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2006 01 18
To 4517 Waverly [katharine wolfe]

by katharine wolfe

To 4517 Waverly:

I let the dredger with its rising and falling chain buckets count for me, and frantically followed its count: Thirty-six, thirty-seven mudheaving seconds. For forty-one, forty-two badly oiled seconds, forty-seven, forty-eight, forty-nine seconds, the dredger with its rising, falling, dipping buckets did what it could… Though we had not arranged for any signals, you might have knocked.
-Gunter Grass, Cat and Mouse

I only spent one summer in Montreal, yet all of the many winters I spent in the city treated me more kindly. Underemployed to start, shelving and sorting books at a University library from 8 to 12 each day, I soon lost my job as summer funding ran low, and failed my French course the same month. Lindsay too had poor luck; she lost her research funding and decided to go home to Baltimore for the rest of the summer, leaving me alone in our one-bedroom apartment. Lonely and nearly broke, I sat outside reading on our balcony day after day, drinking black coffee in the morning and port in the afternoons as the fruit flies inside grew more and more numerous. My Montreal summer passed fitfully on that balcony. My mother raised me with a protestant work ethic that doesn’t take kindly to unemployment, and my father instilled in me the same Catholic guilt his father instilled in him. That summer on the balcony, then, under the shade of the huge cottonwood tree growing in the alley that let fall thousands of tiny, fluffy, white seeds like snow in summer, and looking down on the chalk drawings of women with hearts for breasts put there, I can only assume, by the Hassidic children in the neighbourhood, the guilt struck like a heat stroke, or the waves of a fever. It was the first time in my life that I had trouble eating: for almost a month, I ate close to nothing but Spartan apples - the mushy, overly-sweet ones the Intermarché on the corner sold for two dollars a bag.

Summers are the hardest.

When I saw you again, it was early winter. Snow buried the cars you’d vandalized the previous June. The cuts on your skin from the ringed knuckles of the man who’d beaten you for it had healed, and the scars faded, as had the bruises left around your wrists from the handcuffs the police put you in the same night. It was accidental, really. It was a stranger’s house, and we’d both come – uninvited, to tell the truth – at the behest of someone else. I was there with Lindsay, who’d come back once the summer had ended. You were sitting on the dirty, slushy steps of the back porch, wearing gloves with the first two fingers on the left-hand gnawed off, to make it easier to smoke - although you wouldn’t in front off me. Under the sky that, even in the deepest nights, never quite turned to black but only faded to a darker shade of electric blue, you confessed something to me: the summer took its toll on you too, and it was the first time in a month you’d been out of bed.

We slept together for the first time a couple months later. It was still winter. That day we both didn’t get out of bed. It was the first time I’d been to your apartment. Someone once told me that four city blocks burn to the ground in Montreal each and ever year, and the power outages in the winter months are more often caused by these fires than by power shortages. Yet your building wasn’t burning, but sinking. 4517 Waverly was a sinking ship. The floors were warped and sloping as if the whole building had been submerged under water for months or even years, and all the furniture in it looked like it had washed up there: the boxes upon boxes of beer bottles stacked together to make a kitchen table, the gutted, old refrigerator you used for a closet, the little single bed, hard as a rock you used as a living room sofa, the faded photographs of Montreal during the ‘magic hour’ – the hour of soft warm light just prior to the setting of the sun. The one functioning refrigerator in the house even hummed and moaned, mimicking the sound of a ship settling at the bottom of the ocean floor. We went down on each other as it sank.

When summer came again, you moved out of that sinking ship and into, you tell me, a black hole. You tell me too that it will be, at the least, another two years before you and I can be in Montreal again. I’m sorry I never wrote back, but it was summer when I got the letter, and in the summer, I’ve got nothing to give but sweat. More than that, now that I try to write, I realize I don’t know how send a letter to a black hole.


Katharine Wolfe grew up in the Saskatchewan Badlands. She now works and studies in Toronto, Ontario.

editor & photo: tobias c. van Veen

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