Family Reunion

Christmas, 1999 / No. 3

The poet looked around the church basement, undisturbed by the empty seats and the indifference of the few curious onlookers who politely took their seats. His red-flannelled belly hung over his belt like a glacial flow as he paced quietly back and forth on yellow running shoes, stopping often to light his cigar. His hair hung in strands over his left eye. His left eye being opened wider than the right gave him this monocled, maniac look, but the bottom of his face contradicted the mania of his eyes. A pointed billy-goat goatee gave him a placid, grazing look. In high school I remember the teacher saying that a poet should speak of contradictions, and I guess it would be convenient for the trade to also be built of contradictions.

He began his reading. Words about politics, history and the injustice of many as he paced back and forth muffling his words with his constant shuffling. He stopped to gulp the Styrofoam cup of water, but the water seemed lodged in his throat. The world stopped still. He hesitated and was lost in thought. He cleared his throat and then the words floated out of him as if guided by a veiled god of their own:

I don’t think Christ was crucified
on a day like today.
At most today a fly will be caught
between a window and screen.
A light bulb will flicker
in its dying moments.
A man will sigh heavily,
waiting for the marvelous thing to happen.
But I don’t think Christ was crucified
on a day like today.

I lost him as he incanted verse upon verse. This was far too much for me. All I wanted was a dry shelter while the sky emptied out its wrath on all us street dwellers. I checked into the nearest church and happened upon this noontime poetry reading for the bored and distracted. So, as the poet intoned, the dampness of the rain on my hungry body gradually gave way, and, except for that undying wetness in the inner thighs that speaks of further rashes and mould, I was ready to face the sullen beauty of a rainy fall morning. The irony here in this place was just too strong for my weak stomach.

You see, my dad used to call himself a poet too—a poet of the obscene. When he was drunk, which pretty much is like saying when he was breathing, he would make up these dirty limericks and revel in his ability to make body parts the subject of poetic inspiration. And he was a church-fearing man too. Every Sunday, Jamie, Mom, Dad and I would walk to St. Paul’s and I would watch my dad pray like he meant it. But all the time I knew he would just go back home, get drunk and beat on Mom. After one Sunday too many I took to the streets, and now that I was dry enough to escape this luncheon-time silhouette of my old world, I returned to my solemn ground.

On this pavement I build my church. I have only been on the streets for five weeks, but already I worship the cracks in the sidewalk, the trash cans that feed me and the car exhaust that blackens my skin and reminds me that this is now my home. It was tough at first. All the stray people seemed threatening, but after a while you establish your territory and learn whom to trust and whom to avoid. You scam together, steal together and beg together. And then, after a hard day of survival, you retire alone to some covering in a spot where you should be able to avoid any upsetting contact with the real people. These same people who feel serious pity when they see us on a television docudrama fairy tale would run and call the police if they saw us in flesh and blood, sleeping in their backyards.

The rain had died and the clouds broke to reveal the horror of another bright day. It must have been way past noon by now and this day, like every day, Cathy would be out on the bench in Allan Gardens waiting for me. She always sits there upright on the slivered bench, like a monument to the dispossessed, and when she sees me she will always say “Billy boy, the darkness of the city is still in your eyes. Let me kiss them good morning.” I love her. At least it seems that way. We never spend the nights together, so as not to ruin the days, but today I don’t want her to be there. Maybe the church has spooked me, but when I think of her today I can feel the pounding image of Dad beating on Mom—the screaming, the frantic and futile attempts to shield the blows, and then Dad yelling at me to go to my room and mind my own business. I don’t want to see her but, as usual, I will.

She was there talking to Tenpole. At first I didn’t like him—his prune-like face sitting on top of a powerful young body. Unlike my other fellow urchins, he had a presence and this made him a threat. He was experienced and, like a cat, you knew he would always wind up on his feet. He was always chewing something—glass, paper, matchsticks—and with a crooked smirk he would always punctuate a conversation with some trite observation like “That’s the way it is and that’s the way it will always be.” Out of his crooked mouth, the worst cliché rang true like the words of sage. All impression and no substance. I didn’t like him at first, but lately I have found out how useful he could be.

Like today, he was there sitting with Cathy and he had cigarettes. Cathy blurted out her “Billy boy” routine and I signalled Tenpole for a smoke. We sat around smoking for breakfast, tasting the stale depths of our throats and hacking out little jokes to pass the time. Cathy told us about the perverts in the park. Tenpole told us how he would turn the park into a reservoir for all us street dwellers to wash in. I was left with the clean-up story, and I told some stupid fabrication about how my dad used to drink so much that he would often forget my name. But that was one thing he never forgot—always barking out orders and terrorizing the family with the way he could scornfully call out your name. Except Jamie, of course. Jamie could have been Dad’s press secretary the way he was always standing up for him. Now that my older brother was a small-time success as a real estate agent, he and Dad would go out drinking together.

We banded together our money and Tenpole went to the Mac’s to get us coffee and crackers. I couldn’t look Cathy in the eye when I told her I kept out of the rain by stowing away in a church. Having had similar experiences in our brief childhoods which we were forced to abandon without a comforting rite of passage, we had the same poisonous view on the church. She found my sanctuary amusing, muttering how much better it was to be baptized in the rain than drowned in holy water. I love Cathy. Especially the way she can take the dismal and turn it to tolerable. I told Cathy that we should steal some money and use it to get married today, and with the rest we could put a down payment on a slab of concrete. She thought it was a great idea, seeing that we had nothing better to do.

Tenpole came back with brunch, and he brought along a newspaper he found in the trash. The headline read air war in gulf escalates! Tenpole said it was just blood for oil, but I couldn’t care less if it was an eye for an eye. I’m sure everyone has started debating about whether it is a just war or whatever, and sides would soon be drawn with opinions held dearly to the chest like the embrace of a loved one. But, to me, it was all self-interest disguised as words, and I was above it all. How could this affect me—the rising price of oil, the impact upon the economy, the casualties, the changing world order. These things had no bearing on my life, and, as Tenpole spoke of imperialism and the bloody horror of battle, I began to feel powerful and secure. The world could cave in around all the real people and I would still be left standing and unmoved.

We walked through the park. Saturday brought out all manner of families and it was usually a good day to beg for change. But, as we worked our way through the park, I could see a familiar face stop his car on Sherbourne Street. Jamie was here. And I could tell he had been sent. His head darted to and fro like he was circling in for the kill. I did not hate my brother, but I was sickened by this messenger-boy cowardice. I knew it would only be a matter of time before Dad would send him in to do the dirty work because Dad would have been getting too many embarrassing questions about my absence. I thought to run, but I drew on that faint sense of power I felt only a moment earlier.

I told Cathy that good fortune had descended upon us and we could plan a honeymoon in a suburban bus shelter. She saw that I was looking down the road at someone and asked if it was possible that I knew the guy with the fast car and the shiny shoes. Jamie dressed for success. Every move he made had to be perfectly scripted and directed. With his perfectly-tossed salad hair and his banal chatter, he was blessed with the luck of the undeserving. He was the type to waltz into parties with a smugness that showed he thought time stood still until he arrived. “I haven’t seen you lately, Bob. You look in poor shape,” he would say as he would grab Bob’s newly-acquired pot belly, squeezing the skin like he was kneading flour. Then with a smile he would turn to the nearest woman and say “I’m learning to parachute. I fear nothing.” Some women flock to him thinking that stupidity heightens the sex act, and, with his money and his fleeting pleasures, he appeared content at all times. As I saw him approaching, I knew what had to be done.

I told Cathy and Tenpole that we were going to make a big score and that Mr. Alligator Shoes was going to subsidize our street nuptials. But my friends were skeptical because as Jamie neared he donned a look of concern—not concern born of real feeling, but an institutional concern like that shown by a parole officer confronted by a parolee who can do nothing but disappoint and confound.

The meeting was not as uncomfortable as might be imagined. Just the usual exchange of civilities and the expected talk of breaking the hearts of the parents who designed this whole fiasco. I made arrangements to meet Tenpole and Cathy later that day and then Jamie and I left to find a restaurant.

At the restaurant I was overwhelmed by the simplest of foods. Jamie nattered on and on about the pressure he felt trying to hold the family together, and I nonchalantly took it all in while relishing my return to the food chain. After Jamie finished his speech, I told him that I was really happy he had shown up.

“I know you won’t believe this, but I want to marry Cathy,” I told him in a matter-of-fact way. He looked at me and started to laugh. I ignored his laughter, not being of the infectious kind, and I made my plea. “I know it’s off the wall, but we really want to do this and we don’t have the money to get the licence.”

Things turned kind of bitter at this point. I was accused of being selfish and losing my grip on reality. This was of no concern to me as I was prepared to suffer through his self-righteous monologue because, in the end, all I wanted was his money.

“Bill, she is dirty, you’re dirty. The whole thing is crazy.” With that comment I was inclined to abandon my mission. Now I knew for sure that I loved Cathy because his dismissal of her, as some bit of furnishing that needed dusting, brought my resentment to a boil. I stood up to leave. I would have been out the door, but I couldn’t let one of the few opportunities that pass my way fall to nothing. I let my anger dissolve and I asked Jamie if he would stay in town and at least buy me dinner for tonight. He agreed, and I left to prepare for this sacrificial last supper.

I found Cathy and Tenpole back where I left them. Tenpole had already chewed through half the newspaper, and Cathy was anxious to know if I had scored. I told them that Jamie was to meet me in a few hours at the corner of Parliament and King, and that we could score big-time if we rolled him. At first they were shocked by my suggestion, but the shock turned to laughter and eventually to excitement. Revenge for me, a night’s amusement for Tenpole and an expression of my deep commitment in the eyes of my bride-to-be.

Jamie was there, right on time, doing his ostrich-neck routine. He was obviously uncomfortable in the dark, empty downtown streets. We marched up to him defiantly, as if on military manoeuvres, and as soon as we could hear Jamie asking why I brought my friends, Tenpole smashed him over the head with a stick. It was awful. My brother bleeding while the beeper on his belt signaled yet another real-estate closing. In a blind reflex I kicked my brother a number of times as he was falling to the pavement. Cathy grabbed his wallet and we fled like vultures in shame and in fear of the tormented spirit of my fraternal prey.

As we ran down the street I could see the poet from the church stepping out of the liquor store. I ran up to him and thanked him for the inspiration he provided earlier in the day. He smiled, thinking he had reached a listener, that he had tickled someone’s intellect, that he had ravaged someone’s feelings, but his smile turned taut when he saw the blood on my outstretched, shaking hand. The customary handshake was passed over, and the poet scurried away without a word. I had rendered—or at least the dripping blood had rendered—the poet speechless. I felt intoxicated by my new-found power.

We had wine at dinner. Cathy was celebratory. Tenpole spoke like a boasting general, and I was left struggling to conceal the annoying ambivalence I felt as my belly filled up. I knew that I had descended into a moral vacuum, but, on the other hand, I also felt an enormous sense of relief. My descent would make me that much more able to cope with the street, for now I could protect my body without worrying about damage to my irretrievably lost soul.

While we ate the apple pie, I drifted off and shut my eyes. There was Jamie as I knew him when I was ten. He refused to let me play baseball with his friends, so I went into his room and I ripped up his entire baseball card collection. Hundreds and hundreds of ballplayers torn in half and lying on his bed waiting to be discovered. Jamie came home, muddied but triumphant, and he screamed when he entered his room. He chased me with his bat, and I’m sure he would have split my skull, but Dad stopped him. Dad then hit me so hard that I remember the whole room shaking and the voice on the television quivering like the broadcaster was speaking naked from an Arctic cave. I had to apologize to Jamie, and he mocked me by mimicking the way I had begged Dad not to hit me. I thought of telling Tenpole and Cathy about what I was thinking, but what was the point. Tenpole asked me if I was going to finish my pie and I passed it over to him without a word. With my belly full, questions of right and wrong began to plague my thoughts, and I yearned to be hungry once again. With a stomach empty and aching, I would have little patience for matters of conscience.

The feast came to an end, and Cathy and Tenpole went east while I went west. As I watched them walk away, I knew that they would spend the night together. This seemed wrong considering that Cathy and I were to marry tomorrow. But after tonight I was in no position to judge anyone or anything. I walked past the church and into the alleyway behind the grocery. I lay down on a loading dock and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. I hoped to wake up hungry in the morning.