My family wasn’t like others in the neighbourhood, not in the mid-seventies, when we lived on a crescent of nice homes with almost no traffic. Bikes and roller skates lay on front lawns. In the summer the constant smell of backyard barbecues made the dogs whimper. It was always the men who barbecued, supposedly giving their wives a break while constantly barking out commands.
We, of course, didn’t have a barbecue, because we didn’t eat meat. Nor did we drive a Buick, Ford, Chevrolet, or a used Cadillac. Instead, we had a Westfalia, a small German camper van complete with miniature stove and sink, and back seats that could be removed to put up a table and bunks. For our holidays we got into the Westfalia and drove: to an Indian reservation (as we called it then) to help build a community centre, to the Alberta badlands to dig for dinosaur bones, or sometimes just to “see the country.” At night we would pull up in a farmer’s field, a deserted drive-in theatre, or a school parking lot. We never went to water parks or zoos or beach resorts. We saw logging camps, fish plants, leftover communes where kids ran around naked and wild. Sometimes my sister refused to get out of the van.
My father worked for a small carpenters’ union that had so far resisted merging with a bigger one. He went to work in a suit and tie bought at the Salvation Army, riding a bicycle to the bus that would take him to the northernmost subway station. If he was late he might ask a neighbour for a lift—neither my mother nor father was shy about asking for favours.
My mother had a job too, working from home so she could take care of us. A fundraiser for whichever organization hired her at any given time, she would sit at the dining-room table with a monstrous black I.B.M. Selectric typewriter, piles of stationary, envelopes, stamps, and a telephone with a separate line for follow-up calls. She had a higher than average success rate, I think because of her voice, which was warm and sultry and didn’t at all match her appearance. The background noise of my growing up was either the breathy whisper of her telephone voice or the rhythmic tap of her high-speed typing.
Our dining table was made from two old doors and a couple of sawhorses, which was something else different about my parents. They didn’t believe in buying stuff. We had armchairs found at the side of the road that my mother recovered using flannel shirts. Our books stood on shelves made from bricks and boards, or were piled in corners. Only our mattresses were new, and our shoes. We didn’t have real friends, but sometimes kids would drop in just to look around.
My older sister, Joni, who was sixteen at this time, was in a continual state of smouldering anger. She was a beautiful girl—I knew because people said it so often—with waist-length blond hair and blue-green eyes and a small nose and a slightly severe mouth. Even in a state of repose she had the sort of look that drove boys crazy. She was an object of intense interest but, as I said, we didn’t have any friends, in my case because I was a “dull loser,” in hers because she told everyone to piss off. Our parents were concerned about her; was she punishing them for moving to the suburbs from the city just when she was entering her teens? Did her looks give her a sense of unearned superiority? Was she confused about her identity, possibly a lesbian? They asked all these questions out loud, which usually resulted in Joni’s running to her room and slamming the door.
But I’m not happy either, I said to them once, right after Joni had stormed out of the room. Yes, my parents said, of course you’re not. But at least it’s clear why.
In fact, I wasn’t so very unhappy. My parents (who had no friends either, although that was never discussed) spent all their free time with us. Every Saturday night we went to a film society showing of a black-and-white movie—Preston Sturges or Frank Capra or early Bergman or Hitchcock. I liked to read, and at twelve was halfway through the Horatio Hornblower novels, luxuriating in the knowledge that I still had a half-dozen left. My goal in life was to have a capuchin monkey as a pet and I was compiling a notebook of information about them. I built balsa-wood airplanes from kits I bought at a toy shop in the mall, carefully cutting out all the pieces with an X-Acto knife, pinning the first struts onto the plan and gluing the rest, applying the tissue paper to the wings before shellacking them.
One thing I didn’t like was my parents’ predilection for bringing home strangers. In our neighbourhood of Willowdale I never saw a homeless person, only mothers pushing carriages, and delivery people stepping out of boxy trucks. But downtown must have been full of stray people, some of them sleeping right in front of the Old Yorktown Carpenters’ Brotherhood office, because every few weeks my father brought one home. They were almost always older men, sometimes with a blurry tattoo on the forearm, or a couple of fingers missing. Men whose hands trembled when they lit a cigarette. Dad often said they were “drying out.” Sometimes they had no jacket, or their trousers had ragged cuffs or a broken fly, so my parents would buy them brand new things, as they never did for us. The men slept in the spare room next to my own, where I would sometimes wake to hear them pacing, or talking to themselves, or weeping.
It was ungenerous of me to prefer that they slept on the sidewalk rather than the bedroom next to mine. Mom always asked them about themselves—where they were born, what sort of job their fathers had—and I’m sure there would have been a great deal to learn if only I had listened. Yet much as I didn’t like having them around, what I felt was nothing compared to my sister. One day she stomped around the house, screaming, “If one of them rapes me it will be your fault!” After that my parents still invited men to stay, but not so often, and my father installed a sturdy lock on Joni’s door. Which meant, of course, that she could keep her door locked all the time. It never occurred to them to worry about me. One of the men did once put his hand high up my thigh and tell me that I was a very strong boy. But I never told my parents about it.
Anyway, Lewis wasn’t like them. For one thing, he didn’t come from downtown. One early December evening we all went to the open house for my middle school. It was the year my sister grew even thinner than usual. My mother clearly worried because she was always urging Joni to eat. I didn’t want to go to the open house, where the other kids would point us out to their parents. (My parents would be easy to spot, Mom in her sari, Dad with the open-toed sandals he only stopped wearing when it snowed.) Dad would insist on telling my history teacher about I. F. Stone or start to defend Louis Riel. Of course my sister didn’t want to come either, but she was also conflicted about being left out so always got into the Westfalia at the last minute.
This evening turned out to be less awful than others, and then we piled back into the van to drive home. It was dark, and every third or fourth porch light was on, illuminating the pots of dead flowers. My mother was talking about the “unimaginative work” on display in the art room when my father said, “Whoa, Nelly,” and started to slow down.
Through the window I saw us pass a very tall woman. She was standing by the side of the road holding a double bass with one arm, and a thumb stuck out. The van came to a stop and my father began to reverse.
“Now, Marty,” my mother said, but he was already rolling down the window.
“Where are you going?”
The woman picked up the double bass, which wasn’t in a case, and hurried up to the window. I saw that she wasn’t a woman but a young man with shoulder-length hair.
“Anywhere I can get to.”
“If you need a bed for the night you’re welcome to stay over. We’re just up the road.”
“That would be fantastic.”
“Not sure what you’re going to do with that instrument. You couldn’t play the harmonica?”
Dad chuckled just to show he was making a joke.
The young man said, “I’ve got some rope. I can tie it to the roof, no problem.”
“All right, then.”
My father got out of the van, but the young man had already hefted the double bass onto the rack. He tossed a rope across and instructed my father to pass it through the window. We had to draw it through the interior and out the window to the other side.
“I can’t believe this,” my sister said as we listened to the scrapes and thumps above us.
Dad got back into the driver’s seat and the young man climbed into the van with us, causing Joni to push against me. He had a small suitcase he put under his knees although there was room behind us. His head touched the ceiling.
“Hi,” I said to him. “I’m Malcolm.”
“Like Malcolm X?”
“Cool. I’m Lewis.”
Dad said, “I’m Martin, and this is my wife, Shelley. And that’s Joni sulking beside you.”
“Like Joni Mitchell?”
“That’s right,” Mom said, sounding pleased.
“No it isn’t,” my sister said back.
We pulled into the drive and Dad and Lewis got down the double bass. I offered to help Lewis carry it, but he said that it was easy for him and he tucked it under his arm as if it were a big guitar. Inside, I saw how scratched up it was— scarred everywhere, chips taken out of the curving edges, a couple of cracks messily repaired. There were even some worn stickers on it and initials carved in the back. Mom made herbal tea and warmed up some muffins and we sat at the table, the typewriter pushed to the other end, while my parents asked Lewis about himself. He was from a farm outside Saskatoon. Since the end of high school—Lewis was nineteen—he’d worked full-time alongside his father, but this year, as soon as the rapeseed and sunflower and wheat harvests were in, he had “lit out,” leaving only a note, because otherwise his mother would have stopped him. The double bass was from the high school; when the music program got shut down he had bought it for fifty dollars. He didn’t play any particular kind of music, just his own, which he didn’t know how to write down, so he kept it in his head. He’d been hitchhiking for a few weeks now, staying wherever people would put him up, moving on again. His intention was to go to Quebec, first Montreal and then maybe somewhere on the Gaspé. His high-school French was bad—in Saskatchewan nobody cared about bilingualism—but he figured Quebec would be as far from what he knew as any place in the country. Except maybe Newfoundland, which he might get to eventually. He had a passport, so maybe he’d even see some other countries. Of course he’d have to find work, but he had a good feeling about it. Farm life makes you pretty handy, he said.
“Funny thing,” Dad said. “I work for a carpenters’ union and I can’t hammer in a nail. Nineteen is pretty young to be on the road. You sure you don’t want to go back?”
“I send them postcards. This is a nice home. It has your personality. Your family’s personality, I mean.”
“What a sweet thing to say,” Mom said. I could tell she liked him.
“If it isn’t too much trouble, I’m wondering whether I might stay a few days. I could do any chores you wanted.”
“Yes,” Joni said before anyone else could answer. “Yes, you can stay.”
My parents both turned to stare at her. Dad looked especially pleased by this generous impulse.
“Of course Lewis can stay,” he said.
Lewis smiled. His eyes started to close and he blinked them open again. “You’re falling asleep in that chair,” Mom said, getting up. “It’s time for bed.”
She got out new sheets while he used the bathroom, and when he came out he was wearing old pajamas with rodeo riders on them that were too short in the sleeves and legs. Mom showed him the room and he asked if he might play his double bass for a few minutes. I went to bed and, lying in the dark, heard the sound of his bow over the strings, slow and melancholy, like music from deep underwater. I fell into a dreamless sleep that lasted until morning.
Lewis was up before the rest of us and already had coffee made. My parents shared the newspaper over breakfast and he asked them about various world events, what they thought of Pierre Trudeau and Gerald Ford and the metric system and the fall of Saigon. Naturally Joni chimed in with her opinions—Ford was “an asshole,” etc. My parents didn’t even tell her to watch her language. Then Dad picked up his briefcase with the broken latch and wished us all a splendid day. It was cold and grey but still hadn’t snowed, so he rode his bike to the bus stop. Neither I nor my sister wanted to go to school—we wanted to stay home and hang out with Lewis. But Mom shooed us off.
I remember that day as a particularly bad one at school, when my teacher asked me to read aloud a passage from a book called Pale Feather’s Last Buffalo Hunt. Reading was hard for me and I avoided it; nobody understood dyslexia back then and my father’s patient tutoring wasn’t helping much. I stood up and began, but immediately got mixed up and stopped. My teacher asked me to sit down and had the girl in front of me continue. Nobody laughed and at recess I didn’t get teased because nobody talked to me at all. But I felt humiliated and stupid and wished that I never had to set foot in that classroom again. Then the bell rang and I went back inside.
The high school was three blocks further on and as Joni got out before me, she always came by so that we could walk home together. Even though she was never nice to me anymore she still came, as if it were some unbreakable tradition. So both of us got home at the same time and smelled something lovely as we walked in.
“Lewis baked bread,” Mom said, her hands lifted off the typewriter keyboard. “With nuts and raisins in it. Go have a slice.”
We rushed into the kitchen. There was the loaf on the cutting board, already cut into, knobby and misshapen. Joni cut us each a thick slice and we slathered on honey from an open jar. Lewis came into the kitchen, he must have been in his room, and poured us milk. The bread and honey was delicious. I asked him about living on a farm and he told us about watching calves get born and how sometimes you have to help. “Gross,” Joni said, but she listened, too.
Dad was late coming home, looking as if he’d had a bad day himself. Mom finished up the stir-fry and Dad opened a bottle of homemade wine given to him by a Portuguese carpenter and he even let Joni and me each have half a glass. But Lewis said he didn’t drink, that his family had a long history in the temperance movement going back to his great-grandfather. Besides, he’d seen enough of his classmates getting sick-drunk on a Saturday night to last him a lifetime.
Dad said, “So tell me, what did you stay-at-homes do while the kids and I were slaving in the salt mines?”
“We had a very nice day,” Mom said. “Lewis insisted on cleaning up the house while I got an extra couple hours of phone calls done. Then we washed his clothes and when I saw the shape of some of those things I drove us over to Kmart to buy him two shirts and two pairs of jeans. That’s a new shirt he has on and isn’t it nice?”
“I tried to stop her,” Lewis said.
“Very nice,” Dad nodded. “I wouldn’t mind a shirt like that myself. A toast to Lewis’s new shirt.”
Lewis held up his water glass. It somehow never occurred to my sister or me to resent his new clothes. Joni was more talkative than she had been in months. She made fun of her teachers. She admitted to submitting a poem to the high-school literary journal, which surprised me. I didn’t even know she wrote poetry.
“I’d like to read it,” Mom said, and Dad said he wanted to read it also.
“I don’t know.” Joni looked at her plate. “It’s really personal. Lewis can read it.”
Lewis wanted to clean up, but Mom said he had done enough and made us help instead. Afterwards we did our homework and then Joni asked who wanted to play Probe. She had gotten the game for her birthday a few years earlier but we’d stopped playing it. It involved guessing other people’s words one letter at a time and, naturally, I was miserable at it. Plus Joni and my father were both fierce competitors who liked to win. But we played anyway, sitting on pillows around the coffee table and laughing a lot more than usual. Lewis was even a worse player than me, although Joni accused him of losing on purpose.
When we finished Lewis asked if anyone would like to sit on the front porch and get some air.
“It’s really cold out there,” my father said. “You won’t last two minutes.”
“On the farm we had to go out whatever the weather. I’m used to it.”
“I’ll go,” Joni said.
“Not for long,” Mom said. “There’s still school tomorrow, remember. And bundle up, all three of you.”
We put on our coats and hats and gloves and followed Lewis onto the porch. My father was right, the cold made me wince. We crowded in together on the top step, the concrete under my bum making me even colder.
“I have a question,” I said. “Did you have a television on the farm?”
“Sure. Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen one in your house.”
“We’ve never had one,” Joni said. “I never know what people are talking about in school. My parents actually want us to be freaks.”
“Did you watch a lot?” I asked.
“All the good ones. Welcome Back, Kotter. All in the Family. The Six Million Dollar Man. My dad liked Starsky and Hutch and my mom liked Mary Tyler Moore.”
“I’ve heard of them,” Joni said grumpily.
“Can you tell us about one?” I asked. “I don’t mean in general. I mean an episode. Like the plot and whatever. What about All in the Family?”
“Let me think. There’s one episode when Mike and Gloria hire a babysitter so they can go out. But Archie, that’s Gloria’s dad, the one who’s a bigot, isn’t too happy about it.”
“Start from the beginning,” Joni said.
So Lewis described the whole episode and sometimes used voices. We listened open-mouthed to every word.
Each day was like that. We would rush home from school and eat the bread, or the banana loaf, or whatever Lewis baked. He and I took to tossing a football around in the cold, something my father did only reluctantly. He showed me how to line my fingers along the seam of the ball to throw a spiral and how to put my hands together to catch it, skills that had previously eluded me. Before dinner he would help Joni with her homework, the two of them going into her room and Joni locking her door, as always. Sometimes we played a game, but we never skipped our time on the porch when Louis would tell us the plot from another television episode.
At bedtime came the music, deep and mournful tones without any real melody. Once in the kitchen I heard my father say to my mother, “That boy doesn’t know how to play a lick,” but I didn’t think it was true. I thought his music was beautiful.
There really isn’t more to it than that—no big scenes, no late-night confessions, no secrets revealed. A couple of years later, when I became rather obsessed with questions about sex, I did wonder about his relationship with the females in our house. What did he do with my mother all day long? Or those homework sessions with my sister in her room? Joni was a far better student than he had ever been and certainly didn’t need his help. Of course my mother was almost twice his age, but she had a warm personality, and Joni was beautiful if emotionally scary. But these thoughts, so icky and appalling, yet fascinating to me for a brief while, spoke more to my state at the time than anything else.
Anyway, I know what he did for me in just those few days. He taught me how to throw a football. And he instructed me in the ways of plot—set-up, complication, false climax, true climax, the resolve, the kicker. I suppose he also showed me that everyone is capable of making their own kind of music.
After breakfast on Saturday morning, Lewis went to his room and came back with his suitcase packed.
“You’ve been so kind,” he said. “You’re rare people.”
“Now we find out you’re going?” Joni’s eyes flashed.
“I think Lewis has his own calendar,” Dad said. “He knows when to move on.”
“Well, it’ll be like one of the family leaving,” Mom said, suddenly tearing up. “Don’t mind me.” She reached for a tissue. “So you’re really heading for Montreal?”
“Unless a ride takes me in some other direction.”
“Let me at least drive you somewhere,” Dad said.
“That would sort of break my method. Malcolm, let’s say goodbye.”
I awkwardly held out my hand but Lewis leaned down and hugged me instead. He hugged my father, too. Mom gave him a kiss on each cheek. Joni gave him a long hug and then smacked him on the chest with the flat of her hand.
He fetched the double bass and we all went to the door. “I don’t know how I should live, forget about anyone else. And maybe this is a stupid suggestion, but you might consider getting a television? See you again one day, I hope.”
We kept the door open to watch him move past the Westfalia parked in the drive. It was snowing lightly, and even our dull street looked pretty. The double bass under one arm and his suitcase in the other, Lewis reached the sidewalk, raised his foot in a comic gesture, and kept going.
About a week after Lewis was gone my father noticed that he was missing a lapel pin given to him by the carpenter’s union. My mother couldn’t find an inexpensive beaded bracelet. Lewis took something from me too: a wooden propeller I had painstakingly carved with a pocket knife, only to nick one of the blades. Joni wouldn’t tell us if he’d taken anything from her.
“It’s not really stealing,” Mom said. “They’re just little souvenirs, to remember us.”
Christmas came, but because we were totally secular Jews who didn’t even celebrate Hanukkah, and my parents disapproved of the commercialism of the season, we never got presents. But on the first day of the holiday I woke to find an enormous box in the living room. There were words printed on it: “your new sony color trinitron tv!” I stared in disbelief and then roused Joni out of bed. She swore at me for not letting her sleep until she saw what I was excited about.
That Christmas we watched hours and hours of television. It’s almost all I remember doing, although there were several snowfalls and outside the window kids were dragging toboggans to the local hill or carrying skates over their shoulders.
I don’t know why, but things got better for both of us after that. I discovered a kid in class, Herschel Litbaum, who was also into balsa-wood airplanes, and we started to go over to each other’s houses. Joni got her first boyfriend, whose name was Wayne, and who could almost grow a beard and wore a black leather jacket that made him look like, in the words of my father, “a Stasi agent.” My father got promoted to a desk job, meaning he no longer had to visit union members on job sites, but he didn’t like it much. Mom thought we were old enough to stay by ourselves after school and got a position at a fundraising operation in the city. She had to buy a “working girl’s wardrobe” and went off with Dad in the morning. I had to remember to take a key, especially since Joni didn’t come to meet me anymore. If I wasn’t seeing Hershel, or didn’t have a baseball game, I would come home to an empty house that did, however, have a television.
We hoped to hear from Lewis, a postcard maybe, but we never did. Sometimes at the dinner table one of us would say, “I wonder where Lewis is now?” and the rest would offer possibilities. Halifax, New Orleans, Prague? We liked the idea that he had passed through our own house, on his way to the rest of the world.