There are events that occur so long ago that our failures are forgotten—the failure to achieve a fitting rage the moment someone is torn away. And then the failure to cry.
But when the moment arrives, and is right, we do make our fists. Hold them tight until all the blood is gone, and the remaining white is ivory. And then we do weep. When it makes no sense. Like someone once predicted.
* * * * *
We were the outcasts. Leaky sneakered, bargain clad by our mothers. Maria Hart and me, Zack Stavros, Vincent Chan. Bookish to faults. A poets’ archipelago, by-and-by. Forever black and white in family photos, unaware that we were the future of art and anarchy. We were the exiles of our neighbourhood, unseen.
And yet, we saw everything.
We were 10 years old in the summer of 1971, and were, on that poplar cotton morning, certain that we saw Maria’s ghost in the high grass, kneeling next to her own body.
And since she lingered there separated from us, Vincent, Zack and me stood alone.
“Maria.” Zack was the first to speak.
Releasing her name into the air. Maria, a water colour suspended in the morning.
The three of us numb as her body was lifted onto a stretcher. The blanket the police had hidden her under falling away. Revealing her hollow cheeks. Her rigidness. Her once perfect auburn hair, tangled with twigs and yellow willow leaves. Fixed still cunning eyes. The wrongness of her left arm, too elbowless and deficient to be real.
The body of our friend.
Thalidomide girl. (Maria’s hated handle, that only the cruel would use.)
Found murdered, having not returned for dinner the evening before, in the vacant lot left behind by old Mrs Mackenzie’s demolished house.
Mrs Mac who had died in her double lot jungle garden 2 years before. Assailed by her own heart at 80 years old.
The garden where now the irises and deep red paeonies grew wild.
Where stones still bordered the deserted pathways and flowerbeds beneath the cherry and apple trees.
Where resided, in their branches, the china dolls that Mrs Mack had enchanted and made barely visible on high, and behind the shrouds of low hanging leaves and in the dense creeping thyme.
“Only a child can find them,” she said, correctly. “Because only a child is as magic.”
Maria, her throat crushed, in a wild garden. Watched over by unmoving eyes on porcelain faces.
And there was something else my mother could only murmur, after she’d heard the story on the radio. A word defined for me then by its lone blunt syllable. A whispered scream. A calamity word that once uttered found space in every fracture of my life. An act of awful dreams. That I associated then and now with the evidence in Maria’s dead milky eyes, the banner of her blood, a host of flies.
Cowardly, cruel and stupid.
That night I woke in my bed from nightmares, my distressed father looking down on me.
My father was tall and lean then. Severe sometimes with his unwieldy love. Gentle other times, always made anxious by his children’s fears. Now standing magnificently in the dark room, in the dim streetlamp light coming through my bedroom window.
“You were screaming,” he said. “Like a girl.”
Like a girl.
A nearly wordless man whose words when spoken could sting. Failing, as he sometimes did, to understand the duties and consequences of fatherhood.
My father of the proletariat. Born and raised in East Van. Missing out on high school, but now a union carpenter. A tattoo on his right hammer hard forearm, a dagger through a dark red heart, encircled by flame and wrapped in a banner with my mother’s name, Bridget, forever burnt in to it. A neighborhood legend within his circle of lifelong friends. Proving their confederacy with incontrovertible stories of his savage rebellion and extraordinary courage. Who had a trick of hitting every green in the city. Still street smart and good in a fist fight, he thought the same would be good enough for me. Never able to comprehend my need to understand not only facts, but also the subtleties that cemented them together.
He pulled my small desk chair to my bedside and sat. Just jeans, no shirt no socks. Obviously roused from sleep.
“Your mother’s still in bed,” he said. “I can go get her.”
“No,” I say, reticent. He was still a stranger to me, eerie yet comforting to have nearby.
He shrugs, “OK,” and lights a cigarette. “It must have been pretty bad, seeing what you saw today.”
Now I shrug, still feeling the nightmare on my skin. Suspicious even of my bedroom’s familiar shadows.
“That poor cripple girl, eh?” he said.
“Cripple’s a bad word.”
“She was your friend, your mother says.”
I said, “Yeah.” And the world went hush.
I’d yet to read even one tragic romance.
I couldn’t explain it to him then, or myself, my fascination. My attraction to her. How vast it was. Her child-wise insights and beauty in spite of what people whispered. Her aura, surrounding her like the Virgin in Catholic tracts. Only I saw it. But I was too young to know, that in the minds of others, my childish crush on a cripple made me a defendant in a crime of the grotesque.
But now, a crime that I could never fully commit.
Then, “Why can’t I cry?” I said. “Shouldn’t I cry?”
“You’re gonna, kid,” he says, tapping a cigarette ash into the palm of his hand, and rubbing it into his jeans. “When it don’t make sense,” he said. “It’ll hit you like a brick. And then you’ll cry, just fine.”
It already made no sense.
“What happened to her was what you were dreaming about, I guess.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Wanna tell me about it?”
An unexpected question.
But how could I explain it to him? I did my best. My exact words are lost, only a vague memory now—
In my dream, I was with Maria in the wild garden. In night’s darkest room, spied on by China dolls. Her face is pale, unwashed. She’s missing buttons. Her fingernails are broken from a fierce fight. She’s post-mortem. Her spirit is imperfect.
I remember a long audible lament from somewhere hidden, nearby.
“I’m dead,” says Maria, “aren’t I.”
Things are running through the puzzle of jungle around us.
“And this place is haunted,” she says, suddenly very afraid of something I cannot see. “I’m scared,” she says. Her milky terrified eyes moving rapidly left to right as suddenly the hands of a multitude reach out from behind, and pull her into the darkest of the dark. Jumping forward, I reach out for her hand. And have it for a moment. But then it’s gone. Leaving only a cold night behind. Grief, silent and complete.
I wake screaming, at that moment, to see my father standing over me.
I remember thinking it was a dream too strange for a simple carpenter to understand.
“Hmmm,” he said. “That’s a good one.” Then draws on his cigarette, nearing its end. The orange ember momentarily lighting up the dark room. “I have dreams like that sometimes, too,” my father says. “Must be hereditary. Don’t forget ‘em, neither. Not like regular dreams. I’ve got a garage-full in my head.”
This is surprising. Like I’d just peeked over a wall at the real man.
”A dream itself is but a shadow,” he said, snuffing out the cigarette between a callused finger and thumb. “That’s Shakespeare, Hamlet. You read more than a kid should, that must be hereditary too. So you’ll get to the Bard, eventually. Sooner than most, I’ll bet. Some say he didn’t write any of it, but who gives a damn.”
My opinion of him changed then, and I finally paid attention, discovering that he did read. Had all along. Dog-eared stacks. Hammett, Faulkner, Chandler, Orwell and more. A disheveled easy chair in the basement furnace room. A crooked lamp, recent copies of the New Yorker. Scattered journals on mysterious subjects, like socialism. A few empty beer bottles and an ashtray.
I tried to read his copy of 1984. But at 10 years old, I couldn’t finish it.
When I told him, he said, “That’s a bit heavy, ain’t it?” Then he asked me what I thought of what I’d read.
“People in novels are mean,” I told him.
“It’s called tension, kid,” he grinned. “That’s what all the dames, gats, villains and tough guys are about. Riddles at the start, heartbreak in the middle, redemption in the end. A novel’d just be bad cover art without the tension. But watch out. Sometimes there ain’t no redemption. Nothing obvious, anyway. Just injustice. Those stories can be the best, I think. You gotta mull ‘em over. Maybe for a long time. Maybe forever.”
“Nothing’s forever.”—everyone said so.
“Maybe,” he said. “But an ending never walked away from the story it belonged to. Good or bad. That’s kinda like forever, isn’t it?”
It made me think of Maria. Her ghost kneeling over her own body in the tall grass, on the morning she was found. The ending she’d never escape.
My father made me a writer. Made me a dissident. And I thank him for it.
* * * * *
Zack Stavros, Vincent Chan and I were in the garden the next morning. Watching the cops like bees on the scene. They even questioned us. But we didn’t know anything. Except that she was our friend. That she was smart.
I quietly remembered the last time she and I spoke.
A debate, almost an argument, over who was cooler, Barbie or Ken. Barbie was, as it turned out.
If either Vincent or Zack had dreamed a dream like mine, neither would say. That is until hours later. After we’d walked round the neighbourhood. Tried to sneak into the Rio Theatre, and failed. Tried to play a round of street hockey we were all to sad and confused to pull off.
When we returned to the wild garden in the afternoon, and watched the few cops remaining talking in a corner across the property from us, smoking and drinking coffee, laughing at whatever it is cops have to laugh at at the scene of a child’s murder, Zack opened up.
“I dreamed about her last night,” he said.
“How?”I asked. “I mean, what was the dream about?”
He was quiet for a minute, then he said, “She looked like nothing had ever happened. Better, even. Just stood there in a weird light.”
He nodded in a hazy direction. “Kinda off the path.”
“So, what happened?”
“I don’t know.” He look down at his ragged runners. Kicked a stone. “She just kinda smiled and disappeared. It made me feel good, though. I wasn’t sad anymore, ‘til I woke up.”
“You weren’t scared,” I said, without grace.
“I felt like I was falling,” said Zack, “With nowhere to land. Just a lot of light.”
“I just woke up,” he said.
They arrested everyone in the Cesare Fiocco gang the week after.
The Fiocco gang were the dropouts. 18 or 19 years old. Each never more than a lunatic glance, an injured laugh away from the other. They bullied. Stole. Shot pool at the Lusitania. Ran errands for the rotten cops and the Capos on the Drive. Each dying too young. Leaving no vacant space behind, my father said, when they did.
And each, in unison, ratting out Dante Bonazzoli as the perpetrator of the crime. Dante Bonazzoli, the oldest of them at 20. Who committed Maria Hart’s rape and murder. Bonazzoli who called her a freak because of her birth defect.
He died in the BC Pen a year after sentencing. Bleeding out in a shower. Stabbed eleven times with a screwdriver. For being a rapist, and refusing the advances of an inmate as monstrous as himself.
I was jealous of Zack’s dream. Resented that what I thought was my last glimpse of Maria was so different from his. But my envy didn’t last long. It only lasted a few days. Until I began to see her again.
Maria over my shoulder. Reflected in storefront windows. Opposite on busy streets. Standing very still on downtown sidewalks. Each time, only for seconds. In nearly every corner of my life. No longer lost in shadows. Her face bright. Her eyes sharp. Was it more dreaming? No. It wasn’t.
Maria clothed in paradise. Whispering in tongues. Wise and just beyond touch. In a room next to me, then vanishing.
Time passed and she faded away, completely. I forgot, and I failed to ever cry.
I grew and learned and worked and got older.
Forgot to cry, that is, until the other day. When it hit me like a brick. Out of nowhere. When it made no sense. And then I cried, just fine.