The principal stared at the boy sitting on the chair across from his desk. Jules Tremblay was wearing a pair of penny loafers with gym socks. He had on a beat-up suit jacket over an undershirt and velour track pants with holes in the knees. One of his eyes had the remains of a big yellow bruise around it, as if it had been blackened in the past couple of weeks. It made Jules look as if he was wearing sunglasses and one of the lenses had fallen out. His greasy dirty-blond hair was swept back over his head.
Jules had really outdone himself this time. He had spray-painted the words “Welcome aliens! Land here!” on the black pavement of the schoolyard. But the principal didn’t like to call home to talk to Jules’s dad. The man was vulgar and would yell on the phone.
The last time Jules had been suspended, his dad had shown up at the school. He had a beer belly that was as round and hard as that of a pregnant woman. He had pulled a Led Zeppelin T-shirt over it and a leather vest that could never be buttoned. His skin was a greyish-blue because his pores had all gone black. When he started cursing, his cheeks went pink like roses and his eyes shone a terrible light blue. The principal didn’t know that it was syntactically possible to say the word “fuck” that many times in a sentence. Jules’s dad was oddly handsome, though. Some of the older teachers remembered when he was a student there. He was a heartthrob, a sex symbol, or something like that. Dear Lord, thought the principal.
Jules leaned forward and picked up a snow globe from the principal’s desk and started shaking it. He shook it so violently that the people in that miniature town were surely going to have to declare a natural disaster.
“Why do you try to antagonize the teachers? ” the principal asked.
The sound of the secretary’s typewriter suddenly started up like machine guns in the distance. Jules put down the snow globe and looked at the principal.
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“If you don’t know the meaning of a word, can you still do it? ”
“All right, I know what it means, for crying out loud. It’s because I wanted to show some hospitality. I figure that the only tourism this town is going to get will be from outer space.”
“Be serious for a moment, Jules.”
“I just get bored and crazy, because I’m in a small town and nobody is thinking about certain things that I like to think about. I am alienated, so I need some fellow aliens to come keep me company.”
“If you stay in school, you could go to college.”
“I think I might be a poet.”
“You can’t really make a living as a poet.”
“Yeah, but somebody’s still got to write the poetry, right? ”
The principal had not grown up in Val des Loups. He had lived in Trois-Rivières and had gone to university in Quebec City. ValdesLoups was the smallest place that he had ever lived, and he’d had a culture shock when he moved there. The people were stranger than he had ever dreamed. They had their own fashions. They all dressed like they were on their way to a heavy metal concert, even the old men. Women still had beehives. When he moved in, his neighbour was wearing a rabbit skin fur coat and a leather hat with a red ribbon around it and chewing on a toothpick, leaning against his van, just staring at him.
He also noticed that the inhabitants of Val des Loups were all able to smoke without taking the cigarette from their lips. They were strong. They could lift refrigerators and stoves. When they let loose on Saturday night, it was truly horrific. The old men put their teeth in empty margarine containers and went out to the same dance hall as the nineteen-year-olds who were begging one another to get married. There were people dancing with their toques and filthy boots in an old ballroom, clinging to each other as if they were dying. Condoms were a sin. God listened to the sound of belt buckles unbuckling and falling onto the floor, like a shovel hitting the rock, as children were about to be begotten into unhappy households. And God saw that it was good.
The inhabitants of Val des Loups were religious in the sense that they believed in miracles. There was a tale that people told about a man named Jacob who, after a night of heavy drinking, woke up to find a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his arm. Another man forgot his boots at work, and they walked home by themselves and were waiting for him at the front door. One New Year’s Eve, a man was able to sing like Charles Aznavour for one single night, and the next day he went back to being tone deaf.
Sometimes the principal himself felt just as trapped as Jules here. The stars were so low. It made him feel as if he was a cricket trapped in a jar and the stars were holes punched in the lid so he could breathe. He met a little girl wearing nothing but a red coat that was too small for her, a pair of underwear, and rubber boots. She was carrying a mouse in her hands. When he asked her what the mouse’s name was, she said, Papillon. That was the closest he had come to finding anything like a poem in ValdesLoups.
The principal found himself surprised by how much he sometimes enjoyed Jules’s company. The boy didn’t do well in school and certainly didn’t know anything about the world. Jules had once asked whether or not the Vietnam War was over, and it was 1982. But there was something imaginative and clever about him. Dreams could still grow in the North, like the wee flowers with brilliant colours that bloomed around the rocks. He once saw Jules in the display window of the thrift store, sitting on a couch, reading a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. It was as if Jules was a second-hand little human being, on sale with the broken lamps, with an orange price tag stapled somewhere on his sleeve. Jules had looked up and saluted the principal from the display. The principal realized that Jules understood the tragedy of his own little life. How on earth did you guide someone like that? “I’m not going to be able to let you go to the dance tomorrow night.”
“Oh, come on!” Jules screamed. “That’s not fair.”
Jules was about to protest more, but he started coughing. He took out a dark blue handkerchief with red horses on it from his pocket and held it up to his mouth as he coughed violently into it. It sounded like a dog barking behind a door, desperate to get out. That cough, Jesus! For as long as the principal could remember, Jules had had bronchitis. He had never heard a kid with a chronic cough like that. How unfair life is, from the perspective of a child. How unfair birth is.
Jules’s footsteps on the gravel road outside the school made the sound of someone tsking. The other kids would get all excited and gather around when Jules did something crazy. It made him feel liked. But then he would end up facing his punishment all alone. Being the class clown was like always picking up the cheque and having no one appreciate it. He had been looking forward to that dance for weeks because Manon Trépanier had said she would go with him. That was the only reason he had wanted to go.
The hills around Val des Loups were dark and covered with enormous trees. You couldn’t help but wonder if you even existed when you lived out here. A city was made with all sorts of rooms and corridors, so that wherever you were you felt like a giant. Out here, the trees wouldn’t even acknowledge you. The wind followed and nagged Jules like a scorned woman. It kept tearing him apart and saying terrible things, and then it would start apologizing and beg to be taken back. Jules zipped up his blue ski jacket and pulled his hat down over his head.
He passed the white clapboard church with a neon cross on the front of it. The priest was out front putting his garbage out. He wore a checkered jacket with a sheepskin collar. It was strange to be a priest, Jules thought. You only needed one of everything. You only needed one spoon and one fork and one dish and one bath towel and one chair at the kitchen table. That was Jules’s worst nightmare. He couldn’t stand the idea of growing up and ending up alone. He wanted to have a wife. He already knew with 100 percent certainty who he wanted that wife to be.
If there ever was such a thing as a princess in Val des Loups — and of course there was never any such thing as a princess in Valdes Loups — then it would be Manon. The police chief used to stop his car and roll down his window to ask Manon when she was going to be old enough to marry him.
Manon’s father wore checkered pants and high-heeled leather boots. He frequently went without a shirt in the summer, and he had a tattoo of an eagle on his chest. Her father drove a canteen to the mines every afternoon. He sold the miners coffee and Jos Louis cakes. He had a little sign on the side of his canteen that said he sold the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the world. Although how he could possibly know something like that was a mystery.
Manon’s mother had wanted a girl. She decided to continue having children until she had one. Her decision was legendary throughout Val des Loups because she had eleven boys before Manon was born.
Jules tried to remember all the brothers’ names so he could impress Manon. So she would know how serious he was about her. He counted them off on his fingers as he walked down the side of the highway.
She had a brother who was really skinny who everyone called Olive Oyl. She had a brother named Pierrot who used to drive a car with no doors on it. There was Alvin, who rode a motorcycle and wore a leather vest with roses painted on the back of it. There was Réjean, who had lost an eye when he was seven and no one could remember how. There was Théodore, who had blond hair and all the girls found him handsome.
One of her brothers was a professional wrestler who did bouts in old ballrooms and church basements. His stage name was Mr. Magnificent and he had a manager in Sainte-Félice. She had a brother who everyone called Mon-Amour, after a song that was popular on the radio that he liked to sing. Charles only wore velour track suits and was a tae kwon do expert. Xavier was trying to get a licence to open a karaoke club. Everyone was excited about that.
Bruno had swallowed an ice cube when he was a baby and it had damaged his vocal cords, and that was why his voice was so low. When she was pregnant with Félix, Manon’s mother just thought she had indigestion. She took a Pepto-Bismol and Félix was brain damaged as a result.
Manon’s brothers upset the eco-balance of Val des Loups. Everyone was afraid of them. There were so many that it made them untouchable. There were so many mouths to feed that they were always hungry. The owner of the grocery store said that 80 percent of his carts were in their backyard. They would all sit on the porch drinking beer, wearing their rocker T-shirts and jeans with holes in them and fur hats and sunglasses. They were all over six feet, none of them could play guitar, they were all supposedly dating strippers, and, miraculously, only three of them worked in the mines.
Sometimes the mother wondered why in hell she had gone through so much trouble just to have Manon. She was just as irritating as all her brothers. She was just as messy and just as hard to manage. But she did have blond ringlets and skinny long legs, and the other women in the supermarket would always tell her that Manon was just getting prettier and prettier. And when she would hear Manon’s laughter coming from the backyard through the kitchen window, she knew she had made the right choice. Manon’s laughter felt like the first shot of whisky on a Friday night. It let you know that you were above ground, at least.
Whenever Jules saw Manon, she was often riding up on the shoulders of one of her brothers. Her father would let her stand on the palm of his hand. And he held her up while her mother screamed and everybody cheered and cheered. There was always some brother throwing her off the side of the pool into the water, her arms and legs flailing everywhere. And Jules knew that none of them would think he was good enough for her.
Jules decided to try and get his mind off Manon for five minutes. It was getting downright obsessive. If you were too into a girl, she wouldn’t like you back. His dad had taught him that.
He stopped at the pretty house by the turn on the highway. There used to be an old lady sitting in a chair on the porch every day, watching people pass by. His dad called her Sweet Pea and swore that she was good looking in 1946. One day Jules walked by and there was a cool-looking guy with long hair and leather pants sitting on the chair in the old lady’s place. Jules asked what was the deal. The man said that Sweet Pea was his grandmother and she had passed away. He was from Montreal and he was living in the house until it sold. They became friends, and when Franklin was in Montreal Jules would house-sit for him. He would water the plants and listen to Franklin’s tapes.
Franklin had left for Montreal the day before, so Jules went in and cleaned up the mess left behind. He hung up the coats that were on the backs of chairs. The sink was filled with coffee cups with cigarette butts in them. Jules picked up a newspaper off the kitchen table and saw that it had been covering a spoon and a hypodermic needle. He was startled by their presence. They seemed unholy and made him feel oddly frightened. He swept them off the table into an old shoebox and hid them in a cupboard drawer.
Jules lived in a yellow trailer. His dad said it was top of the line. His dad said it was better to live in a trailer in Val des Loups than in one of the houses that had been built by the mining company. Jules didn’t even care about living in a trailer. But it did depress him when his dad would try and make it sound as if there was something superior about it.
He had decided not to tell his dad that he had been banned from going to the dance. His dad loved to tell stories about how he went to dances when he was younger, how he was the best dancer in town, how drunk he would get, how he had made out with two different girls at the same dance. Jules did not want to get his ass kicked, so he just pretended to be getting ready for the dance all day.
Jules went to get dressed up in the bathroom. The white tiles had patterns of blue snowflakes on them. You felt cold when you got undressed in that bathroom, even in the summer. There was a ceramic blue soap dish filled with his dad’s rings. As he was standing looking in the mirror over the sink, he noticed that he had a bruise under his nipple where his dad had hit him with a belt buckle the week before. Jules started to cry. He didn’t even know why he was crying. There was something impossibly sad about looking at his own reflection with his little gold cross hanging from a necklace, like every other child in Val des Loups.
Jules sat on the toilet lid and he started to sob and sob. He tried to keep his sobs as quiet as possible. He would get in trouble for trying to make everyone feel depressed. Jules was an only child and he often felt completely alone in the universe. His mom never stood up for him. She was just happy that it was Jules her husband was picking on and not her. She thought that if Jules could just love his dad and treat him like the boss of the house, then everybody would be okay. But Jules was a free spirit and could never do that. He couldn’t help but be himself in a world that he didn’t fit into.
He should have gone to Montreal, like Franklin kept asking. But Manon. Manon. Manon. Manon. Manon!
As Jules thought about Manon, he was able to make himself stop crying. His cousin Janine would tell Manon to meet him outside the dance. It would be okay. He knew that all the other boys liked Manon. But he knew that he was the one. He was the one who was going to win her over. He was the original one.
Jules buttoned up the shirt with frills down the middle. It smelled of mothballs. His father had worn it to his own prom and he had taken it out of the back of the closet to give to Jules to wear tonight. He had a pair of polyester pants with a red stripe down the side that came from the Salvation Army and might have at some point belonged to a member of a marching band.
It was twilight as Jules headed toward the dance. He had a blue jacket with fake green fur lining over his snazzy outfit. The moon was already out and full, like a paper drum that a lion might burst out of any minute. He sang a Juliette Gréco song at the top of his lungs. As he sang the song, he imagined that Juliette Gréco had written the lyrics about him.
His dad always said that he could put a girl like Juliette Gréco in her place. And that it took a certain kind of man to handle a girl like her. Jules imagined himself sitting across the table from Juliette Gréco in a fancy café with gold tables. She fluttered her mascara-covered lashes and invited Jules to go back to his hotel room. But Jules shook his head and told Juliette that it just wasn’t going to happen, because he was in love with Manon.
Jules passed a yard that was filled with upside-down pickle jars on top of little rose bushes. It made it seem as if the people living there were growing astronauts.
The school dance was at the Legion Hall, a squat brick building. Michelangelo hadn’t exactly been available when they needed an architect for this building. Inside, the walls were painted a light grey. There was a stage that no one on earth ever performed on, with a heavy blue velvet curtain hanging in front of it. If that curtain fell off its rings, it would probably drown everyone in the hall.
As he stood outside, Jules thought again about how unfair it was that he couldn’t go to the dance. He had been on the decoration committee. He had cut out countless stars from cardboard and covered them with sparkly glue and hung them from the ceiling. He had risked his life hanging streamers. It had been Jules’s idea to hang the Christmas lights around the doorway.
Then he got nervous about Manon coming out through those lights. During the past week, he had been picturing himself naked and wearing only a pair of cowboy boots and knocking on her door. He was ashamed of these ideas, but he had them more and more. What if Manon knew that he had these dirty thoughts? He had one porno magazine that he had kept under his mattress for three years. He had jerked off to it thousands of times. Sometimes he got sick of even looking at the faces. He felt like a man who had been married forty years when he took out his magazine. But as Jules waited for Manon, his heart was beating like a vacancy sign for a cheap motel off the side of the highway.
There are some people who know when they are in love, and there are some people who don’t. Jules was the type of person who knew when he was in love. Manon was the type of person who did not. But you only really needed one person in a relationship to know this type of thing.
Jules let Manon go in line in front of him at the cafeteria. He got off his bicycle and helped her carry her groceries home from the store. He showed her that he had dedicated his English essay on Animal Farm to her and that the teacher had deducted two points for it. These things were tiny little seeds that he planted, hoping that if she were willing, just for a moment, to shine a light on them, they would bloom into love.
Manon, however, only decided that Jules would do when she saw him roller-skating at the Récréathèque. Jules was skating backwards and doing figure eights with his feet. He did this gesture with his hands as if he were dealing cards onto a card table. Everyone else ignored Jules’s grandiose performance that night. But Manon knew suddenly that Jules was different than anybody else in Val des Loups. That’s what young people look for: someone who will open strange doors for them.
And anyways Manon didn’t want to be a virgin. Marie Cartier told her that once you lost your virginity, you immediately started to cry. Manon wanted to see whether or not this was true. And Manon liked to be daring. Being the baby of a very big family had given her the illusion that nothing bad could ever happen to her. It made her bold and unselfconscious in a way that everyone found charming.
Manon walked out of the Legion Hall and looked into the darkness for Jules. She had on a navy blue jacket over a puffy silver dress that made her look like microwave popcorn that had just been popped. The pompom on her hat was practically the size of her head. Surrounded as she was by the fairy lights around the door, Manon looked like a statue of the Virgin Mary in someone’s front yard. Jules was so taken that he couldn’t call out at once. As soon as she spotted Jules, Manon ran happily across the road toward him. Her pompom bounced back and forth, like a halo that had come loose and was about to fall off.
“How was the dance? ” Jules asked.
Manon stopped and put her arms out, then laid her hands on her heart and shook her hips back and forth, performing a dance move that was popular among the kids in town. Then she shrugged and said, “Lame.”
Jules tried to stop smiling as he walked next to Manon. The lit-up windows of the houses on the hills gleamed in the dark distance like diamonds in a mine. They walked the way teenagers walk. She walked toe to heel with her arms stretched out, certain that she had what it took to be a high-wire artist in a tutu with a paper umbrella over her head. Jules started taking longer steps as if he was stepping over large puddles so he could look like John Travolta. They stopped to look at a bunch of sheep in a pen behind someone’s house. An insomniac who lived there counted them every night.
“Do you like living in Val des Loups? ” Jules asked.
“Of course. Don’t you? ”
“Well, there’s nothing for an intelligent person to do.”
“I want to either be a model or a professional gymnast. I’m taking lessons at the community centre.”
“Do you ever think about moving to Montreal? ”
“I’m going with my brother to see a Kiss concert. We’re going to paint our faces and everything. He knows the names of everybody in the band.”
“Do you want to see a place I’m house-sitting? ”
“Sweet Pea’s house? That poor old lady!”
“She swallowed a fly!” they cried out at the same time.
The moon glowed as if the spirit of an old lady had just spent hours scrubbing it with a little cloth rag and metal polish.
They fumbled down the dark hallway of the house to the bedroom. Jules felt the gloomy wall for a light switch and then flicked it on. The room was suddenly full of colour, like when The Wizard of Oz goes Technicolor. There were flowers growing on everything. They grew on the dresser drawers, on the backs of the wooden chairs, on the handles of spoons, in the picture frames. A row of porcelain dolls stood up on the bureau like schoolgirls who were being chastised for being naughty. He hadn’t really noticed how many pretty things there were in the house, until now that Manon was standing in it.
They lay on either side of the bed on their backs and turned their heads and looked at each other. They still had their ski jackets on. Their fingertips were too cold to touch each other yet. Jules had a little plastic bag filled with red jujubes shaped like big toes. He took them out of his inside pocket and handed her one. It made their teeth stick together, so that their words sounded slurred, like drunken miners, as they spoke to each other. “I think that you’re pretty,” Jules said.
“No, I’m not. I’m not. I’m not. I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
She put her hands to her face.
“Let’s still talk about something else,” she said.
“Did you memorize that poem for English class, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’? ”
“No, it makes no sense. Why would an owl fall in love with a pussycat? It’s creepy.”
“They’re attracted to each other because they both like rats.”
“I like the way you roller-skate.”
“You do? ”
“Yes, you look happy when you roller-skate.”
“My dad doesn’t like when I roller-skate, because he says I’m going to fall and land on my head, and then he’s not going to pay for me to go to a special school.”
Manon started laughing her incredible laugh.
“How come I can’t call you? ” Jules asked.
“We don’t have a telephone, because my brother called a sex hotline and spoke to the woman for like two hours. Oh, God. That’s embarrassing.”
“No it’s not. My grandfather said that he married a woman named Rose. So we went over to meet her, but it turned out that he was like just hallucinating her.”
“Yeah. The doctor says that my grandfather has to stop drinking Pepsi, but he won’t.”
“How come you’re always trying to get the aliens to land here? ”
“Because they would liven up this stupid joint.”
“My brother said you’re an idiot to invite the aliens here. On account of the fact that the aliens are going to suck our brains out.”
“That’s ridiculous! Aliens are intelligent. They’re brilliant. And all the most brilliant people are pacifists.”
“Maybe, but those big eyes creep me out.”
Then they were just quiet, staring at each other. She asked him to turn on the radio. She said she couldn’t make out with someone unless there was music playing. She didn’t know why she said this, since she had never made out with anyone before. Franklin had left a box filled with cassettes on the dresser. Jules rummaged in it until he found a Led Zeppelin tape. He put it in the tape deck, and as it started to play it sent a jolt of adrenalin through his veins. His body was a pinball machine someone had dropped a quarter in and all sorts of lights turned on. It sounded as if the boom box was playing from his belly. He was shocked.
Jules was feeling just like one of the millionaires who owned the mines. They lived in the city, ate caviar with little tiny spoons, had watches that cost as much as a trailer, and married high-class call girls with tits like water balloons. Oh, everybody got to feel like a rich man sometimes, even the people at the bottom of the social ladder.
Jules kept putting his hands out to help Manon take off her clothes, but he didn’t know what to do. Manon went ahead and kept taking things off. Because it was winter in Val des Loups, you ended up with a pile of clothes beside you after you undressed. There were her little black gloves with hearts on them. There was her pink scarf, her fleece sweater, her jacket, her scratchy wool tights, her extra-dark blue socks, and her funny dress. Everything she had on could fill an entire suitcase that you could take to Montreal and start a new life with.
When she was done undressing, Manon was wearing only her white underpants and an undershirt with a lace butterfly at the neckline and yellow stains in the armpits. Manon sitting on the bed in her underclothes was the most naked thing Jules had ever seen in his life. She was like a colt that had just been born and wasn’t sure what on earth to do with its long limbs yet.
Jules turned off the light, and then he stood by the bed and took his clothes off. He had no idea what it felt like to be loved until the moment Manon kissed him. Manon liked how the word “fuck” sounded when it came out of Jules’s mouth. It was like something shiny and wondrous that lit up her whole being. It was like a little piece of dirt in the oyster’s mouth that would turn into a pearl.
They tell children that magic doesn’t exist, but it is everywhere.
Afterwards, Jules and Manon cuddled up again under the deep forest of the covers. Jules was glad that he had been born in this piece-of-shit hole in the ground called Val des Loups. It was the perfect place on earth. The feeling of anxiety and being lost that always followed Jules around had disappeared. He had found a home. It was Manon. Although he didn’t know it then, that night was the happiest Jules would ever be. Happiness is a strange, wayward thing. Happiness likes wickedness and it likes risks. It likes when you are making terrible decisions.
The trees were shaking outside, trying to hold in their laughter. Every winter, the cold tried to get rid of the people in the same way that it got rid of giant insects. But humans were still there. Humans could, for better or worse, survive all sorts of awful things. As they began to drift off, Jules and Manon thought that they were safe and that no one, not even the future, could touch them. What neither of them knew was that this night was the beginning of another story. There was somebody new in the universe. How impossibly strange it is when a little life is created. A wee seed in a Styrofoam cup on the window ledge of an elementary school suddenly begins to grow into a beanstalk. And when we first exist, we are so warm. It is as if we are wrapped up in a fur coat, riding in a car with the windows rolled up and the radio tuned to a station that only broadcasts heartbeats.
And so Jules fell asleep with his arms around his new family.
This appeared in the July/August 2012 issue.
Heather O’Neill published her second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, in April 2014.
Marian Bantjes is a designer, typographer, writer, and illustrator.