‘La Mustang’ by Craig Barron

Montreal, October 1968

Eva faces the wall of sunroom windows, intent on her garden view: the unpruned growth crowding the peach tree, and beneath it the abandoned Mustang covered with leaves.

A trail of cigarette smoke drifts Eva’s way but she doesn’t move. The windows are closed on a warm autumn day—the aluminum outside storms too heavy to lift. Beside her Edith waves her cigarette with a circling motion. Edith coughs: “These new-fangled filters, there’s something in them. Not good for the throat.” Edith is past forty and ailing, but Eva wonders at the strange energy in her sister’s slight body.

“Look at the colours, the leaves, red and gold,” Eva says, “The city is on fire.”

“Aren’t you going to be late for work?”

“It’s Saturday, I start at twelve.”

“You don’t need to sit in the window.”

“Why not? Such a lovely day.”

“Anyone can see you.”

“There’s trees, the hedge and a fence. I can’t imagine who would be watching.”

“You never know. We have 4000 hippies living in town.”

“4000? Have you counted them?”

“What Mayor Drapeau said. Yes, I read it. A scary thing.”

“They’re not apt to wander into our boring neighbourhood.”

“You can’t tell what is on anyone’s mind these days. Temptations, you can’t tell.”

Eva stands, her eyes still fixed on the garden. “The leaves are falling early this year.”

“The big tree is rotting. Just as well.”

“Why?”

“The house foundation. The roots, they must have reached the cinder blocks. Looking for heat.”

“I think roots look for moisture. The basement walls are fine.”

*

Michel listens: the only English voices in the bar. Sometimes American tourists stroll in, or Ontario teenagers on a wild under-aged adventure, but too uncomfortable they rarely stay. Later in the evening there will be the inevitable drunken university students from McGill.

Quite the surprise to see Peter coming in the door, Michel at first not twigging to the fact that the woman following is with him. Michel watches as Peter choses a window view, then glances his way. Peter has never seen him on the job, but will understand it is a frantic place and expect no special attention. With her tweed skirt and plaid scarf, Peter’s companion is certainly no regular to the neighbourhood. Michel catches her first remark before moving out of earshot: “It’s like a birthday cake.”

“What do you mean?” Peter asks.

“The lights, like candles. The excitement.”

“Just another Saturday night on rue St. Denis.”

“It’s a different world.”

“What would you like to drink?”

“Whatever you’re having.”

Michel has moved to a scruffy bunch of intense old men nearby. After a moment he looks over to Peter. “Monsieur, deux cognacs, s’il vous plaît,” Peter says. Michel winks and goes to get their drinks.

“That was lovely,” Eva says. “When did you learn French?”

“I’ve changed neighbourhoods, you know. I live further east of here. A completely French neighbourhood.”

“How exotic. I feel as if I’ve crossed the Rubicon. Peter, t’s wonderful I ran into you.”

“I was a bit surprised …”

“Yes, things change.”

“You haven’t, not much,” Peter says. “How is it, working at Morgan’s?”

“I like the hustle and bustle. Did you find what you wanted?”

“I was just walking through.”

“Yes, some men do that, they just walk through. So, do you have a job?”

“No, I study. University, general arts.”

“Nothing in particular?” Eva asks.

“Psychology.”

“The science of the mind, right? There must be an extraordinary future in psychology.”

Michel brings their drinks. Eva notes he is a bit younger than Peter, with shorter hair, very attractive and at ease. Michel notices her attention and she promptly turns away. Michel touches the back of Peter’s neck. “Des cacahuetes? Peanuts?” Eva looks up and shakes her head.

“Have you ever thought about learning French?” Peter asks.

“What a good idea. Yes, it’s something I must think about.” She looks towards Michel. “I wonder if the waiter thinks we’re on a date.”

“No, he knows me a bit.”

“A friend? So handsome. Why is it people are so much more attractive on this side of town?”

“His name is Michel.”

“Handsome, and so unhappy. How can handsome young men be so unhappy? They have it all, the way things are nowadays: the new liberation, the freedom; he might have a half-dozen girls visiting his bed.”

“I don’t think so.” Peter looks at the view through the window, the street traffic, long dusty Pontiacs and Chryslers rumbling by.

“Well, what do I know?” Eva sits up straight in her chair.

“Do you go out a lot?”

“The odd film from time to time… I’d go mad if I didn’t. I’ve seen the Sound of Music four times. Did you see it?”

“Ah, no.”

“What a shame.”

Peter holds up his glass, looks deep into the amber liquid. “So what happened, that you’re working again?”

“Man and His World, Expo 67. A smorgasbord: hostesses, so much to choose.”

“Oh, you mean your husband?”

“Tony hightailed it to the West Coast with a girl from the French Pavilion.”

“That was one of the nice ones. It’s still standing.”

“It is?”

“Do you still have the house?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I heard about it.”

“Oh yes, lovely. Fieldstone fireplace, breathtaking, it covered an entire wall. Coppertone in the kitchen, cushion floor, avocado fashion cookware. An avocado themed bathroom. All gone. Tony left nothing but debts.”

“I’m sorry.”

“The car, the Mustang, was the only thing in my name. A birthday present.”

“You should be grateful to the marketing campaign.”

“Why?”

“The Mustang was designed for women; the keys can’t be locked inside.”

“Yes, that would have appealed to Tony.”

“So you get around in style?”

“No, Tony never had time to teach me how to drive. The car just sits under Edith’s peach tree.”

“So you live with your sister again? How is she?”

“She smokes, she coughs; she eats bacon and ketchup sandwiches for lunch.”

“The same bat outta hell.”

“Yes, endless madcap hilarity at her house. But I’m grateful, she cared for our parents, made sacrifices. And I was so much younger—so of course they left her the house. And now I have someplace to stay.”

“But an interesting case.”

“Interesting?”

“Shut down, if I remember. Your sister doesn’t adjust well to change.”

“You must learn so much from psychology.”

“Have you ever seen your sister laugh?”

“As a matter of fact, I have.”

“Really, what makes her laugh?”

“Nuns.”

“Nuns?”

“Nuns always make her laugh.”

“The Flying Nun?

“The one on TV? Heaven’s no, she only watches Bonanza. No, nuns in the flesh. Oh, that sounds crude, doesn’t it? I mean the real thing.”

“What about them?”

“Anything at all, how they dress, how they walk or eat. One delightful day Edith saw a carload, a Falcon station wagon full of nuns eating ice cream cones. She found it hilarious.”

“There’s not that many nuns left.”

“Oh they’re still out there. Flapping about.”

“How about a coffee for the road?”

*

The third floor of a narrow greystone triplex, the decor in Peter’s apartment is scant and restrained—except for one psychedelic print on the back of the bathroom door. Michel lies naked on the bed. Peter approaches with a bottle of wine and two glasses. “A drink for a French lesson.” His kiss is a small awkward graze. Michel pulls back as if in pain.

“Okay, Minou minew?”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Okay, sexy French boy.”

“Yes, that’s better.” They gently touch their glasses together.

“A toast to what?” Peter says.

“New York!”

“Michel, forget it.”

“When I get there.” Michel drains his glass.

“It’s not so bad here.”

“This city, Montreal … I don’t know, nothing’s happening. What am I, a waiter?”

“You’re something to me.”

“Maybe.” Michel rolls over, falls off of the bed. He lies face up on the floor.

“Draining bottles at the restaurant again?”

“Yes … drain-ing.”

“To drain, how’s that translate?”

Drainer … Purger. Égoutter. Vider. Yes, vider, that’s it.” Michel sighs. “Having to listen to my customers, les intellectuels. Fatiguants. And they never tip.” He holds up his glass for another drink. “So who’s your Jackie Kennedee friend?”

“Kennedy. Stress the first syllable.”

“Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy.”

“And her name is Onassis now.”

“Your friend?”

“No. Jackie Onassis: you haven’t seen the news? My friend’s name is Eva.”

Elle a l’air perdue. Lost in Space.”

“Don’t you think she’s gorgeous?”

“Yes, so? Who is she?”

“We dated.”

“No!”

“No, it wasn’t like that.”

“Like what?”

“In high school, we sort of protected each other from the masses.”

“Not like this?” Michel crawls up on the bed and kisses Peter.

“No.”

“But she was special?”

“Of course.”

“And she’s not married?”

“Divorced.”

“Rich?”

“No. Just has a car.”

“A car, that’s something!”

“And she can’t even drive.”

“What kind? What kind of car?”

“Mustang, 1965 or ’66, I think.”

“Oh yeah, Mustang? Incroyable gaspillage.”

“What?”

“A waste. Ask her if she will sell it?”

Peter kisses Michel. “This is so strange.”

Quoi?”

“You.”

“Relax. Tu es homosexuel. Homosexual. Some of our words are the same you know.”

“Either way, I don’t like that word.”

“Then find one you do. Can I see her car?”

*

The next morning Edith watches her sister in the garden, distractedly sweeping the leaves off of the car’s front hood. “Do you want a rake? For the leaves?”

“No, Edith, it’s something you enjoy doing. Good for your arms you used to say—if you take your time.”

“You were gone a long while last night?”

“Was I?”

“I put your dinner in the fridge. You can have it for lunch.”

“I’m really not hungry.”

“You’re too thin. Do you want to look like that Mia Farrow? A skeleton. Are you dating someone?”

“No, of course not.”

“I assume you will, sometime.”

“Do you? Just as I assume you will not.”

“Please. I’m an old woman.”

“You’re forty.”

“Forty-one, yes, too old. And sick. What, discotheques, getting turned on … to the, what’s it called, the pop scene?”

“Yes, yes, and I’ll become a gay divorcee.”

“Date, why don’t you? Find yourself a man.”

“What sort of man?”

“One like that Pierre Trudeau fellow. Or that other one.”

“What other one?”

“Tom Jones.”

“What a nice salad of men.”

They are both startled when the phone rings. Inside, Eva takes the phone. When she hangs up she sees Edith waiting in the kitchen door. “Someone is interested in the car. You met him a long time ago: Peter from my high school?”

“Peter, the one you should have married?”

*

Eva sits on the back steps in the falling evening light. Edith meanders through the garden, cigarette in hand. She draws close to the Mustang, reaches out to almost touch the car when she sees Peter and Michel enter the garden from the side of the house.

Eva waves. “Hello! Edith, you remember Peter?”

Edith looks closely at Peter. “Is it? Under all that hair? Not a Smothers Brother? At least there’s no beard.”

“This is Michel.”

Bonsoir.”

“Ah … Oui!” Eva says. “Of course we have met.”

“We don’t speak French around here,” Edith says.

Michel ignores her and walks towards the car; after a moment Peter follows. “Elle est belle, la Mustang.”

“Go ahead and have a good look,” Eva says.

Michel opens the driver’s side door and sits; Peter settles beside him. Michel snuggles back in the bucket seat and strokes the dash, “Man … look at this. Perfect, it fits me. Can I say that?”

“Sure.”

Michel kisses the back of the leather bucket seat. “Beautiful and practical.”

“I think you need to look at the motor.”

It takes some effort to open the hood and Peter helps. Up on the porch Edith is fascinated by the activity, Michel bending beneath the hood. “Not so bad,” he says, “I have a friend who can have a look.”

Peter pulls Michel up, puts his arms around him. They go back inside the car. Edith tries to catch a glimpse: “They’re not men.”

“Pardon me?”

“Look at them, clutching.”

“Clutching?”

“Kissing. A couple of hippies. Mixing things up, messing things up. That Peter pansy, no wonder he didn’t want you.”

Michel is focused on the contours of the dashboard and speaks softly, “I’m going away. A magic place. I need a car to get me there.”

“New York? A pipe dream.”

“A pipe … Please translate?”

“I don’t know how.”

“Mr. Psychology student, how did you find your way into my bed?”

“You dragged me there, remember?”

*

Edith has disappeared inside the house. Eva and Michel lean against the car, while Peter sits brooding inside. Michel observes the rear of the house. “This is a weird house. But you could tear off that sunporch, bash out the wall: les fenêtres panoramiques; big windows I mean.”

“It’s not my house.”

“Your mother is really … bizarre.”

“She’s my sister.”

Oui, okay. So do you have the keys? I want to try the car.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve no idea where they are. Is there a hurry?

“I’m moving away.”

“Are you sure? It’s your home here.”

“I don’t always feel like that. Sometimes it feels cold and crazy.”

“Maybe Peter has been a bad influence on you.”

“You think so?”

“You’re very masculine.”

Merci bien.”

“I won’t pretend to understand your relationship. I knew Peter was different. He only kissed me once. He was fascinated with Montgomery Clift.”

“Who?”

“Never mind, someone from New York.”

“New York? Ah, bien.” Michel memorizes: “Montgomery Cliff, I should look him up.”

“He’s a dead movie star.”

“What do I know about anything? It is why I should go away.”

“I’m thinking,” Eva says, “Maybe I could keep the car.”

“You can’t leave something like this here! For the winter? Merde!” Michel begins to stroke the car.

“If I could find someone to teach me how to drive.”

“Do you know about the clutch?” Eva and Michel hear the back door open as Edith comes outside.

“Eva, do we have any ice cream?”

“We have never, ever, had ice cream in the house.”

“If you’ve made a deal for the car we could buy some ice cream.”

Peter steps out of the car.

Non,” Michel says, “No deal. Je préfère les décapotables. I like … ”

“What, you need to go to the bathroom?” Edith asks.

“Convertibles. He likes convertibles,” Peter says, “Very American.”

“Have you ever watched Bonanza?”

“I’ve seen parts.”

“Watch it all. You could learn a few things about how real men behave,” Edith says.

“Like little Joe?” Peter asks.

“Of course.”

“Oh, I watch him. Those are the parts I watch. I want to taste his dusty sweat.”

 

Vancouver Island, October 2008

The ivy-covered Mustang sits in the lush garden, the tarp folded neatly on the car’s roof. The dog is nestled against the flat back tire and grey-bearded Michel bends to touch the Labrador’s nose. “Impossible, isn’t it Brewster?”

“No, it isn’t, Michel.” Michel looks up to the weathered deck where Peter brings two cranberry cocktails through the sliding glass doors. “And with important matters, it would help if you addressed me, not the dog. Isn’t that right, Brewster?” Peter puts the drinks down on the metal café style table. Moving spritely down the steps he pauses briefly to inspect a patch of moss. He approaches the car, puts his arm around Michel. “It’s not impossible, you know. There’s quite a few of these fellows still roaming around out here.”

“Yes and there are guys who are into that, Peter. Mostly straight. They spend their lives fixing and fixing up. Not me. Not you, for sure.”

“Yes, so we find someone to restore it. Total rebuild. There’s places for that. The Trudeau Mercedes, they shipped it out here, didn’t they?”

“You’re talking $20,000 or more. And we need a new kitchen.”

“We can go back to the original colour, that green-y gold.”

“When did we paint it blue?” Michel asks.

“Sometime in the 1990s—our lost decade in Ontario—where did we find the spare cash?” Peter puts his boot on the fender, gives a light push. “So do we haul it away then?”

“It could just stay part of the garden. Look, the ivy growing through the rust. Beautiful.”

“Remember the first time we saw it? Buried in leaves. Nothing but leaves in Eva’s backyard.”

“Not her house. It was la grande folle-crazy bitch’s place! Remember how we lost it? Eva wouldn’t sell.”

“You lost it. It was for you, to leave me.”

“No. Not really. Did Eva ever drive it?”

“Yes, I asked at the funeral—only making conversation—Edith standing there in her cloud of smoke, hating me. Yes, of course she drove, Edith said. And then I thought I could go ahead and ask: What did Eva die from? A hard question to fit in. Female trouble, old Edith said. As if that explained everything. Then in the same breath she asks me if I knew someone who might want the Mustang.”

“I like that. Oh my god, remember what she wanted: her own car; what she used the Mustang money for?”

“A Falcon station wagon.”

“And we saw her once didn’t we, one day out driving. The car was white.”

“No, Michel, wasn’t it baby blue? There’s a few of them out here on the island.”

“Crazy bitches?”

“No, Falcon station wagons.”

“How it all worked out, sort of incredible. You and me, forty years.” Michel leans back against the car.

“Oh, my god. It’s been hard to be with someone 40 years. Ups and downs. You and me.”

“And all our friends that died along the way.”

“What about the Mustang?”

“Yes, change the subject.”

“Michel. La Mustang?”

“Impossible.”

Peter threads some ivy into a bit of rust. Another strand into Michel’s hair.

 


CRAIG BARRON’s short stories have appeared in Chelsea Station, Glitterwolf, The Church-Wellesley Review, Event, Lichen, Front&Centre, and the anthology The Air Between Us. He is a graduate of the UBC Creative Writing MFA Program.

Copyright © 2018 by Craig Barron. All rights reserved.