There was a loud knock on the department door. Francis was too busy to turn around. His phone had been ringing every ten minutes with some new crisis. His colleague in the cubicle behind him giggled.
“Hey Francis,” he said, “I think it’s for you.”
Francis pulled off his glasses and swivelled around in his chair. Through the long rectangular window in the door he could see the shaggy grey hair spilling out from beneath the baseball cap; the searching, watery eyes; the broad yellow smile. He had about fifteen things to tend to immediately, but he dragged himself to his feet and pulled open the security-locked door, trying to contrive something that resembled a smile.
“Oh, hey Andre,” he said.
“How’s it going?”
“So this is it, huh?” He peered over Francis’s shoulder at the small room and the four workstations in each corner. He was more excited than the situation seemed to warrant.
“Yep,” said Francis, slipping out into the hall and letting the door close behind him.
“Have you taken a break yet?” Andre asked.
“Yes, I just got back.”
“Oh, okay. I was a gonna say we could go down for a cigarette. Well, not me — I don’t smoke.”
“And you shouldn’t start up again either.”
“No, no, I quit. I quit.”
Andre took another look through the window in the door and noticed the empty desk. “Is the other guy still on holidays?” he asked.
“Yes, until Friday.”
“You have to cover his work, eh?”
“Some of it.”
“Oh, too bad.”
“It’s okay. The day whips by.”
“I guess so.”
“Maybe I’ll catch you on the next one,” Francis said, backing into the door and closing his hand around the smooth silver knob.
“Okay,” Andre said. “I didn’t know you already went.”
“Yep. Went and came back.”
“Hey, if you ever want to go for lunch, let me know.”
“Well, I only get thirty minutes. After I go to the coffee shop and have a smoke, I’m basically walking back to the building.”
“You know what I do? I take one of my fifteen-minute breaks and combine it with lunch, so it gives me forty-five.”
“No, I need to use the fifteen in the morning.”
“I’ll see you later, Andre.”
“Yeah, I’ll come back when you’re not so busy. What do you think? Thirty minutes?”
“Oh no, at least a couple of hours. Lots to do.”
Francis tapped his security card on the sensor and slipped back inside the room. He returned to his desk, wondering how he had let things escalate to this point. He thought it was understood that when he turned down that narrow hall and slipped through the security door, he was unavailable. As far as Andre knew, he had vanished into another dimension.
He knew by now that it was hopeless to try to put up boundaries. It seemed like the less he fed this relationship, the more it thrived. He was incapable of being blunt and equally incapable of finding words that might seem reasonable enough to camouflage his private and supreme indifference. They had gotten acquainted at the Christmas party. It seemed so long ago now, the night he discovered the personality contained in the anonymous fellow proletarian wandering the halls. At the time he was grateful to see a friendly face. He had only been transferred to the Montreal facility eight months earlier and didn’t have many friends. He showed up alone, already slightly inebriated, and made a beeline for the open bar. He bumped into Andre on the way back and found himself talking to him for several minutes before he even properly recognized him. The lighting was dim. He looked different there. The ball cap was gone and he’d tamed his raggedy bushel of hair with Brylcreem or bacon grease or some kind of gel. It looked wet and shiny. The vintage wide-collared green shirt that he wore tucked into checkered grey slacks with a patterned brown leather belt was so out of fashion it was almost in. He was buoyant and giddy that night. The full-throated laugh was contagious and fun in that environment.
When they returned to work in January, Francis assumed things would recede back into their cozy ruts. A fellowship of simple pleasantries, slightly warmer, but no obligation to slow their strides when they passed in the halls. Francis had even forgotten his name and kind of preferred it that way. It represented the ideal of this relationship: supremely casual, transitory, the barest acquaintance.
But he soon realized he could not simply detach and stay aloof. Andre now carried on like they were old friends, never missing an opportunity to visit him, always catching Francis in the halls or finding him out on the sidewalk, approaching with that sincere, good-natured disposition that was so hard to shun or offend. Andre never spoke Francis’s name when he saw him. It was apparent he didn’t remember their introduction either. They carried on not knowing each other’s names for more than six weeks. It began to seem silly, but too much time had passed to feel comfortable asking him or anyone else. It was only when Andre flipped open his wallet one day to display his fishing licence — a prop for a long-winded story — that Francis read his appellation in bold black lettering on the official-looking green card: ANDRE DESJARDINS.
Francis began to use it sparingly after that, as if he had known all along. Andre, finding himself at a disadvantage, must have made inquiries, and surprised Francis on a Monday morning when the elevator doors rumbled back and his groggy, pre-caffeinated brain was jolted awake by a familiar smiling shape standing outside the doors.
“Francis!” He said it enthusiastically, as though the encounter were the most amazing coincidence.
“How was the weekend?”
“Nothing special. Took it easy. My wife and I saw a play at the Centaur.”
“Yes, a comedy. But it wasn’t that funny.”
“I finally watched the new Avengers movie,” Andre said.
“Oh, sure. With Iron Man and Captain America and the other ones.”
“Black Widow, Thor, Hulk. Have you seen it?”
“No, not yet, no.”
“Wasn’t bad. Lots of action. I like lots of action.”
Dominique, the cute project manager who worked on the second floor, came down one day for a rare cigarette at the same time as Francis. She had seldom strayed from the province of Quebec her entire life, and since she was unable (or unwilling) to shift over to English, it gave Francis a fun, informal opportunity to work on his French. It was raining lightly and she ducked into the alcove next to him to stay dry. She shook off the rain, and Francis told her how much he liked her new haircut. She beamed at the compliment. They had barely begun a lighthearted chat when Francis saw coming along the sidewalk a familiar slouching figure that looked slightly out of sync with the other pedestrians. The stiff, Frankenstein-like gait, the ever-present clipboard in hand, the white pass card that dangled from a black cord around his neck and swung like a pendulum when he walked. Francis pressed his back into the wall of the building, trying to fuse his spine to the brick, but Andre picked him out easily and greeted him like a long-lost friend. Dominique concluded her cigarette abruptly, smiled sympathetically and sprinted back through the rain. Andre took her spot, crowding into the alcove that suddenly seemed much smaller.
“I finally went for the procedure,” he said, his voice lowering.
“Oh, right.” Francis groaned inwardly. For the past couple of weeks, Andre had been discussing his scheduled colonoscopy, a procedure he’d never had and was clearly nervous about. “Everything good?” Francis said, trying to cut to the happy ending.
“Well, at first I didn’t think so.”
“The nurse gave me a sedative and they wheeled me into the examining room. Did you know they have a video monitor up on the wall so you can watch what the doctor is doing? They’ll even give you a copy of the video if you want.”
“I don’t think I would need one.”
“No, I didn’t request it. So the doctor is doing the examination and suddenly he says, ‘Oh!’ — just like that, ‘Oh!’ — in a way that made me think he’d found something. So I lift my head up and try to look back and I say, ‘What is it?’ And he just shakes his head like it’s nothing. Goes on with the exam.”
“It was nothing?”
“Yeah, nothing. I mean, my heart stopped when he did that. I don’t think you should make a sound like that under those circumstances. Scared the life out of me.”
Francis hoisted the orange plastic case from his desk and pushed open the door. He stuck his head out into the hallway, listening carefully for the loud voice, the familiar laugh. The coast was clear. He strode up to the shipping counter and dropped the case onto its shiny surface.
“Just a hard drive going to the NFB.”
Fred looked at the case and the little combination lock that dangled from one corner. “The French films?”
“Yes,” Francis said. “I think they’re having some sort of retrospective.”
“I saw something on their website about it.”
“Did you ever see La Vraie Nature de Bernadette?”
“I’ve never seen it.”
The cargo elevator at the end of the hall rumbled to a stop. The wide doors lifted open and Andre stepped out.
“Hey!” he said loudly. As usual, the enthusiasm was over the top for the unassuming, predictable encounter. “I saw you on the camera,” he said with a self-satisfied grin.
“Right there.” Andre pointed at a security camera mounted high on the opposite wall that captured the shipping window with its unblinking digital eye. “It shows up on a monitor downstairs.”
Francis glanced over at Fred, who nodded. “So they know if there are any parcels sitting on the counter that have to go out.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“Have you taken a break yet?” Andre asked.
They stood on the sidewalk underneath one of the little spruce trees the city workers had planted last year. Andre was agitated.
“They changed my hours,” he said.
Francis had met the shipping department head a few times. A portly Italian man with shaggy silver hair who always had a fresh scowl ready for him. Francis was thankful he was not under his supervision.
“I don’t think he likes me very much,” he said.
“He doesn’t really like anybody. So now he’s making me come in at ten and finish at six.” Andre made a sour expression.
“Kind of awkward if you’re used to getting up early,” Francis said.
“Exactly. I’m a morning person. It messes up my routine.”
Andre’s new hours meant quiet cigarette breaks in the morning. Francis found it a nice start to the day. He no longer had to expend any mental energy following Andre’s rambling yarns and unsolvable dilemmas. It was only after an unprecedented four days had gone by wherein Francis had somehow managed to avoid seeing Andre that he found himself passing by the shipping window and uttering words that sounded strange coming out of his mouth.
“Hey Fred, have you seen Andre?”
Fred looked up from his desk, where he was busy scanning bar codes with a little plastic gun. “You didn’t hear?” he said.
“They let him go.”
“Yeah. On Monday.”
“I was wondering where he was. Haven’t seen him all week.”
“I thought you knew.”
“Don’t they usually send out an email?”
“Usually. I guess they didn’t this time.”
“How long did he work here?”
Just slightly less time than Francis had been alive. He wondered how many people were still there from those very early days. Maybe no one. Management hadn’t bothered to send out a company-wide message thanking him for his service. Francis was curious what kind of severance package he had left with.
“How did he react?”
“Joe said he didn’t put up much of a fuss. He was disappointed.”
“It sucks,” Fred continued, “because now Felix and I have to pick up the slack. Andre didn’t do a lot but it was helpful to have him around. I don’t sit down very much anymore.”
Francis left the warm lobby for the cold sidewalk. Last fall, city workers had ripped out all the ashcans that were bolted to the buildings and put up signs warning the public to stay nine metres away from the businesses if they wanted to light up. For a few days Francis had been nervous as he looked up and down the street, waiting for some sort of law enforcement officer to emerge and hand him a citation, but after a while he had stopped caring. He pulled his collar tighter around his neck. The security guard from the building across the street seemed to be on a similar smoking schedule. The sky was overcast, and everything was grey and sombre-looking.
Francis’s gaze went back along Saint Catherine Street toward Atwater, looking for the slow-moving shape in the company jacket with the slouching stride and the wide grin. His eyes went farther up the street, and then farther, trying to pick him out from the foot traffic. He had grown so used to being on the lookout, knowing that if he spotted him soon enough, he had a chance at a clean getaway. This time, though, he felt no urge to flee. The sidewalk had become a little colder without him. The company, too, seemed a little colder without him.
“This whole area was really hopping when the Canadiens were playing at the Forum,” Andre once said. The hockey shrine still stood on the corner of Atwater and Maisonneuve, braced by huge metal brackets all around the building. It was a multiplex movie theatre now. “It was really something,” Andre went on, “and the film lab was over on Dorchester Boulevard in a different building.”
He pointed out somewhere beyond the little park, a place he had worked for more than two decades processing film. When the lab became a casualty of digital technology, Andre found work in the shipping department, his responsibilities gradually diminishing until he was reduced to shuttling parcels and equipment around the building and out to clients in nearby offices. Francis tried to imagine him as a young man walking down the street in the seventies: cigarette dangling from his lips, bell-bottomed dungarees, and long, wavy hair billowing out behind him.
He thought about the last conversation they’d had. How it took on a new significance because it was the last — neither of them knowing it would be. It had happened in the back alley that led to the parking lot, a secluded spot Francis fled to occasionally when he wanted to smoke in peace. That day, Andre had sniffed him out. Francis had felt embarrassed when Andre passed by on the sidewalk and found him there — clearly hiding — but it didn’t seem to bother Andre. He looked more serious than Francis had ever seen him.
“They let Maurice go yesterday,” Andre said.
“Maurice? The man who sits downstairs in the vault?”
“Yeah. And I don’t think they’re finished yet.”
There had been something ominous in the air for some time. People were edgy after the company meeting in the summer. Andre had plunked himself down in the seat next to Francis in the auditorium. The quarterly report had been disappointing, they told the employees. They hadn’t met their targets. They had come to an agreement with the union to freeze wages.
“Wonder how long before they cut me loose,” Andre said, turning his bushy, furrowed countenance to the afternoon sun. “I’m sixty-two.”
Francis stared at the two grey hairs that sprouted from near the tip of Andre’s nose and wondered why he didn’t just lop them off with his razor when he was shaving the rest of his face.
“Would an early retirement really be so bad?” Francis asked him.
“I can’t afford it. I’m still paying spousal support to my ex.”
“It’s a long story. It was part of the divorce settlement. They take it off my cheque.”
The new condo towers across the street stood out sharply against the grim sky. Francis had watched them being built day after day as Andre stood next to him and complained that his apartment was too cold, his daughter didn’t visit often enough, and his cellphone provider was screwing him. The buildings were finished now. Some of the lights were on in the windows, and people were moving in. Already that recent history with Andre felt dated, part of a different era, along with the ashcans and construction workers.
Francis stopped by the shipping window and asked Fred if he’d heard from Andre.
“No, I haven’t,” he said.
“I wonder if he found something.”
“I don’t know. It might be tough. He can’t do any physical stuff and he can barely use a computer. He doesn’t even own one.”
“Kind of limits you.”
“We tried to show him the online system.” Fred shook his head ruefully.
“He couldn’t learn it?”
“Or wouldn’t. I don’t know. You try and help some people . . . you know he lives in Longueuil?”
“Yes, he mentioned.”
“He would take the metro all the way in every day. Subway and bus. It’s a long haul. He kept saying how he wanted to get an apartment closer to work, so Joe hooked him up with a friend who owns a building in LaSalle. The guy had a nice apartment available at a good price. Andre never called him, never even went to look at the place.”
Francis glanced back down the hall. He still hadn’t lost the feeling that Andre might emerge from around a corner at any minute, or that he was watching the video feed from the camera pointing down at them, or that he might silently steal up behind him and activate his distinctive, pervasive laugh.
“I sorta miss him,” Francis said suddenly.
Fred smiled. “Me too. Hey, I have his phone number in the database if you want to give him a call.”
Francis’s eyelids fluttered. The suggestion seemed to elicit a painful throb between his temples — a subconscious memory muscle firing a warning shot across his bow. He had made peace with the fact that Andre was gone. Fate had flung them apart, for good or ill. Convenience and proximity were no longer their enablers.
“Um, I think the company is a little funny about giving out numbers without permission, aren’t they?” Francis said it like a question. “I wouldn’t want to put you in a bad spot.”
Fred shrugged. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m sure Andre wouldn’t mind.”
Francis shook his head and patted the counter lightly with an open palm. “All the same, Fred. I couldn’t ask you to break the rules like that. I suppose they exist for a reason.”