Hey, Hey St. Peter
Got a tale to tell
Just been down to ol’ Hogtown
And it feels like Hell
It really feels like Hell
Their cleaning lady rarely needed to do much to the Living Room. The Tibbs were certainly not slobs like the Mullaneys across the street, with their five half-clothed kids always mucking about and a different beater in the driveway every month. Yet neither were they as deathly fastidious as the Dobbins next door (never a light on in the place and mausoleum dustcovers atop anything that didn’t threaten to move or to breathe). No, the Tibbs family definitely kept to the Middle Way; theirs was a relaxed, inviting house, but one in which everything had—and knew—its place. The kitchen was clean and tidy, the boys’ bedrooms less so. The roles allocated to the Den, the main-floor Family Room and the basement Rec Room were self-evident, easily understood by (and accommodating to) their numerous visitors. Most dinner or overnight guests would agree, if compelled to respond to an exit poll on the subject, that the furnishings were, in the main, both comfortable and practical, neither pretentious nor vulgar, and symbolic, perhaps, of a shared—if largely unspoken—intimacy.
Such, at any rate, is what young Gerald Tibbs, 23, would later remember hearing himself telling himself. And: that though he had never felt comfortable in the Living Room, it was not something to which he had ever given much thought. Still, he warily, unconsciously kept his distance. No one else save Fluffy (the family cat, a white car-accident-Manx) ever seemed to bother or to dare to go in there. There was a badly out of tune piano upon which Gerald’s younger brother Dougie had played a singalong “Stairway to Heaven” every day for six months, but that was a few years ago now. The room, as for many of the other brown, imperturbable houses on the Crescent, was inhabited chiefly by delicate, inherited antiques, forgotten-yet-essential wedding presents and corporate gifts, such as a wall clock that Smeltco, his dad’s company, had given out at one of those innumerable rah-rah sales conventions as a promotional item. The clock was hung directly over an expensive-looking settee that Gerald could never remember having sat in, and its face depicted a dredger, whose two gigantic shovels turned out to be the hour and minute hands. Numbers had been replaced by various kinds of mineral samples, each the size of a quarter, representative but not exhaustive of the multinational’s far-reaching resource sector activities. And as the hands of the clock moved around the dial, the time piece became a perpetual depiction of “Man’s unceasing re-creation of His world, through industry” —or so the ad in last month’s Mining News went.
Opposite the clock, near the entrance to the foyer, there was a seldom-trusted mahogany-veneer weather station. The hydrometer had never worked, and the blocked thermometer’s mercury had started giving split readings years and years ago, around about the time his father won a TV for his first of several National Sales Awards and the whole family got to watch the black-and-white coverage of the first moon landing in living colour. As for the barometer, whatever its accuracy, it still functioned, and it appeared to meteorologically-obsessed Gerald as he rushed past that the gadget’s mainspring had managed to shove the corroded brass needle (overnight it must have been) from “Fair” to….
* * *
Gerald Tibbs stumbled into a freefall out the door, down a short pathway of snowblown interlocking paving stones. His left deck-shoelace and the untucked part of his Black Watch® tartan turtleneck flapped in the turbulence his body created as he lurched towards the car. And though he never noticed such things except in retrospect, it seemed, it really was a nice kind of day—not at all warm, but warm enough, for an early winter’s afternoon, that one ought to feel, oh, content, somehow, if not quite grateful? The kind of day, there can be no doubt, when it was simply a sin to stay inside. True, the anaemic sun was but a simulacrum of its former self, but it was making an effort—and that, it must be said, is what really counts in life. The air, even on this hilltop at the city’s western edge, seemed pleasantly inviting, dry, and still.
It was 1300 hrs, Sunday, Dec. 9th, 1979; later that day, while his girlfriend Emma would be at home perusing the best rings that the Sears Xmas Wish Book® had to offer, the Tibbs family would be seated ’round the dinner table holding hands, as if someone had pushed a button somewhere that induced a mutual amnesia concerning any petty moments of discord that might have disrupted the flow of the day: all would collect themselves, gather their thoughts, and harmoniously affirm—tutti—their gratitude for and general appreciation of each other’s company. Gerald’s father would maintain that they were all lucky to have Gerald home well before the holidays, and Gerald would respond that he could think of no better way to spend the meager vacation given to him by his firm (MoreTel, which had hired him immediately upon his graduation from the University of Waterloo’s prestigious Systems Engineering program the previous June). Then his mother would light the second pink scented candle on the Advent wreath she’d picked up at Woolco, her husband would say grace, and the children would re-play their funny parodies of pre-prandial piety (silly ways of crossing themselves before the saying of Grace, Gerry and his brother intoning “Thanks for the grub, bub” after their father’s more earnest thanksgiving, elbows in the ribs and sideways glances all around), and then all would wait impatiently for the roast beast to be carved.
At this moment, however, another family ritual was already in progress, and Gerald (hungover and morose from the previous night’s compulsive overindulgence, what with, he told himself, the Leafs having fallen yet again to the Habs) was in no mood to be social. He, like his somehow still-unconscious siblings, had missed the 11:00 Mass, and was now unpardonably late for the habitual Sunday Brunch. He grabbed a coat on his way out the door, didn’t put it on, and threw it carelessly into the back seat of the car (mom and dad, obviously up to something, had gone to Church with Emma and her folks), while his other hand fumbled in his rugbypant pocket for the ignition key to his father’s brand-new “Silver Ghost Metallic” 1980 Olds Delta 98 Regency.
The 8 cylinder, 352 cubic inch engine started easily and emitted a civilized growl, the domesticated noise of a well-nourished bull castrated at 4 months. The suspension swayed and jiggled like a giant serving of Jell-O 1-2-3® as he backed up out of the recently re-sealed driveway and began to navigate the beast down the wide, empty and sinusoidal suburban street, Gerald fumbling on the floor—with fingers for which a pianist would embark on a life of civil disobedience if not crime—for an 8-track tape.
And there were plenty. Ray Conniff & Max Bygraves for his dad, Donna Summer & Barry White for his mom, but there were at least two dozen, many of them pirated by a family of Quebekkers who came to the city a year or two earlier and who had recently disappeared into the shadows from which they had arrived. The city’s gas stations were still flooded with these tapes, selling them out of plastic trash barrels for 99¢ a pop, plus tax. The Essential Richard Harris. One Night Stand: Andy Gibb Meets The Boston Pops. Chuck Barris Conducts Handel’s Messiah, featuring the Sons of Rhythm Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Steelers Family Choir. William Shatner Sings!! Gerald’s dad, always on the lookout for a bargain, had simply gone to town.
Gerald found what he was looking for: one of two semi-bearable tapes strewn amongst the others. He slammed it sans merci into the machine, half hoping that he could damage either or both, but knowing too that these 8-tracks were curiously durable, and so he could only curse his near-sighted father for being naive enough to buy into this dying technology.
The tape came on, the player’s analog magnetic heads reading the primitive digital pulses of the Minimoog® duo Flash and the Pan as Gerald did his best: to coax the 88 to try to race through the burgh’s largely vacant backstreets; to forget his wrecking ball headache and the multiple humiliations of the night before; to sing along, not quite tunefully and more than a smidgen out of step, with the band’s foregrounded drum machine.
NittyGritty’s Pancake Palace. Calm, urethaned veneers of oak and walnut. Brass coloured metal railings and doodads, rainforest-green pile carpeting below, overhead a canopy of life-like tropical plants. The warm, yeast-raised smells of home colliding with a brand of potpourri known as The Smell of Christmas®.
And just look at them: conspiratorially encamped around their (only just recently savaged, by the looks of it) Sunday Brunch Platter Matter® of sausage pucks, lava eggs, sand dollar pancakes and pea meal (aka Kanadian) bacon, savouring their coffee precisely the way people who have just reached the other side of a feeding frenzy do, with repeated, collective but unspoken ahhhhhhhhs. All eyes (save two) embraced him, with that kind of open-hearted generosity that never fails to menace and oppress.
—Why look, husband, it is our eldest son, his newly redheaded mother gushed, elbowing her spouse in the ribs to get him to stop thinking about his business worries and to take heed of the present moment for a change. He looked up.
—I have a son? His broadening smile encouraged the others at the table to likewise inflate their own, Gerald standing stiff and motionless except for a side-to-side swaying in his thorax. Good afternoon, number one, I’m glad you’re among the living. Young Father Anselm here told me that since you chose to give your few remaining brain cells a few hours’ sleep in lieu of joining us for mass and the sacrament of reconciliation, he’d forgive your sins at the restaurant and give you the tab for breakfast as penance. What do you think?
The priest looked up from the remains of his Eggs Benedict, ferreted out one in a series of stock Jesuitical (or so Gerald imagined) smiles, for the utter longwindedness of it all if nothing more, and pounced back upon the helpless, cumulus nebula of battery-raised yolk and overstarched hollandaise sauce that still lined the bottom of the ceramic punt in which he trawled torn, rectangular strips of barely off-white toast.
—Sit down, son, sit down, welcome! You know I’m just kidding, his father added, with an intonation crash-landing on an airstrip halfway between the twin cities of Interrogative and Imperative.
Of course, oversensitive number one son did not “know” any such thing, but since it was such a lame joke and could not possibly be something that made him feel insecure (but how was a father to find out what did and did not make one’s children feel bad? For there seemed to be no pattern—or none, at any rate that the elder Tibbs had noticed) Gerald said nothing, nodded, and obtained a chair from a nearby table, inserting it midway in between Emma Lombardi and her father, Vince. Rose Lombardi, her hair in a Permabun®, sipped a two-dollar, four-ounce glass of orange juice instead of coffee, and smiled a taut smile of wan politesse at him as he sat down.
—Son…, his father continued, pausing to wipe his mouth on his napkin and placing it on his knee in such a careless way that, Gerald noticed, it immediately fell to the floor…What do you think of your mother’s hair?
His mother always did something new and strange with her hair whenever some monumental change was afoot. Gerald became suddenly nervous. He hadn’t really noticed when he had come in, but her hair was… was…um, what was it? He couldn’t just stare at her; his family had certain implicit governing codes, unwritten but tacitly authoritative rules, and it was Gerald’s role to appear disaffected by upheaval and change. His mother had hair, among other things, to fight the entropy with. Gerald had…well, just what did he have? He stared down at the menu he’d picked up—not out of hunger, but because he needed a shield—and said, barely speaking above a husky whisper and with noticeable sarcasm, tossing his head about ever so slightly, as if he could not decide between the (New!!) Reese’s Pieces® Waffle and the (Now in Kanada!!) Fluffernutter® French Toast:
—I liked it long.
—It’s been short for weeks now, silly, his mother said playfully, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE COLOUR?
It was plain to Gerald that it was plain to all that Gerald was utterly without a sense of humour, and that this self-absorbed muttering monger of moodiness could use some heavy-duty attitude straightening. Such esoteric knowledge, while it caused his blood pressure to emulate the workings of Yosemite Park’s Old Faithful, did nothing to alter Gerald’s mirth-free monotone, which looped out of him with no perceived effort on his part:
—You know I don’t do colour, mom.
—Gerry thinks he’s colour-blind, Father, she explained to the interested-seeming priest, reaching across the table to muss up her son’s straight, brown DryLook® hair.
* * *
He always wants to be different, to stick out from the crowd, the Emma-in-his head chimed in with an awkwardness tinged by innocent malice, it being unclear as to whether she was embarrassed, still peeved about last night, or simply attempting to expand upon the “joke”. Though the flesh-and-blood Emma was merely looking at the remains of her food and ‘playing’ with it, his mind saw next how the entire table looked her way and briefly fell silent, as if to meditate upon this rare expostulation from the Farrah Fawcett-haired nursing student, who, in certain social contexts but not in others could be pegged as “shy and retiring”. Around her parents she was submissive, obedient; with her girlfriends steadfast, trustworthy, and always willing to listen or to offer emotional if not financial support. But it was in the hospital ward that she’d found herself beginning to come into her own. She was in her graduating year and some three months into a two-semester placement at the decaying St. Michael’s Hospital in Porcton, virtually next door to the Cathedral and nestled amongst the brothels and pawnshops, between the housing projects and the boxing club.
Gerald’s paternal grandparents had both gone there to die, within three months of each other the previous winter. Grandma Ada had uncomplainingly nursed a disease that went unmentioned in the family until near the very end. Then, Gerald’s mother had simply told him his grandmother “wasn’t well”, and responded to his repeated attempts to uncover the truth with various stone-faced variations on: “It’s in her bones”.
Ada hung on ’till Xmas, “for the grandchildren”. Grampa Emmet followed before the first running of the sap, pining in his physical dotage like Charlie Brown for the little brown-haired girl whom he’d once wooed back in Stoke-on-Trent, he a brewer’s apprentice and she a nanny, between the wars. When Gerald went to visit each in such rapid succession, he was struck at how, in these surroundings of brown-meets-yellow, of recirculated, skeletally dry air, his grandparents had simply and ineluctably merged with all of the efficient stage furniture in this magical theatre of death. Watching his once-rugged grandfather just lying there, being poked, prodded or pierced by pear-shaped women in nuclear-winter-white dresses, Gerald had a premonition that if he ever landed himself in a hospital, he would never be allowed to leave. After an agonizingly slow descent in an extra-wide, double-deep stainless steel elevator, he’d hit the sidewalk running.
It was henceforth unmentionable between him and Emma, her vocation. And it was so unfair: just as she seemed to be getting the hang of things, to feel at ease with herself and her work, Gerald lost all interest, never asked questions, at least nothing beyond a lame “how was your day”, when he made his dutiful off-peak-rate calls from Ottawa at 11:02 p.m. nightly.
Again, it just wasn’t fair: she’d always asked him about his gee-whiz science-fair stuff, hadn’t she? But whether she asked him or not, he loved to go on about it: at the Polytechnic he’d got computers like some Catholics (so-called “Charismatics”) get religion. All-night sleep deprivation sessions on broken-backed swivel chairs in windowless, constant humidity chapels, primitive green-on-green CRT terminals linked in communal, binary supplication up to the Mainframe, the eternally iterating coffee-fuelled machine code liturgy of the do-loop, WHILE-NOR-AND-NOT-FOR, PASCAL-FORTRAN-ASSEMBLY-COMPILER…Pentecost, the Paraclete, the Gift of Tongues.
One day (he would brag—so full of himself!—and for some reason never tiring of hearing himself go on and on about it) computers will make us all redundant, if not quite unemployed, even lawyers. Supercomputers and Nuclear Fusion would finally free Mankind to pursue its highest goals. It would be a world of leisure, of art, of a spirituality based not upon shame and lack but upon pleasure and abundance, a spirituality of This World rather than of some fictional, shadowy Other. And we would no longer be mere consumers, bound to the gyre or whirlpool of a history predicated upon desire and death; rather, we would each-and-everyone become the producers of culture of Life with a capital-L. History would finally turn back upon its tail, close the circle, expire, and a new era of timeless love could then announce itself, Eros without Thanatos, beginning without end.
It was the typical Silicon Valley libertarian, techno-utopian screed, and though Emma couldn’t understand much of what he’d said, and what she understood, she didn’t like. What could be our value, our human worth, except to make material contributions to society? As she saw it, the essential message of the Gospels was a straightforward one: to take care of our neighbour, and this was to be interpreted with what Gerald believed to be the severest of pragmatisms, helping people to help themselves. So she duly recoiled from his utopian pipe-dreaming, knowing inarticulately but at some deep, sinuous level that the patina of his imagined FutureWorld was the product of a profound, pathological corrosion of Spirit, of a morbidity which could never be exposed to the air lest the ensuing oxidation consume Gerald the way that rust was consuming the body of her mother’s relatively new but biodegradable first generation 1000cc Honda (with Hondamatic®) Civic®—which would make him, qua breadwinner, utterly, appallingly useless. Gerald suspected—no, he knew—that such were the thoughts tumbling through her head late last night, as they’d driven in silence down from the hilltop parking lot that belonged to the Petropolis Museum, and which gave tourists and teenagers alike that special panoramic view of the “Electric City”.
* * *
He thinks he’s so special…like, like he’s always going on about being left-handed, Gerald’s imaginary Emma blurted after the pause (like some victim of chronic sea-sickness, who in order to stay sane must continually hope that all must soon be well, but nevertheless continues to be blessed with surprise visits by the dry-heaves) attempting—and failing—to carry the ball of levity which she’d been passed, forward.
—I’m also left— he said, looking at Emma, who did not look back at him, I’m left-handed as well.
—Left, the sinister bend, the priest said, nodding with semi-ironic gravity.
—Sinister, Father? Gerald’s mother asked, not entirely unconcerned by the mentioning of such an un-nice word within the context of a nice, friendly Sunday Brunch such as this.
—Well, it is a tradition in the Church that the devil is—or was, depending upon your theological persuasion—left-handed. Thus left-handedness was until fairly recently discouraged in children, the meaning of sinister being, quite literally, “left”, just as dexterous means “right”.
Gerald’s father’s ears were twigged. An anecdote.
—My older sister was left-handed, even though my parents and the Lorretto Nuns, bless them, tried to, er, convince her to change, he usefully offered.
—What do you mean, tried to make her? sour sullen Gerald asked. The table yet again fell silent. Everyone waited. The question, like so many before it, set them all on edge, as it was plainly directed at his father—or was it? Perhaps it was posed to the group of adults as a whole, and they were not so much waiting for Gerald’s father to respond as feeling collectively accused of some unnamed crime they hadn’t even heard of, much less committed. Perhaps the accusation was a blind attempt by embittered Youth to redress the sins committed and bequeathed by culpable Age. Perhaps, though it was off Gerald’s tongue that the words happened to tumble, they were not really his own at all. Perhaps they belonged to some impersonal, perennially pubescent ghost, hovering just beyond the horizon of perception, yet still keenly felt to be here, present, now; not merely some callow, will-o-the-wisp Zeitgeist, as evanescent and unsubstantial as marsh gas, but perhaps something more ominous, judgmental and foreboding, the pimply, dangerous, lunate animosity of a repressed animus or Spiritus Mundi, responding with an eternally immature, “No!” to the venerable proffers of complacent, diurnal adulthood. Perhaps….
—Gerald’s always crabby after he’s had too much to drink, explained a now much-embarrassed Emma, giving him a glance that he knew meant trubb-bulll, no doubt about it, and which was cleverly designed to let everyone in on it without letting them know they were being let in on it. Gerald, of course, recognized this ploy for what it “truly” was.
—Huh? he said to her in a stage whisper that everyone except his father (whose mind was visiting a dimension inhabited by beings in dark clothing obsessed with nickel futures, marketing euphemisms, quarterly market reports….) could hear.
The priest, a young fogey and accomplished diplomat, attempted to re-route the conversation onto a different track, back to higher, more soothing ground. He was certain that no one in the presently-assembled audience would dispute his next assertion, that it would mollify the spirits of the youngsters without unnecessarily disturbing the aggregate opinion of the elders, which was as gratifyingly inert as the Kanadian Shield:
—The question of left-handedness seems almost quaint to us now, he said. But we have to realize that the Church is a human institution, and that it is characterized by the virtues and failings of its members, as well as by the successes and disasters of our shared history. The great symphony that is Catholicism is composed of the voices of many diverse cultures, both ancient and modern, a polyphony characterized by our collective prejudices and failings.
—But doesn’t the Pope claim to be infallible? Gerald interrupted.
—Bullfeathers, whispered Rosa Lombardi to her husband, the first evidence since Gerald’s arrival that either maintained any kind of pulse.
—That requires some preliminary explanation, the priest continued, unruffled. There are in the Church what we like to call “BIG-T” and “small-t” traditions. By the first, by “BIG-T”, we mean that there are dogmas or truths that we must adhere to in order to call ourselves Roman Catholics. Taken together, they comprise the collective, ah, sine qua non, the “that without which” we cannot exist, as a corporate entity. The fact that Christ rose from the dead, for example. His Holiness cannot teach error on issues such as these….
—Or that Mary was a virgin, the suddenly alert Rosa offered, addressing her gaze at Emma.
—Right. Now, there are also the “small t” traditions, those beliefs which we hold to be true but which are inescapably intertwined with the culture of our particular time and place. These doctrines are subject to change, and hence the Pope would never speak infallibly upon them.
—Celibacy for priests, for example, said Gerald.
—Or the role of women in the Church? asked Emma (the real one).
—Or that Father Feathered Hair shouldn’t be owning a Jeep TJ, much less drive his teenaged friends around in it? said Gerald.
—Er, yes, of course, Father Damian replied to Emma, as everyone looked down and Rosa whispered “Father Aloysius” to puzzled Vince. Or something as mundane as left-handedness. Hardly central or essential to what being “Christian” means. Superstition and prejudice have long half-lives, even in the Church. But we do move forward, we grow, we change, even if not always in sync with the pace of secular transformation.
—But why move so slow? Gerald asked. Isn’t it just evidence of a lack of willingness…? Gerald’s mother was about to predictably correct his use of the adjective, but cut herself short, out of deference to the priest’s obvious enjoyment of his own little lecture.
—Of an almost corrupt intransigence? the priest rejoined, with the tone not of defensiveness but rather of someone just beginning to reach his stride. I’ll be the first to admit that the Church is a conservative institution; yet conservative has a root meaning, and that is—to conserve. The Church moves slowly so that the Truth, with which the Holy Spirit, in the guise of tongues of flame, literally inspired the Apostles—and remember, “inspire” means “to breathe into”—that the Truth might be conserved. The present Pope has a direct link back to the momentum that initial gift, and with that comes one hell of a lot of responsibility, if you’ll excuse my language.
The priest paused to survey his audience. If they disagreed with any of this, it wasn’t showing on their faces. He had them.
—If matters in the Church need attention, if they need reform, he continued—and as they always have, so they always shall—then time will out. For example, you all know that it takes many, many years and no small amount of detective work for a holy religious or lay person to be recognized by the Church as a saint. There is a very good reason for such seeming torpidity on our part: we want to be sure!
* * *
The priest drove his message home with such amicability that he appeared not to be “driving” at all, but to be rather leading this small flock toward their unavoidable destination as if to an oasis in the middle of a vast desert, and he the gentlest of shepherds. No one took offense or exception; even Gerald’s callow choler seemed somewhat appeased.
The subject apparently exhausted, no one knew what to say next, and voices trailed off in unison, as if being conducted into silence by mutual accord. The gap was appreciatively filled by the arrival of the waitress, who was bearing a plate of goldenbrown French Fried Toast®, which she deposited upon the place mat in front of a stunned Gerald.
—Hey, I haven’t ordered anything! he half-yelped.
—It was ordered for you in absentia, son.
—What do you mean, “It was ordered”? Someone must have ordered it, anyway that’s absurd, I am fully capable of placing a food order. I have had some practice.
—We figured you might make it here eventually, so some food was kept under the heat lamp for you, so you wouldn’t have to wait.
The waitress was hovering, somewhat embarrassed and evidently unsure as to whether or not to leave them to their own devices. Gerald sensed her predicament and resonated with it, his face becoming ever more red. He was able to pick up feelings the way a self-destructing bridge picks up and magnifies the energy of the wind. His heart (such as it was) had quite literally gone out to her, and he felt the desire to both placate the nervous waitress and to get even with this father of his, this Manager of Family Life.
—It’s great, thank you, he said to the young woman, and, after she had moved out of earshot to fetch more coffee, spoke equivocally at his father: I wouldn’t have minded waiting. He ignored Emma’s choked-back, barely audible chortle as he then sighed and squeezed some Squeeze Parkay® liquid margarine and poured some Sugarbush Homestyle® maple-flavoured table syrup onto the three deep-fried, perfectly isosceles triangles, each of which had been given a generous dusting of confectioner’s sugar. He prodded one tentatively with his fork while his father offered, somewhat defensively:
—We thought that if you didn’t make it, it could just be brought home to you in a doggy bag, didn’t we dear? His wife, not wanting to get caught in between the rock and hard place of father and son, Scylla and Charybdis, gave him a half-smile.
—Thoughtful of you, Gerald quipped, not looking either of them in the eye but turning instead to the waitress, who had returned with a fresh pot of Shock Treatment® industrial grade coffee:
—Could I possibly have a second order of this? I’m starving. Oh….and a Popsi®? Thanks so much.
—You’re hardly starving Gerald, Emma hissed (Just what was she on, anyway?) You’re hungry, a bit gluttonous maybe, but hardly starving. It makes a mockery of those who actually are starving to say something as thoughtless as that.
—Starv-in’, then. Starvin’ like Marvin, he carelessly shot back. She fixed her eyes on her coffee cup with Krazy Glue® fixity.
—Marvin? his mother half-asked, almost to herself, having but half-heard. Who’s Marvin?
—Nobody, Ma. Nobody nowhere, eh, nohow.
—You know I don’t approve of your using double negatives, Gerald, his mother said, unable to censor herself this time but trying her best to make it sound “lighthearted”. What would your employer say if you spoke like that? And I’ve told you before, I’m not your “ma”.
Vince and Emma Lombardi looked dumbfounded, as much as by how freely the Tibbs family indulged in the banter of negativity as by Gerald’s semantics or syntax. Was their dutiful daughter Emma now catching the same disease? Gerald, ever emotionally inductive, was not unaware of their discomfort.
—The word is that companies are beginning to hire grammar coaches, Gerald’s father offered. Smeltco is even considering it.
—I do hope that you don’t speak like that at the office, Gerald, his mother repeated. It’s unprofessional, not to mention immature.
Gerald’s agitation had mounted to the point where it was transmuted, with the help of the remnants of the alcohol that still remained in his system, into a strange, angry giddiness. Though he had never had the courage to say anything to his girlfriend’s mother ever before, he now found himself whispering into a stunned Rosa Lombardi’s ear something that seemed to come out of (and to lead) nowhere:
—Did you know that women in Finland breastfeed their five-year-old children? Barbaric, isn’t it? Then, out loud and to his mother, he said: Ma, I’m, like, an engineer, I speak the good English, so, like lay off, eh .
His mother ignored him and addressed her husband:
—Coaches, for the Indonesians?
—No, he chuckled, for us. Seems they have better grammar than we do, and find our writing nearly incomprehensible.
As he heard this, Gerald was once again bothering Rosa, who was leaning, chin-in-cupped-hand, in a convex manner away from him:
—My grandpa moved to Petropolis because of beer, because of the maltings. The smell of life transforming itself and all that. He usedta say that the aroma of malt was how sex smelled in the plant kingdom! Imagine!
She couldn’t, and wouldn’t. Gerald turned quickly to his father and asked:
—Who has better grammar than who? Whom? Whatever. What the hell’s going on?
* * *
Well, you were going to be informed later, son, but there’s always no tie like a present….
The Tibbs patriarch fingered his lapel, pausing as if to wait for guffaws that, sadly, did not materialize. Gerald imputed Vince Lombardi’s light chuckling to politeness.
—Son, the Old Man called us last night. They want us in the Pacific. Soon. Very Soon.
—What in the….
—The company is opening up a new mine. Nickel, largest reserve in the world, just discovered. Very big.
—Very big promotion, his mother said, soothingly, reaching around Emma and grabbing hold of his father’s shoulder and rubbing it.
—Very big, Gerald mimicked, then, changing his voice to a ludicrous American Indian: Ver-ry big. Me very big no like. Me think not. Very.
—Gerald…, both parents began.
—I don’t dig this springing stuff on me in public, dad.
—What do you mean in public? The Lombardis are practically family, his father replied. The elder Lombardis evidently agreed with statements of both father and son, but Emma’s face was reddening.
The fact that the capillaries in Gerald’s cheeks were similarly engorged with blood prevented him from noticing these responses. He said, his voice becoming considerably louder:
—Dad, we’re in a restaurant. This is about as public as it gets!
—There is nothing to argue about, Gerald, he said, a statement which everyone else at the table (with the possible exception of the priest, who was observing the proceedings of this Subcommittee on the Future of the Family with keen detachment) obviously agreed with.
—Hey, this concerns me too, in case you’ve forgotten! I want to talk about it!
—The die’s been cast. It is what it is.
—Because you said so?!
—Well, at the end of the day….
—I think not. When do you leave?
—Going forward, the move will happen in the New Year. Third of January. Tight lips, playing with his coffee cup, drawing little circles on the saucer.
—Your mother agrees, his father responded, unsure as to whether Gerald was asking him how she felt about it or if he was asking her to air her opinion, and opting for the safer of the two.
—Yeah, right. Good, first-rate. Well, it’s been good knowing yas. Glad you let me know.
His father bit his lip, signalling that a weighty thought was about to make its presence felt.
—I’ve been meaning to…, he began. Listen, Corporate only touched base on Thursday, that it might become a definite possibility. Until then, it was barely on the radar: one never knows what the American parent is going to do next.
—Yeah, said Gerald, feigning disinterest.
—Listen, I’m talking to you. Do you want to know or not?
No answer. His mother said:
—It was down to a choice between your father and Harry Weissman….
—And as I said, the Old Man made me an offer only last night, the decision’s been…, he said, looking at his wife, who looked back at him with serious pride. It’s been hard.
—We’re going to have to get moving on this very soon, little time for pre-planning. In fact, please understand, I have to fly off this afternoon, your mother is following on Wednesday morning, to get our ducks in a row and go look for a house…It will just be a week, we’ll be home in plenty of time for Christmas.
—Home is where the heat is, said Gerald, rising to leave.
—Gerald stay, his mother said, please, sit down.
—Lost my appetite, sorry, gotta go, he said, not unmoved by his mother’s request but in too much of a turmoil to stay there and pretend that all was well. He folded his napkin and left it on top of the sticky, untouched mass of food as he got up. He shrugged his shoulders at Emma as he walked past her towards the door.
—Gerald, wait! his father half-bellowed, causing heads to turn in their direction. I’m sorry, everyone, he said, I’d better go talk to him. Father, Rosa, Vince, I’m very sorry, excuse me. Honey, could you put this on my American Express? The company’s paying for everything from here on in. OK? He ran off, leaving his suit jacket (wrapped around the back of his chair) and his eyeglasses (in their case next to a half-full cup of black coffee) behind.
* * *
Gerald’s mind descended a few internal steps, listened in, heard a little voice that was already hard at work playing back what had just transpired in there. Outside the sun was already quite low. The winter solstice was not long off, and the interminable darkness into which the north had long since sunk was encroaching upon that thin, southern, inhabited ribbon that, for the entire length of the country, was hemmed on its southern flank by the good ol’ US of A. The bent, red light which heralded the end of the day bounced off the few wispy cirrus clouds that foretold the increasing realisation of the concept of winter. All appeared to possess a Clorox® sameness, produced an undifferentiable, Liquid Paper® landscape, a seemingly permanent whiteout that signified renunciation, stasis, and death, everywhere.
Everywhere, on every TV at this time on this Sunday afternoon, the “Snow Miser” was winning his grim yearly battle with the “Heat Miser” in The Year Without A Santa Claus , pushing his equally rancorous brother out of the northern half of the continent with ceaseless barrage of snowballs and the exhalations of his cold, blowhardy north wind:
I’m Mister Snow Miser
I’m Mister I-cic-le
I’m Mister 10 Below
Friends call me Snow Miser
Whatever I touch
Turns to snow in my clutch
I’m too much! […] I never want to know a day
That’s over 40 degrees.
I’d rather have it 30-20-10-5
Let it freeze!
—Leave me alone. Gerald opened unlocked the car, got in, but left the door ajar.
—Go back to your brunch, I’m going home. He closed the door, but rolled down the frost-covered window.
—There’s another thing, his father said. The movers are coming Monday. Everything’s that’s not being shipped overseas is going into storage, and we’re spending Christmas in a Hotel, probably in Porcton.
—That’s just wonderful. Really dad, best be going, see you soon, ta-ta.
—Very funny Gerald. There’s a reason I’m telling you this now, so wait, listen. If you want anything from your room you’d better get it today, else it will end up in some warehouse somewhere.
—It’s all crap, don’t want it. Are you selling the house?
—It won’t be easy. Since Edison North and CanMalt are closing, nobody’s buying here.
— So what will you do? You’ve got to sell.
—The company’s taking care of it.
—What did you say?
—You heard me.
—Repeat what you just said.
—You heard me.
—Listen Gerald, I know it’s not easy for you. It’s not easy for any of us, least of all your mother. She’s only beginning to like this country now, and…and now we’re leaving it.
—If I were her I’d be going back to Wales. How permanent is this?
—As permanent as anything is, who knows. Who knows?
Gerald, terrier-like in his assault, couldn’t believe how pliant his father was being, answering such ungenerous, pointed questions. It was almost as if the guy felt guilty or something.
—How did you get her to move? What did you tell her? he asked.
—I didn’t say anything. Believe me, she said it was up to me. So, I, the decision was made, I….
—Thought about it? What about Terri? What’s she going to do—have you thought about that? She’s only got two years of high school left, how can you expect her to just pick up and go? And how’s she going to be able to train for the ski team where it’s 120-fucking degrees?
—I don’t like obscenity, Gerald. And it’s in the mid-nineties generally besides. As for Terri, the company’s taking care of that, they’re….
—I bet they are.
—….They’re paying for her to attend a boarding school in Ottawa. There’s a first-rate Nordic ski coach there, and she’ll also be near you. Everything will be arranged.
No answer from Gerald.
—Listen, son, there’s something else I want to talk to you about….
—It can wait, I’m leaving. He shifted the by now defrosted car into reverse and, gunning the engine, spun the rear-drive wheels on the greasy icy pavement.
—I’ll come with you, you can drive, his father said, holding on to the side-view mirror as Gerald backed the car up and shifted into drive, stopping only when he realized that his father meant what he’d said, and was not letting go.
—Go back, Gerald said. You’re needed.
—No, I’m coming…., he said absently, standing motionless and remembering something he’d forgotten in the restaurant, but unable to figure out what it was.
—Hey, are you coming or not? Gerald’s voice cracking now. He so obviously wanted him to come, but could not, would not, dare not show it. No he didn’t—fuck that shit.
—On second thought I’ll drive, you’re too fast, his father said.
—On first thought I’ll drive, you don’t know how, Gerald said as his father got in the passenger-side door.
—You can drive, his father said, still lost somewhere in space.
—Gee, thanks, eh.
—You’d do well to get rid of that “eh”, son, it make you sound like a hick, his father said as Gerald pulled out of the parking lot and headed north on Water Street.
—I-AM-A-HICK, dad, lay OFF!
—OK OK. It was just a suggestion, some advice. Can’t you take a little advice?
—I’ll put on some music, his father said, finding the William Shatner tape and feeding it into the machine in the place of Flash and the Pan as Gerald turned west onto Sherbrooke St. “HEY, MIS-ter TAM-bour-INE man, PLAY a SONG FOR me…” the classically trained voice sang, just before Gerald’s father pushed the TRACK SELECT button on the GM-Delco® stereo. He found a track he liked, and began to sing along:
rain-DROPS keep FALL-ing ON my HEAD
but THAT does-n’t MEAN my eyes
will SOON be TURN-ing RED
CRY-in’s not for ME!
I’m NE-ver GON-na stop
the RAIN by com-PLAIN-in,
BE-CAUSE I’M FREEE-EEE-EEE!
NOTH-IN’S WOR-RY-IN MEEE-EEE-EEE!
Gerald turned the tape player off.
—What else did you want to talk about, then? he asked, without any patience whatsoever.
—It’s time you got serious about your life, son.
—What could that possibly mean?
—You’re a man now, it’s time to think about the future; you’ll probably be getting married soon….
—Dad, shut UP! Gerald yelled, wildly embarrassed.
—We’ve got to talk about this….
—It’s absolutely none of your business!
—I’m your father…watch how fast you’re going… Now, about the insurance policy….
—What? What insurance policy?
—The one I’ve kept up for you since you were fourteen, the….
—The younger you start, the lower the premiums are….
—Tell, me, who do I want to profit from my death?
—What if you’re married?
—Dad will you SHUT UP?
—This is serious. Here, I have this form for you…. His father reached for the breast pocket of his coat and realised that he must have left it at the restaurant. Damn, well your mother will bring it home, it’s just something you have to sign to reconfirm the personal data they’ve got on you, or to change the benefactor.
—Who’s it now?
—And you’ve just got to take another form to the doctor’s for your physical.
—You’ve been scheduled for one later this afternoon.
—On Sunday? What doctor works today?
—My friend Dr. Himmelman will see you at his house, it’s been arranged.
—But I’m gonna take you to the airport and see you off, eh.
—That’s ‘going to’. And you know what I think about the ‘eh’, Gerald. Lose it. It creates a bad impression.
—Hey, I said it before, lay off. Anyway, whatdoyoumean, bad impression, it’s…it’s Kanadian.
—It’s meaningless, son, and it’s also poor English. Besides, our two countries are coming closer together, borders and distinctions like that are becoming things of the past.
—Maybe for you. Maybe for companies, but people are different. Where they’re from means something. People sink roots.
—You sound like a journalist for the Red Star, you’re reading the wrong paper. Don’t always fight the system, son. Swim with the current, not against it. Get on with life.
—I have been, I…I am. Anyway, thanks for the advice, eh, but I’d like to see you off at the airport.
—Don’t worry about that, the company’s arranged a limousine for six.
—Is there anything the company hasn’t arranged?
—They haven’t arranged for you. You’re 22 now, son….
—Um, oh fuck it. What’re you trying to say?
—I mean that your mother and I are concerned, that’s all, we’re going to be thousands miles away. You’re on your own now.
—Dad, I’ve been on my own since I was 18, remember?
—You’re a man now, his father replied somewhat belatedly and prematurely. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.
His father then turned towards the back seat, grabbed his briefcase, which was on the floor behind the driver’s seat, and started rummaging through it as if having forgotten something important.
—Have you given thought to any of that, number one?
Gerald didn’t respond, but pulled his father’s tape out of the machine and inserted in its place the only other 8-track that he liked, The Electric Light Orchestra’s Out Of the Blue:
I turn to stone when you are gone, I
Turn to stone
I turn to stone when you comin’ home? I
Can’t go on
I turn to stone when
YOU ARE GONE, I
TURN TO STONE….
Gerald opened the window low enough to reach out of, tossed William Shatner out the window, and glanced in the rear view mirror, interested to see if Bill got run over by the car behind him.
He did not—this time, he thought to himself, like Zeus imagining his inexorable triumph over Kronos. Then he saw that he had crossed the double yellow line, and that another car was bearing down on them. And for an all-too-long second or two, he did not steer back into his own lane. And he did not know why (or so he heard himself tell himself). But then he did veer, not quite just-in-time, but close enough that his father should have been screaming at him. Yet only ELO’s thousand-and-one strings could be heard, drowning out, somehow, the entire universe.
Gerald turned the volume down, pulled over to the curb. And for the first time in a long time, tried to look into his father’s eyes, expecting to see something—anger, hurt, bewilderment, anything that would confirm that Gerald had just done something, anything. But his father’s had not met his own after all. And they weren’t blank, and they didn’t stare through him, but past him—in time or space, perhaps both. You just had to laugh, Gerald told himself, not feeling much like laughing at all. You just had to—his father hadn’t noticed a thing.
—Son, pull into the gas station up ahead, would you?
The odd lazy, fluffy, stray snowflake hit the windshield as Gerald glanced at the gauge on the dashboard. The tank was already full.
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