Translated from the French by
It was a foul wind that had set me down at Philips Square across from The Bay, with the junkies shivering two or three to a bench, the alkies hiding bottles in their perennial paper bags, and the hawkers peddling trinkets along Sainte Catherine Street.
October was drawing to an end, we’d soon be in the glum no man’s land between Halloween and Christmas, plus it was getting colder and colder, this was no joke. The problem was that I played the guitar very badly while wearing gloves. Tapping your foot to warm you up, that was okay: you had to keep the beat. But singing through chattering teeth, nothing was worse than that.
Nightingales do not quaver.
What a jolt to hear a voice behind me exclaim, with a slight North African accent:
“Not bad, not bad at all!”
I spun around, frowning. He was tall and dark with short hair, elegant despite his bowed shoulders, in his dark blue woolen pea jacket. He too was holding a guitar case. He sat down on the little wall dividing the square from the road, and he patted the space beside him, inviting me to follow suit. I packed up my own instrument and went to join him. But as my jeans jacket didn’t reach lower than my waist, I chose to stay upright in front of him, hopping in place.
He handed me a cigarette, we smoked, staring at each other, and finally he asked me if I was hungry. What a joke.
“Is it so obvious?”
“Just took a chance. I’m Gaby.”
“Well Janis, I’m going for a smoked meat, you can join me if you want.”
He seemed harmless. His eyes even had a certain softness.
I followed him west for several blocks, the wind in my face, until we reached a yellow sign, Sam’s Delicatessen.
Gaby opened the door for me and we went down to sit on wide benches in an orange and brown half-basement that was warm and cozy. The menu was as tall as I was. With the two guitars and my backpack, we didn’t have much space. Every page was swathed in plastic, this was fancy. Except I had a horror of smoked meat, so I ordered a cheeseburger with fries, I was salivating already.
The servings were even larger than the menu. I widened my eyes and dug into my burger while Gaby stretched open his jaws and pushed in his sandwich, dripping with mustard. After a few mouthfuls I took a big swig of water, caught my breath, and remembered my manners.
“You want a taste?”
He shook his head.
“No thanks. I don’t mix meat and dairy.”
“No? Why not?”
“I’m Jewish. The Torah won’t allow it.”
“That’s funny, my grandfather is Jewish too, but I never heard him mention that.”
“He must not be very religious, your grandfather.”
“No, he even married a Catholic, that’s proof.”
“Wow. What kind of Jew is he?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, does he come from Eastern Europe, for example?”
“I see. So you’re one quarter Jewish, right?”
“That’s better than nothing.”
“Hah. It would have been plenty enough to have problems during the war.”
After that, we finished our food in silence.
Later, as we sugared our coffee, he asked me, à propos of nothing:
“Whereabouts do you live, exactly?”
“Are you living on the street?”
“You’ve got it.”
“What do you do for sleeping?”
“Haven’t yet figured it out.”
“You want to come to my place? It’s not far.”
I sighed. It always ended like that. No one pays a meal for a lost soul just to groove on her bright eyes. As for me, to be truthful, I’d rather spend the night in a man’s bed that in the doorway of a sordid building with busted neon lights.
We went out into the darkness, climbed Drummond Street, crossed Sherbrooke, leaving behind us the floodlit entryway of the Ritz Carlton, and stopped in front of a Victorian manor house in red sandstone with a tower, chimneys, a pointed roof, the whole kit. Just as I was starting to believe that I’d perhaps stumbled on a rich heir, my heart began pounding in my chest.
A metal plaque was gleaming on the wall: Portage Program for Drug Dependencies. It was like a switch had just been thrown. As if, invisibly, my life’s tectonic plates had realigned themselves just a little. And as if, deep in the water, my feet were touching the sand. Ariadne’s thread, a coincidence that only had meaning for me… according to Michel and Sylvio, Denis had done all in his power to register for this gruelling treatment, but he was kicked out because he’d punched out a care worker. I was furious: “You’re telling me this now?”
An alleyway ran along the left side of the building. We followed it and emerged into a little courtyard tucked in the back. Two or three parking spaces and then, farther on, I made out a curious two-story structure with a French style roof and dormer windows. Gaby climbed the two stairs leading up to it and wrestled with the lock for a moment before opening the door:
“Welcome chez moi.”
I followed him up the narrow stairway, several of whose steps creaked under the worn linoleum. Three doors opened onto a hallway lit by a naked bulb at the other end, screwed into the ceiling of a kitchen where an ancient fridge was rumbling away. His door was the last. He invited me into a rather large room furnished with a three-quarters bed, a little table, two chairs, and a chest of drawers on which were piled a number of fat books with titles in Hebrew. Most important, it was well heated. I dropped my things into a corner and sat down on one of the chairs while he settled in the most naturally in the world, to roll a joint of hash.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I have to admit that that this is not what I expected… I thought you were straight.”
“Especially with the addicts’ program just beside us, eh?”
“Actually, there’s no connection. This house was there long before the big one was built.”
He lit the joint and held it out to me. Colour, fragrance, sweetness… no question, this was a high grade rendezvous. Then, between two tokes, he continued:
“There are five rooms, all told. Three upstairs and only two on the ground floor, because of the laundry room. We all know each other. We’re almost all Moroccan Jews. By paying a low rent, I can work part time and pursue my religious studies. That’s good. Besides, I’m responsible for collecting rent for the owner, and he gives me a reduction. That’s even better. And then there’s music…”
As I was relaxing bit by bit, he brought out his guitar, took the time to tune it well, and began to sing, in a low voice, songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. His fingers moved up and down the neck like hammers on a piano. You would have thought they were sculpted just for the purpose of sounding chords. With his other hand he plucked the strings with an intelligence I’d long ago witnessed in my tender years, watching my great grandmother at her embroidery.
I began to doze off in my chair. With the flat of his hand, he stilled the strings’ vibration. He carefully propped the guitar against the wall. He went to open the side of the bed nearest the wall and came back to me with a little smile:
“Hey, lie down there. I’m going to read for a while.”
Too astonished to react, I stretched myself out, sighing with pleasure. Gaby covered me with the dark blue quilt. He placed on the table a large volume, a notebook, a candlestick, and something to write with. He turned off the lamp on the chest of drawers. He opened his book, which was next to the candle, he installed himself, positioning his chair so as to block the flame, and I fell asleep to the rustling of pages being turned one by one.
Text and illustrations © Sophie Voillot 2021