Memoir

Guy Chartrand

     At closing time inside Bar 889 in Québec City during the winter of 2004, I accosted a plain looking man I had overheard speaking English by asking him if there was an after-hours bar or party anywhere.  I had noticed a young man I was interested in, who spoke no English, had been talking to him, and, when the man suggested that we go to his house for drinks, I insisted the young man accompany us.  On the cab ride down to Rue Kirouac in the Saint-Roch quarter, we introduced ourselves.  The man’s name was Guy.  He was soft spoken with a dry, short chuckle that was endearing.  Behind his glasses, his eyes gave off a knowing twinkle.  Inside his house, he found some red wine when I told him that the beer he offered didn’t agree with me.  He and the young man (whose name was Stéphane) seemed to be busy in the kitchen, so I sat on his couch and sipped wine.  After a while, I ventured out to the kitchen and asked about Stéphane.  Guy said that he had gone up to the bathroom.  Upstairs, I found Stéphane at the lavatory snorting cocaine.  When he turned toward me, blood was coursing toward his lip from his nostrils.  I moved to embrace him.  At first, he was hesitant and, then, relented but was not at all comfortable, so I retreated back to the living room, where I drank too much wine and fell asleep for a time.  

     Morning light, streaming through the open door, jarred me awake.  “Salut,” Stéphane said before closing the door behind him.  

     I moved to leave, but Guy suggested that I sleep in his spare room.

     It was late in the afternoon when I awoke and found Guy in the kitchen.  He offered coffee, but I settled for a glass of water.  We were both in our fifties and soon discovered that we had much in common.  He explained that he had retired after receiving treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  As we talked about Québec, I reminisced about the clubs I had frequented over years of visiting the city.  He remembered the same venues.  He talked about his loneliness and inability to find someone to share his life with.  He was attracted to young men who only seemed interested in money or a temporary place to stay.  Although he was slightly bald and not particularly handsome, he had a charm and a sense of dignity that was very attractive.  I empathized with his dilemma but advised that he not sell himself so short.  He was pleased that I could see his good qualities and was not judgmental.  We laughed about the parade of young men he called his “nephews” that he met in the bars.  I hugged him before I left and promised to keep in touch.  I was only in the city for a few days and told him that I would meet him later at 889.  He said he was partied out but might show up during the night.

     889 was a bar where older men waited and waited for younger men to appear while they sat around the black granite-topped bar islanded in the middle of the room and sparred in varying degrees of French and English — their peripheral vision always searching the windows and entrances for the prospective conquest that inevitably ambled toward the club.  

     Against the back wall near an entry to the street, there was a row of one-armed-bandits where the nondescript sat on stools and kept pushing losing turns at the machines behind the half-wall that separated them from the main bar area that was lined with glass windows and doors that led out onto the deck where everyone went to smoke.  In summer, the glass doors were open and music was piped outside to the tables that accommodated the customers that gathered in early evening and stayed on into the night.  

     Once a packed mecca for the gay community, Bar 889 had become, by the time I met Guy, a place for straights and gays and drug dealers to hang out.  The bar was just at the north end of St. Matthew’s Cemetery where the English Protestant community had buried their dead for a few hundred years before they had been swallowed up by the predominant French Catholics.  In the second half of the 20th Century, the cemetery had become a park and the church a French language library.  At the south end of St. Matthew’s was Le Drague — the premier gay bar in Québec City housing multi-layers of bars carved into the bedrock.  

     Bar 889 was just off Rue St. Jean.  Most tourists were unaware that it even existed.  Consequently, it retained a flavor of the city not polluted by the trends that swept over the area and disappeared.

     Bar 321 on Rue de la Couronne was a neighborhood bar where older gay men also waited for young hustlers and stragglers to stop in.  Both 889 and 321 were owned and operated by the same people.  Across from 321, a male dance club had operated for years but, by the time I had met Guy, the owner had died and his children had converted it into a straight venue.  Before that, men would cross the street from one bar to the other.  Bar 321 also had a row of one-armed-bandits against the wall opposite the bar area, but the machines were more accessible than at Bar 889.  Often, hustlers would have one eye on the machines and the other on prospective clients.

     Bar 889 was located in the upper city and, to get to Bar 321, you would take a cab or traverse a system of stairs and convoluted streets and avenues to the lower city’s Saint-Roch quarter which had been a working-class enclave for generations before it started to become gentrified late in the 20th Century. 

     The next time I went up to Québec, after a number of months had elapsed, I ran into Guy at Bar 321.  He didn’t recognize me at first, but, when I reminded him of the night I had spent at his house, he made room for me at the table he shared with a group of friends, explaining to them in French who I was.  

     After that, the nights become confused.  They were numerous.  When I came into the city, I would find him at 321 or 889.  It got so the bartenders would call him when they saw me and tell him I was in town, and he would show up full of laughter and tales of his latest “nephew.”  I would tease him and ask when the next one was moving in.  

     I introduced him to my sister Ruth who soon became his friend.  They would roar with laughter discussing my foibles and crazy adventures in Québec.  

     On New Year’s Day in 2006, a group of us who had gone up to the city for the holiday, stumbled into Bar 321.  Guy had spent a few nights partying with us and, knowing that some of us were staying at a hotel nearby, he expected that we might appear.  He was sitting against the back wall and broke into a dry chuckle as he saw us enter.  Only a few people were crazy enough to be out after the revelries of the night before.  Silly laughter filled the afternoon and continued on into the evening.  Before Guy left for home, I told him that I would be back on the last weekend of winter carnival.  We agreed that we would meet at Bar 889. 

     As I hurried inside Bar 889 from the cold a few weeks later, I could hear Guy telling someone at the bar, “that crazy man from Maine should be showing up any time.”  He burst into laughter when he saw me moving toward him.  “I was just telling my friend . . . “  

     “I heard you,” I said.  

     Once again, he introduced me to a circle of friends, and we were off into the night going from club to club where laughter rang out, and we teased each other about the “nephews” we were going to meet before the weekend was out.

     One night, Guy introduced me to his friend Sandra, a trans-sexual who had been in the city for many years.  Sandra had been beautiful and still retained traces of that beauty even into late age.  She was from an English background and had found a home in Québec after escaping her small town when she was a teenager.  The repartee was biting and hilarious.  It got so I would run into one of them and we would call the other and meet in one of the bars.

     At closing time one night, Guy told me about an afterhour’s club near 889.  He explained that it was illegal but that I could go with him if I wanted.  There were several floors to traverse before reaching the apartment where one of his friends tended the operation.  A giant screen displayed the entrance to the building where a video camera was perched to capture the onset of any raid.  Guy and Sandra would often hold court there amongst the hustlers and drug dealers.  One night, when, luckily, I was not there, the place got raided.  Guy, holding his hand up to his face so that the cameras caught only his profile as he hurried in the opposite direction, was arrested.  When one of Guy’s friends in Montréal, who saw a clip on the news, suggested that he was part of the group, Guy insisted she was mistaken.  How we laughed at his deception.

     In late autumn of 2007, I sent Guy a copy of one of the books I had published.  I received no reply, but after I sent a Christmas card, he wrote to tell me that his cancer had returned.  I was in tears when I called my sister Ruth.  Both of us wrote him to express our concern.  When I called after the holidays, he insisted that things were all right, explaining that he would be in treatment under great doctors.

     When I went up to Québec for winter carnival, I called Guy from the telephone in the entryway to Bar 321 but only got his answering machine, so I went by Sandra’s apartment.  She told me that Guy was out of the hospital and was probably visiting his doctor.  I had left him a message, but when he walked into Bar 889 that night, I barely recognized him.  What little hair he had had was gone.  He was gaunt, but his laughter and mischievous energy were still there.

     He told me he was disappointed in his friends, most of whom had disappeared once he stopped frequenting the bars.  But one friend, who had driven Guy to the bar to see me that night, had taken Guy to the friend’s family’s house for Christmas, and a young man, who had spent a few nights with Guy earlier in the year, had called at least once a week.  On New Year’s Eve, this young man had called and said he would like to stop by.  Guy had explained that he wasn’t up to having company, but the young man said that Guy was the nicest man he had met in the past year and that he really would like to spend New Year’s with him.  Guy had relented and invited him over.  

     Guy mentioned that a young bartender at Bar 321, whose girlfriend was Guy’s nurse at the hospital, would stop by after he got out of work in the early morning hours.  Although the “nephews” had disappeared, I felt confident that, with the small circle of friends that stood by him, Guy would overcome his disease and his depression.

     He too felt confident, as he explained that he had stored up a quantity of his own blood to be deep-frozen and put back into his body once the cancer treatment was complete.  

     In late April, I went up to the city for an extended stay with my sister Margaret.  We got to Québec on Tuesday afternoon.  Once we were settled into our hotel, I went on my usual round of bookstores and venues I revisit on every trip.  As usual, on my first day back in the city, I searched out the bars I frequent to have a few beers before going back to my room.  Since it was the beginning of the week, I had no intention of clubbing that night.  I could find no one I knew in any of the clubs and had decided I would just go back to the hotel, but I chanced one last try and walked down to Bar 321.  It was early evening by the time I got there.  

     Guy, who was weak from his round of treatments, had gone out on Saturday night and had slipped into oblivion by the end of the night, looked up from his table at the back of the bar as I walked in and said, “I can’t be that drunk already, but that looks like Darrell coming through the door.”

     After Guy introduced me to people at his table, I sat down and he regaled me with the craziness of his Saturday night and the resulting hangover on Sunday when he had turned off his telephone and refused to answer his door.  He said, since Sunday had been his birthday, he decided, in the late afternoon, to go out and buy himself a puppy.  

     We roared with laughter.

     I had not shaved or showered, so when Guy informed me that everyone was going up to Bar 889, I told him I would have to go back to my room and dress.  He said he would give me an hour.

     When I got to 889, a group had pushed tables together and was celebrating a belated birthday for Guy.  He introduced me as his best friend.  Later, as we were up at the bar having a beer before going downtown, Guy confided to me that his loneliness had become so acute that he had been thinking of suicide.  I empathized with him, but reminded him that his cancer treatment was progressing well and that things were not so bleak.

     We separated from the group and went down to Bar 321, which was in his neighborhood.  As the night wore on, I asked if I could crash at his house.  When I awoke in the early afternoon, our beer bottles were nearly full on the kitchen table.  I emptied them into the sink and left Guy a note.

     On Friday night, Guy and I went down to Bar 321 where we met up with Sandra and then proceeded on to his house where we were greeted by his birthday gift.  When I asked what he had named his puppy, he replied, “Sandra,” his voice lapsing into a dry chuckle.  

     When I woke in early morning to go to the bathroom, I heard the two of them still talking in the kitchen.  

     Guy was asleep when I woke to leave in the afternoon.  I stood in the doorway to his bedroom and watched his frail body move with his breathing.  He seemed so fragile, but I knew there was a lot of fight left.

     When my sister decided we would be leaving a day earlier than planned, I called and left Guy a message that I would be going out the night before leaving town.  I was hurrying along Rue St. Jean when Guy called out to me.  He had gone to dinner with his first cousin, a lawyer from Montréal, who was representing a client in the city.  I joined them as they walked up the street.  This cousin had prepared all his legal papers for Guy.  Guy invited his cousin to go with us to an Irish bar we sometimes frequented, but he declined.  When we discovered that there were few people in the Irish bar, we headed downtown to Bar 321.  Sandra appeared with a beautiful young man and an admirer.  Guy and I sat at a distant table and watched the proceedings that eventually led to a liaison back at Sandra’s apartment just around the corner.

     Guy and I had more beer at the bar.  When I finally got up to go back up town, I kissed his bald head and said, “salut.”

     I tried to call him several times from Northern Maine, but I always got the answering machine.

     In July, I ended up at Bar 889 on a hurried trip up to Québec.  Chantal, the bartender, told me that the cancer had progressed to Guy’s brain and that she didn’t think he would survive.  I gave her my business card and made her promise she would keep me informed of his condition.

     I called Guy, about noon, from a phone booth the next day.  He had just returned to his house from a chemo treatment and suggested we meet later in the day since I informed him I wouldn’t be staying the night.  He said he had to have a walker to get around in his house.  “I’m an old man,” he said.  I could hear the sadness beneath the laughter.  

     Before I left the city that afternoon, I tried his number once more but there was no answer.  

     I called and left a message when I got back to Maine.  When I finally did get hold of him in the middle of August, he told me that he had been working on flowers on his patio and that people were stopping by.  Chantal had taken him out that week.  He said that he would be going to the hospital on Tuesday for a week or so.  I promised to call, but when I did, I got his machine.

     On October 10th when I got to the city, I went down to Bar 321 and tried to call Guy, but I got a message that his phone had been disconnected.  I went around the corner to Sandra’s apartment but got no answer when I rang.  When I came off the street onto the deck behind Bar 889 later that night, Chantal was serving a customer.  When I asked about Guy, she said, “You didn’t know?”  I shook my head.  “He died on September 9th, she said.  I told her that I would have come up, but she said she had lost my business card.  

     Someone had called Chantal at about 2 AM to tell her that Guy had pneumonia and that he could go either way.  It was a slow night, so she said she would clean up as soon as possible and go to the hospital, but it wasn’t long before she had a call that Guy had passed.  Fifty people attended the memorial service.  Guy had left instructions that he was to be dressed in a clown’s outfit with the fake nose and all.  The attendants at the crematorium said that they had a difficult time putting their clown into the fire.  The priest officiating at the memorial service said that he would say a prayer every time someone had something nice to say about Guy.  Chantal told him, “You’re going to pray a long while.”  Guy had left money for everyone to go out for dinner and drinks after the service.  Chantal said that in the display at the service she saw a picture of Guy as a beautiful, curly-haired, little boy and that his cousin had left a table with mementos that the mourners could take from.   I hugged Chantal and told her how much I had loved Guy.  

     “He knew that,” she said.

     I had a drink and went down to Bar 321, thinking that I might see Sandra, but she was not there.  I watched the young bartender, who had been so kind to Guy, as he laughed and served his customers.  He nodded hello to me, the twinkle in his eyes fading as he remembered who I was.  I wanted to talk to him about Guy, but thought the better of it.  When I finished my beer, I started to walk toward Guy’s house, but turned and went back uptown.  Somehow Bar 889 didn’t feel the same, so I went to Le Drague and watched the antics of the young crowd as the night wore on.

Sandra Sheridon was seventy-six years old when she died of stomach cancer in Québec City, 10 August 2017.  She had been hospitalized for about two months.  Cancer had travelled to her brain.  She was confused and rather disorientated toward the end.

Darrell McBreairty

Darrell McBreairty is a writer/photographer living in Allagash, Maine.  A number of his books are available at Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing. He can be reached at dmcbreairty@yahoo.com.