The Perpetual Now has its share of dark places.
If you’ve read the early entries of this blog, you already know that what was initially conceived as a bit of a fairy tale evolved into something far more complex, even sinister in parts. The fictional setting of Ferguston, Ontario, was created as a stage where bad things happen pretty routinely. It’s a place with a dark history; as I say in the book, a place “where nice things get trashed and broken things stay broken”, where people wear their resentment and prejudice and paranoia on their bodies like so much coal dust from the steam era.
This passage, which has been deleted from the manuscript, provides a bit of background on just one aspect of Ferguston’s dark history. The characters in the scene are the narrator (Justin Lambert) and the Lamberts’ elderly neighbour, Mr. Lovato.
I didn’t have the heart to leave Lovato alone quite yet. I stood in troubled silence next to him for a few minutes, trying to revisit the few conversations we’d had, when I remembered a loose end.
“You said a while back that I would have to get used to seeing more of David Raymond unless he suddenly had an accident, and that that had happened before. What did you mean?”
I couldn’t read Lovato’s expression behind his dark glasses, but I was imagining him mentally poring through the index cards of his memory to dredge up that exchange. I wasn’t optimistic, but Lovato surprised me.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “That kind of thing happens from time to time around here. Ferguston has a funny way of… how would you say it… enforcing its own kind of justice. I mean, for the most part the worst of the worst end up being their own undoing (old Luc Raymond is a prime example, dumb bastard), but in some cases people who need killing somehow just get dealt with, whether the law has anything to say about it or not.”
“So… accidentally but not really?”
“That’s a fair way of putting it. Not all crimes get reported around here, you see, and not all that get reported get solved officially (or even investigated), even if everyone knows who done it.”
“You know about stuff like that?”
“Oh yeah. Most old-timers do. I was born here, remember. You get to recognize them after a while. There have been more mysterious disappearances, strange deaths, and unexplained accidents in and around this town than you can shake a stick at. Some cases, like your mom’s fr’instance, are honest-to-God tragedies, no doubt about it. Others, well… let’s just say that no one was gonna lose too much sleep in finding out what happened.”
I was shocked, on so many levels. First, this was the first I’d ever heard of Ferguston’s history of small-town justice, and it seemed completely out of sync with how I thought the world was supposed to work: where law-abiding citizens stood back and let the Authorities handle matters of law and order, crime and punishment. People might not always like it, some might complain, some might even write editorials, but no one interfered. Second, that my mom’s disappearance — which my mind insisted was the result of the actions of a unique and singularly depraved individual, a solitary but brutal blip on the otherwise relatively peaceful history of my hometown — was in fact part of a much larger and terrible pattern and thus somehow not so special. Lastly, that Lovato once again had no problem speaking so casually about such awful things to a 12-year-old kid.
My eyes must have spoken volumes, because Lovato paused for a moment. He removed his dark glasses and looked at me thoughtfully. He then wandered off to his front porch and lowered himself into one of two rickety chairs next to the front door, waving me over to the other one. “Have a seat, Lambert.”
I did as I was told. The chair’s bare wooden arms were dusty, and its upholstered seat and back were covered in cat hair. It probably hadn’t been used by a human in years.
“Look, I’m not going to talk to you like a little kid,” he began. “It’s not my style, and you’re the last person I’d do that with. You’re what people call an old soul, a bit of a throwback. You know what that means? You’re not like the rest of the kids around here; hell, for one thing you read! You’ve always been a precocious lad (I know I’m not the first person to tell you that) but somehow this summer has made you seem… I dunno, old and wise beyond your years. Funny. Anyway, I’m telling you all this because I figure you’re old enough and mature enough know the truth. Believe me, I wouldn’t try this with any other kid.
“Now, I don’t mean to belittle or minimize anyone’s loss,” he continued. “But your mom and my Alice are just parts of a bigger, disturbing picture in this town. I suppose if there’s an upside to all this it’s that by ‘n by most people who prey on the most vulnerable folks in Ferguston somehow get their comeuppance, and it’s not usually left up to fate either. Mark my words: the guilty will get their’s, though I’m surprised that some (namely David Raymond) haven’t done the deed themselves already. It’s certainly not for lack of trying.”
Lovato was tapping the arms of his glasses absently against his teeth, lost in thought. He seemed to forget about me for a second, and I thought for that moment that I’d been dismissed when suddenly he resumed.
“I think I told you about J.P. Guertin, the local fisherman and wilderness guide.”
“He’s another about my age. We went to boarding school together: St. Andrew’s Academy for boys, a Catholic boarding school not far from here. Grades 7 to 13. Some of the Raymond boys went there too, though I suppose only Steven ever finished. The place shut down ages ago, officially because enrolment was dropping, but everyone knew it was on account of the terrible abuse that was going on up there.
“I was one of the lucky ones, but there were plenty of young guys who got… singled out by some of the fathers. J.P. Guertin was one of them. The priests would take them aside and tell them in private that they were specially chosen because God had bestowed their souls with a rare beauty and that He had great plans for them, or some such garbage. The youngest kids even believed them, for a while. Every so often one of them would be summoned to the priests’ dorm late in the evening. You wouldn’t see them until sometime the next day, but by then you knew. Their eyes told the story. They wouldn’t speak, wouldn’t even look at you, sometimes for days. It was like their spirits had been hollowed out with a screwdriver. Dead inside. Awful. The only other time I’ve ever seen a look like that was when I served in Korea. Anyway, I can’t say for certain how far they got with Gerts: he never spoke about it and I never asked. But he became a pretty hefty lad by the ninth or tenth grade and soon learned how to fend for himself. I guess the fathers thought it best to leave him alone after a while. But he had two younger brothers and they weren’t so lucky.”
Like his previous narrative about white supremacists, this was another subject my dad and uncle managed to avoid talking about. I had only the vaguest notion of the abuse Lovato was referring to; in my 12-year-old imagination it was something horrifically violent but not quite in the way I understood violence from movies and TV. There was an element missing, something just beyond my grasp that my instinct told me was obscurely sexual but that I was a year or two away from understanding.
I was too shy and confused to ask Lovato for clarification, so instead I went in another direction.
“What happened… in the end?”
“To his brothers? They had the misfortune of catching the eye of one priest in particular, Father Normand. He was obsessed with them, sick fucker. God knows what he did to those poor boys, day after day, year after year. Both ended up broken people. The older one, Claude, survived St. Andrews long enough to drink himself blind when he was 20. He died shortly after that. Young Alexandre killed himself the day before his 16th birthday.”
“Jesus???” Lovato hissed. “Yeah well, He, unfortunately, was M.I.A. Father Normand was eventually relocated but the damage was done. Plus there were plenty of other priests willing to carry the torch in his absence.” He smacked his mouth a bit, as if he’d tasted something nasty. “I’d say Gerts was never the same again, but it’s always hard to say with him. He’s not what you’d call effusive; a bit like you Lamberts. And here I always thought the French were a demonstrative bunch. Anyhow, what I can say is that he must’ve kept that hurt and bitterness alive, nourished it over the years. So that some 40 years later, when Gerts is in his mid-fifties and is well established and has put his life in a good place working with Doug Ingram, who should come along but one (now former) Father Normand. What the hell he was thinking showing up this way after all he’d done I’ll never understand. Maybe he figured that, being in his mid 70s by then, no one would remember or recognize him; maybe there’s truth to the old adage that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime; hell, maybe he was just passing through.
“So, one fine day ex-father Normand suddenly shows up in Ferguston and, wouldn’t you know, he runs right into J.P. Guertin. Of course Gerts recognizes him right away but instead of unzipping the old man’s guts with a filleting knife he welcomes him back with open arms, hugs all around, even buys him a drink at the White Rooster, which is now called the Pit, by the way, and if you think it’s rough nowadays you should’ve seen it back in its glory. Talk about putting the “hole” in “watering hole”. Anyway, they talk for hours, Gerts gets him caught up on everything he’s missed in the past four decades, who’s doing what, who’s still around, who’s moved on. Never plays his hand, never gives Normand a clue of what he’s thinking, what he’s planning. By now the sun is low in the sky and Gerts convinces the old man, who by now is pretty trashed, to come and visit his place of business, see how well he’s done for himself. The old priest loves that: local boy done good. And one of his very own at that. He’s so proud. Gerts has no trouble then persuading him to come out on the water with him: he knows every good fishing spot on the lake and there’s no better time than dusk. Just for a few hours. Sure, we’ll bring a few beers, why not?
“Well, you can guess the rest. Sure enough, Gerts came back a couple of hours later… alone. Told the cops that Normand was shit-faced and fell overboard while Gerts was driving the boat. Fluke accident, but not unheard of. No one ever found the body, not that there was much of a search. And that was it. Death was ruled an accident, no further investigation was necessary, move along folks, nothing to see here. Within less than a week it was old news; I don’t think it even made the Clarion. Of course it didn’t take long before we’d all figured it out. Within days everyone knew, I’m guessing even the cops, but no one spoke of it again. That’s just how things work around here.”
Lovato was quiet for a while. His story was over, and he looked physically drained from the effort. Then, without a word, he wrestled himself out of his chair, put his sunglasses back on, and shuffled back to his front yard. I watched him, feeling helpless and small and, once again, utterly out of my depth. As tired as I suddenly was, I didn’t want to go back home or hang around Lovato any longer. I heaved up my bike from the sidewalk (it felt like it weighed 100 kilos) and threw a final glance at Mr. Lovato, who stood unmoving amidst his lifeless decorative hoard, staring at nothing. I launched myself down the street in the direction of Garrison Park, keeping to the coolness of the shade beneath the elms.