There must be uniforms out there that make you walk with a spring in your step. Astronaut is one, I'm guessing. Mountie's another. But ones like mine, that look like they've been reduced to clear at a costume warehouse, well they just make you want to hide under a rock.
When I came downstairs in my new work uniform for the first time that Monday, there was some disagreement among the family. Their comments reflected the generational spread around the breakfast table. Grandpa thought the outfit made me look like a streetcar conductor; Nana, a delivery boy from Western Union. The piping around the lapels put Mum in mind of Captain Kangaroo, while my older brother Zach took in the brimmed cap topping off my skinny frame and pegged me as a Pez dispenser. Only my sister Rena was generous in her assessment. "I think you look like Prince Harry at the wedding, Ben. All you need is a few miles of gold braid and voilà." Rena seldom had anything negative to say about anyone so her comparison didn't carry much weight.
I don't know why the store didn't let me wear my own clothes. I would have dressed presentably, even worn a tie if they'd asked me to. But I sensed at the interview that dissing the uniform would be a deal-breaker. My theory? The get-up was designed to glop some class over the place by aping Ogilvy's, the glitzy department store down the street. See Ogilvy's had itself a uniformed piper. The guy wore a kilt, a furry codpiece, and a bearskin hat. The works. Every day at noon he marched through the store, starting on the main floor and working his way up to four, pumping his windbag under his armpit the whole time as if it were a misplaced whoopee cushion. The tourists were blown away by the spectacle. They'd never seen a piper do his thing on a moving escalator before. In Scotland they probably kept their musicians tethered. But even Ogilvy's, for all its snooty airs, didn't have itself a museum. The Bay did.
And thanks to my mother, who worked in Ladies' Purses, and had accumulated a shitload of brownie points with the higher-ups over the years, I was hired as its uniformed attendant. Now how it came to pass that a museum tracing the history of the Hudson's Bay Company from its seventeenth-century fur trade roots all the way up to the present day wound up crammed into a corner of the Bay's downtown Montreal department store, I didn't know and I didn't care. It was a job. Not much of a job mind you, but then it wasn't much of a museum. Don't get me wrong. Ranking it on the Pathetic Scale, it wasn't as high up there as those so-called museums you see hand-painted signs for when you're out for a drive in the country. You know the kind I mean. The ones where rube collectors set up an exhibit of their potatoes shaped like Hollywood stars and charge the tourists a dollar a pop. Uh-uh. The Bay's museum was respectable even if it was pint-sized. It had bona fide artifacts; beaver hats, powder horns, even a full-sized birchbark canoe. But for all that it was still sleepy. Sleepy? Who am I kidding? It was downright comatose. Visitors only stumbled in when they took a wrong turn on the way to the Luggage Department or Table Linens.
I did have a couple of regulars, though. Rossi was one of them. He worked in the cafeteria just beside the museum and would stop by on his breaks to escape the steam tables and bs with me for a while. "How can you stand working here?" he'd ask me. "A funeral home is livelier. There's only one explanation I can come up with. You must be going at it hot and heavy with her over there, right?" He tipped his head towards the mannequin modelling a travelling dress from the 1820s. Her wig was slightly crooked so I went over and straightened it on her papier-mâché skull, and since I was over there anyway I fluffed out her skirt too.
"Looks like maybe I interrupted something when I came in," Rossi said, elbowing me in the ribs hombre to hombre. "Tell me straight, Ben, what's it like screwing a bald girl?" Rossi wasn't exactly a Renaissance man when it came to conversation, but at least he was company. And he could never stay longer than fifteen minutes before his supervisor in the kitchen sent out a posse.
Next down after Rossi it was my mother who gave an artificial bump to my statistics by checking in on me once or twice a week.
"Mum, I see you at home every day. Why do you have to come in here like I'm a third-grader and make sure I'm eating my lunch? It's embarrassing."
"Embarrassing in front of who?" She made a great show of peering into every corner of the museum to size up the crowds of people that weren't. "Benjie, all I want is to see that you're settling in okay."
"I'm settling in fine. You don't have to worry."
Fat chance. Worry was her middle name. At least when it came to me. Luckily for her, my siblings were semi-well-adjusted, giving her a free pass to obsess over yours truly.
"I know this isn't a job for the future, honey, but it's a start, something to give you a little confidence. And you always look more desirable to other employers when you have a job already." She brushed some imaginary lint off my epaulets. "Something better will come along, more to your talents, to your tastes. You just have to give it some time. Don't let it get you down."
"I get it, Mum. I get it, okay? You gave me that same speech this morning before I left for work. You gave it to me yesterday before I went to work. In fact you give it to me every single day before I go to work. I don't need to hear it again. Message relayed loud and clear. Do I have to say roger or something to cut the communication?"
I shouldn't have been so snippy with her. She didn't deserve it. She'd always been right there when I needed her. And I'd needed her plenty once I cruised in on my teens and things started to majorly unravel in my life. I'm not talking your basic, run-of-the-mill teenage angst either. This was of a whole nuther magnitude. Suddenly, when everyone around me was marching right, I was marching left. Then Mum would have to come out with the hook and haul me back into alignment. Parent-teacher meetings ramped up to the point that school had Mum on speed dial. "Some days he's disruptive and others he's completely closed off, tight as a drum. We can't reach him," my teachers would report. "We never know which way the wind's going to blow on any given day." The school counsellor nodded her agreement. "Testing hasn't gotten us anywhere. He refuses to cooperate." This was the cue for the principal to pile on. "There's also the question of his grades. Young Benjamin is flirting with being held back if they plummet any further, I'm sorry to have to say. Such a tragedy that would be, Madame Gabai. A boy with his promise."
My mother relayed all this to me afterwards, hoping it would prod me to open up. As if. I did have moments when I thought of telling her I was gay to give her something concrete to hang all my mixed-upedness on, but in the end I decided that more lying wouldn't really help anything.
You'd figure that she wouldn't have to jump in to rescue me anymore. I was twenty-three after all. But hadn't she found me this job when I couldn't land one on my own armed with my ba (no honours) in English lit? That was the major of choice for nerdy types like me, where we all washed up on shore to die. The degree qualified you for exactly zero in the real world. No doubt you've heard the joke, my brother Zach's favourite.
What did the English major say to the engineering major?
Will you take ketchup with your fries?
It cracked him up every time. Mum didn't find it so funny. To save face with her mahjong buddies, mothers of overachievers every last one, she'd taken to calling this my gap year. I didn't quibble with her over it even though we both knew she was, shall we say, embellishing. A gap year implied some definite plan for the year after; an acceptance already in-pocket for medical school, a deferred parliamentary internship offer maybe, or something else equally parent-soothing. My gap year looked like it was shaping up to be more of a gap decade, but why parse?
The museum didn't really need a full-time attendant. Any idiot could see that. But they paid me to be there every day from ten to six all the same. The idea was that in hiring me they'd get a twofer, a security guard and a docent, bundled. I'd protect the displays against sticky fingers, and answer any questions that came up about the collection. They were sadly mistaken if they thought I'd be able to give knowledgeable answers about the objects in the display cases, although I might have misled them a bit on that score at the interview. I did take Canadian history pre-Confederation in university like I'd written on the application form. I just neglected to mention that I'd slept through it. The cold fact is that I was a blank on the fur trade, the voyageurs, and the Hudson's Bay Company's involvement in the whole megillah. Didn't know scrimshaw from scrambled eggs.
Then one day in came this kid with his mother. Mum was just my type, by which I mean she had cleavage you could suffocate in. She was trying to engage her son in this little educational side-trip when all he wanted to do was shop for the new swimming goggles and flippers she'd promised him and head for the pool. He put up a whiny protest but she was one of those teacherly mothers, the kind who sees every encounter as a golden opportunity to pack some more factoids into junior's brain pan. My own mum had the same mo so I knew he'd have to suck it up and let the didactic ritual play itself out. There was no escape hatch.
She asked me all sorts of questions about portaging canoes and grading pelts and I threw together some bogus answers out of spit and twigs to impress her. And it worked. She swallowed my explanations lock, stock, and barrel. But then the kid's bullshit meter started bonging like we were at a level crossing. Turns out his class had just finished a unit on the fur trade and he proceeded to rip my answers to shreds. Fort William wasn't on Lake Ontario, it was on Lake Superior. It wasn't the Hurons who came out on top in the Beaver Wars, it was the Iroquois. Need I go on? Being one-upped by some brat in front of his foxy mother, well, it's a humbling experience for a guy.
So while I was busy licking my wounds, didn't it happen again. People complain endlessly about the quality of the schools in this town, but they seemed to be getting something right. Anyway, this second kid who came in, not only did he bad-mouth my theme-park version of the fur trade, he had the added nerve to mock the mannequins, arrogant twerp. Now they may have been crummy mannequins, chipped and geriatric, but they were my crummy mannequins. It was as if you saw your sister surrounded by schoolyard bullies. Imagine you agreed with them totally that she was butt-ugly and a slut. You'd still rise up to defend the family honour and hammer them into the ground, wouldn't you?
To make a long story short, colliding with those two smart-mouth kids at the museum was all it took for the place to trap me in its spell. I was hooked. Looking at the displays through my new rose-coloured glasses, the hokey dioramas took on an air of Louvre sophistication and the moth-eaten top hats seemed to be wondering where they'd lost track of Fred Astaire.
The new me had a helluva lot of catching up to do so I overhauled my work routine which until then had amounted to counting down the minutes till clocking-out time and picking my nose. Now, in the lengthy intervals between visitors I tore through every book on the museum's shelves and there had to be a few hundred, easy. Trouble was, each one I finished left me with tons more unanswered questions. I appealed to Zach to let me double dip on his university library card and in a rare spurt of fraternal good will he agreed. Soon I was borrowing dissertations and archaeological tracts from McGill to fill in around the edges. One night in my bedroom I Googled up the fur trade. In three seconds flat it shot me back twenty-four million hits. Right then and there I made it my life's mission to work my way through every last one. I was a man possessed.
Even though I still had a good way to go, it only took a few months of non-stop application before I could at least answer any question the museum patrons threw at me, even the most arcane. No one could trip me up. I was the trivia king of the Hudson's Bay Company. I re-christened myself curator. My official job description of caretaker just didn't cut it. Who'd notice anyway? Or care? Enough of the letters coincided, so that if you said it fast, with a bit of a slur, you could hardly tell the difference.
When I wasn't reading, I kept busy teaching myself the backwoodsy skills. In school I used to hate it when they made us do all that fiddly historical true-to-life crap, like dipping candle wicks in tallow, but no more. I was into it. I'd even started to weave a fleche, the traditional zigzag-patterned sash that voyageurs tied around their waists to flash the message they were members of the clan. Unfortunately my mother dropped by while I was practicing yarn-overs on the back of a chair.
"You'll make someone a good wife," she said.
"Yeah, if one of your friend's daughters wants a guy who can give her home-strung snowshoes for her birthday, I'm her man."
Good thing it wasn't Zach who caught me being all crafty. I never would have heard the end of it.
So there I was at work on an ordinary Wednesday morning, buffing up some brass trading tokens to a nice sheen when my revelation snuck up out of nowhere and whomped me over the head. God had made a terrible chronological mistake. I was meant to have been born in the eighteenth century. The reminder window must not have popped up on His online calendar.
It explained everything perfectly. I was a French Canadian voyageur trapped in the body of a twenty-first century suburban washout. No wonder I'd been out of sync at school. And out of school too, for that matter. "It's okay, boychik," my mother used to repeat to me in those days in her most comforting tone, "your brain just has a mind of its own." Well, at long last my brain had found its true home, out on the river, hunkered down in a canoe, paddling hell for leather.
I can guess what you're thinking. That I was psycho. But I wasn't. Trust me. Rationally, I understood that I couldn't time travel to rectify the cosmic cock-up that had left me cooling my heels in lost-luggage for nearly three hundred years until my mother found the claim check. Still, I felt I had to do what I could to set things right. So I decided to take a practical approach. I'd learn how to kayak so I could paddle along the waters of the Lachine Canal and the St. Lawrence River. It was the closest I could come under my city-boy circumstances where canoes weren't on offer, to living the life of a fur trader. And as a substitute for the real thing it wasn't half bad. I even rounded up a group of old friends and we'd go out together in our rental boats on the weekends. I played the role to the hilt, dressing the part and packing only voyageur-certified goodies in my lunch bag. The others weren't as much into the whole re-enacting business as I was, though I could generally coax them into playing along to some degree. For them these excursions were more excuses for sun and exercise and a bit of male chest thumping.
Rossi didn't come out on the water with us even though I invited him. He said that he preferred to keep his feet on dry land. But he was more impressed than any of my other friends by my newfound mastery of all things fur trade. Since I never had very many museum visitors to lavish my erudition on, Rossi became my most dedicated audience. He lapped up my lectures, never once snoozed off. Rossi hadn't been to university. His only brush with higher education came courtesy of the Cowansville Correctional Facility where he'd done some time on a car theft rap. He wasn't accustomed to being treated as a legitimate student and he liked the way it felt.
"Man," he said one afternoon, after I'd treated him to a lengthy run-down on the dating and mating habits of the beaver, that pesky wood chipper whose fuzzy outerwear had started the whole ball of wax rolling, "you've turned yourself into one major expert on the fur trade."
It was meant to be a compliment but its limp wording didn't acknowledge just how far I'd come.
"Expert nothing," I corrected him. "I AM the fucking fur trade."