1: Montreal, November
Evening on the Main, and the shops are closing. Display bins have been pulled back off the sidewalks; corrugated shutters clatter down over store windows. One or two lights are kept on as a deterrent to burglary; and empty cash registers are left ajar so that thieves won't smash them open pointlessly.
The bars remain open, and the cafes; and loudspeaker cones over narrow music stalls splash swatches of noise over sidewalks congested with people, their necks pulled into collars, their shoulders tight against the dank cold. The young and the busy lose patience with the crawling, faceless Wad. They push and shoulder their way through, confusing the old, irritating the idle. The mood of the crowd is harried and brusque; tempers have been frayed by weeks of pig weather, with its layers of zinc cloud, moist and icy, pressing down on the city, delaying the onset of winter with its clean snows and taut blue skies. Everyone complains about the weather. It isn't the cold that gets you, it's the damp.
The swarm coagulates at street corners and where garbage cans have been stacked on the curb. The crowd surges and tangles, tight-packed but lonely. Tense faces, worried faces, vacant faces, all lit on one side by the garish neon of nosh bars, saloons, cafes.
In the window of a fish shop there is a glass tank, its sides green with algae. A lone carp glides back and forth in narcotized despair.
Schoolboys in thick coats and short pants, bookbags strapped to their backs, snake through the crowd, their faces pinched with cold and their legs blotchy red. A big kid punches a smaller one and darts ahead. In his attempt to catch up and retaliate, the small boy steps on a man's foot. The man swears and cuffs him on the back of the head. The boy plunges on, tears of embarrassment and anger in his eyes.
Fed up with the jams and blockages, some people step out into the street and squeeze between illegally parked cars and the northbound traffic. Harassed truck drivers lean on their air horns and curse, and the braver offenders swear back and throw them the fig. The swearing, the shouting, the grumbling, the swatches of conversation are in French, Yiddish, Portuguese, German, Chinese, Hungarian, Greek—but the lingua franca is English. The Main is a district of immigrants, and greenhorns in Canada quickly learn that English, not French, is the language of success. Signs in the window of a bank attest to the cosmopolitan quality of the street:
omi oymen eaahnika
wir sprechen deutsch
And there is a worn street joke: "I wonder who in that bank can speak all those languages?"
Commerce is fluid on the Main, and friable. Again and again, shops open in a flurry of brave plans and hopes; frequently they fail, and a new man with different plans and the same hopes start business in the same shop. There is not always time to change the sign. Retail and wholesale fabrics are featured in a store above which the metal placard reads: paints.
Some shops never change their proprietors, but their lines of goods shift constantly, in search of a profitable coincidence between the wants of the customer and the availability of wholesale bargains. In time, the shopkeepers give up chasing phantom success, and the waves of change subside, leaving behind a random flotsam of wares marking high tides in wholesale deals and low tides in customer interest. Within four walls you can buy camping gear and berets, batteries and yard goods, postcards and layettes, some slightly damaged or soiled, all at amazing discounts. Such shops are known only by the names of their owners; there is no other way to describe them.
And there are stores that find the task of going out of business so complicated that they have been at it for years.
The newspaper seller stands beside his wooden kiosk, his hands kept warm under his canvas change belt. He rocks from foot to foot as he jiggles his coins rhythmically. He never looks up at the passers-by. He makes change to hands, not to faces. He mutters his half of an unending conversation, and he nods, agreeing with himself.
Two people press into a doorway and talk in low voices. She looks over his shoulder with quick worried glances. His voice has the singsong of persuasion through erosion.
"Come on, what do you say?"
"Gee, I don't know. I don't think I better."
"What you scared of? I'll be careful."
"Oh, I better be getting home."
"For crying out loud, you do it for the other guys!"
"Yeah, but . . ."
"Come on. My place is just around the corner."
"Well . . . no, I better not."
"Oh, for crying out loud! Go home then! Who wants you?"
An old Chasidic Jew with peyiss, shtreimel level on his head, long black coat scrupulously brushed, returns home from work, maintaining a dignified pace through the press of the crowd. Although others push and hurry, he does not. At the same time, he avoids seeming too humble, for, as the saying has it, "too humble is half proud." So he walks without rushing, but also without dawdling. A gentle and moderate man.
Always he checks the street sign before turning off toward his flat in a low brick building up a side street. This although he has lived on that street for twenty-two years. Prudence can't hurt.
"The Main" designates both a street and a district. In its narrowest definition, the Main is Boulevard St. Laurent, once the dividing line between French and English Montreal, the street itself French in essence and articulation. An impoverished and noisy street of small shops and low rents, it naturally became the first stop for waves of immigrants entering Canada, with whose arrival "the Main" broadened its meaning to include dependent networks of back streets to the west and east of the St. Laurent spine. Each succeeding national tide entered the Main bewildered, frightened, hopeful. Each successive group clustered together for protection against suspicion and prejudice, concentrating in cultural ghettos of a few blocks' extent.
They found jobs, opened shops, had children; some succeeded, some failed; and they in turn regarded the next wave of immigrants with suspicion and prejudice.
The boundary between French and English Montreal thickened into a no man's land where neither language predominated, and eventually the Main became a third strand in the fiber of the city, a zone of its own consisting of mixed but unblended cultures. The immigrants who did well, and most of the children, moved away to English-speaking west Montreal. But the old stayed, those who had spent their toil and money on the education of children who are now a little embarrassed by them. The old stayed; and the losers; and the lost.
Two young men sit in a steamy cafe, looking out onto the street through a window cleared of mist by a quick palm swipe. One is Portuguese, the other Italian; they speak a melange of Joual slang and mispronounced English. Both wear trendy suits of uncomfortable cut and unserviceable fabric. The Portuguese's suit is gaudy and cheap; the Italian's is gaudy and expensive.
"Hey, hey!" says the Portuguese. "What you think of that? Not bad, eh?"
The Italian leans over the table and catches a quick glimpse of a girl clopping past the cafe in a mini, platform boots, and a bunny jacket. "Not so bad! Beau petard, Hein?"
"And what you think of those foufounes?"
"I could make her cry. I take one of those in each hand, eh? Eh?" In robust mime, the Italian holds one in each hand and moves them on his lap. "She would really cry, I'm tell you that." He glances up at the clock above the counter. "Hey, I got to go."
"You got something hot waiting for you?"
"Ain't I always got something hot waiting?"
"Lucky son of a bitch."
The Italian grins and runs a comb through his hair, patting down the sides with his palm. Yeah, maybe he's lucky. He's lucky to have the looks. But it takes talent, too. Not everybody's got the talent.
In just over five hours, he will be kneeling in an alley off Rue Lozeau, his face pressed against the gravel. He will be dead.
There is a sudden block in the flow of pedestrians. Someone has vomited on the sidewalk. Chunks of white in a sauce of ochre. People veer to avoid it but there is a comma of smear where a heel skidded.
A cripple plunges down the Main against the flow of pedestrian traffic. Each foot slaps flat upon the pavement as he jerks his torso from side to side with excessive, erratic energy. He lurches forward, then plants a foot to prevent himself from falling. A lurch, a twist, the slack flap of a foot. He is young, his face abnormally bland, his head too large. A harelip contorts his mouth into something between a grin and a sneer. His eyes are huge behind thick iron-rimmed glasses which are twisted on his face so that one eye looks through the bottom of its lens, while the other pupil is bisected by the top of its lens. Coiled back against his chest is a withered, useless hand in a pale blue glove. An incongruous curved pipe is clenched between his teeth, and he sucks it moistly. Sweet aromatic smoke pours over his shoulder and disintegrates in the eddies of his lurching motion.
Pedestrians are startled out of their involute thoughts to see him barging toward them through the crowd. They move aside to make room, eager to avoid contact. Eyes are averted; there is something frightening and disgusting about the Gimp, who drives ahead in his determined, angry way. The human flood breaks at his prow, then blends back in his wake, and people forget him immediately once he has passed. They have their own problems, their own plans; each is isolated in and insulated by the alien crowd.
Chez Pete's Place is a bar for the street bommes; it is the only place that admits them, and their presence precludes any other clientele. Painted plywood has replaced glass in the window, so it is always night inside. The fat proprietor sits slumped behind the bar, his watery eyes fixed on a skin magazine in his lap. Around a table in the back sits a knot of ragged old men, their hands so filthy that the skin shines and crinkles. They are sharing a half-gallon bottle of wine, and one of the bommes, Dirtyshirt Red, is spiking his wine with whisky from a pint bottle screwed up in a brown paper bag. He doesn't offer to share the whisky, and the others know better than to ask.
"Look at that stuck-up son of a bitch, won't ya?" Dirtyshirt Red says, lifting his chin toward a tall, gaunt tramp sitting alone at a small table in the corner, out of the light, his concentration on his glass of wine.
"Potlickin' bastard thinks he's too good to sit with the rest of us," Red pursues. "Thinks his shit don't stink, but his farts give him away!"
The other tramps laugh ritually. Ridiculing the Vet is an old pastime for all of them. No one feels sorry for the Vet; he brings it on himself by bragging about a nice snug kip he's got somewhere off the Main. No matter how cold it is, or how hard up a guy is, the Vet never offers to share his kip; he won't even let anybody know where it is.
"Hey, what you dreamin' about, Vet? Thinking about what a hero you was in the war?"
The Vet's broad-brimmed floppy hat tilts up as he raises his head slowly and looks toward the table of jeering bommes. His eyebrows arch and his nostrils dilate in a caricature of superiority, then his musings return to his wine glass.
"Oh, yeah! Big hero he was! Captured by the Germans, he was. Left by the Limeys at Dunkirk 'cause they didn't want him stinkin' up their boats. And you know what big hero thing he done when he was in prison camp? He lined his ass with ground glass so the Germans would get castrated when they cornholed him! Big hero! That's why he walks funny! He claims he was wounded in the war, but I heard different!"
There are snickers and nudgings around the table, but the Vet does not deign to respond. Perhaps he no longer hears.
Lieutenant Claude LaPointe crosses Sherbrooke, leaving the somber mass of the Monastere du Bon Pasteur behind. His pace slows to the measured rhythm of the beat-walker. The Main has been his patch for thirty-two years, since the Depression was at its nadir and frightened people treated one another with humanity, even in Montreal, the most impolite city in the world.
LaPointe presses his fists deep into the pockets of his shapeless overcoat to tug the collar tighter down onto his neck. Over the years, that rumpled overcoat has become something of a uniform for him, known by everybody who works on the Main, or who works the Main. Young detectives down at the Quartier General make jokes about it, saying he sleeps in it at night, and in the summer uses it as a laundry bag. Feelings differ about the man in the overcoat; some recognize a friend and protector, others see a repressive enemy. It depends upon what you do for a living; and even more it depends on how LaPointe feels about you.
When he was young on the street, the Main was French and he its French cop. As the foreigners began to arrive in numbers, there was coolness and distance between them and LaPointe. He could not understand what they wanted, what they were saying, how they did things; and for their part they brought with them a deep distrust of authority and police. But with the wearing of time, the newcomers became a part of the street, and LaPointe became their cop: their protector, sometimes their punisher.
As he walks slowly up the street, LaPointe passes a bakery that is something of a symbol of the change the years have brought to the Main. Thirty-odd years ago, when the Main was French, the bakery was: patisserie st. laurent
Ten years later, in response to the relentless pressure of English, one word was added to permit the French to use the first two-thirds of the sign and the Anglos the last two-thirds:patisserie st. laurent Bakery
Now there are different breads in the window, breads with odd shapes and glazes. And the women waiting in line gossip in alien sounds. Now the sign reads:patisserie st. laurent Bakery apto(Pie, Omaga, Delta)eion
The throng is thinning out as people arrive at destinations, or give up trying. LaPointe continues north, uphill, his step heavy and slow, his professional glance wandering from detail to detail. The lock on that metal grating over the store window wants replacing. He'll remind Mr. Capeck about it tomorrow. The man standing in that doorway . . . it's all right. Only a bomme. The streetlight is out in the alley behind Le Kit-Kat, a porno theatre. He'll report that. Men who get overexcited in the porno house use that alley; and sometimes rollers use it too.
Deep in his pocket, LaPointe's left hand lies lightly over the butt of his stub .38. In summer he carries it in a holster behind his hip, so he can keep his jacket open. In winter he leaves it loose in his left overcoat pocket, so his right hand is free. The pistol is so much a part of him that he releases it automatically when he reaches for something, and takes it up again when his hand returns to his pocket. The weight of it wears out the lining, and at least once each winter he has to sew it up. He is clumsy with a needle, so the pocket becomes steadily shallower. Every few years he has to have the lining replaced.
In more than thirty years on this street of voluble and passionate people, a street on which poverty and greed and despair find expression in petty crime, LaPointe has fired his weapon only seven times. He is proud of that.
Excerpted from The Main by Trevanian. Copyright © 2005 by Trevanian. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.