Daniel sat in a summer chair propped against the wall, his face partially in the shadow of the eave of a row of townhouses and he saw them coming; their faces contorted in jeers and taunts. His body tensed and before he could restrain himself, he let out a groan.
” Hey limey, you think you are such a big shot,” shouted the first boy, his voice echoing in the courtyard.
“Come on and fight, if you’re so big,” said another.
A few streets away other children could be heard playing. Here on the sidewalk outside the front doors of the townhouses, the sounds of approaching feet and voices grew in the narrow space. Help would be out of earshot.
Daniel retreated into himself and was quiet. He willed himself to disappear, to fade into the wall warmed by the morning sun. Paralyzed, he waited. What had he done to draw the attention of the boys now standing over him? He was not sure he knew them.
One of the boys pushed his chest where the scars from the metal wire in his sternum had been. The wounds were still raw. He let out a yelp, tears streaming his face. “Leave me alone, I’m supposed to rest,” he pleaded.
Energized by his pleas the boys surrounded him like jackals on wounded prey. They dragged him from the chair, punched him in the face, knocked him to the ground and leveled a few swift kicks to his midriff. He was wailing now, his cries resounded in the courtyard. His attackers jeered and listed his transgressions; the reasons they were beating him. “Sissy!” “Limey!” “Gutless!” “Punk!”
Above the din, there was the sound of a screen door opening then slamming. A man came running along the sidewalk with his arms swinging. His face drawn in a grimace made more severe because he wasn’t wearing his glasses. To Daniel, his father’s naked face was unyielding and showed no trace of humour or kindness.
His father reached the melee and grabbed each of the attackers by their collars, pulling them to their feet. “Get off him! He is just out of hospital! What are you doing?”
“Let go of me!”
“I’ll tell my dad!”
“You go do that. If I ever see you touch my son again,” his father spat, “I’ll take care of you myself!” He pushed the boys off the sidewalk and added, “Go tell your dads what you’ve done! Beat up an invalid” The boys, cast backward glances and retreated the way they had come, throwing insults and jeers as they did.
His father’s face was still flushed when he picked Daniel off the ground, righted the chair, and reseated him; exposing him in the sunlight. Tears ran down Daniel’s face and he wiped the trickle from his nose with his shirt sleeve that stained red. His father produced a greasy handkerchief and extended it, “Your nose is bleeding. Here.”
Daniel sobbed and stared into his father’s eyes. There was no sympathy or kindness. His father held him firmly by the shoulders. His father’s arms bulged with tattoos, an anchor and rope, and a heart with an arrow that said “mother”.
“What is wrong with you! Why are you always getting into fights?”
“I don’t know. The kids pick on me.”
“You’ve got to learn to fight your own battles. Stand up for yourself. Damn it! One good clout to the head and they’d leave you alone, they’re not much bigger than you.” His father released his grip, looked down at him and pleaded, “Daniel, you can’t always be so weak.”
Daniel crouched behind Bunker Hill, a mound of construction debris in the courtyard of Toronto’s Lawrence Heights neighbourhood built in the 1950’s. In his hand, he held a rifle made of an inner tube, a long stick, and a clothespin release mechanism. It could propel a clod of dirt about fifty feet into the air. The key was getting the trajectory precisely right. Aiming, he fired in the direction of Mikey. The dirt pellet sailed perfectly into the air and struck just above Mikey’s left eye. “Got ya! You’re dead!” Mikey wailed and the cut above his eye oozed blood.
The others could be heard yelling in the courtyard behind the townhouses. “We’re winning!” The boys from Bredonhill Court were on the run down the hill toward the schoolyard, with Mikey holding his head as he ran. “Take that, cowards!” The Bagot Court gang had won this battle.
The battles continued through the summer in the courtyards littered with dirt, scraps of lumber, nails, pieces of tin, tar paper and mounds of hay. Daniel once witnessed a worker spit blood in the courtyard behind his townhouse. He bent over and blood poured in a continuous stream until fellow workers came to his aid. They were yelling and swearing. Daniel closed the patio blinds not wanting to see anymore.
Daniel and Mikey were not friends. They played together often enough because they were both excluded by the other boys. Daniel because he was not particularly good at most things, and Mikey because he was slow, earning him the name “Dopey Dodo”. Mikey was a neighbourhood traitor joining a rival gang – the Bredonhill Court gang.
“Mikey, I have an idea,” Daniel said.
It wasn’t exactly his, but when the other boys suggested it, he had to agree it was a good idea. It was just the thing that Dopey might go for. In the cover of a dirt hill and out of the line of sight of prying eyes, Daniel, Kevin (the Irish boy), and Mikey crept along the perimeter of the courtyard.
“Okay, Dopey. Do you know what to do?”
Mikey nodded and ran the last distance to the edge of the hill. Daniel and Kevin strained to see, keeping their heads down out of sight. They could hear the breathing and whispering of the others among the adjoining dirt hills. “Do ya think he’ll do it?” “Oh yeah. Dopey is retarded. He’ll do anything.” Collectively, they wished they were the ones with the matches.
Before the orange flames could be seen reflecting in the townhouse windows, the acrid smell of the smoke drifted in the still summer air. “He’s done it!” “Run!” The Bagot Court gang scrambled from their hiding spots and out to the front of their homes, where they would act as surprised as the next person as to what had happened. “Dopey Dodo must have started a fire; I saw him out back earlier.”
A woman’s voice wailed, “Mikey! Where’s Mikey!”
“Daniel, did you have anything to do with what happened today?” His dad asked.
“No, dad. Honest!”
“If I find you’ve been lying to me, so help me God!” His dad was not wearing his glasses and glared down at him. “Why do you have to be in the centre of every bit of trouble? I should tan your hide just on the possibility that you were involved.”
Daniel felt pain in the scar along his chest. It was a burning pain and he felt weak. Word got around that the idiot boy Mikey had set fire to the pile of straw at the back of the townhouses. No one was surprised.
Years later Daniel sat in the aisle seat of the commuter plane bound to a conference in an American eastern seaboard city. He had been talking to the young woman in the window seat next to him, and he remembered things. He explained to the young woman that he was a survivor and had had a lifetime to consider the idea of weakness and its possible outcomes.
Daniel’s family moved away from Bagot Court when Toronto and its suburbs spread out into the surrounding farmlands. They rode the tide of development. He grew in strength, but a nagging doubt, a suspicion, and a crippling lack of confidence dogged him at every turn. A relentless drone of inner voices reminded him that he once lived with a condition from which he needed to be protected. He couldn’t play like other kids, his heart wouldn’t take it.
One of the loudest of the voices sounded like his father. His father was n upwardly mobile man since the day he set foot in Toronto, the son of a long line of English labourers who refused to carry on the family tradition of lorry driving. He came to Canada at the height of post-war immigration determined to make a future for himself, if not for his dying son. A boy who could not stand up for himself. He studied, achieved, and rose to the level of foreman in a small manufacturing plant. By the time the family left Bagot Court for the suburbs he had risen to the position of manager, the highest bracket anyone in the family had achieved.
Daniel remembered the day when his father came home with the gilded certificate earned by completing a program in mechanical engineering. Beaming down at him, with his glasses on that softened his face, his father said, “This is what you can do if you set your mind to it, son.” Daniel doubted he could. He struggled at school, too cowed by the others to pay attention to the things that mattered in the classroom.
They were discussing weakness one day in health class. The teacher proposed that a father mistreated a son because they saw a reflection of their own vulnerability; seeing themselves in the mirror. Daniel grimaced at the idea and the teacher noticed. “Do you have something to add, Daniel?”
The teacher continued to peer at him, before averting his eyes. Daniel felt the eyes of his classmates on him, also. He knew that they knew he was the weak one they had been talking about.
Daniel’s father left home not long after becoming a manager. In a few years, he died of a heart condition, hastened by too much alcohol and too many cigarettes. Daniel was sad but felt a weight lifted from his shoulders. He remained with his mother until he could find a means to make his way in the world. He attended a university in Waterloo and eventually graduated with a Ph.D. No one in the family had ever done that.
The conference agenda included a keynote address by the Dalai Lama on the topic of neuropsychology. The question posed by the Buddhists was whether intentional mindfulness practice might be enough to rework the neural architecture of the mind and brain. Daniel had his doubts, but he was hopeful.
The young woman next to him on the plane was his daughter’s age. She was wearing head covering and had a dark complexion. To Daniel, she appeared to be Somali. She greeted him with a smile when she sat down.
As the plane gathered speed for takeoff, Daniel gripped the arms of his seat. When they were in the air, he released his breath with a sigh and nodded to the young woman next to him. “I still get nervous at takeoffs and landings,” he said. “Me too,” she replied.
Daniel and his daughter had been having conversations lately about women wearing head coverings. Daniel held the view that women wore them because of the pressure they received in male-dominated societies forced them to assume a subservient role. “Dad! You have no right to comment on what people wear on their bodies. It’s a woman’s choice.” Daniel wasn’t sure that was always the case.
Fowsio, the woman next to him wore a forest green hijab and glasses. She looked to be about twenty, about the age of Daniel’s students. She told him that she was a social work student on her way back to classes in New Haven. Daniel wanted to test his daughter’s theory that is was a woman’s personal choice to wear head coverings. “Have you always worn the hijab?” he asked.
“That’s an interesting question. Hardly something you might ask on a first date!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it to be so forward. You see my daughter and I, who is a social worker …”
“No. No. I am just playing with you.”
“I haven’t always worn the hijab. I was a rebellious teen. I felt a need to fight against tradition. After all, we came to Toronto to start new lives, not to live in the past.”
“This was the story of my family. I am an immigrant also.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Daniel sensed they were an intrusion.
Fowsio nodded and continued. “A few years ago, I started to look closely at my background, what my people had been through. We had lived through armed conflict and applied to come to Canada as refugees in 1994. We settled in Toronto and now live in a poor neighbourhood.”
Fowsio looked out the window and seemed lost in thought, her brow furrowed. “Things occasionally happen there that shouldn’t. The gangs and poverty… But there are things, like faith and common experience, that hold us together as a community. You study those things in social work.”
She took a long look out the portal over the crisscrossed patterns of the fields they were flying over. The scorched earth of late summer and the green sections bordering lakes and rivers. A settled land, on this side of the border.
“I felt like I wanted to know more… To live and breath those things that gave my family strength; that is part of me. It was then I decided to try on the hijab. And it feels comfortable.”
“You’re very lucky. We don’t always have the choice.” Daniel followed her gaze through the portal.
“Let me ask you a question,” Fowsio said.
“You said you were an immigrant. Where from?”
“I might have guessed,” Fowsio laughed, her eyes twinkling behind her glasses. She added, “And where did you live when you first came to Toronto?”
“I lived in a row of townhouses in what was then the outskirts of Toronto, Flemington Park. On the street called Bagot Court. I convalesced there, after major heart surgery. They thought I was going to die.”
Fowsio’s eyebrows rose so that the whites of her eyes showed against her dark skin. Her mouth opened and a moment later she burst into a broad grin. In her excitement. she leaned over him with her hand above her head in a high-five gesture. Bemused Daniel slapped his hand against hers and laughed when she announced, “That’s where my family lives! Where I grew up! You’re from the hood!”
The plane groaned and Daniel could feel the gentle pull back to earth. The beginning of the descent. The old neighbourhood was behind them; the marauding gangs of boys and young men, the sounds of rough play and the rising smoke of fires. And a mother’s voice heard thinly through the clouds they were now falling through. “Mikey! Mikey! Where’s Mikey!”