by Bernard Émond
translated by John Gilmore
Guernica Editions, 2014
My name is Gérard and I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for two months and two days. I’m sitting in a motel room beside the Atlantic. I’m looking at the ocean. I don’t like the ocean, but I’m looking at it anyway. My mind is all over the place. I’m thinking about luck and fate, and things like that. It’s December. The view is boring, just snow falling on dark, dreary waves. I really shouldn’t be here. But I am.
It all began seven months ago in a hotel room in Montreal, at the corner of Guy and René-Lévesque.
The first thing I saw when I walked in was the mini- bar. I thanked God they hadn’t given me the key. Not that that stopped me. I still tried to open it. I was thirsty.
I know all about thirsty. I’ve spent my whole life thirsty.
The beautiful thing about booze is that for a few hours or a few days life is simple. All your failures, your faults, and your mistakes; all your needs, your worries, and your discontents; all the hurt you’ve caused — everything is reduced to a single problem: finding the next drink. It’s a great way to consolidate your debts. Life is complicated, drinking is simple.
Though obviously there’s the morning after. Or the week after, or the month after. The day when you sober up. The day the bill comes due.
The mini-bar was locked good. Lots of times before I’d lost everything, but this was the first time I’d lost everything sober. Believe me, there’s a difference.
It’s true, I lost everything that night, though to be honest I didn’t really have much left to lose. I’d already lost my wives, my children, my homes, my jobs, my friends, my dignity, and all my retirement savings. I’d even lost a dog, a beautiful Lab. I don’t know what happened to him, the poor guy; I lost my car and he was in it. This time all I lost was an old bed, a rickety table, a worn-out armchair, and a second-hand fridge and stove. And a few clothes. And Zola’s Les Rougon- Macquart. In hardcover, the Pléiade edition. All five volumes. My only real loss.
We hold on to whatever we can. For me, it’s having a routine. I’m as methodical sober as I was when I was into the booze (nothing but Cutty Sark for me, straight, no ice, no water, no more than three before lunch, except on a binge). So in that hotel room I did what I’d done every night at home for the past seven months: I forced myself to watch the TV news. I switched it off after the sports. I brushed my teeth (with the little Red Cross kit the fireman gave me). I emptied my pockets and folded my clothes neatly. Then I went to bed and read. Usually I read Zola before turning out the light. But that night there was only the hotel Bible. I don’t remember what passage it was. I don’t even remember finishing the page. I must have fallen asleep like a rock. I was a wreck.
The next morning it really hit me. I woke up at six in the dark. I got out of bed to go for a piss and it was while sitting on the toilet (I always sit down in the morning) that it hit me like a ton of bricks. Why me? I don’t mean: “Why did God pick my building to blow up?” Or: “What did I do to deserve this?” I’m not that kind of guy. When tragedy strikes, I don’t ask why. Tragedy strikes because that’s life and we all have to die some time. Tragedy is all around us, it’s the bread we eat and the air we breathe. The only thing to do when tragedy strikes is to say to yourself: OK, here we go again. God give me the strength to get through the day. God take away my thirst.
I’m not a believer but I try hard.
No, what I mean is, Why me? Why was I alive that morning, sitting on the toilet pissing? Why did I survive? With my routines, I should have been dead. At 8:17 pm every night I’m sitting in my armchair listening to the concert on FM — well, either the concert or the fifi announcer yakking on about it. When you can’t afford concert tickets or CDs you listen to a lot of radio. The yakking comes with the territory, like black flies in the woods in June. And I’m willing to put up with a lot to hear Beethoven’s third violin sonata, or something that good.
So, in the normal course of things, I should have been dead. If I was still alive, it was because of a shoelace that came undone, a Chinese guy who ran a stop sign, the first of my three ex-wives, and Step Nine of Alcoholics Anonymous (if you’re not a member, it goes like this: We have made amends directly to everyone we have harmed, wherever possible, except when doing so would injure them or others.)
There’s an old musician’s joke. A tourist is lost in Montreal. He sees an old man carrying a violin case under his arm and asks him how to get to Place des Arts. The violinist replies: “Practice, practice, practice.” Well, I believe in practice. I have a hard time with the Twelve Steps, especially the ones about the Greater Power (and that’s six out of twelve). But I practice them all, as best I can. I’m like a priest who’s lost his faith and who tries to get it back by reciting the mass with more fervour than he ever did. I’ve got to the point where I’d believe in Santa Claus if it would help me stay sober. So I practice, practice, practice. And when Chantal (the first of my three ex-wives) called me, for the third time that month, I didn’t have a choice. Like they say, I had to make amends.
I have to smile whenever I go over to Chantal’s place, a triplex on Esplanade that we bought for a song in the sixties (and that I kept paying for, long after the divorce). I’d just started at the Journal de Montreal, we were in love, and we thought it would be cool to live facing the mountain on a street full of hippies. Now the yuppies have taken over the neighbourhood, adding a zero on the end of the house prices, and Chantal is sitting on a cool million, damn her. Chantal, Chantal, Chantal. She came from an Outremont family and she liked the idea of marrying an east-end bum turned poet and tabloid journalist. She used to love it at breakfast. I’d tell her about the gory murders from the night before, the arsons, the cars flattened like pancakes. Then off she’d go to university to play counsellor. The students used to call her Madame Bjiiir because she talked with a stuck-up Parisian accent and puckered her lips like a chicken’s ass whenever she said bonjour. I used to bug her about it, too. She made me pay; it was only fair, I guess. And I’m still paying, out of habit. And maybe because I like it.
We’re not getting any younger, Chantal and I. We’re both almost sixty. She has her aches and pains like the rest of us, and now that I’m sober she calls me up from time to time, asking me to do odd jobs for her around the house. Like she can’t afford a plumber or a carpenter, the bitch. But, fair enough, you don’t call a plumber to change a washer. So I do it, while she stands around reminding me how I’ve wasted my life; how the three poems I published in Liberté when I was twenty are worth more than all the stories I wrote for the Journal over the next forty years; and how much I’ve disappointed her for one thing or another — because of the child I never gave her (and the ones I’ve given other women — she never forgave me for those), because of the books I didn’t write, the women I ran around with when we were married, and all the forty-ouncers of Scotch I drank (according to my calculations, more than ten thousand bottles in forty years, which is about ten cubic metres of good Scotch whiskey, enough to half-fill one of those above-ground swimming pools that people have in their back yards).
Divorce is like marriage, it takes time to mature. After thirty years I think Chantal and I have finally made a success of our divorce. She’s got a great sense of humour, she’s as sharp as a tack and a good judge of character. If only she wasn’t such an unbearable snob. I don’t know what she sees in me, a hard-core alcoholic, rough-around-the-edges, gone back to live in poverty in the disaster of a neighbourhood I grew up in. I guess we’re like family now, Chantal and I. She’s pulled me out of a hole more than once, bless her, even after I walked out on her. And now I owe her one, again. Because if she hadn’t called me over that night, I would have died listening to Beethoven. Or (just my luck) the fifi announcer.
I don’t know how to say thank you in Cantonese, but I guess I should learn. It all happened so fast: I left Chantal’s, I got in my car, I pulled away, and I was hit by a Chinese guy running a stop sign. For once I meet a Chinese guy doing more than thirty and it has to be some absent-minded businessman in a BMW whipping right along without looking where he’s going (though, who knows, maybe he was fresh off the boat and couldn’t read traffic signs from left to right). I don’t know if you’ve ever tried filling out a joint accident report form with someone who can’t speak French or English. It’s no walk in the park. We ended up having to call the police. They were young officers. I didn’t know them, and I can tell you they weren’t very happy about being called out for a couple of bent fenders and an immigrant investor. (Obviously, I didn’t count: when you look the way I do and you’re driving a Pinto from the days of the October Crisis, believe me, you don’t count, in the eyes of the police or anyone else). But the fact remains, the Chinese guy also saved my life. The accident happened at 7:45 and we stayed there for a good hour chewing the rag in Cantonese. My building blew up at 8:17, according to the clock the firemen found in the rubble. If it wasn’t for the car accident I would have had plenty of time to get back to my armchair, my radio, and my fate. We don’t amount to much, do we?
But the worst thing was the shoelace. That’s what really saved me. The shoelace that came undone. It only took me thirty seconds to tie it at the bottom of Chantal’s stairs — just long enough to get in the way of the Son of Heaven in his BMW.
There’s something deeply humiliating about owing your life to a shoelace.
Translation by John Gilmore
Extract courtesy of Guernica Editions