SchoolOnMainSt450.gifPhoto by Mandelbrot
Published originally in Geist 65 as “Revisitor”
My friend Henry and I crouched in the back of my father’s station wagon. We were waiting for him to come out of Woodward’s and drive us to the Cascade theatre. All we could see from the back window was a row of cars in the Woodward’s parking lot, splattered with rain beneath a leaden sky.
My mother was out of town visiting Gramps, and Dad had promised to give Henry and me a ride to the weekend double bill, Village of the Giants and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. The problem was, the show began at seven o’clock, and even though Henry and I were ten years old and not adept at estimating time, we knew that Dad was taking way longer than he said he would.
Neither of us had a watch, so with some difficulty we rolled the creaky window down a crack and yelled, “Do you know what time it is?” to people passing by.
No one stopped to answer. Men in overcoats glanced at us with narrowed eyes, and women with umbrellas walked past without looking.
“No one answers because we’re kids,” Henry observed.
“Do you know what time it is?” I shouted to a man going by before he got out of earshot.
He stopped short and pressed his face against the car window. He had a tattoo on his splotchy red nose—a crisscross, in that navy blue colour one readily associates with tattoos.
He took half a step back from the window, looked at his watch and said, “It’s half past six.” Then he tipped his hat—he was wearing a Mac, the type of which I’d seen many times in British movies—and went off with a bounce in his step.
“That guy sure was nice,” said Henry. “He took the time to stop and look us right in the eye and tell us the time.”
Roundabout then the driver door opened and Dad wedged in behind the wheel carrying a bag of tools and whatnot.
“I guess you want to go to that darned show,” he said as he started the engine.
When he pulled up in front of the Cascade theatre, Dad hesitated a moment and then got out and put his bag of tools in the trunk. “I’m coming with you,” he said.
Dad hated horror films.
“Darned if I don’t miss your mother,” he added.
I sat between Dad and Henry in the theatre. About halfway through Village of the Giants, Henry and I heard snoring sounds.
“Do you know your dad’s asleep?” Henry whispered, somewhat fiercely.
Yeah, I knew.
Some kids around us snickered. I was getting fidgety and so was Henry. He whispered, “Let’s go to my place and play your Beatles records. I don’t feel so hot anyway.”
I tapped Dad’s shoulder. “Can you drive us to Henry’s? We want to leave.”
Dad got up slowly and we all filed out the exit. There was so much activity and noise in the Cascade on Saturday nights that no one paid attention if you left early.
When Dad pulled up in front of Henry’s place, Henry’s big sister Ivy was gazing out the picture window in their living room. The house was mostly dark inside.
“Ivy’s lovesick,” explained Henry. Then he mouthed the words, “Is your dad coming in here, too?”
“You be home in an hour,” said Dad as he drove off.
The first record Henry and I played was “I Call Your Name.” As it faded out, Ivy said, “Can you play that again? It reminds me of a boy at school called Chris.
“When I hear it,” she continued, “I think of Chris in his squall jacket with one foot on the stool in chemistry class, and the teacher saying, ‘Christopher, you put that foot down. Someone has to sit there,’ and Chris saying, ‘Rip off, Mr. Ross,’ although he kind of whispered it and I don’t think Mr. Ross heard.”
“You’re talking all through the song,” grumbled Henry.
“Well, the next song is your choice then,” Ivy said. “We’ll all take turns.”
Henry played “Misery,” and I was so anxious to play “You Can’t Do That” I thought I’d jump out of my skin. I didn’t yet know how quickly an hour goes by when togetherness and music are in the air.
All the coolest kids in my junior high school went across the street and sat on the steps of the church during lunch hour. On this spring day, they sat there long after the bell had rung for afternoon classes.
I was not cool but was sitting in the crowd anyway because today the cool kids were having a protest, and if I joined in maybe I could be a cool kid, too. They were protesting that they couldn’t smoke in the halls or cut classes whenever they wished. They were protesting because 1969 was a year of unrest and they wanted to get in on it.
The way to demonstrate was to stay on the church steps and not go back for afternoon classes. This idea had been talked about all term, and no one actually believed it, but here it was. I was sitting on the top step, wearing my mother’s fake sealskin coat. She gave me hell the day before for leaving orange peels in one of the pockets.
The minister and his wife emerged from the side entrance and eyed us without saying anything. The minister began pacing in front of the steps, hands behind his back. His wife stayed near the Sunday school door, as though she were prepared to duck back in.
A pewter cross was hanging out of one of the minister’s pockets. His face had a sombre, meditative expression.
One of the cool kids yelled out to him, “What time is it?”
“Half past,” said the minister. He meant half past one; afternoon classes were well under way by this time.
“What time is it, did you say?” asked a second kid. He had his palm cupped behind his ear, as though he didn’t hear the first time.
“Half past,” repeated the minister.
“Half past a monkey’s arse, a quarter to his balls,” the second kid recited in a singsong voice. Some of the other kids snickered, and the cold April air felt electrically charged.
The minister kept pacing, and his wife inched away from the door and said, “Why are you boys and girls here when you are supposed to be in school?”
“We’re protesting,” said a boy on the bottom step. “We wanna be able to smoke in school and cut classes without any big explanations.”
“Oh kids, don’t smoke,” said the minister’s wife. She shook her head.
More than anything, I wanted to go back to school and sit in my math class. I didn’t smoke and I never cut classes. I began planning how to descend the stairs without drawing too much attention to myself, and then I saw the principal and the vice-principal advancing toward the church.
The principal stopped in front of the church steps, with a wide grin like the type I’d seen on salesmen when Dad browsed the used-car lot. I wasn’t aware our principal could grin like that. He said, “What is it you pupils are demonstrating about?”
The vice-principal, looking lost in thought like the minister, stood at the principal’s side.
None of the kids answered at first. Finally the boy who’d said “Half past a monkey’s arse” said, “We’d like to smoke in school. We’re sick of hiding it. We’re like junior high hypocrites.”
The principal gave half a shrug, still grinning. “You can’t smoke in school. It’s against fire regulations.”
“The teachers all smoke in the staff room. You can smell it in the hallway,” said somebody.
The vice-principal spoke next. “We are responsible for your well-being. You can’t smoke in school, and that’s that. I suggest you follow us back to class, for your own benefit.”
I was expecting a horrific fight, such as food-throwing and name-calling—the kind you’d often see in the schoolyard—but instead we slowly, collectively flocked back to school in step with our principal. The vice-principal took up the rear.
I took a last look around before entering my school. The minister stood at the edge of his property, too far away for me to distinguish his features. His wife stood behind him, still shaking her head.
I’d never really looked at their church before—I didn’t even know its denomination. The church windows were gleefully decorated with coloured cut-outs, no doubt created by the Sunday schoolers. The roof needed major repair, obvious even to my untrained eye.
I couldn’t have known how shameful and guilty I’d feel by partaking in that short-lived demonstration. I wanted to feel in charge, with a place in the world. I wanted to feel whatever the adults at the scene appeared to be feeling.
I was reluctant to show up at my ten-year high school reunion. My old neighbourhood was difficult to get to on public transit, and the autumn weather was chillier than usual.
I finally talked myself into it. One of the first people I saw in the sparsely populated auditorium was my old friend Henry. He looked about the same, except he had a tattoo that spelled love across the knuckles of his right hand. His left hand was in the pocket of his sport jacket.
Henry and I had drifted apart after elementary school, so we had only childhood memories to talk about.
“Do you remember that time in the Woodward’s parking lot,” I said, “when we asked everyone what time it was, and finally a guy who looked like he’d just stepped off the movie screen obliged us?”
“No, I don’t recall that,” said Henry.
“And Dad drove us to the Cascade theatre?”
“No, but I went past the Cascade on my way here,” said Henry. “It’s now the Ambassador Super-Cinema, divided into three.”
“Well, do you remember playing records with Ivy later that evening?”
“When Ivy was a teenager, she used to snarl, ‘I have no time for you kids.’ That’s what I remember,” said Henry. He thought for a moment and said, “Remember when Rollie threw a giant snowball at me? That so-and-so had packed a big rock in the middle. It knocked me into the snowbank and Rollie took off before I could plank him one.”
I didn’t recall that. Maybe I hadn’t been there.
Our reunion was winding down rapidly, so Henry went off to say a goodbye or two, and I went outside to get some fresh air. I wandered toward the adjacent block, where our old junior high school was situated, to explore a little.
I looked across the street toward the church and, incredibly, there were the minister and his wife, outside raking the grounds. Dead maple leaves were scattered across the church property.
The old couple looked stooped and ancient, although I used to think they looked ancient when I was in junior high as well. The church was in need of repair, as ever. Its white stucco finish had developed great cracks, with brown water seeping through.
“Hi,” I called out. “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I attended that school years ago.” I gestured to the junior high.
They leaned their rakes against a tree and came closer to greet me. “Our congregation is moving to a newer building,” said the minister. “We’re just doing some final cleanup. We’re not sure of the fate of our church here.”
“I must tell you something I’ve always felt badly about,” I confessed, “something that has stayed in my memory. Do you recall when our school had a protest in the late sixties, and we hung around these steps giving you a bad time?”
This time the minister’s wife spoke up. “We don’t remember one protest from t’other, Miss. There was always something going on in those days.” Then she and the minister took up their rakes again.
“We’d like to clear these leaves away before sundown,” the minister explained. “Thank you for stopping by.”
I made my way to the highway and caught a bus, the first of three I’d have to board in order to get back home. As we threaded our way through the late afternoon traffic, I spotted Henry near an intersection. He didn’t see me. He was walking along the sidewalk at a slow, easy pace, hands behind his back, looking right at home.