"Return to YYZ"
Born in Hastings County, Hannah Brown currently lives in Toronto. She has two degrees in film and has won prizes for her screenplays. Her short stories have appeared in Superstition Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, White Wall, and elsewhere. She was invited to present her debut novel, Look After Her (Inanna, 2019), at the Leeds International Festival and was recently honoured as a Foreword Indies Finalist. Her story “On Any Windy Day” (along with the Broadway hit Hamilton) was chosen by Emily Wilson as a companion text for Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey.
“‘Return to YYZ’ is inspired by the Chagall painting Over Vitebsk, particularly the isolation of the travelling pedlar, the Jewish and Russian backgrounds of one of the main characters, and the title.”
When Max asked me to drive him to the airport, it didn’t occur to me to tell him I didn’t have a driver’s license. I knew how to drive. My brother Lamont tossed me the keys to the Chrysler when I was twelve and told me to stay out of the ditch. I drove around the empty roads of our farm until I felt at that lyric groove when you don’t have to think, you just wheel around the corner.
Max said I could use his car until he got back. I realize now that he wanted to save money, no taxi fares, no parking fees. Once he was in Chicago, he called me every night and complained that he was spending so much on phone calls, it would have been cheaper to buy me a ticket to go with him. I’d never been on a plane, but I wasn’t going to ask. I never ask if I think someone might say no.
I didn’t drive the car while he was gone. I had my mom’s Flying Pigeon. Ned Jacobs said that the only way he could have one for himself was to import a hundred from China, so he did, and then sold them to all the Toronto lefties. A no-speed bicycle, fifty pounds of steel, with a basket, a back rack, and a tool kit. Mom said that during the Vietnam war, an insurgent could drape war matériel over the crossbar of a Flying Pigeon and walk on the Ho Chi Minh trail to deliver it, then put the seat back on and pedal like hell, flying for the China border. I had learned to ride it on the farm. My dad’s idea: he took me to the top of a grassy hill. “If you fall,” he said, “it won’t hurt, so you don’t need to be scared. The forward momentum will carry you perfectly. Just remember to pedal when you get to the bottom of the hill.”
I admired the bike for its long and elegant lines. In the city, I loved feeling the wind, riding around the empty flat streets of rich people, like Teddington Park Avenue. Or on the streets of the dead in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, my long skirt floating in the wind. I could hear the birds begin the morning if I rode out early enough for the moon to still be in the sky. Any time I saw the moon, I felt a kind of triumph. Especially if it were a crescent moon, lying on its back, unafraid. That moment I saw it, I was seized, thrilled, an upward tightening in my body. I could have entered any street of the city riding on that feeling, sure of hosannahs.
In late August, yellow-butterflies-at-the-town-gate time, Max called to say he was flying in from Chicago that day and to come and pick him up at Pearson. I pictured him swimming through the sky with his backpack rather than shifting around on his seat on a plane. Max had a long back, like the pedlar in the Chagall painting who floats in the night sky over Vitebsk. How, I wondered, did that sky pedlar ever arrive anywhere, how did he move through that dark airy space? Maybe big, sweeping gestures—like the ones I made in my aquafit classes which made me happy to be startled, suddenly halfway across the pool.
Max made his large gestures and they took him somewhere. Sometimes to Chicago. He was calm when his big gestures brought him to people and then away from them. He unpacked what he had made himself carry, his ideas, his sorrow, and then moved on. He didn’t choose where he went. People invited him. Sometimes, if it was in a nearby city, I went with him. He introduced me as his associate, as if I were a muscled gangster accomplice in a too-tight suit. If you knew how spare I am, you would know how hilarious this identity was. Earlier, I had made some wide gestures of my own, and we had moved into each other’s arms. I wanted to be there, in his bed, and was, most nights. I had school, and I had Max, and otherwise I was free.
In the car, Max liked it when I sang. Especially “Un Canadien Errant.” His face would go all soft, as if he was ready to be worried. He thought ‘errant’ meant someone who had made a mistake. Banished from the door, like a pedlar. I’m good at languages, but why correct him when his response was to be so moved? I could really lean into that melody, my accent was perfect, and like the wandering Canadian, I missed my friends from the country, like Anna who rode the bus with me. Someone go tell Anna que je me souviens ma blonde.
I drove the long way to Pearson Airport, along Eglinton, then north on Kipling to Dixon and the airport road. I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take. And I didn’t want to be late. I wanted to see the moment that sad face burst into a smile. Max had broad shoulders, better for carrying that pedlar’s bag, and a dark beard, and when I had taken him to the airport he really looked like Chagall’s Russian sky pedlar. He had packed clothes, books and, inexplicably to me, a frying pan, a kettle, and a fork. At the last minute, he tossed in a little chipped enamel red pot to heat cream for coffee, all stuffed into a huge khaki backpack. The straps dug into his lined jacket. It was summer, but Chicago can be cold in summer, or any time.
His head and body were deceptive in appearance. From the front, his beard disguised a small, ball-like, wistful face only clearly seen later in mug shots. From the side, his head looked huge, a well-proportioned big nose, chin made shapely by the beard, heroic hair rising up from his forehead in waves, dark brown, almost black in winter, oaky, sun-streaked in summer. But small hands, smaller than mine. My hands are elongated. Me and Lincoln.
When I asked what part of Russia his family came from, he was surprised and asked how I’d guessed. He was always being surprised, how had I heard of Chaim Potok, as if knowing about Jewish writers was restricted to Jews. How did I know what plotz meant. “Oh, please,” I said, but he didn’t get the joke.
He defined himself by opposition to what he had been born to, like someone keeping a rope taut. His perfectionist parents ran a high-end clothing store, but he wore jacquard knit t-shirts which disintegrated into fringes of thread hanging below the hem, below the sleeves. He had piles of books, and no towels.
“Maybe he is just Russian,” my Aunt Pamela said. “They enjoy being depressed.” She said there were lots of Russians in Minneapolis, where she was from, or Poles, and according to her they were the same thing.
Max had already begun to acquire the credentials of power, he liked to drop names, boast a little about who he knew. Not cool. In our family, my uncle was the wealthiest, a Quaker from Philadelphia. You know, bonds with Standard and Poor. He drove a taxi because he didn’t want to take advantage of anyone except the other Americans he played poker with. His kids grew up in second-hand clothes from Yellow Ford Truck, ate vegetables from the co-op, and tried in the middle of that striving city to not be pushy. Quakers, man. Caroline, one of the Red Hawk sisters from Alberta, said his kids tried to act like grandmothers, but they were too young.
“Too young and too white,” her daughter Charlene said. First Nations humour, always on time. I was hanging out at their place on Birch Avenue. Around that house, some First Nation person had thrown “apple” at Charlene for being friends with me. Charlene said she didn’t care and asked if she could borrow my boots.
That’s where I met Max, at a house party Caroline and Charlene threw after a demonstration to free Leonard Peltier. I had gone with some community literacy workers. One of them, generous about party invitations like all the Trotskyists, had told Max to come along, so he did, standing off to one side in the back yard, rocking and flexing his knees, wary. Parties made him anxious. All that commonality, all that easy connecting with others.
I was two hours early. I walked around the airport. Sat in a chair in one of the rows. Read an abandoned Globe and Mail. Watched experienced travellers, people who knew exactly what to do in airport terminals, come in with their luggage, raincoat neatly over the left arm holding the bag, necessary ticket at the ready in the right hand. Hand over the suitcase. Walk directly to the bar.
The bar. A drink. People had a drink while waiting. When Max arrived, if he asked me had I been waiting very long, I could say, off-hand, ‘Oh, no not long. I had a drink in the bar while I waited for you.’ Like a person who had done this many times, instead of never.
From the movies, I knew a gin and tonic was something seedy people ordered. People in the movies who knew what they were doing, who had things on their mind, ordered a scotch, on the rocks.
It tasted terrible. I thought my gums were shrinking. Now I knew why people sipped at scotch. There was only so much awfulness you could take at one time. I didn’t want to flinch and shudder after each swallow it would take to finish it, so I drank it all at once and left a tip on the bar.
It was time to make sure I looked good. I headed for the airport washroom. My hair was auburn—hennaed—and I had lots of it. My clothes were rust-coloured and my high-heeled shoes a Montmorency cherry red, the only shoes I owned. In the airport washroom mirror, my cheeks looked flushed for some reason and my eyes were a little glassy. I remembered the time when I had coughed so hard my face had gone red, and Max had said he liked my face that way, tears glittering in my eyes. I looked around. There was no one else in the washroom. I put a dab of lipstick above each eye, quick. That looked good. Matched my red cheeks. I needed to lean my forehead against the cool mirror for a few minutes.
When I looked at myself again, my cheeks seemed to have paled, so I dotted more lipstick on my face and blended it in. The light in the washroom was dim, but I thought I looked good. I cantered down the escalators and up to Arrivals. I was ready. The sound of my hooves on the marble floors of the airport helped me be brave, and I moved. Whenever I walk towards my Aunt Magaly, she says ‘tienes swing.’ Her Cuban slang.
There he was. That pleasure after pain smile. I was flooded with so much electric pleasure that I felt myself grow taller. But he didn’t gather me in his arms and hug me. Maybe because of the backpack. Now that he was here and didn’t miss me, maybe he wasn’t sure he liked me. Maybe I wasn’t what he had in mind. Probably he had experienced some success in Chicago with a young activist or two, or three, and had ideas about the possibilities, the upper reaches of womanhood he might tie up with. Or it might have been the lipstick.
We began to walk out of the terminal. Max looked over at me. “Why is your face so red?”
“I don’t know,” I said airily.
He didn’t like it.
“Maybe because I had a drink at the bar.” Playing my last card. “Scotch on the rocks.”
He wasn’t impressed.
“What row did you park the car in?”
“Row? I parked it over there.”
“You don’t know where you parked the car. We are going to be here for hours.”
“No, we’re not. I know where it is.” I set off, in what he later said was my cocky walk. He only said two lovely things to me, ever: don’t cover up your mouth when you laugh, it’s one of your best features. And he liked how I walked. When I want someone, my head plays Joe Henderson’s “Mamacita.” When someone is mean to me, when I’m afraid, I play “Road to the Isles” in my head, and swing my legs out, ready to walk a hundred miles to fight the English, and make them think again.
When I glided up in the car two minutes later, a young couple with many suitcases was looking at him, worried. A little guarded. Max swung his backpack into the back seat, and, as if it were a joke on him, told me how he’d been complaining to them about how incompetent I was, how he was going to have to wait for hours and. And.
I loved the pedlar for his principles and his sorrow. And for how he made love, when he was truly with me, marooned temporarily by desire. It was no accident that he was happiest with me when we were isolated, in his car, or in his bed. Out in the world, he wanted his sorrow, not me. A pedlar, more than anything else, needs the weight of the sorrow he carries. His beloved, wretched past is ballast, his assurance he can move safely. No moorings for a pedlar if he wants to be himself in that great wild lagoon of the rest of us.
In the rearview mirror, my eyes glittered in a bright red face, and I drove home on the 401, an eight-lane highway, bagpipes all the way.