Fiction

Where Are The Men?

“I imagine myself putting my hand on that policeman’s holster and pulling out his revolver.” A short story.

Read The Walrus’s blog on men and manliness: Act Like a Man, by Edward Keenan.

“But I love it here in Toronto, in this city, though I wasn’t born here. I only live here. And yes, I work here. More than twenty years now. But when all is said and done, it is more like I exist here than that I live here. I am just scotching off here, like sitting on a school bench that has no arms or back; and with people at one end, pushing me off the bench, accusing me of taking up too much space. More than I deserve, they say. I was not lucky enough to be born in Canada, and therefore to have rights to be on the bench, this bench without a back and with no arms.

“Getting back to last night,” she says, now talking to herself as if there is someone else in the basement apartment with her, when the searchlight was shining on her, piercing the thin sheers at her front windows, catching her flat on her back in her bed, suffering from insomnia, she had barely escaped the powerful beam that was searching for her hiding place in the dark bedroom. With no lights on and the television turned off, she is lucky that in her semi-nakedness her black skin contributes to the concealment of her body, breasts and hips, nipples and thighs, and her round belly, from full exposure to the penetrating beam of the prying searchlight. “Who would invade my privacy so?” she wants to know, asking invisible witnesses that only she can see. But it does not end here. Just as she crawls to the window, flat on the gritty linoleum on the floor, moving like a soldier on her belly, she hears the rattle of glass, broken glass, and the clatter of cans and bottles — from which she had eaten Jamaican ackee, green peas, and grapefruit marmalade, and had drunk ginger beer, and Diet Coke with Jamaica white rum — rolling over the cement of the sidewalk in front of her wrought iron gate.

And there he is, this man she can barely make out in the early-morning darkness, going through her three garbage bags, whose face she can see in the early-morning light, as she could see the colour of the grass in the park, across from her apartment on Shuter Street. There he is. Going through her garbage, just like women pass their hands through bins of second-hand clothes, touching them for quality, and bargain price, dresses and sweaters and jeans — never a pair of good panties! — then discarding them back into the bins of the nearby Goodwill store.

But she doesn’t put it past the police to be shining lights in her basement apartment: they are always in her community, like flies; in their cruisers, on their bicycles, dressed in short pants like schoolboys back home in Barbados. The prying searchlight could have been in the hand of a policeman investigating a stolen suv; circling the park in silence, and sometimes on horseback — questioning young black men, who are afraid of horses, as they fear dogs, who sit in the park on cold benches made of concrete and iron, and are scattered by the police circling like crows, and like the small black birds that inhabit the stout maple trees, that run from the approach of squirrels. She had counted thirty-one of them the day before, on a cold November afternoon, wondering why she was intrigued by silly little black birds.

When the searchlight was moving like a man’s hand, groping in the darkness, brushing back, in one direction like a slight wind, the thick hairs of her warm thighs, she was wearing nothing but a loose-fitting pink imitation-silk nightgown.

Her father was a policeman. He was a constable in the Royal Barbados Police Force for years and years; and it was a testament to his honesty that he never arrested one single suspect. And for his dedication and being a policeman who was a gentleman, he never rose above the rank of constable. He joined the force as a special constable, and retired as constable. That was the mark of the man. First class. Black. And a gentleman.

And he would tell her, “The law is here to protect you.”

She still has a snapshot of him. In her Bible.

There he is, uniformed; his skin shiny as the gloss on mahogany furniture; smiling in his dress uniform, white cork hat with a silver strap under his chin; teeth clenched tight, in angry British colonial spit-and-polish sternness, as her mother always said he was — standing stiff, with more silver in the five buttons on his chest, in his tunic; and a stripe down his black serge trousers, red as a river of blood.

The head of police, Commissioner Somebody, a white man who was brought in from England — in those colonial days — but that was years and years ago, so she cannot remember the name of the commissioner, who was quite satisfied that his favourite constable, her father, was being honoured at a ceremony and a parade, and awarded the Police Service Medal for Proficiency, and for Long Service, longer than was to be expected, beyond the call of duty, unblemished and unspoiled: “not a suspect,” the citation read, “not a criminal, not a man arrested and charged with the larceny of a fowl, for manslaughter in the first degree; nor for carnal knowledge, with a boy or a girl”; rape nonexistent in the little island of Barbados; no note noted in his little black book, pure of sin and crime, as the pages of her Bible. Her father made a note in his little black evidence book, “not a man arrested for stealing a chicken, a pullet, a duck, nothing, nothing.”

“This is your history Eye-Dora, girl,” Eye-Dora told herself, recalling her past with the law. “And what I am telling you now, about a police shining his powerful searchlight on me, a woman living in this damn cold place, alone in a basement apartment; alone; at night in this rough neighbourhood, so close to Regent Park! His searchlight painting my body with its light, moving inch by inch over my body; and ‘that man,’ my absent husband — since in the sight o’ God, we are still married — but who is no man, at-all, at-all; gone ‘long a long time now, down in Brooklyn America looking for permanent employment, a thing he never worried himself over, in this country, all the years he lived here!

“And that next one, Barrington James, my son! B.J., loose every night, in the park, changed his name to Rashan Rashanan, and now wearing a star and crescent round his blasted neck on a fake gold chain. For that boy’s thirteenth birthday, I went to the trouble searching through McTamney’s pawnshop to buy that wretch a second-hand necklace that looked like if it was new! With a large, beautiful cross, in pure sterling silver. Yes!

“It was soon after the police had shoot the Jamaican fellow who grew red roses as a hobby. And what lovely roses, the Star say! The shooting took place years ago. Even before I arrived in Canada. And still, I can’t get this tragedy out of my mind. The Star carried pictures of it. It happened on a Sunday. Blam! One bullet. And kill-him-dead! In his rose garden.

“Yes, it could be that haunting me. And there was that other fellow, too. Another Jamaican. The police shoot him one afternoon walking down the middle of Bathurst Street, near St. Clair West; dressed in a blanket; not another thread on his black body. The Star didn’t mention if he was wearing underwears! But he had sandals on his feet. ‘I am Jesus! I am Jesus! I am Jesus,’ he was screeling, in a voice reaching up to the penthouse floors of the apartment buildings surrounding him, high up in the sky, transforming his journey, making it look as if he was walking in a valley — in a valley of the shadow of death, like in the Bible; and screaming at the top of his voice, at the people passing, ‘I am your Saviour! I am your Saviour! I am your Saviour! I am the Messiah! The Second Resurrection. The Second Coming.’ And all of the St. Clair and Bathurst corner hear his blasphemy, all the people in Cadillacs and Jaguars, late for work, were speeding through the intersection. St. Clair–Bathurst, an ordinary corner, was now transformed into the Red Sea. ‘I parted the waters,’ he shouted. ‘I walk,’ he told them, ‘after I changed the road into water.’

“Then the cops shoot him, dead. Dead, dead, dead. Point blank. For causing a disturbance. For walking in the middle of the road. For the crime of calling himself a Prince of Africa. A bullet in his head, between his two eyes. ‘I am Jesus, come to deliver the people of St. Clair–Bathurst from the Egyptians,’ he had just said, the words not dropping from his lips more than a second before the bullet smashed his head.

“And I had just left my apartment and was heading toward the Eaton Centre on Yonge Street; and I was in a bad mood, from the minute I had stepped on the last step from my basement apartment, to bring me level with the sidewalk. Ten o’clock hadn’t gone yet, then. In bright daylight now, as my two eyes rested on the mess scattered on the sidewalk, in front my gate. The mess that bastard had made of my garbage! Every piece ripped outta the three garbage bags. Empty Mount Gay rum bottles. Empty Jamaica white rum bottles, as I told you already. The crusts from the pizza that I had ordered in, the night before, and had put in a garbage bag, with the mouth tied. The cans that had Jamaica ackee, and green peas, and pizza crusts. Plastic Diet Coca-Cola bottles, from my rum and Cokes. I told you ‘bout this, before, didn’t I? Winter, yuh know! Even my sanitary pads, my God!

“That bastard ripped open the green garbage bags, for the whole world to see my private business!

“I could only stand up. And look down. There on the sidewalk. Whilst men and women passing, going to work, and looking down at my personal business. And the few young whores, the ‘sexual workers,’ as they call themselves, already out, at such an early hour in the morning. And no older than sixteen or seventeen! Walking their prostitute walk; flinging their arms and touching their backsides. They had the nerve to step over my private possessions, with scorn on their faces!

“And in the morning! In bright daylight. This was a few weeks back! Was when I see this man. This sammy-coot! Back in Barbados, we call them sammy-coots! Five o’clock! In the morning! I had happened to be suffering from insomnias! Sleep won’t come, no-how! The piece o’ canvas in the window that I would raise, to look out, and see if snow fall during the night, or if there is ice on the sidewalk. Five o’clock hadn’t gone, then! And there is this blasted man. Bending over my garbage. Pulling things outta my three green garbage bags I bought from the Dollarama store, round the corner! That bastard! He is one of the homeless ones from the halfway shelters, round the corner. On Jarvis. And Queen. Going east from the pawnshops and Henry’s camera store. Up George Street, north of Dundas. And the one on Sherbourne, the Maxwell Meighen Centre.

“But, all joking aside. With his two hands inside my garbage. Like a man pulling dirty clothes out of a laundry bag.

“And I shout at the bastard! ‘Hey, you!’ At the top of my voice.

“He looked round. And he see me. And he continue putting his two hands inside my garbage.

“‘Hey, you! Take your blasted hands outta my garbage!’

“And then, when I looked good. My God! He is a black man! He is a black man! It is a black man! The man pulling garbage outta my garbage bags, is one o’ we! My God-in-heaven! The garbage thief is a black man! It make my heart bleed.

“‘You come to that?’ I shout at him. ‘You don’t know you are a black man? You come to this? You loss your dignity? Where your decency?’

“Here is this black man, going through garbage, like women go through the bins at Goodwill store. And this hurt my heart to see it. This black man, with a large bag that have guess written on it, in tall, large white letters; his bicycle leaning up ‘gainst my wrought iron fence, and the back wheel still going round; and a cigarette dangling from his blasted mouth; and his two hands inside my garbage! I felt as if he was assaulting me, committing rape.

“‘What the hell are you doing?’ I screeled at him, the third time.

“And you know what that bastard had the nerve to say to me?”That bastard said to me, ‘It is garbage.’ He tell me, ‘It is garbage, isn’t it?‘“He look me in my two eyes, and say, ‘It is garbage.‘“My garbage is garbage?

“Well, all I could do was to laugh. ‘It is garbage . . . ‘”

So now, this morning, with all this on her mind, when Eye-Dora reaches Yonge Street and turns right, after passing some houses along Shuter Street that are boarded up, for the past five years, that have real estate signs that they are being turned into Victorian and Georgian townhouses, for two hundred and fifty-something thousand dollars each, but it is five long years now that the real estate signs appeared, and the houses are still boarded up. Cement blocks the spaces for windows and for doors. As she passes this morning, a car seat is beside one of the abandoned houses. It could be from a truck.

“So, I am walking to the Eaton Centre; and to tell the truth, I can’t call to mind why I am going up to Yonge Street, this morning. But here I am, with all these things on my mind, going toward Dundas Square. I don’t like the Dundas Square. Or the mall, or the park, or the plaza, or whatever they call this open space that highly trained architects who should know better designed and built for us, with the water spouts spraying people with cold water! I don’t like that square. Have you ever walked there in the winter, with the wind tearing off your clothes with its cold hands, just like how a man you don’t particularly care for puts his hands on your clean body, and start hugging you up, which is more like assaulting you than assuaging you? Heh-heh-heh! I like that word! I got that one from my Canadian girlfriend, Josephine. Assuaging!

“It is a waste of time, with a man like that!

“So, I am heading toward Dundas Square, or Dundas Park, or whatever the hell the open space built to amuse teenagers is officially called.

“A truck with advertising boards on it is parked. Near the corner. On the side of the square. And as you would come across, in such cases, a policeman is standing guard, in case a piece o’ glass fall off, by accident, and kill a pedestrian. A police is guarding over the installation of this big advertisement that men are hauling up, with a pulley. And as I approach, the police fellow is wearing a black windbreaker that doesn’t fit him properly, because I can see the handle and part of the barrel of his revolver showing through. His revolver is sticking out. And the snap, or the thing that snaps, that keeps the revolver from going off, by accident, and shooting innocent persons. Well!

“The feeling comes into my head, sudden. Shoot him! This feeling comes from nowhere. Into my mind. Into my body with so much force, that my body start to react, something like a spasm shake my whole body. And I felt a rush, a hot, wet rush and the joy of the act I had in mind to commit; and my hand start to tremble, my two hands are shaking now; and I imagine myself putting my hand on that policeman’s holster and pulling out his revolver. My God! And me, a woman! I see myself holding the revolver in my hand. My mind is now filled with the image of that black man who was rifling through my three green garbage bags. My mind is remembering the face of poor Mr. Albert Johnson, killed at the hand of one of these same police; and how the cop blew Mr. Johnson to smithereens, with one bullet. My God! Yes!

“And I remember, for it comes to me in that rush of emotion, how foolish I felt when that black man was digging through my green garbage bags, as if living in Toronto had stripped off every ounce of dignity from his body; and when I see how he turned round, slow-slow, and look up into my face, with his two eyes and my two eyes making four, confronting me, as I ask him, ‘What are you doing going through my garbage, man?’

“And how he went back digging, capsizing the old newspapers, the orange peels, and the cans of Jamaica ackee that I nearly cut off my blasted index finger struggling to ope-it-in. I mean, to open it.

“You already hear what that bastard had the nerve to tell me, when I challenged him!

“‘It is garbage!’ I told you, he told me.

“‘It is garbage? You son of a bitch! My garbage is garbage, to you?’

“‘Yes!’ With his confrontation of me still in my craw, all I could do was smile. But I am still disturbed; and my mind is going off, and so, from the moment I rested my two eyes on him, digging through the insides of my green garbage bags, I turn blue! In a state of anger. And sorrow. I am remembering Mr. Johnson’s demise. Even the Globe and Mail, a hoity-toity newspaper like that, mentioned Mr. Johnson. My God!

“And I, a woman, living alone, without a man or a husband! And my son who I evict, now wandering the streets, hiding out in the park, when night fall, sleeping in the bushes in the community kitchen garden; or in back alleys, in halfway houses and shelters, sleeping under park benches, dressed in black clothes and a long black robe, like a Muslim!

“I saw my hand take out the revolver from the policeman’s holster. And point the revolver right at his head. And put my right-hand index finger round the trigger. And pull. Blam! Blam! Blam! Yes!

“Three times. To make sure that if the first bullet didn’t kill him, the second one would. And the third would surely kill him off! Dead! Yes!

“One for Mr. Albert Johnson. One for that other Jamaican, the Prince of Africa. And one for the future. For my son, just in case. Yes, one for B.J., now calling himself by a Muslim name, Brother Rashan Rashanan. Yes!

“I am like a Mafia woman, now! Peter paying for Paul. Me, thinking so; and acting so; and wondering, where are the men? Where are the men? Where the blasted men gone? Where are the men? My God!

“Me, a woman crying in the wilderness! Rachel, weeping for her children, and shall not be comforted, because her children are naught. Are not. Her children are naught. I reaping havoc and revenge for all the things, the years of the civil rights, the beatings and the killings and the singling out in profiles, the lynchings — you ever listened to Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruits’ ? Well, you understand, then! — and the picking out in identification parades in police stations, that this police’s police brothers have been perpetrating. The Jamaican planting his prize roses. The other fellow wearing a blanket as a protective cover from the coldness in this country, and his African nakedness, walking in the middle of Bathurst Street, down the hill from St. Clair West, where Howard Matthews and Salome Bey used to live, like a Zulu crossing the Sahara Desert, as if he is a true-true Jesus, as he call himself, the new Christ parting the waters of the Red Sea. A simple, harmless man, armed with a piece o’ stick, walking along the Bathurst–St. Clair area, with that piece o’ stick that he sharpened into a spear, pretending it is a sceptre, holding it in his right hand, saluting Haile Selassie, thinking he is still back in Africa, and not in the Jewish district of Forest Hill, that he is a Prince of Africa. And blam! The police exterminate him! With one bullet. To the head. Blam!

“And then, scrape him off the street, like you scrape shit from off the soles of your two shoes . . .

“So, my hand touch the revolver. It cold. And heavy. My hand is quivering so. Look! I take the revolver out with my right hand, and transfer it to my left hand. But it is so heavy that I had to hold it in both my two hands, to get a good grip on it. And to get a grip on myself. And for that moment, when my two hands touch that cold revolver, all sense, all common sense, all reason went clean out my head. My God!

“I am a woman mad now. Like an inmate from the madhouse that used to be on Queen Street West. Nine-ninety-nine. And in that moment of my loss of reason and common sense, I feel this surge o’ power, mixed with this hot, wet rush of joy. I am holding this power in my hands. The power to kill. Yes! My God!

“But then what people call reality surge back through my body, as strong as the madness of power; and the substitution of reason; and I see, in less time than it take to pull the revolver from the police holster, two carloads of more police appear. The tactical squad. Bulletproof jackets. And machine guns! Not simple revolvers now, boy!

“Sirens wailing. Ambulance and fire engines and the police cruisers surrounding me. They have me flat on the cold sidewalk of the Dundas Square. My bubbies, my breasts, cold against the pavement. A boot in the crux of my neck. Another boot in the pit of my back. Somebody’s hand has my two arms twisted back behind my back.

“The pain travelling from my back up to my neck. My blood turning into fire. Liquid. Hot molten solder. My God!

“Then, two new hands. Two more hands up my two legs, inside my thighs, searching and shouting at me, and demanding me to answer the owner of the two hands: ‘You got more guns, hidden?’ Do I have more guns, hidden — under my clothes, up my crutch? Yes!

“And, girl, as I am telling this to you, I close my two eyes, and I press down on my lips, the second I feel that policeman’s hand touch my pussy. The sudden feel of his hand, cold as a piece o’ ice, much colder than the barrel of the revolver that I had held in my hand, in my mind; and the instantaneous, sudden surge of the wet rush I was telling you about, something like pleasure, like loss of self-respect, all these sensations run through my body, mixed in their confusions, as I am there on the cold pavement, with that policeman’s hand up my crutch, moving his fingers, with plastic gloves on, searching round in my pubic hairs, searching; searching for his fingers to enter, to find a gun up in there, my God! Yes! And if, in case, I happen to have more guns up in there!”

That incident with the revolver and the police, that in her imagination, that cold November morning, at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, beside Dundas Square, and its aftermath — the consequence of her imaginary act, her dream, and how the police reacted, and would have reacted — she was fortunate that they did not put a bullet in her head, even in her imagination.

She had thought, and had imagined the worst that could have happened to her. Worse than what probably could have happened, in real life, had she, in truth and in fact, snatched the revolver from the police holster. And had not only imagined doing it. But had pulled the trigger. Blam!

“That morning, in Dundas Square,” Eye-Dora said, imagining she was talking to her friend Josephine, “it was an automatic reaction to me seeing his revolver exposed. But, yes! And to answer your question. Yes. Sometimes. Almost every day, as a matter of fact, when I walk along Yonge, north of Dundas.

“Yonge, Queen, Bloor, especially crowded streets. And certain people walking three abreast, refuse to give me room, and space on the bench that has no arms and no back, I just bounce them out of my way. Not sometimes, only. All the time. Such is the hatred I live with. The anger. The unsatisfied rage. It consumes me. Inhabits my mind. Takes over my manners and my decency that my mother, and my policeman father, back in Barbados, spent so much time teaching me, right from wrong; goodness from badness; and to see how the climate in Canada, in this city of Toronto, has tarnished my behaviour. A rage comes into my chest. And I want to kill everybody. Kill every person who doesn’t give me more room to pass. More space. ‘Move to one side, please,’ I am always pleading. ‘Give me room on the bench.’ Or ‘Let me pass . . . please . . .’

“In the scene — I call it that, the scene — in the scene, when in my fantasy I am pulling the trigger, and when I came back to my senses and to reality, I hear the same police greeting me.

“‘Morning, ma’am,’ he say.

“I ignore him. How could I change my attitude to him, so sudden, after what I had done to him — even in fantasy?

“‘Morning, ma’am,’ he say again.

“I don’t pick my teeth to him.

“‘Watch the metal strips on the street, now, ma’am.’

“I look at him. But I don’t speak to him.

“‘You better walk on this side,’ he say. ‘It’s safer. We don’t want you tripping . . . hurting yourself, now do we?’

“‘No, my son,’ I say, eventually.

“‘It’s better on this side.’

“He look so young! Hasn’t lost his mother’s features yet!

“‘Have a good day, ma’am!’ he say.

“‘You’re welcome.’ ”