From Atavisms, translated by Pablo Strauss. Published by Dalkey Archive in 2015.
It’s always been about the words for me. When I reread Vallières, Simard, Che Guevara’s journals, and even Martin Luther King, though his style is kind of weak, I know what I’m in for and prepare myself. History with a capital H. I mean, I was always the writer in our crew. So it’s my job to uphold our pact by telling the story of our engagement. The guys said I could embellish the less successful actions a little. Because they were a bit like art when you get down to it, because when art works it changes things. But this one caper was so big it leaves me no choice. I have to tell it like it was.
I’ve thrown out a lot of drafts of this chapter, our last one. This here is the keeper. I can’t go on rewriting, trying to unearth more and better details, deeper meanings; I don’t have time. There’s been no news from Frank in over three years but I heard he got arrested, something to do with fake IDs. I bet someone ratted him out, someone he worked with and didn’t bother checking out properly. Something dumb like that. I know the guy well enough: Our secret’s safe with him. But even if he talks at least we’ll have my version to set the record straight. It’s the truest account and the one that reads best, if I do say so myself. I’m sure that dude’s still lying out there where we left him. Otherwise we would have heard something by now.
It started off like any other night. Frank was laid out in front of the stupid cooking show hosted by that guy with the beard. Every thirty seconds he would burst out laughing and call me over to see what was so goddamn funny. I stayed in my room writing. We’d been drinking and joking around, same old same old. Frank quieted down for a while but was right back at it soon enough, chortling like a turkey. I was on my way over to shut him up when Jason came crashing through the back door, knocking over a bunch of bottles when he slammed it shut. He went straight to the fridge and cracked a beer, mumbling to himself, and staring off into space, his focus lost between two objects. I ﬁgured he’d gone and done something stupid again. We’d hear the story sooner or later, just like the time with the Buick or the one with the old janitor. I grabbed a beer too and got back to work. I still had a ways to go, a good hour and a half to ﬁnish my twenty daily pages. It was a critical moment in Chapter 19. An F-18 was flying over the jungle, getting ready to bomb the guerillas’ food cache. The words were shooting out fast and true like gunﬁre. I nailed a long description of some explosions in ﬁfteen minutes flat. Just as a panther was rearing its head from the creepers, readying to attack the scouts mired knee-deep in mud, I heard Frank and Jason getting louder and went to the living room to see what was up.
“I’m telling you, it’s him. I recognized him.”
“How can you be so sure? And what was he doing there in the ﬁrst place, all by himself? People like that never go out without hired muscle.”
“Not him, he’s old, out of the game. Been out a long time. But I’m telling you, it’s really him. I just know. Frank, you’re coming. You too, Poet. May as well.”
Out on the spiral staircase Jason turned toward us, ﬁnger to his lips, pointing at a guy laid out in the back seat of his car, hands tied behind his back with duct tape. It was quiet out except for faint trafﬁc sounds wafting in between the buildings. We got in the car to avoid attention. Apparently no one had noticed Jason or the old man he had dragged over ﬁfty metres, by the armpits, after punching him out behind the bar.
Frank got behind the wheel, Jason took shotgun, and I had to move the guy’s legs out of the way to climb into the back seat. It was full of coffee cups, old shoes, plastic bags and the other crap that gave Frank’s old piece of junk its signature odour.
“What if he wakes up?”
“He’s way too drunk, we’ve got nothing to worry about. He’d be passed out by now anyway. I just gave him a little head start.”
Jason was looking at us, eyes shining like a nocturnal bird of prey. He told us how he’d been on his way to the bathroom when he saw a man ordering a drink at the bar. He thought he recognized him and struck up a conversation. Jay let him babble on for half an hour, while his mind was on this new mission for us, and then they went out together for a smoke in the alley.
“So, what is it?”
“Uhh, our mission.”
“We’re taking him to Morin Heights.”
Pictures ran through my head in vivid, novelistic detail. We would drive between two huge walls of black spruce, turn off onto a narrow trail that would close up again behind us, shadowy ﬁgures guided through the darkness by the forest’s scents. No one could ﬁnd or follow us there. Frank was deﬁnitely the most wasted of us three so I took the wheel. You don’t want to hit a tree with a bleeding former cabinet minister handcuffed in the back seat. We probably could have come up with a credible story, something pretty—a dare, or maybe a historical re-enactment?—but you never know how things will play out with the cops. Always better not to take chances.
This night drive was a good time to tell my friends the story I was writing. It was a love story. A couple of depressed, coca-chewing revolutionaries were getting ready to take over a coffee plantation that had somehow escaped the forest ﬁres and the clear-cuts. Frank and Jason both thought I was really creative. I told them my novel would get even better if I could have ﬁve minutes’ peace without their squawking. That got me a good laugh and they started hitting me with their “sensitive poet” calls and every light on Papineau turned green and we were out of Montreal in ten minutes flat and onto Highway 15 toward the mountains, freedom, payback. A nice mission. The old guy was still passed out, face pressed against the glass like a kid tired out after a trip to the zoo. Should have listened to his daddy.
“Are you sure, Jay? I don’t recognize the face.”
“I swear. Hold on.”
He fumbled around and pulled out a wallet.
“Jean-Paul Turbide. Told you I was sure. Has a nice ring to it, for a Liberal cabinet minister, eh?”
Frank laughed. Turbide. I laughed too. We started chanting his name, faster and faster.
“Too bad though, for a big shot like him: ending up shit-faced in some dive in a crappy neighborhood.”
“Whatever. He got what he deserved. Les câlisses.”
I put in a GrimSkunk tape with a hammering beat. Turbide didn’t bat an eye. We were getting close to the grandiose sounding Gateway to the North, a rest stop. To keep our spirits up we smoked and told the same old stories, laughing in all the usual places. Frank wouldn’t stop swearing as he retold his classic expedition to steal a few pot plants from a cornﬁeld out by his uncle’s cabin. We were in Grade 10. Frank was the only one who had his driver’s license. He and another guy just took off in the middle of a party. They showed up a couple hours later with garbage bags full of weed, white as sheets, on shaky legs that seemed to be walking of their own volition. Frank was a hero after that, but he and the other guy couldn’t sleep for weeks. Everyone knew the happy ending but he never once told the whole story, not even to us. That was ten years ago. Since then Frank doesn’t take a whole lot of initiative when we get up to something.
We met Jason in college, in PoliSci. Finally, someone with half a brain you could also smoke a joint with. To commemorate our epic nights of college drinking, and those epic college girls, we had another round of beers. Jason started in on the little pussies who threw us out of the Quebec Youth movement. All we wanted was to get involved, a taste of direct action. The hippies ran the student association meetings. All their talk never amounted to squat, just the same old two-hour demonstrations. We wanted to take it further, rattle people, hurt people. After ﬁve meetings they’d had enough of us. I’d been in charge of communiqués with some old guy, and when I say old I mean old school—he never even told me his real name. Frank smoked in the corner during the meetings, while Jason just sat there and hijacked all the hippies’ brainstorm sessions. Their little elected dictator must have seen the writing on the wall: He had to get rid of us, and fast. They wouldn’t have had the guts to follow us where we were going anyway. We had better things to do than scrawl tired FLQ graffiti that didn’t scare people anymore, hack into federalist databases, or leave suspicious-looking packages that just caused trafﬁc jams. The hippies didn’t need us to block roads. I stuck around long enough to pen a few decent manifestos.
We passed the waterslide park crowned by an idiotic giant ﬂying faucet. Lit up in all its nighttime splendor it looked even more surreal than usual, like a bad omen or a joke played on us by giants, who knows. We were there. Turbide was looking torpid. Jay must have hit him pretty hard. Side two of GrimSkunk ended with a thunk. We were running out of tunes: The tape deck had already chewed up the Voivod and the Groovy Aardvark. Jason combed through the debris on the ﬂoor and came up with something.
“Paul Piché? Dude.”
“It’s Martine’s. C’mon man, you know that shit’s not mine. She’s all ‘respect for the classics.’”
“Yeah… yeah, why not. Put it on,” I agreed. “Let’s warm the old guy up.”
In Saint Sauveur you turn left at the church and you’re on the road to Morin Heights. It’s crisscrossed by thousands of little paths leading to the vacation estates of rich people who never show during the workweek. We’d spent more than a few nights as volunteer caretakers for these absentee owners. One time we’d come across some even narrower paths, shallow ruts in the long grass an axle’s breadth apart. They led to the cuts around the power pylons or protected, apparently unguarded, wilderness. No one had ever bothered us, anyway. We took a path that led to two million dollars’ worth of gables, cornices, pools, and double garages. But we weren’t in the market for accommodation; we were here to show our guest a good time in the woods, so we took an embankment over the stream and back along our path through the ferns. Our favourite path. It’s hilly, rocky, and full of roots but after twenty minutes you come to a clearing far enough from the lights of Saint Sauveur to see a few stars and some massive pines. It’s ethereal in the twilight, orange like a fox, fragrant with pinecones; a place to take refuge when the end-times come, under this canopy, our very own Laurentie.
We stopped in front of a tree in the middle of the opening, then got out to stretch our legs a bit and chase the pins and needles from our asses. We had enough beer to ﬁnish the night in style. Set the case on the hood and Frank passed around a joint. It was getting kind of chilly, but still warm enough to do what we had to do in T-shirts. The clearing was bathed in soft moonlight. You could see okay but we left the headlights on anyway, pointed at the tree. We entertained ourselves for a while making shadow puppets with our bodies—forest elves, zombies, coureurs des bois, Indians. It could have been solemn but was actually pretty funny thanks to the tunes wafting through the three open car doors, our man Paul Piché just belting it out. One real gem reached its climax with a sax solo: hot dripping wax. But the next song was so horrible even Frank couldn’t handle it. Jay killed the music.
Turbide was stirring now, waking up to a nasty headache. His moans were wrecking the nice silence you look forward to when a tape ends. That was the signal. I opened the door he was leaning against. He dropped like a sack onto the pine needles, letting out a funny groan. I grabbed him by the arms and Frank took his ankles and we sat him up against the tree trunk. Jason was rifling through his tools in the trunk. He came back with an extension cord and we tied the old man up. He was limp, his head falling forward onto the blue shirt, a nice V-neck of blood down the front of his shirt all the way to his belly button. Frank rolled his head around for a few seconds, tapping his cheeks as though spinning a globe. I kicked the soles of his feet with the toes of my runners, without much conviction. I wasn’t sure what Jason wanted us to do. The moans were getting louder and more frequent and the guy’s legs were starting to shake. I wouldn’t want to be in his head right now.
We stepped away to make room for Jason; Frank out of deference, me to better take in as many details as possible. As secretary it was my job to set it all down for posterity. Jason took a deep breath, went up to Turbide, and started punching him in the face. Every blow was accompanied by a manly grunt and the recitation of an entry in a somewhat random register of four hundred years of humiliation— the deportations, the British Conquest, the subsidies, the sham democracy— one by one they were all summoned forth, reaching a crescendo with the most recent batch of dirty deals. Jason went to town on the War Measures Act, fucking Trudeau, and Mirabel Airport, since Turbide hadn’t seen the expropriated land we’d driven by during his little nap. He needed his memory jogged to grasp the full extent of the excellent work done by him and his brothers in arms, that gang of scumbags who voted in whatever laws they felt like on the backs of us Quebecers, poor suckers who’ve been ceding ground since time immemorial, and if it wasn’t land anymore it was the provincial powers being stripped from us and our kids brainwashed in classrooms wallpapered with Canadian flags we pay for with our taxes, a flag whose emblem was stolen from the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society just like they jacked the music of the national anthem from Calixa Lavallée and the words from poor Basile Routhier and if they’d known I swear to God if they’d known they’d start sucking our blood the moment that rag was hoisted in Ottawa, it’s not sap ﬂowing from the maples anymore it’s our blood they’re tapping, year after year, why do you think the flag is red les tabarnacs and what’s your favourite colour motherfucker, I’ll show you concessions, you want to see compromise, you want to see Quebec brought into the fold “with honour and enthusiasm,” câlisse?
Jason petered out, short of breath, hands bloody, undisputed master of the lump of fat held in an unnatural posture by the extension cord. The crickets were chirping again. I thought that was quite enough payback for one night, but Jason lurched off and came back with a bottle of motor oil from the trunk. He untied what remained of Turbide, who collapsed on the ground, swollen face covered with pine needles. Jason ripped off Turbide’s beige pleat-front pants and doused him in oil. I thought he was going to set him on ﬁre and was about to tell him to at least move away from the tree, but Jason just stood there, shorts halfway down his thighs, hard as a demon.
We stood back and watched. In the glare of the headlights it looked like a wolverine dancing on a carcass.
We were rattled. We sat in the car staring at the body, ten feet from the bumper. The gentle sounds of the forest couldn’t quite pierce the silence. After what felt like ages Jason turned over the ignition. We drove around the pine tree and back the way we’d come to the Morin Heights road, then headed north, just kept on driving. We had three quarters of a tank and a long way to go. As we crossed a bridge Jason tossed out the old man’s wallet. We stuck to the back roads for two, three, four hours, not exchanging a word, until we ran out of gas. We got out of the car. The doors banged shut like gunshots. The sky was growing light with dawn, the black road bordered by thick walls of trees. It smelled like ancient forest and motor oil.