Terau And Debarge

Published by under Short Stories

by Michael McGrath

I could smell the grass and earth beneath me. Crickets clicked in a concert all around and the sound of town hummed in the background. In the tall yellow grass in my backyard I could hide from the entire world. If a friend were around we could play war games. In hide and seek I would chase my sister Patty and our friend Sue all day until Granny called for supper. Sometimes, after eating, I managed to spend a little time laying in the grass bathed in the glow of the deep red beams of dawn in late August.

Most people in Iroquois Falls on our block had big backyards. We all kept our modest homes tidy and the grass was cut on the front lawn and often on part of the back. However, most of the backyard was allowed to grow into high grass or hay. That yellow grass was a couple of feet high by mid summer and drew myself, my sister Pat and our friends like metal to a magnet.

In the spring my grandmother chose a day to burn any dead grass in the backyard. I always loved to watch the spectacle that usually involved one or more of my uncles and sometimes a neighbour. She liked to burn grass as did all our neighbours. The sweet smell of burning grass still brings me back to those early days. Granny always did this when the water from the winter snow had finally dried up. She claimed it was to give the yard a clean look and provide the grass with a good fresh start. I always thought she just really liked the smell of burnt grass and that it reminded her of being on the farm back in Waltham.

Life Was Simple

In the mid 50s life was pretty simple for the most part in Iroquois Falls. In my case I had the challenge of the complexity of being raised by my Granny and mom with no dad around. That always kept me off balance but still I was loved, well cared for and ran and laughed with my friends up and down the street and through all the backyards and in between the rickety old garages and sheds in the neighbourhood. Inevitably we ended up in the backyard taking cover from anything and everything and sometimes just as a place where we could whisper, question and plan. We were always planning something. At times it was a refuge where I could come to sulk when I did not get my way or when I felt hurt in anyway. The long grass was always accommodating and comforting.

Most of the excitement in those days had to do with local home fires or grassfires. Those events were announced with the high pitched whine of a siren. Sometimes someone familiar would die and that always started with fright and shock and ended in grief and gloom. Life was like an ocean with the ebbs and tides. Horses still pulled wagons and carts around in 1950s Iroquois Falls although the car was well on its way to domination of the roads. Still, I would wake in the morning to the sound of the clip clop of Mike Kusmick’s milk wagon pulled by his horse. I would lay in my bed listening to the clip clops and the rattling of glass bottles starting and stopping all the way down the street.

Sometimes the Theriaults across the street would run a team of husky horses up to their place with a wagon full of wood following behind. Saws whirred and axes chopped as our neighbours readied their wood piles for winter. We had Croatins wood yard deliver our wood and coal most of the time but sometimes for reasons I could never figure out Terau and Debarge would race up to our drive way to dump a load of wood.

Like A Cyclone

Terau and Debarge were like a cyclone. I would catch glimpses of them daily racing down the narrow streets. Their horse Queen seemed to always be sweating and puffing steam from her regal nostrils. In the summer their wagon kicked up dust and kids ran as fast as they could to catch up and jump on the wobbling wooden rubber tired craft. I was forbidden from joining the neighbour hood children in their wild and free ride through the streets of Iroquois Falls courtesy of Terau, Debarge and of course the mighty Queen. Once in a while one of the kids would fall off and knock their noggins but amazingly nothing major every happened. The only time I ever got to spend with Queen was when I was with my friend Dean and we ventured out on the town limits where Queen was pastured when not hauling that quivering wagon and Terau and Debarge and a host of kids around town. She was black and had a white spot on her forehead. She was kind enough and often very approachable. Queen took our offerings of grass but if you really wanted to make her eyes light up an apple would do the trick.

I was always mystified by Terau and Debarge. It was wildly known that Debarge had come to Iroquois Falls in the 1930s from France. He looked like he should be walking the streets of some quaint French town in his beret and wool coat and pants. He was trim, organized and had the air of aristocracy about him. Still he was regarded as a sort of an outcast in some way. He always ran his business delivering wood in what seemed to be a very efficient and professional way. People seemed to like him but they kept their distance. Terau his partner, was considered slow. He was a plump fellow with a large black beard and he always wore a toque or floppy hat. He was French also but possibly from Quebec. They just seemed to arrive one day in the town’s early years. Most people had friends, family or some past to connect to but Terau and Debarge seemed to have just dropped from the sky.

Once a year I was treated to the arrival of Terau and Debarge in their rickety wagon. Queen would storm into the driveway with a dozen kids holding tight and they would all end up in the middle of our backyard. This usually happened at the end of summer when the grass was very tall. Granny and the other neighbours on old Third Avenue had a deal with the Frenchmen and they visited every summer’s end to cut the grass or hay as feed for Queen. Terau and Debarge jumped from the wagon and swathed the field with long scythes. The hangers on , mostly boys, piled the cut hay into the wagon as Queen stomped her feet and pulled her head back. In a flash they were gone in the laughter of boys and a trail of dust up the street.

A Mystery Shrouded In Time

It was many years later that I realized that Terau and Debarge were probably gay. They lived as partners in a little house on radio street. Although they seemed destitute it did not make sense. There was lots of money to be made in delivering wood and coal. It was rumoured that the duo also bootlegged whiskey in earlier years. Life must have been hard in many ways for them. Once I caught Therau helping himself to a raw broken egg on the back porch that Granny had left out for my dog Lassie. He was as surprised as I was and took off in a flash across the backyard and onto an adjacent street. I told granny but she seemed accepting. Perhaps she knew something more about the two then most.

One night in the early 1960s a fire broke out in the Frenchmens’ little house on Radio Street. It was a great blaze and although both men escaped they required some medical treatment. The rumour was that money was discovered in the walls and floorboards of that little wooden house.However, afer the fire the two moved on to Laurier Street about around the corner from our house. Debarge’s health deteriorated and he passed away in the mid 1960s. Their old house was torn down and money was discovered in the walls and floor boards. Much of it was turned over to the parish priest who committed it to good use some believe. Perhaps some of it was provided for the care of Terau. Soon after he was taken south where he was put in the care of his sister who was a nun and placed in a home. Nobody had much to say as a followup. They just seemed to have disappeared in much the same way they came to town. There was never another mention about the two Frenchmen and they slipped into the history of Iroquois Falls surrounded in mystery. They were simply two people that nobody ever talked about again. Until now.

The End

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