“Turn that … fucking idiot box off,” my father screams, “now!”
The family's all looking at me, even though my father just swore. I’d been watching cartoons, stonily, avoiding the fight, staying out of troublethen bam, suddenly I’m in the middle of it. The morning had started with the folks sipping coffee, reading their parts of the paper at the dining room table nice and quietuntil my sister Kate began demanding a ride. The bunch of them have somehow drifted their negotiations into the living room, breathing down my neck from behind the couch.
I get up slowly, sighing to demonstrate the unfairness, and turn down the sound, hoping that’ll be enough. There’s nothing good on yet, but if one of them doesn’t take my older sister, Kate, to French school soon, I’ll miss Scooby-Doo. I’m in love with Fred, even though he’s animated. I’ve taken to wearing an ascot. I will bring it back in style. The ’80s are going to need their own things. When everyone’s wearing one, they will thank me.
“Why do you have a dishrag around your neck, freak?” my sister asks.
“Can this family please shut their cakeholes, please?” my father says, aiming the pleases at my mother.
My mother clicks her tongue, snaps her head to the left, follows it with her body, all the way around from behind the couch to stand between me and the television, giving my father the fullness of her back, centre stage. My sister, waving a parental jacket in each hand, steps between them onto my foot. Snot is running from her nose and her face is pink. She’s sweat through her butterfly-sleeve crop top.
“Why are you wearing a fat belly, snotty-sweat-girl?” I ask.
“Dad said, ‘Off!’loser-couch-lump,” my sister snarls, flapping her wings.
“You’ve gotten the children riled!” my mother’s back says.
My father takes a step toward my mother, around the other side of the couch, red-faced. My sister gasps.
I myself up and tilt to look through and around the forest of legs. A commercial comes on, loudly urging us to foster an African child.
“OFF!” My father roars. I’m not fast enough. He pushes past me and slams the switch. “Nobody … fucking listens!”
Africa shrinks in from the edges of the screen, a burning little dot, and then, poof, gone.
“Language,” my mother’s back says, and then quietly, turning, “please and thank you.”
“Is some bloody peace too much to ask for on a Saturday morning in this house?” he inquires of the air above his head. He sits beside me on the couch. His leg twitches into mine. His fists clench. I try not to breathe. Move just an inch away, my body is begging, but I know stillness is safer.
“Peace, eh?” my mother says. “You get days off, because you go into work for eight hours. I work here. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day. No peaceful quiet time for me.”
“One-o-the pair-o-ya has to drive,” Kate says. “I’m late now. You guys’re paying for it. You’d think you’d want your money’s worth.”
Kate would like to go to regular-all-the-time-every-day-school in French, but we are not Catholic. My mother asked, but they wouldn’t let Kate in. And now my father is mad at Catholics. I think that was how the fight started. I might have it completely wrong; I wasn’t listening. So Kate has roped them into Saturday French school, which costs extra”a fucking wad and a half!” I wasn’t listening, but I heard that.
How could anyone want more school? When would I read? Id be so stupid with more school and less reading! I like myths and legends. This morning I read a book about Ancient Greece, because I woke up before I’m allowed to leave my room to turn on the Saturday cartoons. Back then they did Olympics completely in the nude, it said, not just posing for naked vases afterward. I had to read that over again to be sure. There is no one I can ask if this is true.
They are all quiet, but not the peaceful kind. I risk a suggestion: “If mom drives Kate, she can wait in the library and get some peace. Dad can have some peace here.”
“Why don’t you do something, Simon?” Kate asks. “Are you going to watch cartoons all day wike a widdle baby?”
“Simon will help his father with the eaves while we’re out,” my mother says, “and you’ll put a sweater on.”
Kate thinks about arguing, but cuts her losses and runs up to her room to get a sweater.
My father says, “Eaves troughs! She acts like she needs to tell me. Have I ever ever EVER not cleaned the fucking eaves troughs?” He’s turned to me, as if he’s talking to me. But he isn’t. My mother clicks her tongue and goes into the kitchen and through the door to the garage. Kate, all sweatered up, is hard on her heels.
We listen to the car start, squeal out of the driveway. I don’t don’t don’t want to help my father with chores. It is Saturday morning cartoon time. It should be sacred. He's still sitting beside me. I try to think up the right thing to say. I give him a kind, gentle face that says: I cause no trouble. Love me.
He sighs. It worked!
“You’re … a good boy,” he says.
“And a quiet one!” I say. Actually … I sort of shout it. Triumphantly.
He sighs again. But not a good sigh. A moving-us-apart sigh. He is the person I know the least in my entire life.
I could be brave here. I could ask: please tell me something about your life?
My father’s breathing is loud and quick. I am listening for it to soften and slow. I could ask him to tell me about the time his sisters tied him up and put makeup on him. Will that be a safe question?
Thank goodness Mini Shankar knocks at the living room window, brandishing her skipping rope. If there’s going to be no cartoons then it’s best to leave him alone to brood. I look at my father. Puppy-faced.
“Go,” he says. “Play with girls.”
“Hey, Mr. Hebblethwaite,” Mini calls. “My uncle has the cricket on satellite. He’s cracked open some whisky.”
“Can’t, Mini,” my father says. “I have to clean out the troughs or the house will fall down.”
“But it’s Canada’s first year qualifying. You can still root for England. My uncle still roots for India.” I drag her away.
“Your dad’s so cool,” she says.
“He is! My uncle says your dad killed someone in a war.”
“Impossible. He was in the navy. Sailors just … sail around.”
Bonnie Wells and Yolanda Pekelnick wait in the empty lot. There used to be a house next door but the father burned it down with the family asleep inside. This was years before any of us lived here. Bonnie Wells knows. House blazing, sirens approaching, he got in his car and drove to the United States of America. The myths and legends of our town. When we were little and played house somebody always got to be father-with-a-match. Recently, there’s been a sign put up. They’re finally going to tear the burnt shell down and build something new. Why will I miss it?
We play double dutch on what used to be the patio, out of sight behind the half-wall of black fire-rippled timber. We are too old for skipping at school, but it’s too fun to abandon for the weekends. Lots of kids think the still-smoky-smelling house is haunted so no one will see us. Besides, we are too young for the mall. Big Kids will chase us off.
Two at a time, we battle it off; the loser trades with the first ender. Mini’s rarely beaten, so it’s really the three of us taking turns losing to her. It’s still fun.
We aren’t playing long before Boyd McCracken shows up.
He’s our age, but big. Boxy as a fridge, but handsome. Like Frankenstein and Anson Williams had a baby, but cuter. I love him.
He asks me to come and see something over on the bridge. Probably a dead cat. I thank him, mentioning that I am otherwise engaged. No one laughs.
“Come on, be a boy,” he yells and runs off. Yolanda Pekelnick drops her end of the rope and runs after him. She is always the first to join the boys and the first to throw up when they explode a frog. The other girls follow. I have little choice.
Older bad boys are waiting on the bridge. Three teenagers. They are throwing rocks at something. Boyd McCracken grabs the rope from Mini. She tries to kick him in the ankle but he’s too fast. He scoots off to join the boys on the bridge. They look like a poster for a Western, Boyd cracking the skipping rope like a whip.
As we girls approachI know I count as a girl, in every way that mattersI realize one of the teen boys must be Boyd’s older brother. They have the same cowlick. I realize I’ve seen him before. Diving off the high board at the rec centre. He gives me wiggles. His eyelashes are freakishly enormous. It’s because his mother took aspirin while pregnant. Bonnie Wells knows this and tells. She knows everything. And tells. Boyd’s eyelashes are normal because their mother learned her lesson. One of my teachers has no arms. Her hands come directly from her shoulders because her mother took something even worse. Bonnie Wells said. She knows everything there is to know about pregnancy and The Dukes of Hazzard. She says Boyd’s older brother looks like Bo and Luke had a baby. And somehow Daisy Duke got in there, too, because he’s pretty as a girl. Bonnie Wells and I are the best at figuring out who and who make which baby.
All of us arrive at the middle of the bridge.
“You Simon?” Boyd’s older brother asks.
I’d been planning to say, “I hope your name is Philip, because Phil McCracken would be hilarious.” Instead I say, “Moo.”
“Let’s go, Simon,” says Mini, pulling my hand. The boys form a semi-circle behind the older McCracken who’s stepped forward and is obviously going to do the talking. I like groups of girls better because everyone gets to talkeveryone has gossip! I look over at Bonnie and Yolanda. But they are silent, looking over the edge of the bridge. There’s almost no river because it’s been a dry autumn.
“What’s transparent and lies on the side of the road?” Boyd’s older brother asks.
“Not funny,” says Mini.
“What?” I ask.
“A Paki with the shit kicked out of them.”
The boys laugh. Yolanda and Bonnie come back from the edge of the bridge to stand beside Mini.
“My brother tells me you’re a faggot,” he says. “Are you?”
“No,” I say. “And Mini’s not from Pakistan.”
“You sound like a faggot,” he says. “You know what a faggot is?”
“What is it then?” he asks.
“A boy who acts like a girl,” I say. I look at Mini’s feet. She’s wearing sparkly jellies. She is the coolest girl I know.
“No,” he says. “It’s a boy who kisses another boy.”
I happen to know that’s not true. I’ve seen lots of kissing on TV. It’s never two boys. I would’ve noticed something that interesting and ridiculous.
“And have sex together,” he adds.
The boys give a chorus of “Gross!” Yolanda, also, a beat later. She steps out of our group and into their group, turns, looks at Mini and me with cold interest, as if we’ve become specimens of something scientific.
Bonnie Wells announces, “I’m telling,” and runs off.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?” he asks.
“Gross,” I say.
The boys laugh. Yolanda, also. Not with me, I realize.
“Kiss your Paki girlfriend then,” he says, “or you’re a fag.”
“Let’s go,” Mini says, yanking my hand.
“Grab them,” he says.
The teenage boy to the left grabs Mini. He has a big moon face and pimples. He looks mean. It appears his mother’s sewn giant paisley triangles into the seams of his jeans to make flares.
The other teen minion sees he’s supposed to grab me and hesitates. I know him. He’s the son of one of my teachers. Not the one without arms. The one who’s nice but has ferocious coffee-and-cigarette breath. I see him after school waiting for his mom. Sometimes we nod at each other. I wait, too, until all the other kids are gone. I have my mother pick me up. I used to get slapped when I took the bus. Everyone’s favourite game for the trip home: how many slaps to make Simon cry? Record: 37.
I wonder if he’s going to be nice.
“I’m not touching it,” he says. I’m disappointed. His name’s Kirk, I remember.
“Then you’re a fag, too,” says Boyd’s older brother.
Kirk grabs me.
“Not a very logical line of reasoning, Phil,” I say.
“His name’s Cody,” says Boyd.
“What’s the name of pumpkin face?” I ask. Nobody laughs. Why did I say “pumpkin?” I was thinking “pimply” and “moon” and it came out “pumpkin.” He spits at me. The gob falls short.
“Make them kiss,” Cody says. They push Mini and me face to face. Yolanda chants, “Kiss, kiss, kiss …”
Mini crunches her face, wriggles to the side. My lips hit her ear. To get this over with, I pucker up just as Pumpkinface gives her an extra shove. Her ear slips into my mouth. I close my mouth, suck her ear, and release it with a popping sound. If you surprise people, sometimes they stop what they’re doing.
“Simon!” she shrieks.
“Delightful,” I say. “Now let us go.”
“Which is worse?” Cody asks. “A Paki or a faggot?”
They look unsure.
Yolanda says, “Paki, because at least a faggot is white.”
Boyd says, “No. Pakis only bother each other. Faggots put their faggotty lips all over other white people. There’s a guy at the bus station who tries to look at your penis when you piss.”
Yolanda concedes with a wise nod.
Cody says, “We’ll take a vote and throw the worse one off the bridge.”
He looks at us. “Argue for your lives.”
Mini says, “Simon is less likely to break.”
“Untrue, delicate bones,” I say.
“Total faggot,” he says. “Who votes for the faggot?”
Everyone puts up a hand. Even Yolanda.
“I vote for me, too,” I say.
“I don’t,” says Mini. “And I’m not voting for me either. All of you should jump. Because you’re fucktards.”
“I agree with Mini,” I say. “You’re fucktards.”
“You calling me a fucktard, faggot?” Cody steps into my face.
“After Mini did,” I say.
“Is that because you want to fuck me?”
Yolanda likely wants to exclaim “Gross!” again, but there is something serious in the silence. She shuts her face. A gust of wind brings a dank ditch smell from under the bridge.
“Let her go,” Cody says.
Pumpkinface releases Mini and grabs my other arm. They peel me off of her easily and hoist me in the air. I’m a feather to them. They carry me, undeterred by my wriggling, to the edge.
Bonnie Wells arrives with my father.
They put me down.
“What the … hell’s going on?” my dad asks.
I’m very embarrassed. My father is emotional, red-faced, shaking. In situations like this I notice he still has a British accent. And I notice he has a small stutter, something like a stutter … he cuts himself off, his thoughts freeze on his tongueand then he changes the subject …
“Nothing,” I say.
“Is that your dad?” Cody asks me.
“Yes,” says Mini. “And he killed men in a sailing war.”
He steps toward my father, holds out his hand to shake. “Good afternoon, Mr. Hebblethwaite. We’re just playing around.”
Cody McCracken knows my last name!
My father ignores the hand, glares at me.
“What’s going on, Simon?”
“We’re just playing around. Jeez!” I say.
“Come home. You, too, Mini, your mother’s calling.”
Cody whispers in my ear, “That was cool, Simon. You ain’t a rat.”
Mini and I trot after my father. Yolanda joins us. Mini says, “Get lost, stupid Polack bitch.”
Yolanda leans over the bridge, throws up, runs the other way.
“I’m sorry I said you were less likely to break,” Mini whispers. “I was suddenly terrified when it got quiet.”
“Bridge’s not that high,” I say. “I would’ve been OK. I forgive you. I’m sorry I laughed at that rude joke.”
“You didn’t,” she says. “I looked right at you.”
“I thought I was laughing,” I say. “I’m sorry I sucked your ear. Is it goobered?”
My dad stops. We bump into his back.
He says, “If those bullies were picking on you … I will wallop them.”
“We’re good, Mr. H,” says Mini. “They just made Simon kiss me. Stupid kids.”
“Oh,” he says. “Hmm.”
Will he like that? Is he smiling? Turn! Turn! I want to know him. I want to solve mysteries, like Fred, but around-the-house ones, around-the-neighbourhood ones.
“Bye,” Mini sings, runs off home. My father continues toward our house. What would Velma do? My sister Kate is my Velma. I should remember not to hate her. She can't help it that she's gone all teenagery. Oh! I can’t wait to tell her that Cody McCracken knows my name and thinks I’m cool. Maybe when no one’s around he’ll show me how boys kiss. No, if he were going to kiss another boy, it’d be Kirk. They’re popular. I’m a faggot. Faggots are the last kind of boy another boy would kiss.
I trudge after my father.
My sister’s home, already monopolizing the television, the goddamn French channel. She won’t want to hear my victory.
I bawl, “Mom! It’s not Kate’s TV time!”
“Your mother’s out … again,” my father says. “Come with me.”
In the garage, he strikes a boxing pose, one leg back, fists up.
“No no no,” I say.
“You’re going to have to learn … to take care of yourself.”
“I take care of myself fine.”
“Show me. Defend yourself. Come on!”
He throws a slow-motion punch.
I hold dead-eyed, let it land softly on my cheek.
“Down for the count,” he says.
“I guess I’ll always lose to slow-motion bullies.”
My father sits down heavily on an old trunk. His head falls into his hands. He says through his fingers, “You can’t … always use your wits, you know. Sometimes people get pissed off at a know-it-all sharp tonguethey’ll give you a wallop.”
“Just because you don’t have wits …” I start to say.
He slams his fist into the trunk, shouts, “What’s wrong with you!”
“I’m going in the house.”
He jumps up, bars the door.
“Let me do my job. As your father.”
I should say something kind. What pops out is:
His fist connects with my face.
I taste blood.
“I’m sorry,” he says, gone pale.
I rub my bleeding nose furiously into his shirt. Burrow in and blow. I step back. There’s a red and green blob of blood and snot in his chest hair.
“Look! You made me bleed, you fucking bully. You have nothing to teach me! You were only a sailor in the war. You embarrass me!”
I step back to hit him and land a girlish blow against his ear.
He’s stone silent.
“Stay out of my fucking business, freak!” I pull his shirt out of his pants, bunch it in my fist, and rub the mess into his face.
My blood flies.
My father gasps, closes his eyes.
I grab his head and try to pry his eyes open. “Look!”
He stands tall, lifts his head out of my reach, his eyes jammed shut.
“Scared of a little blood,” I say. “Fucking faggot! Polack. Paki. Rat!”
My father squeals as I crack the bridge of his nose. I should stop now, my brain says. But my fist goes into his face again.
He puts his hands out blindly and shoves me away.
“Piece of shit!” he says, shaking, leaking his own blood. “S’that all you got? Again, and I’ll crack your skull open … Big Girl, I’ll kill you … s’that all you’ve fucking got?”
Car in driveway. She’s home.
My father pulls me back into the house as the automatic garage door slides up, kicks the door to the house closed behind us, and shoves me into the hallway washroom. I lock the door. Now we are a team. Neither of us wants her involved, riled up. We take our bloody shirts off.
“Not in the hamper” he says. “She’ll see.”
I throw them in the garbage bin. We stare at the bloody shirts. He unravels an entire roll of toilet paper and covers the shirts. We stare some more. I stomp my foot in the bin to push it all down. We stare again. He shakes his head. Pulls the liner out of the bin. Ties a knot in in it. Opens the bathroom window. Takes a quick peek to make sure she’s not still outside in the driveway. Tosses the bag outside. Closes the window. I listen with my ear against the bathroom door.
“They’re restocking the kitchen.”
He washes his face and then mine after wringing the washcloth in the tap water. He’s gentle, conciliatory.
“Is it too hot?”
Men bond over enemies.
“D’ya get those troughs cleared?” I ask. “She’ll be livid.”
“Fuck,” he says.
“Language,” I say, wanting him to laugh and ruffle my hair. I want it so bad I tilt toward him. He leaves. I’m still tilting. It’s less like I fall and more like the floor rises to hit me in the face. I take what I get. Hard tile. Hurts. I crawl to press my hot face against the cool bathtub.
“Why isn’t Simon helping?” I hear my sister ask.
“Leave. Him. Alone,” my father says. No one challenges him. I picture the dangerous eyes he gets with That. Punctuated. Voice.
It’s too quiet. There’s a kind of quiet that’s peace and there’s a kind of quiet that's war. I’ll emerge when the television’s back on.
I stand up and look out the window. My father’s now retrieving the garbage bag from under the window where it landed. He’s whistling the theme from Bridge on the River Kwai. He heads toward the garage. I want to ask if it’s true he killed a man in a war. How could he be a killer and a father cleaning eaves troughs and taking out garbage and worrying about getting in trouble with his wife? He tosses the bag into the big green bin. Did he ever try to toss a boy off a bridge? If he were my age would he have been Boyd or Cody or Kirk or Pumpkinface or some version of me?
My father comes out of the garage with a ladder, leans it against the house. Has he forgotten that I’m here in the bathroom? Why am I still here in the bathroom? I’m waiting for a sign.
OK: if he sees me looking out the window, I’ll wave. If he waves back, I’ll open the window. If he asks me how I’m doing, I’ll say I want to learn how to box, or I’ll ask if he wants help with the eaves troughs … but I don’t want to do those things.
I move from the window and see myself in the mirror. I’m a skinny girly-boy with eyes red from crying. Freak. But there’s a bruise forming on my neck. Cool!
Why aren’t I a boxing-with-Dad kind of boy? Why aren’t I an eaves-trough boy? What did my mother eat when she was pregnant with me? There’s no one to ask, not even Bonnie Wells.
This is probably what happened to the man who used to live next door. One day he was in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, not knowing what kind of person he was, not wanting to do any of the things he should, frozen, waiting for a sign. What kind of a sign would say Burn Down the House and Run for It? Probably something he saw in his own eyes. On Scooby-Doo they pull off the monster’s mask and it’s just some ordinary man. In real life, it's the other way around.
I sit on the bathtub and wait for a sound that says it’s OK to come out.