In Translation

8:17 PM, Rue Darling

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.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Translation by John Gilmore
PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Extract courtesy of Guernica Editions. Read our review in Life in Québec magazine.