The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.28Heather O'Neill
“And let’s see … When I was a teenager I woke up with the tanks rolling down my street. I went outside to see what was happening and there were horses with police riding them, clunking me on the head with their batons. If you want to know why I started wearing this top hat, it was to hide les grosses bosses sur ma tête.”
The crowd started laughing happily at their age-old grievances.
“They were treating anyone in a turtleneck sweater like a criminal. Give a frog a dictionary and they become a revolutionary and start putting bombs in mailboxes and asking for their own country.”
Someone screamed out, “We love you, Étienne.” And there were whistles coming up from the crowd.
“And when the Trudeau government drafted the constitution in 1981, they didn’t get Québec to sign. While René Lévesque was asleep, the other premiers got up and worked on the constitution at midnight. At midnight! While we were in our underwear, trying to convince our girlfriends to have sex with us. We were watching our téléromans and farting, and they were busy drafting a new constitution without Québec! Whenever I need a knife, I don’t go and get one out of the kitchen drawer; I just reach around and pull one out of my back.”
Here the crowd started stomping their feet. There were people on balconies who started banging their pots and pans.
“When we asked for a constitutional amendment all these years later, they called us ungrateful and ignorant and racist. They finally bought a Dictionnaire Larousse just so they could look up some words to insult us.”
Everyone screamed. They were in heaven!
“It is not me who should be ashamed of my past, because I own up to everything that has happened. You, the Canadian government, should be ashamed of our past!”
There was only one more line to go and I could go back to breathing and enjoy his success.
“And look at my daughter, Little Nouschka!”
My heart stopped. He was going off script. For a moment I thought that he was going to acknowledge that I had helped him with the speech.
“She’s going to give birth to another Tremblay any day now. Is there anything more miraculous than birth itself? Well, the most wonderful day in my life was when my two twins were born. How many men can say that they have had two miracles happen on the same day? It is like having lightning strike in the same place twice!”
That was it. The audience was applauding like wild. He had rediscovered the love of his life. I understood why Étienne had always been single. Étienne kept taking bows and flinging his arms back into the air. Once again I was a pretty prop in his performance. There was nothing interesting about me, other than that I got to stand in his shadow. He was going to be the genius in the family. He was always going to take the credit for the Étienne Tremblay Show.
And now he had no intention of leaving the stage, even though his speech was finished.
“If it weren’t for my children, I’d have been no more than a drunken mop of a man.”
Everyone laughed, but I did not like it one little bit that he was carrying on. From having watched his odd performances for the documentary crew, I knew that they were uneven, to say the least. It sounded like he was going some place interesting with his thoughts, but if he spoke for more than a few sentences, the sense would run out of them quick, like the flavour out of a Slush Puppie.
“I am a degenerate! Look at this nasty old suit! I couldn’t even afford anything decent to wear to an occasion such as this!”
He was going to keep going. He thought the trick to winning over the crowd was to be self-deprecating. He had lost touch with the Everyman years before.
“I am not special. I have done everything that a dog would do. And yet here I am before you, calling myself a man. I mean really, am I a man? Or am I just a dog in a fancy suit. Bow wow wow! My colleagues and countrymen. Bow wow wow!”
The young men started laughing and cheering him on. Others started having quizzical looks on their faces.
I was cringing. Please, dear Lord, cut him off, I thought. I waved my hands at one of the organizers. He was too young and too intimidated to go out and interrupt Étienne Tremblay. I motioned instead at Gilles Vigneault.
Gilles Vigneault came up on stage with his arms spread out. He had his sailor hat on, a part of his costume that was as iconic as Étienne’s top hat. Everyone started jumping up and down when they realized just what was happening. Two of Québec’s most legendary chansonniers were sharing a stage.
Étienne usually never got on stage with anyone, for the simple reason that he was competitive with all these old chansonniers. Any attention that his contemporaries got would eat him up alive inside. He had spent many hours wishing in his heart of hearts that Gilles Vigneault had never been born.
Nonetheless, Étienne smiled at Gilles Vigneault. He turned to the audience and gave them the expression that they wanted to see. He gave them his giant, charismatic smile that they always believed in unreservedly.
Everyone started shouting, “Une chanson, une chanson, une chanson.” Gilles Vigneault waved his band out and spoke into the guitar player’s ear. The guitarist began to pluck out a tune. He began to play “Lily Sainte-Marie.”
The entire crowd immediately joined in. You could hardly hear the voices of Gilles and Étienne over the crowd’s sing-along. “Lily Sainte-Marie.” I hadn’t heard that song since we’d gone to see her. I suddenly couldn’t stand to listen to it. It was like listening to a lover lie when you know the truth. It was insulting. I felt the need to get as far from that song as possible.
I turned and started manoeuvring my enormous belly through the crowd. Étienne didn’t need me anymore. Now he was probably going to go out drinking with people who couldn’t believe that they were out drinking with him. I had been feeling like it was my day too. But once they started playing that song, it was all over.
I suddenly felt sort of blue. It’s funny how you can forget a feeling. I remembered so well being on stage as a kid, of course. But that feeling! I had forgotten that sensation that came afterwards. I didn’t even know what it was when I was a kid. But now I knew that it was the feeling that I had been cheated of something.
I wasn’t actually that upset that Étienne hadn’t thanked me, because I hadn’t written the speech for him because I wanted anything in return. But when he had pointed to me in the crowd, for a moment I had thought that he was going to do something for me. That he had made a big to-do about the baby seemed now, in retrospect, especially hypocritical.
At the end of the day, when the audience went home, we were no longer a family.
What did you have if you didn’t have a family? One morning a week from now, children would be lugging their erroneous atlases out to the corner and dumping them on the side of the road. The city would have to send a special truck around to pick up all the books, like they did with Christmas trees. Nothing was permanent.
I wanted to get out of there before this maudlin mood became overwhelming. At the point where the bodies became less numerous, I met Nicolas, who was also escaping from the crowd. Normally, it would have been difficult to find my brother in such an enormous crush, but we were the only two people who were hightailing it out of there. The song had the same effect on him as it had on me, apparently. We were like rats who met on the way out of a sinking ship.
We couldn’t say anything to one another over all the singing. He put his arm around me and we walked away from the crowd. I felt better immediately.
“You wrote that speech for him, didn’t you?” Nicolas asked me. We were far from everyone now. “He didn’t even thank you. You’re aware of that. You’re such a sucker. I came here today to watch the man make an ass of himself, but now you’ve reinvigorated the fucker.”
“But what about the cause? I thought you were a diehard separatist. You could have given a speech yourself.”
“I would have said that we should not only separate from this country but from the entire planet. I would recom
“That would have been a lovely speech.”
“I’ve been studying up on my radical revolutionaries.”
“That, or you’ve been watching too much Star Trek.”
Halfway down the block, we passed the documentary crew. The cameraman was up close to the stage. But Hugo was standing back on a chair, taking shots of the back of the crowd with a small camera. He waved to us.
“Are you going to cut that last bit?” I asked him.
“For every few minutes that Étienne is brilliant, he spends hours and hours saying inane, inappropriate stuff,” said Hugo, stepping down from his chair. “Or somehow kind of … just a touch sleazy or something. Sorry, I know he’s your father. But we’re going to have to throw out eighty percent of the footage.”
In that eighty percent of Étienne’s life was our childhood.
Praying to St. Lovely Mary Full of Grace
ON THE EVENING OF THE REFERENDUM, NICOLAS and I went and voted at the polling station in the basement of the St. Lovely Mary Full of Grace Church. I knew that at some point every member of my family was going to be in that basement that night. And every member of the family was going to vote Oui.
“It would be strange if it finally happened,” Nicolas said. “Remember how when we were little, Étienne used to promise us all sorts of stuff if it did?”
I never took the promises seriously. He would say anything to get Nicolas to go up on stage. He told us to tell everyone to vote Oui, because after the referendum we would ride on an elephant and take a trip to the beach and get a country house.
“I somehow thought that if we separated, Lily might come back and we could live somewhere clean, and we could invite people over for our birthday party.”
I looked at Nicolas, understanding something for the first time. When he was a kid, he had been told that if he screamed and carried on, he would get to have a mother and a normal family life. And he hadn’t ever stopped hollering, but he still hadn’t got what he wanted.
I remembered Nicolas weeping after the last referendum. He was inconsolable. I wondered what it was that Nicolas was expecting if Québec separated this time. He would open the mailbox and discover a cheque from the government for three thousand dollars and an invitation from our mother asking us to come over for tea and cookies. Everyone who had ever watched us on television would be forced to line up and apologize. He would no longer hate himself and he would be a good dad.
Nicolas had the same sort of charisma that our father had, but he didn’t want the entire city to love him. He just needed to feel that he was important to a very small group of people. He wanted a family.
But that night the Non side won fifty-one percent. And Nicolas woke up knowing that nothing was going to change.
The Pied Piper of Boulevard Saint-Laurent
IT WAS HALLOWEEN. I WAS SITTING ON THE FIRE escape. The man at the laundromat had his face painted white with a giant black circle around his mouth and an orange nose tied on with an elastic band. He was eating a sandwich and turning the pages of a television guide.
There was a knocking at my door. I climbed back into the apartment and hurried to see who it could be. It was the neighbour Isabelle. Her baby was on her hip.
“Nicolas is on the phone. He says he needs to talk to you urgently.”
I had been waiting for the phone to be installed. Raphaël had never wanted one. I didn’t bother putting on any clothes. I just walked down the hallway in my kimono over my underwear with my pregnant belly sticking out. I started feeling anxious. Nicolas Tremblay almost never used the telephone. I saw the receiver off the cradle on the kitchen table. Isabelle put the baby in its high chair. It started whacking its body back and forth, back and forth, as if it was in an electric chair. I was so glad I didn’t have a baby to raise just this second. I picked up the receiver.
“Nouschka. I need a favour.”
“Where are you? I’ll come meet you.”
“Can you get us four masks from the costume store?”
“Why do you need those? What do you have cooking?”
I was being discreet while pushing him to give me the details because I didn’t want Isabelle to hear. He was in such a braggy mood about it that he couldn’t help but tell me. They were going to rob a caisse populaire that night. He was crazy on the other end of the phone. He kept shouting out his sentences. I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening and right now. I wished for a second that he was dead, just so I wouldn’t be forced to live through this.
“Eloi had the masks in a duffle bag and he left it on the bus. And the costume store’s closing in fifteen minutes.”
If it was going to take place, I was going along. If Nicolas was going down, I was going to go with him. The baby was trying its very best to be real. But it wasn’t real yet. It hadn’t even gotten around to being born.
“I’m coming with you.”
He was like a tornado and everything around him was rushing toward him. Nothing could resist his pull. My ordinary problems didn’t matter. Having to finish school didn’t matter. Raphaël wandering in the wilderness didn’t matter. Lily Sainte-Marie not even mentioning us in the confession booth didn’t matter.
“You can’t rob a bank with us. We’ll come pick up the masks later.”
“No, I want to come.”
“What do you mean you want to come! It’s all the way on the other side of town.”
“I want to come.”
“You’ll get arrested. And if you don’t get arrested, you’ll end up celebrating all night at a strip club. Either way, I’m going to spend the night alone.”
“Listen to you! Your hormones are all over the place. Fine. You can drive the getaway car. Great! You can’t even drive.”
“My driving is fine.”
“Get a mask for yourself then too, idiot.”
“What’d he want?” the neighbour asked, bouncing her baby on her hips.
“Nothing,” I said.
She looked at the perturbed look on my face and knew that it wasn’t nothing.
“You and Nico have always been getting into trouble since you were little. You’re adrenaline junkies. You can’t help it.”
“Yeah, yeah. Do you have anything to eat?”
“You want some cake left over from Emmanuelle’s birthday party?”
She opened the fridge with her free hand and took out a plate with a fat slice of chocolate cake on it. A cat stepped off the table. It looked like an accordion falling open. I shovelled down the cake, famished despite my nerves.
“It’s because you were on television. You’re always trying to recapture that high.”
My stomach was already jittery and I had eaten the cake so fast, I was worried I might throw up on my feet. As I left Isabelle’s apartment, the baby looked like it was trying to shake its own self to death. The mother picked it up and comforted it. No wonder Lily Sainte-Marie had given her children up to a passing Gypsy. I was going out with the boys tonight; I didn’t care what they did. I put on a black dress with a red bow tied under the breasts. And my black high-heeled boots. I tried to stick my hair up with every bobby pin I could find. I found them at the bottom of teacups that were filled with change, inside teeny cough-drop tins and underneath the radiator. What was I thinking! Why the hell was I getting dolled up!
I had almost forgotten about the masks. I emptied out the jar of change onto the counter in the kitchen and looked through the pocket of my winter coat for money. I ran down the street to the costume store just as it was closing. I bought four cheap plastic animal masks. They were the only ones I could afford. I bought just a little cat snout for myself. I wouldn’t be able to see through a mask if I was driving. Nicolas was right: I couldn’t drive for shit.
When you’re about to do something really stupid and you know it’s incredibly stupid and it’s the very last thing on earth that you should be doing, but you go ahead and do it anyways, that’s when you realize that you are predestined to be a loser and there is nothing anyone can do about it, night school or not. Anyways, I didn’t think robbing a bank was that difficult. Every second bonehead at the bar claimed to have robbed a bank. I felt pretty in my scrap of a mask, and when I felt pretty, I felt infallible.
I went downstairs early. I was so nervous about the whole thing that I couldn’t sit alone in the apartment.
If the Oui side had won, the streets would have been filled with people. You wouldn’t be able to drive a car downtown. The army would surely be here. The riot squads would all be out. Flags would be flying everywhere. Fireworks would have been going off all day. There would be people standing on top of cars, singing Gilles Vigneault and Étienne Tremblay songs. We would all be weeping that René Lévesque wasn’t alive to see this.
Instead it was quiet. There was nothing at all to keep Nicolas from self-destructing.
Nicolas came by half an hour later, driving a minivan. I suddenly realized with absolute certainty that I had to talk him out of robbing the bank. I climbed into the front seat, next to a teenager, and handed out the masks. One of the boys had on a blue suit jacket and track pants. One was wearing a striped sweater filled with holes. One had a velvet brown hoodie over a T-shirt with a unicorn on it. I wondered if bohemians had ever robbed a bank before.
“Where’d you get this car?” I asked.
“I stole it outside the Chalet Bar-B-Q. We told these old ladies it was valet parking.” Nicolas held his giraffe mask and looked disappointed. “Why’d you have to get us these? You could have gotten us something more manly, like Godzilla.”
“The Godzilla masks were pricey.”
“When people see us, they’ll just think we’re dressed up for Halloween.”
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes