SNUB 2 by Rob Labelle (originally published in Fishpiss Magazine)
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I've been going back and back, trying to figure the point at which the American Devices began. It wasn't the day Rick Trembles and I came up with the name, walking through Old Montreal on the cobblestones -put there to fool American tourists into thinking they're in Europe. It wasn't the time before I was in the band, when they were just called the Devices, playing loft parties in which drummer Cups Von Helm's cheap kit would drift across the slippery floor, and singer Phil's eyes would roll back in his head. It wasn't even with my own punk beginnings -playing three chords over and over in the basement of an art student's storefront gallery in the late seventies, mimicking British working class accents with a group called the Normals. No, I felt I had to go much further back than that, to some primal event, some initial disappointment that marked me and set me up for the gentle, ever-present bashing and humiliation of my life. Not that my life is particularly more frustrating and humiliating than anyone else's. It's just that the American Devices has, without being aware of it, tried to jumble or tangle up these things, make something out of them -kind of like the piles of mixed up, broken guitar cables we find stranded at the end of one of our miserable shows. But for the past twenty years the group has even failed at this. Failed in the most obvious way: after all this time we're still virtually unknown. Snubbed. Snubbed over a very long period of time, which, I think, having been raised Catholic, is a pretty good definition of purgatory. So, you could say I've spent a good part of my life failing at trying to deal with the failure that is my life. I've spent a good part of my life in purgatory. That's why I recently began searching out some initial scene, some early memory of things going wrong -the first little wrong thing that happened to me, and just to me.
One day towards the end of the summer of 1961, a mother sent her five year old son to the corner of their suburban street to buy a bottle of ketchup. Gripping the change his mother had put in his little hand, the boy made his way along the glaring cement sidewalk. "Ketchup," he pronounced up at the old man behind the counter and spilled the change out of his hand. A quarter and dime stuck to his palm for a moment and the man reached out a rough nicotine-stained finger and brushed the coins off onto the counter. "Du ketchup," the man repeated, translating. He turned around to the shelves behind him, and scanned through his stock. The tiny store was crammed with a Coca-Cola cooler, a glassed-in refrigerator meat counter, and shelves of cans and jars behind the cash. The old man ducked down, and then reemerged with an enormous bottle. "J'en ai juste du gros," he said setting the bottle on the counter. "Gros," the boy repeated in a kind of wonder. The two looked at each other, the big red bottle between them. Then the old man scooped up the change, making up the boy's mind. "Your mother will pay me the rest next time she comes." Important facts like that were always said in English. He then ripped off a piece of brown wax paper that was used to wrap bacon, and dressed it around the bottle, concluding the sale. He handed it down to the boy. In his arms, it looked like he was cradling a baby doll. Walking back down the street, he faced the sun, solid and hot. When you're five years old, a summer is like a kingdom -unending, undefeatable. It was now late August, and he could barely remember any other season. The big poplar trees, so high and covered with a million shifting leaves, looked like they would stay that way forever. But there was a picture just inside the door of his house, of him as a baby -so he was told, with his older sister, sitting in a big pile of leaves -evidence that it could happen again, that the leaves could all fall down.
He also knew another fact: this year he was going to go to school. Because his birthday was in October, he'd been kept out of his first year for eleven extra months. He felt like he was late, that there were things he should already know. He pictured being brought to some place where he would be expected to perform, to read, as his sister did from one of her books. Whenever this thought would come to him, he would stop whatever he was doing. He would sit down somewhere in the house beside his records or coloring books, and stare into them until something else happened along to change his thoughts. This summer was the first time he'd been introduced to such a feeling, but it was the kind of thing that would accompany him on and off from now on. Just as he stared up now into the big solid tree and clouds, the boy heard and recognized the bright sound of breaking glass. He knew what it was but it sounded very far off. The bottle had slipped through the wax paper and crashed onto the sidewalk. He knew he was responsible for it, but he couldn't believe this big red mess at his feet had anything to do with him. It was horrible -nothing to do with the neat red bottle that had been there in his arms just a second ago. It looked like the body of a cat turned inside out, or a giant aborted chick, as if the hunks of glass surrounding it were eggshells. He jumped over the mess and ran the rest of the way home, looking back at it several times. His eyes welled up with tears and the whole bright world swam before him. His mother was mad at first, not believing him when he said the bottle was very big. But when they went over together to clean it up (she held him tightly by the wrist as they crossed the street), and saw the big chunks of glass, she shifted her anger to Monsieur Bourbonnier for selling the bottle to him. She picked out the larger pieces, and put them in a brown paper bag she'd brought with her. She didn't attempt to clean up the puddle of ketchup though, saying the rain would wash the rest away. Later, looking out his bedroom window, the boy could still see it -an ugly red marker. Somehow, someone had accidentally walked through it, spreading it, and a bike had driven through it sending red lines down the sidewalk.
That night, as he lay in bed, listening through the open window to the clicking heels of the occasional passerby, the boy pictured a ketchup lake pulsing and growing. In some kind of comforting response, he reached over to the wall beside his bed, and fidgeted with an unglued piece of wallpaper. He tore off a small strip, and placed it in the breast pocket of his light summer pajamas. He did this again and again over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the ketchup stain on the sidewalk faded with the rain into a giant pink birthmark. The boy wasn't quite sure why he did this thing with the wallpaper, but when his mother asked him about it, relating the thousand paper fragments she found in the washing machine to the scarred wall beside the boy's bed, he said simply that it was my hobby. Actually, this was his first band and the very first American Devices show.
© 2000, Rob Labelle
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