2021 Cúirt New Writing Prize: Antoine Solomon Takes a Job
Judge Colin Barrett praised story’s ‘formally inventive, effervescent and mischievous’ take on race and cultural dislocation
David Morgan O’Connor
Dear Mr Birmingham,
Thank you for accepting this application for the position of French Teacher at your illustrious Huron County Middlesex High School. As you may discover from my attached résumé, I have just graduated from L’École Supérieure d’Éducation with a Master’s in Education from McGill University. I am seeking for my first position.
After completing my Bachelor of Arts at the Université d’État d’Haiti in French Literature with a minor in practical linguistics, I was accepted on full scholarship by your fine federal government to fulfil my dream of studying abroad. I am looking for a permanent position where I can grow as a teacher and eventually build a home. My specialty is teaching Dumas, Flaubert and Hugo, but I also enjoy the pedagogy of rudimentary grammar. Although my English is not native, I have a good command and would have no problem administrating in my second language. My Spanish is also quite fluent.
Along with my teaching duties, I would be able to run some extra-curricular activities, for example; a chess club, coach soccer, or organize conversation classes with added cultural elements. I am a hard-worker, who pays attention to detail and enjoys working with the young.
I look forward to hearing from you,
Thank you for your application. You have made the short-list and I would like to set up a phone interview. Would 4 pm be a good time to chat on the 23rd?
Spring scratched on the window and the phone was ringing. Antoine Solomon, fresh bag of Ben’s bagels under his arm, left hand gripping a small net bag containing butter, sugar, milk, banged against the door, the damned key to his rented apartment wouldn’t turn. He got to the phone on the last ring. Dial tone. Zut alors. He set the phone down and plugged in the kettle. They will call back. They will. I cannot call collect. The phone rang again. He got it to his ear on the first ring.
May I please speak with Mr Antoine Solomon, please?
Speaking, Mr Birmingham?
Oh là là, nous allons parler en français, vous parlez français ?
Not much Tony, that’s all I got. Huron County is a French desert. No one speaks la lingo around here. We’re pretty much a technical school, mostly farmer’s kids, the odd mechanic, loggers. Pretty insular, eh.
That is exactly why you need someone like me.
An optimist. I like that. Yep, our school failed horribly on the Education Board’s audit, I’m re-hauling the French department and was excited to come across your application.
Frankly, I’d like to offer you Departmental Head.
Yes. I don’t beat around the bush. I can send you the contract when I hang up. Do you have any questions?
Non. Not really. I can ask them when I arrive.
I just want to let you know, well, how can I put this? You know we’re a rural school.
No one speaks French around here, and they don’t want to.
I understand. I like a challenge.
To be blunt. There are no blacks.
Huron has no black people. No yellow or brown. There’s a reservation but no…
Well, I assume you’re black. Haitian and all.
You would be the only one. The first. Can you handle that?
I believe so.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think folks around here are racist. Ignorant isn’t racist, eh? Most of them have just never seen a black man except Bill Cosby on TV, and well, I wanted to let you know what you are getting into.
I appreciate your candour.
And no gays.
There are no gays in town. Listen, I don’t care if you’re gay or not, I’m not asking, but if you are, you won’t be getting any like-mindedness unless you want to drive a few hundred clicks to London, maybe even Toronto. Not much of a single life either.
Not a problem, sir.
Please don’t get me wrong, Sol. Your personal business is none of mine. I just want to let you know what you were getting into. I tell all the city teachers the facts.
Do you need some time to think about the offer?
No sir, I accept the offer.
70% of our students are Mennonites. Do you know what that is?
Is that a problem?
They don’t do electricity. No cars, either. Nice folks but very old school. There’s a Catholic church two towns over. You religious?
You’ll need a car. But the rent is cheap. You can get a house for peanuts. You can stay with us until you’re settled. Got your own toilet and door and everything.
And the most important thing.
Gary Birmingham honked a goose fart and promised to mail the contract that afternoon. Antoine placed a Tabou Combo album “Live from New York” on his turntable and shuffled his feet while making breakfast. Thoughts tennis balled: I am going to die a cold white death.
I am going to save money and write my novel. I will be hung from a tree, my body entombed in cow-shit. Strange fruit indeed. I will make friends and find great love. I will inspire children to open minds and travel in the summer and read. I will go to the library and research this place. I will buy a farm and get rich with chickens. I must contact my landlord.
I will stay in Montreal. I must get out of the house I will survive.
Antoine put on his thrift-store jacket and went onto Rue Denis. Thirty minutes later, he passed through the gates of the university. He crossed campus, smoked a cigarette on the library steps, closed his eyes. This is the life..
He went to the reference section, pulled down the M volume of The World Encyclopaedia, flipped to Middlesex County, Ontario, Canada: Land area: 6000 square kilometres. Population 6000. Home of the white squirrel.
Zut alors, even the squirrels are white. Antoine read:
The British settlers James and Jane Willis, who accompanied by the explorer Sir Michel Jacques, first founded Middlesex County in the winter of 1832. By 1853, Exeter had grown into a community of over 300 with the help of Isaac Carling bringing immigrants from the Exeter and Devon areas of England. It is located on the north-south Highway 4. At the north end of the community, Highway 4 intersects with County Road 83. The local paper is The Times-Advocate and published on Wednesdays. The local hockey club is the Middlesex Hawks has sent many players to The National Hockey Leagues. Average Snowfall: 889 cm.
Six years earlier on the morning of his first snow, Antoine spent two silent hours drinking coffee, peering out his apartment window at the blanketed street. The trees had dandruff. Cars made wake. Flurries danced. No snowflake the same. He tried to snap photos but couldn’t frame his wonder. Walking to class, the snow entered his low-cut Converse and soaked his argil socks. Flakes perched on his eyelids. He stuck out his tongue and tasted pure white.
The sky is dropping after-dinner mints.
On the corner of Maisonneuve and Peel, he slipped, falling backwards into a powdery snow drift. Antoine flapped his arms and legs, his first snow angel, as seen on film long ago. He giggled not feeling cold or wet or worried about arriving late and wet and cold to class. A Canada Postwoman dressed in a snowmobile suit stopped.
Ca va? You okay?
Magnifique, merci! My first-time madam!
A snow virgin. Enjoy it while you can.
She extended a mitted hand and helped Antoine to his feet. They admired his angel.
How long will it last? Antoine asked.
Your joy? About an hour. Winter, six months.
No, the angel?
The post-woman trudged down her route shaking her head. Antoine entered the University gates. Expecting an empty campus-during orientation they’d explained that snow-days were not to be counted as absences-he crossed his first snowball war.
Ah, the white carnival!
Thousands of students dipped down into the snow and tossed packed snowballs at each other. The balls exploded into confetti on impact. The students ran and screeched and fell and wrestled and kissed in the falling snow.
Antoine Solomon, full-scholarship Master’s student, instructor of undergraduate French Composition and Introduction to Comparative Literature, was pounded full frontal in the face with his first snowball. The snow went up his nose, down his throat, into his eyes, plugged his ears. He took off his gloves and wiped his face. Two meters down the university drive, his eyes locked with Elizabeth, a healthy blonde from Kingstown who attended his 10 am class. Her cheeks flushed apple red from the cold activity. Her knee-high leather boots disappeared into a tweed overcoat. Her essays were error-ridden and always about communism or adultery. Pink hat in hand, face scrunched with mischief, perhaps remorse, caught in chaos, she’d stepped over that invisible line, snowballing a teacher could get her expelled. She turned and sprinted toward the crowd.
The young woman turned back, ready to face the consequences, be lectured, be cited, be suspended.
Antoine tossed his first snowball ever. When Antoine bent down for ammunition, he was bombarded from all sides. An orgiastic pack of student wolves smelt a teacher had entered the fray. Antoine gave his best but was no match for the youth who had grown up native to snowball battle. He sprinted for cover, arms flailing, Antoine made shelter and the students turned against each other.
From the safety of the Arts Building portico, Antoine watched the snow eddy.
”Mon Dieu! J’aime le Canada!” Antoine called to no one specifically but was overheard by his supervisor M LaFleur, who was running for cover a few steps behind him. He opened the door for her.
Antoine, I hope you can say that in March, without breaking her stride, she took the steps in threes. Snow melted on the banister. The foyer was a puddle. There was only one student in class. A quiet girl from Rajasthan, who could use phonetic symbols like no other. They spent the period by the window watching the ritual and chatting in French about tropical stews and the fruit they missed.