The dinner was in the old part of Montreal where Molly could hear horses and carriages on the brick streets. The hostess lived alone in a home a furrier built in the early 1800s, the stone walls and the beams stripped now and exposed. When she and Ivan walked into the living room, everything was bathed in burgundy light, with a fire going in the big hearth, and she could smell meat and potatoes roasting in the oven.

    Ivan was in town for a physics conference, and while there he wanted Molly to meet his son, Darko, which they had done earlier that day. Ivan was better dressed than most academics, because he was European. He was a tall man with graying hair, dark eyes and a beautiful Slavic accent that transformed her name into something sweet and edible. Molly wore a slim, black dress with kitten-heeled pumps, and she had put her hair up in a snood. Ivan smiled every time he looked at her from across the room.

    Over the rich dinner, Molly sat beside the hostess, a clothing designer named Cassandra with curly red hair who wore a green strapless dress, highlighting her muscular neck and shoulders. Cassandra told Molly she was from Alberta. She had just come back from Mongolia, and she had swiped her designing ideas that season from Mongolian armor. “I was in the museums there, and it suddenly occurred to me. Put two spaghetti straps on all that hammered gold, and boom, you’ve got a summer shift,” she said.

    When the torte came drizzled with white chocolate, Molly was drunk enough to tell Cassandra all her woes about the Mississippi Gulf Coast which had been destroyed by the hurricane. “When you see the chaos up-close, when you see homes and gardens blown apart like that,” Molly said, dizzy with the thought, “it just leaves you breathless. Who knows when something can just blow us all away.”

    Even though she spent her growing-up years in Lubbock, Molly rarely told people she was from Texas. She had spent the best summers of her life vacationing or living on the coast of Mississippi with her parents, friends, and later her ex-husband, and the watery shell and shrimp memories were so strong, she felt she was more from there, born of the Sound, straight into the sand.

    Just before hurricane season, she had put a down payment on the gulf coast property next to her parents’ home. She hadn’t told anybody this, not even her ex-husband. It was to be a surprise, a gift to her parents, her son, herself. Selling the Chicago condo with all the memories of her first bad marriage and moving down there to Pass Christian, Mississippi was going to be her second chance to become a better mother, a better daughter, a happier person. But then, in Chicago, when her son Jake showed her a satellite picture of the hurricane in the paper, she could only stare speechless at the giant destructive gyre of storm clouds swirling around the Gulf of Mexico.

    “Is Molly telling you that her beloved town of Pass Christian is gone?” Ivan asked, standing behind Cassandra. He felt comfortable enough in this woman’s home to pour wine for the guests. “My own country disappeared to become Serbia and Montenegro. We are both now orphans, made for each other. “ He kissed Molly on the cheek and moved to pour for the next guest.

    “I can’t help but envy your pain,” Cassandra said. “Ivan lost his childhood home too. This is what first drew me to him.”

    Molly smeared the white chocolate drizzle around and took a bite of cake. She was drinking and crying too much lately, comforting herself with too many sweets.

    Whenever Molly spoke of the hurricane, she realized how wrong it all came out. It hadn’t been The Katrina War. This was a natural disaster with a woman’s name and slow government response. Get over it, she told herself over and over. For a while she even felt important, caught up in such a newsworthy event. When “her hurricane” made the covers of magazines, she felt as though she had made the covers. For a while, she couldn’t stop talking about the destruction and the debris she had seen. After the storm, the coast really did look like those old images of Hiroshima after the bomb, and she really had been in danger when she went down there. But back in Chicago, while her friends moved on to talk about charity auctions, ski vacations, and the Middle East, Molly’s mind was fixed on the unmoving pile of rubble that was once her paradise.

    “Very compelling,” Cassandra said, looking at Molly’s scrawny shoulders and arms. “My work needs more suffering. All those things in the hurricane washed and made different now, they’ll have a Katrina patina, like you.”

    Molly sniffed and stared at Cassandra.

    “It’s clever, isn’t it.” She brushed aside some of the red hair that had uncoiled down her forehead. “I’ll have to use that somehow.”

    Molly’s cell phone rang inside her purse. She recognized her mother’s number and turned off the ringer. The rest of the table was complaining about the Bushes and the prime minister. Someone tried to recall something Khrushchev once said.

    “Now there was a memorable tyrant,” Ivan said, making them all laugh.

    They were a mix of academics and artists—a gathering that shrank as the evening went on, evolving into a drunken, morose circle in the end. When he left Yugoslavia after the conflict, Ivan had attained Canadian citizenship, then later landed his faculty position at the University of Chicago. He traveled to Montreal at least four times a year to visit his friends and his son, who was in his last year at McGill. Molly wondered why Ivan made such a big deal out of Montreal. Sure, there were the great restaurants and the tiny museums with OK paintings of ice cutters, people gathering seaweed, and early settlers being attacked by wolves, but really, why keep coming back?

    After too much wine, Cassandra kept saying fucked up so frequently Molly began to feel dizzy and unable to hear anything correctly. She thought one man said insulting instead of consulting financial services. She was ready to go, but Ivan was not. She reminded him they had to get up early, that she was to meet up with Darko for tennis.

    “My name has nothing to do with being dark,” Darko had said to Molly over lunch that afternoon. “It’s a derivative from the Slavic dar, meaning gift.” He had smiled when he said the word gift. He was lovely and tall with brown eyes and long ears, like his father’s.

    At lunch, Ivan was consumed by an argument he’d had with his departmental chair before he and Molly left Chicago. His chair wanted Ivan to slow down with his scholarly work and focus more on his teaching. “Can you imagine?” Ivan had said, unable to touch his sandwich. “He could have another Nobel on his faculty.”

    “Maybe your students miss you, Dad.”

    Ivan said something in Slavic to Darko, and then he said something in French. The three grew quiet as they sipped coffee. Molly and Ivan had agreed that they both needed a certain amount of freedom. She had also learned not to say just anything that occurred to her. Ivan sometimes said she sounded like one of his students, which really meant one of the students he did not prefer. He was careful never to say that he hated his students and teaching. Molly knew that Ivan was grateful for teaching because it allowed him to live and conduct his research in the United States.

    “Ce n’est pas la meme chose,” Ivan said to his son, Darko. It was the only thing Molly understood. It’s not the same thing.

    After he had his final drink, Ivan finally took Molly back to the apartment. She listened to her messages. Her mother and Jake had called. They were learning the violin together and had taken to calling and leaving songs on her voicemail, short ditties that made her feel sad and guilty.

    After the hurricane destroyed her parents’ home, Molly asked them to come to Chicago to live with her and Jake. When they came, Molly left, first to go to Mississippi for two weeks to see what was left of her property, and then to perhaps salvage what she could from her parents’ home. When she saw her son’s first bed, the wrought iron twisted and mangled in the branches of a Live Oak, she couldn’t stop crying. The water had hollowed out both houses, and the walls were barely standing. The furniture that had so many intimate associations and confidential histories, all of it was either gone or destroyed, and with these things, it felt as though both her past and future were wiped out as well.

    When Molly returned to Chicago, she spent most all her time with Ivan, at his place on 59th, where his bedroom window looked out onto the roof of the Museum of Science and Industry, its dome a breast, the building itself a relic.

    Then Molly left again, this time with Ivan to another country. Her parents could look after Jake. He was in the fifth grade now, a big boy. She begged her mother to understand. Her mother had asked only, “Why?” and “Are you sure about him?” then finally she nodded and suggested that Molly bring some nice perfume and a scarf.

    At last Molly and Ivan were together again in bed. While they were in Montreal, they stayed in Ivan’s spare, black and white, brushed stainless steel one-bedroom apartment that he sublet during the peak seasons. It was September, off-season in Montreal, still hurricane season on the coast.

    “Tell me formulas,” she said, stifling a hiccup. He laughed, but he began to recite as though the numbers, quotients, fractions, sines and cosines were lines of poetry. Tipsy but sure of himself, he whispered to Molly about her delta, the alluvial Delta of the south, and his mathematical delta, a variable, a function, a finite increment.

    “Nothing,” Ivan murmured, kissing her neck and her breasts. “No levees can hold me back.”

    When he was on top of her, his whole mouth covered hers, and she felt as though he were filling her back up with air. She was a punctured beach ball and now he was springing her back to life again to become mobile, airborne even, and elevated. Buoyed by Ivan, she floated.

While Ivan delivered his paper on the Non-Abelian tensor product of two Engel groups of rank “n,” Molly and Darko played tennis at Jarry Park. It was an unusually warm fall and they played outside in sweatshirts and shorts on clay courts and the green sand stuck to the backs of their legs. Molly had not played in years, but she was still in shape from all the swimming, and whatever ball she couldn’t hit, she at least chased down, sliding across the clay, making Darko laugh.

    She was the first to ask to stop, thinking she might have an inner ear imbalance because again she felt light-headed and woozy. For a moment she thought of a FEMA tent she had seen on the coast. Outside the tent, a hand-lettered cardboard sign stayed propped on a rusty metal folding chair, reading Free Medical, 9-5. Darko fetched cold water and steered Molly to a nearby picnic bench inside a gazebo, and as she got her balance back, Darko talked about his studies with insects. The smell of spun sugar hung in the air.

    “It’s interesting that after all you and your father went through, neither one of you went into politics or even economics,” she said.

    “After all that we went through, there was no way in hell we were going into politics or economics. We saw politics lead to genocide and we saw that everybody, our leaders and their men, got away with murder.” Molly watched five old men playing bocce and a young woman running her dogs.

    “I started with water mites before I moved on to periodical cicadas,” Darko said, leaning back on the picnic bench, crossing his legs at the ankles. “The broods that interest me most are in your American southern states.”

    They took the metro to the Botanical Gardens where there was an Insectarium. They saw Mexican Darkling beetles made into living jewelry, brooches called Ma’Kech that crawled around on gold leashes pinned to women’s dresses, living sometimes up to eighteen months. They saw a necklace made out of green beetles, all of them dead, and stag and rhinoceros beetles turned into pets. Later, as they walked around the grounds outside, the beautiful gardens made Molly long for the coast house she’d hoped to live in all over again. She wrote down the names of her favorite blooming perennials using Darko’s pen and paper: Perovskia Russian Sage, Delphinium Belladonna, Aquilegia Vulgaris in Clementine Blue, and Baptisia Starlite Prairieblues.

    They had lunch in the Garden Restaurant and they each drank wine. She was on vacation, after all. She heard Christmas music somewhere, though it wasn’t even Thanksgiving. Young people were climbing a fake wall nearby. The girls were rigged in rope climbing harnesses that reminded Molly of a scene from an old porn movie she had seen with her ex-husband.

    Sitting across the table from her, Darko smelled of warm air and suntan lotion, nothing like Ivan. She missed being near the water. She was happiest around water.

    When her cell phone rang, Darko ordered more wine. Molly listened to the violin jig on the other end of the line, and she broke in to interrupt the song.

    “Jake? Jake? Is that you?” Molly smiled at Darko as she spoke to her son, listening to what he said about school, violin lessons, and math. She watched a little girl at another table stand up and press her face into her mother’s hip. Jake had never done anything like that. From the time he could walk, her son had always been able to stand alone. People told her this kind of independence was good. Molly impressed herself with her son’s ability to cope so that she would feel less guilty about leaving him in Chicago with his homeless grandparents.

    “Can I talk with your grandmother?”

    Molly thought about her mother standing there reaching for the phone, her lavender blue, holier-than-thou eyes, telling her, but not saying, she was a terrible mother and daughter too, just as she had been a terrible wife. Molly had never been close to her mother because she felt she was nothing like her mother and that she had been nothing but a disappointment turning into this daughter with no career and now no husband.

    “Hi, Mom?” Molly winked at Darko. He poured her wine.

    “Molly.” Her mother’s voice sounded so far away. “What are you doing? You can’t keep running away like this. Your father. He’s not well, and you being away only makes him more upset.”

    “What’s wrong with Dad?”

    “He’s just not himself. He sits in front of the television and watches all the awful news,” her mother said.  “And now he’s worried about you.”

    “Mom, I’m fine. This is just what I needed. Really. Would you tell Dad that? I’m going to be staying here a while longer.” She felt like she was sixteen again, asking to stay longer at the party. Molly could hear herself as she spoke, too, the slow drawl coming on.

    Maybe here in Montreal, after being away, she was finally becoming a woman of the south again. The women she knew in Mississippi still sprayed their hair, still wore a lot of make up and dressed, really dressed, for everything, especially lunch. And yet, they never really did anything northerners considered valuable—they endured, plugged on, so why wasn’t that enough? The night of the hurricane, one mother saved her baby boy by floating him in a Tupperware bowl. Another woman Molly knew survived three days on a bag of peeled shrimp she cooked on a hubcap. So what if there were no Marie Curies coming out of her home state, maybe there would be something else.

    After the phone call, Molly had more wine and two slices of pie. She asked Darko about his girlfriends. He told amusing date stories, and then, he said, his last girlfriend asked him to piss on her, which he did, and which, he said, the girl had liked.

    “No thank you,” Molly said. “For future reference.”

    It was a term her ex-husband had used ages ago, when they had just finished making love on the beach in front of what she hoped would be her future home, not yet destroyed then, on the coast. He told her she should remember how much she liked doing it outdoors. She asked why. “For future reference,” he had said, spoiling the moment, and now, all these years later, sitting with Darko in Montreal, Molly saw that her husband had been preparing her for their eventual divorce. They had married in a predictable way, after he’d earned his MBA, and they had both been so eager to register for the silver and china and stuff that would surely enable them to get on with the obvious, foreseeable success of their lives. But by saying future reference, wasn’t he suggesting that he was not to be her future partner in some future sex on some future beach in his future life? Wasn’t he thinking beyond her?

    Darko sat now across the table from Molly, studying her, smiling, tracing the rim of his glass with his middle finger, trying to appear older than his years. Molly could tell he too was considering the future of her reference.

    He was a beautiful young man, strong and healthy. She was forty-nine years old, flat chested, and lean. She managed her gray hair with frequent and regular hair colorings, and she still had all her parts, inside and out. She still wanted, and she wanted to see. She wanted to see if she could still get whatever she wanted.

    Future reference? Why had she said this? It was wrong on so many levels.

    She was setting herself up. She knew this, right then. Making her own bed. The awaiting catastrophe in her relationship with Ivan would be all her own doing. She had seen her own marriage crumble, her parents’ home gone, and her future plans for a new life blown away. There she sat in another country without a plan, out of balance, off-center, and free to do as she pleased. Was this her way of seeing just how damaged she could get?

    “Edward Wilson is speaking at the university,” Darko said as they started back to the Metro. Her legs and back felt stiff from sitting so long. “He’s the most amazing entomologist and chief bug man of all time. He’s southern, too.”

    Darko put his arm around Molly’s waist, resting his hand on her hipbone. The move made her feel young and slim. “Or we could just skip it,” he said.

Ivan’s paper was very well received. That night, over dinner, he told Molly that his colleagues from all over the globe toasted him at the reception, and later a renowned scholar asked if his university journal could publish the paper. 

    Molly held up her water glass. “To Ivan Banovic.”

    “Perhaps I should hold out for another offer, a better offer,” he said, thinking into his glass.

    “Best to take this one while you can,” she said. Her words came out flat, but Ivan didn’t seem to notice. He was going on now about the Engel group, explaining to her that a set can be numbers or letters with certain properties and that two Engel groups can have special properties. She stopped trying to understand.

    She was tired and her head hurt from all the wine she and Darko had drunk that afternoon. At first it had been sweet and different. She called him baby and sugar and all the rest. Close your eyes, baby. Open your mouth, sugar. But then he rolled her around this way and that, using her as a prop for some movie going in his mind. She supposed she should have expected this. Why was it so easy to become a prop in other people’s lives?  He pressed hard into her and she disappeared, swallowed whole and still alive like Jonah inside the whale, except that afterwards she felt as though she had been spat out, pissed upon, and altogether deflated.

    It was the sweet love she missed most. And now she was getting along in years. That was what she felt most now, her age. Does all sweetness have to go away with age? Afterwards, lying in Darko’s ridiculously narrow bed, she thought of the gem-colored leashed beetles she had seen that day, manacled, poked, threaded through, and made into accessories.

    “Tomorrow I want to take you up Mont Royal,” Ivan said. He was feeling strong and confidant, his English elegant and sure. “We’ll have breakfast with Darko, then hike up.”

    “I think I’ll skip breakfast,” she said. Ivan tilted his head.

    “I thought you liked Darko.”

    “I don’t need to be eating so much.” She smiled, patting her tummy.

    “Then he and I will meet up alone.”


    “Father and son.”

    “Yes.” She took a deep breath, and decided to begin drinking again, after all.  “I’ll meet you at the foot and we can hike up together,” she said.

Molly, Ivan, and Darko circled the Mont’s summit, without talking, pretending to take in the view of Beaver Lake and downtown Montreal. They watched couples and families taking pictures of the views and each other, then slowly walking past the winged statue and into the chalet to get their bags of chips, sodas, or hot chocolate. None of them had said a word on the hike up the Mont. It had turned cold overnight.

    “An American designed this,” Darko said, reading Molly’s guidebook. “Olmstead. The same guy who did Central Park.”

    Ivan was pacing. Molly stood near the ledge, staring out at the tops of trees and buildings.

    “The lush forest was badly damaged by the Ice Storm of 1998,” Darko read. “It has since largely recovered.”

    “You think you are only one to lie and cheat?” Ivan said at last to Molly. “You think you are only free one here?” Since that morning, his English began to break up. Darko stood beside Molly. He held her arm.

    “Please,” she said. “Stop.”

    “Did you know?” Ivan said, pacing in front of them. “Did you know that Cassandra is my other mistress? My Canadian woman?”

    “That clothes designer? The redhead?” She tried to recall Cassandra, the woman who said Katrina Patina. She remembered the shoulders and the green dress. She couldn’t tell if Ivan was telling the truth.

    Darko said quietly, “My father. He’s not a nice man.”

    Molly wondered if Darko had just come out and told his father that morning, or if Ivan simply knew when he saw Darko. Or maybe Ivan knew when he saw her.

    She faced Ivan. “I don’t know what else to say, Ivan. I thought we had agreed not to grow attached.”

    “You sicken me. You and your hurricane and your petty problems. A little trouble and you cry, Wa wa wa, where is Mommy? You have not seen war or bloodshed. You have not watched family members butchered.”

    “I can’t stand when he does this,” Darko said. Standing next to Darko, Molly felt as though she were coming home late from a date, getting yelled at by a parent.

    “I survived ten years of the Yugoslav Wars and no one even remembers them,” Ivan said. “You Americans, so wrapped up in your 9/11 and your Katrina.”

    “Ivan, please.”

    “If it doesn’t happen to American, it doesn’t count to American.” Ivan stopped, stepping aside to allow a hiker to snap a picture and pass.

    Molly and Darko were standing so close to the edge. Ivan came close first to Darko. He jabbed his finger into Darko’s chest and whispered something in Czech. Darko lowered his head, then stepped away, milling around the winged statue.

    Ivan’s lips touched Molly’s cheek and ear, and his breath was hot.

    “My son?” He spit at her feet. “You two deserve each other.”

    He talked fast and in Czech. She stood leaning back, trying hard to keep her footing. If she fell to her death then and there, she realized how ridiculous her life would have been, how embarrassing, how there would be nothing to say or show for it.

    “What is your awful American expression?” he said, his face red and sweaty. “Grow up, Molly Zimmer.”

    He looked at her, and then stepped back. He took his jacket off and draped it over his shoulders like a cape. “You find your own way back down. You don’t have to do anything. You can do as you like. I have important work.”

    Nauseous with guilt, she watched him leave, his broad shoulders moving as his legs moved. He was so sure of his direction, and only moments ago seemed to have lost control. He was leaving her, more handsome than ever.

    Darko came to her like some shy schoolboy. He held out her guidebook, which she took. He kissed her once, then twice on the cheek, and he walked away, going the opposite direction of his father’s path.

    What had she done? How could she right this? For an instant she recalled pulling off embroidered pillows, hand-stitched linens, and books caught, twisted, or impaled on a neighbor’s wrought iron picket fence after the hurricane, as if unstabbing and untangling them would make a bit of difference in all that damage. Some messes can’t be undone. How would she clean up her own life after this, at her age?

    She looked around at other hikers and the view. How would she ever get off this mountain?  The hike up had been no trouble. Getting down and finding her way back would be the hard part. She thought it better not to follow either Ivan or Darko. Maybe that was her first mistake. She went another way altogether, thinking all the paths led down anyway. One path led to another and then to another until at last she grew clammy and exasperated.

    This was not it. This was not it at all. She had gotten it all wrong. This path let out towards the schools. And this path led up again towards the hill with no view. Where was the path with the view? Where was the one that led her back to where she started?  Where was the one with the giant cross, the one placed there to fulfill a vow when the founder of Montreal prayed to the Virgin Mary to stop a disastrous flood?

    Fewer and fewer hikers passed, and she regretted that she had not asked for directions. It was getting cold and late and she was hungry. She slid on mud and wet leaves, then slipped and fell, rolling down a hill towards a small cliff, stopping herself just in time to look around and reconsider her boundaries. Below her was a kind of canyon on what felt like the edge of everything.

She saw her life as in a movie reel: she saw herself consuming newspapers, face creams, pasta, sweets, TV, pantyhose, and men, and she saw herself seated in the background in cafes, far away and removed from the main scenes, the main events. She had missed more than the hurricane—she had missed her marriage, her son, and time with her mother. She felt both betrayed and guilty of betrayal, but she wasn’t sure at all how to right anything. Her cell phone rang inside her backpack and she answered it, laughing, feeling at once both lost and found. She heard the violin music on the line, the quirky, jerky jig. “Jake? Mom? Oh, Mom.”

    “Are you crying?”

    “No,” she said, crying. It sickened Molly to think of her mother and son practicing their notes on the violin, hardening their tender fingertips for a ditty to play for her while she had been doing what she had been doing.

    “I think I know what you’re going through,” her mother said.

    Molly wanted to yell out No, you don’t. You have no idea what I’m going through or what kind of wreck I am, but she stopped herself and said, “Oh, Mom. It’s so great that you and Jake are learning together.”

    “He’s a wonderful boy,” her mother said. “He reminds me of you, Molly. We’re having such a nice time. But come home. We miss you.” She heard static, and then, “I love you.”

    “Mom? Jake? Can you hear me?” She heard her mother say something like swallowtail, and then the connection went bad and they were cut off entirely.

    The air smelled of wet leaves and damp cement. She listened to a bird say over and over what sounded like virtue virtue virtue.

    Years later, Molly would say everything had changed for her. She had not been in Chicago that night, the night her mother died of heart failure, but at the same time she had been very much with her. There on the edge, no bell went off, no light bulb, but Molly’s memory of those moments on the Mont remained with her, though some of the details would change, and through the years, she would recall some images more than others. She would point to this moment later, after the funeral, and during the drive back down south, and she would say that everything had changed for her on the Mont, right after she spoke to her mother.

    Her shins were scraped and bleeding. She dabbed at the cuts with a gold, almost transparent leaf. Her son had learned to roller skate by falling and scraping his knees, only to get back up and start all over. She herself had taught him to swim, what she thought now might be her only gift to him. She taught him early because she knew he would be around water all his life. She wanted water to make her son as happy as it had made her. In the water, she had only to hold his head, telling him to lean back, his body would know what to do, and when it did, his legs and torso magically floating to the surface, she heard him laugh, saying Ha!

    She stood up then and brushed away the dirt and debris from her jeans. She put her cell phone back into her bag, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. Smoothing her hair into a ponytail, she stood and surveyed what was before her, looking for the way. Then she set forth and began her descent on yet another hidden footpath, thinking of her mother and her son, winding her way down the Mont, through the forest.

Margaret McMullan has written five novels, including In My Mother's House (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's 2003), When I Crossed No-Bob (Houghton Mifflin 2007), and Cashay (Houghton Mifflin 2009). Her work has appeared in Glamour, The Chicago Tribune, The Indianapolis Star, TriQuarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Greensboro Review, Ploughshares, and The Sun, among others. She teaches at the University of Evansville.

Back to Freight Stories No. 5


Margaret McMullan

Mont Royal