It had been a favourite topic of discussion at dinner parties throughout the years. They would go around the table and each one of the guests would explain how they had come to live in their Montreal neighbourhood, Mile End. Jen’s story was shorter than most because it was a postscript to Edwin’s. Edwin had phoned her right after he’d signed his lease, the first of his life, and urged her to take his back bedroom. He could afford the rent on his own thanks to his job at the passport office, which he had been able to secure before graduation in a seamless transition from school to real life. The place, a third-floor apartment in an early twentieth-century row house on St-Urbain St., was huge and he would welcome the company. From the payphone in the shadow of the Byzantine dome of St. Michael’s sham-rocked church, he’d told her the impressions that he would go on to share—and expand on—for years. As he’d walked to meet the landlady Vera and her daughter, it had seemed to him as though the entire neighbourhood was present and accounted for, present and accounted for and outside or within easy reach of it: leaning in their open doorways, sitting on their front stoops, calling out to one another from their balconies, in Portuguese, Italian, Greek. After years of living on campus, years that he had thought happy and full, it was a shock for Edwin to walk past a café and realize it was occupied by old men. “All these old guys, arguing and playing cards,” he’d say, whenever it was his turn to tell his Mile End story. “I realized that I missed old people. That I wanted to see old people again.”
That first evening, he’d marveled at the old men’s counterparts, women assembled to examine vegetable gardens encased in chain-link fencing reinforced with chicken wire, shaking their fingers at the cats that dared to slink by. There were other kinds of gardens, too. Over time, Jen and Edwin had tried to identify them all, an endeavour that Jen’s husband Capa who abhorred yard work and never wanted a garden found pointless. Whenever they engaged in it, he would tune out or leave the room. There were gardens that reminded them of forest bottoms, that were populated with moss, ferns or northern blue violets, or some combination thereof. Because these gardens required little care and were well suited to the shady side of the street, they were sometimes chosen by default by unambitious gardeners in search of convenience. They were Jen’s favourite kind, and she maintained that if she ever got a yard, in spite of Capa’s objections, that she would put in one of these gardens, sunny side or not. There were gardens that were more like meadows overflowing with raspberry bushes and tall, friendly, outgoing flowers: orange, red and yellow tiger lilies, black-eyed Susans, and pink cosmos, which, as summer went on, would get heavier or bolder, leaning over the fence and tickling people as they passed by. Vera the landlady had one of these gardens in the front, and that first year her daughter had taught Edwin how to make tinctures from the coneflowers. Edwin still made this tincture, and every year at Christmas, he would give it out as gifts, saying that it was the reason he never had the flu. There were gardens where fences had been removed, so that the same flowers, bushes, shrubs, vines, and fountains could extend one, two, three properties at a stretch. There were gardens watched over by the Virgin Mary in statue or tile form. There were gardens consisting solely of grapevines, potted tomato plants, rose bushes or potted shrubs arranged in symmetrical formations. There were fences draped in morning glories. Everywhere, there were front fences whose wrought-iron spikes bore lost baby items—hats, rattles, shoes—collected from the sidewalk, in the hope that yesterday’s strollers might retrace past steps. There was the odd garden where the owners had devoted themselves to maintaining a patch of suburban grass, no bigger in some cases than the space one might need for three or four graves laid out side by side. These gardens declared themselves with an extra line of plastic fencing or with a sign depicting in words or, worse, images, of a dog or cat in full squat with a line through it, that this was to be a shit-free zone. There were gardens that had been filled in with cement or replaced with interlocking brick. These were usually accompanied by an old man in a fisherman’s cap and with a hose, whose task it was to keep the space free of debris. There were gardens centred on flowering trees, trees that would only flower for a week or two each spring: magnolia, crab apple, lilac. These gardens were the most common of all.
That first night in the neighborhood, Edwin had walked home slowly, trying to take everything in. He had read outside of the church to learn that dome, name, and shamrocks aside, it offered mass in Polish. The church, he would find out, formed the foundation of Vera’s social life. Two times a year, he would host a Sunday lunch for her small circle of friends, mostly women and a dwindling number of men, who would take refuge in one another, smoking cigarette after cigarette under Vera’s beloved ash tree. That first evening, he had continued down the street, where he had passed a temple to Indian guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Incense wafted out of the temple’s open doors. Edwin recognized the soapy smell; the incense was popular with the girls in residence. Soap and cigarette smoke, that was the smell of the women of his youth, perhaps the last generation of women for whom this was true. On the same block was a Chinese Buddhist church and something called a mikvah, which Edwin would learn, was a ritual bath used by the area’s Hassidic Jewish women. On his way to the apartment, he had walked up Hutchison St., where he had seen other signs of this observant religious community: Men whose beards, side curls, and long black coats would not have looked out of place in an Eastern European village centuries before. Women in wigs and Jackie Kennedy suits, rushing. Children, so many of them. Big sisters helping little ones across the street. Boys on scooters. Girls playing schoolyard jumping games. Toddlers entrusted to stand on the sidewalk on their own.
Edwin left the street for a back alley. The back yards were not as ornate as the front. There was a frugality about them, as though it would have been shameful to spend money on one’s backyard even if one had the means. Some were given over to parking lots. One had a VW Bug resting on cinder blocks. Many were used to store unwanted furniture, shelves, coffee tables, couches, and ottomans. There were plastic dining tables plunked amongst the weeds, with an overflowing ashtray as the only adornment. There were back shed fire escapes covered in tin that themselves looked like fire traps. On every pole, an abandoned bicycle. In some cases, these bikes had been smashed up or harvested for parts but remained locked. “I will buy a bike,” thought Edwin, who had never needed one, or even to use public transit on a regular basis, as he’d always been so close to all his destinations while living on campus.
That July, Edwin assembled a team—for him, assembling a team had always been easy—to help him move his and Jen’s possessions into the apartment, where he showed off its many features: the clawfoot tub, the stained glass windows and the intact fleur-de-lis pattern on the lower half of the original plaster walls.
Edwin had been in the same apartment ever since. He had developed a symbiotic relationship with Vera. Her age was a secret, but for years, it had been estimated at 90-something. Edwin cleared her pathway of snow. He brought her paper in the morning. He helped her to the taxi when it was time for her to go out on one of her rare outings beyond the church. He repainted the front stairs. He helped one of her nephews redo the front windows with EnergyStar panes. When it was time to order more fuel oil, he made the call and led the workmen to the tank. He also paid the bill for them both. Vera, in turn, granted him full access to her backyard vegetable garden. She allowed him to renovate his kitchen to accommodate a six-burner range. She even made arrangements in her will so that the next owners of the triplex would inherit Edwin as well. When Jen learned that, she knew that she would never leave the neighborhood either.
ANNE CHUDOBIAK lives in Montreal. Her work has appeared in the Montreal Gazette, the National Post, McGill News Magazine, VIA Destinations Magazine and the Montreal Review of Books.
Copyright © 2020 by Anne Chudobiak. All rights reserved.