— east end Vancouver, 1969 —
My father spit the words, his hostility filling every dark corner of the mouldy ’62 Bel Air station wagon. His ambient rage could fill a whole room, a whole house. I tried not to cringe. I was ten years old. He resented me, my weakness in the shadow of my older more robust brother. I was the greatest of his familial disappointments, thrust upon him by my mother, out of revenge.
Earlier that Saturday morning, still night really, as the city slept, a semitrailer truck had crossed the border from the US, into Canada, and sped the 99 into Vancouver. There, the driver had separated the cab from its cargo, near the back of a nearby Safeway store parking lot, and drove away.
The California wine grapes had arrived.
Now, as the long shadows shortened into swelter, the neighbourhood winemakers lined up in their cars and pickups to purchase and load the grapes that would become the wine that would fuel the alcoholic extremes of Christmas and Easter, and all stops in between and beyond, until the queue formed again late the next summer.
“They get outta their fucking beds at 4:00 a.m. to get down here,” my father muttered to himself, wringing the steering wheel, “before any decent goddam white man wakes up.”
There were ten or fifteen cars ahead of us. Each, I knew, driven by an Italian neighbour. My parents were of Irish descent, an ethnic minority where we lived. The east end then was working class, and southern European. My father was a labourer. It was where we belonged, and he hated it.
“We used to kick wop ass when I was a kid,” he said.
“Because they’re dirty, that’s why.”
This I hadn’t noticed.
“Mr and Mrs Andreoni aren’t dirty,” I said.
“Yeah well, there’re ways of being dirty you don’t yet grasp, boyo. Now, zip it and play with your toys.”
There was a six shooter in a holster lying next to me, and a Matchbox car in my sweaty fingers. It was an oddly shaped thing made in England, a lump of proletariat curves and primary function. Turning it over, I read the words Morris Minor. It looked like a UFO. I hated it. I didn’t like cars or guns, but dared not say so. They were the seeds of stupid boy games, I failed to appreciate. The boys called me a girl, but I wasn’t offended.
When finally we made it to the head of the line, my father got out and began to haggle, shaking his head and moving his hands emphatically. In the end, the grape salesman shrugged and stood his ground. My father did the same. I peeked over the dashboard. There was going to be trouble, unless one of them relented. My father was capable of physical violence. I had seen him punch my mother, and watched my mother lay low until the bruises disappeared. But at last, it was my father who gave in.
“Fuck,” I heard him say, as he handed over the cash. Then he and the salesman loaded the car to its fullest capacity, and it smelled like purple grapes for days afterward.
There was a communal grape press shared in the neighbourhood, constructed upon an elegant finely crafted oaken pedestal, with an iron screw shaft running down into its dark interior, surrounded by ribs of purple grape stained wood. It looked to me to be a thousand years old.
It arrived in our backyard three days after the purchase of the grapes, sitting mute in the shady but sticky perimeter of the backyard pear tree. No one had seen who put it there, but was an old country custom to share it, and my father took advantage, dirty wops or no.
The responsibility for its safekeeping fell to whoever possessed it at the time. For now, that was my father. Our grapes were in the basement, and had to be pressed soon. The wine making process must be begun. My father had less than a day before the unwieldy contraption had to be handed over to Mr Ricco, the last man in the grape press union. After he had used it, it would sit in his garage until the following year.
Later that day my big brother cornered me. He had long ago adopted my father’s bullying ways, and football had made him meaner and muscled.
“You helping dad with the grapes?” he said, stopping me as I rode my bicycle in circles in the front yard.
“I’ve helped him enough,” he said. “For years. Now it’s your turn. I got other shit to do.”
Richard was sixteen years old. To say he’d done anything for years seemed an exaggeration.
“He doesn’t want me to help,” I said.
“That’s because you’re a fag, and dad hates fags. But too bad.”
At ten years old, new words were coming at me fast. Sometimes I couldn’t keep up. But I knew what a fag was. I wanted to deny it, but a divine voice told me that only time would tell. Denial was desertion of the self.
“I wanna ride my bike,” I said, and pushed past him. He grabbed me by my collar and pulled me back.
“I hate you too,” he said into my ear.
I froze. It was the only thing to do. He would have beat the hell out of me, otherwise. He’d done it before, in my bedroom, using a pillow to avoid telltale bruises. It was a trick he’d learned from the movies. He pushed me to the ground. Hate seemed to be everywhere that summer.
My mother took up smoking that August, and I watched her have her first cigarette on a sunny afternoon after she’d hung out the wash. She was a frail and tired woman, far more worn in appearance than the mothers of my friends. I’ve always believed she began smoking so late in life, at thirty-five, because my father was already a drunk and someone had to remain sober. So, cigarettes were the only addiction open to her, and her ultimate fuck you to the world. In later years I would come to realise that it was the illogic of an intelligent woman, isolated in a hopeless tangle of bridled domesticity and promised violence.
She lit that first cigarette with a paper match, as we sat together at the kitchen table. My father was at work, and my brother and sister were out until the street lights came on. She coughed on the first drag, and then took another. Then she went into the bathroom and was sick. She returned and finished what was left. I was amazed by her doggedness. She smoked another after the first.
Now pale from smoking, she said, “My father came from Ireland.” It was a strange moment for reminiscence, but she was this way. “They called these fags there.” She picked up the package of Craven A and examined it.
I said nothing, knowing that she had no interest in conversation.
“He died of the lung cancer before you were born. His name was Lorne.”
This I knew. I was acquainted with the mythology. Grandad Lorne was old IRA, and had fought in the Irish Civil War. He brawled and always won. He was a master rifleman. Women adored him above all others.
There was the quiet humming of the backyard coming through the open windows.
“He worked building the Burrard Street Bridge,” my mother said. “Once, he dropped his thermos bottle into the wet concrete of a tower foundation, and it sank into the wet cement. Coffee and Irish whiskey. It’s in that foundation right now, frozen there forever.”
She put the cigarettes on top of the refrigerator before she went to lie down.
That evening, my father came home drunk and searched the house for my brother.
“Where is that useless son of a bitch?” he hollered, as he held onto the kitchen counter to keep from falling down. “You!” he said to me. “Tell me where he is, or I’ll pound it outta you.”
I didn’t know.
“Those grapes ain’t getting any fresher,” he yelled. “Where’s your mother? She doesn’t keep you brats in line. The back of my hand’ll set her straight.”
“She’s at church bingo,” I said.
“That bitch.” He stumbled into the living room, and fell into his frayed easy chair. “Come here, boy.”
He took me by the shoulder, and pulled me close. He smelled bad, sweat, beer and rum. His eyes were rheumy and red. This was his usual condition after work, and how I would always remember him.
“Ain’t it enough that I work so hard to feed this goddam family?” he said. “I gotta come home to a house abandoned, and no supper.”
His supper was on the stove.
“Ain’t it enough that I got you for a son, half a goddam Nancy?”
I shrugged him off and stepped back, without looking away. It was finally my turn to hate. He smiled when he saw it on my face. Then we heard the backdoor.
“Who’s there?” my father shouted. “Get yer arse in here, whoever you are.”
He fell back into the chair the first time he tried to stand, but got his footing and stood as my mother came round the corner.
“You fucking bitch!” His words were a spew of sloppy syllables, as he took two quick unsteady steps toward her, and swung his fist.
A split second before impact, either in a moment of defiance or in hopes of annihilation, I saw my mother stick her chin out. Blood sprayed from her mouth and onto the wall, and across a framed sepia photograph of Grandad Lorne that hung there. She stumbled backward, her head striking the corner of a side table as she fell. And there she lay, very still with her eyes blank and half open.
“Bastard,” I shouted, torn between my need to destroy him, and my need to kneel at my mother’s side. I chose the latter, but could only gently stroke her face. The dead have a way of expressing themselves, unequivocally.
“Fucking bitch,” my father said, and staggered away. I knew that he was on his way to bed, to sleep it off.
It took me nearly half an hour to pull my mother’s small body out of the house, and into the backyard. It was night, and her lifeless eyes stared up at the new moon. It was a black hole. I set to work.
Some time later, I was in the backyard, wrapped in a raging orange light. As my father slept, I had taken a can of gasoline from the decrepit garden shed, and in a series of involuntary movements, poured it onto the floor beneath his bed. Then I lit a book of my mother’s paper matches, and from the hall, threw them onto the floor where the gasoline pooled, and ran out of the house. My only fear in that burning moment was hearing him scream, but he slept soundly.
The fire spread quickly, and all I heard was the increasing roar of flames.
Now in yard, my mother and I a safe distance away, I watched the animated light and shadow. Soon there were the sirens and red lights of fire engines, and my brother and sister returning home. The soul of the house had been prepared this, for its final release, as its wooden frame fell into flame. The rage and sorrow that had permeated its grain and fibre, gone in the smoke. The firemen could save nothing, and my siblings and I were driven away in a black Chevrolet by a tall woman from the Children’s Aid.
The following day, the men of the grape press union retrieved their communal property.