Dad hauled the family from Chandler to Baie Comeau the day after Duplessis finally died. Good riddance, Dad had said, reading the morning’s paper. He wasn’t good for anyone, the bastard. And that was September 8. I won’t ever forget, because even though, at age nine, I didn’t know much about old Maurice, I did think it was kind of funny that so many people could be happy about someone dying. It wasn’t just Dad: as he threw the paper into the backseat of our Olds ’88, ready to start our trek to Baie Comeau, our French neighbour, Rémy, came running up and started bashing on the car’s window, pointing to the paper’s front page, a huge smile on his wrinkly face. Dad gave him a short thumbs-up and put the car in reverse. He’d celebrate later.
Mom managed to keep Isabella inside of her for three months after we made it to Baie Comeau. When she came shooting out, I stopped being the youngest, wedged now between her and my older brother, Richard. I didn’t know why, but for some time after Isabella was born, Mom kept telling me that it’s a good thing to be the middle child. Once, Dad overheard, and he just rolled his eyes and said, Yeah, you’re like Québec, not really this thing or this other thing, but somewhere in between.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. We hadn’t quite made it to Baie Comeau, but the smell, no doubt, lived both within and beyond the town. Sulfur, Mom said, before I even had the chance to ask, used to turn the wood into pulp. By the time we moved, Dad had already been working at Baie Comeau’s paper mill for half a year; that’s where the money was. Whenever visitors ask about the smell, Dad said, locals tell them it’s the smell of success. Mom hoped that, eventually, we might start telling people that, too. But right there, in the car, I couldn’t imagine ever thinking of the smell as something other than just rotten.
We lived close enough to the mill to hear its quiet rumbling through the night. I got so used to that sound that I relied on it to put me to sleep. Even in the winter, I’d slide my window open at night to let the hum come in. It became like a member of our household; Mom would let it calm Isabella whenever she couldn’t manage to, and that was often. I adjusted to Isabella’s wailing just like I did to Dad shouting at our RCA Victor TV whenever the news ran stories about those crazy separatist bastards from the FLQ. If it wasn’t Duplessis putting a cloth over any kind of expression, then it had to be these fools blowing things up.
Richard and I started playing hockey, because that’s what you did. You ordered your helmet and Gordie Howe jersey from Eaton’s, and then you’d drag yourself and all of your equipment down to the bumpy ice rink. The teams weren’t split up English and French like the schools were. On the rink, you all played together, and so Richard and I made do with the little French we’d learned in Chandler. The rink wasn’t like the mill. Here, the French kids made the rules.
Dad explained that the transformation from log to paper starts in the hinterlands, which, I learned, is a nicer way of saying someplace that no one would want to live. But that’s what they did, the bûcherons, the woodcutters: they’d live in logging camps, weeks at a time, chopping conifers, which were sent down to Baie Comeau in great, long flumes. Something like wonderful slides, the flumes, leading the logs down into the mill yard. I imagined a bundle of logs frolicking downwards together, a final pleasure before they became pulp and were bleached. They were at the bottom, the bûcherons, and always French Canadian. Even though he was English, Dad worked on the floor with the French, close to the heat of machinery. That was the worst part, Dad would say, how hot it was, how his shirt would stick to his chest, and the English management and engineers just couldn’t know how lucky they were to be up in their cooled offices. If he’d had the education, then maybe that could have been Dad. There were far more French than there were English in Baie Comeau, but the Chicago Tribune owned the mill then, and so the French were good and well barricaded from the upper positions.
At recess, sometimes, we could see the ships leaving the harbour to send the mill’s paper down the St. Lawrence, through Erie, Huron, and on to Chicago, where the paper would then be inked with American headlines and news stories. Whenever my schoolmates caught the ships taking off, blowing horns, they would cheer. I wouldn’t, though. Our English school had been built at Baie Comeau’s highest point, and I didn’t think it was fair to celebrate something—in this case, a view—that not everyone was allowed to have.
I couldn’t play hockey as well as Richard. Mostly, I was happy just to stand as much as possible in the rink’s corner. I managed to feel good enough by reminding myself that I was at least giving Mom and Dad a night alone to watch The Ed Sullivan Show. The other boys ignored me pretty well. There was one, though, that just kept passing me the puck. He’d do it even though the others discouraged it; they knew I was only taking a chance away from someone more deserving. I recognized the boy. I’d see him every now and then, running down Champlain or Laval Street. At first, I thought he kept giving me the puck to be funny. Like he was trying to draw attention to how bad I was. After one of the games, though, he came up to me and asked why it was I never took advantage of the chances he gave me. I tried to explain it was because I wasn’t any good, but he didn’t care about that, said there was no way for me to get better if I just kept playing like I didn’t want to be there. Then he introduced himself. Jean, just like our good premier, Mr. Lesage, he said. He spoke mostly in French, and he spouted decent English whenever he got the impression I hadn’t understood.
Richard and I started sneaking out on Sunday nights. We had begun by just wandering, but eventually we found ourselves always circling the mill. He was already talking about the position he’d get at the mill when he was finished with school. I wouldn’t tell him how the mill’s sounds lulled me at night, how I couldn’t sleep if the window was closed and blocking it out. We came across the high pile of woodchips in the mill yard some time before either of us was brave enough to move past the fence and have a closer look. Someone before us, a kid, probably, had dug a hole in the dirt leading under the chain-link—it curled so that you knew someone had been crawling under it. Richard and I liked to guess who it might have been who’d dug it, even though we both knew that it could have been anyone, really. A wood chipper, whose thick moan was sleep-inducing, spewed fresh wood chips onto the pile through the night, but the mound, already impressive in size, never grew.
Richard eventually got brave enough to pass through the hole. I’d watch to be sure that there wasn’t anyone coming; there were always men working at the mill, didn’t matter what time of day or night it was. He’d run up the pile’s side, then tumble or slide down. As long as you kept to the sides: that was the trick. There was a vacuum below the pile, I’d learned, sucking the woodchips at the pile’s middle into the mill through the night. The pile retained mostly the same height and width because the wood chipper was constantly spewing chips atop the pile’s ever-sinking middle. If a kid were to find himself trapped at the top, being pulled down, once covered by the new chips, it would have been impossible for him to make his way to freedom through the pile’s mass. I always said no, despite Richard’s insistence. It was only fun for him to do alone so many times, and so we’d usually head home after he gave it only a few goes. One night, on our way home, Richard kept talking about how, if he managed to get a job at the mill right out of school, then he’d probably get to work beside Dad for a good decade before it would be time for Dad’s retirement. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t help from shoving my nose into his shoulder and sniffing. You reek of sulfur, I told him, and he just pulled back and smiled, saying, That’s the smell of success, little brother. If he’d reached out to tousle my hair, I think I might have pushed him to the ground.
I started having Jean over on Saturdays for Hockey Night in Canada. We’d all assemble in front of the TV, Dad already in his woollen socks and pyjamas. He was happy to have a French kid around, started calling the three of us—Richard, Jean, and me—les boys. Jean loved talking to my father; once they’d started on our premier, Mr. Lesage, what he was doing, how things were stirring, it was hard for them to stop. The problem is, Jean said to my father one night, this is the quiet revolution, and the FLQ are just too loud. At this, my dad smiled, and I knew that I was jealous, but mostly just impressed. Eventually, it came up that Jean’s papa was one of those bûcherons in the logging camps, tucked in the woods for weeks at a time: The men at the base, under the most strain and always the least appreciated, Dad affirmed. Won’t be long, though, until that’s different, Jean said. The French kids are flooding Montreal, getting good educations. By then, I was twelve, Jean newly thirteen. In conversation, he showed a sophistication belied by the physical vagaries of adolescence.
You couldn’t get away from the smell of sulfur. It was in the school’s hallways, the classrooms. Richard started saying he found the smell to be sweet, but it never stopped bothering me. It was hard to be around the other boys, because their heads were already in the mill, and because I couldn’t help but feel like they carried the smell on them wherever they went. Maybe it was on me, too, but I didn’t want to notice. During recesses, Richard was usually trying to get me to play marbles, or hide-and-seek, or some other game like the rest of the boys. But I liked just sitting and watching the harbour. I wasn’t waiting for those monster ships heading to Chicago, though. Every now and then, past the harbour, you could see whales surfacing, mist spraying from their backs—a sliver of deep slate against the water’s light blue-grey. Sometimes, if the whales were close enough, if they leapt from the water to smack their bellies or backs on it, you could make out a cluster of bright white on their heads. Barnacles, I’d learned from asking Dad.
Once, during recess, while I was sitting and waiting to catch a whale poking through the water, Jean came running up the schoolyard’s hill and into view. I saw him before he saw me, and when he found me looking, he jogged over. When I asked him why he wasn’t in school, he said that it was because he didn’t want to be, and that it was fair to just do what you wanted to every once in a while. I asked him what the French word for barnacle was, and he smiled, saying, Bernacle. It seemed too easy, and so I asked him if he was telling the truth. He told me that I just didn’t like to believe that things could be easy. Jean kicked off his North Star runners and hiked up his pant legs to show his shins to the spring sun. It’s a time of change in Québec, he said; you might be the whale or the barnacle. Either way, you aren’t going to end up where you started. He told me to choose something fun for us to do after dinner, and only one thing came to mind.
Jean laughed when I pointed to the curled chain-link fence and the shallow passage to the mill yard that someone had dug. He said it was lucky that it was nighttime, because it was too dark to see the water in the wharf—slick from all the chemicals that the workers dumped into it. It was the first time that I’d even been past the fence, but I ran up and down the woodchip pile’s sides like it wasn’t new or scary. I invited Jean to try, and he did, but stopped quickly. He thought it was fun, I was sure, but I got the impression he just didn’t care to spend too much time around the mill. Before we could leave, I had him watch me try one last feat. Jean laughed as I pushed my feet into the soft, sinking chips and made my way upward, careful to mind the pile’s peak and the fresh stuff that was being spit out from the wood chipper. I turned to see Jean smile and continued walking up backwards as high as I could. This seems bold, he yelled over the wood chipper’s groan, for the kid who treats a hockey puck like it’s a grenade. When I’d made it high enough to feel the new chips flicking the back of my neck, I looked down at Jean, and I threw my arms up in triumph, but my right leg was pulled suddenly downwards. I thought I might fall onto the pile’s top, and so I swung my arms and threw my body forwards as best I could.
The thrust sent me barrelling down the mound and into Jean. We fell together onto the cement, and I lay on top of him—my head to his chest—as he wheezed. That was too stupid for even me to consider doing, he said. He didn’t help me off of him like I expected, so I stayed lying there, my heart in my throat because I was both thrilled and terrified. It should have felt strange, kissing him—the wrong thing to do—like him passing me the hockey puck all those times, but it just didn’t. He let me keep my lips against his for a few seconds before pulling away. After a short silence, he asked me if I could hear the whales slapping against the water, and I tried, but couldn’t. All I heard was the mill’s hum and the chipper’s buzz. Before I could roll away from him, Jean hugged me and said that we couldn’t kiss again, but that, when winter returned, he’d keep passing me the puck, even though everyone knew how crumby I was at hockey.
The next day, when school was out, I stayed behind while Richard walked home. It didn’t matter what was happening, you could always be sure to catch at least one whale cresting beyond the harbour. I guess I did figure he would show up, and Jean was never one to keep you guessing. He bounced over the hill and into view, declaring, only just close enough for me to make it out, that it was finally happening, that Lesage was finally pulling the Catholic Church’s hands from places it should never have been. Peux-tu le croire? he asked, sitting beside me. Can you believe it? Duplessis must be rolling in his grave. I tried to remember the last time I’d even looked at a newspaper or sat down with Dad to watch a newscast. When I couldn’t come up with an answer for myself, I stared at the water hoping for something to happen. Finally, I asked Jean how he figured a revolution could be quiet. Because at that time, all I knew about revolution was dark paintings of French people with swords in the air. Comme ça, he said, taking my hand, and then we just sat and he listened to me talk about how nice it would be to tack yourself onto something, like the barnacles, and let it pull you to somewhere new.
Reece Cochrane is a queer, Vancouver-based writer from Spruce Grove, Alberta. He holds a BFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. He would like to thank his migratory father for offering childhood memories that permitted the writing of this story.