At the end of the bed, a well-worn grey cotton sheet, a shapeless heap of cloth with a foot sticking out like a turtle’s head. A hairy, callused, rough foot, a nuked turtle’s head resting on the ticking of the sunken mattress. Headless.
A few centimetres away from the pile of rags, curled up against the beef-red plaster, seeking the coolness of the wall, a naked animal. Her hips pressed up against the wall, her hand, her forearm, the tip of her left breast, too, flattened against it. Her Medusa-like head, with its dark unravelling braids, resting under the other forearm. Faceless.
Hard to believe. Still hard to imagine the two bodies now huddled in their individual solitudes glowing earlier in the night, slippery, shiny, moaning softly on top of one another. A cabal of animal curses. All over. Back to small sleep movements, living animals at rest, unconcerned. Breathing, swallowing, giving off moisture.
A tepid breeze makes its way through the wide-open window with its torn screen and peeling frame to the sleepers. Movement. Unconscious motor response to the sensory stimulus.
The ear, facing the ceiling, twitches imperceptibly, like a watchdog’s. A fly changes its path above the naked animal. Two floors down, a metallic click echoes in the alley. Sound reverberates in the sheet metal box, enters straight into the bedroom like a bullet. At the same time. The eyeball glides beneath the lid. A gong echoing a cat’s murmur. The muscles are awake. Tense and immobile. The naked animal is alert. Was she even really asleep? Another sound. Different. Clearer? Lying senses.
She turns over. Without touching the sheet, noiselessly. To the eye, the full dark kinky muff nibbling at the inner thighs. To the tongue, the drop running carelessly from the upper fold of the armpit to the nipple, the brownish aureole covering practically the whole surface of the breast, touching the sternum. To the nose, the heavy scent rising from the muff, the armpits. Intoxicating scent that arouses the instincts.
The face closed. Absorbed in listening. The hand runs over the sticky bed to the top corner of the mattress. Then comes back, suspended above the bruise-streaked stomach. Hard abdominal muscles, shiny thighs spread wide like a bitch about to whelp in the muggy morning. Neck tense, veins exposed for the sacrifice. The air scarcely stirring behind the doorframe. Bated breath.
Bloody Polaroid, instant death. The snake appeared in the doorway, slithering in the shadow. Flew into pieces. The animal cried out while firing, lowered her aim a little to hit the trunk coming through the doorway. Accidentally hit the carotid. Spurt of colour. The bangs still echo, shattering the proletarian dawn, sailing over the sheet metal of the neighbouring buildings. Good morning, America. The snake man is dead. And he isn’t even a man. Childhood returns to his face. Serene in his dark pool of blood. The animal approaches her prey, runs her hand over a still-trembling calf. Picks up a shell. Chalks up another day.
The body stretched out on the bed, under the sheet, hasn’t stirred. No wonder. Its brains are on the wall. She pulls on the flowered cotton dress stuck on the callused foot. Looks for her boots. Exits, leaving behind a disturbingly calm scene.
Went out for a last cigarette. Opened the emergency exit at the end of the grimy red-lit hallway. Left my boot in the doorway. Exhaling, head back, saw her. Not her face right away. First her long bare legs, on the floor above, and on every step of the spiral staircase, her dark pussy under a yellow summer dress. A pantiless girl coming down the fire escape at seven a.m. always piques my curiosity. She didn’t look at me. I was blocking the last few steps. She stared at my legs as if she were thinking about jumping over them, then straightened up. Like a cat cocking an ear.
A few seconds later, a red and blue revolving light reflected in the heavily grilled basement on the alley. The cops. A raid—what else? All I needed to draw out my long night even further.
She flattened herself against me and slipped inside, stepping on my foot holding the door with her heavy steel-toed boot. Her musky odour bowled me over. I followed her. Sighing.
We had time to enter the room. A huge abandoned factory, walls glistening with dancers’ sweat. The music had hypnotized the fifty-odd marathoners scattered around the room. Bodies were lying all over the place: ecstatic, smiling, languid or just wiped out. She seemed to be in her element. But I could’ve sworn I hadn’t seen her all night. A girl like that. I would’ve noticed. Her yellow dress, probably. Her hair. No, more than that. Her strong, masculine stride at odds with her feminine clothes. Muscle, eagerness, determination. Must be a dancer. Maybe a circus performer. Definitely an animal. I’d just gotten hard when they started coming in the front door.
She stopped short. In the middle of the dance floor, at same time as the deafening techno. A murmur of protest spread through the crowd. When a cop took over the mike at the DJ’s table, she discreetly took my hand. Slowly guided it under her skirt, directly to the skin of her buttock. Pressing into me, moving her hips, she slipped her tongue down my throat. Once past a certain time of night, I don’t question women’s motives. I responded. Licked the red lizard crawling up her neck.
If it hadn’t been for the hand tapping insistently on my shoulder, we would’ve moved on to serious business out in the hallway. But the freshly ironed young woman just arrived from the real world, smelling of coffee and an athletic wake-up, with her billy club and smooth blond hair, interrupted us.
They separated the women from the men as best they could and frisked us after quizzing us on our identities. Most had no ID, so we waited endlessly under the fluorescent lights. Cell phones going nonstop. For nothing. Nothing to do but wait for it to be over. I looked for her, but the throng of girls was too dense.
Movement among the police an hour and half later. A higher-up gave a few orders from the doorway. They let us go, just like that, with no explanation.
No complications. Except for one or two guys picked up for other offences. As I left, I noticed some officers of the law running up the service stairs. Attention seemed to have shifted to another hot spot in the building. An accident, maybe. An adventurous partier, overheated druggies. Who knows.
Happy to find my bike on the corner of the empty street. Doing up my jacket, I watched the motley groups as they streamed out, shielding their eyes from the raw morning light. No trace of my flame.
Saw her too late to call out, at the corner of the street, a hundred feet away, the floaty yellow dress taunting me. She was walking on the edge of a noisy zigzagging group. It looked like she was with them. But her confident alley cat walk betrayed her. She was trailing along to throw people off, that’s all. They intercepted a taxi cruising slowly by. She hopped in after them and disappeared. With her bare legs, yellow dress, athletic body and untamed pussy. Unthinkingly, I followed. Unthinkingly. First love.
Sherbrooke, Grey and Red
Stood on the gravel opposite the Sherbrooke bus station, a refrigerated building from let’s say the fifties, the only one in the noonday humidity watching the few passengers inside enjoying their wait in the A/C. My cigarette tasted like jet lag.
The lack of sleep had hit me once over the Champlain bridge. Scarcely had time to see the great wall of Brossard. Fascinating wall put up around the suburb in order to study the effect of antidepressants in a population of single-family dwellings. Or maybe just a gigantic incubator, where the infamous general public is raised surrounded by the regulatory cotton wool, melamine and grass. The mammoth-like pace of the Sherbrooke Express got the better of my wild imaginings by plunging me into a deep sleep.
My last semiconscious image: the yellow dress disappearing into the open maul of a busful of travellers. Platform thirteen. Locking up my bike had irremediably widened the gulf between us. Our eyes met through the third window, expressionlessly, wordlessly, as if she already tacitly agreed we were forging a bond. In a fever, I decided to catch the next bus. Even if there’d be a one-hour time difference between us. Sherbrooke, I said to myself, is a small town. A girl like that can be found. Anyway, my day was shot. After an all-nighter, I’m no good for anything. Might as well do something exotic, possibly erotic.
The hot-rubber smell coming up from my feet brought me back to my senses. Exhausted, starving, decided to call on some friends first. No trace of the beautiful girl. To be expected. She’d come back out at night. And with a little determination, we’d run into each other here. Inevitable.
Went over to Pierre Goyette’s on Wellington, right nearby. Happy once again not to have to take the horrible King Street that runs through the city’s warren of old streets. The eight-room apartment up a staircase with cubist perspectives, a couple of beams above a show bar, was silent. It was still dawn for these rare birds, even at midday.
I pounded with the flat of my hand and shouted, “RCMP, open up!” An answer was slow in coming. I changed it up a bit: “Haven’t you losers slept long enough?” This time, footsteps, then the door swung on its hinges.
The smell hit me right away. A mix of sleepy dampness, ripe fetid alcoholic breath, gaping boots freed of sweaty feet floated in space, seeping out through half-open bedroom doors into the hallway.
Whoever opened up fled to the bathroom. Ran water. A rustling of sheets could be heard, stiff bodies gradually stirring. It was as dark as a movie theatre, despite the blazing sun.
Headed to the kitchen. Knew the place better than I know myself. Whiled away my junior college years here. The still life before me, the remains of a well-soused night, plunged me into a kind of nostalgia.
Slow-moving bodies with crumpled faces started to file in through the door. Nods. Speech not yet operational. Didn’t recognize anyone. Didn’t matter. Probably a group of musicians and their entourage had come up for a nightcap after a gig.
Half an hour later, after introductions (Cynthia, Pinotte, Gros Louis, Annabelle, Bertrand, Alex, Corine, all crammed in around the table), the current started to flow again. And we were off. One pot of coffee after another. Butts were relit. Vital needs spurred the first plans for the day. Bread, smokes, newspapers. Volunteers were designated. The shower ran nonstop. The music was cranked up a notch. The curtains were opened. The dialogue became more scathing. Life returned.
My mind kept going back to her. Kept expecting her to step out of one of the bedrooms. In my fantasy, she was wearing nothing but my T-shirt. She appeared bare-legged in the doorway, every breath revealing a hint of her muff. I didn’t react. I savoured her.
“It’s dangerous to go off into space. You could come back a few years later, bald and fat.”
Goyette. My old pal. Removed my cigarette from my hand, with a wry smile, and took a haul of poison. Manly hug. The others watched.
He said, “It’s been a while.”
I answered yeah.
To impress the others and introduce me, he launched into the story of one of our memorable poker nights, which wound up with us at the police station, me buck naked and him in practically an alcoholic stupor. Everyone listened almost politely. To dispel the old-guy-recalls-good-old-days atmosphere, Goyette suggested going up on the roof to drink our coffee in the sun. Everyone leapt up enthusiastically. Chairs scraped on the floor.
You got up to the roof by way of a wooden stepladder permanently stationed under a trapdoor in the ceiling. From the tiny attic, you had to step through a dormer window and then you were in a gravelled area with scattered plastic milk crates, empty beer bottles and a totally charred hibachi. Everyone found a spot to bask in the blazing sun.
Cynthia came up last. She had a hard time getting over the window sill. I gallantly went over to offer my arm. The tiny chick, with her red hair, keen eye and small breasts under a clinging threadbare T-shirt had attracted my attention earlier. She thanked me as she handed me two forty-ouncers of vodka that threatened to topple her, given the glasses in her other hand. I looked at her, a little surprised.
She announced to Goyette, “Rose is here with provisions.”
I turned to look at him immediately: Not her again! Not Catastrophe Rose! The apocalyptic hysteric. That unhealthy love—which had obviously lasted—had brought us a number of B-movie scenarios. How many months had I spent in that apartment listening to his lamentations, swearing he’d leave her tomorrow despite her threats of suicide? And then the pathetic failed attempts, the dramatic mutilations and his remorseful guilt when he went back to her. His but-she-really-suffered-you-know, she’s-very-complex, she’s-changed, etc. And all the clichés. Rose. Still here, six years on. He answered me with a fatalistic nod and a wry smile. He was still excited that she was there, the idiot.
I would have left immediately, but the only way out was past her. Decided to strike an ironic pose and see what came next. Cynthia passed around disposable glasses. She poured out warm—horrors!—vodka. A hell of a racket came up from the room below. Rose had arrived. She stuck her nose up through the dormer, looking like a mischievous five-year-old who’d just stepped on the cat’s tail.
“Sorry, Pierrot, we tracked in a little dirt.”
Goyette got up, went over and helped her through the window. When she caught my eye as she stood up, she gave me an obviously bored, “Oh, hi.” But she soon perked up again when Goyette asked her what was in the paper grocery bag she was carrying.
“Candy for everybody! Hey! Trick or treat!”
And plunging both hands into the bag, she tossed up colourful streams of boxes, packets and bottles that fell back down like slightly disappointing fireworks. A full range of drugs of every kind lay strewn around her. Codeine syrup, blue, red, green and yellow amphetamines, Valium, Ativan, Dilaudid 4 mg, muscle relaxants: Pinotte reeled off the list delightedly, like a kid emptying his Christmas stocking. Suddenly, this sallow, sickly guy’s nickname started to make sense. Pinotte. Peanut. Pill. A specialist in the multi-addict’s supplementary pharmacopoeia. Cynthia went up to them, interested in the delivery.
She said, “OK! It’s cocktail time!”
Rose seemed satisfied with the effect she’d made. Goyette gave her a severely inquiring look.
She answered like a little boarding-school girl: “What? We went to the doctor’s.”
She turned all-out sensual, stirring the gravel provocatively with the toe of her shoe.
Defusing the tension, a guy made his way through the dormer window dragging an obviously heavy object that wouldn’t fit through the frame. After several fruitless attempts, he let it go and came out, leaving it inside.
Big Jacques appeared, a dumb rockabilly, with the total look, so perfect you’d have sworn he’d invented it. Not like the guys with fancy-dress ducktails. No. Jacques had been a real bad-ass for close to ten years now. His tattoos, rings, carefully rolled up blue jeans and shirt sleeves, his red sideburns and black creepers formed a whole with his cut physique. His open gaze oscillated between amiability and stark raving madness.
He greeted Goyette with “I brought you a brand-new barbecue, but you’re going to have to take it apart to get it out here.”
We started to figure out that they’d been to the doctor’s house and come back with some bourgeois delights. From the medicine cabinet by way of the bar and patio.
“There’s still some stuff downstairs, but it won’t be for long.”
Goyette nodded his agreement, in which I could detect slight concern. When Jacques finally saw me, he exploded. It really had been ages! He bombarded me with questions to which I presumed he didn’t even expect answers. My life in Montreal, my sexual health, my latest and long-ago girlfriend, whom he had known. Answered with a summary of last night, which had brought me here. A pretty good night, if a little long. And mainly, meeting the chick with no panties, the police raid, the bike/taxi race and finally, the bus to Sherbrooke. Goyette, who was listening, burst out laughing.
“You followed your cock! Wow, that’s a good one.”
Jacques remained pensive. At which point Cynthia arrived with three plastic glasses, each containing a dozen multicoloured pills. Jacques took his, eyeballed the dose of miscellaneous capsules and whispered a special request into the waitress’s ear. I held my glass in my hand and, frankly, I didn’t know what to do with it. The suicidal aspect of the thing, probably. Goyette resolutely placed his on the guardrail of the roof. Never took chemicals. The redheaded waitress gave Jacques a colourful cocktail mixed to his specs and he downed it methodically with big gulps of vodka straight from the bottle. Didn’t feel I had the expertise to do likewise. He checked the contents of my glass and gave me a tip.
“Take the speed, leave the rest. If you haven’t slept for a while, it’s just the ticket.”
Downed the three pills in question, stupidly reassured. The group instinctively broke up into groups, each in its corner, waiting for the magic to happen. Conversations were hushed and friendly. Gros Louis was playing the guitar. Anabelle was methodically drawing on the wall with gravel. Rose was plotting with Cynthia.
Picked up my conversation with Jacques to bring it back to the girl. My intuition told me he knew her. Emerging from deep reflection, he spoke.
“I don’t want to put you onto the wrong track. There are hundreds of hot girls. But it’s just that listening to you . . . If she comes from Sherbrooke and she looks like you said and she’s who I think, I’d advise you to forget her, man. She’s not for you.”
“What are you, some kind of matchmaker?” said Goyette, curious.
“Oh, you know that chick, really intense, with the dreadlocks, a lizard tattoo on her neck . . . We saw her on Wellington last spring.”
His mention of the lizard, a detail I’d omitted, sent a chill up my spine.
“Oh, her!” said Rose disgustedly as she passed by. “Why are you talking about her?” She started laughing for no reason. “You want to hook her up with François?”
I thought I heard her add to Cynthia, “It would serve him right.”
“Her name’s Francesca,” said Jacques, ignoring the girls’ sarcasm.
“Never heard of her,” said Pierre.
“Okay, fine, but who is she?”
The slowness of the proceedings was starting to get to me.
“Oh, she’s a girl I used to know. Really crazy. But we don’t talk anymore. I don’t talk to anyone connected with the Hells. I learned my lesson.”
(Five years ago, Jacques had been beaten up badly enough to need a few months of rehab, apparently because he’d refused to give them their customary percentage of sales.)
“But what’s she do for the Hells? Sell dope? Dance?”
The second option seemed rather unlikely, given that she wasn’t the usual physical type.
“Did I say she worked for them? No, I don’t know. I’m actually just telling you because of an old story going around about her.”
My knees started to shake for no reasons, maybe the blazing sun or the lack of sleep. Sat down on a milk crate and pulled one up for Jacques to listen to beautiful stories of the olden days. Goyette, visibly bored by the conversation, left us and went back inside.
“I had a friend, Suzie, maybe six or seven years ago, who’d heard of a guy who paid for free trips to Jamaica and say five thousand bucks when you got back.”
“Yeah. So she got hired and she went with her friend, the famous Francesca. Because there had to be two of them, I don’t remember why. To bring back more stuff, I suppose, or to be less suspicious. Anyway . . . They spent two weeks on the beach with the Rastas and everything was great: booze, sun, all you could smoke sinsemilla. A fantastic time. Except that when it came time to leave, they had their condoms all ready and everything, but Suzie couldn’t find her plane ticket. She had problems with the airline and had to stay two extra days. Francesca left as planned. Except the next day Suzie found out from a friend that Francesca was arrested on arrival in Toronto. The customs officers went straight for her, almost as if they were expecting her. . . . In a panic, Suzie cancelled her flight and bought her own direct ticket for Montreal, without the stuff, of course.”
“So what happened to Francesca?”
“That’s where it gets interesting, but maybe it’s just an urban legend . . . although I got it straight from Suzie. It’s not like it was her aunt’s third cousin twice removed who told me . . .”
At my raised eyebrow, he went on.
“So Francesca was arrested and tried. She had a lousy lawyer, and despite the fact that it was her first offense, she got thirty-six months. That’s huge. No mitigating circumstances, zero tolerance. At the time, there were rumours that the Hells had sacrificed those two mules—so a bigger shipment would get through customs undetected. Classic. But pretty humiliating for the girls. Francesca took it pretty badly. So badly, in fact, that when she got out of prison, she went all the way up the chain to the coordinator of operations. She turned up at one of their meetings, slipped past the guards and managed somehow—no one knows how—to point a gun in the face of the guy responsible for her year inside. I don’t know if you realize, but that’s not just suicide, that’s a triple somersault into deep shit. A dozen armed thugs in the middle of a super-confidential meeting being threatened by some twenty-year-old chick. Not their idea of a joke. Even when you leave them alone, they squash you like a mosquito with a flyswatter, so imagine what they do when you demand an apology at gunpoint. No one really knows how it all ended. But the fact that she’s still alive and I saw her leaving one of their strip bars six months ago . . . and she doesn’t work there. So I don’t know, but she’s mixed up with them somehow.”
I was staggered. It’s hard to say whether the story cooled me down at the time.
Noting my silence, Jacques added reassuringly, “But like I was saying, it might not even be her. The place is crawling with hot girls with dreadlocks.”
“Maybe, but with a lizard on her neck? Red, right?”
Jacques nodded at my knowing smile. Discouraged, he murmured, “Shit, man, forget her. Just forget her. Get with little Cynthia if you have to, she’s not bad, and she won’t give you any trouble. I’m telling you, you don’t want to go anywhere near those guys. You wouldn’t want to touch them with your ten-foot pole, believe me.”
I nodded limply, then said like a spoiled child, “But I don’t want Cynthia.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” he added more firmly.
The memory of Francesca’s hand guiding mine directly to her naked butt returned. Alongside another vision, just as erotic, of her hand pointing a gun at the head of huge sweating tub of lard. I saw her flexed muscular arm, her cut shoulder and the red lizard beating time to her heavy breathing. Francesca. Pierre came back up with leftover pizza. I lost my balance as I stood up.