Roses for Candy Bar
Translated from Quebec French by J. T. Townley
In those days, there was a Steinberg’s on rue Mont Royal. I don’t remember for sure if it was located between rue Papineau and rue De Lorimier or east of De Lorimier. What I do recall, though, is that every weekend I earned four dollars there—no more, no less—as a bag boy. I was a sort of rear extension of the cashier at the end of the counter where customers unloaded their shopping baskets. The whole art of being a bag boy was to bag up the groceries at least as quickly as the cashier’s fingers slid over the register buttons. If you didn’t, the stream of purchases would slow down, and the line would back up, the very thought of which made me shudder. Sometimes the poor bagger, overwhelmed and frazzled, would crush the marshmallows under cans of baked beans or put a dozen clothespins in a bag ten times too big. That happened to me a lot more often than most. I was clumsy, easily embarrassed, and so ill at ease around girls that the slightest expression of irritation on the cashier’s part was enough to paralyze me. “What in Lord’s name did I do to get stuck with this one again?” she wondered. I began to blush, fiddling with the bags and boxes. The manager came over. He was a small, nervous man. With his strange tics and black mustache, he reminded me of a character in a silent film, something called Max, Floor Manager.
“He goes to a fancy school,” he said, making sure everyone heard him, “but he doesn’t even know how to bag groceries!”
To him, a “fancy school” wasn’t the engineering Polytechnique Montreal or Montreal School of Business, but plain-old, simple college. Mine, though, was nothing but a pathetic, remedial school named Centre Marie-Médiatrice. It gathered up all the other unfocused kids like me who forgot to get off the bus in sixth grade and let it take them, half-asleep, past twelfth grade and the first year of community college. At the time I’m speaking of, I should’ve been in rhetoric. In any case, the little manager kept close tabs on me. I was extremely tall and skinny and decked out in horn-rimmed glasses (an elongated replica of Jerry Lewis), and I was the butt of all his jokes. One day, winking at everyone who was listening, he asked:
“What are you going to do when you grow up?”
To which I promptly replied: “I’m going to shit on your head.”
Despite my extreme timidity, I was still a child of the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, nourished by the lively language of the street. After that, he could have very well chucked me out the door. Instead, he stared at me for a long moment, then pretended to busy himself with a register that wasn’t working right. O, the glory and misery of being a bag boy!
But the touchiest situations always came on Saturday nights, thirty or forty-five minutes before closing, when customers rushed up to the check-out counter. All of a sudden, I’d zone out, clutching at a half-filled bag and staring out into space. It wasn’t ecstasy exactly, but I felt exultant. I reminded myself: My shift’s almost over, and I’ll collect my four dollars. If I hurry, I’ll make it in time for the ten o’clock show. O, Candy Bar, you’re dancing tonight! Candy Bar!
“You big, stupid idiot, look what you’ve gone and done again.”
A brutal wake-up call. The cashier stopped checking. People stared. Dazed, I surveyed the unstable mound of groceries that had piled up. Tomatoes rolled to the floor. Reaching down for them, I bumped a carton of eggs off the counter, which joined the tomatoes with the soft cry of breaking shells.
But, truth be told, I wasn’t there anymore. I was already at the show, sitting on the back row. The orchestra began playing “Harlem Nocturne.” A woman’s leg pushed through the gap in the curtain, a long white thigh against a red velour background. Then a black-gloved hand shot out. And then there she was, a blonde Venus born for the stage, in an evening gown slit up the side.
Women’s flesh occupied a central place in my fantasies.
I was the only one at Steinberg’s store on rue Mont Royal to know that Candy Bar was the most adorable, luscious, and depraved of all the strippers on what was known as the burlesque circuit, which came to the Roxy Theater at more or less regular intervals.
The Roxy (was it instead the Roxy Follies or the Roxy Burlesque?) was located on the east side of boulevard Saint-Laurent south of rue Sainte-Catherine. It disappeared when boulevard Dorchester was widened. On weekday afternoons, the entrance fee was thirty-four cents. It paid for two movies, a bag of popcorn, and an hour-and-a-half-long stage performance. Would it be a variety show? Or vaudeville? Or what was known in North America as burlesque? Looking back, it seems it was most often burlesque. In large part, the audience’s appreciation of these shows came from the completely unvarying structure and predictable sequence of numbers, for example:
Musical overture: “Paris Will Always Be Paris.”
The master of ceremonies (or “M.C.”) runs onstage and explains that, by chance, he just ran into a guy at the theater entrance who told him that…Stand-up routine.
Sentimental songstress. Skit.
Loud drum roll from the pit. Formal introduction of the stripper, “the star of the show.” Striptease (“Saint Louis Blues,” “Harlem Nocturne,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”).
Comic singer. Skit. Ventriloquist. Skit.
Introduction of the stripper (same routine). Striptease (same music).
The genius of this type of show was the waiting—and how many times it kept me on the edge of my seat, tense with the swelling promise of the final unveiling—which was spread out over all the numbers and imbued even the most mediocre ones with a sort of anticipatory intensity. Putting the dancer last in each part of the show was like withholding something important in writing: it influenced how we appreciated everything that came before it. And when the footlights suddenly lit up and the drum roll began, we knew that the big moment had come.
Lynn O’Neil, a butcher’s blonde daughter, but slimmer and with an absolutely divine derrière. Peaches, who had heavy breasts and thick hips, and an obscene aura particular to matronly women and brothels. Bubble O’Dell, a small, pale brunette who undulated onstage wearing a big heart across her crotch, crudely embroidered with red letters: “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” Winnie Garrett, a tall, haughty redhead, whose slow pelvic gyrations, punctuated with thrusts and accompanied by meowing, made the piano man miss a beat. Lucia Parks. Irma the Body. So many others. You got under my skin, drove me crazy, invaded my mind. But I only ever admired you from a distance.
I still didn’t realize that this distance, which made me so unhappy, was crucial for the spell to work. I always wound up in one of the back rows, too hard-up to be able to slip an extra twenty-five cents into the paw of the gorilla manning the entrance, which would have paid for a seat three feet from the stage with plenty of legroom, where I could have hoped to see Candy Bar flash her blond bush when, at the end of the show, she slowly pulled off the miniscule square of sequined material that hid her sex. Hallelujah, amen! She was always my favorite. She had the grace of a young girl and a perverse sort of restraint that made me imagine the worst, by which I mean the best, a way of licking her lips with the tip of her tongue and gently caressing herself and pulling off her stockings. Truth is, I was on the verge of falling madly in love with her. She was all I thought about, a complete obsession.
There’s a lot more I could say since, even then, I was writing a story about these events. But is it really possible that I didn’t notice the shriveled-up misery of those shows, of that theater? Let’s just say I experienced them in a different way than others, and if they were even half as important as I dare to claim, it’s because I lived them by contrast.
During this same time, I was seeing a young girl from the Ahuntsic area named Monique, who had delicate features, an endearingly anemic complexion, and was sincerely inclined towards beautiful things. She lived near boulevard Gouin on a quiet street lined with stone homes set under tall trees, and everything about her and her neighborhood seemed more graceful and refined than rue Fabre, where I’d grown up. She would receive me in a small sitting room at the front of the house, and we would discuss poetry and music. We studied German together. Sometimes, she sat at a small upright piano and played—rather gently, as I preferred—pieces by Schumann and Brahms. She didn’t have the fingers for Brahms. I was absolutely sincere about everything. It could have gone on for a long time. We were practically engaged.
But I was still a boy of healthy appetites, and the highs and lows of the city began to interfere with each other. I was looking for a way to satisfy the unquenched desires Candy Bar inspired in me on the far side of Montreal here in the somewhat infertile soil of Ahuntsic, desires that Monique herself intensified. But my every effort to get close to her was thwarted. How could I caress her backside while we were reading Péguy’s “Présentation de la Beauce à Notre Dame de Chartres”? Not only would I have been taking ill-mannered liberties, it would have been an unforgivable aesthetic blunder. How could I slip my hand into the slit in her blouse when she sat at the piano with perfect posture, her small breasts perky, the mystical chords of Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral” washing over us? These were formidable questions, delicate ones requiring the tact of an old Jesuit. There were times when I inferred that Monique might have really only been Candy Bar’s double, the secretly perverse innocent who took turns with the falsely innocent pervert.
I took my leave of her in the evening with a chaste kiss. But instead of returning to my home on rue Fabre like any serious boy who was seeing a young Ahuntsic girl would do, I made a mad dash to the city’s underbelly. I drifted from one nightclub to another, from one bar to the next, until dawn, a book under my arm, mingling with the hoards of night owls, loose women, and musicians, happy, even euphoric, as if lifted up by some huge, undefined promise. O, wonder of wonders! In those days, there were cabarets and restaurants that never closed—absolutely n-e-v-e-r. You couldn’t party all night since you could never be sure that the last strains of jazz coming from the end of the street were really the last ones. Or that every girl had gone home to bed.
I led a double life. I was a little like a guy with a second home: always happy, both coming and going.
But don’t go thinking I was malcontent. Definitely not. I found this duality thrilling, and I didn’t harbor any nostalgia for unity. The devil had to have something to do with it; his name is Legion. While I waited for enlightenment on the subject, though, I gleefully allowed my single self to become many. Or, instead, I compared myself to a hunting dog let loose in the city, sniffing out and tracking illicit odors among all those overwhelming sensations, apt to follow any one of the innumerable scent trails with no risk of ever getting lost.
My situation certainly didn’t come without its minor personal difficulties. I jerked off way more often than I happened to run into a girl who was willing. Times weren’t as anodyne as they are now when it came to the movements of the male member. Images of Candy Bar, along with the range of affections I imagined when I thought about Monique, were enough to keep me busy most of the time. I was so full of desire. I imagine that the most essential place must have been at my parents’ house on rue Fabre, halfway between Ahuntsic and rue Sainte-Catherine. It was there that, on the verge of tears, I listened to the whisper of the wind through Marie Noël’s poetic heather, where I heard composer Gabriel Fauré’s melodic modulations, treasures I guarded jealously.
I probably would have gone on leading two lives, one in plain view, the other hidden, if I hadn’t lost my job at Steinberg’s. They’d tolerated this bag boy for a long time, but I was given the immediate boot for telling the cashier she could stuff the shopping basket of food I wasn’t bagging quickly enough for her liking up her fat ass—and there’d still be room for more. So I no longer had the means to go to the Roxy. And oddly enough, I started spacing out my appearances in Ahuntsic. But self-deprivation didn’t help. Instead of fading from memory, Candy Bar’s bewitching postures and positions became more intense, if that was even possible. They haunted me, heavy with melancholy, tormented me. I forgot about everything else, including the impromptu skits, the last vestige of grotesque comedy, in which, to my utter amazement, pure melodrama and vulgarity of the lowest sort ran together without any transition between them at all. Harry White, Eddie Lloyd, Sharon Roberts, does anyone still remember your names? Or Freddie Lewis’s absurd bilingualism at the long-awaited moment: “And now ladies and gentlemen, the gorgeous Claudette, Claudette la gorgeuse!”
Later on, I would see everything in a different light. In my mind, I would travel the burlesque dancers’ “circuit,” from the Hudson Theater in Union City to the Minsky and Empire in Newark (Mayor La Guardia had banned burlesque in New York City), and from there to Boston’s Casino and Old Howard (frequented by Harvard students), Buffalo’s Royal, and Montreal’s Roxy, ending at Toronto’s Victory, which drew an audience so ice-cold it discouraged even the most experienced dancers among them, or so I’m told. Courageously, they made the same tour, died the same deaths, year after year, usually by interminable bus trip, with stops in lugubrious stations and overnight stays in sordid hotels. The thought of them filled me with both pity and admiration.
But at the moment in question, the memory of Candy Bar’s angelic face was all the more heartbreaking because I couldn’t manage to separate it from memories of her lascivious gyrations.
There was something in all of it beyond the grasp of my youth and naïveté. During the day, I felt tortured. At night, I thought I was suffocating. And that’s when I mustered the courage to go see her one last time. God! If I could get close to her, talk to her, even touch her just once! But I lacked funds. So I awaited her return to Montreal, and when the day came, I went and sold my most beautiful books at Ménard’s bookstore. It used to be on rue Saint-Denis where Morency’s frame shop is now. He gave me seventy-five cents for my thick, two-columned edition of Victor Hugo published by Valiquette in Montreal during the war, and I somehow managed to scrape together three dollars. Saving out thirty-four cents for the entry fee, I barely had enough money to buy a dozen roses. I’d still be way back in the back row!
I entered the theater with my flowers and exactly six cents in my pocket. I had a hard time focusing on the stage, and it seemed as if I were watching Candy Bar’s performance that day through a fog. Following her second appearance, which signaled the show’s end, I rushed onstage, leapt up the stage-left stairs, and, bouquet in hand, burst into the backstage area with the trembling resolve of the most timid sort. There weren’t any dressing rooms. Instead, there were low cubicles without doors, open to everyone. A woman of a certain age, wearing a robe, sat on a stool at the entrance to one of them. It looked as if she were watching passers-by.
When she saw me, she shouted, “What the fucking hell are you looking for?” She had the hoarse voice of a drunkard, hard features, and small, gray, hostile eyes. A cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth.
I began to mumble. Then it hit me, and the roses slipped out of my hands, falling to the foot of the stool. It was her. It was Candy Bar. Much to my regret, I hadn’t recognized her. I wanted to say something, but my voice died in my throat. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d just learned my first lesson: the only thing that matters is illusion, and you have to learn to lie in order to get to the truth. Distraught, I fled out the rue Sainte-Elisabeth exit, and I ran for a long time, weeping as if I’d just been blessed.