Backfield Cluster

Chantal and Sheryl

I’m in Montreal to spend the weekend with Sheryl and Chantal. I lived here from 1973 until 1979 and I haven’t seen them since. We met playing soccer. We were the backfield cluster. Chantal played defense. I was the sweeper. And Sheryl was the goalie. When I left in 1979, we had made plans to meet up on Mount Royal on July 4th, 1984 at midnight but I never made it. I was in Venezuela then, hoping I could stay there forever.

It’s 1 a.m. and I’m standing outside the hotel on Avenue du Parc. I saw the lit up cross on top of Mount Royal when I came outside and I’m tucked in between the hotel wall and a no parking sign, looking to see it from a better angle. A man walks by. I watch him and I don’t think he sees me but, suddenly, he turns around to face me.

“You must be a tourist,” he says.

“Is it that obvious?” I say.

“As long as I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen anyone stand where you’re standing.”

We introduce ourselves, shake hands. He’s Marco. I’m Shannon.

“Are you walking anywhere?” he asks.

“I’m going to find coffee and something to eat,” I say.

“I’ll walk with you.” So we walk. He tells me he’s an artist. I tell him I’m a writer.

“I haven’t painted for two months,” he says, “I’m afraid I’m all done.”

“That’s an excuse.” I say.

“Do you like sushi?” he asks.

“Not tonight” I say.

He holds up the bag he’s carrying. “Everyone gives me food because I’m such a big person. I don’t even like sushi.

After we’ve walked  a couple blocks, he says, “Do you want to sit? I have to rest.” There’s a bench so we sit and he hands me his iPhone and I look at his paintings. I like them. He reaches over to enlarge the photo I’m looking at.

“This I painted when I learned I had diabetes. The nerves crashing. The blood sick, you know.” And here I am thinking it was the shallows of the sea-  brain coral and scissor tails and angel fish.

A couple of Marco’s street friends walk over to greet him and I take my leave. I’m surprised when ten minutes later he finds me in the coffee shop.

“I have a gift for you.” he says, and pulls out a business card. “I burned it around the edges because I thought it looked better.”

I remember doing that when I lived here, giving everything I wrote a brown and jagged edge.

Again I take my leave.

“Take care, Marco.”, I say, because what else can be said to someone whose company you enjoyed and who you”ll never see again? Encounters like this are easy. There isn’t the measure of remembrance.


I have the whole next day to wander the city before I meet up with Chantal and Sheryl.  I’m walking toward the old port, The Quays, and find myself in the square in front of Notre Dame basilica. I sit down and a Hari Krishna woman comes over to offer me a cookie. I never see Hari Krishnas in Minnesota. Thirty four years ago I would’ve taken the cookie only because she wanted me to take it. In that way I’ve changed. With typical canadian politeness, I tell her no thank you.

There’s an admission fee for tourists at Notre Dame but when I walk through the door, the woman behind the desk says, “Tu es ici pour la messe?”, You’re here for Mass?

Reflexively I say, “Oui”, but I say it like a true Québécoise, pronouncing it “whey” and clipping the y. I walk in as if I belong.

The stained glass windows are open. I didn’t know they could do that. Why did the carpenter carve out those jagged spires? Why is there art layered upon more art, upon even more art? How to awe the simple person. But I’m not awed and, despite the beauty, I’m feeling a little crowded. And I think of the dream I had of my mom, years ago.

In the dream I was at her house looking for her and not finding her. All around me was the most beautiful furniture I’d ever seen and I would’ve hung out with the tables and chairs and dressers if I hadn’t been so intent upon finding my mother. They quivered with life, with soul.

I realize as I look up into the starry ceiling of the church that this is exactly an artist’s problem. We can create beauty, sometimes extreme beauty, but we can’t give it life. And I think this because no matter how much I might love a song or a poem or a painting, at some point I tire of it.

I’m much happier in La chapelle du Sacré-Cœur at the back of the church, with the golden sunlight and the fat brass faces behind the altar.

Is this nostalgia, the feeling of happiness I get when I hear the priest speaking french fast and loud? Is it because I’ve hit the mid century mark that what I knew in my youth pulls at me? It is true that, later, when I do meet up with Sheryl and Chantal, I will look at them and think they’re still young and beautiful. I will feel like a tubular plant in the flower garden. For all the years I didn’t wear make up, didn’t apply lotion, I suppose I never thought I’d age.

As the priest keeps talking, I know it isn’t about wanting to return to youth because I’m not even thinking about that. I’m not really thinking about anything. I’m taking a bath in language. I’ll feel this same contentment on Saturday when Chantal’s daughter, who is more francophone than anglo, comes to visit. She skips so naturally, back and forth, between french and english. And I remember some friends I had in Caracas who spoke a mix of french and english and spanish. I remember not saying much. I just wanted to listen. I want to be in that milieu.

This is how the weekend passes, sorting and sifting through memory and language. Finally, at fifty, I’ve slowed down enough that sound and image and understanding settle easily in my head.

On Sunday before Sheryl leaves to go back home to Toronto, she washes the windows of her car, inside and out. That isn’t something I would think of doing, especially after drinking wine the night before. She has taken on some passengers for the trip back. And even after one of them, a pregnant woman, throws up in the car and tries to cover the smell with a bottle of perfume, even after she learns that they are not going to Toronto at all but to Niagara Falls, she drives far out of her way to get her and her boyfriend to the train station. Sheryl’s always been one of those people who seem to bounce like a well inflated ball, doing what needs doing, reacting quickly and assuredly. This is why she was goalie. But I’d forgotten how kind she is.

While Sheryl is one her way back home, Chantal and I walk her big, big dogs in a steady rain. We walk up Fredmir, along Manuel, past Chantal’s old house, up Glenbrook, where I used to deliver the Montreal Gazette in the early hours of winter. Now we are on my street. The Quesnels lived there, the Floods over there. Here is my house, 17 Sandringham. The baby spruce my dad planted is now a tower.

Then we walk down Silverbirch, past the house where, when I went collecting, the people always said they’d just paid last week.

Chantal points to a corner house and says, “He was so cute with his curly blond hair. Did you know his parents were survivors of the Holocaust? I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust.”

“Me, too.” I say, “The problem of evil in our world.”

And I think this is one reason we were such good friends. We approach life similarly. Chantal has always been defending against darkness. I’ve always been trying to sweep it away. We are still the backfield cluster.

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