Fiction by Dan Harrison
It’s the rain that finally breaks the story of winter. It comes with strong winds from the west, blowing down streets and tearing at flags that cling feebly to cold metal. From the horizon, angry clouds approach the city. They obscure the mountains and devastate the prairies. That’s when the wind stops, and the snow piled high beside roads shifts expectantly. The first drops come, narrow and cold, slipping between sleet and water. The rain tears at the snow and runs filthy down the gravel streets and begins to freeze when the sun goes down. The sides of the world grow smaller, and the city slows down. The cold sinks into buildings and alleys and the space between bones. Lights don’t shine as bright or as far.
In the morning, a weak sun breaks through thin clouds. It shines enough to see the devastated snowbanks and muddy ruins, but not enough to reflect the sheen of ice on every sidewalk. Across the city, people will fall. They will step and slide, and their arms will windmill, and they will land hard on their backs. The young will get up and laugh; the old will clamber to their feet and clutch whatever hurts. Winter is over, but it has not left yet.
On the night that Jacques Rocher died, such a rain fell. It left a thicker coat of ice than usual, which took longer to freeze. Winter didn’t slip away quietly in the night, around us one moment and gone when we woke up. Instead, it came over the mountains and proclaimed its departure. It went fast, packed its bags, and walked out of town.
When my dad and I left flowers on the doorstep where he died, tatters of snow still clung to the pavement. I wished Jacques were there to see it. I never knew him, at least personally. I learned who he was through newspaper articles and a beautiful obituary. So when I turned around after leaving the flowers, tears graced my face. I saw where he must have parked, in his usual spot. I saw, beneath the flowers and letters, where he had sat, with his back against his restaurant. Even with our limited acquaintance, I knew one thing for certain:
In the final hours of his life, Jacques Rocher was not sitting in an icy parking lot in suburban Calgary. He was in the French streets where he had grown up. He was kissing his wife on their wedding day and holding a newborn child. He was on an airplane with everything he had in the world, stepping into the rest of his life.
Jacques Rocher is not a headline, or an obituary, or a pile of flowers and a plywood door. He’s a person. He will always be a person.
French curse words peppered the midnight darkness in his car. He drove with all the windows down, letting the harsh March air calm him down. Jacques Rocher ran a hand down his rough beard. He breathed into tense fingers. Soft tires skidded down the pavement. The roads were wet, but not yet frozen. Ghosts of snowbanks fenced him in on either side. He was destined for that parking lot, for his restaurant. Twenty minutes previously, a phone call had woken him from a sound sleep in his small apartment, with his wife next to him and his daughter in the adjacent bedroom. The officer had stripped that away from him during a terse conversation.
“Hi, is this Jacques Rocher?”
“Eum, yes, this is him.”
“You are the owner of Café Croque, is that correct?”
“Yes, that’s correct. How can I help you? It’s late.”
“Sir, there has been a break-in at your restaurant.”
“A break-in? What do you mean?”
“Well, sir, your door was shattered, and the cash register was emptied. We aren’t sure if they took anything else.”
“Why would they want to break into my restaurant? The register was empty. I have nothing valuable—just things for my cooking.”
“What would be best right now, sir, is for you to come down to your restaurant. We can speak further when you arrive.”
“Putain. Okay. En route.”
Now he was sitting in a cold car. The rain had stopped and left a soft mist in the air. He saw pulsing blue and red far down the block. The night was quiet and starless, bitterly cold. His open palm slapped the steering wheel. More cursing.The lights came closer, the snowbanks slid tighter, the night fell darker. He swung into the parking lot, into the waiting embrace of two living police cars. Jacques pulled his car into his inconspicuous corner spot, tucked out of the way, and killed the engine. He sat in the silence for a moment before swinging his door open and climbing out.
The four officers, slung with uniforms, exchanged hushed words. They waved Jacques on, their hands making grim movements in the stale air. Behind the small group, broken glass was scattered on the pavement. The broken door was a gaping mouth, biting with glass teeth at the wind. Above them, a naïve sign shone in bright red and blue lettering, Café Croque, Cuisine Française.
Jacques felt small as he stepped through the ruined entrance. His hands trembled, and his breath hung vulnerable in the air. The interior of the restaurant was mostly untouched. Only the register, upended on the floor, and a path of upturned tables suggested that something had happened. The diminutive Frenchman stepped further into the gloom and reached for a switch on the wall.
Now he sat again in his car. The radio whispered softly, a night-time program from overseas. He kept a light on and ran the motor occasionally, to recharge the battery and keep the car warm. With his heavy coat wrapped tight, he was grateful that sleep eluded him. All the while, his sharp eyes remained on the gaping doorway and the silent, glowing sign above it. The officers had taken statements and assured him that someone would arrive by morning to secure the door. They had offered to keep someone there, but Jacques insisted that he was okay on his own.
“They have what they come for,” he reasoned, “Why come back?”
Once more, the sound of tires on gravel, and the tail-lights of police cruisers disappearing into the dark night. He locked the car doors. The parking lot wore a layer of weak yellow light, sending timid shadows onto the cooling pavement. In that moment, the world was made of nothing but silence.
After an hour, he stepped out to stretch his legs. The car door swung semi-shut with a gentle click, and he leaned on the cool metal. He never saw the knife, hardly even felt it. One moment it was quiet, then a sharp scrape of shoes on concrete. A dry gasp from Jacques, cool pain under his ribs, and the growing warmth of his life. He turned to see a darkened silhouette across the parking lot. They held his life in a trembling young hand and couldn’t take a moment to look back. Then they were gone, into darkness, into the past, into a headline somewhere. Jacques scrambled violently for the door handle and tugged on it. His cell phone beckoned from the passenger seat, but the door remained closed. He pulled again, over and over, each pull getting weaker and more urgent. Three digits, that’s all. An ambulance could be minutes away. He must have locked the door stepping out of his car. A careless accident. His stomach glowed with warmth. He touched the throbbing pain with his fingers, and they came back wet. Ten digits now, sitting on the passenger seat. It was his wife, his daughter. Asleep in their apartment, reassured after a quick call, the knowledge that everything was alright. Except he knew everything was certainly not alright. Everything was running out of a hole in his back. Everything was a puddle on the pavement. Everything was a silhouette somewhere else in the city, reckoning with what they had just done. Everything was slipping away.
He pulled again on the car door and let out a scream. It was an ugly sound, shredding the serene cover of night and gentle yellow glow. He looked around him, parking lots to his left and right. Across the road, a park and banks of townhomes. There were people sleeping in those homes, people with phones. People who had woken to a primal scream and, putting it away like a bad dream, had gone back to sleep. He stumbled across the pavement towards the road. With every step, the asphalt stumbled farther away. The quaint urban townhomes grew foggy and distant. The park lost its edge and drifted into the night. His steps slowed down, and the stars came from the sky to fight with his vision.
Among it all, among the endless chaos and knowledge that he was completely alone, a bright sign and a gaping mouth of glass.
Café Croque, Cuisine Française.
Blue, red, white. A small flag. Elegant cursive. The artificial glow of neon. A chasm, a mouth, opening wider. Jagged shards caught the yellow streetlamps and warped the light, turned into shimmering teeth.
He was seventeen, surrounded by all his favorite people. They spoke their brand of French loudly, laying claim to each word as their own. The youthful curses rang with pleasant defiance. They owned the world, and if not, they owned the cobblestones beneath their feet, the unpredictable narrow alleys, and the shuttered shop windows. They owned the warm French air, how it blew through these sleepy towns in August while the country rested. They owned the hum of insects and the crash of waves on rocky shores, just beyond the city limits. They swung like a pendulum of teenage happiness between each side of the street. Staggered and laughed, talked loudly. They told stories and called out others, claimed that each of their words was truer than the previous ones. Their accomplishments surpassed everything that had come before; their confidence was armor. Jacques was happy, he was alive.
Monsieur Michelin, they called him. Le Chef. He was going to America, they claimed. To teach them what real food tastes like.
“Not America,” he replied. “Canada. They will appreciate it. They speak French.”
“Elegant Americans,” someone said. They all laughed.
“But that’s not tonight; that’s the future,” he said. “Tonight, I’m drunk with my friends. And we own everything!”
They cheered, they ran, they whooped and hollered through the night, to the edge of the city. The harbor creaked with the ropes of boats, the gentle back and forth of the ocean. Out onto the pier, to the end where the water is deep and calm on one side, where it crashes against the other. Clothes are left in a hasty pile. The first to jump, the next to top it. Loud splashes and glistening arms in the moonlight. Dark water cools against their skin—wet hair, long hair, sticking to bare shoulders. Up onto the warm concrete surface of the pier, beneath a ceiling of stars.
“Are the stars the same in Canada?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “but there will always be stars.”
The concrete of the pier gave way to a cold black parking lot. Gravel pressed into his back. He rolled over with a grunt and sat up. His gut throbbed more now, deeper. Words from long ago reached out into the night. Il y aura toujours des étoiles, into the empty air above his mouth. He climbed to unsteady feet and walked on towards the neon glow. Café Croque, Cuisine Française.
The glass became her smile. White teeth, just long enough to shine between her lips. Narrow, beautiful lips. Tender and sharp. They spoke words that cut his heart and pulled him in. They told him to stay, just a little longer. To grow up. To be a kid again. Anything they told him, anything from those lips. And golden hair, fine strands framing taught cheekbones, and a narrow nose. Intense eyes. Her laugh, clear as a bell in a quiet church. It rose above everything, climbed into the clouds, and shone down on a brighter day. They were walking together, hands clasped comfortably between their hips. She brushed the back of his hand with her thumb. It was evening, under the final light of a Parisian sunset. He had just graduated; they walked together along the everlasting Seine. He wore a sharp suit and a goofy smile. His shirt was printed with roses. She wore a long summer dress, light and shimmering. Her hair drifted in a breeze only they could feel. They could walk forever and be happy. They could go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. This was the rest of their life. Every step was another decision.
“What now?” she asked.
“What do you want?” he replied.
“Let’s get married.”
“No, I want my mother there. Soon, though. Before the summer ends.”
“Of course,” he said.
Now the summer was ending, and they held hands beneath an altar of vines and flowers, all woven in the service of ceremony. All the people they loved, dear friends from the edges of life laid out in front of them. Words exchanged, and cool metal on fingers—a kiss, cheering and jokes, and more laughing. Always laughing. Her smile. They were in her parents’ backyard, near the shores of their youth. Now they stood together as one on the shores of a new lifetime. The air was sweet.
“I’m unhappy,” he said.
“How come?” she said.
“I don’t know. I love you and our life, but something is missing.” They were together in a small kitchen.
“I’m pregnant,” she said. He laughed, and smiled, and cried. She held his hand.
“Are the stars the same in Canada?” she said.
“Of course, il y aura toujours des étoiles.”
“Then our daughter should see them.”
“Canada? Yes, let’s go,” he said.
“When?” she said.
“Soon.” They both smiled, and he looked at her stomach. A daughter. They looked around them, at their first apartment. They had jobs, stability. But they wanted Canada. Packing was easy; saying goodbye was harder. So many friends, so many visits to make. Promises to return, promises of places to stay. They walked the streets of their life together. When the sun began to set over the Atlantic, they found a warm wall and leaned against it. Kissed by France, kissed by an orange sky, kissed by a future across the ocean.
The wall he leaned on now wasn’t warm or comforting. Jacques watched the wet pavement crystallize and begin to freeze. His breath shone in the cold air. The wall he leaned on now stood for everything he had ever desired. Café Croque, Cuisine Française.
Eight hours on a plane. His wife five months pregnant. They held hands the entire flight, sleeping the fitful sleep of travelers. Beneath them, everything they wanted from their life in France. They had found a two-bedroom apartment on the edge of downtown. He had found a cheap space in a young neighborhood, secured a building permit. She suggested the name. They had doubts, fears, and an overwhelming amount of hope. He sipped weak black coffee from a paper cup. Ate cold airline food. Gripped her hand tighter. They had seen pictures of the city, of the mountains on the horizon, the golden prairies. Researched the neighborhood and knew what to expect. He was worried about the harsh winters. She was fearless. Was their English good enough? They all speak French, he said. Not all of them, most of them. We’ll send her to a French school. I hope she has friends. I hope we have friends. Their money is plastic? Yes, but also colorful. Like home. Where’s home now? She squeezed his hand tighter as if to say, this is home: you, me, the three of us.
They spent three days in Toronto before continuing on to Calgary. We might as well be tourists before we live here. They spoke broken English and heard harsh Quebec French. It’s barely the same language. I know. There were so many people, but it was different than Paris and the cities back home. They learned the mannerisms. He learned how to tip. Will people tip me? Maybe. They ate food from around the world. Wandered through eclectic Canadian neighborhoods. Listened to Canadian music. Saw Lake Ontario.
“It’s an ocean,” she said.
“Just a lake.”
“There are five of them?” she said. A passerby chuckled.
“Way more than five, he said. It was foreign, but it felt like home.
After three days, they were eager to get on the plane.
“Four more hours? How are we in the same country?”
“And that’s not even the full length,” said someone in their row. She laughed, always laughing. He smiled. They made small conversation with their neighbors on the flight. You’ll love it here, they all said. Welcome home. This is Canada. The land passed beneath the window: Inland oceans, fractured lake country. Endless prairies, patchworks of dusty roads and crops. The land, their land, home now. The mountains on the horizon. Not the old mountains of Europe. These were sharp and young, snow-capped with promise. He couldn’t believe that the country went on beyond those mountains. And the North felt like a myth to him; it couldn’t stretch to the top of the world. Their world. Calgary stretched out below.
“We’re on the east side,” she said.
“There?” he said.
“Right below us.” Tears came to their eyes.
“We’re doing it. For real. Canada. I can’t wait to see the stars.”
“I can’t wait for her to see them.” She rubbed her swollen stomach. A calm landing, the spring sun warming the tarmac. They took deep breaths together, stood up, and walked off the plane into warm light.
Around Jacques was gone; the edges of everything drifted together and became too thin to see. The night sky came down to him. He still had a few years, he thought.
He had the birth of his daughter, and her first day of school. He had the hours of work in the restaurant and opening day. He had his first review in a frame on the wall. He had crowds and regulars. They had friends, laughter, a community around them. The city that had once been a stranger from the sky had become something more than home. It had opened its arms and offered everything to them. Bleak winter storms and the rain that breaks them. Hot summer days and the awkward stages in between that never quite take shape. This was his story, and it stretched in all directions. His life was all around him. He laughed, and the sound kept him warm. No more cursing, only peace drifting between everything. Every moment he had ever been alive, all at once and all around. So this is what the stars in Canada look like. They come from the sky and surround you and hold you close and fill you with everything you have ever had.