Canada |


by Melissa Bull

The power knocked out midway through my stupid all day-all night Thursday shift and it got really cold inside my little boutiquette. Something popped behind the wall of L'Homme rapaillé inside of Ogilvy's Department Store and then came this profound stink—like Old Faithful was belching out skunks who died from eating rotten eggs—which ruined everything. A trickle of brown water started to snake along the tiles and we started hauling suits and talking fast, trying to hustle the old men out of there in a hurry. Monsieur, monsieur, monsieur, sʼil vous plaît! That's my drama voice, part of an emphatic effort to head towards post-monochromatic speech. The shopgirls, the SAs, Marie-Audrey and Marie-Christine, had to broken-wrist-model-walk the men downstairs like border collies herding sheep. Good collies. You know, smart, groomed. Nice dogs. Iʼm not trying to say theyʼre bitches.

I called the security booth. Hello Number 14, please pick up. Mario, the old security booth guy thought I was just a whiny shop kid but then a couple things happened. First: the jazz music they piped in went silent. Second: The lights. Then Mario believed me. And then Mario had to go and then I hung up.

Inside a blacked-out Ogilvyʼs, the racks of clothes and carpeting dark and silent as a forest underneath a bed of snow. When I was eleven, I was hanging behind a pharmacy in Westmount. I wasnʼt doing anything wrong. I thought of myself as a spiritual kind of kid, and I just liked watching the snow, you know. And when it started to snow I told myself Remember Being Here I would recite that phrase to myself like it was my own O Captain! My Captain! And time slowed to the pace of snowflakes moulting from the white sky, feathering into the parking lot, silencing even Sherbrooke Street, which is a long and busy street just around the corner from my quiet alleyway. This is my snow reference point.

Maybe where you live thereʼs no snow, so I just thought I'd pass that on. Remember Being Here.

An alarm started to bleat from somewhere by the elevators down the hall. I got my stuff to go and clanged down the escalators. On the ground floor parquet, bouquets ladies in perfume shrieked a little bit and then shrieked some more when they heard themselves panic. While the clack-a-clack of their slingback kitten heels made haste, I was all hunching my shoulders in boredom in the half-light of the emergency lights, waiting around in line to go out the employee sidedoor, and I saw this forty-something party girl from the Guerlain counter pocket a bottle of Shalimar on her way out. They never checked our pockets, just our bags. I totally had a tie down my pants so I wasn't gonna bust anyone out on anything. A silk tie, FYI. They say employee shoplifting accounts for about seventy per cent of all losses in retail. Most people don’t know that but, as managers, we take seminars on shoplifting prevention, and also on sales techniques, upstairs, in the ballroom.

I got my routine purse investigation and lazy patdown and walked past the department store's famous mechanical Christmas display which was all frozen in mid-action. Little bunnies teetering buckets over lodges, froggies gone a-fishin', monkeys working a flour mill—all in a standstill. The sky was bleak and its bleakness leaked into streets overrun with grey slush. Chunks of ice floated on roads shifted into sudden, sewer-spitting estuaries. Tanks had somehow appeared on the streetcorner since the time I'd started my shift. Whoa. Holy army going on.

People poured out of their extinguished buildings. The metro was shut down. A mass four o'clock exodus on foot. You never saw so many people in Montreal—it looked like a Philip Glass orchestrated cityscape of New York. But maybe not even. Overweight buses stirred heavily past each stop, gainless and bulky as overdue pregnancies. All over downtown, lines lengthened, grew, strung out and around the sidewalks, bus queues looking like an advertisement for affordable winter wear. They needed a soundtrack. They needed to spruce up. They needed new coats.

Ha. Sometimes I act all judgemental like that, like I don't need new duds all the time. It's bull. I just think Iʼm funny, even when Iʼm not. Someoneʼs mom told me that once.

Funny or not, I was too poor to cab it, so it took me an hour and a half—and that is a long time to walk gingerly on sidewalks that are building layers upon layers of ice—to get from downtown to the cluster of low-rent buildings near the milk factory where I lived.

Whenever anyone asked where I lived, I told them it was right by the giant cow head and they knew what I meant and they had a story about how they used to give out ice-cream there before, but don't anymore. Personally, I don't think this ice-cream socialism is true! No one actually remembers eating it—it's always someone's friend's roommate's best friend's mother. Like that story about the dead dog in the suitcase.

Dead Dog in the Suitcase : After doing her airline stewardess safety routine, in French, Liz told me about her last roommate who was taking care of some dog. The roommate shows up to walk the dog one morning and itʼs, like, dead. So she calls the owners and theyʼre all like, Oh, we're sorry, it's not your fault, but could you please bring the dog to the vet's and have it cremated. So the roommate says okay. Itʼs a little dog. Itʼs the least she can do. She feels sort of bad even though it wasnʼt like she killed it. She looks around the house and finds a little suitcase to zip the dog into and she gets on the metro to go to the vet's. On the metro, this guy starts talking to her, telling her she's cute and what's in the suitcase. Roommate says her computer and stuff cuz heʼs weird and a dead dog in a suitcase is weird too. Next stop dude makes off with the dead dog suitcase.

I believed that dead dog story the first time I heard it. It reminded me a bit of that story about the burglars with the toothbrushes up their asses that I heard at Jesus Camp on Lake Massawippi. Sometimes itʼs nice to just believe something that sounds implausible, so you that you can freak out appropriately. Anyway, the ice-cream storyʼs like that. Like a pre-pasteurized milk when this was just a dairy kind of tale. Glory lore, like how everybody says they were at Woodstock. But thatʼs okay. We all sort of remember lining up to get our cones. I remember it too, sometimes.

When I was a kid, my dad and I would drive out to the Italian neighbourhoods to see how they cabled their houses in the most brilliant displays of lights. But the ice covered Montreal—even in the neighbourhoods outside the core, so said the news, later, when I heard the news. So their lights were out too, probably. Into that dark night, mighty, blown-up Santa Clauses, reindeer and wires wrapped around curling banisters, blinking in on-off, on-off, on-off sections: stairs-window-balcony-balcony-stairs-stairs-window-balcony-balcony-stairs. They stopped doing that. Instead, electrical wires draped low all along the streets, frosted and weighted down. I saw one cut and sparking on someoneʼs lawn under a broken maple trunk. I could have gotten electrocuted but I didnʼt. It wasnʼt my time. Off-off, off-off, off-off.

On my block, a couple of hookers paced in shiny gowns and running shoes. They must have been freezing. They were like high schoolers, you know, the defiance of their undress boldly stating: I donʼt need a hat! I don't need winter boots! I donʼt feel the cold like you do! And they were preening in their scrappy outfits like were anywhere else but on the border of NDG and the City of Montreal West in the Time of the Great and Cold Fiasco. One chugged back a two-litre carton of chocolate milk. A Montreal West dude in a muscle car, a real hero sandwich, skidded by and he shouted she should "get a real job!" The whore took another swig from the carton, hitched up her skirt over her tube socks. "I'm doing the best I know how," she said, and horked out some milk and phlegm into the street.

Watching her, I thought, I never learned how to properly hork. No Leonardo ever taught me how to spit. You know what happens when you think about a James Cameron movie? The universe will punish you. One exception. No. Two exceptions: Youʼre allowed to say, or think, “Iʼll be back,” and also, “Hasta la vista, baby,” because theyʼre ironic sentences to throw around, because Arnold Schwarzenegger is too weird to deprive yourself of making fun of him. Because you WANT to sound like a moron when you say that. But anything else thereʼs payback. Proof: I thought, and kind of enviously, too, of Leonardo DiCaprio teaching Kate Winslet how to spit off the fancy deck on the Titanic and I immediately fell on my ass and thwacked my head on the sidewalk. A skating rink-style sidewalk, you know, a total sheet of ice. No blood. But a nice fat wet stain spread on the seat of my pants like I'd pissed myself. It was lame that I managed to get all the way to my front stoop without falling before I did.

Itʼs sort of like how the old people at my church talk about this fighter pilot from WWII who made it through the war, through some POW camp in Germany and everything, but died in a wreck, when the old Grand Boulevard streetcar hit his cab on the way home from the airport after V Day. There’s some element of destiny there.

At home I flicked the hall light-switch. It didn’t work. I tried the other. It didn’t work.

“Hey, lady.”

Jordan sat on the futon, naked except for his checked robe and his Bart Simpson slippers. I didn’t like the slippers. Slippers shouldn’t have faces. Jordan lit a candle with his lighter flame on high, and then his cigarette from the wick.

“Looks like you had a little accident, Marlene. Playing hide and seek again?"

“Fell.” I used to get nervous and pee myself when I played hide and go seek. It happens to people sometimes.

“We’ve got an island-wide power outage going on. You want some drinks?”

I ignored him. Because he was naked and also because of the peeing my pants thing.

I’m not trying to set you up to dislike him. When he wasn't all dishclothy or high he could be pretty smart. He went to Brown. He has pretty eyelashes. And that way he has about knowing he’s gonna get his way with things is sort of addictive to watch. It’s a talent. It goes beyond intuition. Like a gifted sense of arrogance that always pans out.

Jordan used to steal my Barbies and hack at them with his step-father’s’ silver-handled steak knife collection. He'd tell me it was the Viet Congs that'd tortured them. I let him do it, sometimes, because after, we’d lip-synch to Debbie Gibson together beside his mother’s grand piano. I’d never have had the balls to rip up my dolls without him.

I went to my room and lay on my unmade bed in my wet clothes. Seagulls fought by a garbage can outside my window. I felt inundated with things to do and the sensation of time running out on me, weeks and weekends and work weeks. I couldn’t keep track. Months adding up, hair growing, nail biting, shaving, throwing out old things that used to be new. Buying soap. Fucking Dove soap. Time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time. I needed an Air Supply version of that to cheer me up.

I didn't expect things to go so belly-up in my middle age. But I'm a Scorpio and, according to a friend who did my chart—well she's maybe not my friend, she's this Swedish girl from work who kind of looks like me—I just allow things to happen. That means I'm not ambitious enough, which is probably true. A psychic once told me I should learn how to make lists and also to wear copper in my shoes to ground my energy. He said I should use pennies. But pennies in my shoes reminded me of that goody-goody from elementary school who wore penny loafers for picture day every year. I totally should have been Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz instead of that goody-good. Just saying. I wish my music teacher could have considered that there might be a reason I was handing my Sibelius project in late—like maybe my mom had gone on one of her long sherry samplings and I wasn't just being some pre-teen twat. She shouldn't have punished me by giving the part of Dorothy to that goody-good. I don't think it's crazy to say that my life would have been pretty different if I'd been Dorothy. Instead I played the synthesizer.

There was a certain stage-hand appeal to the synthesizer, of course. Plus I had little boob nubs that year. I wore suspenders over them. I carted the synthesizer on the bus and felt pretty cool, with my nubs and my suspenders and my case. I felt like hot shit at the exact same time that I was more mad than jealous about the Dorothy part being pretty much stolen from me. It still made me mad and I hated that goody-good as I kept on thinking about coffee.

I wasn’t planning on making actual coffee. I was planning on drinking instant coffee. To be even more precise: Instant decaf. Which might seem like a replica of a replica but that’s not thinking. This is how it is. You have to understand there are simply different categories of hot drinks. You don’t judge them. You say to yourself, sure, espresso is best. You drink espresso to feel that there is a reason to be wherever you are. Say, at Olive and Gourmando in Old Montreal, sometime between ten and eleven-thirty on a weekday, and you deserve to look at the art student waitresses with their asymmetrical haircuts and see-through pants. This espresso tableau exists for you. But also, this is fatuous living, this is living fatuously, and maybe it’s just not for every day. Who can be a pasha every day?

Filter Coffee: The coffee of the people. Usually under two bucks, the way things should be. Also, many places (though not the Oxford Café) will give you free refills.

Church Coffee is almost as good as hot chocolate. Not tasty-wise, memory-wise. Remember drinking this coffee. You know everyone loves you, you are the Sunday school, there are cookies. Creator God. John Wesley. Hymns. The Blue Room. Itʼs good. Itʼs great.

Instant Coffee , and its fraternal twin, instant decaf. Iʼm sorry Iʼve even listed it like this, categorizing the drinks in declining order.

++PLUS++ I never mentioned tea. And does tea go between espresso and instant decaf? Or have its own category? This should be a diagram and not a paragraph. Because, also, there are so many teas. As many teas as there are leaves and flowers. But we can forget about the tisanes and the egg net things and talk real tea bags you buy in cardboard boxes. You begin with Salada, which is like church coffee, a great comfort. Thereʼs also Red Rose, Saladaʼs kissing cousin, which provides almost the same stalwart support as Salada except the picture on the box is prettier, because it’s a flower, plus it’s a good story, the one it reminds us of, the story of Rose Red. And then there’s Lady Grey. That’s rich lady morning tea. And Irish Breakfast is more Sunday morning.

The Others: The others I don’t care. We don’t need to keep at this. But the thing with instant coffee is it reminds me of camping. It’s a good bachelor drink. Like a hobo drink. You could be waiting for a boxcar, drinking your instant coffee in a tin cup, playing with the mouth organ and leftover tobacco in your pocket with your free hand. You are sort like in The Grapes of Wrath, if the Joads could have had instant coffee instead of that spurting breastmilk business. They’d have dug it. You are digging it for them. And that’s class all its own.

There was a bang at the door. There were a few: I didn't want to face that old mophandler Angel about the rent. Not then. We still had till the twenty-second before we had to pay. But Jordan couldn’t be diplomatic. In November heʼd yelled through the door that he wished he could just be a prince. Angel’s English wasn’t good enough to understand that meant Jordan wasn’t paying up. Then the landlord tacked something about an eviction on the door. I was embarrassed. Meh, I was all-out shamed. The neighbours saw. Even the weird guy without the eyebrows upstairs saw it. Finally, Jordan's dad, and his dad lives in Latvia or Mesopotamia or something, anyway, he came through for us. “I told him he owes me from the divorce, still," Jordan said. And I was like, “Dude, your parents got divorced when you were eight.” And he said, “Yeah, and my dad hardly gave me any money for college and so he owes me. Plus Iʼm his kid. Plus I like living like Iʼm on heroin.”

Bo looked back at me all fish-eyed and backlit through the peephole. “I forgot you were coming over,” I said, happy to see her face stretching out towards my eye in bubblicious Christmas ornament exaggeration.

“I tried to call to remind you but your phone isnʼt working. Open up!” I did. And hung in the doorframe. Lanky-like. “Yeah, it was disconnected a while ago.”

“You should get a cell phone, already. You don't have power? Neither do my parents. Let me in. I have bagels.” She said bagels with a private school girl accent, like she was too bored to say bagels. She pushed open the door and tried to duck under my arm.

“Okay, yeah. Hey. Itʼs good to see you. Come in my room, Iʼm making coffee.”

She took off her boots. She shouldnʼt have bothered. The floor was filthy. Course it was also pretty dark, so she probably couldn't tell. I was in the process of trying to train Jordan out of letting me do all the cleaning. So far that wasnʼt going so well.

“Is that a camping stove? In your room? Careful you donʼt blow your whole apartment. Shit, Marlene. You canʼt live here like this. Is your toilet at least still flushing?”

“Last I dumped.”

“Gross. Also, like totally unnecessary info. You guys live like squatters.”

“I wish!” Jordan called out from the living room.

“What is he even doing in there?”

“Thinking about Bauhaus!” he yelled.

So we sat on my mattress. Bo kept her grandmotherʼs old fur coat on. Ding dong, she looked like a furbell, a tinker, a tinker bell, a ding dong the witch is dead belle. “Look! I can see my breath! Thatʼs crazy.” She pulled a beret out of her pocket and stuck it over the intricate buns pinned to her head. The water boiled. I poured it over some spacey dehydrated granules, added Jack Daniels, and a dash of coffee whitener. Because a dash makes it dashing. A splash makes it splashing. She was still so girlish. Round cheeks, pudgy belly stretched over her wide hips, elegant toes. Fertility goddess circa 1942. I handed her a cup. She gagged.

“Youʼre just a coffee snob from those swanky Laurier pâtisseries you work at.”

“I know I am but what are you?” She eyed me with an exaggerated, raised eyebrow look. She plucked her eyebrows superfine. I wouldnʼt have liked it on anyone else but her. On her it was little girl cute, classic milkmaid Coca Cola ad.

“I practically had to skate my way here, you know. Or swim, or whatever,” she said.

“Is that why you have so many clothes on? What do you have underneath all these layers, anyway?”

“And you never even call me.”

I grabbed at her hat. I could imagine Bo's usual array of second-hand undergarments smelling somewhat enticingly of someone elseʼs musk. That secondhand vaguestink. Plus she wasnʼt all keen on the washing up. Her and her friends thought their hair and their ears just washed themselves, or they made their own shampoo out of baking soda. I always said what you're supposed to say about body hair and maintenance, though. Tʼes belle. Tʼes belle comme tu es. And she was, and a lot of it was that au naturel glow she had. But she could stand to shave her legs sometimes. I'm just saying. It could be I'm being pissy in retrospect, but let us allow for the opposite, that maybe distance can give me some clearer judgement than I had at the time.

She put her cup on the floor and unbuttoned her fur coat. She put on a French-from-France, like French maid accent. Très sexy. “To begin with, we have zis little dress vith polka-dots.” Bo's breath was several coffees sour and her little kisses were sloppy, delivered with open-mouthed vehemence and urgent noises, like she was acting out passion. I let myself be an object for her arousal until she had my shirt off. We goosebumped. She has great breasts. Dense and round.

Once I told her I thought she had denser boobs because of all the coffee she drank but she never believed me, though I have maybe dabbled in the café ladies world and know of which I speak. She turned around. Her ass wavered in a pair of old-fashioned bloomers, her skin milky, glowing against the bare mattress in the dark room. I bit. She hollered, but I think it was because she liked it.

In the morning sleet blurred the windows. Bo slept mummified in my sleeping bag, turned away from me. I got up, lit a match and started the stove up. Bo grunted a mouthful of muffled consonants—grhfrrcdr-something and rolled—that kind of snappy body language I know Iʼm in trouble when I see.


“Iʼm not having any more of your instant things,” Bo said, still under the sleeping bag. “Real food or nothing.”

“There are your bagels. And maybe some chocolate puddings. Shit. I forgot the fridge isnʼt working. I also have sauerkraut. Would you like some sauerkraut for breakfast?” Bo murmle murmle murmelled. I went to the kitchen and came back with a couple of puddings and plastic measuring spoons. Bo emerged from of the sleeping bag like a turtle extending its neck. Or like the way ET stretches his neck. Except way prettier than a turtle or an alien. Way, way more.

“Itʼs clammy in here,” she said.

“Can I borrow your phone? I should see if the store is open today.” She handed it over. There was an automated message that we'd be shut down for a while which was good because I felt discouraged just thinking about another walk into the city. “Work's closed. Maybe I should quit, anyway.” She sat up. Her eyes skipped over me.

“Why donʼt you go back to university so you can do something you like better?”

She started the bossing me around tactic first thing today. Gross.

“I'm too old.” My usual rebuttle: Poor me. Cue in Love Story theme. Do that thing with your arms where youʼre playing the violin at me.

“Do music.” See? She read my mind, that girl.

“Nah, Not good enough anymore. You have to be pretty perfect, you know, itʼs not like itʼs something you do cuz itʼs making you feel good, like baking a plate of cookies, or knitting some half-assed scarf to feel crafty.”

“I think youʼre tired of selling suits in Ogilvy's. Aren't you? Youʼve been doing that for like a decade already. Why donʼt you just do something else?” Bo was pulling on her fishnets. She lit a Peter Jackson. “Donʼt you think that, like, you draw these circumstances to yourself?”

“What—like the goddamn ice storm? What do you mean?”

“Marlene, I have a biology exam today... if school hasn't been cancelled.”

I thought of that line from that hymn—What shall I bring him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamp. A lamb. I continued eating my chocolate pudding with my tablespoon. If I were a pudding-eater I would bring pudding and a spoon.

“Here, have mine too,” she said, handing me back the cup.

The Different Flavours of Prim : There are different flavours of prim. The Eastern-European kind, with complicated French braids twisted neatly around their heads, old-world country girl style, who dress in buttoned up shirts and high-waisted skirts that have no purposeful link to retro. Their faces are plain as Mormons or Mennonites and you can tell they know how to scrub a thing clean. I worked at the store with a girl like that, once, who told me her mother put blue powder on her arm when she broke it. What does that even mean, blue powder on broken bones? Beyond stoicism. There are the hard-studying Protestant girls—theyʼre the mainstay of Classical music. They consider their appearance, they're upper-middle class taken down a notch. Itʼs their movements that belie their prudery. Gestures sharp as protractored designs. A value of thoughtfulness, a Christian- tinged politically-correct way of speaking that at its heart I'm cool with but it's somehow thickened in the distance between authenticity and socialization that these girls are lost to themselves. I hate how theyʼre cotton-battened stiff-upperlipped and they feel if they can just memorize the rules theyʼll have an underhanded upperhand, an outward appearance of evenhandedness, theyʼll be well turned out. The thing is I was totally one of those. I feigned innocence all the time, and got away with it. I prompted myself into sincerity to match my appearance. I look pretty innocuous. You'd say so too. If you met me.

Prods : The Prods make me sad, that Iʼve said too much, the world seems loose, sort of depressed sad, like there is no grand master plan, just a lot of busy bees kind of sad. Whereas the Eastern-European kind point me to a life full of invigorating tragedy Iʼve never known—the emigrating on cargo ships style calamity. The Protestant girls are as much about stuff as the Eastern European ones are about leaving everything behind. When I say Prod, sometimes I mean Anglo, but sometimes I change my mind about that.

Bo wore frocks. I don't even know where she got all the costume-y stuff she decked herself out with. She smoked too much and she was always recovering from a case of bronchitis from the periods she tried quitting. She was second-generation Hungarian hot, of the ugly is the new beautiful variety. It hurt my teeth to look at her straight on. Remember Being Here. Sometimes I grind my teeth at night, when Iʼm having sexy dreams. That’s probably where I go the teeth thing.