The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.2Heather O'Neill
His real talent, what people went crazy for, was his knack for writing song lyrics. There was a song about a mechanic who builds a snowmobile that can go faster than the speed of light. There was one about a grandpapa who has gas. There was a song about a tiger that escapes from le Zoo de Granby to go eat poutine. He had a song about a man who finds a magical cigarette that doesn’t end, and he never has to come back from his cigarette break. He made the ridiculous squalor that was everyday life sublime. There was no subject that was beneath Étienne Tremblay.
And he was a bon vivant. Everyone loved him for it. He inhaled helium and sang a Gilles Vigneault song on a variety show. There was an interview with him where he claimed to have slept with three hundred women by the time he was twenty-one. He was arrested at a raid at a dirty movie theatre, but this only made people like him more because he had a song about Édouard who finishes work and goes to the dirty movie theatre and always has to make up crazy excuses to his wife about where he has been.
He got caught with prescription pills that weren’t his and was arrested again. He did well in jail. All the other prisoners liked him. He talked to the other prisoners about what some old washed-up vedettes from the seventies were like in bed. He claimed to have gone down on Petula Clark. He came out of prison each time like a war hero. Until he finally ended up being sentenced for eight whole months.
To say that Étienne’s fame had gone to his head would be an understatement. He really believed that he had a higher calling. I think he ranked himself up there with Jesus, and I’m not even exaggerating.
Oh and, how could I forget, in the middle of all this he had two kids who became famous too because Étienne always brought them on stage and on talk shows with him. He would make us come out and wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written for us to the hosts. We were known by everyone as Petite Nouschka and Petit Nicolas.
The Old Man and the Spaghetti Jar
I HURRIED HOME. I WANTED TO SEE NICOLAS SO that I could tell him about the janitors singing Étienne’s song. I was feeling lousy about it, but he would laugh it off.
It was only about a twenty-minute walk back to our building, across the street from an old theatre that now sold electronics. The building was falling apart but the wooden doors were still painted gold every year. Sticking out above the door was a neon sign that wasn’t ever lit up and said CHOW MEIN. There used to be a Chinese restaurant in one of the apartments. Pigeons sat on the sign, crammed together like a group of teenagers making trouble on a bench. The noise they made sounded like a marble rolling across the floor all day, every day.
A girl with messy blond hair was standing in the lobby. She had on a white raincoat and sneakers. She gave me a sad look. I knew she was hoping to run into my twin brother. She reminded me of the Little Mermaid, right before she was going to have to throw herself back in the water because the prince had rejected her. Lonely, crazy girls always thought that Nicolas was going to save their lives. He gave off that impression. Lord knows why. He had probably already slept with this girl, but I knew he wouldn’t have any interest in her now. I smiled and ran past her up the one step and down the hall.
Our apartment was on the ground floor and it was small. There was yellow wallpaper with canaries in the hallways. There were old-fashioned lamps on every surface. There were second-hand paintings all over the walls. There were a lot of sailboats. There was a painting of Jesus rolling his eyes up at the sky in every room.
Nicolas and I had been raised by our grandparents since we were babies. Our mother had left us on their doorstep, so to speak. Our grandmother had died when we were five, so actually we’d more or less been raised by our grandfather. His mother regretted naming him Léonard only five minutes after she did so, and no one had ever called him by his real name. Everyone just called him Loulou.
Loulou was in the kitchen wearing an old suit jacket over an undershirt. He had fixed a hole in the sleeve of the jacket with a staple gun. He wasn’t wearing any pants. His undershirt was tucked into his boxer shorts, which were covered with little golden paisleys. They looked like goldfish that were all dressed up for church. He was always crapping his pants, so he stopped wearing them at home. It just made life easier. He crapped his pants every time he smoked a cigarette.
Loulou’s nose was big, a family trait, but then what old man didn’t have a huge nose. His ears were enormous too. He had blue eyes and his eyebrows were wild. It was impossible to know anymore what he had looked like when he was young.
He had a pair of dentures, but they were too big for him and made him have to grin ludicrously when he was wearing them. Loulou once told me that it was perfectly acceptable to slap a man in the face for being forward when he was young. That’s why men of his generation lost all their teeth, because the roots were weak from having been slapped all the time.
“Bonjour, Loulou!” I said.
“Where have you been?”
“Out slaying dragons.”
“There were still dragons when I was little. They were a sickly bunch. They would hang around garbage cans in the alleys behind Chinese restaurants. They would smoke cigars so that they could have smoke coming out of their mouths.”
“I know, you told me.”
“I’m glad they went extinct. Fucking ruined the Middle Ages for everybody. Oh, they didn’t like it when the shoe was on the other foot.”
Loulou started making dinner. He never let anyone else cook. He had a dishrag tossed over his shoulder with roses on it. He had an oven mitt that was shaped like Babar the elephant. The spaghetti fell onto the floor like a burst of applause when a famous person makes a surprise cameo on a television show.
“Oh my fucking God. What the fuck just happened here? Am I losing my mind or is there spaghetti over the floor? I’ve gone senile. I can’t fucking stand it.”
As I brought a broom, Loulou put on a new record that he had found in the garbage. He played it at full volume and it was hard to make conversation. I had to scream bloody murder for him to pass me the salt. Loulou was drinking milk out of a plastic measuring cup. He always thought that Nicolas and I and everyone else our age had AIDS. He wouldn’t let us use the same cups as him.
“Did you know that you can get into the zoo for free if you’re on welfare? Why aren’t I on welfare? Sign me up.”
“You are on welfare.”
For a long time, Loulou had collected scrap metal for a living. He still stopped to lift up a refrigerator with his bare hands every now and then to show people that he could. He carried around a briefcase filled with spark plugs and telephone wires and a wrench that weighed five or ten pounds.
But he was getting old and was always having tiny heart attacks while lifting things into the back of his truck. He would get faint after pushing a stove up onto the flatbed of his truck and fall over. People would call 911 because they would find him lying in their garbage heap staring up in the air. He had the look of a bewildered little kid on his face when he came to. His rescuers were always moved by the expression of absolute innocence that he had on his face at those moments. When he would tell Nicolas and me about these episodes, we would laugh so hard, we couldn’t speak. We would even burst out laughing in bed in the dark when we thought about it. A few days ago, he’d found a fridge in the garbage. He put it on a little red wagon and pulled it down the street. He had to stop in order to have a heart attack. Nicolas lay on the kitchen floor screaming with laughter when I told him. Mortality didn’t mean anything to us because we were so young. We just thought of old age as some sort of clown routine.
A cat crawled in the window. There was a catnip tree in a yard in the alley behind the building. Every time I looked out my window, there were cats in the tree. They often jumped onto the balcony and into my room. It was hard to have a memory without at least one cat in it.
Later that night Loulou got drunk and went into the living room to watc
“Sit down already. That’s as good as you’re going to get it.”
I threw myself down next to him on the couch. He put his arms out in front of him, as if we were in a small boat that might capsize. I guess I figured it was my duty as a granddaughter to sit next to Loulou and listen to his nonsense. In Québec, people took care of their parents and not the other way round.
The news was on and they were talking about how there was going to be another referendum within the year. Québec would again vote on whether or not to separate from Canada.
“Oh my goodness,” said Loulou. “All this again. Your father was nuts about separating. Oh my goodness. He was at all the marches. Do you remember that?”
“How could I forget, he dragged Nicolas and me to all the rallies.”
“That’s right. You guys used to wave those flags around. Nicolas would really get into it. Man, what a little guy. He was yelling for a free Québec, wasn’t he?”
“You voted Oui too.”
“What do I know? When Jean Lesage came into power he took all the electricity companies away from the Anglos and the Americans. Then my heat bill came down. I’ll always remember that the Anglos made me freeze to death. Oh, and everyone in this building was voting Oui. I just wanted to make everyone happy. Who did you vote for?”
“I was seven years old.”
“Of course. Did you sign up to finish school?”
“I signed up without Nicolas.”
“You were better in school than he was. He was always antagonizing the teachers. It’s good to do something by yourself. I used to beat you to stop you from sleeping together in the same bed, but you still did. You ate out of the same plates. You wore the same clothes. You said the same things at the same time. You took baths together. It was disgusting.”
I slammed my glass on the table.
“Laisse-moi tranquille avec ça.”
Loulou was right about Nicolas never fitting in at school, though. He was diagnosed by the teachers as having every learning disability they could think of. They assigned a different one to him each year. He broke his leg playing musical chairs in Grade Three. He acted like it was the only chance he was ever going to get to win anything.
Nicolas used to say that he dropped out because the teacher had made him use the word incandescent in a sentence. He said that it was emotional abuse. But we just stopped going when he was sixteen because he hated it so much and was failing every class.
I was able to sit still in class and did okay on my report cards, but I left with him anyways. After that, we were educated by second-hand paperback books and madmen on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. Anyways, even though we were high school dropouts, people still treated us like precocious geniuses just because we’d been on television.
We had so much fun together during those years. We stayed out all night. We were always drinking. Even when we were teenagers, we would sit in our bedroom and drink until we cried. We would hug our stuffed animals like lovers and pass out in our clothes, with one leg out of our pants and the other leg in.
The Teddy Bears Are Drunk
I WALKED TO THE BEDROOM THAT I HAD SHARED with Nicolas since I was a baby. On top of the bureau, there was a pile of VHS tapes on how to teach yourself karate. Nicolas had been watching them for years. He was actually really good at a lot of the moves. He looked like he was good at them anyways.
We never threw anything away. We had Valentine’s Day cards from elementary school. There were storybooks on the shelf next to some of Nicolas’s dirty magazines. There was a Peter and the Wolf record. There were action figures on the windowsill.
There were postcards that Étienne sent us from when he was in prison. We stuck them religiously to the wall, and now the Scotch tape was all yellow and peeling. There was a postcard of a man on a unicycle. There was a postcard of a strongman pulling a bus. There was a postcard of a naked woman completely covered in tattoos. That was particularly horrifying for us as children. We would spend hours looking at it.
The room had been our dad’s long before we were born. The closet was still filled with his clothes. Grandmother and Loulou never bought us new toys because they figured we could just play with Étienne’s. Our stuffed animals were wretched. They had wanted to retire after Étienne. They had wanted to just chill out at the bottom of a toy box. They could barely hold their heads up and were missing eyes.
Still, we wheeled them down the street in an old doll carriage. We tied bibs around their necks and stuck empty spoons up to their mouths, begging them to eat. We changed their clothes and straightened their hair. We told them we loved them. They just said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Nicolas and I slept in the same double bed. There was a single mattress by the window, but we just used that as a couch. We slept in our boots some nights under the giant old quilt that was covered in green roses.
I closed the window and the blind and lay on the bed. I started reading where I’d left off in Les Misérables. With the exception of Lucky Luke comic books, Nicolas did not share my fondness for reading. It was hard to concentrate on anything once Nicolas came home with his latest plight and crazy antics.
I was excited that I had signed up for school. I didn’t know why. I felt as if I had had an unusually productive day. He would be very sorry indeed when he found out what kind of day I had had. Wouldn’t he be amazed to find out that I had been nominated queen of the entire city? I couldn’t wait to make him regret having stood me up.
But it got later and later and Nicolas still didn’t show up.
I figured that he was probably at the Polish Social Club. There was a big dance floor there and he really liked to show off with his terrible moves. For some reason girls couldn’t resist him when he was dancing. The visions of what he was doing kept building and building in my head, until I was imagining a whole bar filled with people raising their glasses in the air, toasting him.
I decided that I might as well go out and look for Nicolas.
I put on a pretty dress. It was navy blue and had white buttons in the shape of flowers going down the front and little puffed sleeves. I rummaged through the drawer, pushing Nicolas’s boxers and gym socks out of the way until I found a pair of grey corded tights. I pulled them on. There was only a hole in the left foot where my big toe stuck out and another one behind my right knee. They were practically brand new as far as my tights went.
A cat slipped in the window, lay on the bed and rolled onto her back happily. She had just been impregnated. She lay there on her back with her paws on her chest, reliving the evening nervously in her mind.
I stuck a barrette with a silver star into my black hair. If I was going to be popping my head in and out of bars like a wife who was looking for her husband who had just got paid and was squandering all the money, at least I was going to look unbelievably fantastic while I was doing it. And if I didn’t find Nicolas, I might find someone else to distract me.
Romeo Is in the House
OH, WE HAD A LOT OF SEX BACK THEN IN Montréal; it wasn’t just me. Blame it on the cold. The roses in everyone’s cheeks made them seem way more appealing than they actually were. We confused the indoors with intimacy and electric heating with connection. Every night seemed like the last night on earth because we would all freeze to death shortly. Every night was a sad farewell party, a retirement party, the last few hours of a wedding. We were always bidding one another adieu. The line between having sex and not having sex was a lot finer than at any other time or place in history.
I had to admit that I had a strong tendency to date jokers. I couldn’t say no to them. I would sit across from someone I was dating and try and imagine who in the entire world would date this nimrod other than me. But I always had to have a boyfrie
When we were very little, I don’t even think that Nicolas and I were aware that we were different people. It was only when we started dating that we were able to spend any time away from each other. In these heightened experiences we were distracted from missing each other.
And a one-night stand made you feel as if you had just been invented. You were with someone who couldn’t quite believe in your existence. They marvelled over you the way that people marvelled over a brand new baby, where they couldn’t get over you having ten toes and fingers.
It was exciting and scary like the first day of elementary school. There was something so innocent about it. In longer relationships you end up having to think up all sorts of fantastic fantasies to be excited by the person. But now, this first night you are enough. Who really wanted to know themselves? Instead I could exist happily in this world of first impressions.
It was raining outside and the whole street smelled of pee. I started peeking into a couple of bars but Nicolas was nowhere to be seen. I decided to give up and go to the social centre where I could go dancing myself. There were coloured light bulbs all around the door. They sold beer for a dollar at happy hour. If you’d had enough to drink, coming out, the different-coloured lights looked like the aurora borealis.
Inside there was still the backdrop to a play that the children from the elementary school next door had put on. There were clouds cut out of cardboard hanging from strings. There was a little brick house that the big bad wolf couldn’t blow down. The edges of the curtain were tattered, like pants that had been dragging on the ground.
A man was playing this huge, out-of-tune piano. The melodies from it filled up the hall. Some of them floated out the door and through the neighbourhood. This piano had been brought over on a ship from the old country. Nobody was used to tunes that were that sorrowful. The pigeons would fall right out of the sky.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes