When I was nine years old, I received a love letter from the son of the man that came to build our deck. While I no longer have the letter, I still hold on to the memories from those few days.
* * *
The deck wasn’t very large, but it was a big deal at the time. We’d lived in that red brick house for years and my parents hadn’t done anything to it, not even paint. The walls were still builder’s white. Dad used to say that the house belonged to the Royal Bank of Canada. When I was younger I used to picture a banker in a dark suit knocking on our door, and forcing us to leave at a moment’s notice. So when Dad told me about the deck, I took it as a sign that we were staying. I knew the deck was mostly for Mom though. Every so often she told me and my brother, Aiden, about her home back in Goa, and how she missed sitting outside in the mornings to have a cup of tea. She woke up with the birds.
I remember I was trying to grow my hair out that summer and wore it in pigtails tied with red elastics. School had finished a few weeks earlier, and Aiden had gone to a friend’s cottage. Only Mom and I were home when the men dropped off the lumber. They stacked the wood in our backyard near our maple tree, and I wondered how many trees the lumber used to be. That tree was the only one I preferred to sit under rather than climb. Beneath its branches and pointy leaves was my favourite place in our backyard. Two of the tree’s roots sat exposed above the lawn before going underground. Dad said it was a pain to cut the grass there, but between the roots was the perfect spot for my small bum and back.
The builder was supposed to come at ten that morning. Dad had found the guy through someone at work. He said he was Indian. Not Indian like us, but Native Indian.
At half past ten, Mom said, “I hope the directions I gave him were okay.” At quarter to eleven, she tried to call him, but got no answer. By eleven thirty, she gave up.
“I might as well go start on my essay, Ally.” Mom was a teacher in India, but had to do her education over again to be one here.
I peeked out the front window and saw a white van slow down on the road, then crawl beside our curb before stopping. “Is that the builder there?”
Mom joined me at the front window. “That must be him.”
A man wearing a faded red baseball cap, blue jeans and a tool belt stepped out of the van. He closed the driver’s side door and opened the sliding door, which kept sliding and fell right off the van, onto our lawn.
“Oh, brother,” Mom said.
The man picked up the door with both hands and reattached it.
We moved away from the window so he wouldn’t see us spying on him. Mom opened the front door before he knocked, so he must have known. I was surprised to see a boy standing next to the man. His black hair was longer than mine.
“Hi there, Clarissa, right?” The man asked.
“Yes, Jim. I spoke to you on the phone,” Mom said, and they shook hands.
“Sorry I’m late, had to pick up my boy. He was supposed to go with his mother,” Jim paused for a moment, “But he’s going to spend the next few days with me.”
“Oh, no problem,” Mom said, then turned to the boy, “What’s your name?”
The boy held a coiled notebook at his side, and looked up from the floor for just a moment to glance at my mom and say, “Joseph.”
“Joseph and Jim. I’m going to get those mixed up, you watch,” Mom said. “Are you going to help your dad, Joseph?”
Joseph shook his head.
Jim patted his boy’s shoulder. “He doesn’t take after his father.”
They didn’t look like the Indians on TV or the ones I’d seen on a class trip to a native reserve. Everyone on that trip got a dreamcatcher with netting like a spider’s web, and feathers hanging below. I’d hung it from my bedroom window to make sure only the good dreams would come to me.
“Did they bring the wood already?” Jim asked.
“Yes, early this morning. Come, let’s go to the backyard.” Mom slipped on her sandals and led them out the front door and around the house. I wanted to follow but my flip-flops were at the back door, so I went through our house instead.
In the kitchen, I stood on my tiptoes and peeked out the window above the sink. Mom pointed to the bamboo stick outline of the deck she’d made, and Jim nodded. Joseph walked over to our maple tree and sat down, right in my spot. He looked up and noticed me watching him. I ducked and crouched next to the cabinet. I wrapped my arms around my knees and held them to my chest; I could feel my heart beat like a rabbit’s would before it ran away.
As my heart slowed, I felt silly hiding in my own house. I stood up to open the fridge and pulled out a carton of chocolate milk. I took out a tall glass from the cabinet. Aiden and I always argued over which glass held more—the tall skinny ones or the short fat ones. It was important to know which glass was the biggest for when we had guests over and were allowed to drink pop.
I filled the glass all the way up and put the carton back in the fridge. I held the cold glass with one hand and as I turned around my eyes went to the window. Joseph was there looking in. I nearly jumped, and felt the drink slip from my hand; I couldn’t grab it in time and as I looked down, I saw the last few seconds of the fall in slow motion. The glass shattered on the tile. Creamy brown milk splattered on the floor and against the bottom cupboards.
“Crap!” I put my hand over my mouth as soon as I said it. I looked back to the window to find Joseph was gone. Mom came in a few moments later.
“Stay put, Ally.” Mom kept her sandals on while she gathered the bigger broken pieces into what was left of the base of the glass, then put them into a plastic milk bag. I kept my bare feet in the same place as she handed me paper towels and we both sopped up the chocolate milk. Mom then fetched my flip flops and the broom to sweep around me first. We both looked for stray shards of glass. They were everywhere. In each corner we found tiny pieces, scattered, like speckled stars across the sky.
I was lucky Dad wasn’t home—he always got angry with us if we broke something, shaking his head and saying we needed to be more careful. Mom was more patient and never got mad over an accident. When we finished cleaning up I looked out the window again and saw Joseph back in my spot under the tree.
That afternoon, Mom stood next to the sink with a cutting board. She used a long knife to remove white globs of fat and goosebumped skin from chicken legs and thighs. Everything she sliced away from the chicken was pushed off the cutting board into the sink. She gave the milky pink pieces of meat a quick rinse under the tap before placing them in a metal bowl. I didn’t like raw chicken, it was one step too close to the chicken being killed.
“What are we having for dinner?”
“Can’t we have a barbeque?” I didn’t like chicken curry and thought Canadian food tasted better.
“Not tonight, honey. I’ve got to finish this before your father comes home, and then get to work on my essay before my shift tonight.”
“Can I have Kraft Dinner then?”
Mom stopped cutting and looked out the window. “Ally, can you do me a favour? Go ask Jim and his son if they need any water? It must be hot out there in the sun.”
I hoped she wouldn’t also ask me to bring a jug of water out. I might drop that too.
When I got outside I was surprised at how much had been done in just a few hours. The lumber lay in different stacks around the yard, with a workbench and the tools in the centre. There were two deep, round holes in the grass, and next to the holes sat a large pile of fresh dirt with a shovel stuck in its side. I didn’t see Joseph by my maple tree, but Jim was behind the pile of dirt—he was bent over drinking from the garden hose. He held the hose in one hand like an ice cream cone and took long gulps. It wasn’t until he stood up straight and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand that he noticed me.
“Hello there.” He had one crooked tooth among others, but his smile was too wide for him not to be a nice person. “Do you want a drink?” He held up the hose, water still flowing out.
I took the hose and held it sideways in one hand, like eating a corn on the cob with a big stalk. I’d learned to drink this way because Aiden always tried to kink the hose when I went to take a sip; only for a second, so water would rush up into my face, and sometimes up my nose.
“Can you do me a favour, young lady?” He picked a few tools out of a nearby white plastic pail. “Can you fill this guy up to here?” He took the pencil from behind his ear and made a mark on the inside of the bucket. The pencil looked like it was sharpened with a knife; the edges were carved straight to a point, like a pyramid instead of a cone.
“Sure.” I directed the water into the pail and it made a hollow plastic bucket noise before it changed to a water hitting water sound.
“Thanks. I’m just going to grab the concrete from the van.”
Jim walked around the side of the house. The water soon reached the mark he made so I pulled the hose a few feet over to Mom’s garden and laid it down there. My eyes returned to the base of the maple tree where I noticed Joseph’s notebook. I looked around to check for him, then went over to the book. I knew I shouldn’t go through other people’s things, but it sat in the spot where I liked to read and looked like it was left there for me. I bent down and opened it. A blue pencil rolled out; it had a smooth wooden top instead of an eraser and was sharpened the same way as Jim’s. The first page was blank white and on the inside cover, “Joseph Billy” was neatly written. When I turned the page I realized it was a sketchbook and not a notebook. There were mountains, birds, rivers and trees drawn in detail and shaded in a way that made it seem like they were moving.
“That’s mine!” Joseph grabbed the notebook away from me. There was a small scar above his left eye that I hadn’t noticed before.
“Who said you could look at it?” I thought for a second he might come at me.
“Joseph, no fighting.” Jim returned just in time. He carried a bag of concrete on his shoulder and dropped it next to the pail with a thud. “Why don’t you go turn off the water son.”
Joseph obeyed his father and went to the side of the house where the faucet was.
“Don’t mind him, sweetie, he’s been in an awful mood all morning. Just leave him be for now.” The water from the hose soon trickled to a stop. Jim opened a bag of concrete and checked the water level in the bucket. “Perfect.” He poured the concrete into the bucket and a small cloud of dust rose into the air and made me sneeze.
“That’s a mighty big sneeze for such a small person,” he said, in a way that sounded like a compliment.
Jim attached a contraption to his drill that looked like a silver coat hanger bent into a long “J.” He dipped it into the pail and turned on the drill. The metal attachment spun and mixed the water and concrete. It reminded me of when Mom made her pineapple and coconut cake. She used a hand blender to mix the wet and dry ingredients. Afterwards, she removed the metal beaters and let Aiden and me each lick one clean. She poured the mix into the pan we’d buttered, then straight into the oven before we could ask for more. She said it wasn’t good to eat too much because of the raw egg.
I watched Jim pour the concrete into one of the holes in the ground, but went back inside when Joseph came back and sat under the tree. I stayed inside until they finished for the day and went home.
The next morning, the spin of the saw woke me with a fright and I knew that Jim and Joseph had returned. I tried to avoid the backyard. After a strawberry Pop-Tart breakfast I went across the street to call on my friends, Johnny and Pearl, but they were still away at their grandma’s. Mom was in her room working on her essay so I watched The Price Is Right. The lady contestant had a snowman-shaped body. She didn’t listen to the audience shouting and overpriced her bid.
When I heard Mom in the kitchen I went to meet her.
“Are you finished with your essay?”
“Just a quick break.” She held a hefty mango in her hand, brought it to her nose and said, “This is a good one.” Dad joked sometimes that she must have been a fruit fly in another life.
Mom glanced out the back window as she took out two plates, and a knife. “Ally, why don’t you go outside? It’s so nice out. You should go play with Joseph, he’s probably bored.”
“I don’t want to play with him.”
Mom paused with the knife, like she was making the first cut in a birthday cake, then sliced away a piece of mango from the huge seed; the cut was close but didn’t touch the seed. She showed a slight smile at seeing the bright orange inside, then cut the other side away too. She’d given a mango to Pearl’s mom once, but didn’t think to tell her how to cut it. Pearl told me her mom spent a few minutes trying to cut right through the seed before she gave up and threw it out.
Mom cut four large chunks of mango onto one plate, leaving the skin on. She placed the mango seed on the other plate and passed it to me. The seed was a slippery, tricky treat to hold, but still my favourite part. I loved to scrape the juicy flesh from the seed with my front teeth and afterwards pick out the fibres that would get stuck in between them.
Mom said she’d had enough with two big pieces left. “Why don’t you go offer them to Jim and his son. Looks like they’re having lunch.” Before I could respond she added, “Back to my essay,” and went back upstairs.
My first thought was to just eat the remaining pieces, but Mom’s window upstairs overlooked the backyard and she might know if I didn’t go.
I rinsed my hands under the tap for longer than normal, nervous about facing Joseph again. I went to the family room and grabbed the shell Dad gave me from the mantle. Dad had brought the shell with him when he first came to Canada. When he gave it to me he told me it was from Baga Beach near his old home. He said he wanted to bring part of the ocean with him. I hadn’t seen the ocean yet—the closest thing we had near us was a lake that we couldn’t swim in. I put the shell in my pocket for good luck, then went outside with the plate.
The deck was beginning to take shape; I was careful to step over the frame as I carried the mango out. The grass was littered with sawdust and wood chips that filled the air with a calming scent. Jim and Joseph were sitting on a stack of lumber.
“My mom asked me to check if you wanted some mango.”
“Sure,” Jim said. “But only if you take my cheese in exchange.” He held out a round Babybel cheese wrapped in red wax.
I agreed, and they both took the mango from the plate; I peeled the wax off of the cheese and ate it in three bites. I rolled the wax into a ball and then took out my shell and pressed the wax onto the outside of the shell.
“Delicious. Thank you, Ally.” Jim placed the mango skin back on the plate.
I looked to Joseph to see if he was done, but didn’t see his mango skin. He had an embarrassed look on his face, and said, “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to eat the skin.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Some people eat the skin too.”
“What’s that you have in your hand?” Jim asked me.
“It’s a shell my dad gave me. If you put it to your ear you can hear the ocean. A girl in my class said it’s only your blood moving that makes the noise, but I don’t think so.”
“Can I see?” Joseph said.
“Sure.” I held the shell out. He took it; I felt the roughness of his fingertips on the palm of my hand for just a second.
“Back to work for me.” Jim packed up his lunch and went back to measuring lengths of wood around the frame.
Joseph held the shell up to one ear, then the other.
“I hear it, but what’s that other water sound?”
“Oh that’s our next door neighbour’s pond. Mr. Fanning. There used to be fish in the pond but the racoons ate them—he swore so much that morning. He’s kind of mean. When our tennis balls go over his fence he doesn’t let us go get them.” I paused. “Do you hear the wind chimes?”
“Those are Mrs. Gardner’s. Our neighbour on the other side. She’s nicer.”
“Do you hear that whistling?” he asked. “That’s my dad.” Joseph smiled for the first time; he had one crooked tooth like his dad, and an even broader smile.
Jim whistled a song I recognized, but couldn’t remember the words to. His hammering seemed to be in beat with the tune. He was so quick—like the hammer was a part of his arm. Two taps to hold the nail in place and then two harder ones to drive it clean into the wood.
We listened a little while longer as the hammer and whistle blended with the other backyard sounds. Then I realized we were both just standing there, and I got nervous and started to talk again.
“Mrs. Gardner gave us that honeysuckle plant over there. Do you want to try one?”
I picked the thin flower and sucked the sweet drop of nectar from its base.
Joseph handed back my shell, and did the same with a flower.
I felt another sneeze coming on. My head tilted back, but I put my finger under my nose, like a moustache, and stopped it.
Just then Joseph let out a big, “Ha-choo!” It was as if he’d stolen my sneeze. We looked at each other and began to laugh. Joseph stopped when he noticed a monarch butterfly float by. It landed on one of the honeysuckle flowers. Joseph slowly brought both hands up and around the monarch. I thought he was going to kill it, until I saw how delicately he held its orange, black and white spotted wings.
“If you hold them too tight you’ll crush them. Too loose and they’ll fly away.”
He brought the butterfly to his mouth. It looked like he might put it in his mouth, until I saw him whispering. He lowered it, and then held it up to my face.
“Make a wish.”
“Just whisper a wish, and it’ll come true. Butterflies can’t make any sound. They can’t tell anyone your secret, except the Great Spirit. It’s true, my mom told me.”
I leaned in and whispered my wish for a million more wishes too quietly for him to hear. Joseph whispered as well, but took longer to make his wish—I had a feeling it was for something he really wanted. He let the butterfly go, and it fluttered away.
The rest of the day felt like a dream. It went by too fast, like someone had pushed the clock hands around with their finger to speed up time. Joseph and I played together the whole afternoon. He showed me how to hit a nail properly, and I showed him how to play badminton. Our net was broken but we just put a broomstick on the ground and hit the birdie back and forth. It flew into Mr. Fanning’s backyard once, but Joseph just hopped the fence to get it back.
On the third day, the sound of the saw woke me with less of a scare. I had dreamt of the ocean. I was a fish, swimming with many others. When I tried to swim free, going whichever way I wanted, I got separated from the school. I wandered the ocean and searched to find those like me, except I woke up before I found anyone. My dream catcher must not have been working.
That morning, I had to go grocery shopping with Mom. By the time we got back and put everything away it was already the afternoon.
The deck looked like a deck now, yet my first steps out onto it were cautious.
“Almost done,” Jim said to me from the other side where he was working on the stairs. “It’s safe. Go on, jump as hard as you can.”
I did a little hop first, but when I felt how sturdy it was I jumped full strength twice.
“Atta girl.” He stood up, then turned to Joseph who was sitting on the grass next to the toolbox and a loose pile of wood. “Just gotta run to the hardware store. I’ll be back in a flash.”
Joseph nodded. I walked over and sat beside him on the grass. He had a magnifying glass in his hand and directed the sun to a point on the rubber sole of his shoe. I saw no smoke, yet there was a funky smell in the air.
He reached over to the pile of wood and pulled a long piece in front of him. He raised the magnifying glass and started to burn dark lines into the light wood grain with the sun rays. I stayed quiet as he drew. A shape started to appear—a shell. And beside it, the outline of a butterfly.
When he finished, all I could do was stare. I’d never been given a gift like that. I didn’t know what to say, and so I said the first thing I could think of. “I’m thirsty.”
“I’ll go turn on the water.” Joseph ran to the side of the house.
I found the hose coiled in the grass like a snake. It soon came alive as water began to flow. I drank.
Joseph came back and I handed him the hose. He held it vertically like his father. I couldn’t resist bending the hose into a kink. He leaned in and looked right into the spout just as I let my grip loosen. Water gushed out and into his face. He covered his eye with both hands. I moved closer to see if he was okay, but caught the smile forming in his cheeks too late. He put his thumb to the spout and sprayed me from head to toe. I let out a scream and tried to wrestle the hose away from him. Our laughter joined the other backyard noises as water flew in all directions.
Jim finished the stairs that day and said, “There’s just the railing to do tomorrow. Should only take a couple hours.” When they left, I went back inside. Everything seemed darker as my eyes adjusted to being out of the sun. It reminded me of coming out of a movie theatre during the day—your eyes go from dark to light instead, but it was the same feeling. Sometimes, if the movie is really good, you’re not ready to go back to the world you knew.
I got excited the next morning when I heard the hammering from the backyard. It was the last day Joseph would be coming, and I wanted it to be special. I braided my hair and put on my favourite pair of jean shorts. Mom never wore perfume—I tried to look for some in her room that I could spray myself with while she was eating breakfast, but didn’t find any. The only thing I had was an old Chatelaine magazine that Pearl had given me. It had a fold out section with sample perfume. I rubbed the page on my neck before I went outside.
Jim was putting up the railing, but I didn’t see Joseph anywhere.
“Where’s Joseph?” I asked.
“Oh, his mother came and took him.”
I waited for Jim to say more, give an explanation, but he directed his attention back to his work.
I went back inside. I couldn’t believe Joseph didn’t tell me he wasn’t coming back. He didn’t even say goodbye. I got angry with him for a few minutes, but then wondered if he even knew his mother was coming to get him.
Jim completed the railing an hour after he arrived. Mom finished her essay that morning too. She told Jim he’d done an excellent job and wrote him a cheque. She asked if he painted too. He said he did, then folded the cheque and slid it into his shirt pocket. He thanked her again, then packed up the last of his tools and drove away.
I remember hoping that Jim might come back to paint and bring Joseph along too, but when Dad called him a month later, his number was disconnected. It was a scary feeling I had then, realizing how easily people can enter and exit our lives.
When I found Joseph’s letter, I was making myself a mini-putt course in the backyard from an old set of golf clubs someone had given my dad. I was digging a hole in the grass beside the deck with a garden spade. When I looked up I saw the drawing Joseph had made with the magnifying glass. On the underside of the railing, there was a shell, a butterfly and a heart in between. My first love letter, written with the sun, in a place the sun now didn’t reach.
* * *
We moved from that house a few years later. By then, Mom had finished certifying her education, found a teaching job, and pushed my fears of a banker forcing us to leave our house away. And yet we still left that house sooner than any of us had expected. Mom became pregnant with my baby brother, Eric, and our house became too small.
I remember my maple tree lost its leaves early the year we moved. Dad said, “It knows we’re leaving.” He told me the same thing happened back home to a mango tree that stood on their property for years. The same year they moved to Canada the tree stopped giving fruit. All life left the tree and it stood like a stone for years before it was eventually brought down by the monsoon rains.
I made sure to say goodbye to my tree before we left. I held my hand to its bark for a long while before I walked away. I wished we could have taken it with us. I’d wanted to take the section of deck railing where Joseph’s drawing was too, but that meant I would have had to tell someone else it was there. I remember learning that summer just how delicate love was. How it sometimes floated into our lives when we weren’t expecting it to. How it needed to be seized before it disappeared, and yet also held gently, so as not to be crushed.
Our neighbourhood friends, Pearl and Johnny, had told us that after we left, the people who moved into our house changed everything. They ripped up the deck and put in a stone patio. Even though it was their house, I resented them for it. That feeling faded with time and eventually the memories that we made in our new house, made it our new home. It was somewhere in between house and home, that I grew up. I went to high school. And after high school I left for college in Toronto.
* * *
Springtime in the city is my favourite season. The winter grumps have a harder time being grumpy, with the sun shining and patios opening. Months of dry skin and bundling up are forgotten as Vitamin D-deprived citizens, myself included, find any reason to go outside a good one.
I take my time walking to my Photographic History class, as I’m early. I switch my Tim’s steeped tea from one hand to the other and make a mental note to grab a napkin next time.
I walk in the direction of Grange Park, but stop at a wooden telephone pole across the street. There are layers of posters stapled to the pole—the top one is a show for a band named ‘Wine Jacket’ with someone named ‘Aitch’ opening. The wood looks scarred by the staples driven on top of each other, rusted and black. I place my tea on the concrete next to my sneakers while I take the cap off my camera and snap a photo.
I find a bench in the park and sit and sip my tea. As I drink the last gulp, which is sweeter than the rest, I notice a black squirrel nearby digging a hole in the grass. He moves a few yards over and starts to dig again. I wonder how many trees grow from the nuts that squirrels bury and forget about.
A larger grey squirrel approaches the first one and a chase begins. I follow their zigzags with my eyes until they both dart up a tree to the right of me. Then I notice the tree next to the one they ran up. Well, not so much the tree, but the young man sitting against its trunk. He has long, dark hair and his bare knees stick through two frayed holes in his faded black jeans. There’s something about the way he’s hunched over his notebook that urges me to investigate.
I walk to a garbage bin that’s beyond where he sits, but don’t pass by close enough to catch a glimpse of his face. I toss my cup in the garbage and loop back, this time coming straight up behind him.
As I approach him, my steps are careful. My heart, pounding.
I’m close enough to see over his shoulder now; what I see on the page is the city coming alive as I’ve never seen it before. His hands look dry, and his left holds a pencil that makes quick and crisp lines blending into gentle shades. The scene looks like a dream. Or maybe a memory.
Then I notice the point of the pencil in his hand—the edges and tip are flat, like they were sharpened with a knife.
I don’t know whether to walk around and say hello, or just tap him on the shoulder. And if I do, what would I say? What if it’s not him? If it is, would he even remember me?
As these questions circle my mind, it’s as if my nose knows the peculiarity of my predicament. I begin to feel a tingling. I raise a hand to cover my face, but do not try to stop the sneeze from coming.