Authors: Paul Vasey
A Troublesome Boy
HOUSE OF ANANSI PRESS
Text copyright Â© 2012 by Paul Vasey
Published in Canada and the USA in 2012 by Groundwood Books
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This edition published in 2012 by
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LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
A troublesome boy / Paul Vasey.
PS8593.A78T76 2012Â Â Â Â Â jC813'.54Â Â Â Â Â C2011-906231-3
Cover photograph by Josef Kubicek/Getty Images
Design by Michael Solomon
We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF).
I WAS ALMOST
fourteen and a half and already I was a failure. Capital A. Capital F. Don't take my word for it. Take the word of pasty-faced, pudgy-fingered, owl-eyed Gordon Little, head of guidance at Avery Bay Collegiate and Vocational Institute.
Words, actually, lots of them. Written in his old-lady fountain-pen handwriting on his pansy blue stationery and stapled to my report card so there'd be a telltale hole in the card if I ripped off the note and tossed it into the garbage where it obviously belonged.
Teddy is A Troublesome Boy. He is Disrespectful of his Teachers and Dismissive of his Classmates. He has A Major Problem with Persons in A Position of Authority. He is constantly challenging his Teachers and belittling the opinions of his Peers. Although he is undoubtedly An Intelligent Boy, he is A Failure when it comes to applying himself to his studies. As you can see, he has failed every course in Grade 9, with the exception of Art. We here at A.B.C.V.I. are at A Loss. Perhaps you are considering Another Course Of Action. Please Advise.
Henry, my mother's meathead move-in boyfriend, was not at a loss and he did have a course of action. He loaded me and my duffel bag onto a northbound Greyhound early one morning and shipped me off to St. Ignatius Academy for Boys. Thursday, August 27, 1959. You don't forget the day your life changed, that's for sure. St. Iggy's was part private school, part reform school. The perfect place for parents and the courts to unload their troublesome boys.
“Personally,” said Henry, “I don't give a shit if you ever come back. But you won't be coming back until you get an A in every course you take. And until you lose that attitude of yours. Understood?”
I didn't answer him. I didn't have to. I let my eyes do the talking, gave him the big Fuck You Death Stare.
“Another thing.” He was doing the pointy-finger thing with my chest. “You try running away from this place, I'll have your ass hauled into court so fast you won't know what hit you. I'll have you charged under the Juvenile Delinquent's Act and you'll wind up in the reformatory. That happens you won't see daylight for years. You have any idea how ugly it would be in the reformatory?”
Another poke in the chest. Another Fuck You Death Stare.
I turned my back, hoisted my duffel bag, got on the bus. If he was standing there watching as the bus pulled out I wouldn't know. I was slouched down, my knees pressed up against the seat in front of me, my Tigers hat pulled down over my eyes. But just in case he was still there watching to make sure I didn't make a leap for it at the last second, I held up my middle finger as we pulled away.
Attitude my ass.
Eight hours later, there I was in downtown Belleview. Population five thousand. Back of beyond. I was the only one who got off the bus and the driver wasted no time pulling out. Who could blame him? Belleview was a sorry-ass excuse for a town. They'd chopped down all the spruce trees and built the place on bald rock. Two blocks of two-story buildings on Main Street, faded signs, frayed flags, peeling paint. Four o'clock in the afternoon it looked like they'd already rolled up the sidewalks. A couple of rusted pickups, half a dozen old guys in denim coveralls and baseball caps waddling around. End of the world.
The bus stop was a diner. Linoleum floor, black and white squares, white walls. Counter on the right, ten chrome stools with torn leather seats. Six booths on the left, more torn leather seats. There were two pictures on the wall above the booths. One showed some snowy mountains. The other was of fishing boats in a harbor. The pictures were as faded as the rest of the place.
Back of the counter, one tired waitress. Black hair bunned up, cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, one eye squinted shut against the smoke trail. Bright red lipstick. Lots of it.
I took a stool.
“What'll you have, sunshine?”
“A one-way ticket out of here would do.”
“Until that comes along?”
“Burger and fries. And a vanilla shake.” I lit up an Export plain, waved out the match, dropped it in the ashtray. “Please.”
“Goin' to St. Iggy's?”
I nodded. “How'd you guess?”
“You got that death-row look about you.”
“Good luck,” she said. “You'll be needing it.” She turned her back and hollered through the opening at the fat guy working the grill. A few strands of black hair were greased down on top of his head. “Burger and fries, Freddy.”
“Way ahead of you, Rita. Burger's already on.”
Rita worked up the shake. She put down a glass and the metal container, all frosty on the outside. Two straws in the glass. The shake was so thick it took me a second to get a good taste. Tasted like no shake I'd ever had.
Freddy wasn't as gifted. The burger was burnt, looked like a thumbprint in the bun, which wasn't all that fresh, and the fries were soggy. I finished them anyway. I was starved.
“Where you from?”
“Down near Owen Sound.”
“Geez,” she said. “You're a long way from home. How come they shipped you off to St. Iggy's?”
“I'm a bad-ass little kid.”
She laughed. “Mass murderer?”
“Failed grade nine.”
“Well, maybe they can turn you into a mass murderer now that you're here.” She laughed again. I liked her laugh. “How come you failed grade nine?”
“Screwin' around.” I dropped my voice to do my best imitation of Henry. “Not taking advantage of my natural potential. Letting my gifts wither on the vine.”
“My mother's bonehead boyfriend.” I lit up another smoke, waved out the match, stood up and extended my hand. “Teddy,” I said. “Clemson.”
Rita shook my hand. “Killer Clemson. Has a nice ring to it.”
I sat back down, poured the rest of the shake from the metal container into the glass.
“Great shake, Rita. Think I'll have to come back for another one some time.” I made a big sucking sound, moving the straw around at the bottom to get the last bit of shake.
I paid and left her a nice tip. Another toothy smile.
“Can you call me a cab?”
“Honey, I can call you all kinds of things. But cabs ain't one of them. No cabs in this town. Time for a hike. Hang a left out the front door, hang a right at the first street, put one foot in front of the other. You can't miss it. It's the big creepy place on the hill. Looks like a prison.”
“You already said that.”
“Where you're going, honey, you'll need a double dose of luck.”
“What I hear, Jesus ain't been hangin' around St. Iggy's so much. You want my two cents' worth? Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself in the priests' good books. In their bad books you don't want to be.”
ONCE YOU WERE
off the main street you were in a wilderness of brick and frame bungalows, most of them needing paint. A couple of clunkers in most driveways. One on wheels, one on blocks â one for driving, one for parts. More junkers than Dandy Andy had in his wrecking yard back home. A few guys were sitting on the front steps in jeans and work boots, big guts hanging out the bottoms of their T-shirts, every one of them in need of a shave and a haircut. Most of them were drinking beer and smoking and swatting mosquitoes. Looked like they missed the last slow freight out of town and didn't have a clue what to do next.
A couple of blocks off Main Street and it was all uphill. I had to stop twice to catch my breath and switch my duffel bag from one side to the other.
Just when I was thinking St. Iggy's must be in the next county, there it was up at the top of the hill.
Rita was right. Jeezus creepy place. Red brick, three stories, rows of squinty windows. Looked exactly like a prison. All that was missing was the barbed wire, a couple of turrets and some beefy guys with big guns. There was a wide drive leading from the road to the double oak doors. The sign out at the road pointed up the driveway:
Yank open the front door and the place had that school smell to it: heavy-duty industrial cleaner, like there was a bad stink they were trying to get rid of. There was a foyer just inside the door, terrazzo floor and pea-green walls, then eight steps leading up to the first floor. On the wall at the top of the stairs was a life-sized statue of Jesus nailed to the cross. Stab wounds, blood, bruises, thorns â the works.
Mom was right. “Catholics are a weird bunch.” She was smoothing my hair and getting ready to say goodbye. “I only hope whatever they got isn't catching.” I asked her what she meant. She mentioned something about praying to statues, lighting candles, worshipping over the bones of the dead. I had no clue what she was talking about. “You'll see,” she said. Then she patted me on both cheeks, handed me my ball cap, pulled me close for a kiss, whispered “I'm sorry” in my ear. Henry was right behind me, rattling the keys to his Caddy.
I climbed the stairs. Over the first door on the left was a sign that said
. No one in sight.
And then, right behind me: “Welcome, Mr. Clemson.”
Jeezus. I just about jumped. I turned around and looked up. Big guy in a black robe, some kind of rope cinched around his waist. Wavy brown hair slicked back.
“We've been expecting you. I'm Father Stewart.” He must have been six-four anyway. Built like a linebacker. “I'm the principal. Come into my office.” He pushed through a swinging half-door and held it for me. “This way.”
His office was as creepy as the rest of the place. Capital C. No windows, low light, bookshelves against two walls, no carpet, no pictures, a big wooden desk, wooden chair behind it, two wooden chairs facing it. A big crucifix on the wall behind the desk. More blood and thorns.
He looked at the crucifix, then at me.
“That's what we do with troublesome boys.” Evil grin. “Just so you know.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
Stewart stood behind his desk. “Have a seat, Mr. Clemson.”
I dropped my bag on the floor and sat. Stewart pulled a leather strap out of a pocket in his robe. Must have been a special pocket. The strap was a couple of feet long by three or four inches wide. He tossed it on the desk.
“Something else for troublesome boys.”
You couldn't like a grin like that. He sat down, leaned back in his chair, put his hands together, touched the tips of his two forefingers to his lips like he was praying or something.
He looked at me for a moment. Then he sat up, picked his glasses up off the desk and put them on, picked up a bit of paper.
“Your reputation has preceded you, Mr. Clemson. I had a chat with your father this morning.”
“He's not my father. He's my mother's live-in. And he's a dink.”
Stewart looked at me for a few long seconds, then looked down at a piece of paper.
“He was good enough to read me Mr. Little's letter.”
“What a surprise.”
Another look. “I took some notes.” Then he began reading. “âTeddy is a troublesome boy. He has a major problem with persons in a position of authority.' I could go on, but I think you're familiar with the rest of it.” He took off his glasses and put them on the paper, leaned back in his chair and did the prayer thing with his hands again, gave me the stare. Then he sat up.