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.