~This story previously appeared in The New Quarterly (2003).
My father has his telephone set to ring twelve times before the answering machine picks up. Tonight he gets it on the eighth—just as I’m deciding whether or not to leave a message.
“Hello,” he says, expectant but not hopeful.
“Hi, Dad, it’s me—”
“Oh, yes.” He fumbles with the phone. “Yes, of course, hello dear.”
He always knows my voice, but I tell him who it is anyway. He’s going blind—I have just recently learned this, and I presume he needs help making the visual connection. I realize this is something like shouting at people who don’t speak English.
“You’re home. I didn’t know if you’d be there. I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
“No,” he says, “I’m just resting. I’ve just finished my dinner.”
“Uh huh. What did you have?
“A meal on wheel. A piece of chicken with a vegetable and potato.”
Did the people who invented meals on wheels ever intend for them to be anything but plural? I imagine a chicken drumstick on a unicycle, somehow managing to get up the steps to his apartment door and press the buzzer.
“And was it okay?”
“Yes, it was fine,” he says, “very nourishing.” He says noorish—rhymes with moorish.
I have two pictures of my father. Or rather, I picture him in two ways. In one, he is sitting in a bright, spacious living room. He is nicely dressed in grey flannels—slacks, he calls them, or trousers—and a clean, pressed shirt. He could be expecting a visitor. In this picture he is pleasantly occupied; a fresh breeze blows in through the open window, and there is definitely no gold shag carpeting.
In the other picture, the one I see when I talk to him on the phone, he is hunched over his unwiped kitchen table in the dim light of a single overhead bulb, staring at the blank wall. The sink is stacked with oatmeal-encrusted bowls and glasses rimmed with rinds of old milk. There’s a smell, too—sour food combined with cooking odours from other apartments and the open tube of liniment in the bathroom. I am in this picture because I am the one connected to the other end of the telephone.
And what am I doing? Mostly, I’m trying to keep these images at bay. And on this particular night I’m fumbling with a flashlight and candles, because to the east of Toronto, where I live, a blanket of ice has descended upon us and shut down the power grid. I wonder if he can see me in the dark.
My father lives in Niagara, in a renovated red-brick cannery. This sounds quite grand, and it could be. Everywhere, it seems, old warehouses and factories have been transformed into spectacular living quarters, with cavernous interiors, exposed brick, and walls of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on urban streetscapes full of shops and cafes. On the outside, most of these buildings have retained a period facade, some even sporting signs identifying the original owners and uses—Dempsey’s Candy Factory; Canadian Textiles.
These lofts always seem to be occupied by designers and artists, part of the space being given over to studio, where they work, live, and entertain lavishly. You see them in magazines and on the Home and Garden television channel. Seldom do they have children, but in the rare cases that they do, the family occupies two floors of the building, the parents’ and children’s spaces connected by a system of intercoms, wrought-iron spiral staircases, fire poles, and perhaps even a slide.
My father’s apartment isn’t like this. You would have to be told—and then you still might not believe it—that until the 1950s it was a thriving little cannery, one of a dozen or more in the city that packed soft fruit and shipped it across the country. Peaches, plums, apricots, pears—staple winter fare in most homes before advances in refrigeration and trucking brought oranges, strawberries, cantaloupe, and anything, really, from the south, year-round.
Only traces of its former use remain on the outside of the building. The old, tall windows have been replaced with cheap aluminium sliders, smaller than the originals, and brown siding fills in the gaps at the bottom. But the bricks are pleasingly weathered, and the oversize double doors hint at how the structure could have been transformed, if only the developer had had more imagination.
“… but they always give you too much. I can’t work my way through all that.” He’s still talking about his meal on wheel.
“I didn’t know if you’d be home.”
Usually when I call, he isn’t. Nearly every night he has dinner with his woman friend, a widow he met at his bridge club not long after my mother died. She has become his constant companion. She feeds him, phones him, and fills his head with ideas about how offspring should properly behave. For her fussing attention my father returns a kind of blind party loyalty. She is the final word, the source of all opinion, and he acts as a conduit, reporting all the news to us—mostly about her children’s and grandchildren’s (wholesome, practical and infinitely superior) achievements, but other things, too. She persuaded him to rent this dismal apartment a few blocks from her house. “He’s legally blind, you know,” she told my sister, hurling it like an accusation.
For a time her mere existence provided me with guilty relief, but this soon made way for smug certainty that my mother wouldn’t have liked her either. “She’s not really my type,” my mother would have said, with a sniff. So now I stand on guard with my siblings, ready—eager, even—to preserve our parents’ marital tensions beyond the grave.