In a brief lull between two customers, I headed over to the cash register and pressed the Feed button. I took the rectangle of white paper that spooled out of the printer and laid it on the metal work counter. Mrs Gélinas had gone off to get “a nice cup of coffee,” and I, the employee, was now all by myself at the stall, desperate to get a few ideas down. I unclipped the pen from my apron, stuffed a handful of ground cherries into my mouth, and bent over the scrap of paper. In tiny writing I scrawled a list of things to do when I got home. Laundry. Push-ups, sit-ups. Read the news (thirty minutes). Research Quebec’s colonial history. Submit a poem to a poetry review. When I’d filled the whole paper, I folded it in half, slipped it into the back pocket of my jean shorts, pulled out a fresh slip of register tape, and wrote a list of things I wanted to do before the end of the year. Join the Y. Finish writing poetry collection. Send at least three short stories to literary reviews. Learn Spanish. Save five hundred dollars (unrealistic?). Take driving test. Take first aid course. Deepen connections with friends. Learn to identify local plants. Go camping (more than once). See Jess at least three times. For a split second, I forgot I was at work.
But the appearance of two customers dragged me quickly back to earth. It was a woman and a man, thirtyish, hunting for the perfect basket of strawberries to take to a family dinner. I spotted them out of the corner of my eye as they peered at the fruit. The guy wore a grey T-shirt that clung to his pecs and showed the first hint of a paunch; his hair was still wet from a recent shower; around his neck he wore a little cross on a gold chain that he probably hadn’t taken off since his confirmation. The woman was wearing one of those synthetic tanks with a built-in bra, its criss-crossed straps forming the shape of a sun on her back; her hair was pulled back from her face with a pair of Dolce & Gabbana shades. The two of them gave off such a vibe of contented exhaustion, lullabies, soft words, and milky kisses that I was astonished—almost concerned—not to see a baby carrier on either of their shoulders.
“My mother loves strawberries,” the man said, raising his eyes heavenwards to indicate that his mother was rather difficult.
“Should we get those? How about these ones, honey?” the woman said, tasting strawberries, moving away from her boyfriend but still holding his hand so she tugged him with her.
“Whatever you think, bae,” said the man, in a tone that suggested his girlfriend was the one being difficult right then.
I took a couple of steps sideways and flashed them a friendly, unassuming smile. “It’s your decision,” my smile said. I noticed they were both wearing flip-flops, and the woman had painted her toenails white. While they were trying to decide, I went on thinking about my lists. Take jiu-jitsu classes. Discover good music. Go to the art house cinema. Do more dumpster diving. Make jam. Get my name on the waiting list for co-op housing. Register for university? No. I mentally put a line through that last item.
“Excuse me!” said the woman, her mouth full of strawberries. She took a moment to mime the ecstasy she was experiencing from the little red fruit and then asked, “Where are these strawberries from?”
“They’re from the Île d’Orléans,” I said, in precisely the same way I might have said, “They’re from Wonderland.”
“These are the ones! We have to get these ones!” said the woman, handing me her strawberry tops, which I tossed into the soggy cardboard box we used as a garbage can. “This is the winning basket of strawberries!”
She laughed and turned to her boyfriend, but his phone had started vibrating in his pocket and he was walking off to take the call.
“Yyyyeeeeello?” said the man, as the woman pulled out an enormous white leather wallet to pay.
I swaddled the basket in a plastic bag, held it out to the woman, and took one last look around to make sure the pair hadn’t forgotten a stroller somewhere nearby. As I looked, I met the eyes of the Lebanese grocer, who was sweeping the floor in front of his stall. I said, “Have a nice day,” to the customer, waved at the grocer, and went back to my list. Just then Mrs Gélinas arrived back at the stall with her coffee and a pastry.
“A nice cup of coffee to start the morning!” she said. She perched on a stool and bit into her Danish. I nodded in agreement, as if to say the boss certainly deserved such a treat before making a start on her workday. Silently, I was filled with disgust at myself.
I stuffed the list into my pocket, smoothed down my apron, and headed over to the walk-in fridge. I got out some crates of strawberries and raspberries and laid them on the work counter. I grabbed the all-purpose knife lying on the stainless steel surface and, forcing myself to repress the vivid images of bloody accidents parading through my head, I cut open some of the boxes and arranged them in rows on the fake-grass display. Mrs Gélinas had already had to abandon her breakfast to deal with a regular, an old guy wearing a canary-yellow suit. I opened a cupboard underneath the display and took out a variety of small, medium, and large baskets. An idea for a poem came to me (red fruit, canary-yellow suit, bloody workplace accident, grey souls) and I plunged my hand into my pocket to find some paper to scribble it down—but then I noticed a customer in his fifties wearing cycling gear waggling his chin at me, waving a basket of raspberries to get my attention. I wiped my hands on my apron and went over to serve him. When I was done with the cyclist, there was a young anglophone woman— tattooed arms, half-shaven head, red dress with white polka dots—then a gangly French guy in his twenties, then a retired Italian, and then half a dozen other early risers.
Whenever I had a spare moment, I got some more paper and wrote more lists. Things to do every day: write, eat well, do more push-ups and sit-ups, study film or read (postmodern philosophy, Russian literary classics, and so on), write a letter to a friend or to someone in prison. Write to Jess. I drew a heart around Jess’s name. I’d remember to write to Jess without putting it on the list, but I liked forming the letters of his name. A list of things I should stop putting into my body: alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, sugar. A list of friends I ought to write to more often. A list of books to read. A list of nice clothes I’d buy myself one day.
I yawned and glanced at the clock. Still only nine. On the other side of our displays of strawberries, raspberries, and rhubarb, a constant stream of customers had started pouring into the Jean Talon Market. The typical customer wandered around, latte in hand, eyes half-closed or hidden behind smoked glasses, a satisfied smile playing on their lips, delighted that spring had finally arrived. I remembered sadly that I too had once loved spring; that I too had once been a customer at this market, wandering around the stalls with a latte in my hand. But this year spring had left me cold. That wasn’t quite accurate, though. It was more that I felt as though I’d become part of it myself, that I was simply another adorable bud on the verge of blooming, a young shoot engorged with sap, just one more detail among all the charming elements of the Jean Talon Market. I was ornamental. I’d now become something akin to the coffee they offer customers at a car dealership: a nice little touch.
Anka arrived at the stall pushing a cart. She didn’t say hi, and I didn’t say hi to her either. Anka made me nervous. She managed the second Gélinas Fruits stall, on the other side of the market, so I never got to work with her. Every morning when she arrived, I tried to do something interesting so she’d notice me. But what could I do other than sort strawberries and serve customers? How could I know what Anka was interested in since I’d never talked to her? I groped my way forward. Some days I directed tortured looks her way, others I smiled at her. Today, I pushed the sleeves of my T-shirt up to my shoulders and tried to ignore her.
“Hi, Lucille,” Anka said. She’d been at Gélinas Fruits long enough to be on first-name terms with the boss. Her voice was husky, low, sweet.
“Hello, Anka,” Mrs Gélinas said.
She put her bag in the cupboard (Right next to mine! I thought), disappeared into the walk-in fridge, and came back out with at least six crates, which she carried as though they weighed nothing. She piled them onto her cart and repeated the operation several more times. Then she came back over to her bag, took out a cap, which she put backwards on top of her curly hair, and went off pulling the cart like a calm warrior heading out to the battlefield. She was wearing a T-shirt with wide stripes and overall shorts that revealed long, muscular legs a basketball player would have been proud of. I sighed and closed my eyes, overwhelmed by desire, and then I tidied up the metal counter.
During my lunch break, when I spent ten dollars because yet again I’d forgotten to bring a sandwich, I got out my notebook and started writing a serious list: Staying in Montreal vs. Getting the fuck out to the country.
Points in Montreal’s favour: It’s a place where you never stop learning new things. So many stories mingle here. I like living in Montreal because there are books and music, readers and musicians. The people I know who’ve moved to the country hardly read at all anymore. The only things they read are Margaret Atwood or The Big Mushroom Guide. In Montreal, you have a lot more opportunities to meet people, to develop meaningful connections, to form groups with like-minded people (which is necessary for the struggle). I don’t want to save myself alone, I don’t want to be an individualist. You have to be strategic: there are more opportunities for the struggle in the city (at least for now).
What options would I have for a social life in the country? A) end up in a polyamorous collective, B) become the village hermit to the detriment of my mental health, C) try to integrate into village life, also to the detriment of my mental health. I wrote “alienating” in my journal, landing on the mot juste. If I leave here, I might never make another friend, never mind find comrades or lovers. When I reread, I noticed that I’d moved from listing to editorializing. I took a bite of my shawarma and a sip of Canada Dry. Then I picked up my pen again and wrote: Also (by this point I had greatly reduced the size of my handwriting), maybe one day I will publish books or find myself a job in journalism or something like that, and there are more potential contacts in Montreal. I sighed.
Points against the city: There is no life except for human life. There are no lakes, rivers, forests. There are no deer, clearings, fish. Just a few stars one night in ten. It fucking stinks. The tap water tastes of chlorine. I live on the third floor of a triplex on Saint-Denis with two other girls. I can barely get three tomatoes to grow on the balcony.
I have to buy, steal, or dumpster-dive for all my food. I can barely even get a job in a café because jobs are so scarce. You practically need ten years’ experience just to get a minimum-wage job with decent conditions. If I stay here, I’ll probably die without ever seeing a fox. Everything irritates me, everything makes me sick, the cars, the buses, the trucks, the police, the Metro, the jobs at the Jean Talon Market, my friends’ careers, my friends’ studies, my friends’ alcoholism, my alcoholism, the Place des Arts, the Grand Prix, the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood, the Petit Laurier neighbourhood, Tout le monde en parle, the cat grooming places, the twenty-dollar fish and chips, the Mile-Ex, the queer parties where everyone is too cool to talk to you, the men who call out “nice ass,” the crooked bosses, the crooked landlords, the crooked friends of friends, Jarry Metro station, and the hundreds of people who every single day walk past old beggars and the homeless woman who sells the Itinéraire and the people who hand out the 24h newspaper, staring at the ground and then buying themselves a five-dollar coffee a block later. I feel alienated, I wrote again, stating the obvious but not caring, because it was my own personal list and not something I planned on publishing. (Sip of Canada Dry, bite of shawarma.)
Conclusion: it’s lose-lose. I’d like to quit, but where would I go? I scrawled. The things I want to be free of are everywhere. I underlined the word “everywhere.” And then I felt anxiety swoosh up in my stomach like an elevator when I thought of the career I still didn’t have, of my bank account, which never had more than seven hundred dollars in it, of my single film studies class that had cost more money than I would make this summer (I still wasn’t an official resident of Quebec), and from which I’d gained nothing except the certainty that I was the least audiovisually talented person in the world and that I would never have another good idea again (I’d had my last good idea when I was fifteen). I thought of my savings account once more, which I’d dipped into regularly over the past year and which now had only two hundred dollars in it, of my three unpaid internships for various cultural organizations that hadn’t led anywhere, of my friends, who were disappearing one by one under mountains of stress, work, trials, and relationships, of Jess, whom I could probably never sponsor according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s criteria, of the money I owed my friends, of the money I owed the City of Montreal, of the money I owed the library, of the money I owed my father, of the cavities in two of my teeth that I hadn’t yet had filled, of the ideas for my book that would go with me to the grave, and which would rot along with me, never developed. Around me, the clamour, whiffs of coffee, ice cream, fish, Mexican pulled pork sandwiches, children crying, the admiring oohs and aahs that kept me from eating my shawarma and writing my list in peace. Some buskers were playing “Hallelujah” on an electric keyboard and improvising on the flute. Children were asking, “Can I have this?” Adults were exchanging dirty twenty-dollar bills for smelly small change. Carbon copies of me pulled on aprons and invited customers to taste the plums and tomatoes. Trucks backed up, car trunks opened, cart wheels squeaked against the concrete and the gravel. Couples with their arms around each other’s waists exclaimed, “Oh, I just want to stop by Première Moisson,” and parents commanded, “You have to stay with Mommy and Daddy.” Nothing ever happened that didn’t fit with the idea of the Jean Talon Market. I was imprisoned in an ad for the market, an ad that had already been running for several weeks. Was this endless carousel of customers real? Maybe it was just a hologram projected by the market management in the hope of attracting real customers. I lowered my eyes to avoid the gaze of these virtual customers to whom I would soon be selling fruit. I was hot, I was trembling with nervous tension, and my lunch break was coming to an end.
Excerpted from The Music Game by Stéfanie Clermont. Original French copyright © Le Quartanier and Stéfanie Clermont, 2027. Translation copyright © JC Sutcliffe, 2022. Excerpted with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.