“He died yesterday, just after noon. Right here.”
That’s what the crying woman at Sherbrooke metro station said, through the plexiglass, about her beloved coworker, the grey-haired ticket-taker who’d come in to work a half-hour early every day, for over 40 years. Just so he could write sweet little handwritten notes to all the people he’d sell tickets to during his shift.
Martin still had yesterday’s ticket in his pocket. It read: “Bonne Journée!”
“He was a good man,” she said, choking back tears.
She was still in the booth at the end of the day, looking at something on her phone, when Martin passed by on his way home from work.
DJ Manifest, his favorite busker, was launching rhymes down the tunnel. “With so much drama in the Q-B-C, it’s kinda hard bein’ anythin’ but A-D-D; but, somehow, some way, we keep comin’ up with funky ass shit like every single day.”
Martin dropped a ten-spot in his case without stopping. It was already 4:45 p.m. and he was supposed to meet DesPierres at Else’s by five. There was urgency in his old friend’s message, panic suggesting lateness wasn’t an option.
The Montreal confronting him outside the Sherbrooke metro was grey and dismal. It’s November now, he thought. The month that makes psalmists of us all. Saint-Louis Square was peaceful, eerily so, like Times Square in a disaster movie, just before the comet hits. Strangely absent, though, were the park’s perennial pigeons who’d huddle like gangs in a schoolyard, gossiping and boasting, catching up and hooking up.
Then Martin saw the peregrine falcon, perched on a low-hanging tree branch, methodically tearing a pigeon to shreds. She was plucking out its feathers the way a Westmount matron might weed her garden; clipping off its pink feet the way a prudent pruner might take shears to rosebushes. The blood, feathers, and feet were strewn all over the ground below. It was beautiful, even sublime, the way mushroom clouds are beautiful and sublime.
But then Schopenhauer killed the mood, as dour philosophers often will, questioning the ethics of his aesthetics. Here’s what the grumpy German guy said, what he whispered into Martin’s ear: There are those who say pleasure outweighs pain or, at any rate, that there’s an even balance between them in this broken, burning world of ours. But we both know that’s bullshit. And anyone who doubts it should compare the daily pleasure of the feeding falcon to the searing pain of the pigeon being eaten raw and alive.
But then he remembered his friend DesPierres, probably waiting for him, right now, at the bar. His mind strode quickly away from the park, until he could feel himself turning away — far away — from the horror.
DesPierres wasn’t there when Martin got to Else’s. But everybody else was: Avrom, King David, Benoît, Hunter, Aaron, Louis — the usual suspects. King David nodded hello before returning to his book. Benoît looked up from his laptop: “Salut, Martin.” And, as expected, Avrom made fun of Martin’s Movember stache. “More virtue-signaling, Señor Smartypants? Social justice warrior shit!”
“No, not really. I’m not even sure what the fuck this is for. Cancer of the balls or something. I’m only doing it because one of my students asked me to. He’s really into it. Youthful idealism. It’s catchy. But this is a one-off, that’s for sure. I’m not doing it next year. Never again. Strangers stare when you’re sporting a stache. Half of them think you’re an undercover cop. The rest that you’re a retired porn-star with bad credit and genital warts.”
“Why’d you go along with this politically-correct bullshit in the first place? Movember. Seriously? Seriously! You’re going soft in middle age, Señor Smartypants, just like that Jonathan Kay guy.”
“Look, Avrom, I know you’d like to believe Kay’s a traitor who sold out to the CBC-mafia for a seat at the grown-up table, but that ain’t so. I’ve been reading him for years, and his politics haven’t changed much. But yours have. Kay hasn’t drifted left; you’ve drifted right, far right, into a wacky world, a batty Breitbart world, swarmed by radicals and reactionaries who aren’t particularly conservative. Kay didn’t abandon you. You abandoned him.”
Avrom rolled his eyes: “Ever notice how drunks, druggies, and gamblers always have a friend they always compare themselves to who’s a total fuck-up? You know, the kind of guy who pukes in your flowerpot, knocks over the Christmas tree, passes out during dinner, and pisses himself on the couch. At first you can scarcely imagine why he hangs with that guy at all, right? But sooner or later, you realize that your buddy keeps him around because he makes him feel better about his own life. ‘Sure, I party pretty hard on the weekends, but that guy’s doing lines on Tuesdays, and getting wasted at work! I’ve got this shit under control. But that guy’s gotta slow down!’”
“What’s your point, Avrom?”
“You’re that guy, Señor Smartypants. You’re like a flying fish, who leaves the water from time to time (albeit briefly). You know the water’s water, and that there’s something else above. But you’re still a fucking fish.”
Benoît laughed without looking up from his laptop. “Don’t feed the troll, Martin, don’t feed the troll.”
Martin smiled and turned to King David: “What are you reading?”
“René Grousset’s Empire of the Steppes. Aaron’s been trying to get me to read it for years.”
“Shows promise, I guess. Excellent actually. And funny in places, too. Get this: after his brother confronts him about his drinking problem in 1241, Ögedei Khan, the second Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, agrees to limit himself to a glass a day. But he’s careful not to specify the size of the glass, so from then on he slurps from a freakishly large, custom-made glass, that can easily hold two bottles of wine.”
They all laughed. Then Louis said: “I need a glass like that, King David. Seriously, if I’m gonna get through another Trump speech, I need a fucking glass like that.”
Hunter, who’d been flirting with the waitress since Martin arrived, returned to the table: “You don’t need a special glass, Louis. You need a special strategy. If you wanna get through a Trump speech, you gotta get your mind right. First you’ve gotta imagine that he’s got hot Dothraki backup singers who sing ‘It is known, it is known’ after everything he says. Then you’ve gotta imagine that Trump isn’t man, but a gigantic throbbing, talking penis. And when the camera pans across the crowd, imagine that you’re looking at a sea of cheering minions from Despicable Me.”
“Can I get you boys anything?” It was Chantal, the redhead waitress, so they ordered another round of drinks. When she was out of earshot, King David solemnly proclaimed “Remember, guys, blessèd are those who tip well at Else’s, for great is their reward in the heavenly kingdom of The Plateau.”
DesPierres arrived, just after six, apologizing profusely for being so late.
“It’s all good. Been chillin’ with the Else’s crew. And I’m in no rush. Wife and kids are in the States for the weekend.”
After introducing him to the guys, Martin led DesPierres to a corner table in the back where they could catch up in peace.
“My God, Martin! How long’s it been? Five years? Ten years?”
“At least ten.”
They talked about the vicissitudes of married life for the better part of an hour. Swapped parental war stories. As had always been the case, Martin’s stories were funny, but DesPierres’s stories were funnier: “So I’m the park with my blonde, blue-eyed, Aryan-looking son, and he loudly proclaims, in the middle of the playground: ‘I want the Jews! I want your Jews! Give me the Jews!’ He meant, of course, that he wanted his sippy-cup filled with apple juice. But, um, well, that wasn’t clear to the other parents. Especially the Hasidic ones. Don’t think I’ll ever forget that sea of stares. Those looks of shock and horror.”
“Can I get you guys anything?” It was Chantal again.
“Yeah, can I get a pint of rousse, a shot of Jameson, and the pulled-pork sandwich.”
Martin turned to DesPierres: “How about you?”
“I’ll take another McAuslan.”
“Pas de problème.”
“Look, DesPierres, I’m not complaining or anything. It’s great to see you but why’m I here? Why the emergency? Everything okay? You okay?”
DesPierres laughed that deep belly laugh that made him the life of every party when they were young. “I’m not dying of cancer, Martin. It’s nothing like that. Marilou and I are fine. Work’s fine. The kids are great. It’s nothing like that.”
He cleared his throat, sipped his beer, and took a deep breath. “Okay, here’s the deal: I think I may have serendipitously stumbled upon the solution to one of history’s greatest riddles. And yes, Martin, I know that sounds crazy. Like, Dan Brown, Da Vinci Code crazy. But hear me out, okay?”
“There are many versions of the riddle, but this is the one I heard when I was a kid: A blind war veteran goes into a seafood restaurant, orders shark, eats one bite, and kills himself. Took us hours to figure that one out, and hundreds of questions. But I’ll spare you all that, skip to the solution, and tell you what happened: Four decades ago, in the Second World War, the soldier in question — the one who just killed himself — was shot down in the Pacific Theater. The airplane crash-landed on a remote desert island. He was blinded by the explosion, but the other two survivors, friends of his, weren’t.”
“There’s plenty of fresh water on the island but hardly any food. So the three soldiers are soon on the brink of starvation. The two soldiers who weren’t blinded do the unthinkable: they begin cooking and eating the corpses of the five men in their unit who’d died in the plane crash. Out of love for their blind friend, they decide to lie to him. They tell him he’s eating shark. After all, they figure, there’s no reason for all three of us to live with this horrific knowledge. Besides, if we survive this war, he’s going to be handicapped by blindness for the rest of his life. No reason to be handicapped by nightmares too.”
“The three men are rescued a month later. But the memory of what they did to survive proves too much for the two men, who know the truth. One becomes a smelly recluse who drinks himself to death before his 30th birthday, whilst the other — who seemed fine to everyone, including his wife — blows his brains out after a New Year’s Eve party in 1950. The blind vet’s post-war life isn’t nearly so tragic. He marries his high school sweetheart, settles down in the suburbs, gets a job with the city, and fathers five children. But alas, on that fateful day, four decades after the war, our blind vet is forced to face up to the truth. And it crushes him.”
“I realize now, and only in retrospect, that the riddle’s dramatic conclusion attests to the strength of the cannibalism taboo in our culture. It’s clearly much stronger, for instance, than the incest taboo. Very few of us fantasize about eating a sibling, but—studies prove this—a fair number of us have, at some point, fantasized about sleeping with one. But whatever. The riddle’s main problem—logistically speaking—is that human flesh doesn’t taste anything like shark. It does, however, taste just like pork. Smells like it too.”
“How the fuck do you know what burning human flesh smells like, DesPierres?”
DesPierres thought long and hard.
“You remember we were stationed in Nigeria for four years, right?”
“Um, yeah. I saw something about that on Facebook. Marilou posted pictures from time to time, right?”
“Yup. I wasn’t allowed to. But she did, from time to time. Anyhow, as you can imagine, I saw some seriously fucked up shit over there. But nothing weirder than what I’m gonna tell you. An open-air cremation.”
“I don’t know why — maybe it was a bucket-list thing — but this balding white guy from Toronto in his late fifties decides he wants to bicycle from Cape Town to Casablanca, all by himself. Crazy, right? Anyhow, he’s doing it. And blogging about it. And it’s going well, remarkably well actually, all things considered.”\
“Until he gets hit by a truck on some stretch of road in Nigeria. The local authorities notified us. And notified the man’s family. Offered my condolences and asked what they wanted to do. They said they wanted me to arrange to have the body flown back to Canada. This place really was in the middle of nowhere. Took us forever to get there. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The roads were terrible, we were robbed at machine-gun-point, the van broke down twice, and one of my bodyguards got so sick we had to send him back to Lagos in an ambulance.”
“The corpse stank bad by the time we got there, though the local authorities had done their best. It’s just that electric power is spotty everywhere, even the cities, and generators are always running out of fuel until someone steals some more. After inspecting the body for foul play, we concluded that it was indeed just an accident. The cyclist was still carrying his money, cards, and belongings. Nothing was missing. And four witnesses attested to the fact that he was at fault. Somehow he’d cycled all across Africa like it was Rosedale on Easter Sunday.
“I contacted the family. Told them that shipping the body home wasn’t going to be possible, and even if it were they’d want to keep the casket closed and the church doors open. They caught on fast and agreed cremation would be fine. Told me where to send the ashes. Of course this is Africa, right! And we were in the middle of a fucking desert. So getting enough wood for the open-air cremation took us another day and much out-of-pocket. The cremation itself took half a day. And the body smelled, well, like pork. In fact, it didn’t smell like pork; it smelled exactly like pork.”
Martin thought about the pulled pork sandwich he’d ordered and felt a wave of nausea wash over him.
“In her anthropological classic, Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas trashed our anachronistic understanding of the prohibition of pork found in the Book of Leviticus. ‘Even if some of Moses’ dietary rules were hygienically beneficial, it’s a pity to treat him as an enlightened public health administrator, rather than a spiritual leader.’ Douglas details an alternate explanation for the prohibition’s origin in Leviticus as Literature. It’s a provocative and profoundly learned argument, the product of a lifetime devoted to serious study. But it’s also rather far-fetched. Imagine what a really smart version of The Da Vinci Code might look like. Regardless, my guess is that the prohibition of pork emerged for rather pragmatic reasons along with the prohibition of ritualistic cannibalism and the ban on human sacrifice.”
“The clues have always been right there, hiding in plain sight, in an altogether familiar story: a Middle Eastern Sky God — with a jealous streak as long as the Jordan — tells an Iron Age patriarch to sacrifice his only legitimate son. Dying without a rightful heir was a terrifying possibility for a patriarch like Abraham. It meant a fate worse than death, namely, the death of his line, his name and therefore his memory. That being the case, nothing demonstrated faith and trust in your god more than the sacrifice of your firstborn son.”
“And the ‘Father of Faith’ was prepared to do it. Abraham takes his son Isaac to the top of the Mountain and ties him up. Out comes the ceremonial blade. The knife is at his son’s throat. And he’s just about to slit it open when an angel of the LORD calls out to him from heaven: ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.’”
“If Hyam Maccoby is right — and I firmly believe he is — the Abraham and Isaac story is a mythological representation of a massive cultural shift: from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. In The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt, Maccoby maintains that although ‘the institution of human sacrifice was widely practiced throughout the ancient world,’ it gradually gave way to animal sacrifice ‘because growing civilization and humanitarianism, combined with a higher valuation of human status and a lessened awe of animals, caused a horror of human sacrifice to develop.’”
“The instructive purpose of the Abraham and Isaac story is ‘to show that God Himself ordained that animal sacrifice should be substituted for human sacrifice. At the same time, the story contains no moral revulsion from the very idea of human sacrifice. On the contrary, it is imputed to Abraham as extraordinary merit that he was willing to sacrifice his favorite son, Isaac, at the behest of God.’”
“But alas, there were then — as there’ve always been — conservatives who cling to the old ways, resist change, and hate innovations—as well as the faddish reformers who champion them. Politically-incorrect patriarchs of this stamp would have stubbornly kept on practicing human sacrifice, albeit under cover of darkness. Probably took centuries to force these guys — and the pockets of resistance they represented — to get with the program and fall into line. My guess is that the prohibition of pork emerged during this period as part of an ongoing attempt to enforce the ban on human sacrifice.”
“When Marilou was a kid, her home state of New Jersey banned the keeping of crows as pets. They did this despite the fact that crows were not, as a species, endangered in any way. Their rationale was based on two irrefutable facts: (1) ravens make really great pets, especially if you get them when they’re young; and, (2) it’s really hard for most people to tell the difference between an immature raven and an immature crow. Ravens were (and still are) seriously endangered, and nest poaching for the pet trade was putting further pressure on their dwindling numbers. As such, New Jersey officials wanted to end the practice. But a prohibition on the keeping of ravens as pets was proving exceedingly difficult, because pet store owners who were caught red-handed could always plausibly plead ignorance: ‘I swear, officer, I thought it was a baby crow.’ So they decided to close the loophole by banning crows and ravens. I suspect that pork was banned for similar reasons.”
“So, um, what do you think, Martin?”
Martin waved until he got Chantal’s attention. She came over to their table. “So sorry the order’s taking so long. Kitchen’s short-staffed and really busy.”
“That’s fine. I’m in no rush. Just wanted to know if it was too late to change my order.”
“No, it’s not. What do you want?”
“Think I’m gonna go with the vegetarian chili.”
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here: A Love Letter to Montréal (2017)