Centennial Year

Fiction

For Peter it was a curse to be the brainy one. His fraternal twin, the torturer of small animals, was never asked to translate for their parents. His two sisters were excused because they were girls. And young Louie was simply too young.

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And so it fell to Peter to explain to his parents why the policeman came to their home in Riverdale looking for his father.

“I have a summons to appear,” the man said. “For a Theo-doros Ka-po-dis . . .” He paused. “I don’t know how to pronounce this.”

Peter spoke to the policeman as his parents stood behind him.

“What do they want?” Theodoros said. He knew some basic English but as much as possible he refused this new language. Reading material was still the papers from Greece, shipped over by boat and usually at least a week old.

He says it’s about the neighbourhood kid. The one you slapped.

That kid? Those Anglo kids behave like cannibals. I should go and slap him some more.

You can’t do that here. I’ve told you. It’s not like home.”

Road hockey. Peter saw it transpire and was admittedly not that surprised by his father’s reaction. The neighbourhood kid—one of these red-headed Anglos whose parents resented the Greeks and Italians who lived in most of the homes now—had taken a wrist shot that sailed well past the net and struck Theodoros in the back of the head. And Theodoros had then lashed out at the boy, using the hard slap that Peter and his siblings knew well.

It was the centennial year, his father explained afterwards, and what better way to celebrate it than to have the country’s newest immigrants smack the worthless offspring of these Anglo barbarians who had come before them. Of course, Theodoros’s attitude changed when he realized that he would have to explain himself at the police station.

The winter is colder than the mountains. The women shave their legs and are probably loose.

“Maybe we’ll tell them it was an accident,” he said after the policeman left.

“An accident for who? That the boy hit you, or that you hit him back?

“Whatever. How serious can this be?

Tasia, Peter’s mother, scolded Theodoros over the dinner table later. “What kind of trouble are you trying to get us in?

“You think I’m trying to get us into trouble?

“Every day you’ve been here, it’s the same. ‘What a worthless country,’ you say. ‘What a worthless people.’”

“Is it my fault that they’re worthless?

And Peter remembered the debate. Back in Greece, as he waited with his mother and siblings for Theodoros to send money to bring the rest of the family over, all they received were letters complaining about how bad Canada was. The winter is colder than the mountains. The women shave their legs and are probably loose. Their coffee is weak. All their food comes in cans. They look down on the Greeks and treat them only slightly better than the Africans and Chinese that they have in their country.

A neighbour had said to Tasia, “Six months. I give your husband six months. He could barely hold onto a job here. What hope has he there?

And so she wrote forceful letters in return: The neighbours don’t believe that you’ll make it. Half of Kalamata does not believe that you’ll make it. And if you prove them right, if you try to return home, I will kill you with my own hands.

At least, that was the sense that Peter got of those letters, when their older cousin Toula came to read them and to help Tasia write ones in return. Now, at the dinner table, the same discussion took place.

“You’re trying to provoke them, Theodoros. To do something so they’ll send us back.”

“They can’t send us back. They can’t afford to. They’re too lazy to do their own work, so what would they do without us?” Theodoros turned to Peter now. “You’ll explain it to them for me.

Peter shrank in his chair. “What am I supposed to say to them?

“You tell them what a rotten kid that was and then we’ll see who is apologizing to who.

“Dad, that’s not . . .”

“That policeman doesn’t know what kind of trouble makers these kids really are.

Peter cast a look about the table at his siblings. Spiros was poking Tina with a fork. Effie pretended not to notice and instead hassled their mother to buy her a new hair clip. Louie, without either parent noticing, had put down his utensils and was digging through his fahkes by hand, plucking diced potato from the brown lentils.

So Peter picked at his food in silence. There was no one else who could go in his place.

After dinner his father settled into the one good chair in the living room and waited for the TV to warm up, listening to the sounds of the wrestling match as the picture, black and white and with more static than usual, slowly emerged.

“Peter. Come move the antenna rabbit for me.”

Having heard the English phrase for the word, and not fully understood it, Theodoros had created his own version in Greek. Peter went over to the set now. From the back, through the hole that his father had kicked when The Amazing Adonis had lost the title match last year, Peter saw the glow of the warm vacuum tubes. His sister Tina had been young enough when they came to Canada to imagine that these astounding little boxes—for they had never seen these in Greece—really housed tiny people. Cowboys and Indians, newscasters in their horn-rimmed glasses and the seemingly inexhaustible guest list of the Ed Sullivan Show. But Peter had taken one look into the heart of the television and saw what it represented: a future governed by waves and particle. Electrons. Circuitry. All the things that no one else in his classroom seemed to understand when the teacher read sections of the science textbook to a group of working-class kids, immigrants and others whom no one expected would ever amount to much.

You’re not fixing it right, Peter. It’s all snow.

He moved the antenna again. It was all about catching the right length of radio wave. And this was how Peter himself felt about adjusting to Canada. That it was about fitting some invisible measure, some unspoken set of rules, that immigrants were not supposed to understand or pick up on.

He sat with his father after the television snow had cleared.

“Look at that, Peter. This one plays dirty. He hits the other man’s groin when the referee looks away.

•••

Spring in Riverdale. The morning air crisp with the cold that should have already gone away. In Greece, the first of May was when children tied small bracelets of string around their wrists to start measuring the tanning of the summer season. In Canada this was still a time when plants rose only tentatively out of the hard ground.

“We have time, so why don’t we walk. What you say, Peter?

Peter only nodded. Having watched the other children leave for school, having kissed his mother goodbye when she left for her cleaning shift at the hospital, he had had nothing to do but wait with his father, who had filled the air with thoughts and pontifications that barely masked an underlying worry.

“We need one of those machines that do the washing, like they sell on TV. Something so your mother doesn’t have to work so hard, don’t you think?” And later, “Maybe we’ll get a car one day. Some day, we’ll never have to walk anywhere again. Wouldn’t that be something?

But there was not enough money as it was. His father could barely afford to take the morning off work. He had had to go over to the neighbour’s place and convince Taki Vagarelos to let him use his telephone. Taki, in turn, would sometimes come over to Theodoros’s house to have a cigarette when his wife complained that all their money was going to liquor and tobacco. Neither man liked the arrangement. And today, coming back from Taki’s house, Theodoros had said, “That foreman. Pure malakas. I have to be careful he doesn’t try to cut me another shift because I miss this one.

And so they walked, not for the scenery, as his father claimed, but because it saved them the fare for the streetcar.

The flags that the few remaining Anglos in the neighbourhood had put up still puzzled Peter. A hundred years of Canada. What did that mean next to a few thousand years of Greece? And yet this was the future. Somehow, this new country had supplanted the old.

On Gerrard, Peter watched the streetcars rush by as they walked. He felt the soles of his hard shoes—bought from Nikos Pappas who only stocked Greek-made Oxfords that were thick enough to last on dirt roads but proved surprisingly useless in rain or snow—against the pavement. Coxwell was somewhere in the distance, but all Peter could see now were the streetcars getting smaller and then disappearing over the crest of a hill.

“Look at that, Peter! Those Chinese opened a restaurant. I hear they eat dogs, but then, so do these Canadians.

His father nudged him. It was a joke that Greek men liked to tell. It involved an immigrant eating a hot dog and looking up the translation for the two words as he ate. The punch line involved the man thinking that he had eaten a dog. The joke did not translate well into English, but his father loved it. Peter, however, felt embarrassed by it. By its untranslatability.

Peter said almost nothing on the long walk to Coxwell, but his father had something to say for almost every landmark they passed.

“You see that movie theatre there? Now it’s run by Greeks.”

“I know, dad.”

“I tell you this, because it shows you how we’re improving this country. Before, the Anglos they run it, and nobody comes. Now everyone goes there.

Only Greeks, Peter thought.

“And you see that church there? You know why the Anglos have so many? It’s because they can’t decide too good about things. They have so many different kinds of churches that even they can’t keep count. In Greece, it’s simple. One church for everyone. We’re more efficient that way.

He was talking more than usual, as if someone had told him that he had to keep his lips moving at all times. It was the same tactic that he took when Tasia caught him in a lie. Peter had only recently clued in to the dynamic. When they first came to Canada he was ten and still thought that his father’s words said as much about the truth of the world as anything conferred by God to the prophets who wrote the Bible. Now, at thirteen, he knew better. His father wanted Peter to hate the same things that he hated. To see this new country as something that could never match the one that they had had to leave.

These Englezos are pretty stupid to build so many churches, don’t you think Peter?

Peter knew the routine. He was supposed to agree with his father. But today he said, “I don’t know dad. Maybe they have a reason for that.

“Ah, what do you know? You’re spending too much time with the Englezos. You can’t see what they’re really like, like I do.”

Peter listened as his father took credit, on behalf of the Greeks, for everything decent on Gerrard. The new department store by Logan? Built mostly by Greeks, because everyone knew that the people who had built the Parthenon could put up a building that would last forever. The textile factory? Now that they employed Greek women—at scandalously low wages mind you—the fabrics were tougher and made without error. Weaving went back to the Greeks, after all. It was all there in the mythology, Clotho and the fates, the original weavers. Only once did they pass anything Anglo that his father did not disparage. They stopped for a moment in front of a hardware store and stood in the glow of new TVs in the window. Television was the only Canadian thing that Theodoros approved of.

At the police station they sat on a wooden bench, waiting.

“Maybe when you grow up, you can be a policeman or something. It’s probably a pretty easy job if they have time to come bug people like me.

“Maybe.”

“What’s wrong? Barely a word I hear from you all day.

Unlike his father, he didn’t like speaking, and yet here he was having to speak for him.

“I should be in school.”

“So you miss half a day? Is the world going to end?

Peter couldn’t think of a response.

“Look, I know you like your books, and that’s good, but sometimes you have to get out into the world.

“To come to a police station?

“What? You want to make me feel bad for this? Who else am I going to get?

The office they were led into was small and bare. Its only window looked out onto a brick wall.

The policeman came in. A fat man, maybe his father’s age. Peter noted with some reservation that the officer’s hair was as red as the neighbourhood boy’s.

“Your dad doesn’t speak English?”

“Not much.”

“Can he can understand it at least?”

Peter looked at his father now. Surely he knew more than he let on. How else did he go to work every day and speak with these Englezos on the phone? But what to say now to the officer?

“He understands a little, but not enough.”

The officer crossed his arms. “This is an English country. Tell him that he has to learn English if he wants to get by.”

“Dad, he says that you should learn English.”

“What does that have to do with anything? Tell him that he should learn Greek.

“Why should he do that?

“He thinks the language of Homer isn’t good enough? Instead he wants me to learn this barbarian tongue, is that it?

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“So,” the officer said. “Let’s get to down to business. The boy your father hit, his parents called us to complain. Does your father know that in Canada, it’s not okay to just go and hit someone like that?”

“He said, do you know that in Canada you can’t hit people like you did?

“I didn’t hit a person, I hit a child.”

“He means you can’t hit anyone. It doesn’t matter if it’s a child or not.

“Tell him that in Greece, the children are not so rotten like they are here, because the parents know how to discipline them.”

The officer interrupted. “So, does he understand?”

“Well, it’s a bit different, in Greece. Parents will give you a smack if you do something wrong.”

“But he didn’t hit you. He hit someone else’s kid.”

“All the parents work together, in Greece. They hit each other’s kids when they think they have to.”

“Well, it’s not like that here.”

“I’m just trying to explain it to him.”

What are you saying to this malakas, Peter?

I’m trying to save your skin.”

You can tell him that I expect a full apology from that kid. Nothing less. You told him how he hit me with his ball, right?

He doesn’t care about that! Listen to me, this is serious.”

Peter turned back to the officer now. “I think he understands now. He’s very sorry.”

“I need you to tell him this: If the boy’s parents want to press charges, then this will go to court. Can you tell him that?”

Peter translated.

“Go to court? For what?

“For hitting the boy, of course.”

“They have nothing better to do with their time than hassle a man for disciplining a rotten kid?

“Dad, this is serious.”

“Tell him,” the officer continued, “that he can be charged with assault. He can even go to jail for this.”

“Dad, he says they can put you in jail if they want to.

“What kind of country is this where they would put me in jail and let that rotten kid run free?

Theodoros turned to the officer now. “Those kid . . . they like . . . kanibales.”

“What did he say?”

“Christ, dad! Just be quiet.”

“In Elatha . . .” Theodoros stopped himself, and then made a motion with his fingers across his neck like he was cutting someone’s head off.

“Why would you say that? You’re not helping.

“I didn’t know how to say that in Greece we’d shoot the little cannibals and string them up by their necks.”

“Look,” the officer said. “This is very serious. And I have to say, the parents told us that he’s done this before. If this is something he’s going to keep doing, we’re going to have a real problem here.”

Peter stopped. His father had done this before? How often? What were the circumstances? Once, he could attribute to his father not adjusting too well from Greece. But to do this twice? Multiple times?

“Dad, he says that you hit some kid before. Is this true?

“Is he asking, or are you asking?

“I’m asking.”

“You’re my son. It’s not your place to ask questions.”

“Yes, but . . .

“I’d give you a smack for that, except that it looks like it’s against the rules of this backwards country.

Backwards country? Peter fell silent. The only thing backwards, as far as he could see, was his father.

“What did he say?” the officer asked.

And for just a moment, Peter wanted his father to be proven wrong. To be shown that his attitudes didn’t count for anything here. He began to imagine various unlikely ways by which he could teach him a lesson. He could translate his father’s actual words. He could team up with the policeman to debunk Theodoros’s claims about their adopted country. Peter looked to the man for a sign of camaraderie, for a sign they were united against his father’s old-world attitudes, but instead what he saw in the man’s face was a growing impatience bordering on anger.

“I want you to translate this, word for word.” He looked at Theodoros now as he delivered the words. “This is Canada. If you promise to act Canadian, I’ll tell the parents not to press charges. I don’t know how you do things back home, but you’re not going to do that here. Understood?”

And something in Theodoros’s expression changed, even before Peter translated the words. A heavy silence fell and Peter waited for his father to say something.

“So what should I tell him, dad?

“He wants me to beg him. Like some common criminal.

“That’s not what he said.”

“Well, I have to beg him then.” His voice changed. “What choice have I?

Theodoros mustered some English now. “I sorry,” he said, his voice a thin thread of sound as he uttered the words. He kept his eyes down, his gaze not rising to meet the policeman’s.

Peter regretted the moment and for wishing this upon his father.

“He understands,” Peter said, his own voice lacking substance now. “He’ll do what you said.”

The officer looked at them both for a moment, his gaze moving between father and son. “I hope you don’t turn out like your father,” he said to Peter.

“What?”

“You don’t want to turn out like that, kid. He’s setting a bad example. Tell him that. Tell him that this is no thing for a father to do, to have his son come down to a police station with him.”

Peter watched the policeman for a moment in disbelief.

“I can’t say that to my father.”

“Look kid. You have to tell him so that he’ll learn. You want your dad to learn how to behave right, don’t you?”

He waited for his father to say something disparaging about Canada, so that he could agree with him, but there were no words now.

Peter looked to his father now and saw the stiffness in his jaw, the tight pressing of teeth together that his father did whenever he knew it was a bad idea to talk back to his wife.

“Dad?

“What did he say this time?

“He said . . .” Peter glanced at the policeman for a moment. He said, the kid was probably bad. Probably a trouble maker like you said.”

Theodoros only nodded.

As they stepped out of the police station, Theodoros tried to return to his previous manner.

Hey, why don’t we ride the streetcar home? Come on, you deserve it. You did good today, Peter.

Sure, dad.”

As they boarded the streetcar, as they felt the great machine move forward, propelled by that invisible current that ran through the overhead wires, Peter watched the faces around them. Soft faces. Canadian faces.

Murmurs of English hung over them as they squeezed to the back. An unanswered question: how much did his father know? Voices carried and Peter caught what he thought were flickers of recognition. He waited for his father to say something disparaging about Canada, so that he could agree with him, but there were no words now. They sat at the back, neither one speaking.

A large window framed his father against the moving streetscape of Gerrard. Their walk to the police station played out in reverse, only faster, and without the commentary. There was constant movement in this city. All of this change, moving in invisible circuits, like the waves and particles in the air, the flow of electricity that powered the streetcar. His father looked very still against the rushing street-scape. Peter wanted to say something but could not break the silence.

In the underpass, for just a moment, the trolley pole came loose, and a flash of electric light jumped across air. All was illuminated, like a photo, for just a moment, before the pole caught the wire.

They rode in silence, and he watched his father, waiting for him to speak.


David Layton read this piece in manuscript, helping develop it for TOK.
View James Papoutsis’s author profile.
TopArt by Gilbert Li and Lauren Wickware

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