Before Marie, I don’t know what ma grand-mère was like. I know she was a seamstress at a department store in Trois-Rivières, a half-hour commute she travelled by bus, boat, and foot. I know the first time mon grand-père asked her to dance she refused him. I know it was 1958. I know she had been fatherless for twenty-four years, and I know it wouldn’t be long before she did indeed dance with him. Nor would it be long before her stomach swelled. When I think of her as a young woman, I always imagine her walking briskly somewhere and stopping to buy cigarettes, her long fingers reaching across a white counter to grab the pack before her heels clack out the door that clangs behind her. It is just as brief as are all my real memories of ma grand-mère. The flash of a coin trapped in her fist while she scratched out lottery tickets at the dinner table. Watching her fragile wrists while she scooped hard pink ice cream into my bowl. The terrible shine of the sun on her back porch, whose table, chairs, and rail that wrapped around it were white plastic. Sniffing my fingers after an afternoon in her garden tugging carrots out of the dirt. The broken cassette player she gave me as a gift. The rainy day she held my hand at the grocery store. The way she stuck a crooked middle finger to the side when she was talking about the neighbors. The year the blue smoke disappeared. More than a decade ago, after the doctors warned her that a simple case of pneumonia could end her life—as it did her father’s—she quit. She wanted to see her grandchildren grow up. At the end, “The doctors said she had a strong heart,” was what my mother repeated, as if to absolve this organ from the lungs. I wonder if the same was said about Arthur Bourque and Marie.
Before the funeral, we sleep in the bungalow she and mon grand-père moved into during their early sixties. The basement is still hot, the wood stove window smudged with an orange glow. It still smells like mon grand-père after a long day at the farm. The coat stand is still on duty, the backs of long jackets and their sleeves hanging as they always had, most of them only memories of what it feels like to be filled. The cooler is still packed with meat and unsatisfied, grumbling like a carnivore’s stomach. The water pipes gurgle lullabies from above. The pillows are hard and unadjustable, the mattresses stiff as the concrete floor. I barely sleep, as usual. It is still home, but in a bare, skeletal way, as if the organs had been recently removed. The house will be sold soon. I feel like a clumsy intruder, shuffling aimlessly into the rooms of mes grands-parents—rooms I would have never gone into while they were here—then wandering out, as if they will be back at any moment. Everywhere I look, there is something missing. The wooden salad bowl has already been taken. The golden cross ma grand-mère wore was peeking from my cousin’s neck the day before. My mother looks blankly at the cheap jewelry that remains. Wearing her mother’s wool cardigan, she reaches into its pockets to pull out clumped, used tissues. What isn’t missing is in boxes. Boxes full of buttons in the room where she worked. Boxes of magazines. Bottles of Tanqueray hidden in shoeboxes, the typewriter box, each one with a shot’s worth left. Boxes of letters, of elegant cursive. Boxes of photographs, from which I take four, from which I begin writing.
“They don’t have funerals like this in cities,” my father whispers to me. The entire town, and the town over, and my two sisters, my parents, and I, came. I was baptized here, in the same church that mes grand-parents and my parents were wed, and I haven’t returned until today. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands by the altar, looking no one in the eye, staring past the end of the knotted line of visitors that stretch out the door as if waiting for someone who should already be here. Mon grand-père was almost absent. Mon oncle Martin takes him for a drive around town during the morning to change his mind. Or perhaps it’s his name that needs changing—Louis—or the name his wife called him, mon loup. Or his very bones, the small belly he gained since he stopped working, his pale, rickety legs. Perhaps he simply doesn’t want to be himself today, because he wakes up and says he isn’t going. You can only drive around a town like Saint Grégoire for so long before the landmarks are mirrors, until you see the same streets and the same dépanneur and the same blue-eyed neighbors so many times you see yourself. He goes, of course. He was married to ma grand-mère for fifty-six years. He is at the head alongside my mother as we, my cousins, uncle, and aunt, stand behind in single-file until our calves ache. We receive so many kisses and repetitions of mes condoléances that everyone’s lips become predictable. The handshakes, too, become automatic, my hands spring-charged, holstered in my pocket. The older men have a hardened, worn feel, like baseball gloves, fingers thick as expensive cigars, business grasps. The teenagers have limp wrists, their palms slack, numb as if minutes before their knuckles had been stung by bees, their eyes elsewhere. Standing beside me is my cousin Anthony. He has reached the ambiguous age of twelve where his cheeks are stilled pinched and his hair is still ruffled even though he stands straight-backed and knows how to drive a tractor. My mother is told her mother had the best sucre à la crème, a dessert whose recipe is simple as brown and white sugar and cream, mixed and spread in a pan on the stove, cooked, and then left out on the counter to harden. Cut into small square chunks, it was always too sweet for me, enough to make my teeth immediately ache, as they do when I cry. Until a few years ago, I always took a piece for desert out of helpless respect for ma grand-mère, and then nibbled at it until it was a few brown crumbs on a small plate. I look down the aisle where she is next to her father, leaning forward to peck the cheeks of a woman hunched over a cane. Because she doesn’t cry today, she is told that she has her mother’s eyes—des yeux de vitres—eyes of glass, but this is untrue. I saw my mother weep months, weeks, and days before today.
Beside Marie, a small wooden box is lowered into the ground. After being cremated, bolted, and sealed shut, ma grand-mère is buried as close to her as two graves can be under a sky so unresponsively gray it could be from an old photograph, if not for the fresh dirt and the rainbow-colored tissue package my cousin tears open. He pushes them under his sunglasses to wipe his eyes. Cemeteries are perfect for cameras. Even we, the living, barely move, and the raindrops from earlier that morning don’t dare trickle down the black hood of the hearse. Now, it is impossible to visit one without visiting the other. The family has dinner tonight. Before we eat, my father and I take a walk through l’étable. The passageways are dank, their cement streaked with unswept straw that rustle under our steps. I notice the male cats—never neutered, their testicles plump as plums below their long, uppity tails—who don’t make a sound as they pass us. As the cows stick their necks through the bars of their pen, my father pets them with his fist, brushing their heads with his knuckles to avoid being slicked by their tongues. I pet them like a dog, scratching behind their ears, rubbing the wet sticky braille of their noses. When I comment on how unhappy they look, their eyes veined and desperate, my father says “You have never seen a sad cow.” He slaps one of their faces out of his way so he can get a better look at one being milked by the new machinery. “I can walk onto a farm and know if a cow is sick or sad or crazy even before I check their temperature.” When we return to the house, mon grand-père is watching the Canadiens playoff game from an armchair. I sit on the couch beside him, and turn to him whenever Price makes a sprawling save. His face knows how to wince and smile at the same time. He is a widower on the day of his wife’s funeral. His eyes reflect the game, dotted with the Lightning players, a swarm of dark blue cells scattering over the Bell Centre ice as the Canadiens tirelessly defend. When dinner is served, he sits where he always does, at the head of the table.
Beside me are four photographs. They are strewn across my desk, wordless. I leaf through them every morning, looking for a detail I haven’t caught yet. Today, I searched for the sun in the black dress shoes mon grand-père wore the day he carried Marie’s coffin, a tiny glare hidden in the grass. Yesterday, I tried to smell the air from my mother’s first day of school—the odor of dust and plastic. Everyday, I am afraid I will find nothing. Worse, I worry that even the facts are misleading. For instance, I know ma grand-mère died on May 3, 2015, but it seems little more than a date. I pick up her wedding photograph again. She looks beautifully independent from everything that is trying to keep her there, as if she could slide off its surface, like a tablecloth yanked from under a set table, leave mon grand-père standing alone, quivering slightly amongst the still-standing, his arm hanging where it once was wrapped around her waist. She looks timeless. I lay her down next to her father who, trapped in a portrait, looks up wearily, as if he has been studying me for months. All I can do is blink back.
—Benjamin Bouvet-Boisclair lives in transit between New York where he serves tables, and Santiago, Chile, where he teaches English. His work has also appeared in The Literary Bohemian.