Monday, June 9, 2014

Grace Street. Story by Joan M. Baril

Grace Street, 1946
By Joan M. Baril
The streets of Port Arthur go up hill and down and behind them, hidden, are the back lanes, even more twisted than the streets. Often they run through fields or around rocky outcroppings. Sometimes there are houses back there, shacks, or garages that were turned into houses during the war and sometimes regular houses all alone on a long stretch of lane like boats cast up by the waves.
            Evadne’s house is like this. It’s perched on a stretch of flat rock behind Grace Street. I am passing it now on my way to the police station to deliver my father’s lunch. It’s an unpainted two-storey that leans slightly. Evadne and her family, her mother and two older brothers, moved in about a month ago.
            Last Thursday, after school, my friend Elsie and I go with Evadne to play in her house. It’s an interesting place. There are many rooms but hardly any furniture. Evadne has a big room to herself, the lucky duck, and she sleeps in her own bed. She keeps her clothes in cardboard boxes lined up along the wall, a neat way to do it, I think.
We three girls run around screaming, in and out the empty rooms. When we get to the bedrooms of Evadne’s brothers, we jump up and down on their mattresses which are on the floor. We land on our knees and then with another leap, land on our backs, rumpling the smoothed blankets. The elder brother, Albert, has movie star pictures tacked to the wall, so we take a crayon and draw mustaches on Rita Hayworth and Carmen Miranda. Henry, the second brother, has a pile of Batman comics beside his bed, and these we fan out and hide under his mattress.
One of the cardboard boxes in Henry’s room contains a pair of pants and a blue plaid shirt white with dust. “My brothers work at the elevators shoveling grain,” Evadne says. “Watch.” She picks up the shirt, tosses it into the air,  and grain dust like tiny snow flakes fills the sunlight and makes haloes around our heads. We throw up our arms and dance in the pretend snow as Evadne flaps the shirt up and down. A thin sheen settles on the dark linoleum and I write DUSTY in it with my finger and then, boldly, LOVE, JANET, and this gives us the giggles.
We pelt down the back stairs and up the front stairs, stopping at the landing half way to peek through a place in the wall that has a hole to the outside, a spy hole, where we can check on the world, although there’s nothing to see—just the wide flat rocks and patches of grass that take up the area behind Grace Street. On the third circuit, we spy Evadne’s mother huffing up the lane from the hospital where she has just finished her shift in the kitchens.
Life is so strange I think, as I study the house on the way to the police station. For example, how come I didn’t know, until just a few minutes ago, that Evadne is an Indian?

            I learn this fact in our kitchen that very morning. My sister and I are waiting for the scones to come out of the oven and my Aunt Sissy, who has dropped in for tea, is there too. I stand snuggled up beside her and show her my Grade Four class list that we copied from the board so we get to know each other for the new school year. My Aunt Sissy is squashy and warm and has a droopy face that smiles a lot. It’s odd that she’s so different from my mother who’s as tall and bony as a skeleton. I’m sure if my mother ever hugged me, I’d feel squashed by sticks.
My mother turns from the counter where she’s packing up the lunch pail and, using her long apron, opens the high oven door to lift out the sheet of scones, carefully sliding them on to the big Blue Willow platter in the middle of the table. My sister grabs one and juggles it in her hands, waiting for it to cool.
            “How do you say that name, Janet?” My Aunt Sissy points to Elsie’s last name. 
“Na– tish – in,” I say.
My aunt sighs, running her eyes down the list. “Tolvanen, Ho, LaBrie, Andropoulus,” she reads aloud. “Do none of them have proper names, then, Meg?” she says to my mother.
            “Not in our Janet’s class,” says my mother. She’s wrapping a piece of cold pork pie in a waxed bread wrapper and placing it into the black metal box. “Nary an English name in the school, much less a Scot’s.” She polishes an apple on her apron and places it inside. “She’s even got an Indian in her class.”
            “I do?” I almost drop the table knife I’m using to slather butter on a scone.
            “That Evadne you play with,” my mother says.
            My aunt searches down the list. “Evadne Sky,” she reads and frowns. “How can that be, Meg, for mark ye this. I know for a fact that no Indian is allowed past Marshall-Wells.” Marshall-Wells is the big hardware store on the edge of the downtown. “They’re to stay down the South End and not come up town at a’. That’s why their kids go to King George’s, down the coal docks. Them that go, of course.”
 “Evadne’s family lives up here now,” I say, “in the lane behind Grace Street.” I want to describe the swell house but I decide it’s more important to cram in a second scone.
            “Huh.” My mother looks at my aunt while giving her little grunt of disapproval. “An unwritten law. Supposedly it’s been that way for a long time.” She snaps the thermos inside the domed lid and closes the box by clicking the metal snaps. My dad’s initials, D.M. for Duncan Marston, shine out in yellow paint from the side and she gives them a rub with her apron.
“So,” my aunt says softly,” a chance taken. Good for them. I don’t abide them sort of rules, as ye know. We dinna come to Canada, Meg, to live by unwritten laws.”
I want to hear more but my mother gives me a little push towards the door “Dinna dawdle,” she says and I take off, over to Grace Street and down the lane, across the hospital grounds and to the police station.

But I do dawdle for now I’m studying Evadne’s house trying to think what she looks like. Does she look like an Indian? How come I never noticed? Anyway, what does an Indian look like in real life? She’s taller than me and stronger too, with a square face and a big smile. Her hair is darker than mine but just as straight and cut short with bangs across the front while my hair is always plaited into two annoying pigtails that hang down my back. An Indian? My mind turns to Elsie who I know is Polish and I recall her thin pointed face, very pretty, baby blue eyes, and mousy hair falling over her face so that she’s always blowing the strands away.
Each person in the world looks different, I think, and yet, at the same time, they look like the place they came from. But on the other hand, Evadne doesn’t look at all like those big brothers of hers. My mind turns to Aunt Sissy and my mother, sisters and Scottish, but very different looking…
            My thoughts are interrupted by a slamming noise and Evadne’s mother stumps down the front steps. She seems to be looking for something for her head swivels from side to side as she scans the flat rocks in front of the house and the lane in both directions.
            I give her a big wave. “Hi, Mrs. Sky.” She narrows her eyes at me until they are two dark slits with black eyebrows shoved down over them. A big U-shaped frown takes up the bottom half of her face. Suddenly she looks as scary as a Hallowe’en witch and I step back in alarm but then try another wave. “Hi, Hi,” I say sort of stuttering. Her hand shoots out towards me in a ‘go away’ gestureand she turns abruptly to stand looking in the other direction.
            What did I do? I’m stunned. Then Rita Hayworth’s mustache flashes into my mind. Good gravy! Trouble! When in danger, I remind myself, run away. And I do, fleeing down the lane in a panic yelling “ah, ah, ah” until I reach the shortcut through the hospital grounds where I stop yelling in case the nuns hear me and come out to chase me off the property.
            I’ve brought Dad’s lunch to the police station many times. It’s a scary place but I’m used to it. The double front doors are made of golden oak and could’ve been beautiful except they’re stained with black streaks along the grain. They’re usually propped half-open winter and summer and are so now. The three stone steps up to them dip down in the middle “carved out by people’s reluctant feet,” my father once said. I stop on the top step and carefully check all around the oak door frame inside and out and across the speckled marble floor inside. I’m looking for cockroaches. The place is infested with them and my father and his policemen friends often make jokes about them. I’ve never seen one but then, I don’t want to see one either. I study the speckles, watching for any movement and, when I see none, skip forward.
            The room isn’t large. Directly across from the door is a long black bench, like a bench in church, and quite often, there are men sitting there. There are two men there now, in the usual posture, bent forward, legs wide apart, arms on knees and faces looking at the floor. On the right side is a wooden counter higher than my head with a metal grill along the top. There’s always a policeman behind there, I know. On the left, a wide black staircase winds up into the shadows. It leads to the courtroom on the second floor and once, when there was no court going on, my father took my sister and me up to have a look. It was a big room as hushed as a church but with a strange sweaty smell. We stared at the king’s picture and the Union Jack and the rows of empty benches with the judge’s desk high above all, like the throne of a fairy tale king.
 The door to the policemen’s lunchroom is on the first floor behind the staircase and it’s there, on a long table down the middle, I deposit the lunch box.
My father stands at the end of the room talking to his friend, old Sergeant McKee, who, to me, looks way too old to be a policeman. At first they don’t see me. “It’s not right, for all that, Donald,” I hear my father say and the sergeant answers, “Leave it, Duncan lad. You’ll not change his mind and ye know it. We’ve got other tasks ahead of us, to get organized,” and I know from his hushed voice he’s referring to the union my dad is trying to get started among the policemen. “Oncet we get a bit of protection, then, and only then, can we make some changes.” 
The union is a dark secret, the deepest secret of all, and must never be mentioned to anyone, not even to Aunt Sissy. I only learned of it by listening at the top of the stairs after I was supposed to be in bed. It’s a shame my father’s ears are so sharp for he heard me trying to sneak back up. He yelled, which he hardly ever does, and warned me a lot. Terrible punishments would happen if I blabbed. I‘d have to stay in the house for a week, for example, and not have any dessert. If the Police Chief found out, my dad could be fired and then we’d all starve or, even worse, have to go back to Scotland.
So now I pretend not to hear their conversation and just said, “Hi, Pops.”
My father is a big guy who looks like a boxer. He’s got sandy hair and a sandy freckled skin that reaches way past his forehead. Every week or so, I notice his forehead getting higher because he gets a little balder every day. His nose and ears are too big but his eyes are as blue as Lake Superior on a sunny day. His mustache is so blond and thin, it’s hard to see unless you stand close up. Since he became a detective and started working “plain clothes”, he wears the same brown suit every day.  
“Here you are, Janet,” he says leaning down to put his hand on my upper arm. “Right now, it might be best if I walk you out,” he says and leads me to the lunch room door.
A loud voice outside the room stops us. “Get the hell out,” it says. “I’m letting you off this time but I think you get the picture well enough.” The voice has changed into a scary sneering tone. Leaning around my dad’s legs, I can see Chief Reynolds, my father’s enemy in the fight for the union. Immediately, my dad draws me back into the lunch room, but I can see the chief looming over the two men on the bench; and when they lift their heads, I’m amazed to see Henry and Albert, Evadne’s brothers. Their faces are as closed as the rock in front of their house, but I can tell by their hunched up shoulders they’re angry. “I’ve explained it so even you dummies should be able to understand,” the chief goes on. “If we pick you up again, it’ll be the cells for a night or two.” His voice grows even louder. “That’s a promise, do you hear, dick heads? So, if you want to keep those jobs, learn the right way to get around.”
The two young men stand up together, towering over the chief and for an instant I’m afraid there’ll be a fight,  but I notice that the desk sergeant has come around and is standing beside his boss, in his hand the leaded blackjack that all the cops carry. Albert moves first, walking quickly toward the front door. After balancing on his toes for a minute, Henry follows.
My father waits until the chief goes back behind the counter to his office and waits longer until he hears the office door slam.
My heart is thumping and I feel hot as if I’ve been standing in the sun. “That’s Albert and Henry, my girlfriend’s brothers,” I cry. “What did they do?”
My father is sharp. “No business of yours,” he says as he walks me out to the sidewalk. “Now, Janet,” he says curving his big finger at me, “you remember that you’re not to say a word of police business to anyone. Not anyone. Never. Not to your friend either. Do ye understand me?”
I nod. My stomach squeezes into a big twist and my heart jumps up and down like a frightened rabbit.
“Good girl,” he says.” Off with you now. And Janet…” I turn. “Thanks for bringing the lunch.”
I figure it out on the way home. It’s obvious. Albert and Henry broke the unwritten law. They were caught in the wrong part of town. What will they do now? How can they go to work if they live up the hill and not down in the South End? How can they live in their house? Life is so mean, I think, and dumb too. The unwritten law isn’t fair, but as hard as I try, I can’t think what to do about it.
When I complain to my father he merely says, “Aye, it’s wrong and it’ll be changed one day. But not now, Lass, not yet.”
On Monday, at recess, Evadne pulls me behind the caragana hedge at the edge of the playground. “My mother says she’s sorry for scaring you,” she whispers so no one else can hear. “She was worried because the boys were late, is all.” Then she laughs. “She says you’ll grow wings one day, you’re so speedy.”
I blurt out, “How are your brothers?”
“They’ve left,” Evadne says, “because of what happened at the police station. You know what I mean,” she says and then laughs again. “Henry’s got a bad temper so Ma thinks he’ll get in trouble if he stays here.”
I’m shocked, unable to speak. The boys must’ve recognized me at the police station and then mentioned it to their mother and Evadne. At the time, I didn’t think their eyes had come my way once.
“They’re going back north to trap for the winter,” Evadne says, “but now the house is way too big for us, so we’re moving in with my Grandma in Fort William.”
“Fort William! So far away!” But before she can answer, the bell shrills out and we have to run to get in line. I turn to see Evadne but she isn’t there. My eyes search the lines looking for black hair and bangs and a big happy face but she has vanished the way angels do in the Bible. Silently and completely.
After school, I recruit Elsie and my sister to come with me to Evadne’s house because I‘m still afraid of her mother and I need reinforcements. I want to say good-bye. But when we turn down the lane, we hear the front door banging in the wind. The place has a hollow look and the windows are skull eyes. Our knocking sends clunky sounds into the emptiness inside. We creep in, holding hands, our feet scuffling along as we try to be quiet in case someone is there. Close together and moving across the wooden floors in the bare downstairs rooms, which never did have any furniture, we go into the kitchen to find only the woodstove and the stained yellow linoleum remain. The cupboard doors hang open to reveal bare shelves. Even the dishpan is gone and the bag of clothespins by the back door.
Upstairs in Evadne’s room, the cardboard boxes, still carefully lined up along the walls, gape empty. Evadne’s cot is missing but the boys’ mattresses still lie on the floor. Before, the house always smelled faintly of bleach, but now a damp odour is creeping through the rooms. Rita Hayworth, looking over one bare shoulder and showing her mustache, is still on Albert’s wall. I rip her down, crumple her up and throw her in the corner and then do the same with Carmen Miranda and her stupid smile and headdress of fruit. In the next room, I roll back Henry’s mattress and there are the Batman comics. We kneel on the linoleum, still powdered with grain dust, and divide them among us. Then, without talking about it, we clutch the comics and run outside as fast as we can.
That night, my father doesn’t come home for supper and my mother paces the kitchen, wiping down the counter over and over, washing each dish as soon as my sister and I finish with it. Then she orders us to bed at seven o’clock, much too early, but we go without complaint because first, you can’t argue with my mother and second, we’ve got the Batman comics. We sit up in bed and go through them all, passing them over as soon as we have one finished. Eventually, my sister falls asleep, but I can still hear my mother pacing between the kitchen and the living room.
“The English bastard!” My mother’s voice wakes me. It’s still light outside so I couldn’t have slept long. I’d never heard her use a bad word before so I’ve got to hear more. I creep to the top of the stairs.
“A year! A year on the night shft. And back to the beat just when ye’ve moved into plain clothes. The bastard.”
“Ah, aye,” my father sighs. “But mind, he doesn’t know for sure; he just suspects. Good may come from it, however. Maybe this incident will get the waverers thinking so they sign that paper. I’ve no doubt, Meg, we’ll be certified before the year is up and then I’ll be all right, but till then…”
His voice trails off and there’s a long silence. “Our Janet will be happy anyway,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll be down in the South End and maybe we can do something about that so-called unwritten law.”
“Oh, do be careful, Duncan,” my mother says.
There’s another silence and then he says, so softly that I have to move down a couple of steps to hear it, “Are ye afraid, Meg? Ye know that Reynolds will be snooping round and if he gets any real facts about the union, he’ll fire me. He said as much today. So are ye afraid? Do you want me to stop? Say the word.”
“Afraid?” my mother says. “Stop? Bow to that black-hearted Englishman? Huh! We can wait him out, Duncan. Aye and best him in the end. Come on, my dear, and get your tea. Come on Duncan now, and get your tea.”

1 comment:

  1. good story, Joan! I enjoyed reading this flashback fictionalized story of PA. taina