Letter from Montreal.
No doubt I was making a mess of things. It was half an hour until close on my first dishwashing shift at a Rosemont smokehouse, and the pots, the vats, the pans all piled up reproachfully in the sink, covered with stubborn smears of Carolina barbecue and Quebecois gravy. As I hunched over, scrubbing, the odd bead of sweat dripping onto the sponge, I noticed a goopy yellow liquid with strands of green oozing up from the drain; judging by the colour, a mixture of mac‘n’cheese and spinach had clogged the sink. I was jerkily thrusting the plunger when suddenly the chef turned to me and shouted a question.
I was agog, as if cold-called in lecture; I was light-headed. It was July at the height of the heat wave, with temperatures cresting at 40 degrees with the humidity. Was it the heat? Or did I just not speak enough French?
“Découragé, like are you tired?” he repeated with a dry smile.
“Ah, découragé! Well, peut-être un peu!”
No, I most definitely did not speak enough French. I had hoped that this job would improve my fluency; however, like all anglophones trying to pick up French from their coworkers, I instead used a manic language of hand and facial gestures to communicate various degrees of enthusiasm, diligence, perplexion, and apology, including, but not limited to, a high cock of the head with an open mouth (the What Was That), a tense, determined squat holding a mop (the I’m On It), and a vigorous finger wag (the You Got Me There). Such miming usually succeeded in eliciting a thumbs-up, as it did now. “Make sure the plunger completely covers the hole,” the chef said. As the motley-coloured liquid slunk away, I violently bobbed my head at him to demonstrate my gratitude.
I did not speak French, but I was trying to learn—fervently. Every word I plucked from conversation I whispered to myself over and over. When I stopped whispering a word too soon, it would dissipate like the grill’s fumes in the stagnant air. It required focus for a word to take hold in my mind, but who could focus at 35 degrees? Our shirts had long since pasted to our chests, and one could only dart into the freezer room so many times for reprieve. By now the tap’s hot water felt only irritating and the sole fan stood in the corner looking back and forth as if he didn’t get the joke. Wicking sweat from my eyelids, I stooped over the dishes like a goblin and, hoping that the chef wasn’t listening, whispered to myself “découragé, découragé, découragé!”
I had learned that day that this was becoming an unfortunate habit. I worked two shifts: from 9 AM to 3 PM, and then from 6 PM to midnight. In between, I slipped into a nearby café-bookstore (thankfully air-conditioned), stalking as lightly as possible through the entrance to minimize the squelch of my shoes. As I sat down at the far end of the countertop, I managed a surreptitious sniff of my armpit. No way to tell how bad the smell is, but it’s definitely not good, I thought.
Avoiding eye contact with the cashier, who was smiling frantically, I sat down at the far end of the high countertop, as far as possible from the other customers, swigged several glasses of water and opened Les Fleurs du mal. “Les monstres glapissants, hurlants, grognants, rampants / Dans la ménagerie infâme de nos vices…” Definitely a lot of tricky “r” words, I thought, wiping the sheen from my upper lip and refilling my glass. Glapissants, hurlants, grognants, rampants… Only when I glanced up and saw the cashier and some customers looking quizzically at me did I become aware that my lips were moving. I sidled back out into the heat.
Getting home was a relief. I peeled off my sweat-heavy shirt and climbed in the cool shower. I looked at the dirt that clung tenaciously under my nails, giving them a little scrub and rinsing the grime from my forearms. How weird that my hands could be used for activities other than dishwashing. I continued to whisper the words I learned throughout the day, but now a little more happily. At last, no one was listening, no one was watching.
My competence in French, it seemed, had in no way improved over the last month: I still misunderstood elementary vocabulary, still hacked out the guttural consonants, still prodded francophones to repeat jokes. But all alone in the shower, I could pretend that French was my private language. After all, I couldn’t really hope to stop babbling. The weather would be this hot all week.