Authors: Heather O'Neill
Tags: #Short Stories (Single Author), #Literary Collections, #Canadian, #Fiction, #Coming of Age, #Family Life
The principal found himself surprised by how much he sometimes enjoyed Jules’s company. The boy didn’t do well in school and certainly didn’t know anything about the world. Jules had once asked whether or not the Vietnam War was over, and it was 1982. But there was something imaginative and clever about him. Dreams could still grow in the North, like the wee flowers with brilliant colours that bloomed around the rocks. He once saw Jules in the display window of the thrift store, sitting on a couch, reading a copy of
The Count of Monte Cristo
. It was as if Jules was a second-hand little human being, on sale with the broken lamps, with an orange price tag stapled somewhere on his sleeve. Jules had looked up and saluted the principal from the display. The principal realized that Jules understood the tragedy of his own little life. How on earth did you guide someone like that? “I’m not going to be able to let you go to the dance tomorrow night.”
“Oh, come on!” Jules screamed. “That’s not fair.”
Jules was about to protest more, but he started coughing. He took out a dark blue handkerchief with red horses on it from his pocket and held it up to his mouth as he coughed violently into it. It sounded like a dog barking behind a door, desperate to get out. That cough, Jesus! For as long as the principal could remember, Jules had had bronchitis. He had never heard a kid with a chronic cough like that. How unfair life is, from the perspective of a child. How unfair birth is.
JULES’S FOOTSTEPS on the gravel road outside the school made the sound of someone tsking. The other kids would get all excited and gather around when Jules did something crazy. It made him feel liked. But then he would end up facing his punishment all alone. Being the class clown was like always picking up the cheque and having no one appreciate it. He had been looking forward to that dance for weeks because Manon Trépanier had said she would go with him. That was the only reason he had wanted to go.
The hills around Val des Loups were dark and covered with enormous trees. You couldn’t help but wonder if you even existed when you lived out here. A city was made with all sorts of rooms and corridors, so that wherever you were you felt like a giant. Out here, the trees wouldn’t even acknowledge you. The wind followed and nagged Jules like a scorned woman. It kept tearing him apart and saying terrible things, and then it would start apologizing and beg to be taken back. Jules zipped up his blue ski jacket and pulled his hat down over his head.
He passed the white clapboard church with a neon cross on the front of it. The priest was out front putting his garbage out. He wore a checkered jacket with a sheepskin collar. It was strange to be a priest, Jules thought. You only needed one of everything. You only needed one spoon and one fork and one dish and one bath towel and one chair at the kitchen table. That was Jules’s worst nightmare. He couldn’t stand the idea of growing up and ending up alone. He wanted to have a wife. He already knew with 100 percent certainty who he wanted that wife to be.
If there ever was such a thing as a princess in Val des Loups — and of course there was never any such thing as a princess in Val des Loups — then it would be Manon. The police chief used to stop his car and roll down his window to ask Manon when she was going to be old enough to marry him.
Manon’s father wore checkered pants and high-heeled leather boots. He frequently went without a shirt in the summer, and he had a tattoo of an eagle on his chest. Her father drove a canteen to the mines every afternoon. He sold the miners coffee and Jos Louis cakes. He had a little sign on the side of his canteen that said he sold the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the world. Although how he could possibly know something like that was a mystery.
Manon’s mother had wanted a girl. She decided to continue having children until she had one. Her decision was legendary throughout Val des Loups because she had eleven boys before Manon was born.
Jules tried to remember all the brothers’ names so he could impress Manon. So she would know how serious he was about her. He counted them off on his fingers as he walked down the side of the highway.
She had a brother who was really skinny who everyone called Olive Oyl. She had a brother named Pierrot who used to drive a car with no doors on it. There was Alvin, who rode a motorcycle and wore a leather vest with roses painted on the back of it.
There was Réjean, who had lost an eye when he was seven and no one could remember how. There was Théodore, who had blond hair and all the girls found him handsome.
One of her brothers was a professional wrestler who did bouts in old ballrooms and church basements. His stage name was Mr. Magnificent and he had a manager in Sainte-Félice. She had a brother who everyone called Mon-Amour, after a song that was popular on the radio that he liked to sing. Charles only wore velour track suits and was a tae kwon do expert. Xavier was trying to get a licence to open a karaoke club. Everyone was excited about that.
Bruno had swallowed an ice cube when he was a baby and it had damaged his vocal cords, and that was why his voice was so low. When she was pregnant with Félix, Manon’s mother just thought she had indigestion. She took a Pepto-Bismol and Félix was brain damaged as a result.
Manon’s brothers upset the eco-balance of Val des Loups. Everyone was afraid of them. There were so many that it made them untouchable. There were so many mouths to feed that they were always hungry. The owner of the grocery store said that 80 percent of his carts were in their backyard. They would all sit on the porch drinking beer, wearing their rocker T-shirts and jeans with holes in them and fur hats and sunglasses. They were all over six feet, none of them could play guitar, they were all supposedly dating strippers, and, miraculously, only three of them worked in the mines.
Sometimes the mother wondered why in hell she had gone through so much trouble just to have Manon. She was just as irritating as all her brothers. She was just as messy and just as hard to manage. But she did have blond ringlets and skinny long legs, and the other women in the supermarket would always tell her that Manon was just getting prettier and prettier. And when she would hear Manon’s laughter coming from the backyard through the kitchen window, she knew she had made the right choice. Manon’s laughter felt like the first shot of whisky on a Friday night. It let you know that you were above ground, at least.
Whenever Jules saw Manon, she was often riding up on the shoulders of one of her brothers. Her father would let her stand on the palm of his hand. And he held her up while her mother screamed and everybody cheered and cheered. There was always some brother throwing her off the side of the pool into the water, her arms and legs flailing everywhere. And Jules knew that none of them would think he was good enough for her.
Jules decided to try and get his mind off Manon for five minutes. It was getting downright obsessive. If you were too into a girl, she wouldn’t like you back. His dad had taught him that.
He stopped at the pretty house by the turn on the highway. There used to be an old lady sitting in a chair on the porch every day, watching people pass by. His dad called her Sweet Pea and swore that she was good looking in 1946. One day Jules walked by and there was a cool-looking guy with long hair and leather pants sitting on the chair in the old lady’s place. Jules asked what was the deal. The man said that Sweet Pea was his grandmother and she had passed away. He was from Montreal and he was living in the house until it sold. They became friends, and when Franklin was in Montreal Jules would house-sit for him. He would water the plants and listen to Franklin’s tapes.
Franklin had left for Montreal the day before, so Jules went in and cleaned up the mess left behind. He hung up the coats that were on the backs of chairs. The sink was filled with coffee cups with cigarette butts in them. Jules picked up a newspaper off the kitchen table and saw that it had been covering a spoon and a hypodermic needle. He was startled by their presence. They seemed unholy and made him feel oddly frightened. He swept them off the table into an old shoebox and hid them in a cupboard drawer.
JULES LIVED in a yellow trailer. His dad said it was top of the line. His dad said it was better to live in a trailer in Val des Loups than in one of the houses that had been built by the mining company. Jules didn’t even care about living in a trailer. But it did depress him when his dad would try and make it sound as if there was something superior about it.
He had decided not to tell his dad that he had been banned from going to the dance. His dad loved to tell stories about how he went to dances when he was younger, how he was the best dancer in town, how drunk he would get, how he had made out with two different girls at the same dance. Jules did not want to get his ass kicked, so he just pretended to be getting ready for the dance all day.
Jules went to get dressed up in the bathroom. The white tiles had patterns of blue snowflakes on them. You felt cold when you got undressed in that bathroom, even in the summer. There was a ceramic blue soap dish filled with his dad’s rings. As he was standing looking in the mirror over the sink, he noticed that he had a bruise under his nipple where his dad had hit him with a belt buckle the week before. Jules started to cry. He didn’t even know why he was crying. There was something impossibly sad about looking at his own reflection with his little gold cross hanging from a necklace, like every other child in Val des Loups.
Jules sat on the toilet lid and he started to sob and sob. He tried to keep his sobs as quiet as possible. He would get in trouble for trying to make everyone feel depressed. Jules was an only child and he often felt completely alone in the universe. His mom never stood up for him. She was just happy that it was Jules her husband was picking on and not her. She thought that if Jules could just love his dad and treat him like the boss of the house, then everybody would be okay. But Jules was a free spirit and could never do that. He couldn’t help but be himself in a world that he didn’t fit into.
He should have gone to Montreal, like Franklin kept asking. But Manon. Manon. Manon. Manon. Manon!
As Jules thought about Manon, he was able to make himself stop crying. His cousin Janine would tell Manon to meet him outside the dance. It would be okay. He knew that all the other boys liked Manon. But he knew that he was the one. He was the one who was going to win her over. He was the original one.
Jules buttoned up the shirt with frills down the middle. It smelled of mothballs. His father had worn it to his own prom and he had taken it out of the back of the closet to give to Jules to wear tonight. He had a pair of polyester pants with a red stripe down the side that came from the Salvation Army and might have at some point belonged to a member of a marching band.
It was twilight as Jules headed toward the dance. He had a blue jacket with fake green fur lining over his snazzy outfit. The moon was already out and full, like a paper drum that a lion might burst out of any minute. He sang a Juliette Gréco song at the top of his lungs. As he sang the song, he imagined that Juliette Gréco had written the lyrics about him.
His dad always said that he could put a girl like Juliette Gréco in her place. And that it took a certain kind of man to handle a girl like her. Jules imagined himself sitting across the table from Juliette Gréco in a fancy café with gold tables. She fluttered her mascara-covered lashes and invited Jules to go back to his hotel room. But Jules shook his head and told Juliette that it just wasn’t going to happen, because he was in love with Manon.