In the hours that followed, they drank three bottles of chardonnay. After a few glasses, it all disappeared, the documentary project, fashion, photo shoots. They relaxed and Julie was able to get what she wanted from Charles in little bits and pieces, and in the drunkenness that filled her, she began to listen to him; alcohol excited and lulled her at the same time, soon she entered that phase of general reconciliation in which every person with whom she’d ever crossed paths in her life was absolved, washed of all sins, when the greatest moments of disaster and the deepest depths of abjection took on a personal meaning bigger than her and that she had to accept.
Emboldened by Julie’s body leaning toward him, encouraged by the questions she asked, Charles ended up giving in and talking about the butcher shop that Pierre Nadeau—his father—had owned, providing details he had promised himself never to express out of fear of unearthing everything, bringing to the present abominations best left in the past. The hesitation and distance that characterized him earlier suddenly gave way to uncontrollable outpouring. His fear of the taboo was suspended as his story took shape and as Julie, who didn’t hear the children behind the hedge anymore, perceiving nothing but the extraordinary quality of his story, let her stupefaction show.
Of his childhood Charles retained only terrible and anxiety-ridden memories of large pieces of hanging flesh, his father’s and his animals’, a small room inside the shop filled with cold and the smell of death where his father would lock him in each time he had panic attacks and demanded to see his mother and sister who’d left to live in another city when he was twelve. He told Julie about his vision of pieces of meat splayed, dismembered, stacked together, the feeling that the essence of his life would stick to this flesh, and that he too would be cut into pieces and hung and, who knows, forced to forever remember this life where he and the carcasses formed a single body.
His sister Marie-Claude followed his mother Diane out of the city and he, Charles, had been forced to stay with his father in the house with its adjoining shop. It was better that way, his mother thought, to develop his identity, and grow up with the right gender, officially given at birth.
Pierre Nadeau not only had the brutal manners of a butcher, but a few defects in his soul he could blame on his own father, cracks through which insanity entered, real insanity, the kind that produces chattering voices that open onto invisible planes populated by beasts. Charles had a lot to say about his father who’d nearly driven him crazy: his explosive nature that erupted after Diane and Marie- Claude’s departure, his state growing worse and more intense, which led to the loss of his butcher shop after a few years, before he ended up in the psychiatric hospital where he was to this day. His attacks, his descents toward hell, the uncontrolled slide had disturbed Charles and forced him into his father’s darkness, where he witnessed his world in nightmarish snippets: the telepathy, the deathly dangers, murderous and mutant female assassins, informers from beyond the grave, signs of planetary catastrophes, conspiracies against him fomented in high places, within the Government, in the spheres of Supreme Power.
The sheer size and strength of Pierre Nadeau let him rule over the house, his son who was his only audience, where his insanity was law. Many afternoons, when Charles came back from high school, he had to help his father close up the shop, wrap pieces of meat, label them, and sometimes lug the large sides of meat that had been delivered by truck into the shop. Once the chores were done, father and son began the night’s routine, at the end of which the son, more often than not, would finish his day in the cold room. The routine was a kind of ceremony. Charles wasn’t hungry enough to eat the dishes prepared by his father, he would have given anything to finish off the plate of meat and potatoes but he couldn’t, the meat was too close to him, from the family shop, meat was made of the same bloody matter as he was, as red and painful as his own body, the more upset his father became, the less Charles could face his plate, his father’s elliptical speeches, his leaps of logic between subjects that had no link to what was on their plates, the treachery of women, the Amazons who had an eye above their pussies, or so said the father as he raged through the house with no regard for his son. He, the father, whom all wanted to hurt, needed to protect himself from the Amazons, sworn enemies of men, protect himself from them but also everyone and everything else, the G-Men especially, in cahoots with the Amazons and their superhuman sight, the third eye in their pussies that saw everything coming, especially him.
The father combined the most fantastic elements, thinking he could find truth in his constructed system, and understand better than anyone the planetary threats against humanity. He lost himself in his stories instead. Every time, Charles would moan and cry, unable to stay in one place, unable to feel comfortable anywhere, not even in his room from which he could hear his father’s carrying on. Then his father reacted, finally Charles existed, he had to push his son aside, his existence was howling too loudly. He dragged him to the cold room, an old walk-in refrigerator that couldn’t be opened from the inside. His son disappeared into it, partly so he wouldn’t need to suffer his presence in his unfolding insanity, partly to protect him from it, for at times, when light broke through, he would see Charles’ anxiety as he witnessed the insanity he wanted to cure. Almost always he would go and release him an hour later, two at most, but sometimes he’d forget him entirely and wake up in the middle of the night, remembering he’d forgotten. He would run to the cold room, sorry, sorry, and pull his shivering son out, still moaning, and envelope him in his rough tenderness, hugging him too hard, crying over him, choking him, sorry, sorry, tenderness that was, for Charles, worse than the hours of detention.
During his isolation in the cold and dark of the cold room, another war began, the one he had to fight not against his father but against the thoughts that tumbled through his mind. The slabs of meat he couldn’t see appeared in photographic detail, they were a presence in the room. Then there were noises, the kind that a footstep in a puddle makes. He heard the sounds of moving viscosity that reached for him in mortal embrace. Charles would try and disappear and breathe as little as possible, to escape the attentions of the butchery.
This nightmare lasted more than a year, then Diane took him back and brought him to live with her and his sister in Magog, not far from Montreal. If his mother had made her move even a month later, it would have been too late, Charles believed, he would have gone mad, he would have fallen in with his father and his beliefs, his Amazons and global treachery. He would have done that out of a desire to survive, the way the spirit adapts to what’s intolerable, faced with the shattering of expectations, the days of ruin with their infernal logic to which only his father held the key. »
“Flesh and Tenderness” is an excerpt from Breakneck by Nelly Arcan, translated from the French by Jacob Homel (Anvil Press, Spring 2015).