Lumberjack Politicos


From Heroine. Republished by Coach House Books in 2019 (originally published in 1987).

On the mountaintop a sinking sunray hits a tile floor. Shining through the public chalet’s glass doors. The coffee machine guard has gone home. But there is a troubled rumour in the room. Suddenly the place fills up with freaks. Hippies left over from the sixties. And some striking hospital workers. Everybody’s stoned. The sky is gathering like a stormy sea. On the radio, a voice says: ‘Bonsoir, les amis. Nous voilà à presque dix ans de la Crise d’octobre. Notons, par ailleurs, l’approche d’une tempête de neige vers 20 heures.’

The tourist awakes with a start. From the chalet loudspeaker comes an interminable waltz. Across the enormous room, the Canadian Olympic champion rowing team draped in maple leaves and posing for a picture. ‘Let them eat cake,’ shouts a voice in the tourist’s head, still partly from his dream. Now the presidential candidate is on the radio: ‘My fellow Americans. The good news is we’ve bombed the Russians. (This turns out to be a joke—he didn’t know the microphone was on.) And now we’ll have peace, for our nuclear weapons have wiped the place out.’ To erase the horror, the tourist clutches at his throat. Trying to think of something nice.

Puttin’ on the ritz.

He steps out into the sparse snowflakes again, a funny smile on his face.

Yes, tomorrow’s winter. I love the solitude of white. Tonight the storm will do it, do it. Sometimes rigidity of the body precedes catharsis. That’s okay. Flying high. Then appears that country road going by the gravestones and Her cameo in the sky. Just focus on something else. That passage from Colette. Au haut du ciel, le soleil buvait la rosée, putréfiait le champignon nouveau-né, criblait de guêpes la vigne trop vieille et ses raisins chétifs, et Vinca avec Lisette rejetaient, du même mouvement, le léger Spencer de tricot …

Shh, for a novel I have to be more rational. The heroine could be from Brecht. Emphasizing the external the better to distance from inner chaos. What was it that Dr. Schweitzer said on the radio? Women often lack the moral courage to synthesize what they know. Due to fragmentation of consciousness resulting from current upheaval of their roles. What does he mean? Maudit chauvin. We’re not scared. Just exhausted from wanting to change the world and have love, too. Anyway, a heroine can be sad, distressed, it just has to be in a social context. That way she doesn’t feel sorrier for herself than for the others. We’re all smarting from retreat. Two steps forward, one step back. The trick is to keep looking toward the future, thus cancelling out nostalgia. Standing there among the dark oak booths in the Cracow Café was just a moment in passing time. (For a thing begun has already started to end.) The hookers were dancing, the politicos talking politics in their lumberjack shirts. Very seventies.

The place also had a slot machine, reminiscent of the fifties. They used to have one in the restaurant back in Lively. You put your quarter in and a steel hand came down to grab a present: rhinestone rings, water pistols, pink-rimmed glasses. Faute de quoi faire I stood in line with the other well-combed ducks in leather jackets waiting for my turn. Suddenly, my love, you were standing behind me. ‘Cigarette?’ you asked. ‘Yes,’ I answered, thinking: ‘to get through the walls of prayer.’ I always thought that with the first smoke in the morning. It was my declaration of revolt. Because, Sepia, Her sickness led to Her conversion. So when She found tobacco traces in Her little beaded evening bag I’d borrowed, She stood in the night garden adding tobacco to the list of dancing, cards, fornication, and other pleasures Christians aren’t allowed. I know it’s silly, but that first smoke always gave a kick smack in the guilt-lined stomach. After that, each transgression seemed easier.

We took to meeting at the Cracow daily. My love, you said you liked my toughness. It’s too bad, then, that the paranoia poked through the surface. Starting the night they called me to the office at the wire service. And the boss said: ‘I’ve been told you have subversive links.’ I was astounded because as yet I hadn’t even joined the group. After my shift, rushing in the grey dawn to the Cracow for one more cup of coffee and some sausage before I slept, I kept thinking maybe I should never see any of you again. Then what to my surprise, my love, but to find you weren’t even there. Because your group had to keep moving to avoid cops at counters listening in on conversations. And word had come, without my knowing, to change to Figaro’s. The new café has a NO EXIT sign on the brick wall. (Some kind of existential joke.) I guess the fear of losing what I’d found struck pretty deeply. Because later, my love, when the comrades showed me a group photo round the jukebox taken on that very morning, I immediately noticed your absence. ‘Where’s Jon?’ I asked, my voice rising as I looked harder at the picture. You had told me you were there. The comrades stared with hostile eyes. Probably thinking: ‘Uptight anglaise. No resistance.’ Janis was singing that song about freedom equalling nothing left to lose. Turned up loud so people at other tables couldn’t hear Comrade X advising new recruits. He was talking of the need to be professional, to have total commitment to the group. Revolutionaries, in view of the effort required for the collective project, had to share everything. This included, uh, personal things (his pock-marked cheek twitched). He added: ‘Never leave evidence for cops of appartenance to the group. Because they’ll charge you with sedition.

Naturally, there were certain zones libres (where a person could really be himself). Dans ces lieux, on vivait déjà les lendemains qui chantent. One was that funny high-up apartment of the surrealists, standing on the knoll overlooking St-Denis. Spring of ’79, I’m there dancing in Comrade N’s arms (while you, my love, sleep nonplussed in an upstairs room). I loved the image. That redheaded woman getting skinnier and skinnier from cigarettes and coffee at all those meetings. But also more intense, more knowledgeable, more daring. N and I move across the floor, ever closer, under a huge eye painted by Salvador Dalí. Past those bedrooms our new surrealist friends call Hiroshima, Nagasaki. Thanks to them, our political actions are becoming pure theatre. This excites me. Soon we’re going to occupy the Chilean consulate. N and I neatly sidestep a red banner on which they’re painting: PINOCHET = DICTATURE = TORTURE. So huge that every letter has to dry and get rolled up before they start the next one. The idea is to shock by unfurling banners the passing bourgeois people can’t avoid.

’Tis a beautiful May day. Across from the cement-block consulate is a hill on which rises the phallic tower of l’Université de Montréal. On appelle ça le pénis d’Ernest Cormier. He was the architect. The mayor wants to match it with one of his own on the mountain or somewhere. My role is peripheral but essential: that of a bourgeois woman. Pretending to be chatting, chatting in a strategic telephone booth near the consulate. (The costume is a tailored skirt, nipped-in waist, lipstick, kid gloves. Very French.) That way the phone will be free to warn the occupying comrades when the cops arrive. Now the comrades are unfurling the giant banners listing tortures committed by Pinochet: DOIGTS COUPÉ À GUITARISTE DE GAUCHE. This banner bleeds down against the wall. Another, marked DES CENTAINES D’ENFANTS DISPARUS slowly folds and unfolds in the breeze. FEMMES ENCEINTES VIOLÉES EN PRISON reaches over and catches on the branch of a tree.

Oh, this is kind of fun. Outside my booth the air is perfumed with budding maple. A cute couple from the university strolls by. I smile at young love. And thank God I’m not up there with the others. I hate closed spaces, locked rooms, elevators. If I’d been in there and got arrested, the dark tight space of a paddy wagon would make me panic. That happened to a comrade who got picked up pretending to prostitute herself in support of the hookers. In the Black Maria she felt terrible, scared as she was her parents would get the wrong idea. She cried and cried. Finally an older woman arrested at the same time said: ‘Don’t worry, honey, you can get used to anything after a while.’

Still, I wondered why Comrade N gave me the outside job the way he did. His voice sounded ironic when he said: ‘In your telephone booth you’ll be safe.’ As if the English weren’t as tough. We were in the revolutionary headquarters waiting for the others to come back from postering for the next week’s action. The room was chilly and kind of dreary, due to the black cop-proof curtains. N handed me a Gauloise, his nose twitching. The sexual tension was phenomenal. I loved the scent of his long brown hair, the tan skin which in certain lights made his eyes look turquoise. On the radio, coincidentally, they were playing ‘Dancing with Mr. D.’ He took my hand and started moving, left foot over right. I followed, breathing in his earthy odour. My love, for both of us I was about to smash monogamy. What better way to end my jealousy? Just as my head and N’s moved close enough to kiss, the door opened. A group of comrades came in.

Sepia, the guilty part was that even though I did my part of the consulate job right, it didn’t help. The cop cars came so fast the comrades didn’t have time to organize their forces. From my little knoll I watched them getting dragged from consulate to paddy wagon. Later, Denise, a bank manager’s daughter from Mont Laurier, said she was held in a steel elevator between floors at Parthenais prison. And felt up by three big cops (she has beautiful full breasts) to make her talk. Then she looked at me kind of suspiciously.

Well, I wasn’t the only one who deep inside felt cowardly. A member of the central committee didn’t even show. He said it was because he’d had to save his rare collection of poissons rouges. For the tank broke as he was moving from a burnt-out flat on St-André, torched by the landlord for the insurance. Making him, he pointed out, another victim of the greedy capitalist gentrification rampant in the city. His friend Comrade X said it was unprofessional to think everyone must put themselves at risk. A serious organization never permits more than minor amputation in order to remain vigorous.

For a while after, N and I hardly spoke, due to ending up in different F-group factions on account of organizational tensions arising from the occupation. But despite the problems, the operation was deemed successful. It got good press. There was a picture of our banners in the newspaper.

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Gail Scott is the author of several novels, as well as collections of essays and stories. She is the cofounder of Spirale and is co-editor of the New Narrative anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative.



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