July 28, 2014
Yesterday was my son Luke’s 27th birthday and today I pull this “Danny” story out of my suitcase of newspaper and magazine articles that I authored. Do these two things have no connections? I think they do.
“Danny” is a fictional short story (that I had forgotten I wrote). None of what I write about in this story ever really happened to my son and me. Yet the Danny character seems quite a bit like my wonderful son has turned out to be. In 1991, when this story was published,Luke was only 4 years old. How could I know that he would grow into someone like Danny? Well, I guess my intuition was already working several years before I discovered I had it and began giving tea leaf readings.
(m)Other Tongues, the magazine in which this short fiction was published was run by Mona Fertig who already lived on Salt Spring Island at the beginning of the 1990s. I never dreamed I would live on Salt Spring Island but by 1998 I was living there with my son. It was my home for 16 years.
This is the story:
Danny (short fiction)
by Tanya Lester
On the day Danny began his hunger strike in the church basement on Maryland he looked just like the young man I saw smiling at me in that dream nineteen years earlier.
Of course, it didn’t last for long. His smile quickly settled into a pout when he remembered to warn me, “Look, Mom, if you have to come over to see me, wait until tomorrow, okay? Today, there’s going to be a media conference and the place will be crowded with reporters.”
“Is Diane going to be there?,” I asked. Maybe I was getting old but I wasn’t getting stupid.
“She might come down. Hangout for awhile,” Danny answered with a shrug, as if it didn’t really matter. “You wait until tomorrow, okay?”
Funny, now that he no longer needed me I wasn’t sure that I wanted to let him go. Maybe I’d phone Jane later, I thought. She would tell me what I needed to hear. Something like: “Do you remember that time when he fell out of that tree when he was stealing crabapples over on Home St.? Remember that? You had to cancel your tour to the Fijis so you could wait on him hand and foot…And have you forgotten the time he smashed up your father’s car and wound up in jail for the night because the police thought he had stolen it? You said you would kill yourself if he didn’t turn up in one piece. Kill yourself? If I’d been his mother I would have killed him when he showed up.”
“Mom?” Danny’s voice was a bit impatient now. “What?…Okay, okay, I mean. I won’t come by until tomorrow. But how long do you think this is going to go on?”
“That NDP Joe Dimagia says what we’re doing is just the right push the feds need to pass the new piece of immigration legislation, to make it easier for refugees to get in. I told you, didn’t I? The solidarity committees are doing stuff right across Canada this weekend. It should be no longer than a week.”
“A week without eating?”
“A week tops, Mom.” Danny stuck his head out the screen door on the kitchen side of the house. Checked to see if his ride was there yet. “They figure five days will be more like it. Hell…I mean, heck, I’ve gone for almost that long without food before.”
“On like that time Dino and I hitched to the folk festival in Regina. Look, don’t worry, Mom. I’m not going to die. I got to be up in Thompson for my simmer job at the mine in two weeks, remember?” He cam over and squashed me up against his black leather jacket. My head bumped against his chest. Over six feet already — I never did figure out how to tell height in metric — and I read somewhere that some people don’t stop growing at eighteen.
“Tell me again why you’re doing this,” I said as if I was having problems with my memory already at my age. But I was. I always had a way of blocking out bad things. Life, after all, has lots of hard things to face up to.
“Look, it’s Nikos’ cousin they want to send back to Cyprus,” Danny explained slowly as to a child. He yanked a hand through his smooth copper hair. Dug into his jacket pocket. Stuffed a Spearmint gum into his mouth, “The country is occupied almost completely now by the Turkish troops. He…I mean, Nikos’ cousin was a spy. If the Canadian government sends him back, they’ll kill him.”
He poked his head out of the screen door again. I wondered if I should tell. All night I had tossed and turned in bed. Trying to decide. Going over everything in my mind. But he never asked who his father was so why should I tell him now, upset him with the news at a time like this of all times.
“Oh, Tannis,’ I could already hear Jane’s voice. The one she always used on the clients over at the travel agency. The ones who worried about catching bubonic plague if they went to Africa. “Do you really think this has anything to do with his father — if you can call him that — being named Nikos and living in Cyprus?”
Then, she would go on to remind me of all the marches and walks and rallies and meetings and socials and potlucks in solidarity with this, that and the other thing I had “dragged” (her word) him to over the last eighteen years.
And, I would remember Danny coming into the house with a pack of his friends to watch the VCR he paid for from his paper route money and a loan from his grampa.
Every six months or so I would notice a new kid among them. Someone just out of the immigration offices from mainland China or Portugal or Greece or Jamaica. The, sometime during the evening Danny would strike up a conversation on how weird this, that or the other thing was about the way Canadians operated. The new kid would open up and talk about the differences in this country as compared to his own and start to feel he at last was with friends.
That’s why I could never bring myself to leave West End Winnipeg. Here the people come from everywhere and are headed off in as many directions and the kids never seem to worry about the differences for long.
Like once when I was looking at a picture of Danny with the rest of the student council in his school year book. “Who’s this?”, I asked, pointing to an East Indian.
“Oh, Raji,’ Danny said. “He was vice-president.” He stared at me as if he expected me to say more. Then: “Do you know the other kids?”
“No,” i said and looked away quickly.
“Well, I don’t get it, Mom. Why did you ask only for his name?”
So I guessed Jane was right. All those rallies had helped. And, living in this part of the city, too. It really didn’t matter to Danny where a kid came from unless it really mattered like it did now.
Danny’s head was craned out the door again. “Oh, there’s my ride,” he saiid and let the door flap close behind him as he came over to the table to grab a few media releases he had left sitting on it.
“I’m really proud of you,” I told his back.
“Great. See you.”
I turned and cleared the dishes off the table. We had made a big breakfast of pancakes and oatmeal cereal because I insisted these would give him energy. And eggs and milk, too. “Look, Mom, my bones stopped growing two months ago,” he joked. “At least I sure hope they did.” I saw he had rolled his plaid shirt sleeves up, and wondered if buttoned down they were already too tight on him.
By the time I washed up, I was feeling out of place in the quiet house. I tried phoning Jame but her line was busy and I couldn’t stand waiting around to try again. It had to get out into more open space. The house had always been too small. I decided to go down to the office to clear some things up that I hadn’t got to during the week. I let myself out the side door, locked it. Wondered if maybe this fall I would have the time and money to put in the sunporch I had wanted to add on for the last several years. For once, then, there might be something there to like about the place.
I walked up Simcoe to Ellice and then turned east to Toronto where I went north again–resisting the urge to keep on going down to Maryland, to check on how things were going for Danny and the others at the church — and up to Sargeant where my travel agency stood. As I crossed the street to it, I noticed for the zillionth time how dingy it looked. Maybe if people travelled this summer, I could afford to give it a paint job. I thought while I unlocked the glass front door.
“Always, you have plans to improve things here and at the house,” Jane likes to tell me. “You should do it. People want to bring their business to a nice looking place. It tells them you’re a success. A winner.” She smoothed her blazer down over her bulging middle.
“Yeah, well you know me, Jane. I’m not one for material things. And where’s the time to do all this? I can’t even seem to find the time to run down to Woolworth’s for some new coffee mugs.”
“Get the Mutt to do it,” she would say, staring defiantly across the room at me through her huge glasses. Blinking like an owl, Sanny would say. “Ms. Owl,” he called her to her face. And she called him Mutt, short for mutton which I thought was stange, she being a vegetarian.
“He’s og this theatre classes.”
“He’s going to have to learn to make a living some day.”
I let Jame get away with trying to run my life and my kid’s life for ys because she saved mine right after Danny was born. The guy who had been running the travel agency, since long before my great-aunt died and left it to me. had unexpectedly been attacked with mid-life crisis and quit to do an around-the-world journey with the teller at the credit union down the street. So there I was : a single parent with a newborn. My source of income was to be the agency. Danny was unconcerned with this. He screamed every time I put him down to help a customer or even answer the phone.
“You can’t run a business liek this,’ Jane told me one morning when she walked in and bustled both of us out of there. She kept it open half days for me. “Grace can make out fine at the firm,’ she insisted. “Just so you’ll know — I am taking a manager’s commission.” The firm she referred to, was an accounting firm she ran with a partner down on east Broadway.
“Nobody told me having a baby would be such hard work,” I told Jane more than once when I got in afternoons after dropping Danny at a neighbour’s house. “All those diapers. I was up and down the basement stairs must have been twenty times this morning and my sink’s always filled with dishes now.”
“Live and learn, kiddo,” Jane would say, and hand over a telephone receiver. It was this dirert manner of hers that made her unpopular with some of the feminists who were involved at the Manitoba Action Committee on the Status of Women where I had met Jane many years earlier. But I wasn’t one easily intimidated.
“You know I heard on the radio the other day,” I would go on to say, “that the Inuit language has over one hundred words for ‘snow’ because it is such an important part of their lives. I think I should make up a hundred different words for ‘tired’ because that’s who is with me most nowadays.”
“Or one hundred words for that Mutt,” Jane would answer, “because he’s the only one you’re ever with anymore and he’s responsible for your being tired.”
Tired. From the beginning I had been tired. As I filled the coffee pot with cold water in the washroom at the back of the office, I remembered spending Christmas Day in Cyprus just after I had found out I was pregnant. I was tired but for some reason I couldn’t stand to lay down and rest in the flat I was renting. So I took a short walk up to the caves along the sea. “I’m spending Christmas alone, halfway around the world from home,” I thought as I climbed up the small hill that covered the top of the caves.
“Well you got what you wanted.” Jane had written in response to my news.
It seemed like ages ago when I had planned all this back in Winnipeg. I had been attending the peace rallies like a robot, with a placard, on fast forward. I didn’t see any way for getting around it: the world was going to blow up. If I had a child, I thought, it would be like a message to myself to go on living and the world would go on living, too.
“That doesn’t seem logical to me,” Jame told me bluntly. We were sitting drinking cafe au lait at a place in Osborne Village. “It has nothing to do with logic,” I said. I felt keyed up like I should go out and jog a kilometer or something. “I just can’t explain it. It’s more a logical way of feeling.”
“Are you sure you’re not just making excuses for yourself to go back to Cyprus? Maybe this is all to with that guy. What’s his name?”
“Uhuh. Nikos. Aren’t you in love with him?”
“Well, I have strong feelings for him, that’s for sure. Do you think I should go out and find a man I hate to be the father of my child?”
“Well, do you want to marry him?”
“No. I’m too much of a feminist to live in that society. The young married women seem to spend most of their time sitting around with their mothers and knitting… But I want to have a child before it’s too late.”
“You’re only thirty.”
“Yea, well that’s old enough. Look my life’s set with inheriting this travel agency. I got a way to make a living…”
“A modest living,. Jane interrupted.
“Okay. A modest living, sure but I can travel whenever I want. The manager has been there for years and he’ll never miss me for a few months here and a few months there. So what am I going to do with the rest of my life? Get up and look through travel brochures each day with my morning coffee?”
Jane groaned.”Look Tannis, there’s always work in the women’s movement and the peace movement. You know that.”
“Of course. But didn’t I just finish telling you how I’m feeling about that?” I rubbed my left eye. It had started twitching. I feel so close to death when I’m doing that work. It,s like if the rapists don’t get me then the bomb will get all of us. I need to be close to life. I want to survive. It’s as if I’m admitting to myself that I will survive because I want to badly enough.”
“Got your ticket to go back, then?” Jane reached over to her black leather handbag, sitting on the chair next to her. She opened it and began rummaging through it.
“Yeah. I leave on the 20th.”
“I knew it. What’s the point of talking to you?” Jane got up, walked over to the counter. Handed her credit card to the guy standing behind it. “I’ll pay for both,” she told him and then over her shoulder to me: “You’ll need your money for travelling.”
I grinned as she left. Tipped the tall cup to my mouth for the last bit of warm coffee and milk.
“It would be so nice to have some coffee right now,” I thought as I lay down on the grass over the caves. I lay down on my back with my knees up, feet flat on the ground under me. My jeans cut into my waist. I undid the snap, got the zipper open and pulled my sweatshirt down over my belly. “I guess I’ll have to be looking for maternity clothes soon,” I thought. “Unless, of course…”
In my mind, I played back the last time I had seen Nikos two weeks earlier. “I think you should have an abortion,” he said. His eyes, I noticed, looked yellow like fish eyes in the afternoon light coming through the sliding window on my balcony. “It is better you should be married first before you have children.”
“Look, it’s not that simple,” I said. In North America things are different than here. Women have different ideas than the ones I see here seem to have. I don’t know if I’ll ever want to get married but I want to have a child before it’s too late.”
“Look, Nikos,I’m starting to feel like a parrot. I talked to you about this several times already. Too late for me to have a child. I,m thirty already.”
“I thought you were on the pill.”
“Look, don’t give me that. I told you again and again about what I wanted to do. I told you I wasn’t using birth control. I can’t help it if you didn’t believe me.”
“You will have an abortion.” He yelled this at me. He stood up , I saw his face grey and wrinkled like the old priest I once heard yelling at a woman,”You will have this child. It is an immortal sin to not.”
“Why don’t you men make up your minds, at least?” I turned away from Nikoos. “What do you want women to do with our bodies?”
He walked out on me then. I hadn’t seen him since. Now, above the caves, I rolled onto my right side, propped my head up onto an arm. I could see the aqua-green of the sea from there. And the fir trees looking pressed against the blue sky like grad flowers stuck inside an old yearbook. They dotted the rolling yellow hills. There seemed to be a shimmering film over everything I saw. Like I was looking through the windshield in a car wash. I blinked, closed my eyes. The muscles in the back of my neck ached. I let my head fell back onto the scratchy grass. The sun seemed to stroke my body, massage my eye sockets. I saw a picture of myself moving through my memory. Three weeks earlier. Running up the high yellow sidewalk, almost dancing around the people I passed. Jostlung against bags of fruit and the hands that carried them. Bumping into a magazine rack. Finally, I had broken free of the busy street. Rolled halfway down the grassy hillside near the marketplace. “It was like all of me was singing to the earth, rolling on its roundness,” I wrote Jane. “Even the lab techs laughed when they told me the test was positive. No ring on my finger but they didn’t care. For them, there was nothing complicated about it. New life is always something to celebrate.”
“Later, in the market, I bought eggplants and oranges and apples and lemons and tomatoes and one of these and one of those. I got more than I needed and I refused to take the change from the women who stood proudly behind the fruits of their labours. I bought wine, too. ‘I’m sure one or two glasses won’t hurt’,” I told the grey haired woman behind the counter at the dry goods store across the street from where I caught the bus back to the tourist area, back to my flat. She smiled at me, puzzled.
But that night, the woman who ran the restaurant downstairs from the flat I was renting, couldn’t get her baby to go to sleep. He wouldn’t stop crying, squawking like the runt chicken I always hated to go near in the hen house when I was a kid.
So I lay above the caves thinking about Nikos and Jane and that runt chicken my mother ended up killing. And I was in a deep black hole, too tired to climb out of it. Then, I saw him. At the top of the hole, his head and smiling face appeared. Around it shone a copper light, the colour of the earth in Cyprus. “Joy to the World”, I sang, and tore at the earth surrounding me in the hole. I pulled myself yp again to my place above the caves. The wind pushed the smell of dusty earth into my nostrils. The copper face was a man’s hand, splashing water onto my face.
I woke to a wet, black nose, pushing against the side of my head until I was forced to sit up. It was a black and white goat. A small boy came up beside the animal, scolded it in Greek, grabbed a short rope around its neck and led it away from me. Both went down a narrow path into the caves over which I still sat. The boy I noticed was wearing a long robe, striped in many colours like the flannel pyjamas my mother made my sisters and I when we were little.
Curious, I got up to follow them. Pulled up the fly on my jeans, bent to pick up my bagged lunch. The tight denim against my belly cut my breath off. “I’ll have to find out where they sell maternity things in town,” I reminded myself as I traced down the path into the caves where the boy and goat had just disappeared.
When I was far enough down it to look in, I stopped. Besides the goat, there were two sheep, a donkey and an ox down there by a cave wall. The donkey flicked its ears and the ox shifted next to a woman who was nursing her baby. In front of the mother and infant was a cradle filled with hay. Hay had also been spread over the ground.
From where I stood, I could see the back of Santa Claus at the cave’s front entrance. He was too short and too skinny and not jolly enough for his job, I thought, as I saw him handing out hard candy to the little girls and boys who filed past him. These children — most holding their parents’ hands — went on to view the woman in her blue robe with the baby wrapped in brilliantly white flannel.
I moved back over to the place where I had been sleeping. Standing up now, I could view the highway running alongside the caves. On each side of it were parked long lines of cars. People were steaming towards the caves as others headed back towards their cars. Many of the children were with their fathers only. The mothers, I guessed, were back at home putting the finishing touches to the Christmas feast.
I self-consciously went down the path that wound down to the highway from the top of the caves and headed for the beach. It was only when I got there and started eating a Christmas orange that I had packed in my lunch bag for myself that I realized something. There had been no man guarding the woman who was suckling her baby in the caves. I told Nikos about this when he came over that evening.
The phone rang and I pulled my thoughts back to the travel agency. “Good afternoon, Artemis Travel, ” I said into the receiver.”
“I just heard Mutt on the radio.” It was Jane. “You should be so proud of him.”
“I didn’t hear. What did he say?”
“Well, he brought tears to my eyes, I’ll tell you. Convinced me to write the Prime Minister to loosen up the immigration laws.”
“Jane, I’m surprised. You’re the one who’s always telling me getting involved in politics is bad for business.”
“Look, if you and Mutt believe in this so strongly, well then, I got to do something about it, too. You should be proud of him.”
“Yeah, I guess I got what I wanted,” I said. We both laughed.
I spent the next two hours getting together travel packages for people going to Singapore and London and to who knows where else. I finished up in time to get home for the supper hour T.V. news, thinking Danny might be on. On the way home, I picked up some mineral water at a corner store. I would take it over to the church for Danny and his friends the next day, I thought. I still couldn’t believe my little copper haired boy was old enough already to take on causes of his own.
“But this is a cause for all of us activists,” I said to myself as I reached the corner of Ellice and Simcoe. “Maybe that’s why I decided to have Danny. I knew there was more work to be done than I could ever get around to doing before I died.”
Two teenage girls with shaved heads passed me and giggled. “Did I say that out loud?”, I wondered. Bit I moved quickly down the street. I didn’t want to miss the news.
To read earlier posts in this blog, go to http://www.writingsmall.wordpress.com
Confessions of a Tea Leaf Readerby Tanya Lester can be purchased by the author or to read the first pages & purchase go to amazon.com
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