The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.30Heather O'Neill
“You love it. You love it,” Nicolas said. “Look, they thought they were somebodies. They thought they were better than us. Now they have nothing. Oh, isn’t it lovely. Take him down a notch. It’s entertainment. I’m not a character in a television show. Tar and feather me. You stole my childhood. On top of it you losers voted Non! Throw me in jail. You animals, you owe me. You all owe me. Where is my pay for having to spend my whole life being a clown? Be sure to send a postcard of the hanging to Grandpipi in Abitibi!”
Whatever else was said about him, you had to admit that Nicolas had a lovely turn of phrase. He was quoted in all the newspapers. In Montréal later that day, a twelve-year-old boy in the smallest-sized combat boots the army could issue and a jean jacket with gold stars ironed all over the sleeves put a flyer up on a telephone pole and slapped it with a huge paintbrush of glue. The poster was a mug shot photocopied from the front page of Le Journal de Montréal. Underneath was written: LIBéRER NICOLAS TREMBLAY.
The next morning I was standing completely clueless in front of one of the posters outside Loulou’s house. I had been standing there for ten minutes. I thought that there was something that I should be doing, but I didn’t know what. I was missing a compass and it made me feel dizzy. There was no use in trying to call Raphaël. He was not to be found. I suddenly wanted to call Lily. Supposedly, mothers were like North Stars that guided you when you were profoundly lost. How on earth could I explain this situation? I walked over to the phone booth. I looked up her number in the telephone book that was hung from a metal ring. I first turned to the names that began with S, but then I remembered that she would be under Noëlle Renaud. It was amazing: her number was there, right where it should be. What was even more incredible to me was that her name had been circled with two different colours of ink. How many times had Nicolas sat right here, thinking of calling her?
That Strange Land, Ontario
THE FOG WAS MADE IN A FACTORY IN LAC-SAINT-Jean. They have the same old machines that were built in 1942. The same guys have been working there for fifty-five years. They have a good union. They carry the steel cans of ice cubes up a huge ladder and then dump them in the machine. Nobody needs fog anymore, but Heritage Canada saved the factory and kept it up and running.
I couldn’t even see out the window as the train pulled out of the station. The tracks went west over nondescript land into Ontario. The train shook ever so silently back and forth like it was weeping in bed.
The fog magically went away as soon as I crossed the border into Ontario. You rode across it and there were jobs and decent, clean living and loads and loads more Protestants.
I probably wasn’t even considered good-looking in Ontario. I certainly wasn’t famous. It was no big deal to be tall. There were people that chose not to smoke. They spoke one language. Nicolas would probably come out of Kingston Penitentiary speaking perfect English.
This was the same prison we’d visited Étienne at years and years ago. Nicolas stuck out among all the other prisoners. His hair was flapping all over the place. He looked good and clean. His face looked sober and wiser. He looked relaxed for once. It was strange to see him in one colour and not some crazy getup. We held each other for a long time. I could have spent the whole hour just holding Nicolas in my arms. I felt perfect and complete. Finally we let go because we worried simultaneously about what the guards would think. We sat down on either side of the table.
“Have you heard anything from Pierrot?” he asked.
“Did you go to that poor old man’s funeral?”
“No, I didn’t know what his family would think.”
We were quiet. The things that we had to say to one another were so gigantic that we didn’t know where to start. We had no idea how this new situation defined or changed us.
“You look good,” I said, breaking the silence.
“You’re the only one that I miss,” Nicolas said quickly. “But I guess that I can get used to it and then I can do anything. I was always so scared that I couldn’t live without you when we were kids that I wanted to roll over in bed and strangle you. I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
“I know,” I said. “Remember when I hit you on the head with a pot for no reason at all?”
“Poor Loulou. That sort of stuff confused the hell out of him.”
“And remember when you poked me in the eye with that crayon?” I said. “I could have gone blind.”
Nicolas put his hands over his face in disbelief.
“How did we ever survive one another?” he asked.
“Or do you remember that time we had an argument with a kid at the park because we said that we were identical twins?”
“And he said that his father was a doctor and his father said that it was impossible for a boy and girl twin to be identical.” Nicolas laughed.
“Well, we proved him wrong, didn’t we?”
We both put our arms on the table, straightened up our backs and became absolutely still. We had this routine where we pretended that we were the mirror image of one another. We’d performed it on Gaston L’Heureux’s show once, but we’d perfected a few versions of it over the years.
As we sat in the prison visiting room, we began to move very slowly, so that we could guess the meaning of each other’s gestures more precisely. We both pretended that we had picked up a toothbrush and we began brushing our teeth. Then we both spat into a non-existent sink together. We put our toothbrushes into their immaterial stands. We both picked up our imaginary combs and we pulled them through our hair. When we were done with our hair, we dipped the tips of our fingers into little invisible tins of wax. He twirled the end of his imaginary moustache. I twirled the end of mine.
And the most amazing thing about our performance was that we had identical tears streaming down from our eyes at the very same time.
The Petit Prince Has Had Enough
I SAT ON THE COUCH NEXT TO EMMANUELLE, with her arm around me. The baby was finally asleep. Emmanuelle’s boyfriend came and squeezed in too. There was going to be a special segment on the news about Le déclin et la chut de la famille Tremblay as directed by Hugo Vaillancourt. Before we knew it, there was Nicolas in a prison uniform, his hair slicked back, smoking a cigarette, looking confident.
“Did you feel that you were missing out on anything as a child?” Hugo’s voice asked.
“I had the best clothes,” Nicolas started with a big grin, plainly feeling that he was going to dominate this interview. “I would have a cobbler make these adorable leather shoes for me. Because I have very particular feet. A doctor once called them jazz feet. We had this chauffeur named Gauguin. And Gauguin was always getting speeding tickets while driving Nouschka and me to school. Because we would say, ‘Gauguin, Gauguin! Will you just drive this car and get us to school on time; we’ll pay your fucking ticket.’ Oh, we were raised very differently than Papa. As Papa is probably very anxious to tell you, he was baptized in a spaghetti pot.”
There was a cutaway to footage of Nicolas on the street corner, scalping concert tickets. Then there was footage of Nicolas and me fighting on the street corner. I wasn’t even pregnant yet. We were horsing around. But they played the clip in slow motion and for some reason it came out looking brutal.
Then there was Raphaël yelling at a journalist. Raphaël held a garbage can over his head, threatening to dump it on all of Québec. I missed him. I didn’t even care what he thought of this fiasco. What I really wanted was just him here next to me on the couch. Now that the other love of my life had been taken away, he ought to return.
Hugo’s voice-over reiterated our family’s loss of fortune. Next came Étienne looking tipsy and trying to stuff a hot dog in his mouth. You’d think that they might have had a bit of respect, seeing as how he had been a national hero a couple weeks before. But as usual, now that the referendum was over, he would end up being tossed away by the public.
Nicolas was the one who had seen it coming. He had always known that the Non side was going to win.
Then the camera was where it had never been before. Loulou had let them in and he probably told them his most complicated thoughts and his most colourful anecdotes about life in La Grande Noirceur. But they weren’t interested in those. This was a case of a picture saying a thousand words. I felt sad for Loulou. When he was lonely he would garbage-pick. There he was, proudly displaying all the wonderful things that he had found in the trash: cracked vases, lamps with no light bulbs, amateur paintings of trees. He had straightened up, but he had put things in odd places. There was a plastic kewpie doll in with the dishes, and a row of shoes on the bookshelf. They panned the camera slowly across the room, as if they were showing footage of a city that had been ravaged by a bomb.
This was our great secret. This was where we had grown up. This was what the childhoods of Little Nicolas and Little Nouschka had actually looked like.
“How did growing up without a mother affect you?” a voice asked Nicolas in prison.
“How do you mean? Well … yes,” Nicolas stuttered, clearly taken aback by the question.
His nonsensical, witty repartee came to a stop. You had to give it to Hugo. He was asking new questions.
“I don’t know,” Nicolas said carefully. “Most of the guys in here have mothers. They show up on visitor’s day all happy and shit. I mean, there are guys doing eight-year stints in here and their mothers treat them like they’re saints and if they can just turn things around, they’ll be the next prime ministers for sure.”
Nicolas stubbed his cigarette out and looked up at the ceiling for a minute.
“So I don’t have some coddling middle-aged woman coming in and telling me fairy tales about myself. And telling me how wonderful I am when I am clearly nothing but a piece of shit. I’ve always been a realist. Since I was five years old, I’ve been singing the sad, true nature of this terrible world.”
There he was in the cage like Iago, speaking like a beautiful, bitter bird. Iago pretended to be a model of virtue and propriety, but at heart he was downright rotten. Whereas Nicolas wanted to be evil and hard, but he was really so soft and sweet and broken.
The King of Boulevard Saint-Laurent
I WAS SITTING AT THE KITCHEN TABLE, WRITING an essay for school, when the clock radio went off by accident. I had stopped listening to the radio and tried to avoid newspapers. It seemed like every day they had a different angle on us. Today there was a leading psychologist trying to explain what factors had led to Nicolas’s particular brand of insanity. He couldn’t get away with just being another idiot who robbed a bank.
Now the radio hosts were laughing their heads off. They couldn’t be talking about Nicolas. I didn’t know what was amusing them so much.
“No, but really, he gave a forty-seven-year-old woman an asthma attack.”
“It’s not the lion’s fault. He was just going for a stroll.”
“I don’t know how they’re going to fit him into one of those little cages at the SPCA.”
After this remark they laughed and laughed. They were so delighted with themselves that they couldn’t stop laughing. They were just going to laugh and laugh until the weather report.
I ran downstairs and across the street to the corner store and picked up a newspaper. It was on the front page, and the store owner was talking about it with a customer. In the middle of last night, a lion had crossed the Jacques Cartier Bridge onto the Island of Montréal. Early-morning drivers had spotted him as he walked down the highway. Drivers at that hour were always seeing hallucinations at the side of the road and didn’t know what to think. There was an aerial shot, taken from a helicopter, of the lion leaping over a car and heading to Chinatown.
The lion had strutted down Boulevard Saint-Laurent with his mane looking like it was slicked back. I could swear it was the same scrawny lion that I had seen in Val-des-Loups. Now he looked majestic walking down the street. Nobody could touch him. No one could tell him how to be. He was confident and calm. He took cool to a whole other level. When he yawned, his yawn was so enormous that all the little boys and all the little girls caught the yawn and went to bed.
It was time that there was a new Roi de Boulevard Saint-Laurent. He made everyone so happy. They were going to give him his own exhibition at le Zoo de Granby. One of the police officers who was the first on the scene affectionately named him René, because he said that the lion, with his thinning mane and enormous jowls, resembled the ex-premier of Québec René Lévesque.
There was something unsettling about that lion being here. I thought for a moment that I had better go check my bible. Because I was pretty sure that there was a verse in Revelations that said that a lion walking over the Jacques Cartier Bridge was a sure sign of the apocalypse. People all over the city were taking that lion for an omen. Some saw it as a sign that they should stay away from the casino that week, some as a message that they shouldn’t get married. I was frightened. But I knew one thing for sure, looking at the photograph of the lion: Raphaël was coming back.
Raphaël Lemieux’s 115th Dream
I WOKE UP WITH A START A WEEK LATER. I ONLY had a bra on. My belly was enormous. I was so tired that I couldn’t even remember anything. I couldn’t remember if I was a little kid in pyjama bottoms waking up from a nap. I couldn’t remember if I was an old lady. I couldn’t remember what point of my life I was at.
Raphaël was sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. He was drinking a glass of iced tea. He had showered. His aftershave smelled like licorice. His hair was combed back and he was wearing a suit. He had a gold ring on his pinky finger with a sparrow on it. My eye went to it as if it was an announcement. He looked like he’d been up all night. This worried me. If he had been up all night thinking, there was no telling what kind of crazy thoughts he had come up with.
Raphaël closed his eyes for several seconds. He was gone to the world when he did that. Who knew how long he was away in his alternate universe? He could be spending years in Narnia. He might be involved in a terrible four-year battle. He looked exhausted and world-weary when he opened his eyes again.
I thought he looked dead handsome.
I still wasn’t used to being awake. I felt as if someone had made me out of snow and I was going to melt soon, so what was the point? We had gone back to the way we were when we were little kids, where we couldn’t say anything to one another at all.
“I’ve decided to kill my father,” Raphaël said.
His gun was hanging from his left hand. He stood up and walked to the window and looked out. He seemed to be checking for something, but I couldn’t imagine what. I wasn’t sure if he meant that he was going to go kill his father right now. I somehow didn’t think so. Nobody ever did what they said they were going to do right after they said it. You could procrastinate for years.
He turned back around and came and sat on the end of the mattress. He gave me such a strange look. He looked at me with terrible love for a second. He put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.
I, Said the Sparrow
I WAS WEARING A BLACK SWEATER DRESS AND A peacoat. The baby kept kicking. The baby kept crying out, “Goodbye, goodbye.” I kept opening my hand for Nicolas to take it as I walked down the street toward the funeral parlour. But there was just emptiness there. It was just an instinct that he should be showing up any minute to make me feel better. But he wasn’t.
I felt as if I could hardly walk. We always imagine the sidewalk to be so strong. But it is hardly true. It could give any second. Grief turned everything to liquid. Grief could deny the reality of all this. All the bricks were holding one another up. But any second, they might just give up hope. They might stop seeing the point and then they would all come crashing down. An
Someone else had called the police. They had heard the shot, heard me calling out, “Au secours!” over and over again. Although I didn’t have any memory of calling out to anyone at all. It was hard to remember. Everything had a make-believe quality to it still. And I was skeptical that it had happened.
The words CHAMPOUX ET FILS were written on the glass of the front door with gold letters. The son was a seventy-five-year-old man. He did everything by himself. There was no one as organized as these old men who had been doing the same tasks for forty years. They knew how to look terribly sad but also completely in control.
The place hadn’t been redecorated since the sixties. There was something anachronistic about it. Even the hearse outside seemed old-fashioned. The driver wore a small blue sailor hat and a suit.
Some of the white tiles on the lobby floor were broken because so many people had walked across the lobby floor. Every day there were lines of people trudging up the stairs who were going through the exact same thing that I was going through.
I had already been here for three funerals. It made me feel a little bit comforted to know that I was at least some place that was familiar. Raphaël wasn’t the only person on earth that had ever died. My grandmother’s funeral had been here when I was five, but I could hardly remember it.
I could not make any sense of death. Even though death was just about the most ordinary thing that could happen to a person, it defied everything that I knew about the world. It was like anything could happen now. If King Kong had reached his hand through the window and snatched me up, I wouldn’t have kicked up a fuss in the slightest. I would just have let him wrap me up in his fist and looked out at all the sights around me.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes