Milk and Honey: Chapter Seven

***Please keep in mind, as you read this, that this is a very rough draft of what will, one day, be a novel… I am currently revising/rewriting…***

The Louis clan had a difficult time adapting to life in Alberta.  The language gap between them and their fellow Calgarians was the most obvious problem.  In their school back home, the children had been required to learn a bit of English.  The only words that ever stuck, however, were the swear words which both they and their parents used quite frequently; undoubtedly, the Louis’ were fluent in cursing.  Now, the family was forced to learn English very quickly in order to survive.

Marcel was quick to find a job as a construction worker.  While he was incredibly skilled and a hard worker, his foreman got tired of explaining things with exaggerated, charade-like expressions to get his point across.  Marcel was mostly limited to  grunt work- his back over used and his tongue not used at all.

The children also had a difficult time.  Jean had always been reserved and tight lipped.  He was comfortable spending time by himself both in Ontario and Calgary.  Louise had a knack for learning languages and made friends quickly.  Luc, who was, in Ontario, the most social of all the children, suffered incredibly.  He worked with what he knew.  Always the performer, Luc was often chided by teachers for giving lengthy monologues strictly in curse words.  While his fellow students were initially impressed by his impassioned, dirtyspeeches, they quickly tired of them.  Luc could only communicate with his family and the school’s aging French teacher who struggled with Luc’s mongrel Quebecois.

The pent-up loquaciousness of the family erupted over the dinner table every evening and usually lasted well into the night.  Luc was always the center of his family’s chatter.  After all, he was not only making up for his lack of speech during the long days at his junior high school, but also the three month silence preceeding the fire at the scout den.  The entire family was in awe of Luc’s story-telling abilities.  The dormancy of speech only seemed to improve the detail and extravagence of his tales.  He would ramble endlessly, often forgetting about the food in front of him until Odette reminded him.  The tenants on either side of the Louis’ two bedroom unit were convinced that all of French speaking Quebec had moved into unit 401 based on the volume of the coarse language that came through the apartment walls.

By spring, it was obvious that Luc was not adapting at all to his new school.  While Peter and Marie worked hard to overcome their linguistic handicaps, and were soon proficient enough in English to do well in their classes, Luc failed all of his, except for French and shop; he was a good little carpenter, just like his father.  The school board sent Charles de la Croix, a bilingual aide, to see Marcel and Odette and explain the severity of Luc’s situation.  He knocked on the family’s door at exactly 5:30 on a cold Thursday afternoon.

Stepping into the home, Charles smelled the thick gamey fragrance of venison and he quickly apologized for interrupting their dinner.  “Oh no, no, no” Odette assured him, “come, sit down, we would love to have you as our dinner guest—I hope you like wild meat!”  “I love it, but really, I don’t want to be a burden.”  “Shut the fuck up and sit down—it is so nice to have someone outside the family to speak to.  Are you Quebecois?”  Charles joined the Louis’ meal and conversation: both were incredibly rich.

Over dinner, Charles asked Luc how he was finding his classes.  “I fuckin’ hate school.  I have no fuckin’ clue what the fuck the teachers are saying, the kids in my classes are a bunch of fucks.  When I try to speak English, they make fun of my accent and when I speak French, they ignore me, which I don’t mind, really.  I’d rather be ignored, I fuckin’ hate them all- they’re a bunch of fags and lesbians—fuck ‘em, fuck ’em all!”  He took a massive spoonful of potatoes into his mouth.  Charles understood Luc’s situation immediately.  He had seen it a thousand times.  It never ceased to amaze him how cruel children could be, especially in junior high.  He asked no more questions.

The rest of the evening was the same as any other in the Louis’ home.  Luc told elaborate tales of his day: he sounded like a prophet of profanity.  In all his years, Charles had never heard someone Luc’s age speak so authoritatively; he used a hybrid of French and mangled English.  Charles also noticed a competition, of sorts, between father and son.  Really, there was no competition at all.  Luc would spin tales like tops, they were ornate, hilarious, and poignant. They seemed to put the entire table into a trance.  Marcel was no sluff, but he frequently paused, stumbled over his own words and occasionally got so frustrated that he abandoned the story entirely.  His linguistic failures were magnified by his son’s eloquence.  Luc never missed.

Charles didn’t leave the home until after 11:00.  He liked the Louis’ though he was shocked by them.  He was surprised that neither Luc, Jean or Louise had a curfew; in fact, Odette continued to spill coffee into Luc’s cup throughout the evening.  As he drove home, Charles was reminded of a similar case he had had a few years before involving a boy named Tony.

Tony Primastrada was about Luc’s age.  Like Luc, Tony was exceptionally smart, but had troubles at school due to a language barrier.  His first and most predominant language was Italian, which was the only language spoken in the Primastrada home.  When Victor visited the family to tell them their son was doing poorly in school, they took the situation very seriously, Bruno, especially.  He was a lawyer and had worked very hard to gain his position: his parents were poor, first generation migrants and he had to join the army to pay his way through university.  Tony’s parents were both fluent in English, but wanted to preserve their heritage by making sure that Tony was also fluent in Italian.

Tony had difficulty jumping back and forth between languages.  At school, Tony consistently reverted to Italian. When he did speak English, he was quite fluent, but had a whisper of an accent which attracted the wrong kind of attention from his class-mates.  He was bullied, made fun of and often called a wop.  He had very few friends. His response to his torment was much like Luc’s: “Fuck ‘m”.  By the time Charles pulled into his driveway, he had decided that Luc and Tony would be friends.

The next day, Charles put in a request to transfer Luc to A.E. Cross Junior High School where he would join Tony for the second half of the school year.  Luc had not set down any roots at St. Francis, so Charles doubted he would resist.

The following week, Luc boarded a bus en route to his new school.  It was a series of busses, actually- it took three transfers and over an hour for Luc to get to school, but he looked forward to his opportunity for a new start.  At first, it was difficult.  He had always attended Catholic Schools in the past and the curriculum at AE Cross was much different; they didn’t pray there, nor did they attend mass.  Luc’s main goal at his new school, however, was strictly social.  He wanted, more than anything, to make friends.

As soon as the lunch bell rang on his first day, Luc left the school to find the smoking pit.  Every school had one of these and though Luc had previously never joined, he felt it was his best chance of connecting with his new schoolmates.  There was a group of about ten kids smoking near the parking lot who paid absurd prices for covetted cigarettes; the laws of supply and demand enter the life of underage smokers very early.  Kids would steal from their parents or get someone older to buy them a pack.  At any rate, they were hard to obtain.  Neither Marcel nor Odette smoked, so Luc was forced to use his lunch money for his first taste.  “How much?” he asked a freckled boy near the edge of the pit, making a smoking gesture to ensure his request would be understood.  “I don’t got any; ask Dylan over there, he has got a whole pack.”  Luc approached Dylan, who stood at the center of the circle.  “How much?” Luc asked.  “I have no idea what the fuck you just said to me.  Take your dick out of your mouth, rinse and repeat.”  Luc didn’t understand much of what Dylan said, but he recognized from the slant in his voice and the laughter that erupted, that it was an insult.  He calmed himself, knowing that he, a complete outsider, was outnumbered.  He repeated himself: “How much for a smoke?”   “How much for a smoke?”  Dylan mimicked in an exaggerated French accent “Well, I usually charge a nickel, but for you, fifty cents.”  Fifty cents happened to be exactly half of Luc’s Lunch money, but he wanted to try.  “Ok, here.”  He gave Dylan the money.  “And here you go”, Dylan threw the cigarette outside of the circle and as Luc went to retrieve it, Dylan kicked him squarely in the ass.  “Fuckin’ frog!”  A chorus of laughter rang out.

As Luc picked up the cigarette, he suppressed his rage.  He had a tremendous capacity for anger, and having recently emptying his wrath upon the floorboards of the Cub Scout den, he took this in stride.  He walked away from the circle quickly and thought of Mary; she pacifyed him.  Luc left the school grounds in search of an alley to light his first cigarette.  Part of him was happy to have been rejected by the group; he had heard that the first cigarette was the harshest and that some people even puke.  “Finally, I can be like Uncle Pierre”, he thought to himself.  He brought the cigarette to his nose reverently and breathed deeply; the cigarette was a sacrament.

Luc found an alleyway a safe distance from the school and the pack of cruel kids who had mocked him. He burned his finger as he fumbled with the pack of paper matches he snatched from 7-11 earlier that day; his hands were shaking with excitement and fear.  Finally, the cigarette was lit and Luc breathed deeply; he was repulsed by the intoxicating smoke.  He coughed for what seemed like an eternity and sweat covered his brow.  He took another drag- not quite as bad this time.  He watched his breath rise and hover in front of him just before it disappeared into the blue Alberta sky.  He looked at the cigarette he held awkwardly in his left hand.  His uncle had always held the things with such grace; they became an extension of his body, like an eleventh finger.  He stood in the alley, smoked and coughed.

Suddenly another boy appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.  He looked at Luc’s cigarette in disappointment.  “Shit, I thought you had some grass by the way you were coughin’ there.”  Luc didn’t understand what the other boy said and assumed that the greeting was an insult of some sort.  “I’m Tony.  Haven’t seen you around here before.  You go to Cross?”  He extended his hand.  Startled by the nicety, Luc stumbled on his own name as he shook Tony’s hand firmly.  “Ugghh, Luc, my English is a shit, sorry.”  “No shit.  You Italian?”  Tony looked at Luc’s dark complexion.  “Naw, Francais, errr.. French, do you parle Francais?”  By now, Luc’s head was spinning from the combination of his first nicotine buzz and the excitement of interacting with someone besides his family.  “Mmmm a little bit, they’re kinda similar, c’mon t appelles tu?”  “Tres bien!”, Luc shouted.  He meant it.

As the boys walked back to the school, they spoke frantically without really communicating.  Luc let a barrage of French loose upon Tony’s skull, hoping that he would catch some of it.  Tony understood the gist of what Luc was saying, due to the fact that Luc spoke with exaggerated expressions.  Tony, in turn, relayed to Luc his hatred of the various kids who attended their school.  He spoke in Italian and Luc was able to get a sense of what he was saying.  Both boys were grinning widely as they walked through the front doors of the school ten minutes late.  They parted in the foyer and shook hands again.  Tony’s delicate hands ached as he walked to English class.

Luc’s smile lasted well into the evening.  He spoke about Tony like a brother he had lost and barely remembered.  When Marcel and Odette asked him about Tony, Luc really didn’t know many details: “Well, he’s Italian and he’s pissed off at the world!”  For Luc, that was enough.  The memory of a foreign tongue lulled Luc to sleep that night.  The accent was far more beautiful to Luc than the English accent of his other classmates.  Luc looked forward to the next day at school for the first time since moving west.

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