From Vol. 1, No. 3
I once heard of a theory that time is like a cross, with a horizontal line along which we spend our days, and a vertical line which, at some point, intersects it. This point, if we can find it, is like a door through which we can visit all the past and future experiences of our life. What opened this door for me was my compulsive quest to retrace the story of the American Devices, which I began in the last issue of Fish Piss. Since that first installment, I’ve travelled back in time on several occasions, always picking up new tidbits of information to pass on to you, the reader. I’ve gotten so used to the experience, now all I have to do is lie on my couch, pick up a copy of the last Fish Piss, and by staring blankly at the cool blue cover, can set a chain of events in motion. What usually happens first is the page in front of me becomes blurred, and I get a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if I were in a rapidly descending elevator. This perception of falling is so distinct, I can actually feel the weight of my body sinking into the couch. If the TV’s on, the sound shifts into a high-pitched insect whine, getting higher and higher until it is no longer audible. Then the whole room begins to dissolve, turning into swirling clouds. This atmosphere gathers around me, bubbling and caressing. It’s like the surface of Jupiter, which, so I’ve heard, gradually thickens as you approach-from gas to liquid to solid. Finally, my falling begins to slow down, but there is no defined moment when I stop.
There is only a gradual awakening, a realization that I’m lying on the pavement of a suburban street under a bright, white overcast sky. This is Greenfield Crescent, a stretch of curving new subdivision-my street in the fall of 1964.
In that initial installment, I recounted an early incident which I feel may have been the primal scene that led to my being in a fucked-up band. I’m now at only a few weeks after this point, and, to those readers who are waiting for a more contemporary history of Montreal punk rock, I have to tell you that I couldn’t agree with you more, but I no longer seem to be in control of what I think and experience.
The Music Lesson
They march up the curving crescent right over the faint stain of ketchup still there on the sidewalk from his little accident of a few weeks ago. Looking down, the boy can just make out the light pink pattern, a faded birthmark. His mother, though, stares straight ahead holding his arm, hurrying him along. The boy is wearing stiff new clothes that work against his movements. White shirt with a fake bow tie attached to his collar by little metal clips, and pressed grey flannel pants. These, his good pants, are speckled with tiny bits of paper, left on to teach him a lesson and not peel the wallpaper and deposit it in the pocket of his pajamas before wash day.
I watch them from behind a spindly little tree and then a rolling, empty garbage can as they walk up the street. I needn’t hide, though. Most people can’t see me. The effect of coming in from a different time is that because you have no direct connection with anyone’s lives, there’s no reason for them to notice you. So, rather than being invisible, I’m a kind of psychological blind spot. People looking in my direction just fill in what should be in the space I occupy. To the boy, though, I appear as a kind of fuzzy light. He looks curiously in my direction, then turns away. He’s too much in a state of crisis to think about much more than his first day of school.
They pass Monsieur Bourbonnier’s store, then turn down the straight street to the boulevard. This the wrong place to cross. There is no light here and lots of traffic. They wait for the lapse in the steady stream of cars when the light changes up the road. For the boy, this is the most
significant wait in his life so far. They can see the school from here, which has for him the allure of scaffolding for a condemned prisoner. It is a big, new glass and steel structure that resembles the car dealerships found along the same stretch of road. Its construction is so recent the
grounds around it are still a mixture of mud and gravel flattened by bulldozer tracks. Off behind the building, however, is a small, unscathed stand of birch trees, shivering and waiting for the bored children at recess.
They are late. As they hurry down a corridor past closed windowed doors, the boy’s mother, still holding onto his arm, calls out his last name to every adult she encounters. Inside each window are classrooms full of children. Finally, they are directed to one of these. After this flurry, his mother taps on the door with surprising calm. An enormous white-sheeted figure approaches. The boy watches, amazed as the figure drifts to the door and opens it. With a weary smile, she wordlessly admits the boy, guiding him with one hand at the back of his head, and closing the door behind him.
The class is extremely crowded-this is the tail-end of the baby boomers. The new school has been built to accommodate them all, but still there never seems to be quite enough places. The nuns have been gathered here from smaller ancient stone structures which are now being demolished.
They are just as bewildered and lost as the children. “Sit here for now,” she murmurs, showing the boy a chair near the back of one of the rows. He wishes he had a desk in front of him as the other students had. She then turns, and moves back up the aisle, the movement of her legs hidden under her habit. She doesn’t seem weightless, though. Even within the white flowing robes, her form is heavy and square, and the boy imagines great, piston legs working underneath. “My name is Sister Anthony,” she announces to the class. The fact that she had a masculine name, at this point, doesn’t really surprise the boy. She then picks up a big, pale yellow folder, from which she begins to read off the names of all the children in the class.
From here the boy can see his mother watching through the door window. And if he could see me, that’s where I would be-lurking in the corridor like some misbehaving, overgrown child, peering over his mother’s shoulder. I really have to be there now because this is a very important moment. This is the first time the boy would hear his name uttered by someone other than his family or someone close to him. His name would become public property, to be used by anyone-including myself.
“Robert James Labelle.” He always heard himself called Robbie before, but somehow he reacts and stands up and sits down again as the others did when their names were called. In doing so, he feels an almost physical transformation occur inside of him. If each of his cells were viewed under a microscope, there could be seen a kind of rush and shiver, like the sudden movement of a jellyfish in a turbulent sea, or the egg at the moment of fertilization. The colour, too, changes-from a pale grey to a light pink, the faded birthmark colour. Although this is occurring in every fibre of his being, watching as I am from behind the glass, he just appears to flush slightly. A shy boy, anyone would think.
“It’s important to be able to tell someone where we live,” Sister Anthony then announces. Each of the children before him is able to recite a number to the teacher without difficulty, but when it comes his turn, Robbie can’t remember which of the two numbers that his mother made him memorize was his address.
“Is that the number on my telephone, or the one on the door ?” The nun doesn’t respond, but just looks up, straight up into the veil that tightly seals off the top of her head. Then she passes onto the next child. Besides the fact that he knows he’d failed this first test, it occurs to Robbie that this look must mean something. In bed that night, he will picture those eyes going round and round, black orbs spinning in huge white saucers. He will peel another strip off the wall by his bed and add it to his collection.
The front wall of the class is lined with a long, green chalkboard, on which is written the letters of the alphabet, inscribed in a neat, permanent way. The effect is that of a decorative border, a frame for the daily lesson. Sister Anthony and picks up a long, wooden pointer, increasing even more the breadth of her control. With it, she motions Robbie to squeeze in beside the little girl whose desk he is nearest. Then she turns, and with deft, sweeping movements points out each of the letters on the board, chanting them out transforming her voice into a hollow, nasal chant. She went right through to Z, pronouncing it zee, then adding that “You here in Canada say zed, but I don’t see a D on the end of it, do you?”
This all being quite new, there aren’t any opinions, but no one is surprised that Sister Anthony was from another country.
“Heaven,” some say knowingly at recess, standing staring at each other amid the birch trees. Robbie watches as some boys begin peeling off the thin, white bark. Underneath, the new, exposed layer is pink and sensitive looking. I am there, too-a thin ghostly shape, hiding like a pervert amid the branches.
In the classroom again, the desks have been moved to the sides of the room, and the chairs arranged in a rough, semi-circle in the middle. The children are seated in this way in preparation for music class. Sister Anthony begins to talk about Sister Charles, who is an expert in music, and due to arrive shortly. Sister Anthony seems to be prepping them for her arrival, urging them to make a good impression on this new guest-as if they themselves have already been together for a long time.
“When she arrives I’m going to say, ‘Class, this is Sister Charles,’ and then we’re all going to say together, ‘Good morning Sister Charles.’ OK? Let’s try it. Good morning Sister Charles.” Sister Anthony then puts a hand up to where her ear would be if it weren’t hidden under her veil, and the children repeat in a kind of slow, high lament. Just then there is a knock, and Sister Anthony sweeps over to the door and another nun appears-an older, reduced version of herself.
“Good morning class,” she says in a low, nearly masculine voice, answering the practice hello she obviously heard from the hall. Unlike Sister Anthony’s quick, smooth movements, she seems to have some difficulty walking, and Robbie notices how her robe trembles as she crosses the class to Sister Anthony’s desk. She carries several books and a box of coloured chalks.
“OK, I’m going to get down to the task at hand. That is, classifying you all.” She looks around the room. “I don’t see a piano here so we’re going to have to make due with just our voices. I’m going to sing a note, and when I call upon you, I want you to repeat it back to me as you hear it.”
Something about this person makes Robbie feels strange and nervous. As new and intimidating as everything is on this first day of school, she seems the most menacing. Her eyes flicker continually in his direction as if she has something in store just for him.
“La!” Sister Charles’ singing voice is high and clear, her head tilted back so that she is looking straight up at the ceiling. Then she quickly refocuses her attention on the class, looks again at Robbie, then points at one of the children, a little girl right next to him.
At first, the child doesn’t seem to know what to do, and just stares, cheeks flushing.
“La!” Sister Charles repeats, this time in a quicker version closer to her speaking voice, and not at all the same note as her first demonstration. She gestures to the little girl with her hand. “Do it!”
“La.” The sound is a whisper that Robbie, sitting beside her, is sure only he hears. But still, it is enough to prompt a resolute response from the instructor. “Soprano,” she proclaims, a grand- sounding word for such a meager sound.
Sister Charles then points to another child, giving him the same gesture, not bothering to repeat the note. His reply is also found to be soprano. And as she goes through the entire class all the varying bleats and chirps are found to be in the same soprano range.
Robbie is last. He doesn’t even hear his own response, but just stares at Sister Charles’ finger, trembling and pointing at him. Some sound must come out, though, for he is pronounced part of the same category.
“What you all just did was singing,” says Sister Charles in a tone that sounds as if the class had made a mess, as if each of them just had an accident in their pants. This being a ‘soprano’ is perhaps not as wonderful a thing as it sounds. A kind of shame descends over the whole group.
Sister Anthony, during all this is still at her place in the corner, her eyes shining brightly. Robbie thinks she must agree with this judgement, for she doesn’t intercede on their behalf. Though she watches, she seems to have abandoned them all to Sister Charles, who now turns her attention to the board, where she starts to draw with her colored chalks.
“Whenever you produce a a sound, either to speak or sing, you use your vocal chords,” she says, still in her slightly accusatory tone. The shapes she draws are long curves, done carefully with the broad side of the pink chalk.
“They’re inside your throat,” she continues, her voice a little muffled now, facing into the chalkboard. “When you sing a high note with your bright sopranos, they stretch way down like this.” She draws a much longer set of pink lines, two long arcs that make her reach down and bend to one side.
“They work very hard for you.” She faces the class again, her eyes, so it seems to Robbie blinking and dancing around him alone.
Her repetition of the word ‘you’ and ‘your’ make this anatomical talk very personal. Robbie pictures these long, fleshly lines inside of him. They are the same colour as the faded ketchup stains on his sidewalk. He feels himself getting all dizzy on his chair. He looks down at his legs, and tries to think of something else, but his legs themselves are like these strange pulsating body parts-uncontrollable, vulnerable yet dangerous, and inescapably a part of him.
“When we sustain a note, and by that I mean keep a note going for a long time, they vibrate very quickly from side to side.” With this, Sister Charles draws shakey white lines over the original shapes.
“I’m feeling sick,” Robbie says, half to himself.
“You’re feeling sick.” Sister Charles repeats as if she’s been expecting this all along.
The boy looks again over at Sister Anthony still standing at her post. She seems to have been turned into a statue, gleaming and motionless. In fact, the whole class is like this, the moment frozen around the boy.
I remove my disguise-the cap and veil-and my head disappears. I step out of the robe, and I am just a pale, white glow. I walk over, and try to place a comforting hand on his shoulder, but he slumps to the floor unconscious. My effort to toughen him up for his future has failed yet again.
I wake up on my couch, a damp copy of Fish Piss draped over my chest, the comforting sounds of Oprah blaring from the TV. I roll off onto the floor and crawl over to the computer to try to relate this episode before it all becomes a blur.