Harp & Altar
POETRY
Corey Frost
Système de Montréal—Montreal System

Elise Harris

Joanna Howard

Steve Katz

Johannah Rodgers

Système de Montréal—Montreal System
Corey Frost

The night of the storm I am alone in my apartment. The plastic I bought at Canadian Tire is beginning to peel off the windows and I have decided not to go home for Christmas. When the power goes out, I say, I’m thinking of a personyou tell me who the person is. It’s like those games you’ve played where people take turns asking, Are you an animal? Are you a movie star? Are you alive? and you answer, Yes I am, No I am not, Yes I am.

 

C’est une question un peu bizarre, peut-être, mais . . . um . . . I’d like to know . . . the voice on the system, the answering service . . . who is it?

Pardon? C’est qui?

Oui, c’est qui, cette voix? Who is it?

 

I am a real person. I am alive. I’m not famous. I woke up at 2:00 P.M. one day and had an experience that upset my daily routine, so subtly and yet so powerfully that I was forced to re-examine what I had until then regarded as my life. Although it began suddenly, the experience took a year to unfold completely, and by the end I was left wondering, How did I get here? Where do I go from here? and also, What will I leave behind when I go? By the end, I (that is, the person I’m thinking of) was also thinking of a person, because a mystery is often solved by another mystery.

 

C’est qui? Mais, je ne sais pas vraiment. C’est . . . je suppose que c’est une actrice. Cette une voix enregistrée, vous savez. Ou bien quelqu’un qui travail ici.

Oui, je suppose, okay, mais . . . I wanted to find out the name of that person, or . . . to find out if I could maybe talk to her . . .

 

The experience began while I was checking the messages on my telephone. This is a service provided by the phone company that obviates the need for an answering machine, which had itself obviated the need to answer the phone. The telephone I’m thinking of is located in an apartment that has two wrought-iron balconies, hardwood floors, high ceilings, and electric baseboard heaters that are pitiably insufficient in the winter months. On that day it was particularly cold in the apartment, and when the phone rang repeatedly I stayed in bed. The bed is a well-worn futon with mismatched quilts. A ringing telephone can be a difficult stimulus to resist, but I’m indifferent to it and it’s the city I’m thinking of that fosters that indifference. When I did get up, I found there was no more coffee.

 

Mais, elle n’est pas ici! Je ne sais meme pas son nom, et si je le savais je ne pourrais pas vous le donner, pas de question!

Why? Pourquoi?

Pourquoi? Parce-que si je vous le donne, il faudrait le donner à tout le monde, à toute la ville . . .

 

Perhaps many people had called that morning, or maybe the same person had called over and over, but there was only one message, and all it said was, “Where are you?” What caught my attention and caused my bouleversement was not the message, though, not the content of the message, but the answering service itself. The voice that tells me how many messages there are, usually as familiar and unnoticed as my own, had been changed. Before, the voice had been professional almost to the point of condescension, and slightly robotic. But the new voice was real and nuanced. It used exactly the same words, with exactly the same rhythm and intonation, but the difference was unmistakable.

 

C’est une question un peu bizarre, peut-être, mais . . . c’est qui? [Basically, the speaker wants to know the identity of the person on the voice-mail system. French is not the speaker’s first language.]

Pardon? C’est qui? [Casual bewilderment. The téléphoniste has a stressful job. She’s probably been told to give a false name if anyone asks for it—in fact she has one all picked out. Giselle. She can’t tell what is being asked, and maybe she hasn’t decided whether or not this is harassment.]

 

I had stopped hearing what the voice said. Once you know the routinelisten, press 1; delete, press 7there’s no point in listening to the words. So when I heard a different voice speaking them, it was as if I could see through the words, directly to the personality. They became transparent, not because their meaning was readily apparent, but in the opposite sense: the words had no meaning, they were simply the substance of a mysterious identity, located not even at the other end of the line, but somewhere between this end and the other end. The new voice, with its new identity, acknowledged the meaninglessness of “Listen, press 1.” The voice was saying to me, “You and I understand one another. We both know what’s going on, and it’s more than a simple phone message.”

 

Oui, c’est qui, cette voix? [Here, a touch of defensiveness. The speaker may be unsure whether the confusion is due to the question itself or the imperfect French in which it was rendered.]

Mais, je ne sais pas vraiment. [She doesn’t know who it is. Really. Pause.] C’est . . . je suppose . . . [She supposes it must be an actress, or someone who works here.]

 

But something else caught my attention. This new voice was familiar, so familiar that at first I hadn’t noticed how easily it fell into place in my mind. Could it be that I knew this new voice, knew her as a real, embodied person?

 

Oui, je suppose, mais . . . [Can I talk with her, the caller wants to know?]

Mais, elle n’est pas ici! [She is not here! The téléphoniste hints, through meta-linguistic cues, that the person calling is a lunatic.]

 

Perhaps it was only that I’d heard the voice before—perhaps the same person had recorded the voice mail system at the place where I used to work, or maybe it was the same voice that says “Watch your step” at the airport. A few days later, when it was too cold to go out, I spent most of the afternoon phoning the electronic systems I knew—the university, the library, the train station—but none of them answered me in the same voice, and I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it before. Gradually I became convinced that it was someone I knew, or had once known. Over the next few weeks, as the city thawed and I went about my meager business again, my conviction wavered like a mirage, but finally it solidified in front of me and blocked my path.

 

Pourquoi? [Why?]

Pourquoi? [Why?]

 

C’est juste que je pense que c’est quelqu’un que je connais . . . et j’aimerais savoir comment la rejoindre . . . [The caller confesses that he thinks the voice may belong to an old friend, whom he would like to find. The caller would like to say more, but is beginning to feel the futility of the task.]

 

I imagined how I might contact her. The question seemed absurd, since every time I picked up the phone, she was there. Every time I wanted to contact someone else or someone else wanted to contact me, she was the messenger. But I couldn’t send a message to her. She had no name, no number.

 

Mais c’est impossible.

 

The first few times I called the phone company I was completely rebuffed, but finally I convinced someone to take my name and number and to pass a message on to her. By this time, I was uncertain if I really knew her, or if it was just the voice I knew. My connection to the voice was somewhat obsessive, I suppose, but it wasn’t delusional. I wasn’t one of those frustrated individuals who fall in love with celebrities and then try to get their attention by killing other celebrities. It was simply that this voice, with its confident pronouncements and its reassuring cadences, made me feel better about my life as a non-celebrity.

 

Je ne peux pas vous promettre qu’elle va vous appeller. [The sympathetic téléphoniste says that she can make no promises.]

Je sais. Je vous remercie. [I know. Thank you.]

 

About a month later, I got a message. I’d been home all day, and the phone hadn’t rung. It had been dark for hours when I realized that I’d eaten nothing that day except a bagel with cream cheese, so I picked up the phone to order food. I was surprised to find it beeping. A message had been sent directly to my voice mail, as if it had emanated not from a distant telephone but from somewhere within the system itself. It was definitely the same voice, but the effect of hearing her speak spontaneously disoriented me. She left no name, no number. And no indication that she recognized me from her past.

 

Bonjour. C’était une des téléphonistes qui m’a donné ce numero. She told me that you believe you used to know me. But well, I must tell you, c’est une période très difficile pour moi. I have tried to . . . sever . . . all contact . . . avec mon ancienne vie. J’éspère que ça ne te fait pas trop de misère. I hope you will not be offended. If things go well, maybe I will phone you. But I can’t promise. Please, je ne veux pas que tu essaye de me trouver. Goodbye.

 

And that was the last thing I heard her say to me. Which is untrue, of course, in at least two ways, since I continued to hear her voice every day on the answering service, and since even this message was not actually her, but only another recording. It was, in a way, more “real” than the recording I normally heard, and maybe it was the only thing I ever really heard her say. But this “real” voice also seemed to come from another world entirely, and in a way I felt that the real voice was the one that told me, “You have no new messages.” One voice was natural and the other supernatural, but I couldn’t tell which was which.

I played it over and over, paying attention to how the nuances of the voice corresponded to those on the system. It had a distinct vocal signature—certain vowels pronounced certain ways, certain words liaised—just like a written signature, or the marks made by a particular typewriter. But the voice also diverged at times from its little rituals, and in those hesitations or sudden changes of direction between languages, there was a momentary escape from the persona on the system. In those moments, when the language blew open like a curtain in a window, I thought I saw a glimpse of a person I used to know. I couldn’t see a face, only a familiar outlineperhaps even intimately familiar. It was not just an acquaintance, I realized, but someone I had, in some way or another, loved: a boy, a very peculiar boy I had met one summer, not here, but somewhere I couldn’t recall. I remembered his skinny frame and the soft short hair at the back of his neck, but when I tried to picture his face the curtain blew closed again. Neither could I put a name to the shape, or any words we had shared, except a murmured phrase, an exclamation that was half laughter. The voice, though, was unmistakable and clung tenaciously to memory. The pitch was different; it was now a woman’s voice, and older, but I heard in it the same boyish laugh.

To me they were the same person, the woman and the fragmented boy. The voice was female, certainly, but like the words she spoke, the gender seemed arbitrary, a part of the user-friendly interface. It was not accidental that the voice was female, I realized: voice-mail systems are always inhabited by women. Maybe the voice on the phone had been digitally altered. Or maybe the boy I had once loved was only a boy in my memory. The more uncertain I became, the more I wanted to meet this person—but not because I wanted the mystery to be resolved.

But she didn’t call again. The summer came rather unexpectedly for me, as it does every year. I puzzled over her identity and found a place for it in my mind, but did not put it away. Every day I listened to her voice, and when I picked up the phone I felt an instant sense of well-being. No matter how often I listened, even though it said the same few phrases over and over again, for me the voice was always saying something different and intriguing.

I started to indulge in a kind of dream-like, quasi-sexual meditation while listening to her instructions. It wasn’t hard to imagine that a real person was talking to me on the other end of the line. I would turn on the speaker-phone and wander through the menus. If I waited too long before choosing an option, as inevitably happened, she would gently remind me of her presence by asking, “Are you still there?” And if I still neglected to press anything, she would tell me she was sorry I was having problems and ask me to try again later. This was a new kind of intimacy, I thought. It seemed historically significant.

Once, after I had pressed 4 and was fiddling with my personal options, I was suddenly startled by a male voice, which referred to the answering service itself, this world in which I was living, asSystème de Montréal—Montreal System.” I hung up the phone, but later that night while I was riding the metro, thinking about my telephonic existence, it occurred to me that the city itself is a system. As with language, the individual elements—the words or the people—have no meaning without the system of which they are a part. The Montreal System is a meaning mill, processing bits and pieces of languages and lives and churning out a city. Now that system seemed directly linked to my own nervous system, my body, my voice. And what meaning would I have, I found myself wondering, without this system of desires I had built around myself?

 

 

The end of the experience, near the end of the year, also came through voice mail. I woke up one day to find I was out of coffee again, went out to find some, and spent an hour on the mountain taking photos of the sunset. I’d missed the daylight entirely the day before, so I wanted to preserve some of the fading purple light in case I ran out later on. I hid a paper bag of warm bagels inside my jacket and walked home in the dark, wading through knee-deep drifts of snow along Avenue du Parc. I had one new message.

 

Hello. You don’t know me, but I’m calling on behalf of Kathy Tremblay. It’s very important that you call me.

 

The caller had repeated this in French and had left a phone number. I didn’t know the man’s voice, and I didn’t know who Kathy Tremblay was, but I called back right away and the same man answered. He asked me if I was a friend of Kathy’s, and I said that I hadn’t seen her in a long time. He said my number had been in Kathy’s address book, and he was trying to contact all her friends because, well, Kathy had died. The cancer had finally won, he said. He asked me if by any chance I was a relation, and I said no. So far he had been unable to locate any of Kathy’s family. “I don’t think that she was really in contact with her family,” I said.

“Yes, so it seems,” he said, and then he told me that the funeral was happening on Sunday. I took down the details and thanked him, and then as he was about to say goodbye I asked if he had known Kathy well himself. He explained that he’d been hired as the executor; he had never met Kathy, although he had once talked to her, over the phone.

After hanging up, and even during the conversation, I felt detached. Kathy was a name I didn’t know and didn’t even particularly like. Death is a physical effect, and in this case the physical body had never really existed for me. In fact, only now did it have a real presence, lying on a table in a mortuary somewhere, soon to be in a casket surrounded by flowers. Then it would be buried in the cemetery on the mountain, where I could visit if I wanted to, on Sunday afternoons. But the voice was not with the body and never had been. When I lifted the telephone receiver again the same familiar voice greeted me and assured me there were no new messages. For almost a year the voice had been repeating these words to me, to everyone in the city. It was possible that the telephone company didn’t even know that the original voice, the true voice, was dead. But was the person on the phone the same person who had died a few days ago of cancer? On one hand it seemed that fame had made her immortal, but on the other hand, perhaps fame is a kind of death, that steals you away from yourself and fixes you in eternal, inaccessible space. Maybe, from the moment her voice was recorded, she was already dead.

 

 

The funeral home was only a few blocks from my apartment, a massive presence occupying a corner I passed almost daily. I had always been obliquely aware of its function, but the thought of entering the building made me see the corner in a different way, and changed something in my relationship to the whole city. The exterior walls were stucco and seemed incongruous behind the snowbanks, while inside, the carpeted lobby with its tinted-glass light fixtures, waxy plants and raffia-wrapped chairs felt vaguely like a somber Greek restaurant. It was the first time I’d ever been to a funeral in this city. I didn’t associate the city with death, even though living here was a constant process of mourning something or other: someone leaving town, some job falling through, some restaurant closing. But now, in this space that was so intimate with actual death and reminded me of family, I suddenly felt completely foreign, an outsider again.

Opposite the front entrance, on an easel next to a pair of doors, was a black letterboard whose white push-in letters read Tremblay. Inside, about thirty people were sitting on metal chairs facing a lectern and a daïs where the coffin floated amidst a cloud of flowers. Across one of the larger bouquets was a banner that read, simply, Goodbye. The coffin was open, but I couldn’t see the face inside, only a pair of hands holding a lily. The service had already begun, so I sat down in the back row. A white-haired man stood next to the lectern, saying something to the effect that it was a tragedy to see a young life cut short so abruptly. He confided, nevertheless, that he was able to find meaning in the mystery of death by speaking with God, and he was confident enough to assure us that we too would find solace if we listened for His voice. The audience was mostly women, dressed in somber grays and cream-coloured silk blouses. They clung together in small groups near the front, and I had the impression they all knew one another. Some of them seemed to be in a state of shock. I was so absorbed in observing the audience that at first I didn’t notice that the white-haired man, who was one of only a few men in the room, had stopped speaking. His head was bowed, and he was absently pulling at the sleeves of his suit jacket, as if he thought they were too short. It was quiet, and I became intensely aware of small sounds: the creaking of chairs, the zipper of someone’s purse, the traffic outside. In the front row someone was softly weeping.

After what seemed like a long time, the white-haired man lifted his head and spoke again. “Before she died, Kathy wanted to record a farewell to her friends, and she asked that the recording be played for everyone who gathered in her memory. So at this point I ask you to listen to this final message from Kathy, to remember and cherish, and to inwardly respond to her words in our own individual ways.” Then he nodded to someone standing near the back, and there was the low airy sound of speakers being turned on, and a moment of anticipation before her voice suddenly filled the room. I closed my eyes when I heard it and tried to imagine, with the static from the speakers, that I was hearing the message on the phone, speaking to me from the other world. But the voice was fuller, richer, in stereo, and it resonated across the quiet, carpeted room, taking on a nearly omnipresent quality. I was not certain, after all, that this was a voice I knew, and not even certain that it was the voice from the message system. I became confused, again and on a new level, about who this person was. Unable to pay attention to what the voice was saying, I focused entirely on its pitch, timbre, tone. For a moment, I thought I glimpsed a familiar shape in the sounds, but just then her voice began to choke, as if tiny pieces were missing from it, and then I heard her say a final goodbye.

I would have talked to the other people present, but I felt that the questions I wanted to ask were somehow inappropriate, immodest. It was obvious that my desire to connect this woman to my past could not be satisfied by talking to anyone there. After the room had mostly emptied out, I finally gravitated to the front. She was wearing a high-collared, emphatically feminine dress the color of a tropical lagoon. Her hair, auburn with streaks of blond, curled in wisps around her ears. She seemed to be in her thirties. It was hard to see her complexion through the makeup, but it seemed that she had spent some time in tanning salons. I didn’t recognize her face. There was no face in my memory for comparison, though, so I wasn’t convinced that this person was not the boy I had once loved. A familiar amalgam of curiosity and desire made me want to look beneath the lid of the coffin, and under the aquamarine dress. Are you a real person? Are you a movie star? Are you alive? From the face, with its cosmetic surface and its lips sewn shut, I couldn’t tell anything about the rest of the body or the body’s history. The system of signs that might have told me had collapsed, along with the circulatory system, the nervous system—all the systems. But I was not obsessed to the point of breaking all social and legal taboos; I had not gone that far. So I sat for a moment in a chair, and then I signed the guestbook. I felt compelled, for some reason, to leave a false name. Then I went home.

 

C’est juste que je pense que c’est quelqu’un que je connais . . . et j’aimerais savoir comment la rejoindre . . .

Mais, elle n’est pas ici!

 

For two weeks her voice continued to reassure me every day, and I made my own recording of it to be sure I’d be able to hear it whenever I wanted. Then it was replaced. I don’t know how many times I called during those two weeks. I would sit and wait for her to ask me, Are you still there? And then I’d press a button and wait again for her to ask one more time. Are you still there?

 

 

The night of the storm I am alone in my apartment. I am thinking of a person. Who am I? I am not the “I” of the previous story, but I’m not “me” either. I am not famous, but I am alive. My science fair project is a homemade computer. I made a grid of wires, and connected tiny red light-emitting diodes at all the intersections and connected the ends to little switches so that turning the switch for 2 and the switch for 3 would light up the light for 5, but it doesn’t work, because I don’t know anything about electronics or computers except how to write a program in Basic that will print my name over and over again until I stop it. When they come to my table I tell the judges that the batteries died, and I still win second place because I have good posters. My computer has a shoebox keyboard, and if you turn it over it just looks like a jumble of wires, but all you have to do is connect this one to this one here, and connect this to the nine-volt battery, and all the leds glow. Then you can imagine it looks like a small, complicated, underground city.