It was three o’clock in the afternoon, mid-August, 1973, and a torrential rain poured down. I was wearing a bathing suit emblazoned with a golden sunset. Two lovers held hands on the yellow beach that encircled my ten-year-old torso. I tossed a stick into the water that rushed through the culvert, and I ran alongside it while it bobbed up and down, swept away by the current.
My mother stood on the veranda watching me. Her new red bathing suit, which was dotted with tiny white daisies, had stiff pads sewn into the chest that transformed her breasts into small torpedoes. Her hair was styled in an updo with so much hairspray it held its shape even while she slept. Loosened by the rain, a few stray strands fell around her heart-shaped face. She was slim and pretty, with a girlish laugh, everything the first weather girl in Canada ought to be.
On the veranda, on other side of the divider that separated our half of the duplex from the neighbour’s side, the boy watched me intently. Pierre was an awkward teenager, with a brush cut like his father. With his legs apart in a military stance and his arms folded in front of his chest, I saw him for the menace that he was, as threatening as his German shepherd, which had canines the size of lobster claws.
Something in the way Pierre looked at my mother as she pranced across the front lawn to join me brought to mind the look on my father’s face when my mother gleefully announced she had been hired as the ATV weather girl.
“Women are taking over the world,” he had said.
“It’s about time,” my mother said, barely looking up from her tattered copy of The Female Eunuch.
“I hope you’re not going to become one of those bra-burning feminists.”
My father’s absences grew more pronounced after that. Most nights, he returned only for dinner. Twice a week, he brought home a lobster procured from a local fisherman, who sold the sad creatures for next to nothing. Even though it was poor people’s food, or so a boy at school had taunted, my mouth watered every time I recalled the succulent claws drenched in butter.
Each night after dinner, my father disappeared once again. Where he went, I did not know. But I was determined to find out.
Pierre called the German shepherd, and the matted mutt padded over, lazy and distracted by some canine thought—of a bone perhaps—and sat by his master’s side, looking even more menacing now, poised to attack.
My mother, oblivious to the ominous figure and his hell hound on the other side of the house, danced freely, like she, too, was ten years old, or wished that she could be. Even I could see the freedom in that.
A peal of thunder crashed through the sky. Pierre jumped, betraying a fracture in his manly facade. After all, he was not yet a man, but rather a boy trying on masculinity like an ill-fitting suit.
When lightening flashed through the sky, my mother guided me into the house. She peeled the plastic bread bag from my cast somewhat guiltily, I thought. I shivered at the memory of the struggle between us the morning after my father had gotten angry about her new job. I had refused to go to school. She had grown exasperated and had pushed me into the couch, with my arm twisted behind me. She had rushed me to the hospital, full of apologies. It was instinctive, the desire to protect my family at all costs, and I had lied for her. I looked down at the soggy cast, covered in the signatures of my fellow Grade 5 students, some of whom I did not particularly like but couldn’t refuse, so eager were they with their trembling pens.
I wondered if my mother had injured me because she suspected my motivations. I had wanted to stay home to sift through my father’s belongings, to search for clues about where he went, and who he was. I suspected he wasn’t going back to the sign shop every night.
Still dripping wet from the rain, my mother discarded the sopping bread bag. I quickly got dressed and snuck up to the attic, imagining I was Nancy Drew, on the verge of solving a great mystery.
For the past few weeks, I had been sifting through the wartime trunk in the attic, examining old sweaters and shoeboxes filled with photographs: my father before he met my mother, in high school, got her pregnant, and proposed. In some ways, he was an honorable man. I wasn’t supposed to know any of this. What I learned about our family, I learned from reading my mother’s diaries. She had been happy, it seemed, to be pregnant. It meant she could move away from my grandfather and his drinking.
In those photographs, I saw in my father’s eyes something of that fractured look I saw in Pierre. It made me curious about the neighbour’s secrets. Perhaps they were related to ours. I approached the back of the attic and found a gap in the shared wall, and I discovered that I could squeeze my small body through that jagged opening.
I imagined they would have photographs there, like ours, or secret diaries with stories about the child who had died. But there were just Christmas ornaments and old baby clothes.
When the rain stopped, I went out onto the veranda to check on the caterpillars in my bug keeper. Pierre leaned around the dividing wall, watching me again.
“Hi, Marijuana Kid,” he said.
I turned my back on him and talked to the caterpillars in a soothing voice.
“Want to get stoned, Marijuana Kid?” he asked.
After he left, I went to the kitchen, where my mother sat at the table drinking tea and smoking.
“What’s marijuana?” I asked.
“Pierre called me ‘Marijuana Kid.’ ”
“It’s a cigarette that some people think isn’t good for you.”
“Because it alters your mind.”
“Why is he calling me that?”
“Your father had some marijuana.”
“Because it helps him relax.”
“Because grown-ups need to relax sometimes and think about their lives.”
“Because they do.”
After my mother tucked me into bed that night, I took the extra blanket from my room and the flashlight from the junk drawer in the kitchen and snuck out the front door to stake out the house. I wanted to see what time my father came home, and assess his state of mind when he did. So as not to be alone, I brought my plastic bug keeper: Sally had small yellow ovals on the centre of her back, and blue rectangles flanked by yellow lines on her sides; Oscar looked almost the same, but his lines were orange.
I stealthily crossed the street to set up in the babysitter’s yard. I draped my pink blanket over the branches of a small shrub next to the house and reassured my partners that we would be safe enough there. On the tree beside us, some free caterpillars had built beautiful gauzy tents, ghost houses.
There was nothing to do but listen to the occasional car drive past. To pass the time, I sang softly. I hoped Sally and Oscar wouldn’t grow tired of hearing “Octopus’s Garden,” my favourite song.
Startled awake by deep breathing, I saw a large shadow looming over the tent. I must have drifted off. The only sound in the cool night air was that deep, controlled breathing.
“Katie? What do you think you’re doing out here? It’s not safe. You need to come home. Right now,” my mother said.
I slowly emerged from my tent, with my hands in the air.
My mother laughed.
“This isn’t funny. Something very shady is going on around here,” I said, almost to myself.
My mother carefully gathered my blanket and reached out for my hand. I held up my cast, shrugged, and put down my arm. She placed her hand in the dead centre of my back and accompanied me to my room. She closed the door and told me to stay inside.
Unfazed by her attempt to sabotage my stakeout, I sat bolt upright with my back against the door, determined to stay awake, listening for the imminent sounds of my father’s return. I must have drifted off, because I woke up to a crashing sound, like a herd of cattle clamouring through our kitchen. I crept down the stairs, holding my breath, as if that could stop them from creaking under my bare feet.
From my vantage point on the stairs, I could see a sliver of the kitchen. My father leaned against the counter, swaying slightly. The other voice clearly belonged to my mother, only there was a barbed edge to it, with none of the girlish laughter that landed her the job as the local weather girl.
“I earned five hundred dollars tonight. Do you think we have a house like this because of that sign shop?”v“Katie set up a tent across the street to watch you,” my mother said.
My father laughed.
“It’s not funny. What are you going to say when your daughter finds out you’re a drug dealer?”
“I’ll ask her to join the family business. After all, the family that tokes together, jokes together.”
My father laughed.
“Pierre called her the Marijuana Kid. I’m telling you, the neighbours know. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
“Times are changing,” my father said.
Footsteps approached the staircase, and I backed away, slowly. Carefully, I closed my door. I quickly drew the covers around me, closed my eyes, and pretended to sleep.
The door opened. A slice of light cut through the room. My father kissed my forehead and left.
When things settled down and the house grew quiet, I grabbed my flashlight and walked down the long hallway. My parents’ door was open a crack. I turned off the light and looked in. A lone figure was huddled on the bed, with her back to me. The door to the spare room was closed. I peered through the keyhole, but could see nothing. My father’s snoring startled me, and I slowly backed down the hallway.
The next morning, my father was gone. The bed in the spare room was neatly made, all traces of him erased.
My mother told me that he had gone away on a business trip, but something in how she averted my gaze cast a pall on the conversation. I studied her for any obvious signs of deception. Her lips left traces of pink lipstick on the coffee mug, still she looked perfect, almost too perfect.
I didn’t want to go to school. She forced me out the door. I considered threatening to tell the principal that she’d broken my arm, but I thought better of it. I didn’t need two broken arms. How would I get to the bottom of my father’s disappearance then?
Instead of turning right when I walked out the front door, I dashed to the left and up the stairs, to Pierre’s house. He had information. I knew it. And I was determined to get it. I rang the doorbell, pressing hard.
Pierre stumbled to the door, his T-shirt rumpled and his hair flattened on one side. I looked behind him for the dastardly dog. Fortunately, it was nowhere in sight.
I gave Pierre a cold hard stare.
“What do you want, Marijuana Kid?” he asked.
“I ask the questions around here. What do you know about my father? He has disappeared, and I’m concerned for his safety.”
I stared him down.
He must have seen I meant business, because his demeanor changed. He opened his eyes wider and regarded me with a deep curiosity.
“What do you know?” I demanded.
Pierre walked toward the kitchen.
How strange it was to see a house exactly like mine, but in reverse, like my entire world was turned inside out.
Pierre returned with a newspaper, and thrust it in my direction.
“drug dealer arrested in neon shop.” Underneath the headline was a photograph of my father posing in front of his sign shop.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Pierre had set up my father.
“You bastard,” I shouted. “How could you?”
I knew the truth. I had won. But instead of cowering, the boy stood strong.
“What the hell is going on out there?” his father shouted from inside the house.
Pierre’s facade crumbled then. His shoulders sank, and he reached for me and hugged me, awkwardly at first. Then he held me gently, like a father would, and stroked my hair.
“Everything will be all right,” he said.