Table of Contents:
1. Armand – Le DepaNneur
2. Fiddleheads – The Prologue
1. Armand – Le Depanneur
In the summer of 1967 the highest form of adventure for an eight year old was a trip to the corner store. Known in Quebec as “Le Dépanneur”, the corner store in my hometown of Buckingham ours was called simply, “Armand’s”.
Outside in the yard at home I hung around within earshot. A deer grazing in a field lifted her head no less swiftly than I did to my Mom holler from inside,
“Kids! Can someone go to Armand’s for me?!”
The long summer day suddenly had a purpose! I’d beat my brothers to the quarter being dropped from above, and picking up the gang on the way, we’d peddle hard for the two short blocks.
Armand, the storeowner, had a thick head of black hair Brylcreemed-back over a wide, friendly face. I used to sneak looks at him, loving the anticipation of watching his lips stutter out his words. Kind, dark eyes squinted against an ever-burning cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. His head sat atop a large, apron-bellied shape that for me, stopped at the counter. His lower half was a mystery, but I registered vaguely that it was perched on a stool.
He was somehow indistinguishable from the cluttered wall behind him, and the glass-fronted display case in front. Armand was the store, and the store was Armand, in the way water flows between the banks of a river. Without him the building that held him would have lost its form. If place can be defined as a space occupied by someone, then Armand Mercier personified place.
We’d drop our bikes outside and step across the dusty threshold, taking a minute for our eyes to adjust to the dim interior. Inside, the store was simply bigger than the outside, filled with an apothecary of thick, musty smells, and of tastes that touched every part of your mouth. It was all grouped against a subtle, visual feast of colours on a spectrum of shadowed depths at the back, to light streaming in through the clutter stuck to the one large window. To me, the tightly packed aisles and rows of candy were a world of Andre Nortonian complexity.
“ ‘e-ey dere, m-mons petites! ‘ow are y-you?”
“We’re fine Armand!” We’d chime.
“Armand, Mom wants six smokes, she says to put ‘em on her bill.”
He’d open his pack, carefully slip out the six white tubes, bag them and hand the tiny brown package to me. Having earned my quarter, I’d turn to join the others. We’d load up with Lick-M-Ade, Pop Eye candy cigarettes, a candy necklace and maybe a Jawbreaker. As we handed over the money, we’d wait with thrilling insecurity until the most dependable man in my life would ask,
“Yu-yu-you kids wanna slice of cheese?”
He never failed to offer us some new treat-of-the-day and we never failed to say yes. I’d watch his chubby hands, the knuckles lined with tiny little black tufts of hair that bobbed when he talked. They’d grasp the large block of cheese, lay it down gently, like handling a baby, placing a thick slice of white heaven in my own raised, waiting palms.
I suspect he also never forced my mother to pay her tab if she couldn’t at the end of the month. He was father, brother, and uncle to me, and he remains the uncontested champion of the candy counter.
In the summer of 2012, I returned to Buckingham after many years avoiding it. One of my goals was to find out how Armand had fared. I wanted to thank him for helping to hold my childhood together. I tracked him down at his favorite pub. As I crossed the pub floor, his eyes went wide. He stood up and came toward me with arms outstretched, his eyes dampening with tears,
“Wh-wh-why, it’s wh-whun of de-de L-li’l wh-One’s!”
Safe in an enormous bear hug, I breathed in the old, familiar smell of him.
“Armand, how good it is to see you again.”
My first surprise was the realization that he had legs, and I noticed the cigarette was gone too. The stool was still there, he was perched on one in front of a Keno station as I entered. He had long ago retired from his post at the store. His body had grown frail and he was much smaller than I remembered, but the eyes were the same, as was his smile. Still keeping my world together, both a man, and a place, and still, le dépanneur.
2. Fiddleheads – The Prologue
I thought I’d left my hometown behind, but a quarter century later there I was, back again, with the remnants of that long-ago girl fluttering behind me. There were things to settle, and two short weeks to do it in. The plan: to pry open the past, like the sun piercing the darkness of the forest floor to open the fiddleheads.
My hometown was originally called Buckingham, and at some point it was renamed Gatineau in a confounding alliance called amalgamation. On a map it lies northeast of Ottawa, and just inside the province of Quebec. As far as its citizens are concerned, Buckingham it was, and so shall it always be…
I can hear my Dad and his joke about the name, one he told in a Liverpool accent warped by years working with his French speaking colleagues, telling it as if for the first time, every. single. time—
“Buckingham. Kicking-Pig. Get it? Kicking. Bloody. Pig!”
As historic angst goes, the Buckingham-Gatineau composite had it all: Catholics and Anglicans, unions and mill owners, and the whole French-English thing; enough fuel to keep feuds burning until the rapids on the river freeze over. But its citizens’ stoic tolerance could be due in part to an event in 1906 when mill owners and workers faced off at a river access point known as The Landing. The day ended in three senseless and shocking deaths, some whisper murders, and almost tore the town apart. Perhaps, respecting their passions, modern day Buckinghammers are unwilling to push things again to the point of tragedy.
My own Kicking Pig file opened in 1959, about the same time Barbie was born, when my despondent parents headed home with me swaddled tight in my mother’s reluctant grip, and oblivious to what I was getting into. The cramped center of my universe was to be a solid, two-story box of a house, fueled by a pot-bellied oil burner in a dirt trench for a basement, a perfect maple tree out front, and a backyard for mom’s garden, our dog, and dad’s shed. Inside, we stitched our stories together in the piercing way only family can.
Those years had pulled taut, puckering my life into ridges. I hoped this trip would soften those scars with the salve of perspective.
“What is it?” I asked, extending a muddy fingertip to touch the little green coil.
“It’s a fiddlehead sweetie, a baby fern.” She said.
The ghost of my other mom, my mother’s best friend and my other name, had come upon me in the bracken waste at the dead-end of my old street. This had once been a groomed forest wilderness I’d spent most of my spare time in as a child. Jean’s had been a gentle spirit, and her soft figure a protective foil against the large unformed shape that was my mother. They’d met at school and become best friends. That Jean never raised her voice, thought only good of people, and smelled of Jergen’s lotion. She had my love, and my mother’s back.
Piercing the past would start with returning to my elementary school. A friend had come with me for support, and we now stood near where my desk had been in grade two, and where I’d been inducted into the club of little girls, assaulted.
“Fifty-three-going-on-eight.” I muttered.
My gaze followed the chalkboards around to the row of windows, and I felt a familiar interior shift. Now it was my inner child’s eyes searching for something. She settled on the cinder blocks on the back wall, which I realized, startled, that was all I could see when “it” happened. A long time passed in the moment. The room went from small to large, the walls breathed outwards and settled. I could for just a fleeting instance, smell and feel him. Something pushed, something forlorn moaned, and softly let go of my body, leaving like a sigh through one of the open windows.
“You okay?” My friend said.
“I’m okay.” I said.
“Where to next?”
Staring after the thing that had left through the window, I knew where-to-next would be: that goddamned house. A tiny eight room box over a hole scooped out of the dirt under it just big enough for the furnace. Since I’d left, it had been wrapped in siding just prior to getting a stop-work order from the heritage folks in town.
I didn’t want the house to talk, I wanted it to go back to just being a house, like the schoolroom had done. I wanted my whole life back. I wanted the whole of me. I felt it start, the expanding ease of it, opening up—my heart unfurling like the fiddleheads in the forest at the end of my hometown street.