She said: “If someone was getting married it would be important enough, wouldn’t it? This is the closest thing to a wedding Francis is going to have.”
And: “I knew you wouldn’t come for our sake, but I hoped you’d at least come for your brother’s.”
And: “For God’s sake, Colin, we’ll pay for your plane ticket, if that’s it.”
God, she has a way, even over the phone. It’s a kind of sorcery. You grip the hilt of your broadsword and you march into battle and suddenly you find your steps are leading you back the way you came and your eyesight is fogged and your sword’s turned into a bird in your hand, a sooty pigeon with red-rimmed eyes, cawing and plucking at your knuckles.
So I gave in and let my mother buy me a return airfare.
I’d been watching a Leone movie and Charles Bronson, frozen in mid-draw, shone a blue ghost light over my futon, over the clothes and magazines that bunched and collected in corners, over the colourless industrial carpet and the bong and the dirty cereal bowl with its hardening milk residue. A stale pot smell stuck to the walls. I took it all in with a stranger’s eye, and my heart shuddered. At the shabbiness of it all, and at the bullying clairvoyance with which my parents had invaded my head.
I hadn’t been back to Toronto since moving west the year before. One morning a few days into the new year my father had appeared in the doorway of my room and told me that since I wasn’t working anymore, and apparently wasn’t going to go back to grad school after all, I’d be paying rent. “I think three hundred dollars a month is fair to start,” he said.
I agreed that it was fair.
“I’m glad you think so,” he said. “Not that you’re in much of a bargaining position.”
I caught a ride to Vancouver a couple of weeks later, crashed with a friend of a friend until I found my own apartment. Got a job in the alumni office at the university, filling out forms and filing folders, and I met a woman there, and we had a honeymoon summer together. But by the fall, asphyxiation had become the theme of our midnight murmurings — she said I was smothering her, suffocating her, strangling her. One January night we kept calling each other on the phone, crying and screaming, over and over — me hanging up and calling back, her hanging up and me calling her back — until three o’clock in the morning, when I took a cab to her apartment and rapped on her window. She wouldn’t let me in.
So by the spring, when my first trip home as a prodigal approached, I was alone. For two weeks I could barely get out of bed, sleepwalking when I did, and then suddenly I was up and agitated, twitching, jolted by unpredictable currents. Walking nowhere for hours, muttering. People at work were looking at me funny. I was smoking a lot of pot, filling a clothbound journal with manic pronouncements. At a café on Commercial a girl asked me what I was writing and I told her I was working on my memoirs. She said, “What, did you serve in the French Foreign Legion or something?”
I’m the second of five children in the Riordan family — six if you count one miscarriage — and when I was ten or eleven years old I began to realize, with pride in my growing understanding of the world, that the swelled ranks of the Doyles and the Lafleurs and the Riordans had something to do with the fact that we all filled the pews of the same church every Sunday. Much later, though, I learned that our own parents had actually tried to dodge that particular cliché of their religion, if only half-heartedly.
I got the story from Belinda. One night she’d gotten home late, turning the key in the front door with safecracker stealth as her boyfriend’s car retreated with its headlights off. She moved through the dark and silent house to the kitchen, felt for the handle of the refrigerator. As she poured herself a glass of water, she heard a rustle behind her and gasped in fright. Our mother, insomnia-addled, was sitting at the kitchen table in the dark, drinking a glass of red wine.
“Hi,” said Mom.
“Is everyone else asleep?” Belinda asked, uneasy.
Mom laughed. “Of course they are, it’s the middle of the night. Emily went to bed early, she had cramps. Have you started yours yet?”
“Not yet,” said Belinda, for whom each monthly visitation was a metaphysical reprieve. She poured herself a glass of water, started to drink it at the counter. And then our mother said something — in a thoughtful tone, like she was talking to herself — that made Belinda gulp.
“Your father and I used to make love when I was having my period, you know. We thought I wouldn’t get pregnant that way. I used to just put a towel down on the bed.”
Belinda held on for a poker-face calm. “And did it work?”
Mom laughed again. “No, it didn’t. I think I got pregnant twice in a row that way. I asked the doctor about it, and he said some women ovulate twice in one cycle. At least I think that’s what he said. I may not be remembering it properly. I’m not sure I understood him even at the time. But anyway, I didn’t really mind. I never felt so good as I did when I was pregnant. So healthy.”
Even though her head was heavy with beer, Belinda had a hard time getting to sleep that night — she inferred a cautionary moral in the strange story about the towel. But I don’t believe that. For Mom and Dad, Belinda’s inviolate maidenhead was an article of faith that might as well have been written into the Nicene Creed. In the matter of sex as in so many others, Belinda was without sin.
I took a cab to the airport on a spitting-rain Thursday afternoon; spending money just to be driven around was an absurd indulgence for me, and I felt as entitled as a prince borne atop a litter. The driver had the radio on, a call-in show about the Robson riot two nights before. “Not one of these yobs is a real fan,” said the caller, his voice rising and then flaring into static. “Absolutely not,” said the host in a deeper, solider tone. “This was not about hockey, this was about opportunism.”
Before the riot — well, the mini-riot — I’d barely known the Canucks were in the finals, and as we glided hissing over the Granville Bridge, I felt the regent’s abstract sadness for the ills of a remote stretch of my domain. For years hockey had been a world closed to me; I overheard its lore in bars as meaningless incantations. But as a boy I’d been a believer: when the Leafs were making the playoffs, in the days of Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming, and Tiger Williams, and in the net Mike Palmateer, my brother Jack and I cheered them on together. We’d watch the Saturday night game in the TV room, both of us sitting cross-legged among green plastic soldiers and bright heaps of Lego on the big circular coarse rug in the centre of the room, slapping our knees with our palms. One night, watching a playoff game, we saw Darryl Sittler speeding toward the opposition’s empty net, and we watched as he looked backward and flipped the puck to Lanny McDonald, who potted the goal for a hat trick. We raised our arms and roared at this act of fellowship, and then we heard Belinda from the next room: “Will you guys keep it down? We’re trying to play Rumoli in here. Dad, can you tell them to keep it down?”
But Dad probably wouldn’t have heard. He would have been in the den, smoking the cigarettes that Mom wouldn’t let him light anywhere else in the house, marking exams, or maybe sleeping in his easy chair, tilted backward with a book open on his chest. Mom might have been asleep too, lying on her back atop her bedcovers, holding her rosary against her chest. Or she could have been in the sunken bathtub off the master bedroom; Belinda said she’d lie in there for hours without moving, eyes closed.
Saturday nights were for hockey, but Sunday mornings were for church. All of us would crowd together in the front hall, Belinda buckling her shoes, Jack scowling and tugging at his collar, Dad sitting in the front hall chair looking daydreamy. Mom would set me against the wall, muttering about taming my bangs, and pull a comb through my hair hard. Church was a fidget shift. But sometimes during the weekly exchange of goodwill, the sign of peace, Jack would flash me a V with his fingers, and we’d both snicker, and Mom would turn her head sharply.
Jack was the first to receive Holy Communion, and I followed him the year after. I took the host for the first time on a Sunday in May. Afterward we gathered on the church lawn for pictures; Dad knelt on the grass, twisting some dial on the camera and frowning. I faced the afternoon sun and gasped in the thickness of the air. The light seemed to pass right through everyone in streams of yellow and green. I watched Dad’s necktie dangle and brush the ground, tried to smile. Beyond Dad I could see another family: a little blond girl in a white communion dress, and her parents. The mother looked very thin, not like our own, whose belly was swollen with another baby on the way, and the small scope of their party seemed sad somehow. No brothers or sisters, no Francis and Emily laughing and stumbling over the grass, no Jack looking bored, no Belinda to keep asking, “What was it like? Do you feel different? Do you feel anything?”
“I’m not allowed to tell you,” I finally told Belinda with a pitying smile. “You’ll have to wait a whole year and then find out for yourself.”
Belinda threw her head back and wailed, and then Mom was frowning and gripping my shoulder. “Don’t you have anything more to think about,” she said, “on this day of all days, than teasing your little sister?”
I said I was sorry. But all the next year, Jack and I would wait through Sunday mass for Holy Communion with secret anticipation. How we looked forward to casually moving past Belinda to join the line for the sacrament, pretending not to look at her as she stared downward, trembling with envy. When we returned to the pew with the host melting in our mouths, we would shut our eyes and contrive expressions of silent rapture, while Belinda gripped her hymnbook and glowered at us furiously.
“Look at this day,” said Belinda. “It’s been exactly like this for a month. There’s never any spring in Ontario. There’s only winter and then summer.”
She rested her left hand on the steering wheel while her right one held a can of 7-Up to her mouth. Then she hooked two fingers of her right hand — the hand still holding the can — around one side of the steering wheel and brought her left hand to her face. She wiped her mouth with the back of her left hand and gasped: “Thirsty.” Her left hand returned to the steering wheel. I was staring at the pink flushed areas over her knuckles, the tiny ridges of the steering wheel. The can of 7-Up at her mouth again.
She noticed me staring and swivelled her head. The blond curls of her hair reflected sunlight onto her face. Her skin looked translucent, heavy glass with two tiny blue jewels set into it.
“What’s with you?” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You look weird.”
“Weird what? Keep your eyes on the road.”
“You know what I’m talking about, Colin.”
“I’m cool. Thanks again for picking me up.”
“Have you been smoking up?”
“Oh, give me a break.”
“Well, you don’t have to hide it from me. I don’t care.”
Silence again. The window on my side framed telephone poles two at a time. It was like a classroom filmstrip pulled from the machine, repeated shots of two trees moving only in tiny blurred increments. No, not trees, they were telephone poles. Wood like trees though.
Belinda spoke again. “You have been, haven’t you?”
“Jesus, Belinda. Only a little.”
“A little. Where? At the airport? Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“Watch the can, you’ll spill on yourself.”
“Here, hold it for me.”
It was slick in my hand. My thumb rubbed against a cardboard pimple.
Belinda said, “Like, where could you even do it in an airport? No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.” She was quiet again.
I leaned back and squeezed my eyes shut tight until pink paisleys stretched and scurried. The car seemed very warm, and gradually I realized I couldn’t tell whether we were moving. My hand was curved around something metallic and damp, my fingers trembling and numb, and it was the can, that can of 7-Up, and I wondered if the can was moving. I wondered: could the can be moving if I wasn’t moving? If the car wasn’t moving? But if the car was moving, how could the can remain still? Could the can remain still? Then a cold trickle hit my wrist, and I heard Belinda’s voice: “Jesus, Colin, the can!”
The car was moving, and Belinda was holding the can again. She lifted it to her mouth and then buckled it in her hand with a sharp crackle and sent it spinning slowly into the back seat.
She looked over at me again. “So do you smoke up by yourself a lot?”
“It just seems strange. At a party, with friends, that’s one thing.”
“I just hope you’re not too obviously stoned by the time we see Mom and Dad. Before smoking up any more, maybe you can hold out until later, when we go downtown?”
“We’re going downtown?”
“Well, I am, I thought you might want to come too. You can meet Dennis.”
“Dennis is the guy I’ve been seeing. My new boyfriend. I’ve told you about him.”
“Right. You’re saying you remember now?”
“Not a blessed thing.”
Belinda laughed, a quick yelp. “Not a blessed thing. There’s a Dadism.”
At the house there was a note from Mom and Dad saying they were out to dinner with Francis and Father Krug but would be home after that. So we fled. Belinda scribbled a note of her own and then we ran across the front yard to the car, giggling like devil’s night egg-throwers.
We met Dennis at a basement bar on Front. He was tall and freakishly thin. When he and I shook hands his face showed the strain of holding a cordial expression without actually smiling, and my eyes moved down to his jutting Adam’s apple, blotchy-red. I myself was sporting a cretin’s grin; I’d been sucking on my one-hitter in the bathroom.
I called Jim Doyle, and he and his brother Patrick and Patrick’s friend Dominic came out to meet us too. All of us sat in the corner, near the pool tables, and we kept ordering pitchers of sangria. Belinda complained that she couldn’t drink because she had to drive me home, and she and Dennis whispered into the sides of each other’s heads. The others and I complained about our mothers and argued about music, but there were gaps in the conversation, small silences. I talked about Vancouver and I genuflected to all the clichés — the hackeysack, the plentiful pot — but in summation I spread my arms and said, “In Christ there is no east and west.” Everybody laughed. Well, I’m sure somebody laughed besides me, anyway.
But a minute later, while Jim was telling Dominic something, I realized that Belinda was eyeing me sidewise, coldly. “What does that mean?” she said.
“What does what mean?”
“In Christ there is no east or west. What’s that from? Is it a hymn?”
Why does it have to be from something, I thought, irritated, but of course she was right. “It’s just a song. It’s an old folk song.”
“Well, what did you mean by it just now?”
“Jesus, Belinda, I didn’t mean anything, all right?”
Then Belinda’s eyes were drawn to something behind me and sudden rapture filled her face. She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled, waved with a big smile. I turned to see a bearded dude walking toward us, grinning knowingly at Belinda, as if they’d shared some amusing misadventure the last time he’d seen her. Long hair, leather jacket over flannel, work boots that spilled open at the front to meet the frayed cuffs of his jeans — the usual. Dennis seemed not to share Belinda’s enthusiasm at this happy crossing of paths: he contributed only a sullen mutter to the introductions.
The mood started to get weird after that.
Dominic lived on the island and he had to leave to catch the last ferry, and this reminded Jim and Patrick that they both had to work in the morning. Jim had got a job at Scotiabank as a personal portfolio officer trainee — a title that might as well have been medieval for all it meant to me, I told him, but he didn’t laugh. I tried to get them to stay. I pleaded and wheedled, in fact. But they left anyway, and I got broody. Belinda and the dude were talking only to each other — about Leonard Cohen, it seemed, or maybe it was Crime and Punishment — which left Dennis and me staring at our table and its suddenly pathetic collection of empty glasses, and lemon rinds, and oval plates stained with ketchup. Then Belinda and the dude were standing and moving toward the pool table. She turned to us in obvious afterthought: “You guys want to play?” I half-raised my arms in jovial surrender: “I’m cool.” Dennis said nothing, only shook his head slowly.
For a few minutes the two of us, Dennis and I, said nothing, sitting uneasily side by side and watching the billiards. The dude was patronizing Belinda — he indicated the angles with his hands, and he let her take her shots over when she miscued. Dennis leaned forward in his chair and seemed about to stand, but then he was still.
“So how long have you known Belinda?”
“About a year.” The three words were the only acknowledgment of the question; he didn’t move and his eyes never left the pool table. Belinda was crouching and lining up a shot, under the helpful tutelage of the dude, who leaned over her from behind and guided her elbow with his hand.
“So you’ve met the whole family, I guess.”
Now he glanced over. “I think so — everyone but you, I think.”
“Now you’ve got the whole set.” I tried to laugh, but it came out only a husky cackle. Dennis made some kind of wordless sound. Or maybe it was a word, garbled by the Motown coming out of the jukebox and the conversation of happier tables.
A few minutes later, the dude sank the eight ball with a hard-cracking rail shot and raised his cue with a flourish. Belinda clapped three times. Dennis stood and moved into the perimeter, as if summoned, but Belinda regarded him with a contemptuous and weary frown, and in a moment of panic I stood too, afraid to witness whatever was about to follow. “Going for a walk,” I called to Belinda. “I’ll find my own way home.” She barely looked my way as I headed for the door.
Up on the street, I followed the sound of a church clock tower, chiming the three-quarter-hour, and I came to an urban cathedral surrounded by green. There was a garden, flowers I couldn’t name looking plump in the moonlight, and there were black iron benches offering relief to weary travellers. I sat heavily on one and thought about breaking out the one-hitter, but decided to test my spiritual stamina.
The streets crawled with a late-weeknight half-life of homeless people, punk teenagers, and the occasional citizen couple loose from a play or an opera. Two women were standing on the curb a few feet away from me, waiting for a streetcar; one was telling the other about a nightmare that involved severed body parts. “I think it’s because of, you know, everything that’s going on right now.”
“What do you mean, going on right now?” said the other.
“You know, in Africa. Rwanda.”
I thought of my mother’s brief Uganda mania of a few years before, when I was in high school. One morning at breakfast she’d announced that she wanted Jack and me to go to Kampala for the summer to work on a mission building schoolhouses. Father Krug could set it all up; Patrick Doyle was already going. Her eyes moved back and forth in the restless, unnerving way they did when her mood was starting to ricochet.
I was terrified. “What do they have, like, martial law there?” I whispered to Jack furiously later that day. But he said to be cool. If we just nodded and smiled and put her off and tried to keep things vague and not get into the details, she’d forget all about it when her mood hit the next drop.
And he was right.
Sitting on the church bench, I tried to think of what Patrick Doyle had said about life in Uganda, but for some reason I couldn’t remember a thing about it. A streetcar picked up the two women and clanged westward, and I noticed a creepy guy staggering around the sidewalk across the street in some kind of obviously altered state. His hair hung in two filthy tangles from a red Argos baseball cap; his eyes were ominous black patches. He stopped and looked across at me a couple times, but I wasn’t too rattled; cars were hissing past at witness speed, and anyway I instinctively felt protected within the green swath of church property.
At home we could walk to church if we had time, but usually we’d all get into the wagon to chug the four blocks or so. And then one summer Mom wouldn’t get out of bed, and the whole system collapsed. Belinda, Francis, and Emily went to stay with our grandparents, and Jack and I, old enough to make our own Kraft Dinner, stayed in the house with Dad and Mom. Dad got into the habit of going to Saturday evening mass by himself and sending Jack and I off on our own on Sunday mornings; it occurred to me only later that probably he didn’t want to leave Mom alone in the house. Once I came upon him in the kitchen, tomato soup bubbling on the stove. He was leaning against the counter with a cigarette burning in one hand and the other hand held over his eyes. His shoulders were shaking and I realized he was crying. I backed out before he spotted me.
For a couple of weeks Jack and I must have actually gone to mass by ourselves. But soon enough we were joking about the Church of the Holy Éclair. We’d walk to the strip mall a few blocks beyond the church and sit in the donut shop, complaining about the disrepair of the house like two old men, licking whipped cream off our fingers. Or we’d loiter in the variety store next door, looking at the comic books until the owner harangued us out. Or if we could we’d smuggle a soccer ball out of the house, or baseball gloves and a softball, and play around in the high school yard.
One weekend in August everyone was back home, Riordans reunited, but Mom still wasn’t up to leaving the house, and we split up again for church duty: Dad took Belinda and Emily on Saturday, and the next morning Jack, Francis, and I all set off together. As we walked, Jack and I hassled Francis about life at our grandparents’ house.
“Does Belinda boss you around?”
“She’s not —”
“Do you let her?”
“I don’t —”
“What time does Grandma make you go to bed?”
“Are you allowed to watch TV?”
“Does Belinda get to stay up later than you?”
“Do Grandma and Grandpa watch TV with —”
Then Francis said: “Wait a minute — where are we going to?”
He’d stopped on the sidewalk and was looking around. Jack and I snickered.
“We’re not really going to church today, Francis.”
“Well, we’re going to a church, the Church of the Holy Éclair. Have you heard of it?”
“I’ll buy you a chocolate milk.”
The two of us stopped again when we realized Francis still wasn’t moving. His eyes moved back and forth between Jack and me, his expression measuring. He whispered something.
“What did you say?”
“I said I’ll tell.”
Jack and I looked at each other, negotiation flashing in our eyes. Then we walked back to Francis and I gently took him by the shoulder, and Jack explained that we were only kidding, we were just fooling around with him, just trying to bug him, of course we were all going to go to church, we went to church every Sunday.
I had fallen asleep on the bench, and I awoke with a gasp and a snap of the head. It was quieter now, and darker; a layer of sleep had settled on the city like a heavy blanket. There was only an occasional car, and no pedestrians that I could see. I was wearing no jacket, only a T-shirt, and cool air slipped into the sleeves and tickled my chest.
I thought about walking back to the bar on Front to see if Belinda and Dennis were still there. It felt like it was past one o’clock, but maybe I’d get lucky and catch the two of them whisper-screaming on the sidewalk. Or maybe they’d passed through fighting to lust and had driven away together, were now parked in her car somewhere rubbing at each other. Later, I knew, Belinda would tell everyone how I’d run off and left her to worry.
Whether I found her or caught a streetcar, soon enough I’d be heading west, to the other end of the city, back to my parents’ house. In the morning I’d have to face Mom, Dad, and Emily, and then later Jack and Jayne, and aunts and uncles, and of course Francis, whose first official mass as a deacon was taking place on Sunday at a church in Oakville. I wondered how long he was supposed to put in time as a deacon before they made him a priest. The last time I’d seen him was two Christmases before — I remembered the two of us alone in the TV room at one point, watching Star Trek, the new one. Francis had never really seen it, and it gave our conversation a pleasant structure and purpose; he would ask me questions, like a neutral anthropologist researching the entertainment of the age, and I would explain the relationships and scenarios on the screen, trying to make him laugh. “Troi’s basically the guidance counsellor, who for some reason is, like, the fifth most important person on the Enterprise.”
Francis would chuckle politely.
I had wanted to be transformed in some way before seeing Francis again, before returning to the family. But these days I felt worse than ever, twitchy, addled. Nervous all the time.
I stood up and saw that the creepy guy in the Argos cap was sitting on one of the benches at the other end of the yard. The church green was no protection after all — he had penetrated its force field — but then, I needed no protection from him. His legs were spread in a wishbone shape, his head hung forward in front of him, and he looked like he might have fallen asleep, though even from where I was I could hear his voice, muttering angrily at whatever apparitions his head conjured up.
The pot had worn off completely by now, leaving my own thoughts prickly and painful but no less erratic. Suddenly I was half-convinced that the man on the bench had something important to tell me, that I should go sit next to him, confessional-style. Thin whistles of panic rose in my ears like teakettle noise while I waited out the impulse, breathing deeply, trying to think of nothing at all.
“It’s just the cross I have to bear,” my mother always said about her moods.
You had to keep moving. If you weren’t moving you’d sink halfway into the earth, paralyzed and blinking, trying to swallow. You had to march forward, even if you didn’t know the way.
I saw the green visor light of a streetcar coming from the west, gliding toward me across the asphalt plain, and I crossed the street twice to meet it, running, and when I was on the opposite corner I risked a look back at the crazy homeless man. He was now sitting up straight and yelling something at me — urgently, but not in a threatening manner. I couldn’t hear what he was saying. The church bell gonged. Both of us twitched, and then both of us laughed. The bell rang again, a proud and beautiful tone, it seemed to me, and I listened for a third toll for what seemed like a long time before realizing that it wasn’t coming. The streetcar was getting closer. As I stood I tapped my thigh with my thumb, breathing in quick gulps, waiting to be carried into the strange eastern reaches of the city.