Authors: James Loney
I’m standing in the kitchen. There’s commotion everywhere. Somebody hands me a plate with some pizza on it. Thank you, I say. Somebody is asking me a question. I’m trying to answer them.
“How’re you doing?” Julie says to me, the friend I had dinner with before leaving for Iraq. I’m about to answer when she says, “You look like you need to sit down.” She takes me by the hand and leads me to the living room couch. I sit down. Exhaustion washes through my body.
“Do you need anything?” she asks me. There are people all around me.
“Something to drink would be great,” I say. A glass of juice appears. I drink it greedily. The sugar is an instant hit of strength. I take a breath, dig deeper.
Dan sits beside me. “How’re you doing?” he asks. “Should I send people home?”
“No, it’s okay,” I say, though I am not really sure what I want. Someone new arrives and asks me a question. I answer it. Then everyone seems to have a question and the stories start pouring out. Each story seems to be interrupted by more questions. This disorients me.
No, wait, I’m not finished yet, I need to tell each one
, I want to say. I feel like a Ping-Pong ball. I see David sitting on the floor in front of me, arms wrapped around his knees, listening closely. I continue on.
I’m flagging. People start to filter out. Madeline, the mother of Seph, Tonnan and Raffi, comes to say goodbye. I stand up. “You know,” she says, choking back tears, “today is my birthday.”
“It is? Wow—happy birthday!” I say.
“Thanks for coming home. I didn’t know … wasn’t sure this day would ever come.” She struggles to get the words through her tears. “I just couldn’t bear the thought that … that you wouldn’t be here … for the boys to grow up with you. You mean so much to them—to us.”
I don’t know what to say. I feel so unworthy of this fierce love. We hold each other again, she wipes away more tears, waves goodbye.
“See you tomorrow, Mad,” I say.
“See you tomorrow,” she says.
I sit back down. Dan puts his hand on my knee. “Well?” he says.
“Yeah, I think it’s time,” I say.
“David asked me to give this to you.” It’s a piece of paper with a pencil drawing of a stick figure holding a two-hundred-pound weight above his head.
Jim is still strong
, it says in careful block-letter writing. I laugh delightedly.
Dan leads me to our part of the house, an old garage converted into a long rectangular living space.
“Hey, we have curtains!” It’s the first thing I notice.
“Madeline made those for us yesterday,” Dan says. “Part of our media protection program.”
I laugh. “It took a kidnapping for us to finally get some curtains. They’re beautiful.” I turn to look at him. “Everything’s beautiful.” I am home, in my own room, with Dan. I can hardly believe it.
The first thing I notice is my clothes, Dan’s clothes, hanging or sitting folded on the shelves of the open pine wardrobe I built for us when we moved in. “I’d forgotten about these,” I say, fingering one of my shirts, a tangible link to the person-I-was-before in a long-long-time-ago life. Everything is the same. Exactly the same. Except for a vigil candle on the dresser. The big, heavy-duty glass kind that you’ll find next to the tabernacle in a Catholic church.
“I always had one going,” Dan says. “I would bring one into the room with me at night. It was my way of holding you. You can blow it out now, if you want.”
“With pleasure,” I say, blowing out the candle.
“I’ll show you later,” he laughs. “I have a whole box of them.”
We take off our clothes, climb into bed, arrange ourselves under the sheets. Everything feels strangely anticlimactic, as if there has never been any interruption. As if this is just the end of a regular ordinary day in a long string of regular ordinary days. But it’s only six-thirty in the evening, and it’s still light out, and my body is tingling with freedom, joy, incredulous gratitude, and I am fighting every second to
keep my eyes open as I lie here next to Dan, and the soul balm smoothness of his skin.
“After I brought the candle in, I would always read to you,” Dan tells me. “Something Scott gave me that Daniel Berrigan wrote. Shall I read it to you? It’s beautiful,” he says, bubbling with enthusiasm as he reads the passage that I’ve used as the epigraph for this book: “Sleep Jonah in the belly of a paradox. Now you need have no purpose, nothing to prove, nowhere to go …”
I try really hard to take it in. But I can’t. It goes in one ear and out the other, a babble stream of words flowing by. Everything is too much now. Everything.
“What do you think? It’s good, eh?” Dan says. He’s very excited.
“Yeah, it’s … nice … very … nice,” I say, unable to keep my eyes open any longer.
“Sleep, Jim,” Dan says, caressing my head. “Sleep at last.” I nod my head and fall fast asleep.
I’m instantly awake, charged, ready. I have to restrain myself from leaping out of bed. “Are you awake, Dan?”
It’s still dark out. I look at the time. It’s 5:00 a.m. “Oh good, it’s not too late,” I say, jumping out of bed. “Come on, Dan. Let’s go watch the sun rise.”
We grab something to eat and pull our bikes out of the basement. I sit on the seat of my old ten-speed yellow Schwinn, take the handlebars in my hands, put my feet on the pedals. I hesitate for a moment.
Can I still do it?
I push off and it’s miraculous, the simultaneous pedal, balance and move, the wheel-turning rush of wind against my face. Yes! Everything works: body, wheels, gravity, the universe. I’m going to be okay.
It’s six kilometres to the sunrise spot at the mouth of the Humber River where the Catholic Worker community gathers at dawn every Easter morning to proclaim and celebrate the Resurrection. Dan and I
sit on giant limestone blocks along a ragged landfill shore and watch as cobalt turns to mauve, mauve bleeds to pink, pink flows into red and orange and gold-yellow, the fiery arc of sun breaking over the Toronto skyline. Glorious.
We cycle home slowly, telling each other stories. I’m soaking in everything. Blue especially. I’m in love with blue. Blue Lake Ontario waters. Blue open-above sky. Blue, the colour of freedom.
When we get home, I wander around the house in a daze of delight, looking at, touching, feeling everything. Knick-knacks, door handles, countertops. I can’t settle anywhere. Everything is a wonder. Everything I do is like for the first time. Parting curtains. Turning on the tap. Making toast. Opening the fridge door. Answering the phone. Dan shows me a big stack of mail and a big stack of newspapers. “When you’re ready,” he says. I open a letter, flip through the newspapers, check my email. I look at today’s newspaper. My picture is on the front page. Everything is overwhelming.
I see that the garbage needs to be taken out. I love this. Tying the bag closed. Stepping outside with it. The clang of the garbage can lid coming off, the thud of the bag falling into the can, the clang of the lid going back into place.
I look up at the sky. Ah, blue, I can’t get enough of you. I see, in the middle of the lawn, there’s a pop can. I love this too. Walking towards it, bending down, grabbing it with my hand, standing back up. I look down the street. More joy. It’s that old man, who passes our house every day, head always down, bent over like a question mark, fighting for every step, his face and hands full of blue veins. I love this old man, and his grizzled old dog pulling him forward, concentrating, breathing hard, just as determined. I watch them make their way up the street.
The old man stops in front of our house. I have never talked to him before. He has not once, that I know of, ever looked up. Nor has his dog. But today they’re both looking up. His old dog wants to see me. It’s straining against its leash, tail wagging eagerly, ears peeled back, smiling the way dogs do. The old man lets go of the leash. The dog
rushes towards me, nuzzles my legs furiously, licks my hand, sits back on its haunches. It wants to be petted. I reach down and rub its head. Its eyes squeeze shut with pleasure.
“I guess he wants to welcome you home,” the old man says, smiling, his voice warm and beautiful and gentle, nonchalant. As if he’s always known me.
“Yes,” is all I can manage to say.
“It’s a beautiful day,” he says, taking a deep breath of the blue morning air.
“Yes, it certainly is.”
The old dog returns to the old man. “See ya,” he says.
“See ya,” I say. And on they go, continuing on with continuing on.
When everyone is awake, we go out for breakfast. Dan and I. My brothers and Donna. William, Jo and Michael. A greasy spoon on Queen Street. There’s nothing more pleasant: bacon and eggs, home-fried potatoes, toast on the side, coffee, raucous group laughter. Someone nudges my elbow and points to the television. They’re playing a clip from my arrival yesterday at the airport. Nobody in the restaurant seems to notice, or care. I am relieved.
I call my parents when we get home. Their voices are a healing balm. I apologize for taking so long to call them. “That’s okay, James, we understand. We’re just glad you’re home,” they say. I tell them about the Green Zone, staying with the British ambassador, the Hercules flight out of Baghdad, the stopover in Abu Dhabi, my arrival in Toronto. “When are you coming home?” they ask. I tell them that our plan is to drive up tomorrow. Foreign Affairs offered to fly us, but if we drive we can avoid the media frenzy, and it will also give Dan and me a chance to talk. “Take your time, whenever you get here is fine. We’re looking forward to seeing you,” they say.
Hobo arrives at noon to celebrate Mass. It is all the same people who were here yesterday. I can’t meet or see anyone else. No one new, no one I haven’t already been reunited with. No more questions and answers, no more stories, no more small talk, no more hugs. I come into the living room when Hobo is ready to begin and leave
immediately when Mass is finished. I can’t do it. I am empty, depleted, squeezed dry, suffocating. I need to be outside. I need to be alone. I need to get my hair cut.
I step outside into instant relief. I’m deliriously happy. If I want to I can hop, skip, dance or jump, stare at the sky for an hour, hug a tree, lie on the grass. I go to the corner and turn up Close Avenue. There they are, all the Catholic Worker houses, in their dilapidated, falling-apart glory. I keep on walking. There’s a man coming down the street towards me. I smile and nod. He smiles and nods. We pass each other. I hear my name being called. “James? James Loney?” The voice is surprised, delighted.
I turn around. “Yes,” I say, perplexed. Is this someone I know, someone I’ve met before and forgotten?
“I’m so surprised to see you—out, walking around. I didn’t think—I’m sorry, I should introduce—I’m a reporter. From Canwest. My name is Robert.”
“Well, why not? It’s a beautiful day. I’m going to get my hair cut,” I say.
His eyes light up. He pulls out his notebook. “Would you mind? Could I talk to you? For just a minute?”
I feel a sudden, dark flash of anger. “No, not today. I have to go now.” I turn and walk away.
That feels great. To say no and walk away. Then I think,
That was rather abrupt, maybe I should take his card, so I can call him later, when I’m ready
. I look back. He’s gone already. Oh well, no matter, I’m going to get my hair cut.
I’m a supernova of joy. I’m in love with everything. The cracks in the sidewalk. The chestnut trees and the wind-shredded bags fluttering helplessly in their branches. The speed bumps. The sun glinting off the cars. The black-pointy Toronto Rehabilitation Institute fence that runs the length of the street. Queen Victoria Public School. The forlorn parkette and the grubby pay phones at the top of the street. The King streetcar rumbling by. The electrical poles full of staples. Holy Family Catholic Church. The litter in the Holy Family Catholic School fence. How I yearned for you!
I’ve been walking for twenty minutes. I need to sit down. I’m running out of steam. Almost there. Two more blocks. I’m walking in front of the Parkdale Area Recreational Centre. There’s a young man out front. He looks to be about twenty-five. He’s dressed in a baggy, oversized hoodie, sagging pants, a baseball cap turned to the side. His fingers are stained with nicotine. His shoes are bandaged together with duct tape. He looks at me. I nod and smile. “Brother,” he says, “you look great. Let me give you a hug.” He opens his arms wide and gives me a gentle squeeze. He steps back. “Have a beautiful day.”
“Thanks,” I say, stunned. “You too.” I keep on walking. I wonder if he knows who I am, or if this is just one of those things that sometimes happens to you in Parkdale. It doesn’t matter. It is a blessing I will always cherish.
Finally, at the barbershop, Luigi is puffing on a cigarette, the way he always does between customers. “Hiya,” he mumbles, just the way he always does.
“Hi,” I say, self-conscious, bracing myself to be recognized.
There are two customers ahead of me. I take off my jacket and sit in a red vinyl chair. The one with the split upholstery and yellow foam peeking through. I love this place. Everything’s exactly the same as it was before I left: the faded calendars hanging crooked on the wall, the Christmas cactus in the window, the white and red tile floor, here and there a square missing.
There’s a copy of today’s
lying on the chair nearest the door. My picture is on the front page. I reach for the newspaper, pretend to read it for a while, put it back with the front cover down.
Twenty minutes pass. I need to stand up. I can’t sit still. I need fresh air. I step outside.
Across the street, Dan and William are just getting out of Alayna’s car. I wave to them. They wave to me. I dash across the street, all smiles. “What’s up?” I say.
They look worried. “Is everything okay?” they ask.
“This is the most fun I’ve had in years,” I say. “I’m next in line to get my hair cut. He doesn’t recognize me so far. I’m so relieved. Is something the matter?” They look like a couple of mother hens panicking about a lost chick.
“We just came to check to make sure everything’s okay. There were a couple of reporters who stopped by the house. Apparently the word’s out you’re getting your hair cut. They want to know if they can take your picture washing some dishes.” I laugh. “Shall we stay with you?” they ask, their faces full of concern.