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Published: December 4th 2008
This is where Dream Academy sought their inspiration for Life in a Northern Town...
Winter in Québec takes on human qualities and does not follow the guidelines set forth by a twelve-month calendar. It has already come and will not surrender for the better part of the next four-and-a-half months. It lends a feeling of being in the last outpost before pure wilderness takes over. Lac Mégantic, a stern community on the shores of a sizeable lake of the same name, loses its seasonal appeal around the time the last tourists return to Montréal after having extracted their boats out of the water. What is left behind is a singular, sand-covered Main Street of strict block buildings in need of a coat of paint. Eighteen wheelers rumble through town past a Sears catalogue depot, dysfunctional parking meters, and restaurants yet to open in the late morning. The newly cut pine logs in tow release a Christmas tree perfume in the lifeless air. Every effort I make to greet fellow pedestrians with my best Bonjour! is met with indifference or manufactured feigning that I ever spoke. Account holders in line at the Caisee Desjardins to make withdrawals or deposits may as well be waiting with the same excitement for a flu shot from a nine-inch needle.
A Hollow main Street
It's even colder than it looks...
Without the timber industry to keep it afloat, Lac Mégantic would simply slip into the depths of the lake to be forgotten. As long as the freight trains regularly roll through with freshly harvested tress from the hinterland, Lac Mégantic will keep its footing, and Dollarama will not have to be its sole economic engine on a quiet Thursday morning. As I pass a beauty salon it occurs to me that the frigid Northeast welcome offered to newcomers extends beyond the New England frontier. Wal-Mart often defines or anchors small towns. They bring cheap goods to consumers so they not need travel hours for garbage pails, a swing set for the kids, or a basic light fixture. Sometimes this is done to the community’s detriment. Lac Mégantic’s version of the world’s most powerful retail chain is a diminutive version of the Mega varieties south of the border, sans the vision center, tire repair wing with full garage, and full-service pharmacy. An adolescent pimple-faced boy awaits customers in front of the electronic cash register at the adjacent McDonald’s. Like Main Street, not too much is flying out the doors here either.
A frosty gale surges down from the heights above the
Ice has enveloped the boulders...
eastern shore of the lake. I hear the rattling of naked branches and particles of sand striking the foundations of the empty gazebo facing the lake. I read the names from a World War II memorial; the last names are overwhelmingly English in origin. Where the water meets land, a layer of ice covers the smooth surface of round boulders. Though the surface of the lake is not yet solid, it is a matter of time.
“I want to be just like her! I even went to see her play Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas!” It was the last vacation for Nancy, a single mother of a six-year-old boy. Of the countless people I have met in the Eastern Townships, she is by far the most misplaced. Nancy still dreams of being a star singer performing live in front of thousands in sold-out basketball arenas. In the meantime, she serves drinks at Le Vieux Manoir in Notre-Dame-des-Bois, a hamlet glued to a frozen hillside seven miles from La Patrie. The local couple to my left bid her bonsoir, leaving only the tow of us until I had to go because dinner options are a seasonal service in Notre Dame.
Folks are wawiting the surface to freeze over. Then the snowmobilers can take over...
Nancy is different straight from the start. She poses questions about me beyond the superficial only to inevitably turn away from me. Moreover, she asks them in English, a rarity in these parts. She catches my accent when I order, a private annoyance I do not share. I try my best to hide it, however futile my efforts. All she wants to do is sing and talk of her fantasies of stardom. On the surface, she has what it takes, a charming attitude, long wavy blonde hair with piercing ice blue eyes. Closer to my age, the years of been very kind to her looks.
“I used to work in the West.” The West is a Canadian term for anything on the other side of Ontario. In Québec, it is any place to the left on the map not in the French-speaking province.
“Lake Louise. At the Château.” It is the world-famous hotel where the jet set gathers to ski among well-to-do international tourists. “It is there I learned English. It was heard at the beginning. But I had no choice.”
“Sure, but around here, you don’t get-”
“It is simple. I get to speak with you. That’s it.”
Where the Temperature are cold...
And the people are even colder...
The sad reality is that the border with New Hampshire is less than twenty-five minutes away. The québécois sense of self-imposed isolation brought me back to grad school when I was studying (rarely) at Laval University in Québec City. It was clear then when out meeting young women as it is now: You can take the girl out of Québec, but you can never take Québec out of the girl. With a young boy to take care of, her prospects are few.
“Do you sing around here on the weekends?”
“Yes,” she answered, “but mostly in the summers.” She opened with a compilation of songs, accompanying lyrics, and scales. The result was her best interpretation of “The Power of Love”. After belting out the first verse and the refrain, it became apparent to me that the world was well enough off with one Céline Dion and was not in need for a backup just in case. While her voice was good enough for the nightspots of Eastern Québec, it was awkward to sit alone in a restaurant lounge alone with her as she overkilled the same Céline inflections peppered with the dribbling of Whitney Houston at the end of her
Blast From the Past!
Phone booths are just about extinct back home...
words. I put my face down in the direction of my notebook.
She, or the song, ended. “Richard, I cannot see your face. Are you OK?”
“Yes.” It was the best I could come up with. “I was concentrating on your words, that’s all.” Not to be rude, I asked her if she knew any songs by Céline in French, of which I knew one, “Pour Que Tu M’aimes Encore”. She knew it. The lyrics are clear and touching. And then she began with the opening line: J’ai compris tous les mots… I held my face up to her as she banged out each verse in various pitches and wild octaves. This time, I tightened the muscles in my face to keep from changing expression. Some of the tightness extended to keep my tear ducts from letting loose.
Fat flakes were settling on the windshield of my car but not yet accumulating on the warmer ground. I paid up and invited her out to Sherbrooke. Perhaps we could get together and let someone else do the singing. She liked the idea (not as much as I did). But she was not sire of her arrangements with family on this upcoming Friday night. I left her a number to call me in La Patrie. Following a peck on the cheek, I thanked her for her time and felt bad for a woman who for six years is back home in a purgatory of sorts from which she cannot immediately escape.
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