Speak, Theodore – Adam Johnson
December 7, 2022
November 28, 2010
Bonsoir monsieur, entre s’il vous plait. Parlez-vous le Francais? I see. I prefer English anyway, and only speak in the French when I cannot think of the English for a thing. Or when I’m made excited. Come in, come in, thank you. You are Canadian, at the very least I should think? A fellow countryman, my friend, we have much in common already. But let us wait and see. If you’ll allow me, I’ll take your coat. No? Yes, it is rather cold in here, but I’m used to it. Right this way. Do you see that wood paneling in the living room? I smashed my late wife’s face against it and knocked out six teeth. I’m only kidding. I merely wanted to witness your first impulse. I say, you are a man of very little reaction. You probably wouldn’t say boo to a goose, mon cher.
I’m told you’ve written extensively in the area of biography. Is that so? Have you written for anyone famous? Of course, I understand. You’d cease to be the ghost if you told me. Have a seat there. May I offer you something to drink? Scotch, vodka, rum, you name it. Scotch? Good man. There are so few “good men” by that definition. Cheers to our health. You see, I’m no altruist. There, now we’re on a sound footing.
I’ve been in an obsession over my own existence all my life, and especially so since I decided to commission you for this project. I’ll die very soon. I’m 87 and they gave me six months seven months ago. As a fellow doctor, I knew they were speaking frankly. In my career, I lied to hundreds of families about life expectancies. But it was part of the job. “He has at least five years in him” I’d say. And then “he’d” die. You are recording this for later use, yes? Bon Dieu! You have been since you walked in? You should have said so.
Before we begin, I’d like to ask how to begin. I have so much to say and so little time left to say it. I want to leave a lasting impression on the world. I’ve lived a full life. You’ll tell it for me won’t you? I can’t myself. I’m no good with words.
I entered the world – what a peculiar expression – on August 3, 1923, and was raised in a small house within walking distance of the St. Lawrence in Montreal, Quebec – Brossard to be exact. I might as well ignore my youth, as I was roundly ignored in it myself, save for violence. You’ll agree, won’t you, that few childhoods are suitable for reliving? Mother and father were constantly battling it out to see who could leave the more permanent mark, and the ugly mug you’re looking at is mostly of their doing. Partly poor genetics, and I blame them for that too. I was bald at twenty-three and my fingers have been fat all my life, just like my toes. I would have killed ten strangers if it meant I’d be taller than five feet and a half as an adult. Would you like another glass of scotch? No? That’s unfortunate. If only I could have been born a Beethoven or a Proust. It’s unfair that one can be born a Beethoven and another cannot. But such is the nature of things. Shall we make a go of it then? Very well. Cheers, friend.
Where then should I begin? College you say? No, at least not right away. College came later for me. I was conscripted into the military in 1942 and landed at Normandy on D-Day. In later years, I was always gratified that I was forced into service, and did not volunteer to go and kill others of my species. Do you know that it was Canada’s first ever declaration of war? They picked a fine country to do it against – Beethoven territory. We landed at Normandy, at Juno to be precise, and did all we could, which was to shoot and butcher as many people as possible wearing the wrong uniforms. Have you ever witnessed war firsthand? It’s a grand spectacle. Most of my countrymen even took themselves seriously on that beach. Death – but we’ll we’ll get to that later, I’m sure. Let me ask you, do you care if you die this instant? You do?
I remember floating to a shore through the break of blue and red waves where men were falling like dogs in the sand, giving to the air shrill cries before meeting the ground with their lifeless faces and limbs. I saw other men, brave men, men of mettle, praying to the sky for mercy. In our boat, a soldier jumped ship and was shot in the back while he made a vain attempt at desertion. After witnessing that much, the remaining men opted for the shore.
There was a moment after landing that a fellow in front of me was struck by a mortar round. I’d say he was 20 yards ahead of me when he was hit. His body was transformed into fragments of flesh and bone and muscle, and I remember the feeling of warm pieces of his body landing on my face and helmet. I think he had a daughter. A feeling of absurdity struck me as I saw his body explode and as I contemplated that in the distance, another man, fighting as gallantly for his country, and his wife, and his children, was responsible for the act. And they – the killer and the killed – could probably have played a good hand at rummy together, and enjoyed a puff of cigar, and a decanter of port wine. But not on this planet, where one man is blown up by the other, which. I never found the German fellow responsible. But it didn’t matter, he was probably a good soccer player and violinist before the war, and after. Do you believe in god, mon nouvel ami?
In the weeks that followed the Normandy landing, I generally kept to myself. One’s worldview is astonishingly cool when the fear of death no longer lingers. I ate some, and slept some, and shot at my fellow man some. The fear of death never haunted me as it did the others. There were those who, at night, would toss and turn, and betray even in the silence of their sleeping faces the hellish worries that dwelled in their nightmares. I remember yawning under my covers at their innocence. There were those that clutched little creased and tarnished photographs of loved ones, and tucked them under their pillows, as though the memories of families they would never see again would in some manner mitigate the meanness of dying early and alone in that distant foreign land. My fellows were subjected to all manner of privations, as I got along famously with my bread and butter. It was mostly an issue of expectation.
As I was saying though, I generally kept to myself. They say that war is a very personal endeavor. I felt out of place with those who prayed together, those who struggled together, and those who laughed together in rare moments of levity. There is a herd mentality to an invading force, which is, I suppose, natural enough. It was however, a herd that I either consciously or unconsciously refused to associate with. This is not to say that I refused to participate. I did so with showmanship. When enemy fire was coming on, I put on airs of a bias toward the Allied cause. In total, I believe I put 33 Germans in their graves. I’m convinced that all of them were as innocent as newborn babies, at least in terms of a larger innocence, and that their deaths were not their just deserts. But that’s war.
There was a time some weeks later that we met with German forces again. It was a larger field with some trees. France gave an exceedingly beatific picture. I was tasked with operating a heavy machine gun. The Germans had flanked us, and we were surrounded in every direction but our rear. On command, I opened fire. Instantly, several Germans were sent to their deaths. I operated my killing machine on a pirouette, and was able to direct fire in every direction. My comrades were at my right and left, and advancing on the periphery of both. The scene was nothing if it wasn’t anarchy, and there was no person or authority limiting my discretion with the machine gun. I took out six of my own men on purpose. I aimed the machine gun directly at their backs and gunned them down in a matter of moments. Six fathers, husbands, brothers, and uncles never returned from the war. It was horrifying at the time, but only because I wasn’t caught. Again, I experienced an intense encounter with a feeling of uncut absurdity. That I could murder with such impunity and want of consequence left me almost dumb. I cut off a fellow’s ear, and have it in a jar in the basement. It’s mostly dust at this point, as I never took means to preserve it adequately. It’s Canadian.
In the days following what some would call murders, I failed to succumb to what, in most men, would have been natural: a feeling of contrition. Yet try as I did, I could not bring myself to guilt. It was impossible under the circumstances, and I slept like a baby. To my countrymen, I had committed the worst of atrocities; to my German people, I would be renowned as a hero, or worse, a savior. Never acquiring a sense of nationalism in my early years, the killing I embarked upon during that ordinary day was necessarily indiscriminate. The senselessness of it, like I said, well, let me just say that I never again raised a rifle against my countrymen.
You fancy that I was mad, I can see. On the contrary, I had full possession of my faculties and conscience. It was my perspective that stood me out against my compatriots, if they may be called that. If I claimed I was a man of the world, then I could hardly be blamed for failing to pick a side. Only years later did I finally atone. I have a support the troops decal on the bumper to my car. Do you have one? Well then, that makes one good citizen between us. Can I get you that second scotch yet? Bravo, cher ami, now we’re talking. Tell me, my writing friend, have you ever experienced moments in which you felt utterly detached from your mind’s reason? I haven’t either, I’m only curious. Don’t you love the way ice cracks under warm scotch? You can smoke in here you know.
Three weeks after D-Day, I was injured. In the middle of the night in a camp on the outskirts of Saint-Lo, a wild boar rushed through my tent while I slept, driving a tusk into the back of my knee and out the front. I never found my kneecap. Did you observe the limp just now as you walked in? There’s no knee there, just metal. But it’s better to have one good knee than none at all, and I saw a lot of kneeless men in my time abroad. Headless too. On my evacuation, I was able to claim the enemy got me. The pig was French, and I was an invader of territory that was more his than Hitler’s. To me, it hadn’t mattered that I was taken out by a pig. It only mattered that I was taken out. I feared that I would be on heavy machine gun duty again, and was afraid, not of the potential deaths I’d cause, but of my absolute indifference to them. A failure of conscience can be frightening.
They put me up – Je vous demande pardon? I’m sorry? It’s down the hallway, last door on the right. Tell me, what do you think of my guest lavatory? Isn’t that fresco of St. John the Baptist on the ceiling a thing of elegance? Where were we? Yes, of course.
After what I’ve termed the “boar’s run,” I was put up at the No. 23 Canadian General Hospital, in Leavesden, near Watford. Watford is a town, or borough, as the English say, in Hertfordshire, northwest of London. It was at No. 23 that I was superintended by Canada’s Nursing Sisters, or, as they called themselves, and incidentally as they were known ever since – the “Angels of Mercy.” I fell in love with one of them. Actually, I fell in love with ten or eleven of them, and made love to them all in secret without any of the others knowing. When I say “made love” I mean I courted them. You envisioned something vulgar, I suppose? Well, I may have been vulgar if I had enjoyed my health, and attempted to have my way with the lot of them. For me, love can be fornication, but also pure longing.
I remember Adelynn. Monsieur, you should have seen the way she bounced around the ward on the balls of her feet in front me – me, the invalid – and how she pattered her breasts against my chest in checking me for fever. I wanted desperately to tear at her clothes and hair and force myself upon her. I did not want to win her affections slowly or innocently. But I was compelled perforce to play the game. If only you could have seen me at work: the way I smiled in the sharp light reflected by the cross hanging at her neck, and quoted from the Psalms to make her smile. The way I displayed a mastery over the virtues of liturgy, and did everything according to saintliness to make that little Catholic nurse swoon. The way, in short, that I did everything to make myself stand out against the room of wounded strangers, so that I could one day devour her.
She developed a trust in me, and even confided in me after the passage of some time. It was when she kissed my lips instead of my cheek that I knew my prey was seized and my carnal prize secured. Or so I had thought then. When I had missed her for some days, I learned that she had been raped and beaten by a deranged American soldier missing a part of his face. I was informed that in the months following, she grew wretched, cut herself with whatever sharp objects were at hand, and eventually bled and starved herself to death in a different ward in the hospital. I hated that American, not for the pain he inflicted on the girl, but for the deprivation of pleasure he caused me to endure in that dreary white-cloth asylum. I wanted to spill his guts and remove the rest of his face before his very eyes. Alack, I never found the man. La peste etre sur li.
But my gracious auteur, I’ve been on this strain in a boring fashion. There’re few things more mundane than a violent retribution. Let me help your glass, if you please. Thank you. I’m on my fourth, you’re on your third. I have a habit of counting cocktails. It’s an old habit. You can smoke in here you know. You look like a man who smokes. You’ll pardon me, but it was Camus, not me who said every man is responsible for his face. There, there, my good fellow. May I have a cigarette?
You may, at this point, charge me as a sadist. I can tell you I’m not, and never have I been. I’m speaking candidly with you, mon cher, and am laying it out from a historical vantage that was pure hardship and misery. Men, when pressed to physical and mental extremes, will act eccentrically, and are capable of committing what would otherwise be unpardonable doings – at least by society’s standards as I know them.
I have accomplished much good in my life, as you will hear. I want my biography to bear witness to the benevolence of my years before I’m snuffed out of existence by this wicked disease that’s eating at me day and night. What a fine smoke that was. My point, in short, is that I pray you will exercise your discretion in drafting my life from the recording you’re keeping and the notes you’re taking. Yes, mon ami, I witnessed you scribbling something when I described how I shot my fellow soldiers. I would never censure you, but you can appreciate my desire to have some of my more forthright moments left out of the book. I am, after all, a man of this community, and a person of some eminence in my own family. Let us end on that note then, mon nouvel ami trouve. I’d like to drink alone. Will you leave me a cigarette or two? You’re a kind sort of fellow.
December 5, 2010
Good evening, my friend. Come in. Why, that’s a laudable headpiece. I wouldn’t guess a man of your generation would take to a fedora. You have such fine hair, so delicate. It is cold out there, yes? Come in and warm yourself by the fire. I’ll take your coat and scarf. Are those snowflakes on your lapel? There’s a fresh scotch waiting for you on the side table. Please, forgive my cough. Oui, it is blood.
If you please, I cannot to save my life recall where it was we left off. The hospital? Ah, merci! No. 23. Yes, indeed. After Adelynn’s suicide, I thought often of my own. In my abject state in that paltry ward, I ruminated frequently on the topic of my own destruction. Morphine dripped day and night at my bedside, and at times I contemplated ingesting the whole bag. Soldiers groaned throughout the stale air, and some prayed for their deaths after lights out. Killing myself became a constant feature of my days. However, I never could bring myself to see the act through. For one, I am adamant in my opinion that any worthy suicide is performed by powder and shot, or perhaps a bridge. But even had I the privilege of a firearm, the physical impossibility of witnessing the moments after death would have stayed my hand. Put a different way, ending my life was not worth the cost if I could not hear the screams and laugh at the face of the first nurse to find me and what might be left of my skull and brains on the cement floor. I’ve always found the suicides of others to be horrible, and thought for some time that I was a model candidate. Tell me, mon homme parfait, have you ever held a gun at your temple? It’s not as stimulating as you may assume. I’ve thought of suicide throughout my life, never escaped existence by that means. I now love life, and wish I could live forever.
I see that you gobbled your scotch this time. Please, let me refresh your glass. That’s number two for you mon cher. Excuse me. No, thank you. It’s only a little blood now and then.
I stayed at No. 23 for six months. It was a half-year of immense inactivity and boredom, and nothing really stands out but for the constancy of surrounding agonies and the permanency of routine death. Have you ever tasted World War II hospital food in England? I assumed not. They had me in a sick ward, where they also housed the terminally ill. They feared I had caught something wild. I would shake violently and my heart would palpitate uncommonly. They never could explain it and I never could either. I used to spit on some of the nurses in the final months. I remember cursing at them in the name of God. They’d cross themselves and pray for me. It was a low point, I admit, in my life monsieur.
On my final day, a small ceremony was held where I was awarded the France and Germany Star, a Companion of the Order of the Bath, and a Military Medal, the latter two for my acts in suppressing the German onslaught at the same time I shot and killed my fellow soldiers. Of course, no one knew of that final piece of information. Excuse me, but I’ll need a fresh handkerchief. Do not trouble yourself, mon ami gentil, this coughing is nothing to trouble yourself over. Have you finished your scotch yet? I cannot see between your fingers. No? Very well. Please, have a cigarette. Relax, mon cher.
When I returned from the war, I took up living with my parents, where from the military had taken me. It was nice of the government to return me to my nest. I was twenty-one years of age at the time. When I arrived home, I learned that my only sister had been killed by a drunk driver in front of my parent’s house, which incidentally caused me to try alcohol. I asked why no one wrote to tell me, and was told that I would either die in the war or find out when I came home. To my parents it was as simple as that.
Two months after I arrived, my mother left my father, and my father’s sanity left him too. I never saw nor heard from my mother again. It was clear she blamed me for the divorce, as something to that effect was left with me in a letter that she tucked under my pillow. After my mother was gone, I was thankful for my father’s attention, which usually came in mocking my limp and laughing at me during breakfast on account of the nightmares he’d heard from my bedroom. He helped me in my drinking habit at all hours of the day. He was a fine influence in that regard. I didn’t return the physical abuse of my childhood to him, as it didn’t seem right at the time. He had no idea that I was adding mercury to his breakfasts, where I played chef. Not a lethal amount, cher, just enough to make him inexplicably unwell. Excuse me.
I never could sleep in those days, and I made all of my waking moments hazy through the use of alcohol. Cohabitating with my father, I soon discovered, was cancerous. There was a malignancy to his soul. I used to believe in a soul in those days. The war was still going on, and he talked of it incessantly. He was a menace to my advancement, and I realized that in his presence, a departure from my infantile beginnings would be nigh impossible.
I began to venture into the city. I spent all my military money on a new wardrobe and books, and put on the airs of an intellectual. I’d pass my time away in cafes, reading and eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers. At night I’d run with the underworld, and would visit brothels, put up in slum houses and shoot heroine, and engage in all manner of sexual exploits that any adolescent male will admit are his secret proclivities. There was, of course, a counterculture. At the time, Quebec was enjoying “The Great Blackness.” Tell me, mon Canadian compatriote, have you heard of Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis and his famous orphans? Ah, you have not. Mon cher, you must seek that information on your own. Monsieur Duplessis was the front man and founder of the Union Nationale – he shot communists with a rifle from his motorcar. But pray, my friend, you are in need of your third scotch, and I my second.
In the summer of 1945, I met a man, a young man my age, by the name of Alain Fornier. He had a lame hand, and hadn’t served in the war. Alain had an incredible flat in LaSalle where our friends would congregate. His parents were rich snobs. We smoked opium late into every morning. Some of the women would sit naked. Sex became ordinary and emotions were transient. You’d be surprised, cher, at what was happening in Montreal in that time behind closed doors.
All kinds of people would come and go from Alain’s. Some of them were transcendentalists, some were naturalists, some artists, some existentialists that drooled over Sartre, and some of them were just plain stupid. I began to experiment with all kinds of ideas, but never committed myself firmly to any philosophy. There were many books in that period that shaped me. I remember several of them: L’Etranger, The Antichrist, The Metamorphosis, Fear and Trembling, The Brothers Karamozov. At Alain’s, one was virtually guaranteed sex at the mention of Nietzche. A young woman is easily duped by a provocative name. And I could quote him. It was an indulgent and cosmopolitan period of my life, and thus, one of the better periods. We were a merry band of free-thinking radicals. Yet so little of it was centered on a movement. Most people were there to inject drugs and have their vanities stroked, like me, I admit it.
If I can be described as anything in that period, I was most probably an absurdist. Nihilism, as long-ago defined, had a certain draw, but left in me a kind of empty fatalism. While the existential nihilists were close cousins, if you will, they were so despairing and anhedonic that I could not stand for them, metaphysical and epistemological congruities notwithstanding. Absurdism offered, as I saw it, a kind of nihilism-plus. It was an incredibly simple philosophy to live by, and thus, suited me. I could write off anything as absurd. Moreover, I could get out of bed in the morning and enjoy myself. Suicidal ideations crept in continually in the recesses of my thoughts, but I was saved by a reality that suicide too, was absurd. I was stuck between life and death. On the one hand, suicide was absurd, yet going on living was equally absurd. I concluded, as I have done since, that even raising the gun to my head is absurd, and thus, I avoid, at the very least, the ability to choose to live or die by virtue of the absurdity of the physical undertaking.
But I digress, friend. And in recalling old books, I’ve downed my scotch. Pardon me. I don’t want to subject my readers to humdrum. I’m having trouble with this cough.
I moved all of my things to Alain’s when my father was in America on business. As with my mother, I never spoke with my father again. I learned years later that he had been committed to an institution, where he was acquainted with a fatal stroke. It is not unique for a person to die in an institution. It happens to everyone who are and who are not institutionalized. And we all must die somewhere, you will agree. It hardly matters where. Tell me, cher ami, do you ever ponder how you will die and when? For the longest time I thought I’d be murdered. Perhaps I will be still. But we’ll get to that later. I’m having trouble at present. I must use the lavatory, please do forgive me a moment.
I’ll be okay, mon cher, but I am not well this evening. I’ve lost my acuity, and this handkerchief is soaked through with blood. We must, I am afraid, adjourn. I beg, will you leave me one cigarette? Will you leave me two? You are very gracious, friend. There’s life in me yet. Until next time. Bonne nuit.
December 8, 2010
Merci, my friend, for returning so soon. I am in better spirits today than last we met. Yes, I still have my cough. It has worsened. There is no point in returning to the doctor. You see, I am one, and I know the prognosis, Devil take me. I have had too much scotch too early this day, monsieur. I feel so vibrant and young. I am ignoring my internal pains.
You brought me a pack of cigarettes. Mon cher! You were too kind in so doing. You must admit, we are swell smoking partners. Please, allow me your coat. The wind is blowing so hard tonight. They are hard winters in this country. I’ve made a fire in the next room. Let us enjoy it. There is, or course, a scotch waiting for you.
Before this disease interceded on us last time, I was discussing loosely the period of my life when I was living, not very lavishly, in LaSalle with Alain. I don’t want to belabor that period, friend, and believe I may have been too tangential on our last meeting. I won’t mind if you leave all of that out of the book. It was, apart from the heroine and sex, a rather mundane time. In point of fact, it may have been mundane precisely because of those two elements.
Alain, like me, grew disinterested in intellectual pursuits. When you’ve exhausted your repertoire accumulated from books, everything begins to repeat itself. There was nothing new, so to speak, and we became listless. It was not a pleasing juncture to arrive at. To entertain ourselves, we’d dress in black and go out into the night and rob people. Physically speaking, women are more helpless that men, and we made them our targets routinely. We only kept knives and not pistols, and were naïve in that respect. A good many citizens carried pistols in those days. This we did for a whole summer and autumn, and we managed to accumulate something bordering on what we called a misfit’s wealth. Alain spent all his take on prostitutes, drugs and suits. I managed to save a great deal, and even had thoughts of college, when the desire for intellectual endeavors began to gnaw at me as it does in men and women away from study. Man is not built to cease reading once he’s begun.
This is fine tobacco, mon vieil ami. I hope you like your scotch as much. You have barely touched it. I see. You’re afraid of a habit. There are worse, you know.
As I was saying, I had ambitions for a baccalaureate, and was intent on putting myself through, as it were. Excuse me, mon cher. I applied for and was accepted to the Universite de Montreal, where I soon flourished. I still lived with Alain, and kept up as well at his routs. I attended half my classes and was the favorite with none of my professors. Even the chemistry professors were communists, which was laudable at the time. A college bachelor’s life is grand, mon ami. It is the most debauched era of most men’s lives, and all graduates pine for its return when the habit and routine of daily monotony hangs like a still noose over their days in later years.
By the second year at university, I was enrolled almost entirely in the sciences. My interest in the humanities and risen and fallen in the first year, and I accepted early in life that I’d never be a great writer or thinker. It is a superb achievement to accept in one’s 20s the futility of attempting to write anything nouveau. I never wanted to be that frivolous 50-year-old, sneaking away from his family after dinner to work on his trifling unpublishable novel under the unforgiving light of a bare bulb hanging in the basement rafters. You, mon cher, are a superb writer, I am certain of it. And you can’t be more than 40 I should think? You don’t say. Salut, monsieur. To your health. Let us enjoy, momentarily, a cigarette with our scotch.
At all events, I graduated with honors and advanced to graduate medical training. Medical training was fun. I had always thought myself incapable of having fun. I have some now and then. Alain and I continued to mug people to pay for things. Tuition was costly, even then mon cher.
I was drawn to the human body, inside and out, and longed to work with it in raw form with my very hands. I wanted to cut it and dig in it and sew it and pierce it all over. I wanted to drill into the brain, and observe it under microscope. I admit at the time I cared little for the advancement of medicine or science. I was mostly preoccupied with guts and corpses. I had no interest in the untouchable brain that occupies the work of the psychoanalytic and psychological coteries. I disfavored abstraction, and was relieved by the tangible frigidness of the hearts and lungs removed from our first cadavers. There were a few occasions where I plundered a cemetery for various human treasures.
Staring at the dead reminded me convincingly of my old battlefield. Cher, I surprise you? There, that was a fine smoke. If only you could see your lungs, my friend. Or mine. Our anatomy is grotesque. Have you seen the inside of a human lung? I took up smoking as soon as I discovered how they operate. Medical school was an easy place to develop psychopathy. Not that I did, monsieur.
I graduated from medical university in 1953. When all the dust of apprenticeship settled, I was on my way to curing cancer, or as was proven with the benefit of hindsight, witnessing a great many people die of it as I strove vainly to do something intelligent. I forgot to mention, how forgetful of me, that I shot a walrus on a hunting trip in ’51. Personally, it was a significant moment in time.
I maintained my life as a bachelor, and went on living with Alain for a time, until we grew apart. With my salary as a doctor, I was no longer compelled to rob people in the streets. Our ongoing conspiracy to commit crime was at once annulled, and Alain, poor fellow, could not stand for it. When I refused to rob a bank with him, he evicted me. It was a needed intervention, and I got along alright in my own lodgings. Alain was shot and killed in the robbery by a man who had himself intended on robbing the place but came out of it as a good citizen. I missed Alain terribly for some years. I had many acquaintances in those days, and very few friends. Those I had, I cherished deeply. Do you have many friends, monsieur? I’m glad to hear it. Here’s to friends.
In my beginning years as a doctor, I was a charitable buck. I really was, mon cher. My fellow practitioners, many of them born comfortably into property, were a miserly bunch, and even swore over one-dollar hands at the farobank. When I arrived at a state of some affluence, I sensed an amplified urge to care for the welfare of my fellow mammals – especially the homeless ones that gabbed at louder decibels in the streets. I refused to give them any money. Yet I observed in myself an urge to reduce the suffering of the less fortunate. Back then I used words such as “fortunate” in serious conversations. And so I got such men drunk when I found them. They’re very interesting to talk to you know, and sometimes don’t make any sense whatever, which is preferable to learning where a person grew up. I’d light fires to all of their property – usually blankets – and they’d be forced to seek refuge in a shelter, where they might better themselves. I was their saving grace, I was an angel. Where did you grow up, friend? I jest, but may I furnish you with another glass of scotch? That’s a good cher. Delicieux.
In the winter of 1956 I met my first wife, Marie. I was 33 at the time and she was 22. The circumstances of our meeting were nothing of fairy tale, you see, we were acquainted by a common enemy: a poor tender of bar. She was a pure vision, and loved my money so. She had complimented my gold watch at the bar. Mon cher ami, I was tired of facing my bed alone each night waiting for death. As long as she was attractive and made herself available for a regular regimen of sexual intercourse, I was happy. We wed eight months after our first vodka clink.
It was before sex one evening that I discovered the way time works on people. We were standing in our bedroom, I in my work clothes and she in a nightgown. Embracing one another, I began to slide my hand between the opening of her gown and down between her thighs. I brought my hand up along the inner thigh to the point where the leg naturally ends. It is disgusting, is it not, mon cher, to hear an old man talk thus? I brought my hand to rest, and thought how unlikely it would be to engage in this same conduct with a perfect stranger. Say, for instance, Marie and I had passed each other on the street and I attempted that kind of conduct? I would be the same person, she would be the same person, yet the passage of time had not occurred for us to make what little advances eventually lead to the kind of comfort that permitted me the liberty I was partaking of. I’ve always longed to make love to strangers, and not just prostitutes.
Marie was plagued by melancholy, which I discovered, of all times, on our honeymoon in Egypt. In a moment of earnestness, she disclosed that she didn’t love me. My reaction was one of appreciation, even esteem. I had never dared disclose that I had never loved her either. I would have been happy going on living as such, but Marie was not so contented. Her troubles were far greater than I could possibly have envisioned. She was rooted in the position that a marriage would not work without love. I thought it ridiculous, but she stood her ground.
After a visit to the pyramids at Giza, Marie suffered a nervous breakdown in our hotel, from which she never recovered. On their request, she moved back in with her parents. I refused to speak with her again, and sent the divorce papers by courier. I never felt shameful for leaving her in her time of need. It was pathetic, not painful, to watch her sink. Please tell me, cher, are you married? I must step outside, I am too warm at the moment. Please forgive me. Help yourself to the bottle of scotch.
Thank you, mon gentil ami. My lungs are not what they once were. When you leave, you may notice by the stoop some blood in the snow. Pay it no attention. I will be just fine, I assure you. In other words, I’ll either live or I’ll die. Thank you, cher.
I’ve known divorce to shatter men’s spirits. I had a friend, Leroux Nicollet was his name, a cardiologist in my building. He came home one day to his wife in bed with another man. Remorselessly, she asked what nerve he had in not telling her he’d be home early. She left him the next week and hired a lawyer that swindled Leroux out of most of his assets. I was the one who found Leroux hanging from the rafters in his garage. We had a fishing trip planned. I felt awkward standing there in my angling vest watching him hang. Schubert was playing from a stereo in the corner.
Death was a thing I had become accustomed to. In the course of my career, I’d witnessed intense moments of loss. Divorce and death are close friends, at least in terms of their observable impacts on the shoulders of pained humans. When Marie and I were no more, I suffered no mental anguish. I did not devote myself to work or charity. I did not become involved in a political or social cause. I did not, monsieur, do anything ridiculous like write in a journal or construct poetry. I just was, as I had been before and during the marriage. If one had said it was megalomania, I would have replied they were correct. Is there any reason I should attempt to conceal that reality? I’m not convinced I should, mon cher. Do you mind, friend, if I play some Schubert on the record player?
That’s it. Relax, mon ami, we’re getting along just fine this evening, won’t you agree? You know, I never noticed how bushy your eyebrows are. They really are something. Oh, especially with that look of surprise you just gave me. Are they from your mother’s or father’s side? This scotch is from a fine year, you know. 1981. You have an exquisite smile, cher.
After the separation from Marie, I lived a bachelor’s life once more. I must admit, it was a lonely time. I had never before experienced a feeling of loneliness, le malheur était moi. I drank to excess and started a habit of drugs again, and gratified myself with all the earthly pleasures like my days with Alain. I hit my lowest, monsieur, when one day I found myself sitting quietly in a church pew on a Sunday, staring blankly at a woman’s breasts outlined in a white summer blouse as a priest droned on from a pulpit many yards away from me. I was heavily under the influence of an opiate at that moment.
The woman caught sight of my stare and pulled a shawl over her, concealing the arousing objects of my gaze. I did not look away embarrassedly, as men will do when caught staring, but kept my eyes fixed exactly as they had been. The woman, a plain looking woman with a round face and a plump figure, continued to make glances at me regularly, as if wondering whether my ogling stare had quitted her. It appeared I had captured her attention. After the sermon, but before mass had ended, I took my leave of the church. I’ve never been equipped to believe in God, monsieur, and was an imposter unknown to her. Outside and across the street, I waited behind a tree, curious to see her again and to follow her home.
The woman left church unaccompanied. She had a slow pace, and I had to slacken my step to keep a safe distance behind her as she walked. Cher, you imagine me a chaser, but times were different then. I was motivated by the prospect of seeing such a place as she called home. I eventually did, and it is the house in which you now find yourself. You’re surprised, cher, there you are with your eyebrows again. And your smile. You are kind to humor an old man. Let us have one more scotch. I realize our evening together is nearly finished.
When can you visit next friend? I am anxious to tell you about my family, if time affords. Tonight I think I’ll stay up for a while longer. The scotch will put me to sleep in time, and this Schubert record has a long while to go before the needle breaks. Please, forgive an old friend for not seeing you to the door. It is unlocked, leave it so. Tonight I would invite in any stranger. Do not worry yourself. All my enemies are dead now, with the exception of me.
December 19, 2010
You thought, mon ami réfléchi, that you would find me hanging in the garage, I think? I apologize. It was unfair of me to foreshadow such events with the Schubert when last you left some weeks ago. Please do come in. It is as cold as ever out there. Your cheeks are so red cher.
Have a seat please, by the fire. It will keep you warm, and will help us drink the pleasanter. I am not well, my friend. I fear there is little time left me. I do not fear death, cher, only that it will enjoin me from seeing your face. To me, a fear of death is irrational. After all, it happens to every living person. I might as well fear the moon. Please, enjoy yourself. That scotch on the armrest suits you well enough by now. Won’t you give me a smile, mon ami? You are an attractive mammal.
Since you last left, I’ve been calling myself all manner of racial epithets in my head. It’s an old habit, and one I did in public as a matter of course. It was a dirty little secret unknown to the passersby. I so wish I had continued to tell you about my family, as I believe I was on a good narrative last time, and am so out of my wits at present. You are sitting in my late wife’s home. Perhaps if I touch my finger to the fire. Do not worry, friend. It is old skin, and a blister means nothing at this stage in life. The fire is hot, mon cher. But that’s a plain observation.
I’ve been thinking these weeks about the day I followed Sylvie from her church to this house. It was raining greatly, and I followed her without an umbrella like a madman. I’ve often tried to fight the elements, friend. Have you ever swung with actual rage at snowflakes?
She was a vision from behind. The way her long black hair cascaded down the back of her raincoat and bowed outward at the bottom of her scapulae. The way her umbrella rose and fell with her step. The way she clutched her coat together with her free hand when the wind picked up. Her subtle pronation. She hadn’t turned around to notice me until she was at her own gate, ready to enter. I stood not a far distance from her and stared blankly. I cracked a smile, and took off my hat, letting the rain dampen what hair I then had. Sylvie invited me to some hot tea and a warm fire. Yes, cher, that very fireplace. She was a good Catholic. We were married in the church on April 3, 1962. Monsieur, the rest is history. We were perfectly unhappy ever after and raised five inferior children. Excuse me. I must attend to myself. This cough is at its worst yet. Monsieur, you must forgive me again. I will return momentarily. Please, enjoy a cigarette. Will you pour me a second scotch? I have lost much blood today, it seems. Say, let us enjoy one last smoke together. I am only realistic, mon gentil ami. This is scotch worth savoring. You are so delicate in your disposition, cher. Will you sit with me on the couch? You know, it is the insane who have beaten the sane by merely going on living. Cher, please hold me. Monsieur, I haven’t spoken with any of my children in over two decades. Monsieur, my heart. I cannot make the words, cher. This, no, this cannot be it, cher. If you please, grip me tight. The blood is, this is no time for – Mon cher, I killed so many of my patients. Some of them even asked for it. I was merciful. You must know. Cher, cher. Let me die with dignity. Please don’t record this. I am so very –
From the Montreal Gazette, December 21, 2010
Dr. Theodore Prideux, 87.
Dr. Theodore Prideux, 87, died Dec. 19, 2010, at his home in Montreal. At his request, no service will be held. Dr. Prideux was born on August 3, 1923 in Montreal to Ricard and Dion Prideux, the youngest of their eight children. Dr. Prideux served honorably in World War II, seeing combat in Normandy, France. He was the recipient of the France and Germany Star, the Companion of the Order of the Bath, and the Military Medal. On his return from the war, Dr. Prideux became a doctor. He cared for and treated thousands of cancer patients in his four-decade long career as an oncologist.
Dr. Prideux was an active volunteer in his community, and a devoted member of his church. He served on the committees of numerous charities, and was the archetype of a benevolent and dutiful citizen and Christian. His interests included reading, gardening, and spending time with his family. At the time of his death, he was collaborating with an author to assist in writing his personal memoirs.
Dr. Prideux is preceded in death by his wife, Sylvie. He is survived by five children, fourteen grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Condolences may be sent, at Dr. Prideux’s request, to Montreal author Gabriel Martin, P.O. Box 1395, Montreal, QC H2C 5H7, Canada.