Authors: William Bell
Other books by William Bell
Five Days of the Ghost
Speak to the Earth
Copyright © 1992 William Bell
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This book is for my mother, Irene Bell
My memory is like a dark cellar with long dim corridors that lead to damp gloomy rooms and in all the rooms hundreds of dust-layered file cabinets hold thousands of drawers packed thick with postcards; hundreds of scarred oak tables are stacked high with thousands of cob-webbed shoeboxes stuffed with postcards, each one holding a memory layered in a hologram of sound-sight-smell-touch-emotion.
And when I least expect it—maybe I hear a tune I liked a long time ago, I see a photograph of a far-away city skyline, maybe I just look out the window on a spring day and see a cloud going by on the wind—down in the cellar’s murk a laser snaps on sending a reed of light searing through the darkness, reads a card, and feeds a signal into a coaxial cable that snakes through a maze of corridors, up the steep narrow staircase—and bang! the Replay surges into my mind, sometimes so powerful that it jolts everything else out of the way. And there I am, my skull invaded and captured by images and emotions I maybe don’t want, but they’re there and I have to look at them, feel them, even if only for a second, before I can turn off the volts and file the postcard away again in the gloom…
… like the time I was six, riding my new BMX bike, steering off the safe sidewalk into the forbidden territory of the road. I’d been trying since my dad had bought me the bike to pull off a walking wheelie, and that day I got up some speed, threw my weight back, not too far, and yanked back on the bars. And I found myself balanced perfectly, pedalling, front wheel in the air, and I thought, Wow! I’m doing it! So I looked around for an audience, someone to verify that I had finally mastered the walking wheelie, and that’s when the rear wheel hit a stone in the road and the next thing I knew I was picking myself up off the road with a sore head and two bleeding elbows and I was suddenly glad there was no one around to see me fall…
… or the time a nightmare jolted into my sleeping mind and I wet my bed, waking up full of shame to the cold damp sheets and my mother said it’s all right we’ll just get a dry sheet, but I knew it wasn’t all right. I knew good boys, normal boys, didn’t wet their own bed. I knew if the other kids found out they’d laugh at me forever and I felt so bad, so scared the next night I did it again…
… or the day Hawk and I took a six-pack down to The Place, where the willows hung low over the creek where it met the lake in the big park between 13th Street and 20th Street and sat there talking about life while we watched the sails way out on the waves. After we finished the six-pack we walked giggling like grade nine girls to Tony Tattaglia’s dad’s barber shop up on the Lakeshore and I got my head shaved close, closer than what they used to call a brush-cut, and still under the sway of the beer we went to Hawk’s house, and up in his room he
numbed my ear lobe with an ice cube and prepared to jab a pin through it while he held a paperback novel behind it. Wait, I said to him, slurring my words, you sure you got the right ear? No, not your right, you dummy, your left, he laughed. Left is right and right is wrong. Now hold still, don’t be a Jill. Be a big man, stick to your plan, he chanted, jabbing the needle into my flesh as I jeered at his lame rhymes. And after he finished, as I stood before his mirror, pleased at how tough I looked with my hair almost all gone and my left ear pierced, I said, Hey, Hawk, all I got is a bloody hole in my ear. He held up a small gold ring. Mom will never miss this, he said and I asked again, You absolutely sure you got the right—I mean the left—ear? I don’t want anybody to think I’m gay…
… or the day I came home from high school and as I passed the front door on my way to my room I saw a card lying among some envelopes on the hall floor under the mail slot. But it was like the envelopes weren’t there, all I saw was the card, a postcard lying face down with the address stamped on in black ink with one of those stamps you can get made up and the word DAD stamped on it too in the same colour of ink, nothing else on the card, no message, no signature, just the address and that word.
And down in the dark cellar the file drawers flew open, the tops burst from shoeboxes and cards spilled upwards into the air like upside-down waterfalls and the laser beam snapped on and went crazy trying to read all the cards at once as they floated to the floor, the laser jumping from card to card, sending millions of bits of messages buzzing along the coaxial cable, up the murky staircase into my mind. And I stood there in the hall that
led to my room, rigid, as though the electricity in the cable was zapping me so hard it welded me to the spot…
… and what surged into my mind was the picture of a little kid that was me, almost eight years old, taking the worn lid off a Nike running shoebox and dumping all the postcards onto the floor of my room, all of them with my address and that one word stamped on them in cold black letters, me crying so hard I could hardly see, tears streaming over hot cheeks as I ripped each card to shreds so small they could have come from anywhere—all the while trying to think up the worst thing I could to say about my father. Jerk! Bastard! And still not satisfied because the words that came didn’t begin to match the powerful mix of hurt and anger, hate and guilt, until in my rage I spit it out.
“I hate you!” I cried. “I hate you! I hate you!” …
… but then I managed to push that picture down again. I wasn’t eight any more. I picked up the postcard, my hands trembling, my mind still fighting to stem the surge of memory Replays. Canadian stamp, postmarked Quebec City. I turned it over. Picture of a city skyline. I turned the card over again. In small print on the top left edge was the return address. I checked the stamp again. Postmarked five days ago.
Maybe he’s still there, I thought, in Quebec City.
And if he is, I’ll find him. And when I do, he’d better start talking.
WAS GOING TO GO
through with that crazy notion of trying to find my old man after ten years of silence, there were some minor details to work out, like how was I going to get away with skipping school for a couple of days? How was I going to get to Quebec City? Where was I going to get enough money? And the biggest question of them all: how was I going to get my mother to let me go?
After I’d made some tea and sat at the kitchen table for a while, looking out across our tiny yard to the row of ancient battered garbage pails that lined the fence to the right of our condo, answers started to come pretty fast.
I’d skip school and worry about the reactions from my mother and the vice principal later. After all, once you skip school you can’t
it no matter what they do to you. I’d take the bus to Quebec City if I had to, but first I’d try to find the spare key to my mother’s little BMW and get it copied.
The money problem required a bit more staring at the garbage pails, then I came up with something. My mother put money into a joint account for my education—she wanted me to go to university and be Somebody Important—but I couldn’t put my hands on
it. She’s an accountant and she thinks that money was invented to be saved or invested. You didn’t, according to her, actually
the stuff. But, I told myself, it was my money.
It only took a couple of minutes to find the passbook and chequebook for my account and a few more to find something with my mother’s signature on it. I made out a cheque for cash for three hundred dollars, signed it, and then traced her signature onto it underneath mine. It wasn’t really stealing, I kept telling myself.
I knew I’d have to sneak away without her knowing. She never talked about the old man and refused to answer questions about him when I asked her—which I hadn’t done for years, once I got the message. If I told her I wanted to find him she’d throw one of her cosmic fits and refuse. She’d throw a super-cosmic fit when I got back, but by then it would be too late.
So I had it all worked out. All it took was a criminal mind and three cups of tea. I still wasn’t sure
I wanted to find my old man, and I didn’t feel like analyzing the matter, to tell the truth. Sometimes you’ve got to just go with your instincts.
I put my cup in the sink, threw on my coat and headed off for the health club to throw some weights around.
WO DAYS LATER
I had the three hundred bucks and my own key to the BMW. After my mother had left for the office—she usually takes the streetcar to the GO station—I wrote her a “don’t worry and don’t look for me” note and took off.
There was a light April rain falling and the traffic on the Gardiner and the Don Valley Expressway was thick, slow and stupid. I felt like I was surrounded by drugged-up escapees from mental institutions. But the BMW was easy to drive, comfortable, quick, with a sound system that would blow the sunroof out. Once I got out of the city it was kind of nice to crank up the tunes and drift down the road through the rain.
I reached Montreal at about three o’clock. If the drivers in Toronto were like mental deficients, the drivers in Montreal were totally schizoid, barrelling along, cutting in and out as if they were all trying to kill themselves before somebody else did. It took me almost an hour to make my way along the expressways and through the tunnel to the highway to Quebec City. By then a sky the colour of slate was trying to snow but managed only a few flurries.