“Gagnonville” is one of four dramatic monologues, each illustrated by a different artist, that make up Sarah Berthiaume’s Villes mortes. It’s an unusual and haunting book you can read in a few hours but will want to keep a lifetime.
by Sarah Berthiaume
illustrated by Francis Léveillé
≈ translated by Pablo Strauss
I was born in Gagnonville. You wouldn’t have heard of it. It’s not on any of the maps any more. They tore it all down in ’85 when the mine closed. That’s where my dad worked, at the mine. He was union rep. So when it closed down he got seriously depressed. Then again, it might have been finding the neighbour who hanged herself in the shed three days before they razed the town to the ground. A woman from the ringette team he coached. I think that really did a number on him. Now he can’t open a door on his own because he’s too scared of finding someone hanged on the other side. When we moved he had every door in the house taken out. We must be the only house in the world with a bead curtain for a bathroom door.
So in ’85, when the government took a wrecking ball to our house, we had to move. My mom says the move killed my dad, and since then he hasn’t been an easy guy to live with. Which is kind of shitty since I was one at the time. So I don’t really have any memories of my dad being an easy guy to live with. I’ve never known him as anything but a tub of lard parked on his ass wheezing from his emphysema. Because my dad will always be a miner in his heart. But also in his lungs. Especially there.
My dad doesn’t love me. He stopped loving me the day I broke his statue of St. Barbara. She was a Christian martyr in the third century whose father had her tits cut off, and then her head, because she believed in God and he wasn’t down with that. Don’t ask me what the connection is, but she’s also patron saint of miners. So there’s a tradition where you put a statue of her above the entrance to the mineshaft, to protect against cave-ins and stuff. In Gagnonville they had one. And since my dad was union rep he got to take it with him when the mine closed. He put it on the mantle so we couldn’t reach it. I was just a little girl, it wasn’t anything but a topless stone doll to me. And then one day I took it upon myself to shave her. Maybe because Barbara reminded me of Barbasol. I went to the drugstore for the shaving cream and sprayed the entire can on the statue. I was shaving her with a butter knife when my dad walked in. He grabbed her away from me but she slipped through his fingers, because of the shaving cream. He tried to glue her back together but the 44 little pieces never really stuck. Because of the shaving cream again. In the end my dad had to throw her out. And he’s hated me ever since.
And ever since the TV Guide sits in place of the statue on our mantle. The TV is my parents’ new altar. Their favourite show? Santa Barbara. Every afternoon at two my mom sits down on the couch next to my coughing father and they get their Santa Barbara fix. I hate that show. Especially the theme song. “Santa Barbara, who can tell me why I’m—feeling blue,” with the images of big mansions and chicks in bathing suits. Feeling blue, my ass.
Every five years or so there’s a reunion for everyone who used to live in Gagnonville. They rent a community hall nearby and get together to eat sandwiches with the crusts cut off and convince themselves that life was so much better back in the old days when everyone lived squeezed in next to each other in mobile homes. To hear them you’d think they were talking about Eldorado or some other paradise lost. This year it was my dad’s turn to give the memorial speech. Usually the mayor did it, but he got killed the year before. A car accident. So my mom lost her shit and said it was super important to come and listen to my father, because this speech meant more to him than anything else in the world. “Except for the statue of St. Barbara, but you broke that,” she reminded me. So I went.
The first thing that caught your eye in the hall was the centrepiece on every table: little bags of silvery sand with red balloons marked “Gagnonville: 1960–1985.” A compilation of dance hits for old folks was blaring. My mom had insisted on dressing up. Of course no one else did. Everyone was in runners and jeans and I had on a red dress and high heels, like the belle of the ball.
The girl behind the bar reminded me of someone. She had long blond hair down to her ass and a maître d’ uniform: high-waisted black pants, white shirt, black vest, bowtie. Poor chick. I ordered a double vodka and shot it back right there, and a Bloody Mary to drink at the table. Left a three-dollar tip. She gave me a weird smile as she scooped up the coins. And that’s when I saw it: Kelly Capwell. The girl from Santa Barbara. That’s who she looked like.
“You look like the girl from Santa Barbara, Kelly Capwell. You really do.”
“Yeah, everyone says that.”
She smiled and then started wiping the counter. I wanted to tell her I didn’t really like the show, it was my parents who couldn’t get enough of it, but I felt kind of stupid so I went and sat down at the table with my Bloody Mary. My mom was trying to get a game of telephone going with the ladies at the other end of the hall. My dad was sitting with a gang of old timers like himself. Must have been his crew from the mine. Once in a while one of them would start coughing and the others would stop what they were saying and wait for him to finish. It was like a ritual.
I started imagining them in filthy miners’ jumpsuits with their headlamps on. They must have coughed less back then.
I got up to go to the bathroom. The bar girl came back not long after I did. We stayed there beside each other, in front of the mirror. I was washing my hands and she was putting on lipstick. I couldn’t really tell how old she was. Maybe thirty.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Kelly.” She swung her hair around. “Seems like you’re not exactly having the time of your life.”
“No, not really.”
She put away her lipstick. I noticed that she’d been scoping my cleavage in the mirror, but pretended I hadn’t.
“We’re gonna smoke a joint in the storeroom if you want.”
She gave me the same little smile as earlier, and then left. When she opened the door I caught a glimpse of my dad practicing his speech in front of the mirror in the bathroom across the hall. He tried to make a joke and then wanted to laugh, but just started coughing instead. I would have liked to whack him on the back, like my mom does all the time, so he doesn’t choke. But I just left the bathroom and pretended I hadn’t seen him.
It wasn’t really a store room. More like a cooler. OK, it was the cooler. The other bartender was there too, the tall depressing bald guy. He passed me the joint when I walked in. It was around thirty below in there, I felt like I was going to freeze to death. Again I cursed my mom for forcing me to wear that stupid red dress. The bar guy was zooming in on my tits and my nipples were so hard I thought they were going to pop out and poke him in the eye. Fuck.
I looked around in the cooler. There were cases of beer piled up to the roof. Coup de grisou, not what you’d expect at a community hall. I thought about the statue of Santa Barbara slathered in shaving cream. And the neighbour hanging in the shed. And I wondered why she did it. Maybe the thought of the wrecking ball smashing into her house got her so depressed she was ready to hang herself. I wondered if she stopped to think about the person who would find her. I’m sure she never imagined it might be her ringette coach, or that because of her he wouldn’t be able to open another door for the rest of his life. Then I had a flash of my dad choking as he practiced his speech in front of the mirror. I must be missing his speech.
“Are you from here too?”
Kelly was looking at me with that little smile of hers. She was still here. I felt uncomfortable all of a sudden.
“Do you miss it.”
“Not really. I was one when we left.”
“How old are you now.”
“Twenty-three. What about you?”
She was bullshitting, no question. She came a little closer. It was amazing how much she looked like the girl on TV.
“Your dress is really nice.”
“You look good in it.”
She put her hand down the front of my dress and grabbed my breast. Normally I would have backed off. But for some reason I just didn’t do anything. I tried to speak, something like:
But she kissed me.
And then the music changed. It wasn’t the old rock ‘n’ roll dance hits any more. It was a nineties beat, with a saxophone. There was a breeze in the cooler. But it wasn’t cold, it was just… just right. And right then and there, all on its own, my tongue started moving along with the music. In slow motion. And then it wasn’t just my tongue: it was my hands too. Close-up on my hands unbuttoning her shirt. Big gust of wind: her long blond hair flying back. Kelly looks at me. Zoom in on the twinkle in her eye. Then, slowly, she unhooks a strap of my red dress. Wailing sax. Next shot: me, from behind, head tilted back, hands in the air, mouth open. Kelly’s hands hold my thighs. The singer is belting it out, “Your soft hands/Your body against mine/The scent of you/in Santa Barbara.” And I come. For the first time in my life, I come.
I don’t know exactly what happened next. My knees gave out, I think. As I backed up I caught a pile of cases of beer, over six feet high, and it made a horrible sound, and then everything went black. When I came to I was all alone in the cooler. There was beer everywhere. I called Kelly: no answer. I got up. I had a headache and I was having a hard time staying up on my high heels with all the broken glass. Then I saw a pool of blood on the ground. Kelly was hurt. She was bleeding. It might be a matter of life or death. I pushed the cooler door open and went out, yelling as loud as I could.
“Is there a doctor in the room. Kelly Capwell is hurt!”
And everything came to a standstill.
I saw my dad standing up there on the stage with a piece of paper in one hand and a buzzing microphone in the other. I had interrupted his speech. He was staring at me. I figured his blank look must have been the same one when he found his neighbour hanged in the shed. I saw myself in the hall mirrors. My eyes were red. My lips were blue. I was sticky and covered in beer. My dress had a torn strap. One of my breasts was hanging out. It was covered in lipstick. And the entire town of Gagnonville was there. Staring at me. Staring at my dad who was staring at me, and then at my breast covered in beer and lipstick.
I felt like yelling out. “I hate you,” or “I love you”—I no longer knew which. Then, before I could open my mouth, my dad started coughing. Seriously coughing. More than usual. He fell down on his knees. My mom jumped on him to whack him on the back. But it didn’t work. He just kept coughing, louder and louder. Then at some point he opened the mouth, and gave a long wheeze, like a buzzing microphone, and fell flat on his face. It took fifteen minutes for the ambulance to get there. While everyone was freaking out around the stretcher I saw Kelly coming out of the toilets. She had a nosebleed. She walked right past without even looking at me, got her purse from behind the bar, and left.
Everyone left. Except me. I stayed right there. In my red dress. With my breast hanging out, covered in lipstick. I went up on stage and surveyed the room. The balloons said “Gagnonville 1960–1985.” The place I come from.
Then I heard a wheezing sound. Coming closer. And then I saw them in the mirror on the community hall wall: Five hundred miners in coveralls. Old. Fat. Filthy. Marching forward in unison, as if they were all tied together, wheezing, coughing, and spitting on the ground. My father was at the front. He was holding the body of his neighbour who hanged herself in the shed. But his look wasn’t blank, as I’d first thought. It was sad. The saddest look I’d ever seen in my life.
The Gagnonville miners reached the stage. Stopped. Looked at me with their dirty faces and blinding headlamps. And they started singing:
Santa Barbara, who can tell me why I’m feeling blue?
Santa Barbara, I don’t know, I’m like a boat lost at sea.
Carrying my memories away.
And it was beautiful. ≈