I didn’t realize how big Toronto was until my dad dragged me along on his missions. He’d load me up with toys and candy and tell me to keep my arm inside the opened window. Then the long white Thunderbird would ease out onto Davenport with the latest disco tune pouring out of the eight-track. We’d go all over. Scarborough. Mississauga. North York. Parkdale. Mimico. You name it, my dad had it covered. He even had some play up in Richmond Hill. Her name was Claudette and she smelled like the flowery perfume that old ladies wore. She had long shiny black hair that was definitely too straight to be natural. And the nails! Her nails were so long they spawned some of my worst nightmares. She’d either be chasing me with her head on a tiger’s body or I’d have the Dracula dream where her slime-filled melting face bounced along behind me. Wherever I turned, her wretched teeth and eyes pounced on me. Needless to say, I didn’t like her, which was fine, considering she didn’t seem warm or welcoming to my young skinny bones either.
We’d arrive and she’d head straight into prima donna mode.
Kendall, you brought him again, she’d say, cracking the door open.
What you expect me to do? he’d respond. Leave he home to get me ass arrested?
They’d close the bedroom door, and then I’d have the entire apartment to myself. Usually, on these escapades, I’d watch TV. I often stood right in front of the tube manually flipping through channels. I was too lazy to walk back to the couch. I’d just stand google-eyed and have the TV envelope me like this psyched-out trans-forming static blanket. If I was bored, I’d shock myself by rubbing my feet on the carpet and launch my index finger straight at the screen. I had this whole “electro man” thing going. I was never able to transfer my shock powers into the wall or the floor, but it didn’t stop me from trying. I’d rub the hell out of my socks and touch everything in sight and nothing happened, until I zapped the TV. This can only keep you entertained for so long, even when you’re eight. If the woman had a remote, I’d sit back on the couch and race through the numbers until they repeated. If there was no cable or I was tired of the toys, I just slumped asleep on the rug or sofa.
I didn’t hate them all. The one I liked the most was Karen. She didn’t have a crusty old apartment. She lived in a stained yellow brick house down in Cabbage-town. I still remember the first time we went over. She opened the door, said hi and gave me a big hug. It felt real. Not like those fake hugs some of the others gave. I guess the others were just nervous and probably thinking, what the hell are we supposed to do with this kid here.
Not Karen. She ran her soft white hand through my fro and said, you’re cute, like your father. Then she kissed me on the cheek and the ringlets from her blond hair washed warm across my face like the summer sun.
Want to paint? she asked.
Her crazy-wide sea blue eyes twinkled as she pointed to the vast supply of painting materials. You’d think she owned an art store with the massive haul laid out in her living room. Different paint brushes, acrylics, water colours, canvas. She had it all. They disappeared upstairs and I did my best Jackson Pollock imitation, attacking the defenceless canvas with a steady rain of paint drops.
She didn’t even mind when I tracked red paint over the carpet. She just smiled and said, Next time, I’ll put some plastic down. My mom would have whooped my ass if I had done anything like that. And my mom didn’t smoke either. Karen seemed to have a cigarette surgically attached to her right hand. She’d roll a few on the coffee table in front of me. She was always slow and deliberate. I remembered how she rubbed the paper gently between her fingers and slid it in and out of her mouth before she lit it.
She’d motion to my dad, want a pull?
Gotta go, he’d say, and then we’d be out the door like nothing had happened.
The weirdest place was Maureen’s. She lived in one of those public townhouses up in the Jungle. The place was all ghettoed out with cracked walls, roaches and the proverbial leaky tap that was always running even though she had told the land-lord about it a million times. So she said. She had two kids, which was both good and bad. I never had to bring in toys from the car, because the place was stocked like a Toys “R” Us warehouse. There was the baby who was usually asleep or in his playpen. And there was Tahj. He was a big chubby prick who towered over me even though he was only one year older.
I could tell Tahj was probably the main bully in his class by the way he bragged about making kids do things. He showed me his class picture, pointed at the faces and said, see the kid in the blue shirt? I made him eat grass. See this kid with the big head? I peed on his shoes in the boy’s washroom. Then he’d roll back and laugh. More of a cackle really, and he’d laugh so quick and hard that I always thought he was on the verge of hyperventilating.
Future psychopath tendencies aside, Tahj wasn’t all that bad. He loved to play board games, and as long as I let him win, everything was fine. We played checkers, Trouble, Battleship and Hungry Hippos. If he was losing, he’d ask for an extra turn, cheat or just sit there with this pissed look on his face. One time, I beat him at checkers. Two seconds later, he had me in the headlock of the century. My face was literally turning purple and he kept saying, who’s the winner now, who’s the winner now. He held me in the vice grip even after I acknowledged his royal highness had won.
Most times, things were fine and he’d give me some of his hockey cards before I left. This is what I loved. In those days, everyone collected hockey cards. They were money. If you were packing hockey cards, you were the bomb. Tahj had four big shoeboxes full of cards. He’d place a stack in my hand as my dad would start for the door.
You sure? I’d ask.
Don’t worry, he’d say. I stole them from kids at school.
I don’t know if my mom suspected anything. If she did, she kept it to herself. Her big thing was work. She worked full time during the day as a nurse’s aid and put in a lot of extra time. I was lucky to see her before bedtime on school days. Week-ends, she’d go over and clean rich people’s houses up in Forest Hill. She’d come home, flop on the couch and start complaining about her back. This would last about five minutes. Then she’d be up sweeping the floor, vacuuming or washing the dishes. You couldn’t pay her to stop working.
My dad was a different story. He had been a singer in Grenada, and everyone agreed he had a nice voice, even people who hated him. And there were plenty of them to go around. He fronted a calypso-soul band called The Saga Boys. I don’t remember being dragged out to gigs when I was a baby, but apparently I slept through everything. I listened to tapes of the band and had to admit that they were good. I won’t lie: it’s strange listening to your dad’s voice bouncing out of speakers. It’s even stranger admitting he’s talented at it. I’d imagine him up on stage belting out soulful jams with Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder, sweat pouring down his face as the voice flowed out of him like a river. Or I’d picture him on Soul Train as the new groove sensation with people hitting him up for autographs.
Like everything else about him, it didn’t turn out. On many levels, I’m happy he never made it. How can anyone live up to that? He painted houses for a while when we first arrived in Canada, but then, like any other dreamer, decided to pursue his musical career again. My mom flipped when she heard that.
Who’s going to help me pay rent? She asked.
No need for babysitters, he responded.
The first time I stole, I only took five dollars. My heart bucked against my chest big time. I kept hearing this voice in my head saying no, what if you get caught? But I reached into Maureen’s purse anyways. I dashed back to the TV. Tahj was in the bathroom trying hard to relieve himself of the bags of chips and cookies he had mowed down. He’d told me his mom gave him some senna leaf tea to make it easier for him. But after siphoning down a gallon, he was still off to the bathroom. Doesn’t seem to work, he said.
It took about five minutes and one commercial to realize that I’d left the purse wide open on the kitchen table. You can always put it back, the voice said. But I zipped up the purse and stuffed the five dollar bill down my sock. I shifted it around several times and doubled up the sock to erase any bulges.
With my new-found supply of cash and cards, I was becoming the hockey card king at school. We played a game where we lined cards up along a wall and tried to knock them down by whipping other cards at them. Whoever knocked down the most cards won. It was a winner-take-all kind of game, which sucked big time if you lost. Imagine trying to explain to your mother why your massive stack of hockey cards disappeared in one day as you’re trying to hit her up for more money. I was happy I was able to bypass that whole scenario. No more running up to the cash register with a fistful of plastic sealed cards and saying, mom please, please, just this once.
I even looked forward to Tahj’s place. Once I brought him a whole shoebox stuffed with cards. His eyes widened to the size of a hurricane. I could have sworn I saw drool slide out of his mouth.
Where’d you get those? He asked.
At school, I smiled.
He was a lot nicer to me after that. He didn’t retaliate when I kicked his ass in Trouble or Battleship. No more headlocks or grinding my face into the dusty brown carpet. No more wet gooey spit balls launched my way or ducking tennis balls flung at my head. He even called me once. My mom was a bit shocked when she picked up the phone. No non-relative had ever called me before.
It’s for you, she said. I could tell right away by her sunflower smile and slight giggle that something was up with the call. It was the same look she had on her face the first day of kindergarten.
The conversation lasted all of two minutes. I don’t remember much, just Tahj breathing heavily and talking loud through the phone. I wanted to tell him to shut up and quiet down, but the vision of a vice grip headlock quickly killed that idea.
Who’s that? She asked.
No one, I said.
The next week, we were back up in the Jungle. Tahj was on the rug watching cartoons when we came in, his big head slumped in his right palm. I could tell he had just been crying. His eyes were all redded out and he had that pissed look on his face. The type of screwed-up tight leather face look he had whenever I beat him at something.
Do you wanna play Risk? I asked.
He just moved his head deeper into his palm, like a ball edging a catcher’s mitt.
What’s wrong? I asked.
My fricken mother gave me licks.
You got licks? What for?
She thinks I stole ten dollars from her purse.
Really? I said. Tahj would have pummelled my ass if he knew I had burned him over. No matter what, I wasn’t going to let Tahj, or anyone else, know where I got my funds. I told myself to act normal, even though I could feel a few quakes rattling my left foot and breaking into my voice. I tried to focus on his eyes as words poured out his mouth.
She licked me every day this week, he said. There was fire lit behind his eyes. I told her I didn’t take anything, but she doesn’t believe me.
Maybe she lost it, I said. My dad loses money all the time, especially if he drinks.
She said she had the money to buy baby formula. She also took away my hockey cards.
What did she do with them? I asked.
She put them in a bag and threw out the garbage. A booger started to slither its way out from his nose. His mouth quivered and I thought he was going to start blub-bering, but he held it and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. I reached deep into my pocket and pulled out a large date-square–sized wad of new hockey cards.
Here, I said. These are yours.
He stood up and snatched the cards out of my hand. He was quick for a guy his size, whipping through the deck to make sure there weren’t any falsies in the stack. Falsies were cheaper cards from other sports, usually baseball, that people would try to sneak into a stack of cards. If someone owed you cards because you demolished them in a game, you had to wade through each card to make sure they didn’t punk you off.
When he was done, he put his arm on my shoulder and flung me to the ground. The ceiling raced forward as he pile-drived me onto my back. I felt an arm twisted round and coiled under me. I didn’t know whose arm it was until the pain hit.
Get off! I screamed.
Who’s the best? he asked. I could smell the sour cream’n’onion chips on his tongue.
After thirty seconds of him practically breaking my arm and me agreeing he was the best wrestler in the world, he finally released me. My arm was sore for an entire week, and I promised myself I would never sneak money from Maureen again.
Things were good with the others until Claudette started asking questions. By that point I had graduated to taking tens and even yanked a twenty from Karen’s white leather handbag. Claudette launched into my dad.
You better watch it, he yelled back. There’s no thief in my family.
The door flew open in a crash. He grabbed his keys, pointed at me and motioned to the front door.
You sure you didn’t see ten dollars? she asked.
She looked at me again. It was one of those don’t-mess-with-me-kid looks that adults dole out when they know you’re guilty but can’t prove it. Her eyes bulged and with purple rollers supporting her dry scraggy hair, she looked like black medusa. I kept my head down and swallowed slow. My dad was on my side.
Maybe you lost it, he said.
She glared at us and stood in the doorway as we backed out of the parking lot. The Thunderbird turned smoothly like a boat in water. We never talked much anyway in the car. The music would pump and I would groove along while he sang. The sun would bounce off his shades and his side burns would glisten with Afro Sheen. The car always reeked of All Spice. The only commercial on during football games in those days seemed to be for that stuff. The first few times we went out, he used to say, don’t tell mommy. Then we’d go to McDonald’s or I’d raid a toy store. If mom ever asked where we were, he’d either choose the park or say we were down visiting a friend of his.
My dad wasn’t just about play. We actually did spend some time in a basement recording studio down on Symington. It was tiny and reeked of stale cigarette smoke, but I loved it. There were all these knobs and buttons that the sound engineer, Reggie, would let me test. He was a serious dread and had his hair bundled up in one of those massive red, green and yellow tams. I’d raise the volume and then kill it with the mute button and go haywire on the controls for all the other instruments. It was mad fun for an eight-year-old. My dad would sing behind glass, the microphone an inch in front of him. He’d close his eyes and put both hands on the metal headphones. His voice filled the room like light waking a garden. I’d smile and watch as the tones resonated through me.
To this day, I think the only time I saw my dad genuinely happy was in that studio. After each session, or kicking it on the mic at a bar, my dad would swing by Panan’s Roti Place and splurge on roti and doubles. It was a serious commitment considering he didn’t have any money. He’d even buy some extra roti shells so we’d have some the next day.
At night we’d watch sitcoms and the news. My mom loved Good Times and warmed the apartment with full deep belly laughs. She wouldn’t even be able to settle down until the commercials began and even then she had to rush for a glass of water before J.J. started his antics again. Sometimes she’d plait and braid my hair while the TV glowed in front of us like a campfire. I’d sit on the low bumpy rug with my head back toward her. She’d load my hair up with Dax or Cleopatra grease, part the rolling mats and then rake a big blue brush through the Black Forest mass of curls. I’d jerk forward as comb teeth scraped along my scalp. Hold still, she’d say, and I’d clench my teeth, feeling tangles break apart as she forced her way through my fro. The worst was the Vaseline. I never understood why she used it when we ran out of hair grease. It just clumped up in my hair and made it look grey and dull in the sun. I hated it more than anything because it made my scalp itch after recess and gym.
Everything seemed normal the next time we went to visit Claudette. She was smiling and seemed happy to see me.
Hi Johnny, she squealed.
I should have realized something was up, but I was too young at the time. They went through the routine: a few words of small talk, my dad stretching and pretending to be tired, then the closed bedroom door. I headed straight for her purse and hit the jackpot. She had five or six twenties grouped together with a paperclip. The bills felt crisp and new like tracing paper. I slotted one into my back pocket.
Ernie from Sesame Street was doing his rubber duckie scene when they emerged from the room. She eased her way to the purse like a lawyer about to present evidence, her steps slow and deliberate, with eyes glued to my father. You’d think there was an audience in the living room by the way she was going on. She removed the paperclip and laid the remaining four twenties on the table.
See, she said, I told you!
My dad jumped into fulmination mode. He was on me in less than a second, grasping a heaping handful of my brown polyester shirt. I could have sworn I was lifted two inches off the ground.
Where the hell is the money? His voice thundered in my ears.
I wanted to lie and pretend that I had no clue what he was talking about. I wanted to keep cool like criminals and gangsters on TV. I wanted to run or fly out of there like some midget superhero. I even wanted to say the twenty was mine, but Claudette approached, pointing to where she had penned her name in blue ink, in the same spot on each bill. Claudette was no joke. She even numbered the bills! Number four was missing. I wanted to do a lot of things. But all I could do was cry. I coughed up the lost twenty and felt my body tremble as salt tears danced down my face. Dad whacked me so hard I thought my left cheek had fallen off.
Before he could backhand me across the other side, I screamed, I’m telling mom! His hand slid to a skid in midair, then brushed along my cheek.
I’m telling mom, I blubbered.
The anger drained from his face lightning quick. It was replaced with something that bordered on fear, but not as strong. It was the look of someone realizing that they’d reached the end of the world and, with one more step, would slip off. I don’t know if he saw any cliffs in his mind. What I can say is, I’ve never seen that look since. On anyone’s face.
He hugged me tightly as my sniffles slowed and calmed me by caressing my back and arms. Claudette walked off to the kitchen shaking her head.
See the trouble now, she said, see the trouble?
Tahj called about a week later. My mom picked up the phone and immediately seemed to lose the ability to understand English.
Who do you want? She asked. What? Oh ho, you want Johnny.
She motioned me over.
Hello, I said.
Hi Johnny, Tahj replied. I could hear him breathing heavy into the phone again.
Why don’t you guys come to visit no more? he asked.
I don’t know, I said.
But you’re my best friend.
I’m your best friend?
Yes. I have two packs of hockey cards for you.
I didn’t know I was your best friend, I said.
How come you don’t know?
You never told me, I said.
But we gave each other hockey cards.
Oh, I said. I didn’t realize that me and jungle strangler were best friends because he gave me cards.
I’ll ask my dad when he gets home, I said.
I fell asleep before my dad checked in, but by the next morning, I forgot to ask. It didn’t matter anyways. He rarely took me anywhere any more. I think he still cheated, and I even think my mom had her suspicions, but no one said anything. Whenever he had to babysit, he’d leave me alone and say he’d be back in twenty minutes. I was forbidden from answering the phone or the door. If everything went ok—meaning that I didn’t set the apartment on fire, poison myself or answer the phone—he’d promise me a half dozen donuts. Maple dipped was my favourite.
We continued this until he threw in the towel and forgot about his music career. He returned to painting houses. I could tell my mom was happy, but he was missing something, and it showed. The smile that had lured all the women had packed up and left. I knew those days were gone. Weeknights, he’d spend time drinking with the guys at Cutty’s Bar down the street. He’d come home, plop on the couch and stare at the TV until he fell asleep. Then the snoring would ease in. Gradually at first, and then louder. I’d race cars around the couch trying to drown out the noise. I’d think of him singing as I tried to see how many cars I could balance on a hockey card bridge, carefully placing the cars beside each other before everything fell down.