A Side Step

Sailing Away From  Serenity


The mountain of clothes wasn’t going to do themselves, but the thought of gathering them all into a basket and lugging it downstairs to the laundry room seem like an impossible chore. Scaling Mount Norquay would be easier, and at least I might fall and be seriously injured or maybe even die.

September is always a difficult month. I don’t know what happens around the equinox but my disposition and desperation change. The demons and vigilantes invade my head and make staying under the covers the only bearable option. Sniffing stale air and weeping into a pillow doesn’t strengthen any resistance to the power of negativity and self-medicating only opens the neural network of pity and self-righteousness.

“Get up, suck it up, and cheer up” was my mom’s voice that rattled in my head even though her funeral was in September 8 years ago. For more than a decade she exhorted me to “pull yourself out of this,” “you have no reason to feel sorry for yourself.” As always she was right. It was also an embarrassment to her that her daughter didn’t appear perfect and her friends from church and the knitting circle, and bridge group, and book club and Zumba class all knew about her disappointment.

A deep breath and a tug of the duvet and the laundry and the demons and mom’s voice were shut out. I again promised myself “tomorrow; I will jump out of bed at 6 and get all this straightened away”.

Tomorrow comes and tomorrow. I eventually stop feeling watched intently and invisible. Another cycle begins. Tick, tick, tick – knowing there will be an explosion doesn’t make the apprehension any less.

Tomorrow comes, and I reluctantly join the living. Sophie greets me at the train station “Glad you are feeling better, we missed you at the office.” She doesn’t mean to, but her red hair tussles like licorice and her freckles twinkle like pop rocks on your tongue. Her exuberance is deafening and nauseating even when I am at the top of the cycle. There are days the 40-minute ride leaves me wanting to smash her silly little head through the compartment window and toss her into the ditch. It would be a terrible way to lose my best friend, and then I wouldn’t have anyone to love.

We have a history – back to before the Septembers started, back to high school in Fallbrook. She was my first kiss, and I was her first rejection. We fought about clothes; music, boys and we shared hopes, dreams and dares when we still believed in such things. We plotted and planned our escapes and cheated together on exams and boys. There wasn’t much we didn’t tell each other, but she didn’t know the secret – still doesn’t. Mom pretended that she didn’t know it either, but pretending doesn’t make it so.

At the end of senior year I started to tell ” Soph, do you remember when you were 8 or 9?” But Jamie Douglas stepped around the corner where we were sneaking smoke and invited her to come for a ride. She invited me. Neither of us knew he had a car. It turns out he didn’t. On the way into town, there was a storage facility for the car plant, and he had helped himself to a Taurus or maybe was a Sable. That road trip was the start of the journey into dark alleys and even darker hearts. But I am ahead of myself already. That’s what happens when the depression breaks and the mania begins. I race from one adventure to another idea to the next assignment chasing completion and recognition before time winds down, and the covers beckon again.

Jamie, Sophie and I enjoyed that afternoon in May 1989 with a case of beer, a pack of cigarettes and some really bad, cold, pepperoni pizza. Four hours later and a hundred miles from home we abandoned the chariot and spent the night wondering the streets of Detroit. The morning dawned, and a Greyhound ride home waited. This adventure repeated itself a dozen times before Sophie, and I went to college and Jamie went to prison for selling coke. On all those trips he had never even mentioned blow, hadn’t used, didn’t try to get us to snort, and if it wasn’t for the wad of cash, he gave us no reason to suspect that he was involved in anything more serious than joy riding.

Deep dive on first joy ride/

Well, it wasn’t as innocent or carefree as the initial telling. Jamie did have a reputation, not with the police but every girl knew he was a player looking for notches on his belt. He apparently had 26 pelts by grade 12 and had left shattered dreams and pails of tears along the way. Amy St-Pierre shouted at him in the cafeteria over shepherd’s pie, so it must have been last October, “how could you do that to me? You didn’t even dump me; you just used me and then moved on to another. Three girls at one party, you are a big man aren’t you. A rutting pig, that’s all you are.” The room erupted, as I imagine Jamie had, with “oooh.” From the girls, it meant either “eew, gross” or “oh, I’m jealous.” From the boys, it meant “wow,”” what” or” how.” Needless to say that brand was the talk of Fallbrook and the legend of Jamie grew. So the invitation to Sophie wasn’t innocent, and her acceptance wasn’t chaste. My joining them, the first time, was just a safeguard. If someone else was there and she got cold feet (she joked a week later, “It wasn’t her feet that were hot”) she had a way out. The story was that no one had ever said “no” to him but that if they did, he was cool.

The midnight red Taurus was our first chariot but not Jamie’s first ride. It looked like something an uncle might drive, sensible and safe and ready for a family. But it said “SHO” on the trunk, and somehow that meant “bat out of hell.” We hit 90 plus on I75 just south of Flint and were over 110 mph for a stretch before all three of us admitted that we were scared. Uncle Frank would never drive over 55, so this wasn’t for him.

Paula Abdul sang ” lost in a dream;
I don’t know which way to go.
A-let me say if you are all that you seem,
Then, baby, I’m movin’ way too slow.”

“Turn it up” we yelled. And then all three sang along
” Straight up, now tell me ,
Do you really wanna love me forever,
Oh, oh, or am I caught in hit and run?
Straight up, now tell me,
Is it gonna be you and me together,
Oh, oh, oh, or are you just havin’ fun”

The radio blared Janet Jackson, Bette Midler, more Paula and Milli Vanilli before
” Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
And it feels like home

When you call my name it’s like a little prayer
I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour I can feel your power
Just like a prayer you know I’ll take you there”

Made me and then Sophie really quiet. After Madonna had finished Jamie turned the radio off, and we drove in silence for 40 minutes. I’m not in Soph’s head and too much in mine, so I don’t know what she was thinking, but I was naive enough to be lost in possibilities. It wasn’t white picket fences and fresh cut grass, but there were a crib and a dog and someone who would always call my name. So far that hasn’t happened – not for lack of trying. Married twice and in a ‘committed relationship’ twice and now in 2015, I am living alone and lonely. No dog, no crib and there is still a pile laundry.

Sophie didn’t succumb to Jamie’s advances that night. She didn’t climb into the back seat and spread her legs. Ecstasy didn’t flow from her lips, and she wasn’t the next notch. After she had said “no,” not emphatically but more sorrowfully, he asked me, and I was quick to jump to the chance and his bones” I wasn’t a virgin but no slut either. I had gone the distance in my junior year with a senior whose name has escaped me, The romp in the car was better, longer, and he was interested (by his actions) in my experience. Sophie sat looking out the front window in a trance the whole time we danced. Well, that was what she was doing when I lost track of my surroundings and what she was up to when I returned to the here and now. It was a shitty thing to do to her, and she has never mentioned it.

Two weeks later it was her turn, in the back of a boxy Ford Explorer that Jamie helped himself to. It wasn’t a competition or an act of jealousy; we just spent the next five years crossing stuff off a list almost simultaneously.


Graduation was a month away, and a couple of final exams loomed every week. I didn’t care about school but “I as sure as shit don’t want to have to come back here next year.” Sophie had been conditionally accepted at Pontiac College, but she needed to raise her GPA by more than half a point, or deferral was a distinct possibility. School came easy for me. My letter from the Dean of Admissions didn’t mention any requirements, so I wasn’t worried for myself. I could get a B by just attending most classes and listening to some of what our teachers were saying. I knew that the foolishness that they blathered on about would get ” stuck in my head and I could puke it on the test papers almost verbatim” We agreed that we would both buckle down for the month and get this over with. It wasn’t like we were part of the popular crowd and getting invitations to soirees, so any distractions were of our own creation.

History, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, and Calculus were the big five that were weighted in GPA calculations and admission criteria. Not because they were the most important or integral to further studies but because curriculum designers knew how to distinguish right answers from wrong. Even as some schools in Michigan were experimenting with more free form subjects like Art Appreciation and Dream Capturing we were still pounding out the fundamentals at Fallbrook. The structure made learning hard but studying easy. You just needed to memorize the underlined texts and duplicate them into the right blanks. Seeing ” Which of the following is (are) true?
1) f is continuous at x = -2.
2) f is differentiable at x = 1.
3) f has a local minimum at x = 0.
4) f has an absolute maximum at x = -2.” on page two was the same as the ‘practice tests’ that Mrs. Mason left stacked on a desk by the door of her classroom.

” Give a value of c that satisfies the conclusion …” meant that you needed to remember some formula or write it on your forearm. Nothing needed to be recalled after the 90 minute exam period and for the two of us would “never be helpful in real life” whatever that would look like when we got old enough to worry about it.

Black and white, true or false, right or wrong was the domain of the classroom. In the chaos of being teenager, nothing was that simple. One Friday after cramming so much Chemistry into our heads that Soph’s head exploded into a crying fit she listed the litany of stuff she didn’t get right ” Are pastels in or out, denim or cotton, big hair or slicked, jackets, skirts, pantsuits or dresses. Long or short, loose or tight, bright or drab, in or out. I don’t think I every fucking got it right.”
“and when we did manage to figure something out it was already out” I added. We commiserated about why it was so rough; who got to decide what was in, how did they get elected to be queen bitch?

With too much information and too little social graces, we decided to get revenge on the latest bitch that looked down on us and made her court of jesters treat us like crap. Joanne Kramer strutted the hallways with an entourage in tow. She dictated the dress code and who was to be shunned. She also was prim and proper and wore the fact that she hadn’t been late and had perfect attendance as her crowning achievement. This might have been because she really wasn’t very smart and struggled to keep up a C+ average. Did you know that if you squeeze a few drops of super glue into the top of a combination lock, you can spin all the numbers you want and it won’t unlatch?

The janitor always secretly left the back door between the gym and the boiler room unlocked so he could sneak out for a couple of puffs and be back inside before principal Jamieson noticed. Everyone in the school, except apparently Jamieson, knew about the door, so it wasn’t much of a secret. At 11:30 on a Friday, no one would be around the school. The jocks would be at home getting ready for the regional track meet, the druggies would be smoking somewhere far from school, and the popular crowd would be doing whatever it was they did. Even so, we climbed quietly over the chain link fence and snuck across the dark practice field to the door. When my hand pulled on the door, and it opened, I felt a twinge of electricity through my body. It was an alarm; it was just me waking up from the dreary slumber of conformity and feeling the anticipation of minor rebellion. We were in and out if less than 10 minutes and added some drops to as many cheerleader’s and other snooty bitches’ locks as we passed by.
Monday morning we awaited the conclusion of the deed.
We stood by the stairs to the east wing and watched as the confident queen dressed in a spring sweater and short skirt nonchalantly spun the dial. When nothing happened, she looked confused but still confidant. Paying closer attention, she dialed her secret numbers left stop, right twice past zero, stop and straight to the last number stop. Before her confidence turned to panic, we needed to hurry up the stairs, so our giggles that soon became snorting laughter wasn’t heard. The story goes that the unflappable Joanne was sobbing and shrieking about “tardy slips, detention, 21, 50, 11″ as her crew abandoned her. It was mean and hilarious at the same time. “The queen is dead; the queen is dead. Long live the queen.”


Powerful to Powerless

Did the silence mean it was going to happen again? If I held my breath, would time stop? Was it a sin to pray that he falls down the steps and break his neck?

After hours of clinking glasses and men laughing, the party, upstairs, came to a sudden halt. He was visiting from wherever he came from, and the Pilsner or Bohemian and cigarettes always came with him. Crude jokes, a couple of punches and arm twists, a dollar and the big bottle of red wine followed. The man made my father laugh – no one did that anymore. His visits were the highlight of my father’s year. For everyone else in the house, we knew enough to pretend to like his overnight stopovers.

Darkness covered the corner of the basement where a curtain defined my bedroom. Moonlight tried to push through the tiny window, but the space between our house and the neighbour’s was too small to allow it to find its way through. What time was it? Midnight? Would he be too drunk? Too tired? Tonight? I pressed myself against the concrete wall and pulled the covers over my ears. I wrapped myself tightly in the dark. The cocoon was so small; maybe I could disappear tonight. Maybe I would transform into a superhero.

Superheroes didn’t feel this much fear. Superheroes fought back regardless of a 100-pound weight difference. Superheroes didn’t need their parents to fight their battles, even when they are nine years old. Tonight I was going to fight back. I was going to say “No, no, no”. Tonight I was going to scream. Tonight I was going to stab him through his heart.

A light at the top of the stairs went out, and the shadows crept away. His steps on each stair shifted from stomps to tiptoes. The sanctuary curtain was torn open and disappeared. I wasn’t here. I was somewhere else. I wasn’t here. I wasn’t helpless. I wasn’t abandoned. This didn’t happen again.

I was six the first time I remember Roy visiting Regina or the first time I remember him at our house. He was always around my aunt’s house in Saskatoon. “Wanna play catch?” “Let’s go to the park” ”Would you like a chocolate bar?” My cousins never went with him. They were always busy or out of sight or in the bathroom. O’Henry, baseballs, and swings. Roy always had time for me. “ “You are becoming a little man, aren’t you”. “ Climb up on my lap, and I will tell you another story.” One gold tooth, sweat, and tales of headless horsemen.

I think he did some kind of work with my uncle, maybe painting, or pounding, or lifting or grunting. Something for those sausage fingers and rough hands to squeeze and pull and push and caress. Man work where you didn’t need to ask if you could, you just knew you could. Start a job, finish it. “ money in your pocket let you do whatever you wanted to do.”

My dad didn’t really like anyone, but he seemed to really like Roy. He didn’t talk about much other than football. “ If God made cows then we are supposed to eat them – with mashed potatoes and gravy.” “The government needs to teach kids reading, writing, and rules.” “ We have a little bit set aside to buy a truck, but things are tough.” Roy drew him out. They shared something from their past, but I never knew what it could be. Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy, Jekyll and Hyde and yet they fell into each other’s company, bear hugging, catcalling and baboon laughing. Between visits, my dad sank back into a silent stupor with occasional outbursts and roars. Work, beer, sleep, work, beer, sleep, until Roy graced the back door with chaos and mayhem on his shoulder. I loved the light he brought. Garlic, sweat, dirt, shone from his pores and everything was instantly and temporarily brighter, lighter. Twinkle, twinkle eyes, crooked man smile, and always a secret to be shared or never to be told.

In those days, everyone looked back with nostalgia. “ Will it ever be a simple as when we were kids?” “Remember the time we went swimming at the Red Bank and Charlie got caught skinny dipping by Sister Anna.” “ A deck of smokes used to be 35 cents”. Safety, sanity, silliness and no responsibilities. Life was better then and wouldn’t be better tomorrow. Things could never be the same.

Breakfast, school, cartoons and lunch, school, playground, supper, back alley, sleep, breakfast, school, cartoons and lunch, school, playground, supper, back alley, sleep. Me and Brian. Brian knew some stuff about my home because he had been caught in the spray of resentment and anger more than once. There was other stuff that Brian would never know.

When you don’t know that you are poor, you aren’t. Ladders turned into sailing ships, trees into fortresses, sticks were swords or guns or spears and playgrounds were where kids shared secrets, surprises, and challenges. Street lights coming on signaled something different – no need for shouting “Billy”, no cell phones, no worried parents. Just streetlights coming on and dozens of kids racing home.

Dreams were simple, sweet, safe and if scary not so scary as to make you wet the bed. Exhaustion, growth, and youth brought eight hours of sinking deeply into a soft mattress, cool sheets, warm blanket and a new day – much like the others but with a promise of adventure and unknown.

Once you stop being curious, once you know too much, the promise fades and then is gone. The night just brings morning and day brings more of the same. Stealing candy, curiosity and dreams. Hope glimmers for a while. Trust tries to press through. Love is seen but not felt. “I need to get up every morning and get out into the world and keep looking for the secret, keep looking for a time to share it, keep hoping that someone will ask.” Running helps, rhythm and hard breathing stop my brain from returning to that place. When my legs are churning forward, I can’t look back. At 1 mile the veil lifts and light peeks in. 2 miles and heat rises from inside, and warmth on my face is understood. Beyond 3 miles anxiety returns as an awareness that the end is getting closer. I can’t run forever, but maybe for an hour. I can pull a Houdini again this afternoon or this evening and on Thursday. Keep running.
But on this day, he would catch me. I knew the bastard was behind me, getting closer. He was near enough that I could feel his breath chasing me down. I could smell the red wine on my cheek as the breath got closer. His panting wasn’t laboured but enjoyed. His body was strong, and soon he would reach the end. 1 mile, 2 miles 3 miles – darkness. Powerful to powerless.

Free Falling

In a moment, I was floating on my back in the air between the ladder and the ground. I a blink, I tried to figure out if Gary had pushed me, brushed me or if he had tried to grab me. I was off balance and the gravel around the gradall was still frozen. ” Crap, how am I going to explain this to mom?” She was clear that we weren’t supposed to be hanging around the construction yard and there was no explanation for the cigarettes on my breath and the locked gate. I was going to hit the ground hard but that wouldn’t hurt as much as the look of disappointment on her face.
From weightless to weighty. Floating one second and thudding the next. I hit the ground flat and as the wind rushed out by mouth in a strange belch and yelp I could feel the bed of rocks dig hundreds of notches across my butt and back. A familiar metal taste rose up from the back of my mouth and as my skinny neck flopped the back of my noggin cracked ground. The darkness and stars were confusing and exciting. I was on a ship sailing across the sea staring up at the sky trying to navigate through the storm.
It might have been two seconds or 2 hours when I felt Gary standing above me giggling nervously. A twelve-year old’s defense against the worst was uneasy laughter. He didn’t, I didn’t have the tools to process the implications so he tittered – I would have done the same. ” What the hell did you do?” didn’t navigate its way from my head to my mouth but he understood anyway. ” I tried to grab your arm when your foot slipped but it happened too fast. Sorry”. Sorry was something new, especially when there wasn’t an adult around. Sorry was something new when you hadn’t hurt someone out of anger. Sorry was something new when it was because you just understood someone else’s pain without feeling it yourself.
There was something scary and safe about hopping the fence of Grauer Construction and sitting high above the world in the cab of a great digger. Above the world and in the manly seat of a basement digging monster. Every headlight signaled a possible alarm and every taillight another few moments of glory. This wasn’t the first evening we had gone on this adventure – not even the first time this week. Gary could always scoff a duMaurier from his mom’s pack and we would pass it back and forth imagining that we had risen to the lofty position of the equipment operator. I had never seen the gradall outside of the yard and never seen the man who ran her but in my imagination, they were both big, powerful and crude. The spit on the cab floor and the smell of sweat on the seat attested the truth for the latter and the rusting yellow hulk with an eight-step ladder proved the former. For twenty to thirty minutes, we were men.
And now I was a boy. Laying flat and still with the smell of blood in my throat I was small and powerless. Tears had welled but hadn’t spilled yet but I was afraid to try to move. Slowly with Gary’s urging I began to come back from the sailing ship. ” Can you move your hands? They look funny, sort of like the crippled guy at the hardware store.”  I focused my energy and attention down to the fingers. I couldn’t see them but it felt like they were wiggling. ” Phew, good, you’re not crippled.” ” What about your legs? The left one is twisted and gibbled.” Again I mustered attention and energy and was rewarded with a searing pain like the time I touched the roaster trying to sneak some chicken skin. It registered but slowly and then numbed quickly. ” The right one is moving. Can you bend the other one? I couldn’t without screaming a stream of words that I wasn’t allowed to say. Everything else seemed stunned but working – elbows, knees, shoulder, neck but the shin on my left leg wasn’t good. A greenstick fracture was what the emergency doctor called it. “Good thing he is so young or the break would have been way more serious” Mom  replied, ” I hope that if he wasn’t so young, he wouldn’t have done something so stupid.”
That was the end of it. Except for six weeks of celebrity for my stupidity and a bit of a scare when the technician took to the cast with the plaster saw which looked just like mini version of the real thing.
Apparently, in moments of crisis our brain compacts memories very tightly and when we look back on them we feel that they are replayed in slow motion. It is the density of memories that makes the replay richer and our logic posits that it must have taken longer for that much to have occurred. This fall wasn’t slowed but more than 50 years later, the telling is full of detail and sensory stimulation. Weird how memory works and how we think it works.