by Peter C. Conrad
Edward Walker was going to get involved—he decided. He walked out of the school and looked across the white snow covered field that was their playground in the summer. The building was white too, but its walls looked dirty. The large windows were covered with shapes of all colours cut from paper. “That’s where the rejects go,” Ed remembered one of his classmates said. Stupid, he thought as he began to walk across the playground.
The building was divided into two sections. One was the classroom. Three walls were covered with shelves. The other wall had a small blackboard on it. The second section was the recreation area. Off to one side was a small kitchen. The kitchen had one door and a small square opening where plates of food were pushed through.
* * *
“You’ve come to help,” said the heavyset lady standing in front of Ed. “Well, let me tell you what is expected. It isn’t going to be a picnic.”
“No.” replied Ed. His hands felt sticky and clammy as he watched Mrs. Thomas dry her stout fingers on a tea towel. Her grey hair was gathered into a loose bun with about a quarter of it falling to the sides.
“Well you better be prepared to work—and that isn’t just cleaning up—you’re going to have to get right into the mess. Do you understand?”
“If you come in the morning, there are the chores you’ll have to do. They show up and need breakfast. That means cooking, setting the table, helping them where they need it, and then doing the dishes. Noon is the same way—you will have to come straight here when your class ends. It’s the same thing, but you’ll have to help clean up the morning’s things; from the class you understand. You’ll be busy right through. There are also games after lunch that you’ll have to help with. After school is time to put things away and get ready for the next day. You think you’ll be able to handle that?”
“We’ll see. We’ll see if you turn up tomorrow morning at seven-thirty. You’ll have to help with everything.”
* * *
As Ed walked passed the back of the hockey rink, he saw the usual group of boys crowded around a fight. They were cheering; first one and then another would kick at whoever was in the centre. If they’re so tough thought Ed, why do they need to help each other fight?
Ed never understood the idea of fighting even when he played hockey. He always felt puzzled when he was arguing. A friend would ask, “Do you want to fight about it?” It made no sense. He just didn’t fight. He believed it made him a better hockey player when he used to play. If he wanted to avoid fights, he had to skate fast enough to get away from trouble. He practiced skating more than anyone so that he could easily out skate the other boys. He would rather have people call him yellow than have a fight behind the gym at three-thirty. Ed watched his classmates’ fight and play. He was often surprised by the how fast a game became a fight. He always preferred to watch.
Robert was different. He would beat anyone that stood around long enough. Everyone was careful when the muscular blond Robert arrived. Even though Robert was the captain on the hockey team, he would be the first to drop his stick and let it fly. Half the time he was the one behind the gym or the hockey rink at three-thirty. None of the guys wanted to scrap with Robert.
At least that is how Ed remembered he had been told it was. When he thought about it, he realized that every scrap he had heard about, Stan, Alex, or sometimes Wade, Robert’s brother, who was fighting. Robert just told them what he wanted them to do. That is how it was at least as long as Ed had been around.
Ed’s classmates didn’t know how he was at fighting because he had just moved to this town four months before. That alone was enough to make his classmates try to fight with him. They would try to corner him or taunt him. They would chase him now and then, but even though Ed was muscular and heavy set, he was faster than any of them. He would dodge them and be on his way before anyone could get him. It made them more curious about Ed, and Ed knew it. He enjoyed playing fox and hound with them. He hadn’t been caught and intended to keep it that way.
Ed walked closer and closer to the small group; curious about whom they were beating up this time. He watched the alley behind the rink, as he got closer, planning his run out of there as soon as they saw him watching. His heart pounded. They all had their hockey equipment, which Ed knew was an advantage for him.
“Hey, it’s Ed!” called Stan, one of the boys at the circle. The circle opened up and Ed could see by his bulk that it was Carleton again. He was overweight and never fought back anymore. He couldn’t run fast enough to get away.
“Hey,” said Robert. “A chocolate bar for any one who can get him.”
Ed was off, but he avoided running straight down the alley like they would expect him to. He ran down the alley the length of two back yards and jumped the fence. He felt panicked when the snow was deeper than he was expecting. He looked back quickly. The boys chasing him were just dropping their bags of equipment at that moment. Their clumsy efforts to run at first with their bags had given Ed a head start. He rushed forward through the snow lifting his feet as high as he could. If one goes around the path two houses down they may catch me he thought. Ed didn’t look a second time to find out if anyone had. He hurried to the side of the house. He heard the grunts of the boys behind him falling into the deep snow.
In a moment, he was rushing to the shovelled front walk. He looked both ways as he ran and saw no one. He turned to the right and away from the walk that one of them may have been on. He kept running as fast as he could for the main road that was connected to the crescent. Beyond the main road he would run across the open baseball field that had one path down the middle. If he kept his pace up he would have a moment on the other side to see how far behind the other boys were.
At the other side, he turned and looked. He saw no one. Either they had given up or they had lost a lot of time in the deep snow in the back yard. Ed had learned that he couldn’t take any chances; he turned and continued to run. Soon he would be home.
Ed was panting as he stepped into the side door of the small house his mother was renting. The side door entered the kitchen where his brother and sister where sitting at the table with their schoolbooks. He pulled his backpack and coat off as fast he could. He was too hot.
“Not, again,” Martin complained as he shook his head at his brother. Martin looked like Ed, but he was a little taller and lighter. “You always run, instead of sticking up for yourself: it’s embarrassing. You never did that in Witter when we lived there. Just because we are in a new town doesn’t mean that you have to turn into such a wimp.”
“Yeah, I know Martin, you’ve told me a hundred times that it would be better to stand my ground, even if that means I get the hell beaten out me. At least then they would know I wasn’t a coward.”
“It’s not as hard as you think. “It wouldn’t even hurt that much,” Martin urged.
“Martin, you don’t have to bug Ed that much,” said his sister, Kate. She was in grade eleven, two years older than Martin. “As long as he can out run them, who cares.”
“Thanks Katie,” said Ed.
“He’ll get beaten up soon enough,” she added.
Ed grinned at her. “That’s right, Martin.”
“I think I should do it myself,” said Martin as he made a fist and stood up.
“Hey, don’t start,” their mother stepped into the kitchen. “Martin, you’re the man of the house now, don’t you think that you should act a little more mature?”
“I don’t know why he acts like such a palsy,” said Martin “If he was still in hockey, he would probably be different.”
His mother looked at him with cold and tired eyes. “I don’t want to hear that from you ever again,” she said irritably. “None of those people who have cerebral palsy can help it.”
“Yeah,” mumbled Martin.
“I don’t want to hear that either,’ she said more loudly. “There are a lot of people around here that have that condition. You never know who’s family you may be insulting.”
Martin shook his head.
“It’s just name calling. You should have grown out of that years ago.”
“I won’t say it again, okay?”
His mother looked at him and shook her head. She felt bad that Ed had acted different ever since his father left. He didn’t play hockey anymore. It was the one thing he shared with his dad. He didn’t seem to be interested in anything. She blamed herself for the change in Ed, his father leaving, and the way they lived.
Ed’s mother was short, and she thought she was a little too heavy. Her hands had long, elegant fingers. They were skilled hands that served her well at her job as a seamstress in the small factory in town.
“Yeah, I guess I should have really laid into Ed a long time ago,” said Martin.
His mother looked at him with disgust. She grabbed the oven mitts and pulled out the meat loaf.
“Yuck, not that stuff again,” Kate groaned.
“When you’re making the income for the house you can choose what we eat,” said her mother quickly as she placed the pan on the top of the stove. She pulled her hand from the mitt and shook it in the air to cool it off.
“You two, clean off the table and set it.” Their mother turned and pulled the lid off the pot of boiling potatoes and stabbed one with her fork. “Hurry, these are done.”
They kids did as they were told. They ate meat loaf, potatoes and one quarter of a tomato each.
“I’m tired of this,” said Kate as she toyed with her slice of meat loaf.
“I do what I can,” said her mother quietly. She knew it was more important to keep them all off welfare than to have more money. She had been told that with three kids she could get a little more from welfare than she was making at the factory, but she wouldn’t consider it. Being separated was bad enough, accepting welfare would be worse.
Their father had left to go west when he couldn’t get a job in Witter, the last town they lived in. After trying to find a job in Alton, he realized he would have no more luck there. He packed his bag soon after they were in this town and their mother had started her job at the factory. He would go west, get a better job, and send money. If he got a good enough job, he would send for them. They hadn’t heard anything from him in three months.
“We all must learn to help ourselves,” said their mother. “We all need to learn that if we just try, we can do things we didn’t believe were possible.”
They had heard it before. They knew that they were never allowed to say they couldn’t do something, at least not until they had truly tried to do it first.
“I’m going to take that job at Jensen’s store,” said Kate.
Her mother looked at Kate surprised and embarrassed. “I don’t think we really need the money that bad,” she said.
Kate shrugged. “Well, I wasn’t thinking just about the money. I heard that all employees get a ten percent discount on the stuff they buy.”
Her mother looked at her feeling helpless. Her throat felt dry.
“That would be fine,” she said as she nodded her head. “But, I don’t want it to be an excuse Kate.”
“An excuse for what?” asked Kate.
Kate’s mother took a drink of water. “An excuse for not doing well at school. You have to do your home work, and keep your marks up.”
“Sure,” said Kate quickly.
“Kate, you’re not going to turn out like me!” said her mother with force.
Kate stared at her mother quietly.
“Money, and discounts on groceries are a good thing,” said her mother. “But, having a future; having a chance to do what you really want in life is more important.”
“I don’t really know what I want,” said Kate.
“Then it’s important to keep your options open. That is the real reason to work hard in all your subjects at school,” said her mother. When she talked about something she believed in, she would talk too much, thought Kate. “Yeah,” she said.
“I’ll be watching your school marks,” said her mother again. “I’ll go right down to the school if I hear there are report cards out and I haven’t seen yours. I’ve done it before,” she said as she looked at Martin. Martin looked down at his plate feeling his face become warm.
Kate said, “Well, I will keep doing my home work, but what difference does it make if we don’t have enough money to send me to college?”
“There is always a way, if you believe,” said her mother.
Kate nodded her head.
Ed was tired and getting into bed felt good. He lay quietly watching the shadow of the leafless apple tree that was casting its shadow on the far wall of his darkened room. He remembered how much he liked hockey, the feeling of freedom on the ice. His Dad had told him that he didn’t look like he should even be in this league; he could skate far too well. Ed remembered the speed and the control. He could get the puck and move it down the ice fast. He would always be waiting for his team mates to catch up.
Ed remembered the surprised look on his Dad’s face that day when the team had won a game and they were just leaving the rink.
“Hey, wimp, we’ll get you next time,” said a large defensive player who was getting on the bus.
“I guess he doesn’t like losing,” said Ed’s Dad.
“He’s the same as the rest,” Ed said.
“Who?” asked his father.
“The guys on the team.”
“They say that too?” asked his Dad, surprised.
“Yeah,” said Ed. “They say I should check and fight more and skate less.”
Ed’s father smiled. “They don’t like hitting the boards just about every time they think they have you checked, ah?”
“I guess,” said Ed.
“Yeah, but don’t listen to them. You’re also the one who wins their games for them.” Ed smiled at his father. “It’s like everything, you should do what you want to do. You’ll be a lot better off for it. Just keep doing your own thing.”
“Sure, Dad,” replied Ed.
Ed sat up and looked at the darken window of his room. It was a large window that was made up of eight smaller panes of glass. “That’s how they used to make windows,” he remembered his Dad saying when they moved into the old house. All the windows in the house were made up of these small panes of glass.
No one seemed to know when the house had been built, but it must have been a long time ago, thought Ed. The hardwood floors had dark gray areas along the walls. In the places where there was the most traffic, the wood was worn to a concave path. When they first moved into the house, his Dad had pointed out the screw holes that had held a hand pump by the sink.
“No way, they couldn’t have hand pumps in the kitchens of houses in towns,” said Martin.
“Let’s see,” said their father as he walked to the basement door near the back door. He turned on the lights. In a moment, the two boys and their father were looking at a concrete tank in the corner of the basement just under the kitchen.
“They had water brought in by wagon and had it stored here,” their Dad told them. “When they needed it, they just pumped it up stairs. They didn’t have running water until much later.”
“What’s this?” asked Martin as he kicked at some red bricks that formed a square in the far corner. The pattern of bricks went up the walls and they could see that it formed another square enclosure at one time. “Another tank for the bathroom?”
Their Dad laughed. “No, that is where they had their coal hopper. They probably had a coal furnace right there where this gas furnace is now.”
The two boys looked at the red brick platform the furnace was on.
“They didn’t have a toilet, at least they didn’t have one indoors,” said their father. The two boys looked at each other.
“Take a look outside in the back yard. There is a circle of apple trees and shrubs for a reason. It was to shelter the outhouse.”
“Look at all this,” said Ed. There was a small room with a door half open. “There’s doesn’t seem to be any light switch for in here.”
“That’s the storage room the landlady told us about. We have to stay away from that stuff. It is all her personal family things. There’s probably has things in there from a hundred years ago. It’s dirty and fragile.”
“That sounds interesting,” said Ed.
“We don’t need any hassles from the landlady or anyone else. I don’t ever want to find you guys looking through that stuff.”
The two nodded as they backed away from the darkened room.