The first time I stayed at the Marlborough Hotel in Winnipeg, I lost several rounds of Scrabble in the bar to an editor from Vancouver, while a trio of incompetent musicians thumped and crashed away on the bandstand, and no matter how much we drank neither of us could come up with a single exhilarating word. On the wall of my room on the ninth floor hung several decrepit illustrations of military men in the scarlet uniforms of the eighteenth century. They were looking down at me as I opened Stephen Hawking’s new book (A Brief History of Time, which I had purchased that afternoon in Osborne Village) to the first sentence: “Where did the universe come from?” When I got home from Winnipeg, I called my mother and she told me that when she got married to my father a year after the war ended, her parents arranged the wedding celebration in the Marlborough Hotel, and my father was nervous about going, she said, because he had recently been barred from the Marlborough for urinating into a potted plant. In those days he hung around with the other interns from the General Hospital, who liked to spike their beer with grain alcohol taken from the hospital lab, but my father had rented a suit for the wedding, and apparently no one working at the hotel recognized him as a miscreant on the blacklist.
The only time I ordered ductwork for an air-conditioning system in August, the duct man turned out to be an armourer in his spare time, which made a kind of sense when you looked at the elbow joints in the ductwork and imagined the hinged limbs in a suit of armour. He said that his basement rec room was full of armour and that it was not easy to get or to make good chain mail. Every year there were tournaments in the Lower Mainland, he said, where medieval jousting was practised by people who called themselves re-enactors. In fact, his armour had been worn in jousts all over North America. He was a cheerful, wiry man who looked too small to be a jouster himself, and he was not embarrassed to speak of his medical condition, or conditions, which amounted to failing kidneys and failing heart and failing circulation. He would appear at the worksite after five-hour sessions on the dialysis machine at the hospital, which he said always fixed him up enough to get to work. He had had two bypass operations and was waiting for a heart transplant and a new kidney. His skin was translucent and his breathing was erratic, and when he went up the ladder one felt a responsibility not to leave the room. Whenever he took a break he went out into the alley and smoked several cigarettes while he shared a few moments of camaraderie with his fellow workers, or with anyone else who happened to be passing by.
The last time I took the train across the country in October, I got to talking with the sleeping-car attendant in the vestibule between cars, and after we had shared a few confidences he confessed that he always liked a poem that rhymed. (“I have to confess,” were his words.) The window was open and we were watching the river roll along the bottom of the Fraser Canyon in bright sunlight. Here’s one you might know, he said, and he began to recite from “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake: “To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” Then he opened his wallet and pulled out a newspaper clipping that had been folded and refolded many times. “I carry this with me everywhere,” he said; he handed it over so that I could read along as he recited from memory: “Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.” The poem was “Invictus” by W. E. Henley; the news clipping was from an obituary; the sleeping-car attendant had committed every word perfectly to memory, all the tumbling metaphors from the bludgeonings of chance, to the horror of the shade and the menace of the years, and then the rolling couplet at the end, which he enunciated in resonant, measured, perhaps even triumphant tones: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” That was when sleeping-car attendants wore red jackets.
The only time I had lunch with a stranger from Toronto who had called ahead of time to arrange the meeting, we ordered sandwiches at a place called the Soho, and when I had consumed half of my sandwich, he said, Now that you are halfway through your sandwich, this might be a good time to tell you why I asked for this meeting. I looked down at my plate and in an instant understood that he was about to announce that he was my brother, a thought that I as quickly dismissed as ludicrous. And then he said exactly those words: “I have to tell you that we are brothers.” In a moment the world had changed, but everything remained the same. I recall grasping his hand and shaking it exuberantly. I don’t recall what we said (there were explanations, of course). As we left the Soho I realized for the first but not the last time how closely he resembles my father, and it seemed impossible that I could have missed it when I first laid eyes on him. Finally, we embraced.