I bought an apple-green Wet Westie when I learned the divorce was unavoidable.
A Wet Westie is a water-cooled VW camper. I would be driving it to the edge of the world and possibly beyond.
Lucy, named after the first of all known roamers, had thirty thousand miles on a replacement engine that burbled happily at one twist of the key. Anyone who ever owned one of these ‘Hippie Vans’ will forever start at that sound. Like a coffee percolator idling, promising to do your life a good turn.
I was desperate for a cup of coffee that particular morning. When I say ‘morning’, I mean daybreak; a blue-color working man’s morning, diners opening at 5:30, pickups idling to keep the cabs warm, blue curlicues of exhaust vanishing into thin air, fog still crouching low in the dells.
And when I say ‘desperate’, I am not hyperbolizing either. I’d been on the road since dinnertime the day before going north, north, north until the roads gave out. Somewhere in northern Québec, I guessed. And now I needed some coffee before I fell asleep slouched over Lucy’s oversized horizontal steering wheel.
Crossing the border into Québec had provided a bit of distraction. It must have been around midnight, and both the Vermont guards and their Canadian buddies were bored. So we talked vans.
A stout Canadian Officer squeezed himself behind the wheel and became ecstatic about the offset extension on my stick shift.
“On my van, the stick shift it is too far over – for my arms,” he held them aloft, “especially getting into fourth gear. You make tis?”
“No, no – I found it on a website.”
“I can make tis,” he said, “I can make tis.” He turned his mouth downward, visualizing, and nodded slowly. Then he jumped down and held the door for me. His eyes twinkled. “I have the five kids.” He spread the fingers of his right hand apart and – leaning in confidentiality – added: “All of them they were made in a van just like tis.” He patted Lucy’s rump the way you pat a sweet horse, and waved me on. Wistfully.
Everyone I ever talked to about Lucy grows wistful. The guys, anyway.
From there on out, all I remember is woods. Pine barrens; straight, dark one-lane dirt-roads branching off to towns with the hyphenated names of obscure saints; the occasional rotten-fish smell of a pulp-mill; and more woods. Hours and hours of them.
The brights were none too bright on Lucy, and they barely picked out the dark splotches of potholes. Miles of diagonal washboard made my teeth chatter.
Lucy’s prehistoric radio never worked. The six-foot CB antenna, which once connected me to truckers with suggestive handles, lay mangled among the blue nylon brushes of a Connecticut car wash.
I wedged the triangular side vent open to douse myself with cold air. There was nowhere to pull over to grab some sleep back in my nest of quilts and pillows. One speeding eighteen-wheeler loaded to precarious heights with fresh-cut lumber, and the slip stream alone would tip me into the murky ditch to my right.
Sweet Lucy did not have an aerodynamic figure.
The forest looked less foreboding. Morning light seeped through the wet fingers of silent dark pines. It had to have been around 6 or 6:30.
“St. Côme-Linière,” announced a blue-and-white sign, or what was left of it. Most signs I saw had been shot up.
An archetypal Québécois church dozed in its splendid coat of Rust-Oleum silver. A telephone pole served as the town’s bulletin board.
A hand-written white cardboard sign offered “Petit Déjeuner” – breakfast – in bleached red letters. A magic marker, diligently applied. Underneath, an arrow drooped downwards and to the left. It had recently been outlined in blue: bleu, blanc, rouge – no red maple leaves here in Québec profond.
I made a u-turn on the empty Main Street and followed the sign. To the right stood the object of this morning’s desire: what looked like a prefab one-storey house with a three-season porch, tidy front yard, gravel driveway, and another cardboard sign wired to the screen door.
The town was sleeping in. The house was quiet.
I raked my fingers through my hair and noticed that I had not shaved in two days. Couldn’t be helped. Sliding off the driver’s seat, I made sure the gear was in first – didn’t want Lucy rolling away, as she was wont to do – and clanked the door shut.
By the time I crossed the gravel patch, a woman was standing in the screen door. Dark hair pinned up; a blue calico housecoat over jeans; leaning slightly forward as if the door somehow kept her from falling out.
“Non, non, non!” She stepped aside and held the door open for me. It was as if I’d been expected. A family friend, not a customer. A small step away from une bisse, the left-right-left kiss that comes as natural to a French as a handshake to a German.
The front room housed three card tables, each with four metal folding chairs. Church basement material. Madame pulled one chair out and bade me sit. My back was to the window and I could see movement behind the milk-glass door that led to the rest of the house.
She took a white tablecloth out of a dark, ornate dresser, and, with a practiced shake-and-flap, spread it over the table. Et voilà!
Next came a little cut-crystal vase with a plastic flower arrangement, followed by real china, two plates, cup, saucer, and a setting of silver utensils. Just so.
Ah, and yes, the linen napkin.
I forgot my scruffiness. I’d become a frog, kissed, a princely guest. Was this Montréal? Paris, maybe? I was no longer unwashed, I was debonair with a distinct flair bohème.
I studied the typewritten menu. I hadn’t felt so special in a long time. I’d definitely have eggs and a creton. Maybe a pouding chômeur?
Madame had disappeared. Other than some surreptitious commotion behind closed doors, there was nothing for a long, long time. Half an hour easy. A memorably long time, anyway, for a weary traveler.
Finally the kitchen door opened and I saw something I will never forget.
A girl, maybe 15 or 16, in a complete 50s waitress outfit made an appearance at my table. “Monsieur? Votre coffee?” It was the timid voice of a brave person. She wore a black dress, a white pinafore, and a white, starched kerchief, worn like a tiara, held in place by a plethora of hairpins. And then her sneakers.
Without spilling once, she poured from a china coffee pot that easily could have served eight. Then she straightened up and smiled with relief, with professional pride.
From behind the half-open kitchen door, maman supervised. Unbelievable fragrances followed the girl to my table. I closed my eyes and inhaled. They had been cooking me breakfast without waiting for my order.
“Mireille!” Maman gestured and passed the girl a heavy, round tray laden with food.
I could tell you that the bacon was thick, the jam and bread homemade, the beans fried in duck-fat, the coffee more than plentiful – but that’s not what I remember.
What I remember is that Mireille – bending close to arrange an orange-slice with parsley sprinkles over my eggs – smelled of soap. Old-fashioned soap.
It was the most endearing thing.