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on one side of our house, but that was not why; I could hear the regular sigh of his breath when we watched TV together. “A minor circulatory thing,” I overheard him tell the other neighbour, but that was also not why because I could hear the steady ba-dump of his heart when I put my ear on his swollen belly. He just did not like the heat, I decided, like he did not like Coke but I did. The afternoon heat would drive us to the depths of the old stone church or the blasting chill of the video mart where we gazed long and hard but usually came away empty-handed. Sometimes we would ride the air-conditioned subway, end to end, with Dad trying to hide the yawns that split his jaw wide as the Don Valley.

During our last summer together, we stayed for a week at Dad’s parents’ cottage. It was possible to position your lawn-chair near the lakeshore in such a way that no other dwelling was visible. The green was rich, impenetrable. “Just like Mario World, innit, Chief,” Dad said to me. The cottage, with its splotches of red and white, looked indeed like a giant Mario mushroom. Its windows were large and high and faced the lake, and inside, its floors were the colour of golden honey.

“More like Grimms’ world,” Mom said. She stared into the dark pines.

Beside the cottage was a shingled lean-to in which someone—my uncles, perhaps—had stacked hundreds of pieces of wood about the size of children’s forearms. The wood in the lean-to seemed to wall off the Mario cottage from the rest of the world. Most afternoons, Dad would sit with his chair in the shade while I splashed in the water, chasing silvery fish with a net. Mom rattled about with dishes and dustpans and eventually emerged, toting a thick yellowed paperback.

Sometimes I would look up and see Dad’s chair empty. “Dad, Dad!” I would rush out of the lake, scanning the shady spots nearby, hollering until Mom dropped her book. Once we had to walk far in from the shore, up a pine needle path, until I saw Dad, sitting on a boulder like a natural throne, calmly surveying his realm. He nodded gravely. I hid my tears. I had to. I could not explain my relief.

Dinner was macaroni, boiled to near-pudding consistency on the wood-burning stove, unless we felt too hot, and then it would be crackers from tins, crackers until our mouths went dry. We listened to news from the wind-up radio. Mom had no patience to wind it so she’d fake a sore arm, and say to me: “Chief, give it a turn.”

My parents spoke to each other by trading words back and forth like two parrots tenderly passing a nut between powerful beaks.

“Cards for evening?”

“Cards for evening.”

“Where would we be without our cards?”

“Without our cards—nowhere, that’s where.”


“Nowhere looks a lot like here.”

“But here we have cards.”

“Maybe nowhere has cards, too.”

“Shuffle the cards, why not.”

“Why not, it’s a routine procedure.”

“Oh, we know about routine procedures.”

“Routine procedures, ‘nuff said.”

“Give ‘em to Chief, why not.”

“Chief, shuffle.”

“There you go, they are chiefly shuffled.”

They would carry on with these bursts of verbal keep-up, like practice badminton where players aim only to keep the birdie in the air. This was the way we spoke in our family; not like those other conversations my parents had with doctors, full of long and exhausting sentences that started in one place and ended in another place, always worse.

At night we slept in the smallest bedroom of the cottage, Dad and I on spongy sleeping pads. Our sheets were worn to the limpness of complete surrender, and Dad would pick up the corners like delicate silk. Mom laid claim to an old army cot that squeaked with every movement. She trained herself to sleep half the night on one side, half the night on the other. Dad snored, which bothered Mom in the city but was encouraged here in the forest because it kept the porcupines—or worse—at bay. “Lights out!” Mom would say as she blew out the candle, leaving just the red pin-prick where the tip of the wick used to be. I would stare until it shrank to nothingness, while Dad gently touched my hair with his fingertips. I never asked him if he watched the ember disappearing, too.

Every morning I kept myself lying down until Mom or Dad woke up. I imagined I was under a Spell of Immobility until the ogre next door, the one who stockpiled arms, left to go pillaging, whatever that was. I splayed the fingers of my hand on the honey-coloured floor like I was stuck to flypaper. Birds called urgently from the trees, but no one under the Spell could wake. I could see the slack lips of Dad’s face and the moisture collecting on the lower corner of his mouth.

Then Mom would move, the squeaking of the cot sounding like the wretchedness of dreams rubbing off. Her eyes always searched first for him, then me. Catching my eye, she, too, tried to stay motionless. I tried to make Mom gasp by crossing my eyes until the muscles in my eye-sockets hurt. Or I silently curled my lip in a scowl until my gum dried out. It was our little game while we waited for Dad to wake up. I stared at his brow, or sometimes just looked out the window at the Mario-green leaves pressing themselves, like faces of curious onlookers, against the glass. His waking caused me to feel joyful, giddy, strong.

Then my parents would rise, paw through the contents of drawers until they discovered a pot, teabags, and matches for lighting the wood stove. How had the other one slept, they were anxious to know, and each of them gave surprisingly detailed answers. Occasionally they remembered to ask me how I had slept but, as an absurdly deep sleeper, I never had anything to report.

After their pot of “brawny brown” my parents would rustle around until they discovered oatmeal and raisins for breakfast. They cooked these in a battered aluminum pot, blackened on the outside and grey as a rainy sky inside. I did not like oatmeal, nor, I suspect, did they, but out of sheer novelty at the Mario cottage, we spooned the sticky gobs of stuckness into our mouths, chewed twice, and swallowed. It held all morning.

Afterward Mom scoured the oatmeal pot with gravel at the lakeshore. We cleared brush or rambled along the main path, which extended to the roadway where our car was parked among the tall grasses for the week, its wheel wells looking like smooth animal haunches, ready to pounce and drag us back to the world of video marts and milkshakes.

Clearing brush mystified me. Mom told me it was like combing tangles out of her hair, and every piece of forest needed this untangling so that fire would not happen so easily. What did she mean: “piece of forest”? And worse, was her hair susceptible to fire? Dad laughed, tentatively, at my questions and taught me how to tell the difference between dead sprigs and live.

 “Hey, look at the big pile-a brush, Chief!” Dad meted out encouragement, until my parents, on some prearranged signal, would straighten up, have a look at what we had done, and stop for the day. I could never see the bigness or the clearness like they could; our puny efforts were overwhelmed by the forest pressing in.

We saw few people along the main path, and those neighbours we met knew Dad’s parents, not us. One morning while I hunted for frogs a woman, dressed in black, with grey hair and smudgy glasses, came up to Dad where he stood in the shade.

The woman made making the usual observations about summer weather and then asked: “You’re Frank’s son, aren’t you?”

This bothered me because I did not think of Dad as anyone’s son. He was not a child like I was, therefore, how could he be someone’s son.

 “Yes.” Dad looked carefully into her face, as if he almost recognized her.

 “We haven’t been introduced but Frank told me about your case,” she said. “It is unfair—completely unfair,” Her mouth tightened; I could tell she was preparing herself either to say a lot or to say something bad, or maybe both.

At the mention of “case” Dad’s eyes darted to mine. “Well.” His tone held finality in it. He looked about for Mom. “Well— ah—missus—we should be moving along. Gotta get Chief here home for lunch.”

 “Blackburn,” she said, “I’m Gladys Blackburn.”

I forced myself to remember her name—like Ali Baba memorizing “sesame” as the key to the cave: “Gladys, bad is, Gladys, bad is,” I whispered all the way home.

 “Pleased to meet you,” said Dad, nodding. An untruth, I could tell because he did not extend his hand. To Dad, a handshake following an introduction was practically a physical reflex but for some reason he did .babu1sunarybabu1sunary​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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