Like A Serpent in The Belly

Angelo’s Roman nose was a monument on an otherwise slim, narrow face.  In the third grade he defended it against the taunts I hurled at him by pushing me and running away.  I threw a rock blindly, but was alarmed when the unintended victory struck the back of his head.  so I followed his tears home where I subjected myself to his parents’ reproach, and to their threat to tell my mom and dad.  Soon after, he and I became friends and together navigated the shoals and reefs of Catholic school.

Angelino was his baptismal name – a diminutive bestowed upon him by a mother who thought he was an angel – but we just called him Ange.  Both of us were skinny Italian kids, which no amount of pasta or homemade bread could fatten.  Our calories were rapidly burned in the rainforests of our parents’ adopted country, and we didn’t care if our supper was spoiled by the wild harvest of berries we found there.  We pulsed with energy and were curious about everything; we were feral chldren – dirty and gloriously alive.

Ange came to every one of my birthday parties with his accordion and played songs for us kids as we goofed around like puppies.  We were innocents who had not yet awakened to the snake in the garden – and in the third grade it bit Ange hard.  We were in Miss Night’s class, learning how to write cursive letters from the MacLean Method of Handwriting.  I’d already been nipped by this woman once and froze when she held up a sheet of foolscap to the class, mocking someone’s attempt at an assignment.

I remember her walking directly to Ange, taking him sternly by the arm and making him sit on a high-stool, facing a corner.  With a safety pin she attached the offence to his grey knit shirt – the one with the little black Indians woven into it – and publicly invited everyone to look at his transgression.  When I thought it was safe I walked up behind Ange but couldn’t identify the source of MIss Night’s mean spiritedness.  I heard him crying silently, his thin suspenders tracing the stoop of his shoulders, while his hand tried to staunch the drip of his noble Roman nose.

He wasn’t in the playground at recess, and when I saw hm the next day we never talked about it because we were not mature enough to understand the necessity of grieving.  We just went on – even when Miss Night, in the fourth grade, called a troublemaker to her desk and slapped his face fiercely with the belting that was supposed to be used only for hands and buttocks.  We just went on – trading comics, building forts and playing Cops and Robbers – our fear growing, like a serpent in the belly.

When my parents moved to another city Ange and I lost track of one another.  But years later a chance meeting with a boyhood friend told me that Ange still lived in our hometown, and that his great mark of distinction had become a vacuuum for cocaine.  He’d lost his business, had undergone therapy and was struggling.  Because of the gulf which time had torn between us I made no effort to contact him until a family vacation brought me back to his parents’ home.  Ange was out of town; but there, in the kitchen where his parents had threatened to disclose my misdeed, it all came back: the rock blindly thrown, Ange in the corner, his accordion, our romps in the wilderness – and Miss Night.

As I drove back along the highway, my young son played in the back while images of straps, belts, pointers and missiles paraded themselves in memory.  I felt a stirring in my belly and wondered if Ange had calmed his with coke.  In the rear view mirror my eight year old quietly read comics, and I asked myself: What in God’s name did Miss Night, and the others, think they were doing!


Kissed by Spiders

Sister Mary Albert was a blackbird with a white throat.  Her habit flowed behind her tall gaunt exterior like a little black tail as she clicked down the school corridors on bird feet – her mean, suspicious beak seeking those whom it could peck.  Children were afraid of this nun and when I saw her approaching I would hold my breath.

When she spied a troublemaker – someone who had disobeyed some rule like running in the hall or wearing shoes instead of the slippers required upon entering the building – her scowl would tower over him while she fingered the dark brown rosary beads that hung from her waist like a flagellant’s precious perversion.  In particular, I remember her long, mottled fingers, which to this fifth grader were stilettos of pain.  While scolding me, her thumb and forefinger would pinch my scrawny arm to the bone – like a spider’s kiss.

She wasn’t always severe, this bride of Christ; sometimes she would smile and for a moment you could almost trust her.  The menacing clouds would retreat, the sun would shine and you’d be tempted to remove your storm gear.  On one occasion I remember her lighting up when I spontaneously donated ten cents for the Children’s Missions.  But in those days the little professor within me could not trust the interplay of cloud and sun in this love-starved woman.  Her short-lived invitation to lower my guard was never accepted.

Being scheduled into her classroom in the sixth grade provoked anxiety; after all, she was the Sister Superior, the principal – a martinet who let nothing slide by her.  When her glowering form entered the room all were expected to rise as one and proclaim, “Good morning, Sister Mary Albert!”  No one sat down until she did.  Everyone was expected to have his dictionary lying on the left hand side of his desk – not the right side.  When you were spoken to you rose, then sat when she nodded.  When she exited the room, all stood whether it was the end of class or not.

There was a host of rules that were to be followed, and it was the red ink decree that I will never forget.  The rule was simple; it stated that you could not write in red ink; only Sister Mary Albert could do so because she marked your work in that colour; blue ink was mandatory for everything, but math, for which only pencil was to be used.  One day, when she surprised us with a quiz I found that my blue pen would not write.  Fearing a zero on the test, I decided to risk using the red one (You were not allowed to borrow from another student once she’d announced a test.).

When the tests had been collected, she quickly discovered my felony, confronted me before the class and told me to follow her.  She led me to a back room where she held out my hands and strapped them with some grey belting that was used in those days for punishment.  My hands shared ten swats, and when I began to cry she stopped and hugged me at which I righteously pushed her away.  She discounted my tears, told me to dry them and to get back to class.  I was later mollified by the knowledge that my classmates were about to leave in protest (A revolutionary act in those days.).

Soon after that incident which I never shared with my parents, our family moved to another city.  The years passed, I graduated from high school, and one summer as a junior in university I saw her standing alone at the entrance to a mall: still a blackbird whose hollow bones now seemed vacuum packed in skin.  Because I was now bigger, she no longer seemed a great heron with an edge…more a taught, vigilant sparrow surveying the terrain around her.  She recognized me, we shared some pleasantries, but there wasn’t much to say, so I wished her well and let her slide back into the humus of memories long past.

Forty-three years have elapsed since that mall encounter.  And as I write, I feel a strange tenderness for her, kindled by the sunny moments that peeked quickly from behind her storm.  I ask myself: Who was Sister Mary Albert?  Was she born wrapped in the black’n’white pinions of the Sisterhood?  Or was she once a sixth grader like me? – Someone with a name like Rachel or Cathy; a giggly young schoolgirl with a honey-blonde ponytail – her father’s little princess.  As a young woman had she ever fallen in love?  Or was it love betrayed that had made her so bitter?  Perhaps she was just passing something on when she kissed my skinny arms like a spider.  Perhaps she too had been kissed, by spiders greater than she.

Gifts Unwanted

To say that Maurice* likes to talk is an understatement.  This short, round septuagenarian is an avalanche of words, shoulder grips and backslapping mirth that demands complete attention.  For a time I observed him from a distance, reluctant to immerse myself in his typhoon of anecdotes, chirpy laugher and small, circular eyes – I felt overwhelmed just watching him.  But there was something that I liked about this little man – something in his manic, quick quick, two-step dance that flung energy at you like some dynamo on overdrive.  It was the genuineness and innocence with which he practiced his art that attracted me; with which he delivered his spontaneous outpourings like gifts that wanted to bless you.

One Sunday, from across the Fellowship Hall, I saw him emerge from the sanctuary and decided to take a chance.  I wanted to know more about him and what impelled his extroverted stream of consciousness; so I introduced myself.  His handshake soon evolved into several shoulder grips; an offer of a xeroxed article on Don Cherry that he withdrew from his shirt pocket; a spontaneous recital of two Bible verses; a brief history of his interrupted training as a tail gunner during the war; an anecdote of how he met his wife – while pointing her out; a short delivery in French, and finally an offer of another article which he kept in the other pocket – all without my having said much.

His proximity within my personal envelope allowed me to smell his breath; but he meant well, this whirling dervish of thoughts and actions.  He had maximized a good thing, and it had become a weakness.  Like most of us, I reasoned, he probably wants to give in ways that are meaningful to him rather than in ways that are meaningful to another.  He is like a lover who gives his woman flowers because he believes they are beautiful, when in fact what she really wants is a break from the kids.

I looked at my watch, extended my hand and said I had to leave, which triggered a sally of well-wishing whose content I cannot remember.  As I walked toward the exit I felt endearment for a man who does not mean any harm, despite feeling singed by him.  I drove home wondering about his wife – about whether she was an introvert like me, and how she had adapted to a man who proffered gifts – sometimes unwanted.


*Maurice is a pseudonym.

Young Love

I saw them lounging on the shore of Brandt’s Creek, two thirteen-somethings barely visible in the arms of what seemed to be a tryst.  It was a hot day and I noticed them, as I rode past slowly on my bicycle, nonchalantly peering over at me as if I’d distrubed something private.  In a burst of intuition I simply smiled and thought, “Young love…”

A few minutes later I decided to end my exploration of the new neigbourhood that had been springing up around the creek.  I wheeled back down the dirt path that traced the tree and bush lined waterway and saw them again ambling across the street in a way that was simultaneously endearing and funny.

She, in short-short white pants and tangerine T-shirt – long honey-blonde hair cascading on her shoulders, was literally head and shoulder taller than he; while he, black calf-length pants, and baseball cap askew, held her buttock in his hand.  I giggled inside and couldn’t help but look back -her left arm draped over his shoulder, his right hand still in position – both practicing romance; perhaps seeking a more secluded hideaway, on a hot hot afternoon.

Lord of Life

I’d gone to buy some Feta, to create a Greek salad that would feed my hunger and would be light and fresh enough for a scorching summer’s day.  As I walked up to the market I saw an old fellow – grizzled beard, long white hair and clothes that looked like they’d just been swiped from someone’s dirty hamper.

He seemed to be rooting through a garbage can – those ones that are fitted and locked within a cement container to prevent vandals from messing with them.  I felt sorry for him so I too rooted, in my pocket, and found a single Loonie (Canadian Dollar) which I decided to spontaneously give.

As I approached I noticed his socks – thick sport socks – into which a pair of soiled sweat pants had been stuffed.  He seemed to be fretting with some plastic grocery bags that were filled with bits and pieces that I imagined had been rescued from the garbage.  I was filled with compassion, and regretted that I didn’t have more cash to give him.

“Hi, ” I said, coming up from behind.  I realized this approach had been the wrong one when he gripped the seat of his bicycle that lay casually beside him.  “I’m wondering if you’d like to have this Loonie?” I asked, proferring this lonely bit of metal to a hand that reflexively opened to receive it. He looked at the coin on his palm quizzically and asked me in a sincere voice, “What makes you think I need this?  Look at all the food I’ve got in these bags?”

I was taken off guard by his reply, thinking that he’d be grateful for my offer.  He pointed to the grocery bags again, and they were indeed filled with food.  It seems that I’d interrupted him in the act of loading his shopping onto his bike.  I was embarrassed as he gave me back my Loonie.  “Sorry, ” I said.  “I thought you were taking stuff from the garbage can and could use the money.”  Later, I couldn’t believe I’d said that.  I felt like someone who wants to make a good impresson but can’t stop tripping on his words.

“No problem,” he replied, “thanks for your kindness.”  He’d been gallant – a gentleman whose elegant, refined remark had forgiven me my false assumption.  Although he still seems like a paradox, he has become, for me, a Lord of Life – someone whom fate brings to teach me sacred things that I’ve forgotten.  In this case it was something I learned in the first grade: don’t judge a book by its cover.

Moiling for Coins

The other day I rode my bicycle to the air pump at the Shell gas station on the corner of Kane and Glenmore.  When I arrived I saw an elderly man on the other side of the pump – white, thin hair, black pants shiny from use and a shirt that seemed bought at a cheap discount warehouse.

He was rooting around in the dirt with what looked like a garden claw, which puzzled me because he was moiling in a patch surrounded on all sides by cement and asphalt.

As I began to pump air into my tires he stooped down and picked up something.  “Ah..,” he said with delight, “…a penny.”

“You digging for money?”  I asked, curious about how he’d decided to dig in this peculiar spot in the first place.

“Yeah, ” he replied.  “I found twenty-one cents so far.”

I still wonder how he’d come upon that one spot to dig in.  But at the time, asking the question didn’t figure in my experience of this odd moment.

During our brief conversation he found a couple more coins and he vounteered that he would be giving the money to a missionary at the small Pentecostal congregation he attended at the Presbyterian church up the road.

I felt both amused and puzzled by the situation as I would be by a naked person suddenly walking into the elevator in which I was riding.  I simply let it happen as if it were an event as common as dandelions.  But I also felt impressed by this man’s simple generosity.

It was a quaint slice of life dished up by fate as an hors d’oeuvre to be savoured: an old man moiling for coins in a bit of earth at a gas station.

The Age of Oakley

Dr. Oakley’s baggy eyes looked directly at me as he searched my chest with the cold, round instrument.  Rubber hoses flowed from it, into his hairy ears.  And I looked back in fear, wondering if he would give me a needle.  At seven years of age, I was terrified of needles, and when my father escorted him to my bedroom, the surrounding comfort of comic books and electric train could not ease the fear I felt within.

The ritual was the same each visit: If he dropped the cold thing into his black leather bag, I would not be pierced; but if he placed it on my bed, then…oh then.  I watched him withdraw the probe from my ribbed cage and saw the jowls above me respond to the good news his meaty lips spoke to my anxious mother: the pneumonia had receded; I was getting better.  Thank God…I was saved.

As was his habit, my father invited him to stay a moment to share a glass of wine.  And I could hear them from the bedroom, chatting in broken English telling him how much they appreciated him.  And before he left for his next home visit, my parents would insist, despite his best efforts to decline, that he receive an offer of their best wine.  Every time he came, he always left with a gallon of appreciation.

Nowadays, home visits – let alone a gift of wine – would never happen.  Dr. Oakley’s home visits were more than professional service.  They were the essence of community life in those days, and the warmth of one heart giving to another.  People helped each other, they were fluent in the art of conversation, and built community on the principle of give and take.

I remember the kitchen-parties in our home: Italian immigrants in faded suits: card-playing, wine-drinking, hearty eaters who would spontaneously burst out in songs from the old country; beefy men who cried at Christmas because they were so far from home; smotherly hens who would cluck at their children to behave; and the graciousness extended to strangers.  Everyone was equal in those days, because everyone was poor. 

But some time in my teens, everything changed.  We moved to a different, larger city.  And when my father called our new physician, a young fellow from the South,  the doctor refused to come.  In hindsight, I can understand the decision of that new breed; but it’s a sad understanding informed by the realities of a cooler way of healing.

In high school I learned that Dr. Oakley had died of a heart attack.  And despite my memories of his black bag and needles, I missed him and the laughter he shared with my mother and father.  The age of Oakley in the healng profession is over, as is its warmth.  And I wonder whether we have lost more than we have gained in our trade with the cool steel of science and technology.  The age of kitchen-parties, like those I knew, are over too.  We discareded them, like faded suits, for Armani and stainless steel appliances.