Montreal Then & Now: La Vie Québecoise (Part Deux)

After decades of teaching, Zsolt Alapi is a born-again writer, editor, publisher, who has made his home in Montreal for over four decades.

The continuing saga of becoming a Quebecer.

I arrived on the Land, as we called it, in early May and lived there until mid-October. It was in the middle of nowhere, half a mile from the nearest village and next to a large abandoned sandpit. My brother called in a bulldozer and they excavated a pond that filled up with greenish, muddy water into which he put three thousand trout fingerlings. Within a month, great pools of algae had formed on the pond, and due to the hot, humid summer and the lack of rain for almost eight weeks, I watched the level of the pond recede daily. Yet the fish seemed to thrive, and it was my job to feed them twice a day with Purina Trout Chow, something that I initially thought was a joke, but proved to be their food of choice.

I lived in the woods in a one room shack that we had built. The floor was plywood, and there was no furniture, only a one-burner Franklin stove, a blow-up rubber mattress and my sleeping bag. There was no outhouse, so I had to shit in the woods. I got water from the brook and walked to the village daily to get my food since nothing could be stored near the house because of raccoons and skunks. At night, I would walk into the adjacent sandpit and listen to the coyotes and wolves howl in the distance.   It was some Walden.

The only person I saw almost daily was an old man, Phileas Lachance, who lived in a cabin just a bit larger than mine around a quarter mile into the woods. He was a chômeur, on welfare, and ran an illegal trap line where he caught rabbit and partridge, which he sold in the village to the locals. Each Saturday night, someone from his family would come by with a case of twenty-four, and they would drink far into the night, laughing, screaming, and sometimes firing off a volley of buckshot into the sandpit. After a few weeks, Phileas asked me to join them, although it was mostly with hand gestures and grunts that I was able to answer him since my French was then mostly non-existent. Eventually, it became a ritual. I would go at least once a week and sit and listen to his strange joual — rapid fire rants spoken through loose dentures and constant cigarettes fumes. Slowly I started learning French, though I now know that it was mostly swearing directed at the Church and all the saints in its colorful history.

Old Phileas sold me a rifle, telling me that you needed one in this part of the world. It was an old Lee Enfield, bolt action, with a clip of six bullets that were the size of the trout fingerlings. When I first fired it in the sandpit, I had a brief nostalgia for America and almost missed the place. Almost. The one and only occasion I had to use it was late one summer Friday night. The sandpit near my cabin, which was hidden in the woods, was a place for lovers and car thieves. On many occasions, while going out for an evening walk, I had seen cars parked near one of the eerily surreal dunes and heard noises of love-making. The first time this happened, I went with my flashlight and gun and shined the light into the car, only to see a man’s hairy ass bobbing up and down, followed by two terrified faces looking up at me as they scrambled to throw on their clothes and drive off, the gravel screaming under their tires.

The others who came were the car thieves from Saint Jérôme. They would often come in two cars, theirs and the stolen vehicle. One night, I heard them moving the gate as they were getting ready to drive into the pit. I came out of the woods, obviously startling them, and shone the large flashlight in their direction, screaming in bad French that they were trespassing. In response, one of them pulled out a small pistol and opened fire in my directions. It was probably no more than a pellet gun, but I was so scared that I ran back to the cabin and returned with the Enfield. As they stood by the tree doing something with the first car, I approached in the dark through the woods. Suddenly, there was a huge noise, a flash of fire, and the car exploded in a great display of debris. They had apparently thrown something into the gas tank and ignited it for fun. When I saw this, I yelled at the two men who were by a large Scotch pine some 50 feet from where I was hidden. They looked in my direction, swore, and I could hear the pop, pop, pop of the pellet gun. I put the Enfield to my shoulder and aimed at a tree branch above their heads and pulled the trigger. The kick of the rifle was so strong that it almost broke my jaw. I saw a huge flame exit from the barrel, and heard the crack of the branch that came crashing down on their heads. They were screaming in terror and ran back to their cars and drove off toward the village.

I ran in place, panting, terrified, yet exhilarated for about ten minutes until there was only the silence of the woods, the moonlight, and the summer breeze. I walked back to my cabin where I huddled in my sleeping bag, lying awake until the dawn, listening to the crack of twigs and the sounds of life all around me, foreign to my own

1 Comment on Montreal Then & Now: La Vie Québecoise (Part Deux)

  1. I really enjoyed this article. Very interesting.

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