In the shed behind the barn there hangs a strap. It bears the scuffs and scratches of countless thrashings, mine and my brothers' repentant and not-so-repentant arses ingrained in the leather. At one end of it there is an oily stain, an impression of my father's hand, of his fingers, his grasp. At the other end protrude two sharp, blackened furniture tacks, bent back on themselves to form an iron "U".
I don't often come here any more.
Through the doorway behind me I glimpse the shingled house, all traces of white paint stripped off by weather and time. Two of its three windows are cracked, dirty sheers blocking the sun's entry to the kitchen. This is the place where meals were cooked and devoured, lessons taught and learned. We boys took our first steps here, and at the kitchen table we read our first words from Mother's cracked and dusty bible. We learned our prayers; and at meals and before bed, also before thrashings, we spoke them, words of forgiveness and redemption: Heavenly Father, forgive me for my sins... We were taught how to use a gun.
My brothers and I learned to drive in the back lot, and in the barn we played hockey and learned about sex, rifling through ill-gotten porn magazines. We drank our first beer, smoked our first weed, and most of us groped our first adolescent-female breasts in the loft, enveloped in the sickly-sweet scent of hay and risk, always the risk of being caught.
This is the place of my birth, and of my father's death. It was once my home.
We all bear the scars of risk. Zinnia, my mother, walked with a crutch, her left leg ruined from being thrown from a horse, then trampled by another while racing her brother. The leg was amputated at the knee, and an ill-fitting peg strapped to what remained.
My eldest brother, Matthew, has only one eye, the other destroyed by a wayward pellet. Johnny, the youngest of us, will only speak if he's had enough to drink, which is sometimes to say far too much. Luke, his twin, cannot control his mouth, and has gained enemies all his life for doing so.
My wife sometimes traces the strap's pathways across my back. As I grow older, she tells me, the shiny white trails are fading.
Luke and Johnny hated each other from an early age. With their dense black curls and startling blue eyes, they were a constant reminder to our mother of her only brother, Jean-Luc. Mother idolized Jean-Luc, who carried his lame sister on his shoulders and taught her how to ride again. He defended her honour against bullies and cads, and showed her how to plant her knee and to throw a snowball with deadly accuracy so that she might defend herself from the bullies during the winter he went to war. Zinnia never recovered from her brother's death overseas. She married one of the bullies, a remote man named Wayne Frommer, and promptly gave him two boys. Matthew was first, blue-eyed and an easy child. I was next, a difficult birth and a colicky baby, as Mother often reminded me. Sarah died at six months of crib death. For four years Zinnia begged her husband for one more, desperate for the company of a girl. One drunken evening, Wayne gave in, and eight months later the twin boys were born. Mother buried her disappointment deep, considering it God's wish that she find herself surrounded by five males, so she named the twins for her beloved brother. Johnny and Luke didn't stand a chance with her.
When Luke lost his seventh consecutive job, this time for swearing at his boss' wife at the Christmas party, I took him in. "Three conditions," I told him. "One, you look for a job. Two, you keep the basement clean as a pin, or Maggie will have my ass. And three, you find a job." "For sure, man," he answered with his easy grin, "Don't you worry about the lovely Maggie. I'll get me a fantastic job, and then I'm out of here. Until then I'll vacuum the basement twice a week and take out the garbage. Bed'll be made every day." It didn't take long before the basement reeked of stale beer sitting in half-empty cans; there were cheezie crumbs ground into the carpet, giving it an orange glow, and empty pizza boxes piled up under the ping-pong table. Day after day, Luke slept past noon, then spent an hour or two sitting in the kitchen in his faded jockey shorts, smoking cigarettes and drinking pots of coffee while reading the paper, commenting on the news to whomever was around. "Just what the world needs, another conservative Pope. He and Bush are gonna cozy up and turn us all into wife-beating Jesus freaks, and do away with birth control altogether, and then we'll all die of AIDS. Fuck."
His punditry seemed to get in the way of his ever opening the Classifieds section.
"Yeah, soon, man," he yawned, when I once asked how the job search was going. "I got a lead on something downtown." Coffee and cigs finished, Luke stretched with a grunt, and flashed his smile at my wife. "Splendid coffee, Magdalena-mine. From the bottom of my sorry heart, I thank you for your hospitality. You are the bestest and the prettiest." Stretching and flirting over, Luke then wandered back down to the basement for his afternoon nap. Maggie kept quiet for a time, but I could see the line that was once her luscious mouth growing thinner by the day. Finally, one day just before supper, I found her on her knees in the bathroom, sponge clutched in her rubber-gloved hands, staring at a faraway place beyond the toilet tank. Her lips had all but disappeared. "What's up, honey?" I asked. "He can't stay here any more," she replied, without looking at me. My jaw tightened. "What do you mean, Mag?" Maggie rarely spoke up like this. "He's got porn, Mark. It's downstairs under the sofa bed. I found it this afternoon while I was changing the sheets." "What do you mean, 'porn'?" I asked, stupidly. Maggie's green eyes turned on me, unblinking and huge like an owl's, and just as unsettling. "I think you know what porn is." She returned to her scrubbing with renewed vigour. With a pang of guilt I thought back to the Penthouse stash Matt and I kept in the spare toolbox, hidden at the bottom of the wood pile back of the barn. The first time the twins sneaked up on me and Matt while we were reading them, I just about pounded them both. While Matt was peeling me off Johnny's back, Luke grabbed a copy and vanished up a tree, cat-like. It was hours before he finally shinnied down, his face flushed and with a new wild look in his eyes. "Yeah, well. Porn, you say. I'll talk to him." "Yes, you will," Maggie said in a low voice made bumpy from her scrubbing. "You'll talk to him, and you will tell him he's leaving. I won't have porn in my house, and I've had it with his mooching."
"C'mon, Mag, just a few more days. He's got a job interview tomorrow," I lied.
Maggie stopped scrubbing and brushed an errant hair from her face. "He'd better, Mark. And he'd better get the job."
My father had a strict house rule, and that was that no-one under the age of ten was allowed anywhere near his rifle collection, which he kept under lock-and-key in a cabinet over the frigidaire, well out of reach of curious little hands. Every year he'd go off with his cousins into the bush for a week, and bag his deer quota to feed us for a while. Later on, he'd tell us of his hunting escapades. Matt and I were transfixed by his descriptions of the right moment, the second of absolute certainty when he had the deer lined up in his sights, and how the deer would glance his way as if it knew this was its last moment on earth. Father never missed, and he never had an accident. Throughout our childhood, he would tantalize us by saying, "When you're old enough, I'll show you how it's done." Matthew began his training at the age of ten. Every night after supper, Father would fish around on his key ring until he found the key to the rifle cabinet, and with certain ceremony he'd open the glass door, and with both hands, lower the pellet gun. I watched, silent and burning with envy as Father worked with Matt, cleaning, loading, unloading, and cleaning, over and over again. I had all the steps memorized long before Matt could perform them properly. Secretly I ached for Father's undivided attention, his unspoken approval as, over time, Matt's small hands grew more proficient in their task. Finally, when Matt could clean, load, and unload blindfolded, Father took him out to the pasture behind the orchard, where he'd set up tin cans along the fence as targets. I wasn't allowed to come, and when I raised my voice in protest, Father shouted that I'd better keep quiet and do as he said, if I ever wanted to learn how to shoot. The mystery of Matt's shooting sessions sent me into agonies of jealousy. At night while Matt snored in his bed opposite mine, I lay with my jaw clenched, imagining Father's large hand tousling Matt's hair with every successful firing of the gun. "Well done, Son," he might say through the pipe stem held firmly between his teeth. Matt would beam up at him, pride swelling his small chest and sending sparks of adoration from his enormous blue eyes. The reality was, after most shooting sessions they would return, first Matt rushing through the kitchen white-lipped, his reddened eyes avoiding the rest of us. Father would catch the door before it slammed shut, and slowly shake his head at the sound of Matt's feet pounding up the stairs. "He's coming along, Zinn, but slowly," he'd say to Mother, then he'd return the pellet gun to its place in the cabinet, help himself to a beer from the frigidaire, and sit, brooding, on the easy chair.
When Johnny graduated summa cum laude, Matt and I and our then-girlfriends piled into Matt's old VW bus and drove through the night to Toronto in a cloud of weed and beer fumes, "Born to be Wild" screaming from the six speakers I'd rigged for Matt as a favour. We'd be his surrogate parents, I had joked, all four of us. There was a brief silence on the other end of the line, then Johnny's gruff voice uttered a simple "Yeah." I now know that it was the absence of our parents and of his other half, Luke, that Johnny must have felt more deeply than our presence. At the time, I just thought he was being a stuffy academic. Our girlfriends ditched us, preferring to shop in a mall. Hungover and giggly, Matt and I sat through the endless convocation, snoring loudly during the address and the presentations, and leaping to our feet with loud and inappropriate whoops and hollers when Doctor John Frommer's name was called. Several times a woman ahead of us with sculpted hair turned and glared at us. Matt rolled his eye and I sniggered. We were proper assholes.
But, good brothers that we thought we were, we offered to take Johnny drinking afterwards, and on to a strip joint and do something about his virginity. He declined.
"Come on, man, let's go have some fun," Matt said, "I'm dying in this necktie."
"No, thanks. I've got plans."
"What plans? We come all this way, and you've got plans?" My voice had a way of getting loud, those days. Johnny flushed, and looked around to make sure nobody he knew was listening.
"Just... Well, okay. One drink. But I've got to get home early."
"Who's waiting for you, Doc?" I poked him in the ribs. "You got a woman at home you haven't told us about?"
"Fuck off, Mark," Matt said. "Leave him alone, and let's get drunk."
Lukey got in the habit of spending too much time in his tree. He'd beg a joint off of Matt, knowing I'd refuse him and likely punch him in the spleen for asking, then he'd "borrow" from the hidden tool chest and go off for a few dreamy hours of self-gratification. Only once was he stupid enough to hide a Penthouse, but he'd at least had the foresight to stuff it under Johnny's mattress, so when Mother found it her rage was directed at the innocent twin. I was tempted to take the strap to Luke myself, fresh from poor Johnny's backside, but Matt's cooler head prevailed and he convinced me that by refusing him his dope and hiding the Penthouse stash, we would punish him beyond any thrashing.
Johnny and I even traded beds, so I could keep Luke on edge. I kept a supply of sneakers nearby, and at the slightest rustling of his sheets, I'd hurl a shoe through the darkness. "Leave it alone, you fucking perv," I growled. "Christ, I was just rolling over!" "Like hell, you were." "Who asked you to sleep in here, anyway, Mark?" "You did, jerk-off, when you got Johnny in trouble. Now, keep still, I'm a light sleeper." It's true, I was a light sleeper. Still am, only now I'm kept awake by worries, not rage.
It seemed the days preceeding my tenth birthday slowed to a crawl, and in fact had gone into reverse, but the day finally came when Father would show me how to clean the pellet gun. I hurried through the presents and the cake, barely noticing the triple layers Mother had glued together with my favourite chocolate frosting, and I absentmindedly spat out the wax-papered quarter. "Aww, Mark always gets the quarter," Luke whined. "Hush, you, it's his birthday, not yours." The lines between Mother's eyes deepened. Luke folded his arms and slumped in his chair. "Well, boy, time you learned how to clean a gun," Father finally said, wiping his moustache and reaching for his pipe. Too eagerly, I jumped up from the table, knocking over my chair. "Lord save us, Mark, would you for once slow down!" "Sorry, Mother," I said, righting the chair. Father clinked his key ring until he found the right key. I was suddenly struck with the urge to pee, but passed it off as excitement as Father took an inordinate amount of time to unlock the cabinet and lower the gun to the kitchen table. He showed me the steps to cleaning the gun, steps I had memorized from Matt's training and which whirled through my brain at ten times the speed Father was speaking. Finally it was my turn. Father placed the gun before me, its barrel glistening, waiting for me to dismantle and clean it. With shaking hands I reached for it, and as soon as I touched the cool metal, the need to pee became desperate. "Just a minute," I muttered, dashing from the kitchen. "Mark? Mark!" "I'll be right back," I yelled down the stairs. Once before the toilet, stage fright set in and nothing happened. I thought of the gun sitting, waiting on the table, and of Father's certain growing impatience. I hopped up and down, and turned on the tap for inspiration. Finally, my bladder co-operated. I washed but did not dry my hands, and flew back down the stairs.
When I returned to the kitchen, Father was turning the key in the cabinet. The table was empty.
"Wait, I..." "I need your undivided attention, Mark." Father's voice was cold. "But I had to..." "I don't care if you had to put out a fire in the living room, Mark. Guns get your full attention." With that, he clamped his teeth around the pipe stem, and slammed out the door.
My clothes have a way of looking better on Luke than they do on me. When he came upstairs dressed in my blue pinstripe, Maggie stopped dead in her tracks, and put down her dish cloth to help him with my best necktie before he went out the door for the interview I'd rigged. "You clean up good, Lukey," she said. Granted, it's true. With his face shaved, black curls somehow organized, and the right clothes on, he's always been a show-stopper. "Let's go, man, " I said. The sight of him standing so close to Maggie didn't sit well with me; they looked too good together. She's older than Luke, but looks younger and very, very sweet in her tight jeans and cropped T-shirt. I let the door slam itself shut, and started the car with a roar. "What's the rush, Bro'?" "I don't want you to be late, like the last time. I've got a lot at stake here, and I need you to make a good impression," I said, thinking of the begging job I'd done the day before with Jimmy James, my pool buddy.
"I've heard about this kid, Mark. Got a mouth the size of a bull's ass, with about as much useful stuff coming out of it. Who's gonna keep him under control?"
"Don't worry about him, buddy, I'll make sure he behaves. He owes me big-time." "Yeah, well, one lick of trouble from him, and he's out. Most guys get three chances. He gets one. You say he can dance?" "Yeah, yeah. He dances, all right. Just needs to get in the mood." "I'll get Mindy to put him in the mood." "Mindy. Sure." My head pounded as I pulled over beside the tavern. Surely I was doing the right thing for Luke, but mostly for Maggie, and by association, for me. "You got rid of that shit under the bed?" I asked. "Yeah, man, it's gone. Sorry about getting you in trouble with Maggie." "Never mind. We're here." Luke's eyes narrowed at the sight of Jimmy's Tavern. "The interview's here? With Jimmy James?" "And Mindy. What's the matter?" Luke stared at me for a long moment, his face clouded with doubt. "Mindy, the stripper," he finally exhaled. "Yup." "Peroxide-blonde with the giant tits that never move, no matter how much the rest of her wiggles." "That's the one, " I replied, "Or so I'm told." "Aww, Mark..." "What? What is it, Luke? You got a better offer?" Luke's blue eyes brightened, and he looked away from me. "You get the hell out of this car, and go in there and strut your stuff. Tips are great, if you play your cards right." "I ..." "What? What did you say? Sorry, can't hear you." I was close to shouting, aware of dangerous echoes of Father.Luke stared at his lap, his fingers wrapped around each other, knuckles white from the effort. "Christ! Are you crying?" I waited for an answer I knew wouldn't come. "You don't want to go in there? Then tell me what to do with you, Luke. Just... just tell me, and I'll do it." My own voice choked. Luke and I sat in stifling silence. "She really loves you, doesn't she?" he finally asked. "What? Who..." "Maggie. She adores you. I can tell by the way she looks at you." "Yeah, I guess she does. I know I love her, man. More than anything." "Mother and Dad never looked at each other like that." "No. Not so we'd notice." The words surprised me, both Luke's and my own. We were unaccustomed to discussing anything serious or personal with one another, and I was equally surprised by the ease with which the words tumbled out. As far as I knew, nobody had ever looked at Luke that way, either. I started the engine, and drove us away from the tavern.
Father's cancer helped itself to his liver long before the doctors found it, and only when he suddenly became diabetic did they realize it was also feasting on his pancreas. Mother bore the responsibility of his illness with a devotion that astounded us boys. Throughout our version of their marriage, we had only known a stiff, formal tolerance between them. At best, they agreed on things, but at worst, a terrible silence would descend, paralyzing the entire family, and causing us to tiptoe around each other so as not to cause any friction which might ignite our parents' tempers. Always the strap weighed on our minds; we brothers watched and waited until the silent storm was over, before resuming our usual push-and-shove banter. She tended to him night and day, cooking more varied and simpler meals as his appetite waned, changing the sheets sometimes twice a day to ensure their freshness while he slept, and often sitting through the night, staring at a book, or at her mending. Once I saw her holding Father's hand, smiling down at him while he spoke.
It was Maggie's voice I fell for. When we first met, half of her face was obscured. From behind the mask came the voice, soft and steady, her vowels stretched and betraying her Cape Breton roots.
"My name is Maggie," she said. "I've just joined Doctor Johnson's practice."
Dahckter Jahnson's prectice. Eyes the colour of her surgical greens, framed with a thick fringe of lashes, stared down at me while she worked at removing years of accumulated plaque. "Bit of an excavation, isn't it?" I asked after she'd rinsed some chunks from my mouth. "Yes, but it looks all right," she replied, ahll right with the "t" softened. I wanted to hear her talk some more. "Your fingers ever get tired from doing that?" I asked, pointing at the sharp instrument she held in her delicate hand. "Yes, yes, sometimes," Maggie replied, staring at her latex-covered hands. When she put her fingers back in my mouth, I was a goner.
Father's final task was to show the twins how to clean and load the pellet gun, their tenth birthday arriving on a slightly better day than he'd had in a while. There he sat, gaunt and yellow, trying to show the boys how to do it. Matt and I watched, appalled, as his thin and shaking fingers failed. "I know! I know!" Luke cried out, grabbing at the barrel. "Stop it, Luke." Matt siezed Luke's wrist in his strong hand. Johnny sat back in his chair, hunched and miserable with an understanding of Father's illness that certainly Luke, and probably I didn't possess. "But I know how to do it!" "Never mind. Let Father show you." Matt's voice was a low growl. Father gave a tired smile. "Matthew, you're the eldest. You show them," he said, his voice hoarse with fatigue. Matt's face was stricken. "No, Dad. You know best, you do it." "Matthew..." Matt turned away from the table, giving me a plain view of his face from my position at the door. He bit his lip. Shook his head. There was a long silence, one I couldn't do anything about as I stood there, frozen. My stomach lurched as I recognized rare tears springing up in Matt's eyes. His face crumpled, but he kept his back straight and breathed evenly, so as not to let on to Father and the twins. "Mark, then. Show the boys." "Me? Uh, sure, Dad." Somehow my voice co-operated, along with the rest of me as I moved to the table. I stared at the pellet gun, which for a long moment became a foreign object, something I'd never seen before in my life. "C'mon, Mark, show us. Father said!" Luke's demanding voice brought me back into the kitchen. "Mark, you know your way," said Father. I nodded my head, which sang with his approval, and sat between the boys. The words and the motions came easily. I knew my way. Johnny was quickest, loading and unloading with dexterity and efficiency that belied his ten years, while Luke struggled and grew impatient, his voice finally rising in a wail. "Johnny always does things first. It's no fair!" he sobbed as, for the fifth time in a row, he bungled his task. Johnny looked at the floor, then slid out of his chair and dashed up the stairs. I might otherwise have cuffed Luke, but the strain on Father's face kept me still and, at least outwardly, patient in my seat. "Don't worry about it, Luke," Matt said from across the kitchen, his voice now restored to its seventeen-year-old baritone. "It took me a long time to get the hang of it, too, man. A lot longer than Mark, and he's two years younger than me. I'll show you a few tricks next time." "It'll come soon enough, Lukey. When you're ready." Luke stared, open-mouthed, as Father reached over and touched his black curls, placing his large hand on the shiny jumble, and tousling. My eyes burned with unbidden, though not entirely unhappy tears.
I've never forgiven myself for taking over the twins' training. Johnny never wanted to hunt, and Luke was too impetuous. I should have known better. "Your father would want them to know how, Mark," Mother said, and her word was good enough for me, so I took them out to the pasture behind the orchard, and lined up the tin cans along the fence. One after another, Johnny popped them off, more in an effort to be done with it than to show off. Luke, of course, didn't see it that way, and when his turn came he missed every single can. I expected his usual screaming and whining, but he surprised me by laying the gun down and walking away. "Luke? Hey, Luke, c'mon back," I called after him. "Let's do it one more time. This time you'll get it for sure."
But Lukey kept on walking. With his shoulders sagging and his head down, he looked more than ever like Johnny, who was by now sitting on a tree stump, hunched and miserable.
"Good job, buddy," I said to him. "You've got a great shot." "I don't want to shoot any more," he replied, looking at the ground. "S'okay, Johnny, you don't have to. Come on, let's go see if lunch is ready." I picked up the gun, and we made our way through the orchard.
My last visit with Johnny ended in a punch to my solar plexus. He'd had one too many martinis from a jug, and I was getting sick of his fancy olives, imported from some hilltop grove in Tuscany by his good buddy, Tonio. "You gotten too fancy for beer?" I asked, eyeing the Danish martini glasses the size of small buckets. "There's Stout in the pantry," he replied flatly. Warm as piss, as it turned out. I grabbed a coke from the fridge and a coffee mug, slammed them on the glass-topped table, and dumped as much vermouth as I deemed palatable on top of the coke. "Mind the Spode," Johnny muttered, a remark I chose to ignore. "When you coming home, man?" Johnny stared at me in disbelief. "You're joking," he said. "Mother wants to see her son-the-doctor before she dies." I always was frank with my youngest brother, usually savagely so, given his reticence. Eventually he spoke. "One of these days," he sighed, although his face told me otherwise. "Yeah. Well. Maybe she wouldn't want to see this kind of success." The vermouth was starting to kick in, and my perception of Johnny and his surroundings was sharpening. There was a sudden wariness in his eyes, and as Johnny poured himself another martini the glass shook. "What are you talking about, Mark?" Until then I had failed to notice the biceps bulging beneath his shirtsleeves. "You been going to the gym?" I demanded. "Yeah. What of it?" "Working out with the guys, huh?" I couldn't stop myself. Johnny put down his glass, the wariness replaced by a hard look. "What are you getting at?" "Come on, Johnny, look around." I sloshed some of my drink on the leather couch as I waved my arm around at his penthouse, taking in the impeccably painted walls in various shades of chocolate, the leather, the swanky sound system. "Frigging porn on the walls," I finished, pointing to a black-and-white photo of a male nude. I was on my feet, swaying, and my tongue was now rolling around in my mouth, beyond my control. "What are you, some kind of faggot?" Then I was on the floor, clutching my stomach. Johnny stood over me, holding my unspilled drink. "Get the fuck out of my home."
Matt was talking to Luke while Mother dished up bowls of soup. She pursed her lips at Johnny as he took his place at the table. "Luke says you were showing off, John." Johnny opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it. "Not exactly, Mother," I said carefully. I fished around in my pocket for the key to the gun cabinet. The key slipped from my grasp; I lay the gun down on the table to go at the key ring with both hands. "Vanity is a sin," she said sharply. "I'll have none of it." "You did so show off," Luke muttered. Johnny scowled. "Did not." "Yes, you did! You fired off every one of those cans just to bug me, just like this." Before I could react, Luke leapt from his chair and grabbed the pellet gun. Which, for the only time in my life, I had neglected to unload. "Luke..." I shouted, but he had already cocked it, and was pointing it out the window as Johnny grabbed at his wrist. The barrel swung away from the window in slow motion, in an impossibly long moment during which I wondered why in hell I couldn't seem to do anything useful or heroic, such as move. The time lapse between the explosion and Mother's scream seemed almost ridiculous. Then it all speeded up as Matt slumped to the floor, clutching his eye and groaning.
The twins' screams ring in my mind as I stare at the strap. When Mother was finished beating them bloody, it was my turn, for refusing to beat them for her. In silence I removed my shirt and lowered my jeans, and knelt facing away from her. The words came easily.
"Heavenly Fath - uhh - Father, forgive me for my - ahh - for my sins..." I accepted her harsh words, her accusations, and her thrashing, and afterward as I lay on my stomach, waiting for the sting to kick in, I thought of Matt lying in the hospital with half his face bandaged and his remaining blue eye swollen and bewildered. My mother's voice crept into my awareness: "Heavenly Father, forgive me for my sins..." I peered around behind me to see her kneeling awkwardly, with the strap laid before her on the floor, and then I was bewildered. The strap hangs before me now, stiff and cracked. I pull it off the wall, and place my palm over the darkened imprint of my father's hand. But for my thumb, which is longer than his was, it's a perfect fit. I raise the stiffened strap above my head, and mouth the words.