About the Author

Nicolas Dickner

Books by this Author
Apocalypse for Beginners
Excerpt

1. VAPORIZED
 
August 1989. Ronald Reagan had vacated the White House, the Cold War was winding down and the outdoor municipal swimming pool was, once again, closed for maintenance.
 
Rivière-du-Loup was immersed in a chicken broth of pollen-saturated, yellowish air, and I wandered glumly around the neighbourhood, my towel around my neck. Just three days remained before the start of the new school year, and nothing but a few good laps through chlorinated water could have boosted my morale.
 
I ended up at the municipal stadium. Not a soul in sight. The lines on the baseball field were freshly drawn and the scent of chalk still wafted around. I’d never cared about baseball but, for no particular reason, I loved stadiums. I walked past the dugout. On an old sun-bleached newspaper a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square could just barely be made out.
 
That was when I noticed the girl sitting up in the very last row. Her nose was buried in a book, as though she was killing time waiting for the next game to begin.
 
Without giving it too much thought, I climbed up the bleachers in her direction.
 
I’d never seen her in the neighbourhood. She was thin, with bony hands and a face studded with freckles. The visor of her Mets cap was pulled down low over her eyes and the left knee of her jeans was ripped. The jeans were not of the trendy acid-washed variety, but rough-cut work pants, an ancient pair of Levi’s salvaged from some coal mine in the New Mexico desert.
 
Her back pressed against the guardrail, she was reading a language-learning manual: Teach Yourself Russian at Home, Volume 13.
 
I sat down without speaking. She made no sign of noticing me.
 
The wooden benches scorched our behinds. The sun poured down so mercilessly I was tempted to turn my towel into a turban, but I was afraid of appearing ridiculous. High overhead I could see a 747 tracing long parallel lines of cirrus clouds in the sky. Dry weather ahead.
 
I was on the verge of spouting some meteorological small talk when the girl tilted up the visor of her cap.
 
“Last night I dreamt about the bomb at Hiroshima.”
 
A few seconds went by while I pondered this unconventional preamble.
 
“Why specifically the Hiroshima bomb?”
 
She folded her arms.
 
“The destructive power of modern bombs is unimaginable. Take, for example, an ordinary ballistic missile, about five hundred kilotons. The explosion is enough to send a chunk of tectonic plate into orbit. It’s beyond what the human brain can grasp.”
 
Where was this girl from? I couldn’t pin down her accent. English? Acadian? My guess was Brayon—from Edmundston, New Brunswick, to be exact. She yanked an empty Cracker Jack box out from between two planks and proceeded to turn it into confetti.
 
“Little Boy had a yield of approximately fifteen kilotons. Not exactly a firecracker, but easier to measure all the same. If it exploded over our heads, at six hundred metres—the same altitude as the Hiroshima explosion—the shock wave would flatten the city over a radius of 1.5 kilometres. That amounts to an area of seven square kilometres. Which represents . . .”
 
She squinted, concentrating on the massive mental calculation.
 
“Two thousand five hundred baseball fields.”
 
She stopped shredding the Cracker Jack box long enough for her arms to sweep instructively over the landscape.
 
“The shopping mall would be pulverized, bungalows would be blown to pieces, cars would be sent flying like cardboard boxes, the lampposts would flop down on the ground. And that’s just the shock wave. Then there would be the thermal radiation. Everything would be reduced to ash over dozens of square kilometres—way, way more baseball fields! Near the bomb, the heat would be greater than the temperature at the surface of the sun. Metal would liquefy. Sand would turn into little glass beads.”
 
Having finished the shredding job, she weighed the pile of confetti in the palm of her hand.
 
“And do you know what would happen to us, two tiny, little primates made up of 60 per cent water?”
 
She gently turned her hand upside down and let the breeze carry the confetti off toward left field.
 
“We would be vaporized in three thousandths of a second.”
 
She finally turned my way and took a good look at me, probably to gauge how well I’d held up to her lesson. Pretty well, by and large. Her gaze told me I had passed the test.
 
Her face softened, and I detected the hint of a friendly smile. Then, without saying another word, she plunged back into her Russian handbook.
 
The shock wave having left me slightly worse for wear, I dropped back against the guardrail. I observed the girl sideways as I wiped my forehead with a corner of the towel. I could have sworn she generated a magnetic field—the radiation of her 195 IQ.
 
Not only had I never seen this girl before, but I had never seen any girl like her. And just as I was thinking this, it dawned on me that if I ever had to be vaporized in the company of someone else, I would definitely want it to be her.

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Le Québec en train

Le Québec en train

Cinq parcours mythiques racontés par des écrivains
edition:eBook
tagged : rail travel
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Nikolski

Nikolski

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged :
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Excerpt

Magnetic Anomaly

My name is unimportant.

It all started in September 1989, at about seven in the morning.

I’m still asleep, curled up in my sleeping bag on the living-room floor. There are cardboard boxes, rolled-up rugs, half-disassembled pieces of furniture, and tool boxes heaped around me. The walls are bare, except for the pale spots left by the pictures that had hung there for too many years.

The window lets in the monotonous, rhythmic sound of the waves rolling over the stones.

Every beach has a particular acoustic signature, which depends on the force and length of the waves, the makeup of the ground, the form of the landscape, the prevailing winds and the humidity in the air. It’s impossible to confuse the subdued murmur of Mallorca with the resonant roll of Greenland’s prehistoric pebbles, or the coral melody of the beaches of Belize, or the hollow growl of the Irish coast.

The surf I hear this morning is easy enough to identify. The deep, somewhat raw rumbling, the crystalline ringing of the volcanic stones, the slightly asymmetrical breaking of the waves, the water rich in nutriments – there’s no mistaking the shores of the Aleutian Islands.

I mutter something and open my left eye a crack. Where can that unlikely sound be coming from? The nearest ocean is over a thousand kilometres away. And besides, I’ve never set foot on a beach.

I crawl out of the sleeping bag and stumble over to the window. Clutching at the curtains, I watch the garbage truck pull up with a pneumatic squeal in front of our bungalow. Since when do diesel engines imitate breaking waves?

Dubious poetry of the suburbs.

The two trash collectors hop down from their vehicle and stand there, dumbstruck, contemplating the mountain of bags piled on the asphalt. The first one, looking dismayed, pretends to count them. I start to worry; have I infringed some city bylaw that limits the number of bags per house? The second garbageman, much more pragmatic, sets about filling the truck. He obviously couldn’t care less about the number of bags, their contents or the story behind them.

There are exactly thirty bags.

I bought them at the corner grocery store – a shopping experience I’m not about to forget.

Standing in the cleaning-products aisle, I wondered how many garbage bags would be needed to hold the countless memories my mother had accumulated since 1966. What volume could actually contain thirty years of living? I was loath to do the indecent arithmetic. Whatever my estimation might be, I was fearful of underestimating my mother’s existence.

I went for a brand that seemed sufficiently strong. Each package contained ten revolutionary ultraplastic refuse bags with a sixty-litre capacity.

I took three packages, for a total of 1,800 litres.

The thirty bags turned out to be adequate – though I did on occasion enlist my foot to press the point home – and now the garbagemen are busy tossing them into the gaping mouth of the truck. Every so often, a heavy steel jaw crushes the trash with a pachyderm-like groan. Nothing at all like the poetic susurrations of the waves.

Actually, the whole story – since it needs to be told – began with the Nikolski compass.


The old compass resurfaced in August, two weeks after the funeral.

My mother’s endless agony had worn me out. Right from the initial diagnosis, my life had turned into a relay race. My days and nights were spent shuttling from the house, to work, to the hospital. I stopped sleeping, ate less and less, lost nearly five kilos. It was as if I were the one struggling with the tumours. Yet the truth was never in doubt. My mother died after seven months, leaving me to bear the entire world on my shoulders.

I was drained, my thinking out of focus – but there was no question of throwing in the towel. Once the paperwork was taken care of, I launched into the last big cleanup.

I looked like a survivalist, holed up in the basement of the bungalow with my thirty garbage bags, an ample supply of ham sandwiches, cans and cans of concentrated frozen orange juice and the FM radio with the volume turned down low. I gave myself a week to obliterate five decades of existence, five closetfuls of odds and ends crumbling under their own weight.

Now, this sort of cleanup may seem grim and vindictive to some. But understand: I found myself suddenly alone in the world, with neither friends nor family, but still with an urgent need to go on living. Some things just had to be jettisoned.

I went at the closets with the cool detachment of an archaeologist, separating the memorabilia into more or less logical categories:

• a cigarillo box filled with seashells
• four bundles of press clippings about the U.S. radar stations in Alaska
• an old Instamatic 104 camera
• over three hundred pictures taken with the aforementioned Instamatic 104
• numerous paperback novels, abundantly annotated
• a handful of costume jewellery
• a pair of Janis Joplin-style pink sunglasses

I entered a troubling time warp, and the deeper I plunged into the closets, the less I recognized my mother. The dusty objects belonging to a life in the distant past bore witness to a woman I’d never known before. Their mass, their texture, their odour seeped into my mind and took root among my own memories, like parasites. My mother was thus reduced to a pile of disconnected artifacts smelling of mothballs.

I was annoyed by the way events were unfolding. What had started out as a simple matter of sweeping up was gradually turning into a laborious initiation. I looked forward to the time when I would finally reach the bottom of the closets, but their contents seemed inexhaustible.

It was at this point that I came upon a large packet of diaries – fifteen softcover notebooks filled with telegraphic prose. My hopes were rekindled. Maybe these diaries would allow me to put together the pieces of the puzzle?

I arranged the notebooks chronologically. The first one began on June 12, 1966.

My mother headed off to Vancouver when she was nineteen, feeling that a proper break with one’s family should be gauged in kilometres, and that her own falling-out deserved to be measured in continents. She ran away one June 25, at dawn, in the company of a hippie named Dauphin. The two confederates shared the cost of gas, shifts at the wheel, and long drags on thin joints rolled as tight as toothpicks. When not driving, my mother wrote in her notebook. Her script, very neat and orderly at the outset, quickly started to furl and unfurl, tracing the eddies and whorls of THC.

At the beginning of the second notebook, she had woken up alone on Water Street, barely able to stutter a few halting phrases in English. Notepad in hand, she went about communicating through ideograms, by turns sketching and gesturing. In a park, she made the acquaintance of a group of arts students who were busy crafting delicate origami manta rays out of psychedelic paper. They invited her to share their overcrowded apartment, their cushion-filled living room and a bed already occupied by two other girls. Every night at about two a.m., the three of them squeezed in under the sheets and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while they discussed Buddhism.

My mother swore she would never return to the East Coast.

Whereas her first weeks in Vancouver were recounted with a wealth of detail, the rest of her journey grew more and more elliptical as the demands of nomadic life evidently supplanted those of narration. She never stayed anywhere more than four months, but would all of a sudden take off to Victoria, then Prince Rupert, San Francisco, Seattle, Juneau and a thousand other places she did not always bother to identify clearly. She scraped by thanks to various paltry expedients: hawking poems by Richard Brautigan to passersby, selling postcards to tourists, juggling, cleaning motel rooms, shoplifting in supermarkets.

Her escapade went on like this for five years. Then, in June 1970, we showed up at the Vancouver central station with two huge duffel bags just about bursting at the seams. My mother bought a train ticket to Montreal, and we crossed the continent in reverse, she curled up in her seat, me nestled in the depths of her uterus, an imperceptible comma in an as yet unwritten novel.

When she got back home, she briefly made up with my grandparents – a strategic truce aimed at securing the endorsement she needed from them to buy a house. In short order, she purchased a bungalow in Saint-Isidore Junction, a stone’s throw from Châteauguay, in what was to become the southern periphery of Montreal, but which at the time still retained something of the countryside, with its ancestral houses, its fallow land and its impressive population of porcupines.

Now saddled with a mortgage, she had to take work in Châteauguay – at a travel agency. Paradoxically, this job put an end to her youthful roving, and to her diaries too.

The last diary ended on an undated page, circa 1971. I closed it, deep in thought. Of all the omissions that punctuated my mother’s prose, the most important was Jonas Doucet.
Nothing was left of that transient sire but a stack of postcards scribbled with indecipherable handwriting, the final one dating back to 1975. I had often tried to crack the secret of those cards, but there was no way to make sense of their hieroglyphics. Even the postmarks were more revealing, as they limned out a path that began in southern Alaska, went up to the Yukon, then back down again toward Anchorage, and ended in the Aleutians – more precisely, on the American military base where my father had found employment.

Under the pile of postcards was a small, crumpled box and a letter from the U.S. Air Force.

I learned nothing new from the letter. The box, on the other hand, illuminated a forgotten pit in my memory. Now totally flat, it had once contained a compass that Jonas had sent me for my birthday. That compass came back to me in astounding detail. How could I have forgotten it? It was the only tangible proof of my father’s existence, and had been the pole star of my childhood, the glorious instrument with which I’d crossed a thousand imaginary oceans! Which mountain of debris was it buried under now?

I combed the bungalow from top to bottom in a reckless frenzy, emptying drawers and cupboards, searching behind the sideboards and under the rugs, crawling into the darkest recesses.

It was three in the morning before I tracked it down, stuck between an aquarium-sized deep-sea diver and an apple-green garbage truck, at the bottom of a cardboard box perched on two rafters in the attic.

The years had not improved the appearance of the poor compass, a five-dollar gizmo most likely found near the cash register of an Anchorage hardware dealer. Luckily, its lengthy proximity to metallic toys had not demagnetized its needle, which persisted in pointing (what seemed to be) north.

Strictly speaking, it was a miniature mariner’s compass, composed of a transparent plastic sphere filled with a clear liquid in which there floated a second, magnetized and graded sphere. The inclusion of one sphere inside another, as in a tiny matryoshka, guaranteed a gyroscopic stability that could withstand the worst storms: no matter how strong the waves might be, the compass would lose neither its bearings nor the horizon.

I fell asleep in the attic with my head sunk in a cumulus of candy-pink insulation, the compass resting on my forehead.

Superficially, that old compass seems perfectly unremarkable, just like any other compass. But on closer examination one realizes that it doesn’t point exactly north.

Some individuals claim to be aware at all times of precisely where north is located. However, like most people, I need a marker. When I’m sitting behind the bookstore counter, for example, I know magnetic north is located 4,238 kilometres away, in a beeline that runs through the Mickey Spillane shelf and goes to Ellef Ringnes Island, a pebble lost in the immense Queen Elizabeth archipelago.

But, instead of pointing toward the Mickey Spillane shelf, my compass lines up 1.5 metres to the left, right in the middle of the exit door.

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