Fiction

The Smell of Smoke

by
Photography by Adam Harrison

• 3,048 words

Photograph by Adam Harrison

Green remembers the quality of sunlight on the afternoon he last saw Maggie, August 23, 1968, beside his parents’ swimming pool. It was late in the season so there was a distinct feeling of summer declining. He witnessed it in the length and speed of shadows sliding across the lawn from the arborvitae hedge and the maples, firs, and birches.

His mother and a couple of his aunts were reclining on chaises longues. The women had been sunbathing, and were just starting to notice the freshness in the air. Maggie had disappeared into the cabana wearing a two-piece bathing suit. She came out rubbing her wet hair with a towel, dressed in blue-and-white striped bell bottoms, a wide leather belt with a brass buckle, a T-shirt, and sandals. She was tan from days sailing on Green’s little Pram, the Nutshell.

He was stretched out on a chaise on the same side of the pool as the women, but separate from them. Turquoise water glinted between him and Maggie. He was still wet. They had raced twenty-five lengths and he had won. His skin stank of chlorine. He was shivering.

When Maggie called goodbye from across the pool, his mother and aunts waved. As far as they were concerned, it was only the beginning of the end of another summer, and Maggie was only returning to Boston, where she took studio classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts—“the Museum of Fine Rats,” she called it. Green watched her walk down the gravel path carrying her bathing suit and towel, pass through the gate, get into the white sports car, and drive away down Bord-du-Lac Road.

Maggie’s parents’ house was one of the oldest on the lakeshore. In the days of New France it had been a manor home and a fur-trading post. There were gun slits in the basement, where the seigneur and his family and servants barricaded themselves when the Iroquois and the New Englanders—les Bostonnais—raided up and down the St. Lawrence. The fieldstone and rubble walls were three feet thick. The gun slits were stuffed with pink insulation fiber.

People called it “the Lakeshore” but the lake was really just a widening in the St. Lawrence River. The water had current, it had a flow.

The restless youngsters of New France and fanatical priests in black robes used to set off from there, paddling upstream, plunging into the Ohio then down the Mississippi, baptizing Indians and claiming an endless Louisiane for the kings of France.

Now the Lakeshore was merely a Montreal suburb where businessmen built comfortable houses, paid yacht-club dues, and took the train into the city. There were Indians in a village on the other side of the golf course but they kept to themselves.

Blood and furs, fortune hunting, holy anointing oil, the transportation of faith—all that had been forgotten.

The Harrisons had no roots in Montreal. Maggie was born on an air base in Labrador and her parents were from out West. Mrs. Harrison wore turquoise eye shadow and a matching hair band. Maggie’s father was an Air Canada pilot, flying dc-8s across the Atlantic every week. He drank rye and played golf. According to Maggie, he grew up on a ranch in Alberta, and he walked the fairways with a bow-legged strut.

Maggie and her parents spoke to each other in language so spare, so cleansed of inflection, Green thought they might as well have transmitted their communications using semaphore flags.

One afternoon when Green accompanied Maggie home, she left him in the kitchen with her mother, who, without asking if he was hungry, fixed him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Mrs. Harrison always fed Green, who was too unsettled in her presence to feel much of an appetite. Maggie reappeared a couple of minutes later carrying a compact vinyl suitcase, the type that was called a train case.

“Let’s go,” she said.

Green was standing in front of the dishwasher, attempting to swallow the sandwich, which was sticking in his throat.

Mrs. Harrison said, “Where? ”

“Green’s for the weekend.”

“Well. Take care.”

The next thing Green knew he and Maggie were out of the house, spinning along Bord-du-Lac Road in her white sports car.

Green’s real name was Robert Greenaway Metternich. Maggie was the only one who called him “Green.” The nickname was a joke, of course, but because it was hers exclusively, it had the click of intimacy to it. She used “Green” all summer, in public, around the yacht club. Green had no pet names for her. “Maggie” felt private enough, intimate enough.

Green wondered if anyone knew what they were doing. The unusual thing about their romance was the difference in their ages. Maggie was twenty-one that summer. Green was fourteen.

His parents occasionally questioned him, but they really had no idea how he spent his days, or what he thought about. There would be long spells with no questions whatsoever, then one morning his father would fire a volley across the breakfast table. “Are you going sailing today? ”; “Did you read the editorial in the Star? ”; “What do you think of the language law? ”; “Who are your friends at the club? ”

Green did not give out more information than was absolutely necessary. He tried to emulate Maggie’s laconic interchanges with her parents. The Harrisons’ Western Canadian accents were terse. Perhaps the brutal winds that came out of there—the Alberta Clippers—had taught them to shape words closely and slip them out between barely parted lips, afraid that if they opened wider the cold would penetrate their mouths, freeze their tongues, crack their teeth.

Maggie’s house and Green’s were three-quarters of a mile apart on the Bord-du-Lac road. Both houses were quiet almost all the time, but Green decided hers was quieter. From just inside the front door, he could hear the clock on the electric range ticking, though the kitchen was at the other end of the house. Perhaps the purity of the silence was also a Western thing.

Early one midsummer morning, Green was getting dressed in a kind of stupor. Pulling on his shorts very slowly, tying the laces of his sneakers; looking out over the lawn at the silver maples and watching cars go by on Bord-du-Lac Road. He heard the words inside his head, then repeated them aloud: “I am in love with you, Maggie Harrison.” He kept his voice low. He was an only child in a big house, so it wasn’t likely anyone overheard. The house was so solidly built that it ate sound.

“I love you, Maggie, and I want to marry you.”

Saying the words made him dizzy. He thought he must be leaving his childhood, shedding it like a carapace. And suddenly he felt so open, so soft and unprotected, that he had to sit down on the edge of his bed.

He never repeated the words to Maggie. He cannot remember many of their conversations—but he knew he had not said this. He did not use the vocabulary of longing because there was nothing unrequited in their relationship. Nothing unconsummated. He had everything he wanted before he knew what that was.

She did once say, “Green, if you were twenty-one, I would marry you.”

She was peeing when she said it, in the pink bathroom attached to her bedroom, in the fur-trade house. Her parents were in Laguna Beach, California—they flew everywhere for free. Maggie and Green had just had sex in the basement, and she had shown him the gun slits. Green pulled out handfuls of pink insulation fibre and peered through a narrow opening between the stones. It was dark, so he could not see the lake very well, but he could smell the water. He pressed his mouth and nose right up against the slit so that his cheekbones were touching cold, sharp rubble, and breathed in the darkness and moisture, the scent of Indians, muskets, and fur.

He could imagine himself inside her skin, feeling what she felt, and so he understood how to touch her. How roughly, how softly, with what rhythm, and for how long.

It did not seem strange that she should pee in front of him, with her underwear crumpled in a ball beside the sink. It did not seem strange to be so intimate with a twenty-one-year-old woman.

And when she had said that she would have married him, if he were twenty-one, he understood she was not being serious. Marriage was as unlikely as a visit to Mars, or a walk on the moon.

He used to have a Polaroid snapshot that showed half a dozen young people sitting on a diving board at the club. Maggie and Green were both in the Polaroid, but not sitting together, and no one, seeing the photo, would ever think of them as a couple. Green was just a boy, sunburnt and squinting; Maggie was a wry, pretty young woman. Nothing in the photo connected them, but that was the night it started, in the parking lot on the lakeside of the road.

He doesn’t know why she chose him, what role he was playing in her life that summer, if he was standing in for someone else, or representing something; or if she was just a girl who got excited breaking rules. Screwing one of the older boys around the club would have been breaking the rules, but a pretty ordinary infraction. Screwing Green was more dangerous, though it was difficult for Green to see himself in those terms. At fourteen, he was shy and polite—“well brought up,” people at the club would say.

Perhaps she was looking for danger, but only a regulated dose of it. Danger she knew she could handle. That was Green. She could handle him perfectly.

She did try to get him to dance at the club, but he would not, afraid of looking ridiculous. Not that the club dances were extravagant, or formal, as they had been in his mother’s era. On the Lakeshore in 1968, barefoot girls and boys in madras shorts hopped and shook to the call of the record player set up on the concrete patio by the club pool. There were bowls of potato chips, hamburgers on a grill, ice chests of Cokes, and Green, who was neither young enough nor old enough to feel at ease.

Just the summer before, he had built a diorama of the Normandy invasion on the Ping-Pong table in the basement, meticulously hand-painting hundreds of miniature troops and constructing the cliffs of Normandy from bricks, screen mesh, and plaster of Paris. He used matchboxes for German pillboxes, and more plaster of Paris for the ocean. He painstakingly assembled, painted, and decaled plastic Messerschmidts and Spitfires, suspending the tiny planes on nylon thread with puffs of cotton wool to simulate an anti-aircraft barrage. He stole fine white sand from the sandboxes in the park for his invasion beaches.

He had not anticipated the power of sex, the authority it would exercise over his happiness.

Whenever they slept together, his self-consciousness eased. He felt closer to a line of balance, almost graceful. He had grown four inches during the previous year and was so unaccustomed to his height that he would sometimes trip and fall over walking on a smoothly clipped lawn. Maggie made him feel powerful. When they were sleeping together, she made him feel radiant.

“Sleeping together”—they did not sleep much. During sex, he was always hyper-awake. Afterwards, they usually couldn’t fall asleep without the risk of getting caught. Sleeping only happened on weekends when both sets of parents were away.

The first time he slept with her in his bedroom he awoke before dawn, startled to feel her presence. She wore one of his shirts, nothing else. It had been a warm night and the sheets were bunched at the foot of the bed. She lay on her back. Her heat impressed him. He found himself studying the patch of fur between her legs. His pubic hair was sparse; hers was thick. In the moonlight he could not tell its colour, but it gleamed. It could almost be blue, he thought. He ran his fingertips lightly through her bush and she stirred but did not awaken, and he fell back to sleep with his hand cupping her there. In the morning they had sex again, then she showed him how to make coffee using his mother’s percolator.

A couple of months after Maggie had returned to Boston, her father was posted to Vancouver. Green got the news in a letter from Boston, which he reread a dozen times and eventually lost—he was still too young to be able to hold on to such things, to value a scrap of paper.

One afternoon in November, on his way home from school, he noticed a realtor’s sign plunged into the lawn in front of the fur-trade house. Peering in through a window, he saw that the rooms were bare. Mr. and Mrs. Harrison had already moved on.

Maggie first brought him back to the fur-trade house after another Friday night dance by the club pool. Her parents were in La Jolla or Santa Barbara.

It was dark, and she tripped over a sprinkler while crossing the lawn. He remembers her small, fierce shout, like an animal snagged in a leg-trap. He knelt down beside her on the grass. She was rubbing her big toe. There was a pungent aroma of chemical fertilizer and pine needles. She placed her hand over his heart and looked straight at him, unsmiling. He was unaccustomed to such focused attention and it was hard not to look away. There was intensity in her gaze, which he had never encountered before, and a cool perspicacity. For about a minute they stayed like that on the lawn, motionless, like the concrete deer people in the country sometimes have in their yards. Then she got up without a word and he followed her inside.

Mr. Metternich attempted a father/son talk about sex in January, five months after Green last saw Maggie Harrison. It was a Saturday, and they were driving through an unfamiliar section of Montreal, searching for a yard that sold coal. Cordwood was available everywhere, and cheaply, but Green’s father had a nostalgic longing for the resiny aroma of coal smoke, and the hissing, clinking noise of coals glowing in a grate.

They had already tried one lumberyard where split birch was only $11 per cord, delivered, but the foreman said he hadn’t sold coal for years. “Depuis dix ans, peut-être!”

But Green’s father was determined to find the coal yard someone had told him about, somewhere off the Upper Lachine Road. It was thirty below, white smoke licking from furnace pipes, snow in heaps. The sky was electric blue, the river had frozen, and they had just heard on the car radio that a pack of wolves had crossed onto the Island of Montreal and were frisking on the airport runways, when Green’s father asked, “Is there anything you’d like talk to me about? ”

A little while later, Green’s father parked outside a workingmen’s tavern on St. Antoine Street and asked Green if he’d like to have a beer.

There was a slag of orange sawdust on the floor and the tables were surfaced with scuffed Formica. In those days in Quebec, women were not allowed into taverns, by law. The television screen mounted in one corner showed a blank green eye. It would be switched on for the Saturday night hockey game, nothing else.

His father ordered them each a glass of beer and showed Green how to sprinkle salt on the beer, to bring up the head.

Green understood that the outing must have been carefully planned, that his father had been looking forward all week to this little rite of initiation. Perhaps he’d been looking forward to it since Green was born.

Green also understood that he had to put away the summer, to forget it.

In her one letter, Maggie had written, “I wish we could do the things we used to do and I hope your mama doesn’t read this. I’m going to Europe next summer. I’m going to wear sandals and be lonely.”

After finishing their glasses of beer, Green and his father got back into the car and continued searching up and down streets lined with brick tenements whose steep iron staircases were plastered with ice and snow. They finally found the coal yard in what had been the stable of an ancient farmhouse. It was now nearly hidden by the concrete piers of an elevated expressway. While the noise of traffic stroked the neighbourhood like a rasp, Green’s father purchased three fifty-pound sacks of coal, which fitted neatly into the trunk of his Pontiac.

These days, when Green, on his travels, smells burning coal—it might be on a winter’s day in Beijing, or downwind of a power station in Anatolia—the scent seems to enter him, not as an ordinary sensation, pleasant or unpleasant, but as love enters the body, or stringent loneliness, or the realization of being lost without bearings. The scent of burning coal possesses him, for a few seconds at least, and everything mixes together, past and future, but mostly the past; and for those few seconds it’s all coming at him, all at once—he feels it squeeze his lungs, but he has learned to keep breathing.