I've spent two days alone here at John and Jen's and, after many unsuccessful attempts at writing a song (fingers blistered and bleeding from my guitar), I have taken comfort in the solace of this sun-soaked living room. I have exhausted my ears and my mind, listening to memory-evoking music that seems to dance around my head like vivid symphonies of ghosts. I cry here sometimes privately, and sometimes confidence is donned like a breastplate, shielding my broken heart from the war that broods back home. I have spent many lonely hours in front of John's computer viewing images; internet sex sites, in search of the ultimate soul mate. But now, my own soul grows tired.
It's a nice old house, this two-story country style home, nestled in the neighbourhood of a quaint little suburb of beautiful Montreal. Down the quiet street there is a little old deli where one can also find a small selection of wines. In the opposite direction stands Kelly's Bar, a typical neighbourhood type watering hole with the slightest tinge of English parlour atmosphere. John and Jen spend their days at work, which leaves me here in the company of their friendly old pet lab, Montana. She's good company. She never complains or is judgmental and she's always quite content. Be that as it may, I grow restless and so, I find myself strolling down a tree-lined street mid-day on this peaceful autumn afternoon.
September came too quickly; the season hasn't changed. The weather is still quite mild for the fall but the colours have come in all their splendor, surrounding me like a soothing blanket. I am always most creative in this season. The sum of its complexities is a mirror of my life, manifesting itself through a transformation of colours, beautiful at first but receding into an eerie dormancy in preparation for harsher climates. I enter Kelly's Bar with book in hand -- Henry Miller's Plexus -- where I find a handful of people scattered like lost souls throughout the bar. The bartender is the only female here, giving her the illusion of being much more attractive than she really is. After an unsuccessful inquiry about work, I order a pint of beer and sit at a lone stool facing a small wooden ledge which spans an open view of the street through a rather plain looking window. I crack open my book.
Henry Miller is a very interesting man. He has led a remarkable life: travel, poverty, and hardship. He has met a lot of intriguing people and has seen a lot of things, which is what he wrote about mainly. I find him to be a windbag, however, difficult to follow at times, but interesting none the less. I am reading a part of the book that reminds me of home. It tells of his daughter and how he doesn't see her due to complications of marriage. Nostalgia stabs me like a knife and I buckle under the pain. A tear trapped in the trench of my eye magnifies the scene of this page, revealing a thousand tiny movies all cast on a silent screen, although silence can sometimes be the loudest sound of all. My boys and my girl; my little princess, laughter and playing and warm embraces; the fortitude of a strong, unified home; a young husband and wife with a beautiful budding family. I am taken by the passion of this illusion so much that I long for a passage to home. A sudden presence interrupts my thoughts so that I am sent hurtling back inside of myself. The scene is upturned as my book slams shut, killing everyone within the confines of the page. A soft shadow forming behind me spreads its wings as I slowly turn from the windows blinding light. A larger than average figure of a man approaches as I look up from my empty glass. It's John. He has come from work to take me into the company of friends where I can safely lick my wounds and maybe even forget about life for a while.
The day has turned dark and drizzly, setting the perfect scene. I am in the company of John and Erik, the "Zee" man, as he is known to his friends. I am standing amidst the walls of a part of the city as old as its history allows. These old, looming buildings, with their worn, cobblestone streets, are like a slice of old Europe. Being in the oldest part of one of the oldest cities in Canada on a rainy autumn day fits the mold of my aura to a tee. Erik and I have ducked into a side street to share a joint, an item of which the "Zee" man is always equipped. We catch up with John in time to enter a made for movies costume shop. The scene gets better. Contained within this little shop are walls of masks, cabinets of horrors, racks upon racks of costumes of every kind. To the right of the entrance is a staircase leading up to a dark loft where strange workers appear and reappear periodically, each of them speaking in a timeless romantic tongue all the while. This district is primarily francophone and I, very lame in the French verse, am in an alien world. This costume shop is the perfect cover for some secret guild, performing strange rituals in the catacombs of its basements, empowering its cast with some endless reserve of the fantastic.
As I browse through the wonders of this place, two mysterious vixens enter stage right; one tall and thin in a long, flowing dress, the other one smaller, hidden in a hooded shroud and wrapped in a tasseled sarong; both of them dressed in black with raven hair and lily-white complexion. They giggle in their beautiful banter, disappearing into the back of the shop as quickly as they had come in. The smaller of the two parts with a glance of her icy, penetrating eyes, chilling me as they recede from the beaded curtain that hangs over the doorway behind the novelty cluttered counter where the clerk argues madly with someone on the phone. The strangeness of this place consumes me and I step back out into the street to regain myself. Out in the street more of these women appear, crawling out of every crack; all of them in black, thin with dark hair. They look at me in some timeless fashion, as if they know me better than I know myself. My head has begun to swim from the effects of that magical smoke. It spins skyward, forming a cloud around my head that I wear like a foolish crown. The cobblestone street whispers beneath my feet as it transforms into a giant jigsaw puzzle that must now be navigated with the greatest of care.
Our travels have taken us by the hand like naive little children and led us to Montreal's church of Notre Dame. As we stand outside of its doors, my mouth gapes wide in awe of this architectural dreamscape. We approach the heavy oak double doors and in seconds we are swallowed by a huge cathedral lined with dark wooden pews, decorated arches, winding staircases leading to a balcony that spans the perimeter of the church. Every attention to detail has been paid here in full: coloured stone mosaics of the Christ, statues of the saints, the carvings in the woodwork, all skillfully preserved. Such work must have been conducted when time was not such a costly factor in the function of life. The pipe organ towers over me as I stand facing the altar. I might feel as though I am in the holiest place on Earth were it not for the tour guide spouting to a group of human cattle who are grazing on his every word. As I watch this guide herding his group through the church, I am trying to picture a time when this was a place of worship, of refuge, a sanctuary, and at what point it became a famous tourist stop where seniors could come and gawk and meander around until their bus came to take them away to the nearest lunch buffet. I suddenly realize that as these thoughts are passing languidly through my mind, while I meander around gawking, that I am here as a tourist myself. Please, could somebody point me to the nearest lunch buffet? I am ashamed of myself and I have to leave.
Erik is getting thirsty, desperate for an alcohol fix. I follow without complaint, unwilling to admit that I am desperate as well. The church spits us back out into Old Montreal where we float omnipotently to St. Paul's, a big old three-story building with a bar on each floor. We settle into the second floor for a beer and a game of pool. After a time, I realize that I play much better with a little of the blue smoke in my head. A couple of well-weathered men are seated at the bar, keeping constant watch over their surroundings like old silverbacks guarding their territory. More dark, mysterious women drift in and out, up and down the stairs. One of them is permanently posted behind the bar; all of them captivating, romantic. It is as though they've lived a thousand years, never changing, ever the same. They perhaps hold ancient secrets, sacredly, eternally sworn to these old walls, buildings, and streets. I imagine myself in the old country; all of us immortal. Enchanted creatures caught in some ageless European play; that I could open my mouth and the language would flow forth from my tongue in thick dripping swirls, with wonder, enchantment, and romance blooming wherever the drops might fall. I am overcome with sudden sadness, because I can't.
This dream of blue smoke has now slowly been replaced by a familiar drunken haze. It is now 4:30 in the afternoon and we are off on a crusade; a search for the ultimate happy hour and more of the palatable poison.
In what seems to me the blink of an eye, we are suddenly seated at Sir Winston Churchill's bar. As though someone had grown bored and changed the channel of our surroundings, there we sat, a quaint English-style atmosphere with stale food (free none-the-less) and two bottles of beer for the price of one. I am seated at the bar between Big John and an older drunk woman who is trying desperately to have a conversation with me, about how well cultured she is in fine cuisine, analyzing the cheap pate served here on aging melba toast during our ultimate happy hour. John's cellular telephone disturbs my trance. It's Jen. She's finished work and will meet us here. Erik strikes up a conversation, inquiring about my band. I answer superficially, trying to let them know I'm still with them and not completely lost in the haze. I am staring at some members of Montreal's Irish mob who John identified when we first walked in an hour ago. Tolerated by the establishment only for the hefty bar tabs that they settle at evening's end, I observe as one of the members slithers to the washroom periodically to do a line or two of cocaine, sniffling and bug-eyed when he rejoins the group.
Enters Jen and we stay for one more drink before moving on to "Upstairs", a little jazz joint in a basement somewhere. A baby Grand sits sleepily at the front where a small stage appears to have witnessed a lot of talent, but not tonight. Tonight it is quiet here. Time is lost. I tune back into reality just in time to hear Erik's good-byes. He has been ordered home to his keeper.
I blink again; the channel changes and we are on the move. We have skipped the bill at "Upstairs" like some group of guiltless teenagers looking for a cheap thrill. The street is now dark and cold and I feel as though I weigh a thousand pounds. I trudge exhaustingly behind John and Jen as we find our way to the elevator of an office high-rise that sends us hurtling to the thirty-sixth floor. This is Jen's firm where she works. It is very impressive. I watch John as he moves about the office looking for a picture, a token, a reminder for his wife to remain true; A holy cross, a symbol to ward off advances from male co-workers. I am standing at the window of a conference room, hovering high above the city. I am looking down at the new Molson Centre as a million tiny lights span the horizon. I am lost in the night of a city as big as the Earth itself. Silence shatters as the window bursts and I am sucked out over this metropolis high above the never ending scuffle of traffic. I look down upon the old churches, the nunnery; seeing them as God might. Passing the rippling waters of the St. Laurence River I see the reflections of a million strange faces, none of which are mine. My course collides with the moon that lies motionless on the floor of the city.
Distant voices interrupt my thoughts. They are John and Jen, and it is time to go. Jen leads the way to the elevator that hurls us to the main floor. I feel two feet shorter as we come to an abrupt halt, ears popping. I think I have the elevator bends if there is such a condition. We pass by the security desk. Jen tells the attendant "It's alright, they're with me." I feel devious somehow, as though we've just successfully breached some huge corporate security system. Back on the street John's car materializes out of thin air and I clamor into its back seat. John and Jen pile in as he orders it to take us home.
Erik is an interesting man. He's still got this carefree childlike mentality that is robbed from most of us by age. He appears larger than life at times, telling tall tales of celebrity involvements; his role in production of major films, rubbing elbows with stars, etcetera. He's a very handsome man. He's got that movie-star look, with the innocent face and the broad build. I bet he wakes up with his hair already combed, not one out of place. He tells me of how he can help my band out when we're ready to shoot a video. He strikes me as a good-natured guy with great intentions. He's got his own view on life; I guess we all do.
This was far from my first trip to Montreal. I can barely remember the first time. John had finished high school a year earlier than the rest of us and had come to the University of McGill to play football. We would make trips up to see him, traveling in packs like drunken wolves. We all had typical "buddy" type nick names: Blainer (Jason Blain), Mutt (Mike Anderson), Fat man (Pat Kilby, who was never really fat). There were others, I'm sure, like Jamie Harold and Steve Hull. We would sit around like war veterans, comparing exploits, jockeying for status, competing for the most "oohs" and "ahhs" with our stories. The funny thing was we could never remember who was present at these hazy escapades in the retelling of their outlandish tales: "You were there weren't you?" "No, no. It was you and Blainer. I was trapped under a truck, lying in a puddle of water in the dead of winter with no shoes on while the police chased the others around the school property." The next time the tale was told you could bet it would be even more spectacular, with me being trapped naked under a burning wreck while the National Guard released the hounds on the others. I still remember John's first apartment. It was a real dive in an old apartment building on St. Laurent Street. To us, it was the Fortress of Solitude. The coolest part was that there was a lesbian couple that lived across the hall. We would go out and tear it up, morning and night, doing the Peel Pub circuit (there were four of them until three were shut down due to health code violations). We would order our beer with breakfast. The rest is history. At the end of our evenings we would talk to the prostitutes, asking prices and what they would be willing to do, never intending their services. One evening at the Harvey's restaurant that was located on the strip, I was seated at a table, pissed drunk, as one forced her way down the front of my pants.
"You aren't going to cum, are you? Don't cum." She said.
"Cum?" I said, "I'm not even hard."
I was too drunk to be hard.
Over the years, Big John would move from place to place and we would go up to see him every now and again. Soon, he made it home less and less and we made the trip up to see him less and less.I recall one magical autumn afternoon when the entire city stood still. We disappeared amidst an endless field of graves; as far as I could see, in every direction; graves. I was awe stricken at the site of it all, so tranquil, so desolate. We walked amongst them for hours reading the engravings, the memoirs, listening to the quiet whispers of souls at peace.
Just the night before we had been sitting at John's, swilling beer like madmen. There was Blainer, Mutt, Fat man, Hullsy (Steve Hull), Jamie Harold and who knows who? What had started out as a harmless drinking game had ended in heated chugging contest. John was living in a nice two level apartment at the time, still attending McGill. We all came up to see him that fall just before the beginning of his second year.
So there we stood, downing jars of beer, in turn, around the dining room table. Pat had the weakest stomach in the group. He was the first to drop out. I remember him standing there slowly turning green; announcing that he was going to puke. As quick as a flash Big John came bounding out of the kitchen with a giant stewing pot in his hands. Slamming it down on the table, the bong resounding in our ears, he sternly thundered his command, "Hurl!" On cue, as though it was painstakingly rehearsed, he hurled. Like a river after a storm, there seemed no end to it. And when it was all over, his head emerging from the depths of the pot, a thin, evil smile began creeping across of our faces. The game was about to take a vile turn.
Harold was the next to contribute to the pot. He chugged, then he puked; the object, to fill the pot. Next was Blainer; Mutt followed suit. Big John required a little more beer than the rest of us. His first chug proved fruitless; his second, no result. The third was the payoff. Like a full count in baseball, here's the wind up, and here's the pitch. Out it came with pressures comparable to those of a fire hose. As we all stood witness, three mugs went down; ten mugs came up, along with a half digested spaghetti dinner complete with a side of saturated garlic loaf.
All eyes turned to me. I was the only one who hadn't contributed to the pot. I was notorious for not throwing up because I had a gag reflex condition that wouldn't allow my stomach to reject food. I knew I would never make it out of this alive unless I paid alms to the pot. One mug after another proved uneventful. Head swimming, belly swollen, I felt that I was about to explode. I was desperate. My hull was taking on beer and my ship was sinking fast. I glanced down at the pot, the black cauldron of doom, as it bubbled and frothed and churned; the thick smell of bile rising from its depths. It glared at me with gaping mouth full of slimy worms and snakes slithering about in its foul swamp.
I looked up at all the expectant faces; frozen like statues in anticipation. It was a stand off, just me and the pot. Suddenly, a revelation befell me. The moment of truth had arrived. An unholy knowledge had been bestowed upon me; a putrid strategy that would conquer the pot and lead me to glorious victory. The hour was mine. With my empty mug clenched firmly in my hand I sank it deep into the bowels of the pot as the others looked on in horror. They knew what was to come. Drawing back a full pull of the stomach brew, I put the lip of the mug to my mouth and, with steady hand, tipped it back.
Hysterical applause ensued. I was King for an evening, having grossed out all of my friends. I looked down at my minions, vomit trickling from my mouth. Four words that would remain eternal cut like a knife through the dying roar of the crowd, "You'll never catch me." Those words would echo in my ears for the next three years to come. I was a King all right, a King of fools.
Dried leaves danced freely along the ground, playing amongst
the graves like crisp, brown little children. We strolled along the rows
of tombstones, the three of us, John, Denise (John's girlfriend at the
time), me. I felt as though we would stay young forever, untouched
by time, or at least die trying. In fact, I so wanted to keep it that way
that I quite often spoke of cashing out before I saw my twenty-fifth
birthday. I started in on that kick as we walked along, not paying any
particular mind to the effects that such talk was having on John and
Denise. I paused. John swept a finger under a lens of his sunglasses.
We stood there, still and silent; his finger moist. A tear, suspended
there, held a thousand unspeakable words of a thousand stories
written a thousand years ago. A thousand plays were acted out as
we stood there quietly, the world swirling round us, of our lives, our
friendships, our fathers, our mothers, our unborn children, our future
families. We left that magical place with a silent understanding. No
words were said, we spoke with eyes instead.
© 2000 Tom Hopwood, all rights reserved
appears here by permission