Powerful to Powerless

Did the silence mean it was going to happen again? If I held my breath, would time stop?

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 his year.

Darkness covered the corner of the basement where a curtain defined my bedroom. 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. The cocoon was so small, maybe I could disappear tonight. Maybe I could 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 9 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. The steps on the treads shifted from stomps to tiptoes. The sanctuary curtain was torn open and disappeared. Not in the world but in my head. I wasn’t here. I wasn’t helpless. I wasn’t abandoned. This didn’t happen again.

I was 6 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 possibly be. Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy, Jeckyll 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 Bushe.

When you don’t know what poor is, 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 8 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. Night just brings morning and day brings more of the same. Stealing candy, curiousity 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 breathing stops my brain from returning. When my legs are churning forward, I can’t go 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 the awareness of the end gets 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.

He would catch me some day. I knew the bastard was behind me, getting closer. He was near enough that I could feel his breath chasing me down. 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.

Running Away

At the beginning of grade 7 , in 1966, my class moved to another school, not that far away but a world apart from what we knew. It had a reputation as a tough school with tough kids, ready to fight at a drop of a hat. Why dropping a hat would start a fight was a mystery to me but I didn’t dare ask for fear of starting an all out war. Twenty-five kids joining a new school gave us an awkward comfort. At least we knew each other and could rally together if we didn’t understand the rules de jour. I was sure from the first moment that one of the regular kids was waiting to pounce on one of us (me) with fists flying and feet kicking. It turned out that they were more curious and cautious than cranky and cruel. By mid-September, we were fitting in and I had a couple new east-side friends. We were all north end kids so we had that in common. Instead of twenty-five possible friends, there were now seventy-five candidates and I apparently was good at breaking the ice so I knew the names of about a dozen. The big surprise was that there were really more fish in the sea. For five years Patty had ignored and rejected my overtures and now there were thirty-two potential girlfriends. Early on Marion was the one who caused my heart to beat faster than after running 3 miles. I had never seen or met a redhead before but I managed to be in the same place as her, after watching for four days, at the morning recess. I used the ‘ we know each other but you don’t remember’ approach. Just join in and never let on that she hasn’t been introduced. Turned out she was gracious, kind and popular as well as stunning. She allowed my feigned attempt at nonchalance and it turned out that she did know my name. “ Bobby, what are you doing tonight? It’s Friday, any party plans?” I had never been to what could be described as a party or what I imagined she meant as a party. Boys and girls together, dim light basement rumpus room, music playing and some quiet necking. I wasn’t sure what or how necking happened but I was very interested, especially with Marion or even Patty. “No.” I stuttered. “Too bad.’ she replied letting me off the hook.

For the next week, I managed to be where she was for ten recesses. She went home for lunch like the rest of us and I didn’t dare follow as we lived on opposite sides of Broad Street. The weekend became painful as I anticipated 10:15 on Monday morning and our next contact. The first Monday in October something changed, Kevin appeared at our rendezvous. He had made a name for himself. I had heard about him, even before we made the move to the new school. One story was that he had been caught smoking cigarettes, that he had ‘lifted’ from the corner store. He wouldn’t have been caught at all except that smoking in the front entry of a public school still drew a crowd (even on 1966). They had been at a party together on Saturday and hooked up (whatever that meant). I don’t know the definition of hooked up but it was clear they were a couple now. I was devastated but optimistic. “He was sure to be sent back to Juvie.” was my expectation and hope. He wouldn’t be a threat for long and I just needed to stay below his radar.

Remembrance Day came and went; Kevin had stayed out of trouble and was still around Marion all the time, all the damn time. At Thursday afternoon recess, I saw a window open. There she was standing close to the wall on the west side of the school, shivering a bit and looking sad. “ Are you okay?” I tentatively offered. She looked me in the eye and started to cry. I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying between sobs. “ He…pushed .. I said no …love… rough… no … gone”. I pieced a story together that I still don’t know if any of it was accurate, and wrapped my arms around her in a consoling hug. She leaned in and sobbed harder and said “ grmpf …why…bph …snrk … Fankyou”. My imagination was too undeveloped to make a story from that but I didn’t care because here I was at 11 years old with the girl of my dreams in my arms. Life couldn’t get any better. My heart was racing, my brain was racing, I was on cloud nine. Thud. I felt a sharp pain on the right side of my head.” What the fuck are you doing?” rang as I fell to the ground. Pandemonium broke out as Marion tried to explain that we were friends and I was helping. I tried to insert that “ she was sad and crying ..” Kevin kept shouting “ what the fuck? I am going to kick your ass”. “ He pushed Marion away and kicked me in the ribs as he turned away. After two steps he swiveled towards me and said “ After school, you and me. Be there you chickenshit”.

Embarrassed, afraid, and with my ears ringing I spent the rest of the afternoon in panic mode. By four o’clock everyone in the school knew there would be a fight just outside the west gate. I was determined not to flee. I thought I could explain that nothing was going on and that Kevin and his gang would say okay and leave me alone. I didn’t understand that power could come from mindless violence and bravado.

At five after four, most of the grade 7 and eight kids were waiting by the fence. As I approached I couldn’t make out faces, the all blurred into a mass. I saw Kevin and a blob behind him and Marion standing just outside the blob. I had no blob with me. I was walking into this alone. I still fought to believe that I could use words to get out of this. Assuming a subservient posture, head down looking at the ground I started “ Kevin, you don’t understand” Boom he was on top of me, pummeling my shoulders and chest with punches working his way to my head. I wriggled and squirmed and made noises that shouldn’t come out of a boy becoming a man. “ Fight back, kick him, swing, do something” echoed in my head and yet I squirmed and squealed. I squeezed out from under him and in my head started with the explanation again. My brain said “if he comes at you again, kick him in the balls” I heard the blob chant “ fight, fight, fight” and one small voice say “ that’s enough”. My brain and body weren’t working under the same plan because as my brain was saying fight my legs were saying flight and I flew. I flew, like a chicken, west down 4th Avenue towards home with my assailant and two others following. I had a head start because my escape and choice to run had left them surprised. The other kids must have been too humiliated on my behalf to join the chase. I knew with the five-second lead I could out run them to home. No thought of tomorrow or the next day was in my brain just immediate survival. I added distance between us as my legs moved faster than ever before. Down the street, across the field with the three of them in pursuit. I could see the front of my house. There was someone looking out the window as I crossed the last street. I took the three steps to the stoop in one jump and didn’t look back until the door slammed behind me.

“ Get back out there and either fight like a man or take your lumps” shouted my dad. He was spitting his words and was visibly shaken by my retreat. “ But” started to go through my head but his eyes assured me that no logic or plea was going to change his mind. Resigned, I stepped back out into the cold.

I got in one or two punches and received a shiner, a bloody mouth, and bruised ribs and for the next month undying silent ridicule from my classmates, Marion, and my dad. Kevin did go back to juvenile detention and eventually, the vividness of my cowardice faded. I never waited for recess again. For the next two years, I lived in the shadows, alone. I didn’t relive the experience or dream about a different outcome. I went to school, did okay, went home, waited until the next morning and repeated yesterday.