My dad bent down. "Just ask her to dance," he whispered. So I did.
My dad had bad feet. He was a fat old guy who smoked cigarettes and drank too much. His bones ached and his kidneys gave him trouble. Once a week he went to a steam bath beside a travel agency and a tailor shop at Bay and Gerrard, usually on Sunday, after he dropped my mother, my sister and me at church. There was always a bag of Epsom salts in our bathroom beside the tub. It looked like something you might spread on your cereal.
He wore white socks all the time, because his feet reacted to coloured dye and synthetic fabric. He was also colour blind. He stopped for a red light only because he knew it was at the top of the traffic signal, and the green one was at the bottom.
After dinner on summer nights, my dad and I watered the lawn. Sometimes he took me for walks down the street to the cigar store on Bloor Street to buy Black Cat filter cigarettes. On Friday nights in winter, he took me to the hockey rink behind the high school down the hill to watch industrial-league teams from National Cash Register and Dunlop Tires and Fruehauf Trailers and Gutta Percha Rubber, with about four other people in the stands, most of them married to the players.
One night, my dad got on a train at Sunnyside Station at the foot of Roncesvalles and headed off for Cleveland. Until then, no one in our family had ever gone anywhere unless the rest of us went along. It was exciting to stand on the platform in the midst of a crowd of people with suitcases, watching my dad sitting at the window in the train car. After we said goodbye, my mom told us he was “going for treatment.”
When I got older, I found out that my dad seldom had a steady job. He liked to gamble, and he squandered my mother’s inheritance.
Sometimes my dad played cribbage in the evenings with his friend Mr. Coward. They played at the kitchen table, but I never saw them play for money. They just sat there like two old men and counted “fifteen-two, fifteen-four and a pair is six” and drank rye whisky from juice glasses.
One summer, my dad sold garden plants from a vacant lot at Annette and Jane Streets. Some days he took me with him. I’d play in the back corner of the lot with my steam shovel that burned wood and blew real smoke from its chimney. Later, around the time my parents gave me my first bicycle, my dad got a job in a bank downtown. One day I rode my bike along Bloor Street past Christie Pits and Honest Ed’s to visit him at the bank. He was pretty surprised when I showed up. When he drove me home, my mother took my bike out of the trunk of the Ford and locked it in the basement for two years. Sometimes I’d go downstairs to sit on it and pretend I was going somewhere. But my mother wouldn’t let me unlock it and take it outside.
When I first got that bike, I rode it all around the neighbourhood. I’d go like crazy down the big hill to the high school, leaning into the curve halfway down until I could feel my tires skidding on the cobblestones. Then I’d pick up speed until I reached the bottom of the hill and glide up the other side, past Western Tech to the street where Oksana Diakiw lived. If she was playing outside her house, I’d ride up and down her street a few times, trying to impress her with my skills as a cyclist.
One time I wrapped black electrical tape around my handlebars and told Oksana that I had a racing bike like the ones that Eddy Merckx rode in the Tour de France. Another boy, who was interested in Oksana, scoffed when I told her this. But I ignored him. Oksana touched the handlebars.
Oksana’s family had come to Canada from Ukraine. Her parents ran a grocery store on Bloor Street. The porch and eavestroughs of their house were painted green. My mother said that all immigrants painted their houses green, because green paint was cheap. A lot of new Canadians moved into our neighbourhood in the 1950s. On summer evenings, whole families walked in clusters up and down the sidewalk in front of our house. The adults were hefty and seemed sullen. The men wore heavy suits and white shirts open at the collar. The women wore kerchiefs around their heads, and the girls wore long flowered skirts and white socks. We knew they were different, because they all stared at my dad and me as we sat on our porch steps spraying water on the lawn with the hose. My mother said it was impolite to stare.
Oksana’s brother wore suspenders to school with knee-length trousers called breeks and high-topped boots like skates without the blades. When he first came to our school, he spoke no English. Our teacher gave him the task of collecting the trash every afternoon. He walked up and down the aisles between our desks calling, “Here come de gabbage,” and we’d throw scrap paper into the can as he went by. When I told my mother about him, she laughed. That weekend, when we went to visit my aunt and uncle, my mother said, “Tell us about the boy who collects the garbage.” By Christmas, the kid had learned to speak English.
My mother wanted me to play with Lydia-Jane Plunkett. Lydia-Jane lived in a big house at the end of a blind street overlooking a gulley. Her father worked for a company that made soap, and her brother delivered the Toronto Star on his new bike.
One day Oksana walked past our house with her parents and her two older brothers. We were sitting in our black Ford Fairlane and my dad was craning his neck, trying to back the car out of the driveway.
“They’re DP's,” my mother said.
“What’s a DP?” I said.
“A displaced person,” said my mother. Then, looking at my sister and me in the rear-view mirror, she said, “Don’t stare, Bruce. It isn’t polite.”
“They never stop staring, do they?” said my sister. And indeed, they never did. They stared at everything around them: houses, cars, fire hydrants, telephone poles and us, as we rolled down the street in our big black car.
My mother owned the car, along with everything else worth mentioning in our home. One sunny day in the middle of June, she moved my sister and me out of our house and away from our father, and had the car towed away from the garage where he had parked it. The next day, the car appeared in the driveway of our new house in the suburbs. We never saw our father again. On the day we left, he must have gone home in the evening to an empty house. My mother had taken everything but the piano. Maybe he’d paid for that with his own money.
For a couple of years before my mother ditched my dad, I thought of girls and women, unencumbered by feelings of guilt. I lay on the hard wooden floor of the kindergarten at nap time and peeked up the full skirt of my teacher as she passed above me. She wore high heels and nylon stockings with a seam up the back, and occasionally I caught a glimpse of her panties. At night I dreamed of Oksana Diakiw.
In grade 1, I entered the school’s talent night. I stood on the stage and sang “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain.” Afterwards, all the performers gathered with their parents in the school gymnasium. Oksana was there. With her brother, she had performed a Ukrainian dance, wearing red boots and a white dress embroidered with flowers. Lydia-Jane Plunkett was there, too. She had recited a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Music was playing, and some of the teachers danced. My mother talked to Mrs. Plunkett, and Lydia-Jane stood quietly beside her. Her father hadn’t come. He was away in another city, at a conference, discussing soap. Oksana and her parents and brothers drank punch from paper cups and looked around the room, staring at the basketball nets and the tumbling mats that hung from hooks on the wall. “I think that girl likes you,” said my dad.
“That’s Oksana,” I said.
“Come on,” said my dad. “We’ll go and ask her to dance.”
My dad and I walked across the gym floor. As we approached Oksana and her family, my dad held out his hand. “Hello, Walter,” he said.
“Hello, Mac,” said Mr. Diakiw.
My dad introduced me to Mr. Diakiw.
“You sing good,” Mr. Diakiw said to me in a thick accent. I held my dad’s hand and looked at Oksana.
“My son would like to ask your daughter to dance,” said my dad.
Mr. Diakiw said, “Ah.” He turned to Oksana and said, “Okay?” Oksana nodded. Mr. Diakiw took Oksana’s hand and led her over to me.
My dad bent down. “Just ask her to dance,” he whispered. So I did.
That night, after my sister and I went to bed, my dad and my mother argued. When our parents fought, I would go to my sister’s room to sleep in her bed. From there, we could hear them yelling. Then there would be silence, followed by more yelling and the sound of furniture being dragged across the floor. Years later, my sister told me that it wasn’t always furniture we heard. Sometimes my dad was dragging my mother around the dining room by the hair.
A few days later, I sat with my father on the front porch, watering the lawn. The sun was setting, but the sky was still blue. Oksana and her family came along the sidewalk and stopped in front of our house. Mr. Diakiw left them on the sidewalk and came up to the porch.
“Hello, Mac,” said Mr. Diakiw.
“Hello, Walter,” said my dad.
Mr. Diakiw said hello to me, too, and he shook my hand.
Behind us, the front door of our house opened, and my mother called me inside. I stood up and walked into the dark hallway, and my mother closed the door behind me. Lydia-Jane Plunkett wanted to talk to me on the phone, she said.
The next day, the movers came. They knocked on the door at seven o’clock in the morning. While my dad slept, my mother got out of bed and went to the door. She told them they’d come to the wrong house. Then my dad went to work at the bank. A couple of hours later, the movers came back. My mother helped them pack up our stuff. Then she packed my sister and me into the front of the moving van, and off we went to the suburbs.
A few months later, my dad drowned in Lake Ontario, near the mouth of the Humber River. The harbour police found his body floating face down in the water, dressed in an overcoat with nothing in the pockets. It took them three days to identify the body. If they’d asked me, I could have told them who he was.