Hardev Dange is suffering through a tumultuous year. He’s just been informed that the bank is going to foreclose on his house. His fickle daughter Birendra is on the verge of marriage, his son Emile is studying curses (while falling in love with a fellow male grad student), and his younger daughter, Dorothy, who’s deaf, is working at a tattoo and body piercing parlour and collecting stories from the older men languishing at her local hangout. And because he’s confined to a wheelchair, Hardev is dependent on his homecare worker, the kleptomaniac Rodriguez, to help him devise a plan to keep house and home together.
In this modern, multicultural re-telling of King Lear, Uppal explores the vulnerability and complexity of family and inheritance. She exposes the tragic and comedic dimensions of our failures to communicate and the consequences of our betrayals, which result in disappointment and disillusionment, but also, unexpectedly, in moments of compassion and love.
My kids have the manners of savages, he thinks, as his son lifts a slice of pepperoni pizza from the box to his open mouth, grasping the cheese with loose fingers, forcing separation from its neighbour. It’s Monday October 13, 2003, Thanksgiving, and Hardev Dange hasn’t enjoyed a traditional turkey dinner since his wife, Isobel, left. That first year, 1988, he tried preparing the meal himself – or, to be more exact, monitoring the meal once the homecare worker left. Manoeuvring around the stove was difficult, the door troublesome to control with only one good hand, and the pots of potatoes and carrots were nearly impossible to stir from his wheelchair. The bird burned. Meat dry, skin tough – the children didn’t hide their distaste; the girl, twelve at the time, called it “disgusting” as she removed it from the oven, ribcage split, stuffing black. Hardev had forgotten the gravy. The mashed potatoes dripped. The only thing not spoiled was the canned cranberry sauce from Dominion’s. Since then he’d given up on traditional trimmings for family gatherings – since then the Dominion’s had become a Loblaws, then a No Frills – and opted to let the children choose takeout instead. Pizza won every time. A good choice, he admits. There’s a pizza place on every block in the city, and it can be delivered every single day of the year, right to your home.
But Hardev still yearns for his family to be like other families on Ashbrook Crescent; now more than ever, with Mr. Karkiev signing notices in the back of his mind. He wishes they were settling into an afternoon of Thanksgiving Monday football (though he doesn’t follow football, only hockey, as any good Canadian should), or card games around the dining-room table after the dishes are washed (though they have a dishwasher, and no one’s played cards in the house since childhood Go Fish days). He doesn’t want his girls, or even the boy, to mind the time, worrying whether they should scoot off to their mother’s place to wish her a happy holiday too. Hardev Dange wants a white linen tablecloth (preferably handed down through the generations), pewter or brass candleholders, a horn filled with corn and gourds, and pumpkin pie. Yes, pumpkin pie, that glorious solid yet mushy mixture he tasted with delight shortly after immigrating from India. To add insult to injury, this year Isobel has insisted on keeping Dorothy because of the flu. “Dorothy wants to come, but she has the flu.” That’s what Isobel said. How can Hardev argue, when he has kept them all in the dark about the impending changes to his living arrangements, the legal papers, the telephone calls, and when it’s common sense and general practice that he should be exposed to as little sickness as possible, even when it’s his year to host Thanksgiving?
None of them bothers with utensils. Earlier, when the girl’s new boyfriend, Victor, opened the cutlery drawer in the kitchen and began counting the nickel-plated knives and forks, she stopped him. “We use plastic. The less hassle the better.” Tearing open a package of paper plates from the supply in the bottom cupboards under the microwave, she gleefully presented them as “The Family China.”
At least Victor is dressed well, Hardev notes, and is wearing a pleasant sea-breeze cologne. No tie, but decent navy blue dress slacks and a creaseless beige Polo shirt. Tidy brownish-blond hair cut close to the scalp, clear coconut-white skin except for a few tiny pimples on his forehead, a thin nose, eyes slightly squinty and blue, he reminds Hardev of his old classmates at the London School of Economics.
The girl, Birendra, tries to catch a straying slice of pepperoni before it hits her maroon blouse. Too late. Rolling her eyes, she dabs at the sauce, smushing it into the clown-face napkin on her chest. “Was there a sale on?” she asks Hardev, nudging Victor and extracting another napkin from the small pile. “Did your homecare worker pick these out? The one who wears women’s clothes?”
“I bought them for Dorothy. Dorothy likes clowns. And Ludwig, that’s his name. He was fired four years ago, after he stole your mother’s old skirts and high heels – the ones from her university days she left behind because they didn’t fit – from the basement. I reported it when they went missing. You know that.” Bending over the cherrywood dining-room table he purchased from the Bay the year they moved into the house, a six-seater with a leaf that can add two more – although not comfortably, in this room lined with cabinets full of unused china and cassette tapes, boxes and boxes of newspapers, and a broken electric wheelchair that sits like a shamed sentinel in the corner – Hardev sips ginger ale from a bendable straw and tries to concentrate on the dinner, on his children around him, to keep his mind free of other thoughts. He doesn’t want to be annoyed with the girl, but he is. And the boy, already on his third slice, will probably end the evening with a stomach ache.
“Dorothy’s seventeen, Dad.”
“That doesn’t mean she doesn’t like clowns anymore.” He tries to catch his son’s eye, send a signal to back him up, as family should, but Emile continues to munch on crust while Hardev stares futilely at his bushy black eyebrows – a Dange trait they all have in common, except Dorothy. “I thought for sure he’d stop fiddling around with magic books and hocus-pocus once he grew up. But look, that’s what he studies at university. At a recognized university my boy studies superstitions and curses!”
Securing a fourth slice, Emile hands another to Victor. The two large pizzas are vanishing quickly, even though Hardev does not join in. Pizza isn’t part of his diet, though he might be able to get away with a slice as a treat. Such things are permitted. But he sticks to his daily regimen of frozen Green Giant mixed vegetables, thawed in the microwave, and a single drumstick of Shake’n Bake original or barbecue chicken, cooked in bulk at the start of each month by Rodriguez, his main homecare worker for the last two years, and stored in dozens of plastic microwavable trays. A glass of ginger ale and a coffee pot of watered-down cranberry juice to aid digestion complete his meals. No dessert. Ever. The sugar balloons his stomach into a giant mixing bowl, and since he can’t exercise, he always gains weight when he eats sweets – unlike his children, who are all, as he was before the accident, uniformly thin.
“Let’s not argue,” Birendra sighs, raising her deep brown eyes from her plate and correcting her hunched posture. “Today is a special day.”
Yes, it is, Hardev agrees. Holidays are family days, special days, days the house is once again filled with his children. But he can see that the girl has slipped her hand underneath the table to grasp her boyfriend’s. She always brings a boyfriend to each occasion. Even if they’ve only been dating a few weeks, she never arrives alone. With her mahogany skin, long black lashes, sleek legs, lean face (though she has always hated the tiny bump at the bridge of her nose), and very small breasts, she is assuredly pretty and has attracted all kinds of boys over the years, most of them white and preppy, donning each like a new bracelet or necklace, something to show off at the beginning of dinner, something easily forgotten. Victor, who has been admiring her hand in his, meets Hardev’s gaze and, smiling awkwardly, lets go. Hardev does not want to upset the girl. It saddens him how often their short time together as a family is spent in uneasiness or outright discomfort, and now, more than ever, he wishes everyone would get along.
Though the dining room might be considered to be in disarray, in need of dusting, wiping, and proper sorting, with stacks of Ottawa Citizens along the wall, a broken record player and finicky sewing machine awaiting a new pedal, the table without a proper cloth, plates, or cutlery laid out, it is all still theirs, and he wishes he could stop time so they could all take a moment, as other families do for grace, to appreciate the house: the frayed but resilient light brown carpet, the chipped but bright white paint on the walls and ceiling, the sturdy nails that for fifteen years have held up school photographs of Emile and Birendra and the baby photograph of Dorothy taken hours after her birth, even the maudlin red-tinted glass chandelier with the dangling red beads, its cobwebbed red bulbs like jilted hearts. All this moves Hardev; it’s not perfect, not expensive, their dining room, but it’s theirs: loyal, reliable, worthy of some attention, like family. Or like family should be.
“Thank you for inviting me, Mr. Dange,” Victor says, closing the lid of the second pizza box and rolling his sleeves back down.
“I didn’t invite you. But you’re welcome. My daughter’s friends come and go. Come and go. My son’s never come here. Call me Harry, like everyone else.”
“They have their own families to visit,” Emile mumbles absently, wiping a slice of green olive off his chin.
“Victor will be sticking around,” Birendra states firmly, her straight black hair adding severity to her face. Smiling with the same awkwardness as when he released her hand, Victor now produces a bottle of white wine from the green shoulder bag tucked underneath her chair, then gestures silently at the open package of Styrofoam cups to Emile’s left. Without hesitation, Birendra nods.
“It’s nice wine,” she offers, as Victor lines up four of the cups and uncorks the bottle with an opener also procured from her bag, “if a little on the warm side by now.” Hardev stares at his plate. A few peas and carrots and a piece of broccoli remain. The drumstick was cold in the middle. The girl didn’t pay attention when he instructed her on how long to heat it, and to turn the leg after a minute and then heat it a little longer, and now he guesses why. She’s never brought wine to dinner before.
“I don’t drink,” Hardev informs Victor before he pours out a glass for him. “My medications prevent it. Besides, as my father used to say, Nothing ever gets solved when drinking’s involved. You must know that the statistics–”
“Please, Dad. This once?” the girl pleads, pushing a Styrofoam cup across the table. “You can just have a little sip.” But Victor fills it with ginger ale.
The couple stand and Hardev notices that Victor is as tall as he used to be, six foot one or two, head less than two feet from the flaking moulded ceiling. A good five-eight, the girl rests just underneath his chin as she leans backwards into his chest, like a shingle to a roof, their stance blocking the sight of his outmoded electric wheelchair, a tin snow shovel the boy bought at one of the many garage sales held by their old neighbours over the last year, and a box of tangerines. Birendra lifts her left hand and something twinkles in the red chandelier glow. “A toast! Victor wanted to make the announcement, but I wouldn’t let him. Dad, Victor has asked me to marry him! Or I asked him, or we asked each other, really . . . Anyway, I can’t remember how it went exactly, but we both said Yes, Yes! The wedding will be in May!”
Hand shaking – Hardev now sees that it is adorned with a diamond ring on a white gold or platinum band – Birendra edges back down to her seat and rests her cup of wine on the table. Victor lifts her hand again, kissing it warmly. Emile does nothing and says nothing, his face wide and expressionless, shoulders hunched. Hardev tries to shake off the desire to be back in his bedroom watching television, waiting for Rodriguez to put him on his side – tries to undo a wish for it to be the day before yesterday, the day of preparations, always full of hope about what one will do, what one will say; not today, the actual holiday, when things are always beyond his control. Why are holidays never as you imagine them? He knows this should be a happy moment, a proud moment, the kind of moment fathers live for, have speeches prepared for, dream about for decades, but the last few minutes have nothing in common with what he pictured yesterday in his mind. Nor do they correspond to any imaginings he’s ever had about his children’s engagement announcements. Naturally, he’s assumed that one day the children will marry, but in his head he spends time with these suitors first, gets to know them, the child asks his permission, for his opinion and blessing – in the case of the boy, asks if his father approves of his choice – before anything moves further, certainly before a date is set. He never imagined his daughter would ask a young man to marry her, without her father’s permission, without her father’s advice. Yet here is this man, this Victor, whom he’s met for the first time – the first time! – today, this stranger standing in the middle of his dining room in dress slacks and a Polo shirt, blue eyes twinkling like the girl’s diamond, towering over them all as if he owns the place.
Impaling two peas on the plastic teeth of his fork, Hardev points them at Emile. “Did you know about this? Did you know and not tell me?”
The boy shrugs, stares blankly at his paper plate littered with abandoned crusts.
“What do you mean, you asked him or he asked you? Why did no one ask me? Victor? I don’t even know your last name! Where did you come from? You have no right to intrude on my family occasion and . . . and . . . who are you?” Hardev can’t bear to continue. It’s late; he’s too tired. He wants to escape from the table, but he doesn’t have the strength to back out with his good hand, as it’s sore from cutting up the chicken, and he’s embarrassed that his bib has slipped into his lap, exposing his stomach. Racking his brain, he tries to remember what the girl said when she rattled off some information about this man named Victor over the phone, when she relayed she was bringing him to dinner. Now this Victor is his daughter’s fiancé? This intruder? Did she say he specialized in political science when he was at Ottawa U? That he works for the government? Hardev thinks so, yes, he was pleased that he worked for the government, but what branch? What department? How did they meet? She didn’t tell him. He remembers her saying that a large business is connected to his family. The Dairy Lane family fortune? He didn’t expect these details to matter, so he didn’t take them all in, either as points against the man or as things to be impressed by – she’d bring a new one at Christmas and he would sit in that same seat and eat pizza, as others had before him, but he wouldn’t intrude or interfere with their holiday. Yes, she did, she did mention the Dairy Lane family fortune. He comes from money; that’s why he’s so well-dressed. That’s why she has a sizable diamond on her finger. Dairy Lane money.
“No, no, Dad, please. Let’s keep this a happy occasion. Victor, let’s have a toast!”
Unable to respond, Hardev focuses on the china cabinet with the brass handles – twenty- four wine goblets of Italian crystal kept behind the glass, a wedding gift, anticipating the large dinner parties the happy couple would host throughout the years. When was the last time they were used? Yet he doesn’t think it’s fair to discount a thing’s importance even if – like his legs – it hasn’t been used in over a decade. And the Thanksgiving-themed tin plates of pumpkins and corn. When did anyone last look at them? Ten years ago? Earlier? Earlier, yes – earlier, when Isobel still lived with him, when all the children lived with him, and they crowded around this very table the nights when he was home for dinner and not in Africa or Asia or South America to survey hydroelectric plants. The Water King, his co-workers nicknamed him, when he took over the major hydro projects at the Canadian International Development Agency. The Water King.
“No disrespect was intended,” Victor assures, squeezing the girl’s arm to calm her. “I wish we had met before now, but –”
“Dad, you’ve had so many bladder infections lately. I didn’t want to bother you . . .”
“I have only the best . . . the very best of intentions, sir.”
Hardev recognizes in Victor’s voice and composure training as a public speaker. Although Birendra beams, he suspects that Victor’s declaration is a little old-fashioned for her taste. From earliest childhood Birendra has voiced dislike for anything old-fashioned. She was the one most in favour of the pizza dinners. Yet he knows Birendra has always dreamed of getting married, or at least of her wedding day. As a girl she cut out pictures from the Eaton’s and Hudson’s Bay catalogues and the Sears Christmas Wish Book, stylish modern pieces of furniture and jewellery so unlike the traditional and ornate styles he and Isobel favoured, and large, puffy white wedding dresses. A common enough childish pastime, but now Hardev shudders at the memory. Puffy white wedding dresses. Dozens of them. Not one sari. Not one gold bracelet or foot bangle. And if he offered her the Dange china cabinet as a wedding gift, would she take it, or would it not fit in with her desired decor? Would it only remind her of the faded walls, deteriorating shingles, or fraying carpet of her father’s house?
“I too had the best of intentions,” Hardev says, pushing his paper plate off his lap tray. “You are going to need a lot more than that to keep a marriage together.”
“Of course, sir, I understand that,” Victor adds, refraining from sipping his wine. “I’ve just been offered a promotion to Foreign Affairs, an area I know you know a lot about, and . . .”
“I guess your mother has approved this already?” Hardev asks, looking once more to Emile, whose head is still bent; then he gives up. What could the boy do? He was probably let in on the secret as Birendra was heating up Hardev’s chicken leg in the microwave. A toast! Shouldn’t Hardev give the toast? Is this not still his house? Is he not still the head of this family? If not the head, what else could he possibly be? Certainly not the legs. What does it matter if the dining room is not in perfect order, if they eat on paper plates? It doesn’t give anyone the right to take away what’s his.
Securing the straw in his ginger ale between his lips, Hardev hopes he can make it through the rest of the evening, regardless of his discomfort, his rising headache, and the upset stomach he knows he will share with his son even though he didn’t partake of the pizza or the wine. Emile stands, while he cannot, to congratulate his sister and future brother-in-law – The Milk King, Hardev thinks, then berates himself to stop all this disappointment and enjoy, enjoy it, the boy and the girl and even this Victor, enjoy it, even without Dorothy, his little Dorothy, taken from this home too young, enjoy it, because tomorrow Mr. Karkiev from Crown Bank will be calling again about the notice of foreclosure on the house, the house Hardev has lived in for twenty-five years, with his wife and family, and then with his boy, before and after the accident, and it’s now only a matter of time before he and the boy will have to find themselves another place to live. So, yes, one must enjoy it as long as one can, as long as the house is still in his name and his children can still meet here, even if they don’t understand what it means to be a father, or appreciate that a father’s advice and blessing are important in life. Scanning his dining-room table, he imagines a single newspaper, a paper cup, being removed from its place, and a hot pain swims through his shoulders and neck to his forehead. He unlocks, then securely locks, the brakes on his wheelchair. This may be the last Thanksgiving we have in this house after all, he realizes, and wishes that the children, or at least the girl, had just this once demanded a turkey.
The suicide bombings are not going to stop. Hardev pushes the lever on his electric bed, and the upper half of his body forms an L and greets the morning news, Rodriguez ready and waiting with a fresh dishtowel, a bowl of porridge, and the remote. Eight o’clock: on schedule. Rodriguez is late sometimes because of the bus service, and sometimes because he works extra shifts at Riverside Hospital, leaving him little time to rush to Ashbrook Crescent.
“Sleep well, Harry?”
Even though he doesn’t yet know which city has been targeted now, Hardev mutes the bulky colour television on the far side of his dresser. Footage of a distressed Middle Eastern mother with two young children beside rubble that must have once been their apartment complex flashes by. A boy with mud on his face holds a doll’s head covered with soot. Back to the woman. Hardev wonders if she is speaking English, as it’s always surprising to him how many people speak English in countries that were never colonized by the British, as if it were some airborne disease. If Dorothy were here, she’d be able to tell him. Unlike his deaf daughter, Hardev can’t read lips, despite all the books he has acquired about the practice over the years; beyond finger-spelling, he can sign little with one hand. Dr. Southgate said it was due to misfires in his motor skills, but Dr. Pittu thought that at his advanced age Hardev had simply reached his language-learning limit. “The girl will find alternative methods to communicate with you, as she will with the world around her,” he told him. “My wife learned with little difficulty,” Hardev countered. “Your wife is a dancer,” was the doctor’s reply. Funny, Hardev noted at the time, that Dr. Pittu did not add that his wife was also a speech therapist.
“The rain kept me up,” he answers as Rodriguez shuffles back downstairs, though it has been years since he’s slept what you might call well, falling into a heaviness, wiped out from travel and work or in an after-sex haze with his wife. Turning to one side of their queen-size oak-framed bed, he would rest his hand between her thighs and drift off to sleep. But now here he is, every morning and night, unequivocally alone, the queen-size bed replaced by a steel-frame with removable guardrails and plastic sheets, a contraption rather than a bed, really, taking up the majority of what used to be a warm, inviting bedroom. Plopped onto his bed at night, he recognizes every syllable of rain that warbles against his white windowpane, can identify every moan of his double mattress, every cough of his bungalow house, from the furnace ducts clanking and toilet tanks leaking to eavestroughs cracking, refrigerator humming, floorboards creaking, telephone wires murmuring, the boy dropping a textbook or kicking over a glass of water in his sleep, sleep as bad as his father’s. Doctors have prescribed various sleeping pills over the years: lorazepam, diazepam, alprazolam, triazolam; but Hardev refuses to take them. After the accident, Isobel pleaded, “Harry, you need your sleep. For strength.” “For what?” he wanted to say. “So you can go out and work?” But there are still many awful mornings when he forgets and thinks he will be getting up for work, and tries to swing his legs over the side, and can’t. The house they purchased right after marrying, that he barely paid attention to, leaving the day-to-day running, decorating, and arranging to Isobel, became his new wife. Trapped in the house, Hardev couldn’t help but take note of the wallpaper and tiles, wastepaper baskets, drawers, cupboards, banisters, rugs, window shutters, curtains, upholstery. They were now his co-workers, his colleagues; he had to make sure things were in their place, performing their proper tasks. After the visible features of the home, he became acquainted with the wear and tear of the house’s unseen elements, its internal organs: plumbing and wiring, foundational shifts in the roof or walls, furnace ducts. Now he detects even the subtlest complaints and, like a caring nurse, tries to offer comfort: These are just ordinary aches and pains. Oh, sure, we can call in the doctor now and then, but it’s certainly not time for the priest! He astonished a plumber once by figuring out where the pipes were cracking before the plumber could. “I know when something’s wrong with my house,” he stated proudly.
Cupboard hinges creak. Crinkling plastic bags. Front door swings open. “Rodriguez, have the workers arrived?”
“Not yet. Day after a holiday, they come late, I bet. I go take out the garbage.” Heel taps door shut.
Last night Hardev could hear the unmistakable patter stuttering on the blue and orange tarps of the construction sites, protecting the hardware and tools left overnight on his neighbours’ properties. Correction: Gateway Land Developers’ properties. His neighbours moved out months ago in a parade of garage sales and moving trucks, their modest bungalows and split-levels already demolished, no trace left of their former post-war selves, as if the earth had swallowed them and all their memories whole. Now steel machines and young builders have sprouted in their place, and Hardev wakes with a start every morning, rushes through his breakfast so he can be turned on his left side to face his bedroom window, observe how quickly the new two-storey and three-storey skeletons are drying and what, if any, changes can be spotted since the previous day’s work. Having supervised all those hydro plants, Hardev is no stranger to the frustrations of inevitable worksite delays, nor to the delights of progress. Notwithstanding his fight to keep 90 Ashbrook Crescent off the Gateway Land Developers’ destruction block, he genuinely appreciates the ingenuity and discipline required to set designs into action, the many hands that must work harmoniously in order to accomplish them; he truly loves how such otherwise solitary and disparate actions can eventually intersect to produce a single beautiful structure.
Taking out the yellow foolscap pad from the wheeled trolley straddling his bed, Hardev flips to a free page. With an HB pencil, he writes:
Suicide bombings continue in Iraq.
Protestors die in Bolivia.
Pregnancy created using egg nucleus of infertile woman (China).
Crown Bank is taking my house.
He underlines Tuesday three times. Hardev believes it is his duty as a citizen to keep track of the news, and does so through hundreds of foolscap notes stored away in basement filing cabinets. Every time he presses one of his HB pencils onto paper, he has the sense that he is recording vital history, important to his family and to the global community – the fluctuations of the world observed, monitored, recorded. Crown Bank is taking my house. Crown Bank is taking my house. Hardev has made this notation a number of times, personal news rather than public news, but also worth recording. Distressingly, over the last few months this piece of personal news, like the suicide bombings and like the spasms that run though his arms and legs, has yet to cease its attack. Sometimes Hardev believes that, between his body and his house, he’s fighting his own internal war on terror.
Eating hot porridge straight from the microwavable container, Hardev holds his breath that the phone won’t ring. Mr. Karkiev of Crown Bank likes to call at the beginning of the week to give updates on the status of the legal proceedings. Early is his style, as if the worms are just itching for the birds to nab them. Consistently, he asks whether in the span of the last week Hardev has miraculously been contacted by a long-lost family member who is only too willing to give him ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars, or if he’s discovered a suitcase full of money under the kitchen tiles, banknotes or IBM stocks in the freezer ice trays. We’d be only too happy to reverse the process should you come up with the funds, Mr. Dange, he promises, pronouncing his name Don-gee. Are you sure you’ve covered all the possibilities? Today Hardev imagines himself retorting, How did you spend your holiday? Thinking up ways to evict quadriplegics?
Hardev reaches for the blue Thermos of water beside the bed, and Tuesday’s pillboxes. The water is lukewarm and he holds a sip in the gully of his throat, lowers each pill onto his tongue, and flips a cluster backwards. Maybe because it’s Tuesday and not Monday, he will be spared. Now, wouldn’t that be something to give thanks for? he thinks, palming more pills into his mouth. Upon first contact, Hardev trusted Mr. Karkiev, who said he wanted “to talk about how the bank might help him meet his financial responsibilities in light of the rising property taxes in the area and the vast decline in disability benefits.” Yes, yes, Hardev thought, please help me, I need your help, I’ve just been informed that my bathing apparatus is now a “luxury” and I will need several thousands of dollars to rent it, as it’s no longer covered, added to the list of other medical supplies and access aids “no longer covered,” and soon I will no longer be covered either, no roof, no home, unless someone helps; and so he trusted, the same way he’s trusted and accepted the help of the doctors who revolve in and out of his life, prescribing medications to eradicate infections which certainly exist, but which due to his paralysis he cannot feel destroying his body. But Mr. Karkiev did not offer Hardev help; he offered ultimatums. If you cannot come up with the funds, we are within our legal rights to . . .
Door swings, bangs the left kitchen wall. Garbage bin squeezed into stall underneath sink. Faucet on. Sink drains. Down stairs. Freezer. Suction. Open. Suction. Shut. Up stairs. Countertop business, pans laid out.
Hardev refrains from turning the sound back up on the television in hopes of catching the construction workers arriving. Sometimes all the crews on each property work at the same time, and on those days, if he closes his eyes, the medley of digging and sawing and drilling and cutting and banging and laughing and yelling and crashing can almost transport him, like the birds outside, south of the equator, where he was in charge of projects ten times, no, one hundred times larger than this piddle of a housing development. He helped hundreds, in some cases thousands of families, providing them with fresh water and electricity and jobs. The Third World meets the First World, he would say. Not like these Gateway Land Developers, who build for the few, realizing dreams for those who can afford them by pushing others to sell out their own.
Impatient, Hardev has the urge to rip down the white blinds, to strip the window of obstructions, although it wouldn’t give him a significantly better view. “Do you think they’re not going to work today? I want to speak to the head one about the schedule. I think they’re behind. What’s his name? Mr. . . . Mr. . . . “”
“No! No! Not him. Please don’t say that man’s name today!”
Hardev dislikes raising his voice, but sometimes it is the only way to talk to Rodriguez, now in the kitchen defrosting frozen drumsticks and chicken breasts and another bag of mixed vegetables. And he also dislikes sounding too much like his son, as if uttering a name could bring about worse luck than what has been dished out already, but the boy isn’t here, he’s at the university and won’t be back until dinnertime, if then. Many nights he only returns right before bed, heading straight to the other end of the hallway in silence, past the washroom and a storage room, what used to be the girl’s bedroom, to a doorway too narrow for Hardev’s wheelchair to pass through. Last March, they went two weeks without seeing each other. Hardev only detected his presence by the give in the floorboards, and the shower water rushing through the pipes. When the phone calls and letters from Gateway Land Developers and then from Crown Bank first began, he worried the boy would find out. But there was no need to worry; the boy paid little attention to anything these days but his studies.
“I can’t believe these workers! The holiday was one day, not two!”
Things to Consider:
My eldest daughter is twenty-seven years old.
Same age as when I got married.
How much is this going to cost?
He adds three more question marks – ??? – and puts down his pencil, pinching it between his Thermos and the pastel green spitting dish for his toothpaste waste, his left fingers twitching already from soreness. Although he has managed to rehabilitate his left hand and retain some use of it – unlike his useless right hand – his range of movement is drastically limited. Though his scrawl is tight and economical by nature, he tires easily. And felt-tip pens, certainly much easier on his writing hand, bleed onto the other pages and lack the physical satisfaction of the HB pencils. He uses the pens only in an emergency or when his signature is required in ink. Just sign, Mr. Dange, and you can make money off this old place. Your neighbours saw the sense of this proposal, how is it that you . . . — And the boy’s old computer, with microphone and voice-processor software, is kept in the alcove attached to Hardev’s bedroom, the old baby room now a makeshift medical supplies and study area. Still, he finds his letters get typed much more quickly and accurately with Rodriguez’s help. Hardev’s South Asian accent confuses the system, and the technological merry-go-round involved in correcting the mistake is more trouble than it’s worth.
The girl said May. A May wedding. She doesn’t know about the house, that Mr. Karkiev has his own May ceremonies planned. The final deadline is May, Mr. Dange. You will need to vacate the premises if you cannot come up with the funds. The paperwork might stretch out to June, but don’t count on it. Calculation: seven months, possibly eight. In Hardev’s letter to his MP he quoted Mr. Karkiev directly. He told the MP that he had little time left. May. Can’t count on June. At Rodriguez’s insistence, he copied the letter to the Premier of Ontario as well as to the Prime Minister of Canada. Originally, Hardev was ashamed to write even to his MP to explain how hard it had been to keep his family afloat since the 1985 accident. I am a fifty-eight-year-old man and a pensioner of the government. I worked at CIDA and five times over ten years received promotion. To detail all the costs associated with my physical condition plus the costs of keeping this modest house in order would take pages and pages and, I’m afraid, would exhaust your patience. Although my two daughters have lived with their mother following our separation, they return regularly for family occasions and visits, and my boy has never left my side.Hardev argued that these men were too busy to be bothered with his problems; you couldn’t just ask the Prime Minister of Canada to help you with your family affairs. But Rodriguez disagreed: “Why not? He’s supposed to be there for the people. Like God. We ask God to help our family all the time.” Desperation won out over pride. Anything at this point was better than nothing, so they sent off dozens of letters to every official they could name or imagine. They even included a photograph, on the back of which Hardev wrote: 1987, my then young wife and three children, our home in the background.
Ask R. to make a list of the current contents of the basement pantry.
Schedule yearly physical appointment with Dr. Pittu
Find ways to stop time.
“We must do something! We must . . . Rodriguez?” Hardev has lost track of Rodriguez, as the shuffling in the kitchen area has stopped. May. I have until May, he assures himself. Until my daughter’s wedding. Oh, my daughter is lucky to be marrying rich, into a stable, rich family. They won’t have to scrounge for every dollar, plan ahead for every bill and expense, as he has had to do since the accident. They will have more money than they know what to do with. More money than . . . Could I? No. No, he couldn’t. He would never ask the children or Isobel for money, so he won’t ask his future son-in-law either, no matter how much he has. When Hardev figures out where Rodriguez has got to, he will ask for his red-and-white striped sweater with the circular collar that looks absolutely British on him and reminds him of his tennis-playing days, the kind of sweater Victor might wear, the kind he’d wear if he had an appointment with the Prime Minister or, for that matter, with Mr. Karkiev. But Hardev hasn’t heard from the Prime Minister, or from his MP, or from anyone else’s office except Mr. Karkiev’s; nevertheless, the sweater will keep him warm and comfortable as he stares out his window waiting for the construction workers to arrive, and if they do come, and if they spot him in his good sweater, they will know that he respects them too. And suddenly Hardev wishes that Mr. Karkiev would call so that he could explain a few basic things about his life; it’s important one man understands where another man is coming from before he takes his house from underneath him.
“They’re here! They’re here!”
Rodriguez re-enters the bedroom, swerves around the trolley, and presses his face against the bedroom window. “They’ve brought truckloads of drywall again!”
“Excellent! It’s good to know they’re on track. Now come, sit for a minute.” Hardev flips to another page on his yellow foolscap pad. “There’s so much news.”
“They went to Tim Hortons,” Rodriguez blurts, gesturing again at the window as he seats himself on the stool at the foot of Hardev’s bed, and Hardev can practically smell the dozens of cups of coffee and the blueberry and oatmeal muffins the workers must have enjoyed. “Good news or bad news?”
Spoon dropped into his empty porridge bowl, Hardev’s balding scalp and wide forehead reflect grotesquely back at him. “An apartment complex in the Middle East has been bombed, and my daughter is getting married.”
“Dear God!” Rodriguez exclaims, collecting the dishes over the guardrail onto his lap. “Where will they live?”
Before Hardev can answer, the telephone rings.
I hope you have recovered one hundred percent from the flu and are back at school. Your latest report card made me very proud. Thank you for making a photocopy of it for my files. Soon you must visit and reread all your report cards with me, from kindergarten through high school. What will you spell with all those As and Bs?
But enough of your father’s irrelevant musings. I’ve decided to write because now that Birendra is getting married, I can’t ignore the truth: my children are adults. While I hope it will be several years before you follow in your sister’s footsteps, I feel more pronouncedly than ever the difficulties we face communicating with each other. Technology, however, seems on our side. The keyboards manufactured now are much easier on a one-hand, two-finger typist like me; there is also voice-recognition technology, and when I am tired or the machines malfunction, I can ask your brother or my homecare worker for help. I spend a lot of my time writing letters, official letters, To Whom It May Concern letters, to all kinds of government organizations and corporations, and, as you know, they drain a lot of my energy. I wrote a very long one the other day, and while I was working out the right phrasings, it occurred to me that I’ve never written you a letter, not a single letter, and that isn’t right. I would like to tell you some important things that I have learned before, well, before it’s too late. I want to tell you about my life. These tidbits may be of interest to you someday, or you may look upon them as misguided forms of affection, but regardless, I am writing them to you and here’s your first.
Dor, you were taken from me when you were so young. Barely two years old when you left with your mother and sister, out of the basement suite you and your mother shared and into a townhouse at the other end of the city, and not only is that too young for a child to be separated from a parent, but because of it I have very few memories of you in this house. The alcove where you slept as a baby no longer has a crib or a Sesame Street mobile or daisy wallpaper. But I do remember that you loved to sit at the top of the second-floor stairs, curled up like a cat. We used to joke that the dust bunnies would nab you. Your mother would place you near my arms on the bed, and you would try to reach the triangular hoist device with your small determined hands. Over and over, with all your strength, you’d reach for it, thinking it was a toy, a magical trapeze in some circus act, not a tool for getting me in and out of bed, another one of the gadgets forced into our lives, and you made me feel a little less sad and hopeless. Happy memories, but few. I wish we had spent more time together. I frequently wonder: What is Dor thinking right now? Who is she thinking about?
I’ve tried to keep anything you might be interested in one day. The basement boxes are all for you kids. Anything you want from them, you can have. The Sesame Street mobile is among your brother’s old toys, although your crib left with your mother. Does she store blankets in it now, or did she give it away? As for these letters, they are addressed to you, and I can send them by mail or by e-mail if your brother helps me. Better yet, I can wait for you to visit and hand them all over at once.
“If you don’t have a clear idea of your wedding, and I mean from the design on the invitations down to the favours for your guests, Victor’s family will walk all over you. They’ll take over completely.”
Isobel, in a red and white yoga outfit, brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, is seated across from Birendra, in old jeans and pink cotton zippered sweater, at the round four-seat kitchen table, a pad of lined white paper in front of them, two pencils, two mugs of hot coffee, and an open box of Oreo cookies. On the top of the page is written:
Birendra Dange’s Wedding
May 17th, 2004
“Mom, you can’t say that. You don’t know them,” Birendra protests, blowing on her coffee.
“Neither do you.”
“They don’t live in Canada. His mother and father don’t even live in the same hemisphere as each other. How are they going to organize the wedding from afar?”
“They have money. People with money think they can run everything,” Isobel replies, pointing an Oreo at her daughter for emphasis. “You’ll want to make sure his family knows that you have your own ideas, that you have a family of your own to consider.”
Birendra doesn’t want to argue; it’s going to be a long enough day as it is. Excited by the prospect of planning the wedding, her mother couldn’t be convinced to shower after her morning workout, and the bright blue Exerball wobbles underneath the table between their feet. Birendra has already bought herself a bridal planner – it’s on top of a pile of sweaters in her closet – but she hasn’t bothered to mention it. At this point she’s only written in the date, and since her mother has her own ideas, Birendra is happy to let her do most of the work, as long as she’s married and out of the house in May. Besides, she is finding it hard to concentrate, as she dreamt about that damn baby again.
In this version of the dream she’s on the telephone – the cordless one that charges beside the living-room television – lounging on the uncomfortably hard couch, when the police-siren-like noise sounds. Hold on, something’s happening, she says to the nameless person, and then lays the phone down on the TV Guide. Every one of the dreams starts similarly innocuously, but she’s begun to detect the feel of this particular dream in her sleep, like a faint but persistent odour. She’s tried reasoning with herself that these dreams don’t matter, and she’s attempted pre-sleep cures like hot milk, abdominal crunches, reading a book, listening to Water Music, and even making use of the Guatemalan worry dolls that Victor’s mother brought back from vacation, but the dreams don’t disappear, and they do matter, and Birendra can’t shake the sensation that the stupid baby is trying to communicate something important to her.
“I’m sure you’ve thought about the flowers. We should all leave that up to you, considering it’s your occupation. I can’t see how the Lanes can object.”
Light falls from the kitchen window onto the paperwork. Squinting, Birendra can see the neighbour across the road struggling with too many bags of groceries, her golden retriever jumping up and down, nipping at her coat sleeves. In the dream it’s evening, and Birendra flips open the blinds but she can spot only a few streetlights and the outlines of cars in driveways. No one seems to be out. No dogs bark. The bleating suddenly softens, as if smothered. It’s in the house, she realizes, as if it came in with the groceries, like the woman across the road, and in the dream she stares up the narrow staircase of the townhouse, a staircase exactly like every other one on the block. As she grasps the banister, a sharp pain shoots up her arm. Is this what it means to be paralyzed with fear? she thinks. This must be how my father feels. The noise gets louder. Not a police siren. Not a fire alarm. What is it?
Birendra sighs, resting her chin in her hands as if she’s already worked a full day. “Victor says we are pretty much free to design the wedding the way we want, and his parents will pay for it. They know I don’t come from money. They know about Dad. They would like the Château Laurier for the reception, but they’re open to other options. Just no more than two hundred people. They don’t want a stadium-sized wedding.” She dips another Oreo into her coffee. Her mother makes delicious coffee. Delicious pasta and hamburgers, too. I’ll miss her cooking, she realizes, but it will be a small sacrifice. Overall, she can’t wait to be free of the cramped bedroom she’s shared with Dorothy since they moved to Augusta, the finicky bathroom with the simultaneous cold-hot showers, the living room with those awful Quebec landscape paintings, and that neon blue Exerball her mother’s always trying to get her to use. She gives it a little kick. So long to you too, she thinks, with a smile.
Frowning, Isobel gazes up at the yellow sphere of the kitchen light. “Do we know two hundred people? A wedding should just be family and close friends.”
“Wasn’t your wedding full of Dad’s co-workers? And you both designed it the way you wanted, didn’t you? Victor’s family isn’t close,” Birendra admits, dusting cookie crumbs off her pink sweater, “but there are a lot of them, and they might make the trip here for the wedding. It’ll be strange meeting them all at once like that. My in-laws,” she says, for the first time out loud. “We’ll be family by law, even if we meet only once. That’s sort of intimidating.”
“That’s why you need to know what you want. Who you are. Then they can’t force you to be something you’re not. Your father and I, we went too far the other way raising you, letting you kids all invent yourselves, not giving you enough sense of what it means to be French or South Asian, teaching you nothing about religion or geography or politics, nothing about your roots. What’s so great about Canada is that you can shape it to your imagination, your father would say when he was working. He was such a Trudeau man. But there’s only so much you can invent, Birendra, and then there’s reality. Your father and I had to learn hard and fast about reality. Sometimes inventing things works against you. You should care about your roots more, before you lose them. Those Lanes, they know what it means to be a Lane, I bet you. Do you know what it means to be a Dange?”
In the left margin of the pad, Isobel writes:
Guest List & Invitations
Weddings bring out the most preposterous territorial rights, Birendra thinks, working on a fourth cookie, licking out the white centre. That her mother wants her to stake a claim, as a Dange of all things, for pink-bordered invitations rather than silver, asparagus over leek soup, a chocolate fountain instead of a dessert cart, as if these minor accoutrements are essential stamps of one’s familial makeup, is almost too ridiculous to discuss. Yet here they are. And Birendra’s supposed to know who she is. That’s a good one. I guess, she muses, I should just print on the wedding invitations“Birendra Dange is a French-Canadian, South-Asian mix, which means not much to her except that it accounts for her black hair and brown skin and her perfect French scores in high school. She’s wanted her whole life to be someone else, somewhere else. She’s always wanted to be part of someone else’s family, just to see what it might be like . . .”
“Victor’s family might change their minds,” Isobel insists, tapping her nails on the coffee pot. “Victor is their only son. Only child, right? They’ll have expectations, even if they’re not voicing them. Everybody does. You’ll need to be very orderly. Are you listening, Birendra? You need to be very orderly. You can’t put these decisions off or they’ll be made for you, and then you’ll be sorry.”
In the dream, Birendra follows the sound to her bedroom, but it’s not the shared bedroom of her townhouse; it’s the bedroom she had all those years ago in her father’s house, that’s now stacked with files, files, and more files, but then housed her adored old bed with the pastel green headboard and matching dresser, and dozens of Top Ten music charts taped to the walls. On the bed, there’s something lumpy. When she first notices the bunched green comforter, she thinks it might be a cat, or a small dog like a pug or Pomeranian, but then, as she inches closer, she discovers that the mound is not a fuzzy animal at all; it’s a baby, a baby, and the baby’s body and limbs aren’t moving. Only every so often its mouth opens, making that awful noise.
“I suppose Victor should be here when we compile the guest list, so we should settle the other details as soon as possible, figure out the theme, the decor, the aura you want to create for your wedding. We have to ask ourselves – or you have to ask yourself – excuse me, I’m getting a little carried away – my daughter’s first wedding. Not that you will have more. I meant the first wedding for one of my children. And if Victor’s parents are really giving you free rein and will pick up the cheque, then you have a rare opportunity, something your father and I certainly didn’t have. You have to ask yourself: What do I want this wedding to say?”
What does Birendra want her wedding to say? Even as a child cutting pictures of china and wedding dresses, hutches and lamp fixtures out of catalogues, she never considered that as a group all these objects should say something. Did the blinds on the window say something? Did the white refrigerator with the finicky ice-cube dispenser say anything? The lily wallpaper? The Van Gogh calendar near the light switch, marked with her mother’s speech therapy appointments? Dorothy must be her maid of honour. No question; her mother would be very disappointed otherwise. Emile will also have to be in the wedding party, a groomsman most likely, if not the best man, since Victor has no siblings to accommodate. But other than these two obvious role assignments, Birendra feels tricked somehow, every decision like a multiple-choice question on a test that she didn’t plan on taking, that she didn’t study for; just as she feels tricked by her dream when she rushes back into the hallway, hoping to enlist her brother or father, even her mother or sister for help, but knows deep down that the house is empty, from the sagging roof to the cold basement (once a storage space for decorations and canned goods, then a bedroom for Dorothy and her mother, then back to a storage space with added files and medical supplies), that she has no one to turn to, no one to take care of things for her. “Please, no,” she begs the empty hallway, “I don’t want you.”
“Birendra, are you listening?”
She nods, but it’s a lie; she isn’t listening to her mother. She’s still listening to the no-name baby that intrudes in the sunny kitchen as if perched on the microwave oven, or on the shelves of jars of sugar and flour and pasta.
“Are you feeling sick? Are you worried? Tell me.”
“No. It’s nothing.”
Leaning in, Isobel wraps her hands around Birendra’s mug. “I can’t make all the decisions for you. What’s bothering you? Tell your mother. Are you worried you’re making a mistake? That you’re moving too fast?”
Unable to stomach any more cookies, Birendra plops her chin back into her hands and shakes her head. Victor was an easy choice to make. Handsome and conscientious, friendly but not aggressive, secure, reliable, independent, and most of all a man with the right career to offer the kind of life Birendra’s always dreamed of, travelling the world, not tied to one city or one country, not bogged down by family obligations. How can she explain to her mother that she wants her wedding to say: Goodbye old family, hello . . . no family? That she wants the occasion to be fun and happy, but that it should also mark the beginning of her leaving them behind? Mother, father, sister, brother; all of them. Wrong. Her mother is wrong. She has too many roots as it is, and they’ve never helped her know who she is. In fact, she barely knows that she exists. Is it wrong to want to be someone else? Somewhere else? The wedding details don’t matter to her in the least as long as the end is achieved, as long as she and Victor are soon living in another house or apartment in another country. Looking over the mug at her mother’s eager green eyes full of concern for her future, her thin lips pursed and her freckled hands ready to catch Birendra if she says she wants her to, how can she tell her this?
“There are so many details. It’s just a bit overwhelming, that’s all.”
Reclining in her chair, throwing up her hands in a gesture of mock exasperation, Isobel laughs. “The wedding is the easiest part. After the wedding you’ll have to make all kinds of decisions, sacrifices, compromises. It doesn’t end once you start, you know, and one day you’ll look at your kids all grown up and beautiful and on the verge of moving out, and you’ll wonder where all the time has gone.”
Bloated and dizzy; that’s how time seems in the dream. Birendra doesn’t know what to do. The baby willfully opposes her, her very nature, she thinks, and there’s no end she can envision. Not in the dream and not beyond. This bulbous thing with hands and feet and eyes, tufts of dark hair, a mouth, a loud wet mouth that screams and that she can’t understand, already making demands Birendra doesn’t want to fulfill, is all too much for her. No, no, this won’t be part of my marriage, she vows.
“Then you’ll be planning your own daughter’s, my granddaughter’s wedding.” Isobel rises and plugs in the kettle again. The bright blue Exerball rolls across the room, bouncing off the cupboards, as the lined pad waits for Birendra’s input. It’s not healthy, she thinks, when the baby’s wailing won’t stop. Then it does and she feels worse – the baby looking up at her like her mother moments before, waiting for her to speak, to say something important, reveal something essential, willing to listen, listen to her deepest thoughts, and yet she can’t speak, has nothing to say, is left to wonder if she’s the one who’s not healthy. And then – and she does not like to admit this – the end of the dream is always the same. Inevitably, her hands clench, her legs tighten, and a violent urge ripples across her whole body, but she can’t move, and the baby remains as silent as a judge who has passed sentence.
Dorothy tries not to judge people by their mouths, but she can’t help it. This one’s deep red, nearly purple, and the left upper lip, larger than the bottom, lifts when he laughs. Ts stressed, lets Gs drop; it reminds her of her father, who also stresses his Ts, and whose lips – unlike hers, inherited from her mother’s side – are equally full and purplish. But her father never lets his Gs drop, firmly pronounces all suffixes, and his lips stick to his gums when he’s in discomfort. This one’s name is Anton and when she approached he had his head in his hands, his nearly purple lips trapped behind finger bars. Something snail-like in his posture is also like her father – she can’t stop thinking about him – the way he slinks into his wheelchair when he’s tired, as if it’s too large for him – this one too seems to disappear, into the broadness of the table, and she feels guilty that she wasn’t up to visiting her father for Thanksgiving. No flu. Her mother knew she didn’t have the flu, but didn’t argue. It isn’t that Dorothy didn’t want to see her father; it was just that right now she didn’t want her father to see her.
Dorothy does not particularly like this one’s mouth, with its dimple at the chin, even though his speech is not difficult to decipher – the opposite, in fact, its movements clear and direct – but it’s becoming evident that he may just talk her ear off and never say a damn thing that’s important. The expression talk her ear off is amusing, even if she hears with her eyes and the back of her head, because her ears have names. The right one is Roof, the left one Key. Dorothy knows when people are speaking even when she can’t see them, and she’s come to think of her eyes as convex mirrors, like the lens diagrams she sketches in physics class. My eye nearly orbits my head if I let it, she thinks, sitting at the bar, staring at people’s lips and sorting out other sensations – bar tap flow, waitress call, cocktail shake, flushed toilet, cork pop, woman in tears – with the edges of her eyes. This one called Anton is closer to Roof than to Key and is explaining that the lead singer of the band got her hand crushed under a car wheel – the doctors say it’s a miracle how quickly she’s been able to get back to playing the bass. Turning toward the stage, Dorothy scans the singer’s red dreadlocks and gold bell-bottoms, left wrist wrapped in silk like a boxer’s, and wonders if the story of her accident has been exaggerated for publicity purposes. Crushed bones as fashion statements. Or rather, the illusion of crushed bones.
It’s hot in the SoundScape tonight. Dorothy wears a blonde bob wig and orange glitter lipstick, both bright contrasts to her light brown skin and grey eyes, and a black top with the words Out of Order on her chest. Her mother dislikes this T-shirt and thinks Dorothy gave it to the Salvation Army a month ago, but she stores it in her school locker, along with a silver handbag with Bite Me written along the handle and a picture of her father in his teens in his tennis uniform which she stole out of one of the basement boxes last summer. Lean and happy, tennis racquet held proudly, hair so thick from the humidity that he seems to have an Afro – she is very fond of the photo, though she has little idea why it was taken. When her locker-neighbours ask, even though the size of the photograph and the yellowing corners and pinkish fading suggest otherwise, Dorothy tells them it’s a recent picture of her brother, that her brother lives in Greece and teaches tennis for a living. She’s not ashamed of her father or brother; she just doesn’t want to answer questions about them. What does it matter to them in what way they are related, or if they are related at all? If she wants to put up the picture and give it a name, why shouldn’t she? She’s more connected to these strangers in the SoundScape than to her locker-neighbours or the other students at Rousseau Secondary. More and more over the last year she’s found herself moving through the school’s corridors completely removed from the people everyone else seems desperate to connect with, boys playing guitar at lunch hour or girls with gossip sprouting out of their ears, conspiring and giggling from floor to floor, class to class. At each and every assembly, the principal of Rousseau unabashedly praises what he calls the Rousseau Family and their unequalled alumni donations, but Dorothy doesn’t feel she belongs to such a family, nor does she understand how she is supposed to benefit from the family connection. Instead, she feels at odds with her surroundings, an ice floe in a rainforest. The SoundScape is more of a family to her. So are the people at Signature Tattoo and Body Piercing, where she apprentices twice a week. One of three hundred students who attend the special needs Rousseau school, Dorothy will simply be one of forty to graduate this year, and she will have earned the required grades to get into a regular university, even if she doesn’t want to go.
“Can I get you a drink? Do you want a beer or something?”
Dorothy shrugs. She likes to listen; is constantly told by others that she’s a good listener.Yet listening is the biggest crock of shit she’s ever heard. She knows most people don’t listen to each other at all. Roof is good at collecting men who want to talk, like this Anton, though her patience is waning since he hasn’t said anything substantial yet, just a bunch of CD liner note stuff. Key’s job is to empty them. Everyone deserves to be listened to at least once in a life, she tells Key, no matter what the story. It doesn’t even occur to people at the SoundScape that she’s deaf. An X made with the fingers gets her an Export. Bartenders and waitresses take orders from hand gestures even more accurately than from words, especially at a distance. And so do men. Dancing isn’t a problem either, beats deciphered through vibrations. Only Ted, the tall bouncer with the shaved head and Japanese jazz dancer girlfriend, seems to suspect. “You’re listening to music no one else is listening to. I’d like to know the name of the band sometime,” he said to her two Fridays ago. Anyone but Ted and she would have thought he was either making fun of her or hitting on her, but Ted was doing neither. In fact, she knows that she makes him uncomfortable and he just can’t pinpoint why.
“Are you sure?”
This one is uncomfortable too. Why do people always want to buy you something to keep your attention, she wonders, as if money is a sturdier bond than conversation? Two giddy well-dressed women stumble by, close to her mother’s age, on a ladies’ night out, but women don’t interest Dorothy much.
“Four surgeries in a row. I bet she thought she’d never be able to use her fingers again,” he adds, still roadblocked on the lead singer. “So, what’s your name? I don’t think you told me.”
DOR, Dorothy types in her Palm Pilot.
“Is that your real name?”
She’d rather deal with older men; they care less about these things. Names are merely a system of filing, a way to differentiate the sources of words. Smiling, Dorothy passes the message to him.
DOR IS MY REAL NAME ASSHOLE
Sometimes she needs to be firm, not just with Roof and Key but with the men, establish boundaries right from the start, or else they think they can create their own.
Anton laughs good-heartedly. “Why do you use that, anyway?” Filed under “Anton.”
I HATE COMPETING WITH NOISE
“That’s a good idea,” he replies, as have several before him, yet she’s never seen Palm Pilots or cellphones used for this purpose. Nevertheless, her communication device is accepted rather easily in the SoundScape mix, where there is always music and it’s always loud, whether live or recorded: industrial, techno, or rock on weekends and Thursdays; rockabilly, funk, rap, and hip hop the rest of the week; a stage the size of a six-car garage, with speakers at every corner and along the walls. If Dorothy ever needs to speak, she has a pretty firm handle on whispering (and most people expect whispering to be harder to understand, especially in a bar), plus she’s been more rigorous with her speech training lately, practising pitch and pronunciation for hours in front of her mirror with her mother’s therapy books.
The band finishes its set with the singer falling to her knees at the foot of the stage, whipping her red dreads over her face and across her back in a fanlike arc. This one named Anton claps enthusiastically.
Dor writes: TELL ME A STORY
Anton takes a sip of his gin and tonic, then places it in front of him on the tabletop. “What do you mean, tell you a story?”
TELL ME SOMETHING YOU NEED TO TELL SOMEONE ELSE
A school night – Dorothy will need to leave in less than an hour for her mother to pick her up at Memories, a dessert shop in the Market specializing in cheesecake, so she can’t afford to waste any more time. Memories is where she tells her mother she goes after studying at the library or practising sketching at the National Gallery, and her mother doesn’t question her. As long as Dorothy isn’t pregnant and hasn’t been caught stealing clothes or booze at the Rideau Centre, she’s generally satisfied. And there’s no danger of either of these things happening; Dorothy can’t abide shoplifters and, unlike the majority of her ditzy classmates, has little interest in acquiring a boyfriend. It’s hard enough just getting around the idea of how many people there are in the world, let alone picking one to get to know everything about you, she thinks. She doesn’t want people to know everything about her. She doesn’t know everything about her. Besides, what do these Rousseau boys have to offer? Their stories are childhood stories. What could they teach her about life?
“Someone else? You mean you? I could tell you that you’re beautiful, but you must already know that.”
NOT THAT STORY
Running his hand through his oily hair, Anton looks at the empty stage as if it is somehow responsible. “I don’t understand,” he says more firmly. “What is it you want me to say?”
Roof and Key are now very impatient. Dorothy can only manage to visit the SoundScape once every week or two. She doesn’t mind the lying, but only if the lies are a means to an end.
LET’S TRY AGAIN: TELL ME A STORY
Bottom lip puckers. “Seriously? You want me to tell you a story? A story I need to tell someone else? You can’t be serious. But you’re a stranger, a perfect stranger. You can’t just intrude on people’s lives like this.”
YOU DIDN’T MEET ME BY ACCIDENT
“Look, I thought we could listen to music and relax. Have a drink. Have fun.” The word “fun” puffs out like smoke in Dorothy’s face. This Anton is staring at her now with something akin to anger, but not quite: consideration. Considering what to make of her and the request. Sometimes telling stories makes people uncomfortable, Dorothy realizes, but there are means and there are ends, and listening must start somewhere.
YOU THOUGHT WRONG
You were nearly two before we realized you were deaf. Your reaction to movement was so intense we thought you were hearing it, not just sensing it. You looked up at us so attentively when we spoke to you in your crib or highchair, while you played in the backyard sandbox, even latched into your car seat. It’s true we wondered when you would start to speak, but it didn’t really trouble us. Something was always in your mouth: a carrot, a soother, bits of cereal, your fingers; we joked you would have to stop eating before you could start speaking. But it was a joke. We didn’t know.
We found out at Dr. Brossard’s office. You had the flu. Three nights in a row you cried and cried and wouldn’t keep anything down, not even apple juice, and we were all exhausted. We made an appointment. Now doctors test things like hearing early and regularly, but even just seventeen years ago they didn’t so much. Funny how quickly times change. Now they check for absolutely everything, even before the baby is born, in the womb. Microrobots. Corrective surgery. Amazing. It’s almost unbelievable that children are still born with disabilities or deformities at all. But I guess that’s life. Fix one problem, another takes its place. Look at all the people now who can’t have babies. It’s all over the news. Fertility treatments. Babies sold over the Internet. Bulgaria the newest hope for Canadian adoptions. Must be something we’re doing to ourselves: genetic foods, airport detectors, pesticides, acid rain, roller coasters. Who knows? Later we found out that odds are you were born with some hearing, which explains your natural ability to learn some English and French speech, but it probably deteriorated quickly. The books say you may remember the intonations of your mother’s voice, but not much else. I have always been a bit jealous of that, Dor. I hope my voice is also tucked somewhere inside your mind, even if you might not know what to make of it yet. Fifteen years ago, the doctor examined your little chest, and you didn’t cry or throw up the entire time we were in his office, and your mother and I were thankful for it. Then the building started testing the fire alarm. We prepared for the worst. But you didn’t cry. The kids in the waiting room were wailing, but you couldn’t see them. Initially, Dr. Brossard exclaimed, What a calm girl she is, but then, as the loud beeping continued and you still showed no indication that you were the least bit troubled or interested, he got worried. She might have a bit of hearing loss, he said. It’s common during infancy. Could be her ears are blocked from the flu. Let’s just check.
I must admit, I was annoyed. We’d already waited for over an hour in the office and I didn’t want us to get stuck in rush hour. I remember this because I kept thinking about the headaches I get in traffic, and how I used to stay longer at the office if necessary in order to avoid it: exhaust from cars, blasts of loud music thundering out of windows, running engines, honking, stuffy car smell. Considering how much travelling I did with my job, I’ve never been a great traveller, much more of a destination man. When I am not the driver, I suffer motion sickness easily. And that’s why I don’t go out very much, Dor. I can’t drive and the Para Transpo turns my stomach. But we stayed, because your mother and I never disobey doctors. Dr. Brossard left us for a few minutes and returned with a tape recorder and a small set of headphones. When the speakers were secured inside your ears, Isobel laughed. You looked adorable, a regular rock star. You laughed back and slammed your fists on the bench, which only added to the effect. Dr. Brossard bent over and pressed PLAY, his other hand on the volume knob. You never took your eyes off him. I know now it was because you were drawn to his concentration, and you held his gaze without fidgeting or trying to pull the headset off. You didn’t even blink. Your mother stopped laughing. It’s a single note at a high pitch, he said slowly, inching up the volume dial. Like the test of the Emergency Broadcast System on your television. I thought, how lucky the sound doesn’t bother her. I didn’t yet realize what it meant. If I raise the volume any higher, I could jeopardize what hearing she might still have.
Your mother was really tired. Aside from sleep deprivation and her speech therapy appointments that day, it had taken her longer than usual to help me into dress pants and a sweater and slide you into your jumper. There we were, two peas in a pod, both dressed by your mother and latched into the car. This wasn’t the kind of life she had imagined for herself, stuck with a man in a wheelchair and three children to raise. We’d been fighting the night before. I can’t remember about what. And I’m not just saying that. I really can’t remember. You fight about the stupidest things when your life turns into something you can’t imagine: the way the condiments are arranged in the refrigerator, lost register receipts for pills, a garden hose left out in the rain. We may even have been fighting about rush hour and the doctor’s appointment the next day. I don’t know. What I do remember, very clearly, is that your mother did not look surprised. I always wondered if she suspected it. Frowning, she took a deep breath with the look of a person accepting due punishment, but what she felt she was being punished for, I do not know. She probably didn’t know either.
Two months later, you were both living on Augusta Street.
Priscila Uppal was one of three Canadian writers on the 2007 shortlist for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. She is the author of five collections of poetry and the internationally acclaimed novel The Divine Economy of Salvation. Uppal completed her Ph.D in English Literature at York University in Toronto, where she is a professor of English Literature. She was named a “Canadian Writer to Watch” by the American Library Association.
“To be this young and assured a storyteller, this insightful an observer of human nature is, if not the product of divine intervention, at least very rare.” — Ottawa Citizen