrote some speeches for him. Unlike other colleagues, he always rehearsed. You could hear him practicing across the aisle, his voice low but intense.
You’re attending a conference in another city and visit the museum. On your way to the Rothko’s, you spot Chris sitting on a bench by a concrete wall. He’s wearing the same blue windbreaker with the collar turned up over his neck. Inside the exhibition hall, you find the canvas, Red over Dark Blue on Dark Grey, and the painter’s words, “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” By the time you leave, Chris is gone from the bench. What do you want from him? Absolution. But for what, precisely?
You once invited him and his wife Lilly to your apartment for dinner. His skin didn’t seem so pale then but his dark hair was shorn in a crew cut that surprised. Chris came of age in the seventies and might have been a hippie before the corporate gigs. At first, Lilly did most of the talking. After a few glasses of wine Chris seemed to relax. There was music playing and the crystalline voice sang, “I’m gonna blow this damn candle out.” He confided that he liked Joni Mitchell, had seen her perform once in California. The confession stayed with you. Most of your colleagues would never admit to liking her music.
There was a return invitation to his house. Out in the suburbs you’d long fled although in secret you sometimes craved the barbecues and backyard conviviality, the music of kids yelling, “Stand all!” and “You’re it!” There’d been an early snow storm and Chris had shovelled the driveway leading to his two car garage. Strings of white lights framed the windows of the house.
Inside, most of the living room was taken up by an artificial Christmas tree already trimmed with decorations and a desk stacked with documents sporting the corporate logo. The boys had been dispatched to a neighbouring babysitter. Lilly served thin filets, cod perhaps, with scalloped potatoes and cauliflower. Chris talked about his next speech on employee engagement, how to be “the brightest and the best.” Before dessert you escaped to the kitchen, helped stack dishes in the sink as Lilly prepared the coffee. Outside the window, the snowy yard was lit by a bluish winter light. A castle loomed in a corner, its walls made of blocks of snow, the corners meticulously square. Lilly said it was a snow fort Chris had built for the boys yesterday. “He was out there in the storm all day.”
The cold was brutal when you left. Chris shivered in the glow of the open door to make sure your car started. He waved as you pulled out of his driveway. When you looked back the door was shut.
On Valentine’s Day he was declared redundant in a downsizing. Later you heard Chris set up shop at home, hoping to make a go of consulting on his own. You never met up with him again although he sent you Christmas cards every year. You don’t remember replying. Rumours circulated that Chris couldn’t find steady consulting work, that Lilly was working to support the family. One Friday afternoon in the corporate coffee room, the news dropped along with your Styrofoam cup.
That weekend, at the visitation inside a home disguised to resemble a living room, you met his sons. Teenagers by now, they stood greeting the line of those who came. You’d rehearsed in the car on your way but when you looked into their dazed eyes, the words escaped.
“Thank you for coming,” Lilly repeated to you and others in the line.
“I’m so sorry,” you said. But were you really? “This is terrible,” you had to say.
“Yes.” Lilly’s face was like a sliver of flame in the night sky, the stem of her body narrow and straight. “Help yourself.” She meant coffee but the words resonated. You resolved to take them literally.
Coffee was served from an urn that gave off an acrid aroma of burning grounds. On a credenza, a computer screen flashed a montage of snapshots. Chris fishing with the boys. Chris dressed as a pirate at a Halloween party. Chris waving from his bicycle. Chris with a moustache on his wedding day. Chris in his suit delivering a speech. A neighbour told of his annual Christmas party. “Chris always invited everyone on the street.” Then she said, “I saw the ambulance take him away.”
You signed the book before leaving. Just your name. "Sympathy" seemed too weak a word, as belated as "I’m sorry."
The first sighting occurred that night. On your way to a concert, you went to open the glass door and noticed his reflection framed within the chrome. Shoulders hunched to his ears, Chris hovered as if trapped in a black and white photograph by Diane Arbus.
You start spending your lunch hours at the museum. You listen to music or read novels at your desk instead of working. On your way to the library, you cut through a city park, crunching through the brittle fall leaves. Nearby, two boys are kicking a ball in a rhythmic thwack.
Lilly picked up the boys from soccer practice. She drove up to the house, turned into the driveway and triggered the remote.
The ball flies past you and rolls towards the trunk of a leafless tree.
The garage door opened.
Chris straddles a branch, his face luminous against the dusky sky.
Chris dangled from the rafters. There was no note.