Monsieur Gaton

Monsieur Gaton

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Monsieur Gaton

When I was a young girl, I spent several weeks each summer with my grandparents in Callander, Ontario. Those were wonderful times. Besides being doted on by Grandma and Poppa, I was quickly included in the activities of the neighbourhood kids, and, of course, adopted their brand of devilment. One of the objects of our attention was a local character everyone called Bozo. His real name was Raoul Gaton, but I would not discover this for some time.

When I first became aware of Bozo, I was almost eight years old; he might have been in his late teens or early twenties. People said he was retarded. He seldom spoke, and he wore a vacant expression below puppy dog eyes that belied the unintentionally cruel remarks we directed his way. His appearance seldom varied: green work pants, peaked green cap, plaid flannel shirt and sneakers. He rode an ancient girl’s bicycle with a basket carrier in front, and that bike was as much a part of him as his clothes. Bozo and his bike were a familiar sight in town as he carried out odd jobs for local shopkeepers and the church. He was considered too slow for anything more challenging.

We kids offered up our own brand of harassment each time he rattled down the dirt road past my grandparents’ home. His approach would be relayed down the street by the hoots of neighbourhood kids. We’d hurl ourselves into position at the edge of my grandparents’ property and wait—but well back from the road, fearful in the knowledge that he was “different.” As he passed, we would taunt him with yells of “Bozo! Hey, Bozo.” He would look our way, smile and wave, oblivious to our cruelty. With this acknowledgment we would tumble on the grass in fits of laughter, crossing our eyes, belting out nonsensical words in throaty voices, amusing ourselves with our Bozo performances.

His brief appearances did not hold our attention for long. As children on summer holiday, we’d soon look for amusement elsewhere. Hanging out at my grandfather’s barbershop was a favourite haunt of mine, despite the fact that it was the only place I had to wear shoes and remain quiet while customers were present.

A red and white pole outside the shop flagged down local gentlemen for haircuts, shaves or just conversation. The front window displayed models of local logging boats—either defunct or soon-to-be—and sailing ships with rigging that defied imagination. Inside, I would watch my grandfather wield scissors and razor as he trimmed a month’s growth of hair from the head of the boy or man in the chair. Often, haircutting was secondary to the flow of conversation that slipped easily into French to hide adult secrets from my young ears.

I can’t remember what the conversation was about the afternoon that Bozo showed up, but I do recall that my grandfather was preparing to close for the day when he came through the door. I was sitting on the long oak bench that ran the length of the shop, leafing through a comic book, when my grandfather greeted him with, “Bonjour Monsieur, comment ça va?” and waved him to the chair that grandfather used while doing his paperwork.

My cheeks began to burn as grandfather and Bozo huddled over something the young man had put on the desk. Although my grandfather did most of the talking and the conversation was in French, I was certain that the gist of it was a complaint by Bozo that I was one of the children who was being cruel to him. I hunched deeper on the oak bench, wishing that the hardness of the wood would give way to a secret doorway through which I might escape.

After what seemed an eternity, Bozo rose from his seat, shook my grandfather’s hand and left. My grandfather waved me to the chair where Bozo had been sitting, and my fear of being reprimanded increased. Instead, my grandfather showed me a piece of paper on which the name “Raoul Gaton” had been repeatedly printed in clear but painfully drawn letters. The humble document was the first inkling I had that my grandfather was teaching this unteachable young man how to write his own name. “Without knowing how to sign your own name,” he told me solemnly, “you can go nowhere.”

I learned sometime later that my grandfather had helped arrange for Raoul to receive a government grant in lieu of his disabilities. Raoul had signed his first disability cheque with an “X” and cashed it at the credit union my grandfather ran from the barbershop. From that moment on, my grandfather was determined to teach the young man to write his name.

Many years later, my grandfather passed away. At the funeral home in the nearby city of North Bay, the crowds of mourners who had made their last farewells left, and only the family remained by the casket. My grandmother felt a presence in the room and glanced back through the shadows to the small pool of light that illuminated the visitor’s book. There, with green hat in hand, stood Raoul Gaton.

As we left the room, my grandmother placed a comforting hand on Raoul’s shoulder, and her heart welled at the depth of sadness in his eyes. With a slight turn of her head and a nod toward the casket, she acknowledged his desire for a moment alone with the man who had been his friend.

I found I could not move as I watched Raoul walk hesitatingly through the dim light to the casket. After a moment he stretched out his hand and rested it on my grandfather’s chest. “Bon homme—good man,” he said in little more than a whisper, then he slowly turned my way.

As he walked towards me, I glanced at the visitor book. There, written boldly in neat and legible script, was the final entry on the page: “Raoul Gaton.” For a brief second, as he passed me, our eyes met. I hoped that he could detect the respect that I felt for him. I had been allowed to glimpse into the window of his being, and I had discovered a dignity there that humbled me.

As I accompanied the other family members from the funeral home, I noticed a battered girl’s bicycle, with a basket up front, leaning against the wall. I remembered my grandfather’s words: “Without knowing how to sign your own name, you can go nowhere.” Monsieur Gaton and his battered bicycle had indeed gone many places, and one of them was into my heart.

Jayne Harvey
Keswick, Ontario

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