by François Blais
translated by JC Sutcliffe
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN ROUYN-NORANDA
Being armchair tourists suited us down to the ground. We used to say that it would be cool to actually go somewhere, to feel the Pimlico breeze on our skin, to go shopping in downtown Happyland, to make friends in Dirty Butter Creek, but we both knew it was all just hot air, and we were always careful to add “whenever we can make it work” or “when we’ve got the cash.” Another way of saying never. And if we ever happened to come up with a question that was outside Google’s rather vast field of competence, such as “I wonder what the most beautiful girl in Rouyn-Noranda is called,” we pondered it for a few moments before dismissing the idea, saying, “Oh well, too bad we’ll never know.” One day (I think we were farting around in Brazil, Indiana), I can’t really remember what we were talking about, but I said, “We should totally go there,” and I was astonished by the conviction in my own voice. Jude could have neutralized it by kidding around, like he does every time it looks like I might be getting serious, but instead he replied in the same tone. Yeah, we should totally go there. Our eyes met for a fraction of a second, then we moved on to talk about something else, but nonetheless we knew we’d just taken a serious decision.
Here, the reader might be tempted to say, “Hold your horses, Ben-Hur! Don’t you think it’s overstating the case to call a vague travel plan a serious decision?” To which I reply that if you knew us a bit better, dear reader, you’d know that from our point of view a decision is by definition serious, that decisions are something we avoid like the plague. By the time I’ve decided which pair of socks to put on and what to spread on my toast, I’ve pretty much reached my quota of decisions for the day. You should also know that we’re the kind of people to make a mountain out of a molehill. We don’t try to hide it. Most of the time, we don’t even need the molehill. We’ve never accomplished anything, never been anywhere, and the smallest change in our routine pushes us to the brink of despair. What you, dear reader, might call an “annoying setback,” a “little glitch,” a “minor irritation,” or “last-minute change,” we would call the apocalypse. We’re not going to change; it’s too late, given our ages, and it’ll probably get worse. But all the same we’ll go to Bird-in-Hand; of that I can assure you. (Bird-in-Hand is in Pennsylvania, but let’s not put the cart before the horse.)
From the moment we knew we’d be going on a trip, we started confining ourselves to the Americas. Now that the whole point of our virtual wanderings was to find our ideal destination, now that we were no longer content just to rove randomly around, we no longer saw the point of getting all the info about Rue du Grand-Puits in Saint-Yrieix-sur-Charent (in the Angoulême suburbs), or about Shanghai’s Zhujiang Gardens. We had to be realistic: we knew full well we’d never dare put an ocean between ourselves and home. If you found yourself in a bind in Lowell, for example, you could always hitchhike, steal a bike, or at worst walk. Terry Fox crossed Canada on foot—we’re no crazier than him. On the other hand, if the sticky situation cropped up in Chepek (Turkmenistan) or some part of Aden (Yemen), what would you do? You’d curl up in a ball in the corner and cry while you waited to die. The United States offers the best change-of-scene-to-safety ratio. And on that note, I’m going to start a new chapter to explain just how we came to choose Bird-in-Hand.
(Because It’s Important to Do Things Properly)
As the chapter title indicates, I’ve changed my mind: I’m not going to tell you about Bird-in-Hand right away. Just above, I said, “If you knew us a bit better, dear reader, blah blah blah…,” which made me realize we’ve gotten twenty or so pages in and I have yet to say anything about myself. I have no desire to be well-known, but it seems to me that the reader, who has (or so I hope) paid good money for this book, has the right to know who they’re dealing with.
Mr. Marc Fisher, in his indispensable work Advice to a Young Writer, recommends introducing the characters bit by bit as the narrative progresses. (“Aerate the information,” as he so nicely puts it.) Reveal their motivation and personality through dialogue or, better still, by making them act. Possessing neither the craft nor the master’s fiendish talent, I’ll make do with presenting everything in one go. After that, we’ll be done with this chore and we can get into the meat of the subject. All right, let’s get on with it. My name’s Tess, I’m thirty-two, and I live in Grand-Mère with Jude, whom I will let introduce himself when it’s his turn to write. Now I have to tell you what I do for a living. I work at Subway (just across from Petro-Canada, you know the one). I make subs according to customers’ wishes, I ask them if it’s for here or to go, whether it’s just the sub or a combo. If the latter, I ask them if they want a cookie or chips. After that, I take their payment. When there aren’t any customers, I fill the little ingredient containers, I cut tomatoes or cucumbers, I wipe down tables with a rag, that sort of thing. It’s not overly taxing, but it’s not something you’d do for fun. Now what? What do you talk about when you’ve told someone your name, age, place of residence, and profession? (Take the lack of quotation marks around that last word as a bit of black humour.) I don’t know. Any questions? Hmmm… Let’s see, why don’t we try this another way. Give me a couple of minutes and I should be able to track down an online personality test, which I will fill in before your very eyes.
Aha! This one seems good: “Help Your Friends Get to Know You Better in Fifty Questions.” For the sake of the test, we’ll pretend you’re my friend, which will be weird. Most of the questions are a bit dumb, so I’ll spare you them. But the answers should help you figure out who I am.
Help Your Friends Get to Know You Better
(questionnaire found at www.sedecouvrir.fr, completed by Tess for the reader’s edification)
4. I don’t know exactly.
Somewhere around five foot four.
9. One sister
11. Yes, Sébastien Daoust (according to him)
12. Nothing at all
13. Texas Chain Saw Massacre
14. In Search of Lost Time
15. “I Think We’re Alone Now”
16. A Haunting
20. A naked girl
23. Exactly where I am now
24. Go to Bird-in-Hand
27. I’d choose the dead one
28. A photo of Virginia Woolf
29. The floor
31. I don’t think I have one
33. In Bird-in-Hand
34. I don’t give a shit
36. “You know what?”
37. The doorbell ringing
38. To the neighbour just now,
but that doesn’t really count
42. Barbed wire around my arm or a slut stamp
on the small of my back, just like everyone
44. I’ve never voted
45. Nothing really
46. Boil water for coffee
47. Take out my contacts
48. Never, that only happens to other people
49. Not excessively
There, now we’re bosom buddies. Let’s get on with the serious stuff.
Translation by JC Sutcliffe