Authors: Austin Clarke
“Now when I heard that, Dots, I had to listen. So, the young fellow thought about it. And on Monday morning when it was time for him to go to work, he went instead and registered at George Brown College where they teach this new language to school dropouts. After being there for a year or two, a new world opened up to him. Today, he is a fellow with a university education. He going through for papers in this thing he named philosophy. That was one of the things that made me change, Dots. I don’t have the head to go through for this thing called philosophy, or get papers in it, but I decided to do the next best thing. And it is this. I intend to master this new language. I have changed, Dots. You do not know the amount of thinking I have been thinking lately. And you want to know why you don’t know? You don’t know because I don’t rass-hole talk when I am thinking. I mean, I used to feel that as a black man living in this country there was a certain level of things that I could do. And that I could get out of this country. I used to think so. And I even helped whoever said so believe it is so. I was destined to be a cleaner. And I used to feel I could only be a cleaner. I don’t know if I am explaining this as good as I want to. But there was something in me that didn’t let me see things destined for me to see. You see what I mean? For instance, then. I would watch that man who owns the brokerage place on Bay Street. I would watch him like a cat watching a mouse. And I would always wonder how come he has so much money, and I have none. And when I look at the amount of sweat that he uses-up to make all that money, be-Christ, if you compare sweats, well, it is Boysie Cumberbatch who should be the fucking millionaire. That is what I mean. I was living a kind of life that somebody destined me to live. And only after that young Canadian fellow showed me certain things about his life in terms of this language-thing did I see
what he was meaning in terms of my life. Not that he put me to sit down and show me these things. Not that, Dots. It was really like looking out through one o’ them windows there in the living room, and seeing things every morning and every night, and still not seeing one damn thing. Until, bram! all of a sudden I see for the very first time that what I was looking at was nothing, not one-fucking-thing! The young fellow told me the name of that in terms of philosophy. But I can’t remember what is the term he used. I know what he means, though. And you know, too. Because more than once I heard you use a word ‘sperspective.’ And I know that that word ‘sperspective,’ which is the same word that Mistress Hunter over there in Rosedale used to use, is the correct word to call this thing by. Now, I am going to tell you something, Dots …”
He took out a cigarette and lit it, and held his head back down. He inhaled deeply and the smoke shot through his nostrils and he went on talking. He knew he had Dots within the grasp of his listening. And if not actually listening to the words, she at least was there, had to be there, could not move, because of the novelty of the occasion. He wanted her to be there. To see and to witness the difference in his life that he was talking about, and which pleased him so much. It did not please him to talk about it, although he was pleased to see the change in his life; for talking about it was very painful to him. And it had taken a toll upon him. It was tiring to talk too long, and he was feeling the results of this exertion. He held the cigarette in his mouth and the drink in his hand, and he listened for Dots in the apartment. She had a certain special sound which she made when she was home. Not a sound that he could hear, not that kind of noise, just the knowledge that her presence went hand in hand with some sound. He listened to her sound now, as he would miss it and listen for it when he knew she was at
work. The apartment was very quiet and empty and the space of the sound, or the sound of the space she possessed when she was present, was not there. He went on thinking of what he had in his mind: the long hours of loneliness in the apartment when he was at home; in the mornings reading his newspapers and waiting for the woman with the brown winter coat to emerge and pass; and the new thoughts which were crowding his head, and exposing him to a tremendous and frightening awareness. “Did you know that the war in Vietnam is the biggest racialistic event of American imperialism? Did you know that?” He had just learned it. He had memorized the language. It sounded good to him. He did not know exactly what it meant. But he had tried to show it to his wife once. She looked at him in the way she always did when he did or said something which surprised her. Her surprise was not based upon her not having expected such wisdom from her husband; not that she was shocked by the increase in his education and perception. It was merely that she was shocked that such words could ever come from him, even if he had such education and perception. Dots had measured Boysie’s worth by the history of his unemployment during the early days he had come to this country. And nothing he could do would ever give her a better impression of him. She never told him that, to his face, but she thought it. That was why she looked surprised when he said something which she did not expect him to say. It was as if she dared him to remain everlastingly ignorant.
He was thinking: she would leave the apartment to go to work; and he would assume that after she left the house, she went straight to work; and when she came in, he expected that she would have come straight from work. He had found himself living in this routine of expectation with her. It was the same with meals and other things she did around the apartment.
He expected she would cook. Would wash. Would clean. He was surprised to see that she did not clean under the bed. How many other things had he taken for granted in his routine life with her? She left to go to work. She came home. He accepted that. She came and went. But suppose there was a surprise in this too! “I wonder if I should follow her once of these mornings, just to see if she really goes to work,” he said. But it was really not necessary. And then he thought some more about it, and realized that he had been living with this woman for so many years and he did not know very much about her. He did not know how much money she made. He did not know what she had for lunch. He did not know where she ate her lunch. And with whom. And for the past few months, he did not know what was the colour of her panties, he had been so far from her. And caught suddenly in this trap of speculation, he went out into the living room to see whether she had changed, to see if grey hair was already showing in her head, to see whether she was putting on weight. He had never thought of these things before. All of a sudden, he wanted to look at his wife. And he wanted to learn to know her again.
In the living room there was no one. “Man, I must be dreaming!” It was impossible for her to be here and not make her natural sound. He searched inside the cupboards, in the small kitchen, and in the bedroom, although he had just come from there. And Dots was nowhere to be seen. Had he talked so long? Had he really been talking such a long time, trying to impress her with this new language, and she was not even there to hear what it was all about? All this change in him: and she had scorned him, and despised him so much that she could leave without making her sound, without listening to him? What other things about his wife had he neglected to watch? Could the new language be clouding his perception?
The apartment became very quiet, and he grew frightened for the stillness. Her sound had left the place. It struck him that if she was dead, if she was really dead, and he had wished her dead many times before, even this afternoon, and last night too, if she were dead, he realized that it would be a shock just like this, that the place would be so quiet, too quiet for him to spawn any further use of this knowledge. Not that he could not deal with the lack of her. For he remembered wishing her dead when he was talking. But he had made her dead according to the specifications of his own ability to face that kind of death.
He could not endure the way the apartment was quiet without her. And so he put on a record to play. He did it absentmindedly. When the volume rose, he was hearing:
floes and floes of angel’s hair … and ice cream castles everywhere …
The apartment door was unlocked, and he heard her voice say, “That’s what I’ve been telling you, wasn’t I?” Her perfect English: someone must be there. “Didn’t I tell you this very minute, not one minute ago, coming up in the elevator …”
Bernice was standing beside her.
Feathered canyons everywhere … they rain and snow on everyone …
“Come down from the clouds and say How-d’ to Bernice, please, Boysie!” He was not sure whether it was Dots or Bernice who had spoken.
Bernice always brought freshness into their apartment. She was still working as a domestic, for a rich family, the Breighington-Kellys of Rosedale. And the conditions of her work were such that she did not wish to change her job, or her occupation. Whereas Dots had left the domestic service for the hospital as a means of ensuring her independence, and her social status, Bernice continued to use her status as a domestic, and the large
savings account that went along with it in the Royal Bank of Canada (“Naturally, darling!”), as the measurement of her independence. She had saved quite a lot of money. Nobody, not even her own sister, Estelle, knew how much. She was very secretive in these matters. The amount of money she had spent on Estelle during her problems with work and to assist her with her child was forgotten now. Bernice had turned over a new leaf, so to speak. Estelle was still living with her in a two-bedroom apartment, but she had permitted the bonds of blood to be uncut, so that she ceased to interfere in Estelle’s life. She seldom talked about Estelle to Dots. And Dots recognized this silence as a sign that everything was going well.
“Under control, child.”
“Well, gal, I wish I could say the same ’bout my life!” Dots sighed dejectedly. Bernice understood. Boysie was in the bedroom, or the bathroom. “You looking good, though. This is the one you tell me about?”
“Costs too much, though.”
“Nobody else is going to take care o’ you, hear. And who you going leave your money for, when you dead?”
“But a hundred dollars? For one winter coat?”
“It is yours.”
“Yuh know something? I couldn’ help thinking that if I was still working for Mistress Burrmann up in Forest Hill, I won’t have to spend a hundred dollars on one winter coat. On no winter coat, if yuh axe me! Mistress Burrmann wouldda given me one of her old ones!” And they both laughed heartily. Recalling the days when the condition of their employment carried with it such gifts and hand-me-downs always made them laugh. But they could laugh now because they had both passed through that stage.
“Sometimes, I wonder if I made the right move.”
“You not happy, Dots?”
“I don’t think in terms of happy or not happy, child. What is being happy? In my life, I find myself with the things that should make a person happy. But something like it happened to the arrangement o’ these things in my life. Especially,
I have inside there!”
“But why Wessindian men can’t do with only one woman?”
“Them? Them, child?”
“Boysie fornicating, again, eh?” Bernice smiled when she said it. It was a new word she had learned. “I catch that word offa the woman I works for. She told me yesterday that her own husband fornicating. I had to find out what the blasted word meant, even before I could laugh, or be serious.”
“Not Boysie. It is something more deeper, worse than that.”
“What could be worse than that? What?”
“Bernice, my husband doing some funny things. Funny funny things.”
“You believe in psychiatrists, Bernice? I hear a lotta people at the hospital talking ’bout them. Almost everybody who comes into the clinic goes to one. Or is advised to go to one! But being I am a Wessindian, I never really put too much truck in one o’ them.”
“My people goes to one. He has his own one. And she has hers. But they call them
How you like that word?”
“All this time you here and I haven’ ask you to sit down, and have a seat. Take a seat, girl. And look, I stanning up here
with your coat in my hand, all this time …” She put the coat down; then she said, “I am really getting doatish and forgetful. Do you know that this afternoon Boysie was talking to me, and I forget he was talking to me, although I was stanning up in front of him, probably listening too. And before that, I went into the bathroom and I was in there for almost five minutes, and still I didn’t know why the hell I was in there! It was then that I went downstairs and waited for you!”
They laughed like they used to do when they both worked as domestics. It was a long time since they had laughed together. Boysie came out of the bedroom, and they stopped laughing.
“Not bad, Bernice.”
“You very quiet these days. Don’t even call. Don’t come round, don’t do nothing. Only killing yourself with that cleaning work, eh?” She patted him on his shoulder. “Oh, Estelle say thanks for the birthday present for the little boy.”
“Well, no …” Boysie resented Bernice. She was talking now, it seemed to him, as if her job and her new circumstances were more important and impressive than his, as if she was somebody special. Dots had given him this same impression just as she started working as a nurse’s aide. She had passed all her exams. She knew that Boysie had never passed an exam in all his life, had probably never taken an exam — except his driver’s exam. His life in this country had never called upon him to sit any exam of any type. Her careless comment at that time had hurt him so much that he vowed to improve himself with education. It was then that he got to like reading the newspapers and experimenting with the new language. Now Bernice went on to talk about a party she was at last night. Boysie tried not to listen, but he was in a way jealous of her
happiness, and his resentment of her was not a very serious one. She had attracted him sexually many years ago, and he had been rejected by her. This memory came sometimes into their minds, and made them both violent to one another. He could not allow himself to be envious of her. He wanted his life to be hard, organized, clean in its aspirations: the ability to see clearly what was going on around him.