Youth by Tim Beckett

Youth

 

by Tim Beckett

 

1280px-Montréal_glow
She appeared on an old style woman’s bike with the heavy iron frame and the wide handlebars, her backpack so heavy she almost fell over as she came to a stop. I was drinking beer on Bill’s porch with Bill and a dozen other people and I watched her as she came up the stairs. She was striking, with high Indian cheekbones and olive skin and long brown hair she’d tied back in a ponytail with an Indian braid, and an athletic dancer’s figure which she’d wrapped in a ankle-length leather greatcoat. As she said hello in turn to everyone on the porch, I noticed that, unusually amongst Bill’s friends, she was French.

She’d noticed me as well, because she stopped right in front of me, taking me in with amazing diamond eyes. Up close, she looked familiar though that didn’t mean much: in the month I’d been back in Montreal, every street, face or overheard conversation – whether in French or English – contained some association with a set of vaguely remembered persons or memories. For this and other reasons, I didn’t like to go out much, but that afternoon was special: Bill and his wife Sarah were having a baby shower for their daughter Gisele, who had just turned one.

Sarah, just two years off heroin.

The woman shook my hand, smiling so that her eyes crinkled at the corners.

“You used to drink at the Peel Pub,” she said. Then, adding hurriedly when I stared back blankly, “I used to work there. I’m called Valerie.”

She even remembered my name. She was right about the Peel Pub. Long before it became a chain pub where college kids lined up an hour or more to get in, the Peel was a single basement tavern on St. Catherine’s street serving cheap food and cheaper beer from dawn until midnight. It was a fun place. A fat guy named Al ran the night shift and his old man the day shift and once when I was there for the 99 cent breakfast, Al and his old man got into a fistfight in front of a couple of dozen bemused customers. At night, it filled up with everything from transvestites to neo-Nazi skinheads – the whole downtown world seemed to flow through its confined, cigarette-smoke choked gloom. I’d just moved to Montreal from out West and I’d never seen anything like it: I’d drop in a couple of times after my job on a construction site around the corner and watch it unfold.

Yet despite the sharpness of the association, I couldn’t place Valerie.

“You have a good memory.” I said finally.

“I remember all the faces from that place. I can probably tell you what beer you drank.”

“Draught.”

“No. You had those big bottles. Molson Ex.”

She grinned down triumphantly and I laughed. Again she was right: I’d drunk the big 40 ounce bottles of Molson Ex because you could only find them in Quebec and they were the cheapest of the cheap. That she remembered such a detail after fifteen years amazed me and I wondered what else she remembered about me – some nights I’d left the Peel Pub pretty hammered. Now that I’d had a chance to see her up close, I noticed that she had a sad air, and that her eyes were discolored around the edges and ever so slightly glazed, as if a part of her had ceased looking outward. Yet I was attracted to her and knew from the subtle energy passing between us that she was attracted to me as well. I felt embarrassed because I still couldn’t place her.

“Did you like working there?” I continued, unable to think of anything else to say.

“Oh, it was good money for awhile but so hard to work, especially when I started doing the evening shift later on.” She brightened. “ The only good thing was you got off at midnight and there was the Dome across the street. We’d go dance ‘til four.”

“What do you do now? Not working at the Peel Pub I hope.”

“No.” Despite her wounded air, she looked like she could work in the arts, or even an office. To my surprise, she drew inward, as if ashamed of something.

“I work at a place quite similar in some ways to the Peel Pub, run by a family with the same fights as Al and his Dad.”

“Al. What happened to him anyway?”

“Oh,” she made the characteristic Quebecois gesture of blowing through her lips: “He get so into coke, Al.” She looked down a little sadly. “He fire me thirteen times and hire me back twelve. He doesn’t run that place anymore. You remember how fat he was – he had a heart attack!”

She smiled, as if cheered by the memory. I’d heard that the Peel Pub chain had overextended itself and gone bankrupt but I hadn’t heard about Al.

“Is the place you work far from here?”

“I work in Laval,” she glanced at me meaningfully. “You cross the bridge and oh-la-la.”

I laughed. “The money good at least?”

“Oh oui!”

Her eyes drew me into her, asking me to understand the compromises involved in working in Laval. Having had plenty of experience in dead-end jobs, I sympathized yet something still didn’t feel right. At the very least, I’d assumed that she waitressed at some trendy bistro on St. Denis and that I could drop in to see her.

“C’est une piege, tout de meme,” I said, amazed that I could still speak French after ten years away. “On fait beaucoup d’argent mais . . . “

“It is a trap, yes,” she replied in English, before turning introspective, looking down again, as if this notion of her job as a trap had just occurred to her. Suddenly, she became almost apologetic.

“Perhaps in a couple of months I will do something else.”

“On fait comme il faut. You do what you have to do.”

“Yes.”

She gazed into me again and something passed between us, a charge that was not quite sexual, but rather one of meaning. I felt like she was trying to communicate something important, yet I couldn’t understand what it was, and this lack of comprehension, like my inability to place her, made the subtext of our conversation more and more mysterious. We had recognized something in each other that was based not only on whatever acquaintance we’d had in the past, or whatever attraction we felt for each other in the present, but on something more ephemeral to do with the intervening years. It seemed important to her that she register whatever burned inside her with me, and it had become important to me to make contact with her as well, as if she too had become a key to a part of my past that I didn’t fully understand. Then, as abruptly as she’d made contact, she seemed to collapse and become visibly jittery, puffing restlessly on a cigarette as her eyes turned inward. Not sure what was going on, I tried to bring her back.

“Maybe you can work less. Cut your shifts down to a couple of days a week so you have time for something else.”

“Yes.”

She brightened again but the connection between us had been marred. Her retreat seemed to be part of a struggle within herself and when she spoke again it was as much to herself as to me.

“Maybe that’s why I find it so hard to quit. I can’t work a regular nine to five job anymore.”

She said it as if her statement was directed squarely at me. After stooping down to grab her backpack, she stood up straight, smiling down at me defiantly.

“Well, I have to say my goodbyes.”

She went into the apartment, and I waited outside, wondering what had just had happened. Bill and everyone else had filed inside, and I hoped that I could catch her alone when she returned and ask her out – her smile, looking back as she’d gone inside seemed to be telling me to try one more time. My interest had become more than sexual or even romantic: I needed to make contact with her. I wasn’t sure why. I’d finally placed her, sort of. She’d had raven black hair and worked in the afternoons when I first started going to the Peel Pub. I saw her for a moment in a white shirt and black pants and black raven hair, smiling at me with those amazing diamond eyes from the depths of the windowless room. Yet the memory still felt murky and distant – I’d tried hard in the years I’d been away to put Montreal behind me. Yet now some part of me wanted to reach back and feel my past inside of me again.

Valerie re-appeared on the porch, her smile ever so slightly impersonal and aloof.

“It’s not like me to make all these goodbyes. I usually just leave.”

“I remember you now.” I said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t before. I was away ten years and just moved back.”

I wanted to re-establish our connection but she returned my gaze only fitfully, as if I’d disappointed her somehow. I felt her falter and give in to some weakness inside herself.

“You were in New York,” she said, glancing up, and I heard an echo of the satisfaction she’d had when she remembered what type of beer I drank. “That’s what they were talking about in the kitchen. You’re the guy who moved back from New York.”

She looked into me pensively, as if realigning me in her mind. Yet she seemed very far away, that I wondered if her interest in me had been real, or based more on a simple need for attention – if I’d been a puzzle to her only because I had taken so long to place her. Yet I would still have asked her out if Bill and a half-dozen others hadn’t flooded back onto the porch, making such a question impossible. But she didn’t seem to expect anything anymore: strapping on her oversized backpack, she descended the stairs to her bike and I leaned on the rail to watch her go, sad that the moment had come and gone and I still didn’t know what it had meant. Struggling with her pack, she attempted to balance herself on her bike.

“You go to work like that?” I said, anxious to prolong our contact. She glanced back with a hint of her former warmth.

“No, of course not.”

She smiled at me again, yet this time something clicked in my head – a sudden burst of memory like sunlight spreading across a greying street.

We’d known each other well. Very well.

When I’d first come to Montreal, she was like a poster girl for everything I loved about the city. Montreal, with its languorous cafes, it’s idiosyncratic curving staircases and chateau style buildings ranged around Mount Royal’s base was unlike anything I’d ever seen out West. I’d look out from a Plateau balcony and see the angel poised on the mountain’s eastern flank as if ready to take flight and feel like I was on another continent. I loved hearing French everywhere and practicing my own uncertain high school version in the bars and depanneurs. Montreal, the city where I was born, was the glamorous metropolis I’d imagined my whole childhood – the home of Renee Levesque and Pierre Trudeau, of the mighty Habitants, the bilingual capital of what I hoped would one day be our bilingual, cosmopolitan nation. And all those beautiful, stylish Quebec women. Montreal, having survived the first Anglo flight, the FLQ, the election of Renee Levesque, and the first referendum on Quebec’s pseudo secession from the rest of Canada, had achieved a measure of linguistic peace. For the first time in years, possibly the first time ever, it’s French and English halves were curious about each other.

Then there was Valerie – beautiful, ravishing Valerie. I’d drop by the Peel Pub just to see her. She’d barely spoken English then, but her French was more European than Quebecois and it was easy for me to understand her: we stumbled back and forth between my broken French and her broken English to communicate. She flirted with all her male customers but I knew that she liked me because she made a point of coming over to stand with one hand on the back of a chair and her tray held in the other, looking down at me with those diamond eyes then, as we got to know each other, sitting with me after her shift to have a beer and count her bills. She said she’d grown up partly in France, and that she liked that I’d come to Montreal on my own, and I’d tried to learn French, that I had a punk haircut and punk clothes and earrings – all of which she thought was ‘tres cool’. She liked classic French novels – Balzac was her favorite – so we talked about books and when, after hesitating much longer than I should have, I finally asked her out, she smiled regretfully and said no, she couldn’t, she’d started seeing someone. But she became more not less intimate and, had I not been a shy, sexually inexperienced Anglo from the western sticks, too intimidated by this powerful French woman to see below the surface of her rejection, I might have understood why she became distant, even contemptuous of me towards the end of the period of my life that had involved the Peel Pub.

I watched her from the porch. Our eyes met again and I knew from the way she looked into me that she’d been thinking of that summer our entire conversation. As she pushed off on her bike, still holding my eye, she seemed to come into herself again and I saw her clearly as she’d been – raven black hair tumbling over her white shirt, that smile and those eyes that had been so dazzling and alive that I had never imagined that for a time they’d been dazzling just for me. I felt something change in me as well: a vulnerability and sadness that I’d been fighting since I’d returned to the city rose to the surface of my consciousness, making me feel just a little younger, a little more myself – sharpening the contours of the staircases curving one after the other up the street, the dull yellow of the leaves scattering about the pavement and, above all, Valerie’s dazzling prettiness. Fall’s crispness dissolved into summer’s heat, softening the air around us as we looked into each other and, in that moment, I felt so pure and open and knew from the way she looked into me that she sensed my vulnerability as I’d sensed hers.

Then her bike wobbled and she looked down to regain her balance and when she glanced back her eyes had gone distant again and I knew that she was now only checking to see if I was still paying attention to her. To make her happy, I kept watching, and she flicked her hair just a little coquettishly before disappearing up the street.

After she was gone, I saw that Bill was watching her as well. Intently, as if he too had wondered about her many times.

“You guys figure out how you know each other?”

“I asked her out.”

“Just now?”
“No, no. Twelve years ago.”

“That’s probably why she remembers you.”

“Maybe. I’m sure a lot of her customers asked her out. She was gorgeous.”

“She’s gorgeous now.”

“I guess. How do you know her?”

“She’s a friend of Sarah’s. They met in rehab or something. Valerie still works as an exotic dancer, even though she found out a couple of years ago that she’s HIV positive. No problems yet – she works out, keeps to a macrobiotic diet. She used to be heavy into drugs so maybe she got it through that.”

I felt something beyond sadness, beyond even loss. The melancholy of late afternoons, when the breeze blows yellow leaves up an empty grey street, and loneliness closes in with the dusk.

“I thought there was something faded about her.”

“Fated?”

“No, faded. Though I guess you could have said fated fifteen years ago. She was almost too beautiful to exist. There’s something so sad about her now. I felt it off her as soon as we started talking.”

“Yeah, I always feel something like that off her too. I guess being positive will do that.”

When Bill went back inside, I stayed on the porch, sipping at my beer and looking out on the patch of street where I’d last seen Valerie, the arc of my life that included Valerie and the Peel Pub returning like the memory of winter in the first taste of frost.

That fall, I’d left for Europe, and when I came back a year later, Montreal had begun the next phase of its long, painful decline. Arcane, Byzantine laws regulating the size of French and English on outdoor and indoor signs, then the Meech Lake constitutional non-accord scratched the wound of our country’s parochialism – we are a people who seize every opportunity to undermine ourselves. Bickering inflamed resentments and suppurated barely healed wounds, and the tension between French and English became endemic. Yet the real source of the tension only rarely flared into the open, and instead went underground, seeping into our hearts and making everyone suspicious of everyone else – making us isolated from the city and ourselves, creating the bizarre volatility of a room filling with a frigid, inflammable gas that needs just a single spark to set it alight.

I began running into Valerie again. She’d become part of a group hanging around the Main – disparate Anglos from the Townships or Westmount, or the sons and daughters of immigrants who came in from the burbs to hang out in the clubs and take advantage of the absurdly cheap rent. She’d become more aloof, and her diamond eyes had lost their warmth and become appraising and hard. Everyone in the group was English and many refused to learn even rudimentary French and when I asked her why she ran with this crowd, she said she didn’t like the Quebecois, that she was sick of their narrowness, their petty resentments. Murray Griffin, a construction worker from the townships who had been one of the early Peel Pub regulars and who later ended up going psychotic from shooting speedballs, told me that she liked the rough boys now, the ones who did coke and hung out at the clubs and haunted the after hours speaks on St. Denis and I knew from the way that he grinned that he was one of the boys that she liked. Murray Griffin, charged with assault after he put one of his girlfriends in the hospital.

Then I got into my own problem and didn’t see anyone or anything but the grey pallor of my apartment and the greyer mornings where I woke up needing junk.

Murray had told me she’d been blowing Al the owner for coke. Al, that fat fuck. I saw Valerie so clearly for a moment. Chasing coke, sliding into stripping to pay for her habit – maybe even hooking a little. The corruption taking her over, as it had taken me over – as it took over so many of us in the city. How many times had she woken up to the grey morning, wondering where all her joy had gone? When did she realize that her heart was dying?

Fall leaves made slow pirouettes up the grey Montreal street. I hoped she understood why I hadn’t been able to remember her, and wished I hadn’t been so bound by my fear, my need to forget. I wished, above all, that I could have said to her: ‘Beautiful, dazzling angel, I know who you are, let me make your diamond eyes shine like the sun once more.”

But I had come back too late. So I stayed on the porch, drinking into the cold, the melancholy of the late Montreal fall.UG

 

me_and_codyTim Beckett has been a cook, tree-planter, road-sweeper, documentary researcher, housepainter and many other things besides. He grew up in Edmonton, Alta, and Uranium City, SK, with side trips to Port Radium, NWT and Vancouver, BC. He has lived in Montreal, London and presently hides out in New York City. He edits and contributes to Sensitive Skin Magazine, and has been published in a few places. He is working on a novel, ‘Uranium City Return’. He has received two Canada Council grants and would like to receive many more.

Posted on by urbangraffito Posted in Daily, Fiction, Tim Beckett, Writing

3 Responses to Youth by Tim Beckett

  1. Kenneth

    Not far from where I had an evening class at Concordia, I remember the Peel Pub and the cheap beer and smoky ambience (some years before the time of Youth). The city of this wistful story has changed, as the narrator well knows, nor do the anglos described therein exist anymore for the most part. I enjoyed reading this. Well done.

  2. Julia

    I love how he wants to say “I know who you are” to her at the end — that his view of the “real” Valerie is not what’s happened to her in life, but her essence from when they first met. Thank you.

  3. Tim

    thanks Kenneth and Julia, for the kind words. Kenneth – I haven’t been back to Montreal in over a decade – I imagine it’s changed a great deal even in those ten years. Hopefully, I can get back this fall. I wonder if the Peel Pub is still there? @Julia – glad you caught it!

    Best,

    Tim

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