Once he showed me his place in the sky. That hydro pole in a parking lot all weed-broke and abandoned. Looking up, you’d see the dangers of the climb. The feeder lines on insulators, the wired bucket called a pole-pig, the footholds rusted bad and going way into a sky cut hard by live cables. You’d hear the electricity as you moved higher, he warned me. Feel it shivering your teeth and lighting a whole city of fear inside your head. But if you made it to the top, he said, you were good. All that free air and seeing. The streets below suddenly patterns you could read.
A great lookout, my brother told me. One of the best in the neighbourhood, but step badly on a line, touch your hand to the wrong metal part while you’re brushing up against another, and you’d burn. Hang scarecrow-stiff and smoking in the air, dead black sight for all. “You want to go out like that?” he asked. So when you climbed, he said, you had to go careful. You had to watch your older brother and follow close his moves. You had to think back on every step before you took it. Remembering hard the whole way up.
He taught me that, my older brother. Memory’s got nothing to do with the old and grey and faraway gone. Memory’s the muscle sting of now. A kid reaching brave in the skull hum of power.
“And if you can’t memory right,” he said, “you lose.”
She’s come back. The bus pulling away from a rotting bank of snow to show her standing on the other side of the avenue. A neighbourhood girl no longer, a young woman now in heeled boots and a coat belted tight against the cold and dark. She’s carrying a backpack, not a suitcase, and this really is how she becomes Aisha. The way she shoulders her belongings with a rough and impatient gesture before stepping onto the asphalt and crossing the salt-stained lanes between us.
“You’re not dressed for this weather,” she says.
“I’m okay. Just a short wait. You look good, Aisha.”
She frowns but accepts from me a hug that lingers before we break apart and begin walking eastward, our chins hunched down against the wind tunnelling between the surrounding apartment towers. An oncoming car shocks bright her face and it’s true, she does look good. The same dark skin haunted with red, the same hair she once scorned as “mongrel.” But it’s been ten years since last we’ve spoken. And in the silence thick between us it feels like even the smallest dishonesty will ruin this reconnection. A truck blasts suddenly past us on the avenue, spraying slush on our pant legs and shoes. Aisha swears, but when our eyes meet she offers a thin smile.
“Properly welcomed back,” she says.
“You do look a bit tired. I’ve made a bed for you.”
“Thank you, Michael. Thank you for offering me a place to stay. I’m sorry for not saying so sooner. My head these days. And you know me, I’ve never been good with favours.”
She was overseas when she got the news that her father had been admitted into intensive care, and during her phone call to me she described how her mind instantly filled with panic but also vague anger. In his occasional letters to her, he had mentioned that he was feeling tired, but he had not admitted the cancer. She caught a long series of connecting flights to Toronto, and then a Greyhound bus to the hospice in Milton, the small town he had moved to only recently. She stayed with him for the week until the end, and there had been time to talk but not nearly enough. “What was there to say?” she asked me in a rough voice over the phone, the line hanging afterwards with a quiet impossible for me to fill. This call out of nowhere. “Please visit,” I said to her, doubt creeping into my voice even as I repeated myself. “Come home to the Park.”
The Park is all of this surrounding us. This cluster of low-rises and townhomes and leaning concrete apartment towers set tonight against a sky dull purple with the wasted light of a city. We are approaching the western edge of the Lawrence Avenue bridge, a monster of reinforced concrete over two hundred yards in length. Hundreds of feet beneath it runs the Rouge Valley, cutting its own way through the suburb, heedless of man-made grids. But the Rouge is invisible to us tonight, and we have just arrived at the Waldorf, a townhouse complex at the edge of the bridge and made of crumbling salmon brick, flapping blue tarps draped eternally over its northeast corner. The unit where Aisha lived ten years ago with her father is on the prized south of the building, away from traffic. But the side where I have remained all my life is at the busy edge of the avenue, exposed to the constant hiss of tires on asphalt. I warn Aisha about the loose concrete on the doorsteps and suffer a sudden bout of clumsiness working the brass key into the lock. I push open the door to show a living room lit blue with the shifting light of a television, its volume turned off. There is a couch with its back towards us, and on it there is a woman with greying hair who does not turn.
I gesture to Aisha that we should be quiet. I remove my shoes in a demonstrating way, and with our coats still on I quickly guide Aisha across the living room. The woman on the couch continues to watch the silent television, the mime of a talk-show interview, a celebrity guest throwing his head back in laughter. I lead Aisha down a short hallway to the second bedroom. A small lamp casting a circle of light upon a desk, a bunk bed with a mattress and sheets on the lower bed only, the upper bunk long ago stripped bare, even the mattress removed, leaving skeletal slats of wood. I close the door behind us and in the sudden smallness of the room begin explaining. We won’t be sleeping together on the bed, of course. I’ll be using the living room couch, which is quite comfortable, honestly. I point out the towel and extra blankets set out very obviously on the sheets of the lower bunk. I stop when I notice that Aisha is staring and that she hasn’t let her backpack touch the floor.
“Your mother doesn’t speak anymore?” she asks.
“She speaks. She’s just quiet sometimes, especially at night.”
“I’m sorry,” she says to me, shaking her head. “I shouldn’t have come. This is an intrusion.”
Bullets of slush smattering upon the bedroom window. Another truck that has passed too close to the curb outside. But in the wake of sudden noise, a feeling creeps upon me, one of shame, maybe, for imagining that I could try to end our conversation tonight like this. With talk of sleeping arrangements and towels. With acknowledgement of Aisha’s father, yet no acknowledgement of that other loss shadowing this room and measured in the ten years of silence between us.
“I still think of Francis,” she says.
Francis was my older brother. His was a name a toughened kid might boast of knowing, or a name a parent might pronounce in warning. But before all of this, he was the shoulder pressed against me bare and warm, that body always just a skin away.
Our mother had come from Trinidad, in what parents of her generation called the West Indies. It was a place that Francis and I, both born and raised here in Canada, had visited once and could recognize vaguely in words and sounds and tastes. It was a place that accounted for the presence in our house of certain drinks like mauby and sorrel and also the inexplicably named Peardrax, which Francis had once fooled me into believing was bathroom cleanser. Somehow, we felt that the West Indies made sense of other equally strange objects in our home, like the snow globe of Niagara Falls, or the lurking threat of Anne Murray’s “Snowbird” 45. It was a place populated by relatives we had met only briefly, who existed now in old black-and-white photographs, ghostly images that were supposed to explain our eyes and way of smiling, our hair and bones.
There was another old photograph in the house, one that Francis discovered when we were small, shelved secretly in Mother’s bedroom cupboard. It showed a man with a moustache groomed so carefully it looked painted on. He wore a thin light-coloured jacket, the open collar of his shirt slightly kinked up. Old words like suave and debonair came to mind, or at least they do now. This man was our father, who was also from the West Indies, and who now lived somewhere in the city, although he had left our home when Francis was three and I was only two. The photograph wasn’t perfectly focused, and I remember Francis and me as children looking hard into the blur of the man’s face for something recognizable. His skin was much darker than Mother’s, but we had been told that he was not black like her, but something called “Indian”—although this identity seemed lost in the poorness of the photograph, or in the trowel-thick application of Brylcreem in his hair, as artificial as the black snap-on do of Lego Man.
In truth, none of us, not me, Francis, or Mother, had much interest in the grey pasts of photographs. We had more than enough to explore right here and now, and most of all we had the running challenge of what our mother called “opportunity.” Mother worked as a cleaner in office buildings and malls and hospitals. She was also one of those black mothers, unwilling to either seek or accept help from others. Unwilling to suffer any small blow to her sense of independence or her vision of eventual arrival. And so if a job suddenly arose in some distant part of the city but held the promise of future opportunities, or if, just as suddenly, the opportunity for time-and-a-half beckoned, she would accept the work, though it meant leaving her two young boys alone at home.
She was never happy about abandoning us, and if she learned the evening before of an impending night shift, she would spend precious sleep time cooking and worrying over the details of meals and activities for the following day. If we had homework, she would set it out on the dining room table beside plates of cook-up and greens, or rice and stew chicken. There was tenderness in the dishes she prepared, love in a dish made perfect with the fruity bite of Scotch bonnet. But by the time she started putting on her coat and shoes, she would be in a state, exhausted, almost overcome with guilt, yet expressing it in bitter scoldings and fantastic threats. Her voice, schooled harshly in the Queen’s English, now articulating threats mined from the deepest hells of history.
“No answering the door or turning up the heat. No turning on the oven or stovetop at any time. You hear me, Francis? I will strap your backside red if I come back to find you or your brother hurt. Absolutely no TV after eight if I’m not back until then. No A-Team or Mrs. T or any other gangster foolishness in my home. Oh you smiling now? You think is joke? You feel you too harden to listen to me? Then you both go right ahead and touch that stove dial. Just answer that front door once. I will string you up by your thumbnails from the ceiling. I will skin you alive and screaming. I will beat you so hard your children will bear scars. Your children’s children will feel!”
Francis and I would nod and shake our heads all at once in urgent promising. Mother would neat up her uniform and hair in the mirror by the door and then leave without looking back, locking the door and testing the doorknob several times before we heard faintly among the noise of traffic her feet clopping quickly away on the sidewalk. In the hours that followed, Francis and I would try to be good. We would eat our dinner and put away the dishes and only afterwards find high up in the kitchen cupboards the other tastes we craved. Thick mouthfuls of corn syrup sucked direct from the yellow beehive container. The tongue-stinging green of Jell-O powder licked slowly from a spoon. We’d do the homework Mother had laid out for us, but, later, we’d learn equally important life skills and facts about the world from Three’s Company and The Dukes of Hazzard. When we were a bit older, on those Friday nights when Mother was away we’d watch late-night Italian comedies with the enticing parental guidance warnings. Francis and I each suffering patiently through intricate plots in a foreign language for the promise of a couple seconds of boob.
“They’re showing!” he once shouted from the living room. “Both of them at once! You have to get here now! Right now!”
“Wait! Wait!” I called from the bathroom. Stumbling, falling, then crawling with my pants still around my ankles until I reached him and could see. But nothing. Only that late-night infomercial for the Ronco food dehydrator.
Francis’s laughter. Stupid beef jerky.
In every case, he would have the decency and respect to wait for at least an hour before making his move. And the first time Mother left us alone, it was magic. When the sun had begun to set, my brother dragged a chair from the kitchen to reach the deadbolt on the front door. He clicked the lock open, and pushed at the door, and here it was before us. The freedom of Lawrence Avenue. Security lights and rust-stained apartment buildings.
“Remember,” Francis told me. “We never answered the front door.”
The world around us was named Scarborough. It had once been called “Scarberia,” a wasteland on the outskirts of a sprawling city. But now, as we were growing up in the early ’80s, in the heated language of a changing nation, we heard it called other names: Scarlem, Scarbistan. We lived in Scar-bro, a suburb that had mushroomed up and yellowed, browned, and blackened into life. Our neighbours were Mrs. Chandrasekar and Mr. Chow, Pilar Fernandez and Clive “Sonny” Barrington. They spoke different languages, they ate different foods, but they were all from one colony or the other, and so they had a shared vocabulary for describing feral children like us. We were “ragamuffins.” We were “hooligans” up to no good “gallivanting.” We were what one neighbour, more poet than security guard, described as “oiled creatures of mongoose cunning,” raiding dumpsters and garbage rooms or climbing up trees and fire-exit stairs to spy on adults. During winters we snowballed cars on Lawrence Avenue, dipping into the back alleys if the drivers tried to pursue us. A Pinto Wagon once shaving past my face, its wake tugging hard upon my body, Francis’s hand upon my shoulder pulling me safe.
During the day, we had more formal educational opportunities. Our school was named after Sir Alexander Campbell, a Father of Confederation. But we the students of his school had our own confederations, our own schoolyard territories and alliances, our own trade agreements and anthems. We listened to Planet Rock and carried Adidas bags and wore stonewashed jeans and painter caps. You could hear us whenever there were general assemblies in the auditorium, our collective voices overwhelming whatever politely seated ceremony we were supposed to be attending.
Hey Francis, homeboy, my man.
Rudebwoy Francis! Gangstar!
Francis and I each served out long sentences in classrooms beneath the chemical hum of white fluorescent lights, in part out of fear of our mother, who warned us, upon pain of something worse than death, not to squander “our only chance.” But Francis actually liked to learn. He read books, and he was a good observer.
And after class was out there were other institutions to learn from. A dozen blocks west of the towers and housing complexes of the Park, at the intersection of Markham and Lawrence, there lay a series of strip malls. There were grocery shops selling spices and herbs under signs in foreign languages and scripts, vegetables and fruits with vaguely familiar names like ackee and eddo. There were restaurants with an average expiry date of a year, their hand-painted signs promising ice cream with the “back home tastes” of mango and khoya and badam kulfi, a second sign written urgently in red marker promising that they’d also serve, whenever asked, the mystery of “Canadian food.”
Also the Heritage Value convenience store, run by that asshole who framed his useless foreign degree, despised the dark stinking guts of every other immigrant, and bullied his wife and two daughters into endless hours at the cash register, advertising lottery tickets and low phone rates to Kingston and Saigon and Colombo and Port of Spain. The father hated Francis and me, recognizing the look of “no money” on our faces. We had little chance of sneaking into his store when he was working. But if his wife or daughters were on shift, we might slip in and buy a few singles of Double Bubble and maybe a pack of three-flavoured Fun Dip. We’d scope out the freezer section with its Klondike Bars and Eskimo Pies frosted thick with crystals, their prices always out of reach. We might even be allowed to steal a few moments at the comic book display, pretending to debate a buy but actually reading as quickly as possible. Those stories of heroes masked and misread. Their secret origins, their endless war with darkest evil.
Francis had nightmares. He’d be lying in the bunk above me, and I’d listen to his breathing, the soft wheeze he might have from allergies or a cold. He’d be on the edge of sleep when some terror would visit him. He’d wake screaming a deep body scream, all cracked throat and emptied stomach, and it would take me a while to realize that I’d been screaming too. If Mother was home, she’d offer comfort. She’d lie beside us, and with the warmth of her body push back the fear. We’d lie quiet and awake, the three of us, for a long time, watching the wind blow ghosts into the drapes and cars passing by on the avenue cast moving lights upon the walls and ceiling.
Never speaking. Listening for things.
What scares two boys aged ten and eleven? Sometimes, in the midst of our play, a siren would cut the air and cars with flashing lights would brake screeching on the avenue, a neighbourhood kid soon cuffed on the sidewalk, his face turned away from us in shame. There were tales about boys jumped and beaten, faces ruined, jaws wired shut. “I saw it myself,” claimed one; “I did it,” claimed another, and we were never sure if either ought to be believed. Always, there were stories on TV and in the papers of gangs, killings in bad neighbourhoods, predators roaming close. One morning, I peered with Francis into a newspaper box to read a headline about the latest terror and caught in the glass the reflection of our own faces.
From the age of seven, Francis could read. He read books, of course, regularly and well into his teens. But he could also read the many signs and gestures around us. He could read the faces of the neighbourhood youth hanging around outside 7-Eleven and know when to offer a nod or else a sly joke or else just to keep moving and not just then attempt to meet a bruised pair of eyes. But especially, Francis could read our mother. He recognized her pride, but also the routes and tolls of her labours. He knew that for work as a cleaner, and sometimes a nanny, she had not only tough hours but also long journeys, complicated rides along bus routes to faraway office buildings and malls and homes, long waits at odd hours at stops and stations, sometimes in the rain or the thick heat of the afternoon, sometimes in the cold and dark of winter. He understood that there is a specific moment during the trip back home from work when a mother’s body threatens to give out. A specific site in the bus loop at Kennedy Station when exhaustion closes in and the limbs feel like meat, and it takes every last strength from a mother to make the two additional bus transfers home.
When Francis was still not quite a teen, and Mother returned home in a state, he would go to work. He would casually offer her a cool, damp cloth for her head, maybe even a pan of water and Epsom salts for her feet. He would fetch a blanket in winter, or a fan and a glass of water in summer. He was careful never to overdo his concern, and so wound her pride, or otherwise to break any of the household rules she had established to help us through lean times. But one hot summer day, when Mother collapsed on the couch, shaking her head at all offered food, unwilling to take a sip of water or even to open her eyes, twelve-year-old Francis dared big.
He went to the kitchen and took from the freezer a can of orange juice concentrate. We had been warned repeatedly by Mother never to touch such stuff without her permission. And if she allowed us to touch it, we were to use five cans of water to dilute the concentrate, never three as the fool instructions on the can said. But on that day, Francis used just one can of water, mashing it into the frozen lump of concentrate with a wooden spoon, and pouring the slush bright into a glass. He gently lowered the glass into Mother’s curled fingers, her eyes still closed. I braced for all hell to break loose as she tasted, her mouth moving as if eating pudding.
“I made it sweet this time,” explained Francis.
“Sweet,” Mom said, a tired smile.
She touched his face. She cupped his chin and touched the growing shadow of his moustache. She pinched his earlobe lightly between her thumb and finger as if it were a raindrop from a leaf, then reached to gently pluck something from his hair. A burr from the Rouge Valley.