It was a most usual night, the night Luc called. I had spread a nice coat of disinfectant across the textured cement floor of the Butcher Shop. Thick white foam bubbled and popped at my feet as I waited the prescribed twenty minutes for it to set in. Blood and soap mingled pink. I had stolen the technique from Luc, whose disinfecting procedure was as elaborate and despised as his lengthy, profane monologues: both were seen by management as an attempt to waste precious company time.
I wasn’t expecting the phone call. I didn’t think I would ever hear from him again.
Luc had resigned about four months prior, seemingly without provocation. His hastily written note to the Meat Manager simply read, Dear Brian, Buh-Bye. He’d written it in blood for dramatic effect. Luc asked me drive him to “the other” grocery store, where, that morning, his wife had resigned in a similar fashion. He then left my life as abruptly as he had entered it, assuring me that he would never forget me as he closed the passenger-side door of my 1988 Nissan Micra. I never forgot him either, as the rest of this novel will make abundantly clear.
As we were driving, Luc told me that he and his wife were going to move to Vancouver for a while and then backtrack to Saskatoon, where they would take up a life of solitude in a cheap prairie palace. Prior to that day nobody else had the slightest idea they were leaving.
Luc’s telephone greeting, identical to the once familiar form of “hello” he bestowed upon me whenever I walked through the sound
–proof doors of the butcher shop, on that night, shocked me: “Hey Fucker!” I was surprised by his raspy voice; it took me a moment to realize that, for the first time in months, I was speaking to Luc rather than about him, and so I stammered.
“L—L—L–Luc? Is that really you?!!”
“Whatd’ya think? Were you expecting a call from yer fuckin’ boyfriend?”
“Oh, fuck off!” His language was contagious. “How y doin’?”
He was silent for a while, and then, for the first time in our friendship, he dropped his guard. “I’m not good man. Fuckin’ hurtin’, actually.”
In all the time I’d known Luc, he had only revealed two of his disparate and intense emotions. He had showed me his peculiar breed of ecstatic excitement and, at times, he showed me a rage as pure as the driven snow. His emotions were also contagious: they determined the atmosphere of wherever he happened to be. If he was having a good day, if he’d got laid the evening prior or was under the influence of some particularly potent hash, those working alongside him absorbed his excitement, and it spread. If Luc was provoked, however—either by management, his own demons, an insane customer or, worse, all three—he lapsed into total silence, leaving those around him agitated and more prone to conflict. If Luc was bothered, we were much more prone to fight in the sullen periphery of Luc’s vacuous silence.
Luc’s was a quiet not of contentment or peace; it was not a comfortable resignation of his coffee- and tobacco-stained tongue, but a violent silence that wounded innocent and guilty alike. It often lasted for an eternity. Until I talked to him on the phone that night, I had never met the genuinely sad incarnation of this strange man from Ontario’s darkest wild.
That night, Luc told me that he had quit smoking pot “for real, this time”. He had been trying to quit his habit for the duration of our friendship, and I could always tell when he had been without puffs for a few days. On such days, he was noticeably lacking clarity and good humor, both qualities replaced by an undirected and intense hatred for everything and everyone who happened across his angry path. That night, Luc’s voice told me, without saying the words that he had already moved well beyond his rage and on to sadness. He told me about what had happened since we said goodbye, only a few months prior.
“I have come to the realization, Nick, that for the entirety of my children’s lives, I’ve been gone. My little fuckin’ girl won’t even pick up when I phone. The wife always has to use a payphone to get a-hold of her, and sometimes she hangs up when she hears the voice of her own fucking mother! She refuses to speak to me, Nick. Fuck! What the…what the fuck have I done?”
Luc commenced slamming the phone against what I imagined to have been a pay phone. When he finally relented enabling me to bring the receiver to my ear once more, the line began to crackle, making the distance between us tangible. Luc continued his confessional sobbing and I stood speechless in a river of disinfectant that slowly ate away at my boot heels. I only heard half of what he said before he was taken away, a thunderous click announced his unintended farewell. It was the last I ever heard from him.
Since that night, I have been searching for Luc Louis. On a few occasions, I have found him (though not him) in the strangest of places. I mention his name sometimes, a reference not only to the man himself but to an entire breed of human that I’ve come to know and to love. Some people recognize him, most do not. Those who know the man, by this name and many others, have been as eager as I am to share stories: together, we have constructed a chronological account, a hazy combination of history, biography and even, on particularly drunken occasions, hagiography. This is a composite sketch of memory and fantasy that would undoubtedly come as a surprise, if not an outright insult, to the man himself. Yet, his story, and by extension, my own, must be told. This is the way the story begins, this is the way the story begins, this is the way the story begins: not with a bang, but with a whimper.
For the first thirty years of my life: from the early 1980’s until now, I have inhabited three conflicting universes. I grew up in the Church. Both of my grandfathers were ministers of the Methodist persuasion, and I was the intended heir to their wooden throne. I went so far as to attend Bible College for a year, but it didn’t take. Which brings me to the second, and much more interesting, world I have had the opportunity to inhabit.
It all began in Grade Ten when, on a job-shadow project for the Career and Life Management class I was taking, I chose to follow some butchers around for a day. They wrapped me in a swaddling white smock, telling me that if I wanted to succeed in this profession, I would have to learn how to suck a mean cock: “Get on your knees, boy!” they laughed. I blushed.
Immediately, I fell in love with the world of their bloody work. I had never heard anyone swear with the regularity and vigor of the meat cutters who worked there. Even the “gangstas” at the public high school I attended didn’t hold a candle to the vulgarity of the butchers. I blushed at first, though, silently, when no one was looking, I giggled. I remember experimenting with swearing.
I was in the freezer the first time it happened. I dropped a box of turkeys onto the frozen floor and, a “fuck” sprung, all too naturally, from my virgin lips. A huge sense of relief washed over me as I repeated it, a bit louder the second time around.
I learned other things too. I smoked my first joint inside the same freezer. One of the young meat cutters sold pot on the side. He came to work high for every shift and was more than happy to pass it around. He and a beautiful young woman from the Health and Beauty Care Department had conspired, during their smoke break, to get me high for the first time. I could not say no to her, and so I smoked “the blunt” while shivering in my short-sleeved, pin-striped uniform.
For the next three hours, I walked in circles, partially because I couldn’t think of anything more productive to do and partially because the Duty Manager on that night had been informed that our freezer door hinge was broken. He opened and closed the door repeatedly. I was sure he was on to us: I would be fired and, ultimately, arrested once I finished my shift. Fortunately, the fans in the freezer did an excellent job of chasing out the blunt’ skunky smoke perfume, and my paranoid imaginations were left unrealized.
Marijuana never took, because, in my experience, a dreadful fear follows Mary Jane wherever she goes. But the Meat Department also introduced me to her boisterous bud, Alcohol, with whom I instantly fell in love.
My first drink was downed in the presence of Dale and Dean, my two Meat Department comrades, who were drinking buddies, eternal. One night, the three of us shared a late shift, and they had planned go to Buffalo Bob’s (the pub across the street) for several post-work pints as neither were scheduled to work the next day. Dean left early (they Paper-Rock-Scissorsed for who would get to leave early, and Dean won, leaving Dale with his swipe card), and a couple of hours later he phoned the Butcher Shop from the bar with explicit instructions for Dale to grab a pack of smokes before heading over. I answered and eventually delivered the message to Dale, who was too busy cleaning up the shop to answer the phone in the first place. Dean also told me that I should come to the bar with Dale. “Man, I’m only sixteen!”, I said, fishing for a response, which was delivered immediately back to me in half drunken bombast.
“Don’t worry ’bout that, Nick. Irene’s on tonight; she’ll letcha in. Come if you wanna but make sure to tell Dale to pick up some smokes for us: du Maurier lights…
I was elated by the prospect of drinking with the boys after a long, Sunday night shift, but was also crestfallen, unsure of what excuse I might provide to my parents for coming home well after the end of my shift. Upon telling Dale about my concerns, he just laughed and asked me for my parents’ phone number. He then proceeded to phone my mother, telling her that he was the Meat Department Manager and that we had received a large order of chicken breasts much later than expected. He covered the receiver and laughed frantically as he said this.
According to the “Meat Manager” I had to stay for an hour or two of overtime. My mother bought his tale, and though I didn’t have to lie to her directly, I remember feeling incredibly guilty as I walked to the bar with Dale.
My guilt had somehow vanished upon finishing up my first beer: a Kokanee Gold draught. I remember well. A warm sensation washed over my body and I confidently ordered another. The three of us played pool and, miraculously, my accuracy improved with every beer. I became more social and a hell of a lot more fun. “Who knew the boy could talk?” Dean screamed, impressed by my sudden transformation, as he sunk the nine ball. We argued about the importance of the Beatles that night.
By the time we left the bar, I could barely walk. Dean, a self-confessed alcoholic, scrawled his phone number on the flap of the empty cigarette package and gave it to me, telling me that if my mother had any questions, to phone him directly. Already, I worried about going home but I was drunk enough to go anyway.
I drove and, somehow, made it home that night—even managing to park my parent
’s car in the small garage without any significant damage. Stumbling through the gate, I saw my mother’s silhouette in kitchen window: her arms were firmly crossed and, upon seeing her, I slowed my staggered walk…toward…the back…door.
“Have you been drinking tonight, Nick?” she asked, blinding me with kitchen light.
“Naw Ma, I don’t drink. You know that! I’m jus’ really tired: we got a shi—crap-load of turkey in tonight and I had to put it all away. I gotta go to bed right now though. Night.” I knew my speech was slurred and my breath, gaggingly acidic. I descended the stairs quickly and intentionally. I went to bed without washing my face.
As soon as I lay down, my entire universe started to spin. I had experienced nausea before, but never the kind initiated by drink; I was scared, but excited as well. My mouth began to water.
In the corner of my bedroom was a small Ikea chair, the last remnant of a childhood I’d tried desperately to abandon: nostalgia alone had forced me to keep the thing, for I never sat on it.
In my numb intoxication, I mistook the chair for a toilet, and proceeded to cover its pine seat with violently ejected vomit several times throughout the course of that inconceivably long night. At dawn, my mother stormed into my room, somehow managing to abstain from vomiting herself, and woke me with violent shakes: it was time to go to school.
I expected a lecture but did not receive one. Instead, my mother made my breakfast in complete and utter silence; for the first time, I struggled to keep her food down. At school that day, I was quieter than usual. Instead of bragging to my friends about my first night out at the pub with the boys, I imagined excuses for the inevitable questions I faced upon my arrival home. On that day, the ring of the final school bell was met with feelings of trepidation rather than relief.
When I got home, my mother was reading her Bible alone in front of the fire place; she didn’t look up when I walked into the room. Her quiet continued when I sat down in the chair next to her.
Later, she made dinner, still silent. My dad came home and tried to cheer her with his warm embrace. She barely managed to mumble hello. Even the combined strength of our half dozen cats failed to cheer her, that night. They rubbed against her legs, but she, committed to a silent refrain that overpowered love itself, refused to sing to them. Today silence, and the next morning, the same.
After supper, I went to bed to find my room immaculately clean. All ten liters of vomit that had, the prior evening, been forced from the depths of my gut had disappeared, replaced by the similarly strong smell of vinegar. I couldn’t sleep, for all my guilt. I cried several times, swearing to myself and to God that I would never return to that dreaded Butcher Shop. But
, I did. The next afternoon, after a brief talk with my mother, I reluctantly went to work with plans to give my two weeks’ notice. But, miraculously, I didn’t; I was too shy to talk.
“You lied to me, Nicholas.”
“I know I did, Mom. I’m sorry.”
“You drove home drunk last night. You could have killed someone. You could have killed yourself.”
“I know. I feel horrible.”
I told her I had to go to work and walked out the back door.
For the next few shifts, I kept to myself. I had already been christened “the mute” and, in the following weeks, I lived up to the title. When people asked me if I was dumb, I shrugged my shoulders silently. Dale and Dean both asked me how it went with my mother; I shrugged, having lost the power of speech the Kokanee Gold had, all too briefly, bestowed upon me.
Stories of my debauched evening spread throughout the store. When people asked me about it, I got increasingly frustrated and resigned. Upon arriving home after my shift, I crawled into my room, put on some music and wept into my pillow with hopes of falling asleep.
I received no formal punishment for my behavior that night but I punished myself instead, stopping short only of self mutilation. I didn’t wear a coat of itchy fur, but would have had one been provided for me. Instead, I cried…profusely.
And so it was. At first, I tried to inhabit both of the conflicting worlds simultaneously. But until I replaced my sanctimonious Sunday mornings withthe heathen stink of the butcher shop, I remained agitated and exhausted
I took on a full-time position at the Butcher Shop, and by doing so, relinquished my right to request Sunday mornings off: “Nobody likes Sunday-morning shifts, Nick. Deal with it. Ain’t yer Church open on Wednesdays? Repent then. Bwahahahhaa!”
By this time, I preferred the Butcher Shop to Church anyway. For the first time in my life, I had a legitimate excuse for my absence at Church on Sunday morning. I capitalized on my Church’s reverence for the Protestant work ethic. Instead of watching the “worship team” (a group of musicians who clearly and painfully, to even the most Evangelized ears, lacked the necessary talent and genuine musical interest required to perform professionally) writhe and weep on the small stage of our Church, say: “Oh Lord, I just want to thank you so much for everything! You are just so good, God. So good, so good, so good! Let’s sing the chorus again! So good, father…”, I got to work in the Butcher Shop instead: I finally met some genuine people.
A bit more about the “Worship Team”, since they angered me so much: clad in high heels and fake tans, after the service they would invariably strut to Lexus, Mustang and BMW, thanking the Lord all the way home to their suburban palaces. Hungover or not, their contrived prayers made me sick to my stomach. While Christ represented the downcast, these phonies represented only their sickening selves: millions starve to the hollow sound of their distorted prayers every day.
The Evengelical Church, a breeding ground for pettiness and scantily clad women who love to declare their undying love to a God of their own device, had lost its hold upon me by the time I met the strange, middle-aged fat man known as Luc Louis. I worked alongside him for his first shift at the Butcher Shop, and I worked alongside him for his last shift at the Butcher Shop. I was an instant convert to the profane anarchy of his speech. I owe my salvation to Luc Louis alone.
My introduction to Luc, and the friendship that followed, instilled my life with a holy glow. In hindsight, the whole affair is even more important now than it seemed at the time. Having obsessively analyzed Luc, my subject over the past five years, I am convinced that my association with him (and perhaps, with everyone I have ever met) is nothing short of the work of the divine. Maybe this is nothing more than the manic and excited ramblings of one convinced that everything is, indeed, holy: “God is alive; magic afoot!” all that jazz. Like when you’re walking home and a particular street-light either turns on or off as you walk underneath, leading you assume that it, an inanimate object, is doing its best to bow at your feet in spite of the undeniable fact that you are drunkenly stumbling home to vomit and masturbate (in that order) into a familiar and dirty toilet. It’s really easy to get wound up, you know? I do; I did, and I do. Consider yourself warned.
That being said, the most definitive moment of my life, thus far, came on a Sunday afternoon, when a strange-looking man walked into the Butcher Shop, asking me if he was in the right place. In the midst of the stink, the bullshit and the fury of all those years at the Butcher Shop, I had no idea what Luc would, in time, come to mean to me.
My time at the Butcher Shop was once a baptism from, and back into, infancy: a ten-year sentence and an education. While working there, I caught glimpses of the truth and of the life I would eventually receive upon meeting Luc. I found a host of fathers during those years, but they were all mere whispers, prophesying the gigantic yawp of he who welcomed me at the doorway to my manhood with stained lips and comical moustache.
It was Luc who turned me on to the nobility of the animal, carnal intelligences that are hidden, or even worse, despised by men. He was a light in the darkness of the dank, cool confines of the Butcher Shop’s sound
Those who received him as he was intended—as a gift, a precious memory, not meant to disappear into grey skull but to burn brilliant, illuminating the impenetrable darkness of foggy, grey-stone-prairie night—were blessed, and word spread. In those days, conquered by spirit and soul, imaginations and longings, in these very hours, hours in which the flesh is constantly forsaken, Luc reminds us that we are not the sons and daughters of spirit alone. He commands us to enter in, once again, to the creamy white profundity of the flesh; he offers to lead us into our own peculiar enlightenments, but encourages our pursuit of the good destruction, too. That’s the tough part. That is where many get into trouble.
And Luc’s Soul was made flesh and dwelt among us. And his flesh was made spirit, forcing us to remember. We bore witness to his Truth and beheld his glory, his infinite splendor. He came to us in yellowed rags, huge eyebrows and moustache. Yet, many were unable to comprehend his light. He smoked with us. Word was made tangible, but it was sucked into the same miserable vent as all the rest: pipes filled with his profane, yellow speech, almost bursting before they emptied into then-clear Alberta blue sky. Many of us looked up, momentarily mistaking it for some yellow, emphysemic cloud. We didn’t know any better, back then.
This is the record of Nick. So, when the head office sends duty-managers to ask
, “Who was this man?”, let no mistake be made between him, the subject, and me, his faithful scribe. If any shall ask, “Are you whom you speak of?” I shall say no. And when he, Luc himself, was asked, “Are you he?” He smiled and simply saying, “Fuck you, I’m goin’ for a fuckin’ smoke.”
And though our beast-moan baritones were often mistaken over the phone, though he took meat orders using my name, and customers, upon coming to receive their pound of flesh, would swear it was me who they had spoken to, I remained knowingly baffled and confused. While, on a number of occasions, I was called into the Meat Department’s windowless office, accused of being the man behind the voice who, in the sanitary mist, had baptized shocked customers’ ears with an eloquent, though vile, form of slander, simply for opening the doors to our lair, I would say, “It is not I, for I am not able to even comprehend that kind of verbal jazz lunacy. My argument, though simple, was sound. I kept tight-lipped for most of my time there.
There were many, during my years in the Butcher Shop, who saw me as the light, the one hope in the midst of blood and music and bone, for I was somewhat separated from the place and curiously uninvested. But when they asked me who I was, I just smiled and said, “Have you met my friend Luc?”
“Him? He’s from Ontario! Nothing good comes from out east. He is always dripping with sweat and blood and burger and anger!” They were all blinded by Luc’s tremendous light.
Sometimes, Luc happened upon us in our eager chatter: “Hey, you—fuckin’ fag!” Our collective eye would instantly become a-glaze, affronted by Luc’s linguistic alloy: homophobia and vulgarity. And yet I know that he might be an example to all of the brave. He walked alone, truly alone: wilderness alone. Undefined by race, creed, or departmental loyalty (for Luc had also worked at the gas-bar and was well-received there, too), he was the sheep cast into the desert to die of thirst. I knew him. I knew him not. And yet, I saw him adorned in light and rags. He received a blessing from his mother above; a crow descended. It was good.
At the turn of the Twentieth Century, many followed Luc, but many more despised him. He transferred from store to store quite frequently, never setting down deep root. Miraculously, though, his seed bore fruit. There was a small group of people who, in attempts to remain part of Luc’s company, transferred stores a couple of times, in order to keep up, but Luc always returned to the Richmond Center, the most despised of stores, talking over smokes and endless coffee of possibly assembling an “A-Team” there. He spoke in spring’s early morning light and a murder of crows gathered around the bone-barrel feast he had prepared for them at the band saw. The sky broke under the weight of light and warmed the black backs of bird. And it was good.