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July 29, 2022

My hometown of Caplan (Travel letter No. 4)

Perhaps I have forgotten? Did I tell you about Amqui, the heart of the Matapedia Valley? Where I bought myself curlers at Hart’s because my hair had become dishevelled by several storms. Yes, that night in Carleton-sur-Mer, I sleep just like in the old days, with a big scarf swaddling my scalp-stretching curlers. In the morning, when my Gorgon head enters the hotel's CAFÉ area, the handsome young waiter serves me an enigmatic smile with my coffee. A smile and about 10 more coffees, which I drink while writing my morning letter.

I leave Carleton, and further along, I am instantly dazzled by the bay in the town of Maria, with its pretty beach, magnificent sea and the little stairs that lead into the water, installed here and there along the edge of the road. Maria reminds me of a perfect lemon pie that doesn't need meringue to be beautiful. With her arms open wide to greet tourists and no need for bling to convince the skeptics, I might even pronounce Maria to be a top Gaspésian destination.

I drive and drive, and as I approach Caplan, tragedy strikes! A sky full of thunder and lightning flattens my curls. I look for my ancestors. I look for Grandpa Frédéric's house, the one next to where we used to live. Did a flood uproot them? Has the village of Caplan become a pinhole in a map of the world? Or is it me? Have I become too senile to recognize the village of my childhood? Have I forgotten everything during the pandemic?

Like an old sock in the washing machine, has my village shrunk in half? Except for the church, which has been blown over by gusts of wind, I no longer recognize anything. What to do, what to say? The streets, the pavement and the little green front yards are empty. So I go down to the seashore and immediately notice that the pier, with its thousands of eels, has disappeared. The cliffs and sand are still the same iron red colour as before. I had imagined a bucolic picnic by the water, but I swallow my hunger. Even the wheels of my car bulge in despair. What can I do? Back in the church parking lot, the rain weakens. It turns into a drizzle, fine, persistent and penetrating. I despair. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back? No one knows me. No one really needs to know me.

Who am I now? A rag doll, carried away by the wave? A shark flinging me right and then left. The swell crushes my stomach. And I hurt all over. Imagination and reality clash in my skull. Was I that young the last time I saw Caplan? Am I too old today? For a moment the church coaxes me, would it remember my baptism? I feel like the living dead. Hasn’t the cemetery watched over the bodies of my maternal grandparents all these years? Where are the little pockets of shelled hazelnuts that Grandma kept hanging in the pantry for special occasions? We didn't eat them all.

For a long moment, the sky sprays me with tears. Where should I go? It’s Sunday. All the shops are closed. The car decides to go back down to the shore. She too wants to bury herself in the soggy sand. Offshore, I feel like I can hear mermaids singing. They spread their viscous clothes over the flounces of the large waves. These sea queens are strong; they have fed on all the eels in the bay. And I envy them. Everyone on this earth has a story to tell, as long as there’s someone who’ll listen. But I am all alone on the shore and my voice is crumbling, my words tumble into empty seashells.

Suddenly, I see a man in a black raincoat walking along the shore, his head bent. He's probably digging up mussels, just like we used to do as kids. I remember it so well! Brother was always fighting to be the best, the first to fill his bucket, the first to catch a trout in the stream. He was also the first to push up bright daisies in the earth's embrace. I feel like crying. Life is so short; peace as frail as a bird with a broken wing. A thousand sorrows plough through my mind, a thousand unanswered questions. The deafness of the world overwhelms me. Suddenly, all the beaches from the past vacate my memory. My mind is desiccated.

My bladder about to burst, I look in vain for a place to hide. I leave the beach and decide to drive up the 132 in the direction of Montreal. My bewildered car climbs the cliffs, past the sign AU REVOIR, CAPLAN. My heart is in neutral. Adios, amigos! My two palms welded to the steering wheel, I'm going almost 100 km per hour. The engine rumbles and on my right, a fire-red sign announces: À+ CORNER STORE FIREWORKS FOR SALE. I walk in, desperate for a washroom. “Is there a...?” I ask. “At the back on the right,” a very young boy replies. I feel like I have discharged all of my sadness and, on my way out, I spot three rows of recent magazines. Wonderful! I pick out six of them and grab a big bag of popcorn, a diet cola and a Coffee Crisp for dessert. That's it. I head back to Caplan. It’s 2:20 p.m.

I drive through the light rain, and without realizing it, I pass right by my hometown. I bring the car to a dead stop. This is a sign from heaven, perhaps. A woman in turmoil is still smarter than a blue whale, no? My tank is three-quarters full and I now set my sights on Percé, convinced that this majestic rock will still be there, waiting for me. I start off, motoring along at the speed limit. In the distance, I can barely make out the horizon separating the sky from the sea. Everything is white, creamy beige. When I arrive in Paspébiac, I find a nice, old-fashioned motel for $100. I charge my devices and spread out my purchases on the motel’s queen size bed. I love magazines. It's my weak point; the one thing I indulge in. I have RICARDO, VÉRO, CHATELAINE, ELLE QUÉBEC and BEL ÂGE (a magazine for seniors) in front of me. Yes, I am very interested in reading about old people. Today I also bought LA SEMAINE, with a beautiful photo of journalist and writer Janette Bertrand on the cover. She is one of my idols. I always enjoy discovering her recommendations, and I would love to know her recipe for longevity.

On the wall in front of my bed, a huge TV stares at me. I turn it on and open the bag of popcorn. Life is beautiful again. The hot soapy water from my bath has washed away all the day’s frustrations. I am fulfilled. On the screen, Al Pacino is telling his life story. I thought he was great in the role of Fausto in SCENT OF A WOMAN. My heart flutters, my eyes grow heavy, I fall asleep in Al’s arms, now the newly crowned Godfather.

To be continued next Sunday!