I picked up a paper flower that was lying on the ground. I stuck it behind my ear and began dancing around the piano seductively. Adam was just about to get up and come and grab me when someone else took hold of my arm. I turned to see that it was the priest. I thought he was going to scold me for behaving like a salope around an agent of the Lord.
Instead, he asked me if I wanted to try out for the pageant. I wasn’t even dressed up. I was wearing a black sweater with stars on it and red shorts and some cowboy boots that I’d stolen from Nicolas. I had a barrette with a plastic daisy in my hair.
I told the priest I had no intention whatsoever of participating in their beauty pageant, which was insulting to women. I was a feminist and was here to sign up for night school. I was about to walk away, but this old man in a suit put his arms out to block me from going any farther. He was one of those men who are absurdly short. They were children during the Depression and had to eat boiled stone soup. They didn’t like to talk, either; they were just always gesturing for you to do things. Now, he put his arms around me and then started pushing me up onto the stage.
“Mais, t’es complètement malade!” I cried.
The priest seemed to be perfectly OK with all of this. The absurdity of the situation struck me and I just started to laugh and laugh. I yelled for Adam to come and save me. But he called out that it served me right. That’s what I got for trying to be such a big shot.
Here I was up on stage again. It came back to me how your feet made an echo on the stage as if you were a giant. There were six other girls standing there. One seemed to have a head cold and kept sneezing violently.
The priest and three other men sat in a row of chairs in front of the stage and looked at us. The priest liked to be involved in anything that was happening. If there was a pickup game of basketball in the park, he would want to be part of it. He liked to procrastinate from saving souls, I guess. One of the men had a mop leaning against his chair, so he was probably the janitor. They asked us to strike different poses. We had to close our eyes and pretend that we were flowers. We waved our arms up in the air as if they were petals. One of the men, in a yellow sweater that was five sizes too big, asked us if we could blow a kiss at him. A girl who thought that this was beneath her climbed down off the stage. The janitor said that we should hold our hair up over our heads.
The priest asked us whether or not we had any particular talents. One girl could say the alphabet backwards. I thought this was lovely. The janitor shrugged his shoulders and said that it wasn’t a very sexy talent. Another girl made her lips look like those of a fish. She apologized for having a zit on her forehead, then started giggling.
There was a girl with blond hair. She was so pale, it gave the impression that she’d been scrubbed clean. I thought she was prettier than me. She was able to do the splits. The men looked impressed.
I didn’t have any talents. But when it was my turn, for some idiotic reason, I recited the lyrics from one of my dad’s songs as if they were a poem.
I chased a black cat down the street
It led me to your door
You were wearing your grandfather’s hat
At first I thought you were the ugliest girl
That I had ever seen.
“Marie-Jo! Marie-Jo! Marie-Jo!” they all started singing together.
“Aren’t you Étienne Tremblay’s kid? Little Nouschka Tremblay!”
“Little Nouschka!” Everyone started chiming in.
The men put their heads together, then looked at us and announced that I had won. They did a quick photo shoot of me holding a scepter and standing in front of a large piece of black paper covered in stars. They said it was to go in the hallway. Plainly, I just got the title because of who I once had been. I was trying my best to straighten out my life, but I always ended up in the middle of some festive waste of time.
II. My Father Is Étienne Tremblay
I suppose I should tell you right now who our father is. Everybody else knows. Étienne Tremblay had been a pretty famous Quebecois folk singer in the early ’70s. He recorded two albums that were everywhere. Back in the day, he could come home from a show with a paper bag filled with women’s underwear. Outside of Quebec nobody had even heard of him, naturally. Quebec needed stars badly. The more they had, the better argument they had for having their own culture and separating from Canada.
There was a signed black-and-white photograph of him over the counter at the hot dog place. Mostly, he wore a black suit and a top hat. The top hat was his trademark. He bought it at a costume shop in Vieux-Montréal and fell in love with it. He had blue eyes, a giant nose and was ridiculously tall. He had been really handsome, as handsome as an American. A lot of people had said that he could have been a huge star if he had learned to sing in English. But he hated the English. Hating them was the true passion of his life.
Étienne Tremblay had a terrible singing voice. I had heard him trying to sing a Pepsi tune while washing out a coffee cup, and it sounded awful. He couldn’t even carry “Frère Jacques.” Once a newspaper article had called him the Tone Deaf Troubadour. People would ask Nicolas and me if we had inherited his musical abilities. It was safe to say that we had, seeing as we didn’t have any at all.
His real talent, what people went crazy for, was his knack for writing song lyrics. There was a song about a mechanic who builds a snowmobile that can go faster than the speed of light. There was one about a grandpapa who has gas. There was a song about a tiger that escapes from le Zoo de Granby to go eat poutine. He had a song about a man who finds a magical cigarette that doesn’t end, and he never has to come back from his cigarette break. He made the ridiculous squalor that was everyday life sublime. There was no subject that was beneath Étienne Tremblay.
And he was a bon vivant. Everyone loved him for it. He inhaled helium and sang a Gilles Vigneault song on a variety show. There was an interview with him where he claimed to have slept with three hundred women by the time he was 21. He was arrested at a raid at a dirty movie theater, but this only made people like him more because he had a song about Édouard who finishes work and goes to the dirty movie theater and always has to make up crazy excuses to his wife about where he has been.
He got caught with prescription pills that weren’t his and was arrested again. He did well in jail. All the other prisoners liked him. He talked to the other prisoners about what some old washed-up stars from the ’70s were like in bed. He claimed to have gone down on Petula Clark. He came out of prison each time like a war hero. Until he finally ended up being sentenced for eight whole months.
To say that Étienne’s fame had gone to his head would be an understatement. He really believed that he had a higher calling. I think he ranked himself up there with Jesus, and I’m not even exaggerating.
Oh and, how could I forget, in the middle of all this he had two kids who became famous too because Étienne always brought them on stage and on talk shows with him. He would make us come out and wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written for us. We were known by everyone as Petite Nouschka and Petit Nicolas.