Rebel in the Back Seat
… and other short stories
by Paul Lima
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Sometimes tragic. Often hilarious. Frequently poignant. And always uplifting. Rebel In The Back Seat will make you smile, make you laugh, make you feel and just might cause you to reflect on growing up -- the good, the not always good, the painful ... And yes, even the funny moments too. Rebel is a collection of coming of age, no matter the age, short stories.
While the characters in Rebel are fictional, they feel like real men, facing real problems, and using their knowledge and intuition to find real solutions -- at least to find the best solutions they can find. Does that mean Rebel is not for women? While the main characters are primarily male, women looking for greater insight into the problems and doubts that plague men, and how they attempt to deal with them, will appreciate the insight they glean into minds of men. Read excerpts below.
"Rebel in the Back Seat is about fathers, sons, brothers and hockey ... Lima draws a powerful yet gentle picture of coming of age, family and memory. Beautifully written stories with subtlety, humor and lasting power ... One of the joys of reading this book is the pleasure of discovering a new and clear voice in fiction. Highly recommended." - Tony Levelle
Hockey Night on Ossington Avenue
Johnny Bower was my hero. He led the Leafs to victory.
In 1967, the year he turned forty-three, the craggy-faced goaltender backstopped the Toronto Maple Leafs to their third straight Stanley Cup triumph. Watching him on the CBC, I cheered as he hoisted the silver trophy above his head and I laughed when the cameras caught him in the dressing room after the game, wearing nothing but a toothless grin and champagne-soaked underwear.
Throughout the 1960s, I dreamt of being Bower, of stopping pucks for the Leafs, of being named first star on Hockey Night in Canada, of skating around Maple Leaf Gardens with Lord Stanley’s mug held high.
In 1967, the year I turned eight, I got to wear skates for the very first time ... [read full story online]
The Conquest of Kong
It was on the congested fair grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition that Father conquered the world-famous ape. The huge, stuffed, glassy-eyed creature, wearing a New York Yankee baseball cap, glared down at the midway masses from his perch in the Strike Out tent. I sometimes wonder how we must have appeared from King Kong’s vantage point—my brawny father with premature flecks of grey dotting slicked-back waves and his scrawny kid with the bristled brush cut. Above the crowd the titanic brute, the most coveted prize at the CNE, seemed unconquerable.
* * *I had never been to the Ex with my father. Although stuffed snakes, poodles, giraffes and bears populated our cramped flat, I had only heard about his midway triumphs from Ted McMaster, who owns the auto repair garage where Father works. Ted told me that my father had once been addicted to midway games.
“You should’ve seen him, Joshua. Your pa would hear the carny’s pitch and, next thing you know, he’d be firing balls an’ winning stuffed junk for your ma,” Ted said. “The winning wouldn’t stop ’til the carny flashed the sign what reads, ‘We reserve the right to limit players.’”
Ted described Father’s famous midway pitches. The lethargic knuckleball that sank into the bushel basket with barely a bounce. The three-fingered lob that delicately threaded the narrow milk can mouth. The overpowering fast ball that knocked the stuffed Krazy Kat clean off its shelf.
“And he was a magician on the mound at Christie Pits, too,” Ted added.
Besides winning carnival games, my father had pitched hardball for a semi-pro baseball team sponsored by Ted’s Texaco. Ted claimed the New York Yankees scouted Father in ’56 and offered him a contract.
But Father never signed the Yankee contract.
The Winter of Whisky
Shivering, I stood on the shore of Grenadier Pond watching my sons, eight-year-old twins Toby and Jeremy, skate with their grandfather. My dad, his cheeks red from the wind, seemed as healthy and as vibrant as his grandchildren. Playing a tame version of crack-the-whip, he held each of my sons securely by a mittened hand and spun them around. ….
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“It was a blustery, blizzardous January evening,” Dad continued. “The coldest, windiest night of that god-awful winter. It was the night that Whisky got me angrier than I’d ever been in my life …” Dad paused. We both knew what was coming next. Something we had never really talked about.
“I was in my den checking on bank figures when I heard the crash of shattering glass and a hellish howling. It sounded as if the devil himself had been caught by the tail in our house. I ran into the hallway and saw Whisky racing up the stairs. I ran after him, into the bedroom. Your grandma was sitting on the edge of her bed, fending off a yelping Whisky. ‘Henry,’ she said. ‘What’s wrong? What’s got into him?’ ‘He’s mad,’ I replied. ‘Mad mutt! Out, you beast. Out.’ Whisky faced me. He was bleeding from a cut over one eye. There were several gashes in his nose. I kicked at him but he bolted between my legs. ‘Don’t hurt him, Henry,’ Grandma cried. ‘He’ll feel no pain when I’m through with him,’ I shouted.”
Stretched out on the couch, sinking into its soft cushions, I felt chills running over my body. Dad was oblivious to the kids’ stares. He was back there, chasing my bleeding pup. He had one thought and one thought only on his mind: kill.
“I grabbed my hunting rifle from over the living room fireplace mantel and trailed Whisky into the kitchen.” Dad’s voice was a harsh whisper. “One look up the barrel of my rifle and Whisky flew back out the kitchen window, the one he had crashed through when he broke into the house. I dashed out the back door and into the yard, rifle in hand, cursing the day that dog was born. Whisky stood in deep snow, howling. His eye had puffed up and blood flowed from his cuts. He looked like a badly beaten boxer.”
I wanted my dad to stop telling the story, but I knew it had to be told, and I had to hear it.
“I raised my rifle and shouted, ‘One more sound ...’ My trigger finger tensed. Whisky went dead silent. Behind me, wrapped tightly in her nightgown, Grandma rasped. ‘Henry. Where’s Larry?’ Whisky barked once in response. ‘Get back to bed,’ I said to Grandma. ‘Let’s go, boy,’ I shouted. And the dog was off like a shot, barking as we ran. I followed him to High Park. We slid down a small hill and crossed a slippery wooden bridge. I stopped at the edge of Grenadier Pond. Yelping and barking, Whisky raced into the darkness.”
My father paused. I could feel him wondering if he should continue, but we both knew there was no turning back.
A Whiter Shade of Pale
Except for the shape of our noses, my brother Freddy and I are identical twins. Freddy’s nose is straight and pointed; mine is crooked and droops at the end. It’s as if nature decided that our noses should reflect our personalities. Freddy is spirited and emphatic; I’m listless and indecisive—at least I used to be. Freddy is also three minutes older than me. As my older brother, he resolved any argument we had while growing up on Ossington Avenue by clamping me in a head-lock and grinding his knuckles into my skull until I cried, “Uncle!”
Freddy’s going to law school next year. He has definite aspirations: graduate from law school; article with a firm located in one of those glass and steel Bay Street towers; marry his fiancée, Carole; set up his own law practice—F. Mello and Associates; move into a monster home in Mississauga; raise three children; and retire to a Caribbean island at fifty.
I dropped out of university a couple of years ago and now live alone in a room in on Queen Street just east of Ossington Avenue. The room is above the Mad Duck Bar and Grill, where I tend bar. Until recently, I claimed that I wrote short stories during my off hours. You know, the whole struggling writer thing. But mostly I read magazines and watched TV when I wasn’t working. I guess I lacked aspiration, and inspiration. I am writing now, and hope to keep on writing. In large part, it’s because of my renewed ties with my childhood friend—perhaps you could call her my childhood sweetheart—Natalie Eaton.
Blame it on the comedy. Blame it on the humidity. Blame it on the martinis. Blame it on the fact that there is nothing more one can do beyond what one has done. Or perhaps no blame is required at all as I, a freelance photographer in Montreal covering the juste pour rire comedy festival, sipped my third cup of steaming hot room-service coffee …
I had been out photographing buskers on rue Saint-Denis, where much of the festival has taken place for the last decade. I ended the evening—the last night of the festival—in one of the trendy-in-a-low-key-kind-of-way bistros that line the street.
Long after last call, I crashed in my room on the twenty-third floor of the Delta, official hotel of the festival. I woke way too early in a desperate need to pee and drink. Sucking my desert tongue, I craved urination and rehydration. Water.
I headed for the washroom but heard the early-morning mouse—the room-service trolley—squeak in the hall. Feh, water. Java is out there, non?
I opened my door on the fluorescent intrusion of hallway light and glanced left and right but could not see a room-service waiter. I stepped out of my doorway so I could scout further down the hall. Click. My door shut, and locked, behind me. And there I stood. In the hallway. Dressed only in goose-bumps.
Merde. But, what more can one do?
To start with, I must confess that I’ve loved him since 1968. And I always loved him—even as he grew bald and wrinkled and began to resemble Yoda. I’m not talking about platonic love, although I’m certainly not talking about love-making. I’m not talking about unrequited love either. Although I didn’t know, until the visit, that my love had been returned.
In fact, I’d met him only once before the visit, just long enough to shake his hand.
Some of my friends claim that I’m star-struck. Others, observing old campaign posters that decorate my small apartment, have suggested that I suffer from hero worship. Whatever the case, I don’t feel compelled to defend or define my love. So instead of trying to put the possible reasons for what I did into some kind of perspective, let me just plain tell you what happened.
But before I move forward, allow me to take you back to the Liberal Leadership Convention of 1968. No, I was not at that convention. I did, however, watch it on TV. Like thousands of young Canadians weaned on Beatlemania, I was ready for a home-grown hero. And like thousands of young Canadians I got caught up in Trudeaumania. Let’s face it … Pierre was hip, cool and groovy. I was so enamoured of him that I campaigned for the Liberals in the ’68 election, even though, at sixteen, I was too young to vote.
He had the look. Handsome Gallic features. Hair that curled at his collar even if it was, even then, a bit thin on top. Eyes that sparkled with confidence. A smile that radiated assurance. A shrug that projected cool disdain for the establishment that had just elected him to lead. Even without speaking, he seemed to say: “My pin-striped suit is just a guise. The rose in my lapel, c’est moi.”
He was our philosopher-king. He was the man who said, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”—perhaps, in retrospect, because he did not want anyone poking a nose into his bedroom. He had answers to all our questions, even to those we had not asked. There were even rumours that he was contemplating legalizing marijuana.
And so I loved him. We loved him.
Yes, I confess, there is a certain nostalgic gloss to this. Only a fool would deny it. After all, I lost my voting virginity to Trudeau. And when he shook my hand on Bloor Street in Toronto during the ’72 campaign, I swear he gave it an extra-firm squeeze. Unlike his other fickle lovers, I stayed with him—voted for him in every election—through majorities, minorities and even in defeat.
The Last Bang
A creative writing assignment? To be written over the Victoria Day long weekend? Where do they get off doing things like that to us?
They is Mr. Henderson, my grade eleven English teacher. Us is my entire English class.
Mr. H. has managed to ruin our holiday weekend by giving us what he calls “a creative writing assignment.”
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy creative writing. But where’s the creativity in “I want a one-thousand-word story, written in first person, due Tuesday morning nine o’clock sharp, three-hole punched in a duo-tang folder. Don’t forget your title page. No excuses for tardiness because you’ve got an entire long weekend to work on it. Right class?” Or was it, “Write, class.”
If anybody can use a shot of creativity, it’s Mr. H.
Like I said, I enjoy writing, but I write stories about rock stars getting laid, hockey superstars getting groupied and dragon-slaying knights getting princesses (but not getting married, if you catch my drift).
I never write in what Mr. H. calls “first person” because my stories are never about me, which is exactly why Mr. H. gave us our holiday weekend marathon writing assignment: “To teach you that the ‘I’ in a first-person narrative is not you.”
You see, we’re studying Catcher in the Rye and we’re convinced—at least I am—that Holden Caulfield is J. D. Salinger in disguise, even though Mr. H. says Caulfield is fiction.
When I ask Mr. H., “If Salinger isn’t Caulfield then why does he use ‘I’ to tell his story?” Mr. H. drones on about narrator and persona, first person, third-person limited, third-person omniscient. And when he finishes, I say, “Sure, but if Salinger isn’t Caulfield then why does he use ‘I’ to tell his story?”
That’s when Mr. H. says, “Simon, I sense some confusion here and suspect others may feel it as well. But they’re just not as vocal about it as you.” Then he gives us the writing assignment.
“Way to go, asshole,” Reggie Hobart says at the end of class.
“Like we didn’t have anything better to do this weekend,” Todd Johnson adds.
But what’s worse than being ostracized by my friends is this queasy déjà vu feeling I have: once again, I’m doomed to repeat English.
Rather than work on my story Friday evening, I hang out at the pool hall with Reggie and Todd, who have either forgiven me or forgotten that they have an extra English assignment to do. I get home at midnight, in time to watch the Baby Blue movie on CITY-TV. When I wake up around noon, I actually skip watching wrestling on CHCH-TV and take a glass of orange juice, a muffin, a pen and writing paper outside and sit on my back porch.
After drinking my juice and eating my muffin, I stare at my blank pad for a while. Inspired, I place my hand on a blank sheet of paper and trace my fingers several times—“tracing roosters,” as my mom used to call it when she did this with me when I was a kid. All you had to do was add the comb and beak to the thumb, and you had a pretty good rooster. After tracing my hand several more times, and eating some muffin crumbs that had fallen onto the porch, I declare forced creativity a useless waste of time and flip my pen in the air in surrender.
The pen hits the porch, bounces and falls down a crack in the wood slats. Looking through the crack, I can just make out the pen on the dirt floor below the porch. I contemplate leaving it there forever, perhaps for some archaeologists to find a million years from now, but thoughts of repeating grade eleven English again inspire me to go fish it out.
I’m on my belly, in the porch crawl space, when I find it: a faded red, mouse-chewed cannon firecracker, with a slightly damp wick still intact. As dog-eared as the firecracker is, I figure there’s no reason why it wouldn’t explode with a boom loud enough to wake the neighbourhood. So, in memory of Victoria Days before firecrackers were banned in Toronto, I decide to light the cannon.
I grab my pen, which is a couple of feet from the firecracker, and back out from under the porch. I shake dirt off myself and place the cracker under a Campbell’s chicken soup can that was littering our pathetic patch of a backyard garden.
Firecracker in place, I pull a pack of matches from my back pocket and ignite the fuse. It hisses, sputters, goes silent, hisses … and then ... nothing. Not a bang, not a boom, not a pow.
But something inside me explodes. And I know exactly what I’m going to write for Mr. H.
Stare at her, I tell Savario. Watch her slide a thin finger nonchalantly across the bridge of her pale, freckled, perfectly straight nose.
Return his look, I tell Star. You like men who have that cocky swagger.
They listen to me attentively, and then make eye contact.
So in control am I, I tell myself. Author am I.
Bless you, my characters, I say. You know the genre. Romance. Go forth and earn cash for me.
Then I rest. Confident I can leave them on their own. And everything goes awry …
Savario orders another beer and moves down the bar beside her. “One for you,” he says.
“Whatever you’re drinking for whatever you’re thinking.”
“I’m drinking vodka and tonic with lime,” Star says. “And wondering where my friend went. We were celebrating something and she disappeared. I wonder if she went to the washroom? Or home? Home with a stranger, maybe? Do people still do that?”
“Do you ever do that?”
“We were celebrating,” she says. “My twenty-first birthday.”
“Many happy returns,” he says.
And so they talk. Getting-to-know-you stuff. She’s getting drunk. He brushes a hand against her hip, then an elbow against her breast—to see if she’ll pull away. She doesn’t. His swagger increases.
Well after last call they leave the bar. As the sun rises, Savario crows—in the cramped back seat of a red Mustang. She makes a lot of noise too.
The noise wakes me up.
Oh, my characters. My characters! Why have you forsaken me? This is not the stuff of romance. You need to seduce. Slowly. You need to encounter impediments. You need to overcome them and encounter others that tear you apart. And then work through them. You need time before you … needed time.
But it is too late. They deny knowing me.
The Cattle Were Lowing
Joseph and Mary Bethel were depressed. Except for a few temporary jobs, Joseph had been out of work for over eight months. Mary was pregnant and due within weeks and Joseph’s unemployment insurance benefits, barely enough for the two of them to survive on, were about to run out. Visions of welfare line-ups loomed in their future.
The Bethels’ house had depreciated to where it was worth less than what they owed on the mortgage. To stymie some of their creditors, Joseph traded in his ’88 Jeep for a ’78 Chevy that was ready for the scrap heap.
Joseph had proclaimed Alberta the Promised Land when he secured a job as a draftsman with Dome Petroleum. But that was before world oil prices plunged and the recession hit like a punch in the solar plexus. Now he was just another eastern bastard swelling the unemployment lines at the local Canada Employment Centre.
In addition, Christmas was coming.
It would be the fourth Christmas the couple had spent in Calgary, if they stayed. Mary, usually an ebullient person, was finding it harder to smile. In subtle ways she let her husband know that she would rather return to Newfoundland than spend an impoverished Christmas in Calgary. But Joseph did not want to admit defeat. Then the bank called in their mortgage.
“Bloody hell,” Joseph said as he read the letter from the bank. “Let’s go home, Mary.”
“I’ve already started to pack,” she said, getting as close to him as her big belly would allow.
The next day, Joseph and Mary loaded their packed suitcases into the trunk of the Chevy, withdrew the last of their meagre savings from the bank and drove away from everything they owned that had not yet been repossessed. They headed east, stopping to rest infrequently.
After having their muffler replaced in Regina and their brakes repaired in Winnipeg, the Bethels’ journey was uneventful until the outskirts of Thunder Bay. Mary stretched, felt an intense pain and gasped.
“Are you all right?” Joseph asked.
“It’s nothing,” she said and took a deep breath. “A cramp from sitting so long.”
“May lightning strike me if I’m not.”
As if in response, the Chevy made a loud thumping sound and veered sharply to the right.
“What the …?” said Mary.
Joseph fought to control the vehicle. “Looks like the lightning missed you,” he said, “and hit the tire instead.” He drove onto the soft shoulder of the highway. “At least you can stretch while I change the flat.”
When they got back on the road Mary asked, “Do you think we’ll make it home for Christmas?”
“If we’re lucky from here on in.”
They weren’t lucky.
Unlike Humpty Dumpty, I survived the fall, although it took me a long time to realize that I had been falling, let alone that I had survived it. And I did not start to get up until I realized that I had not hit the ground.
They were as tall as hydro poles, and even wider around their roll-out-the-barrel chests, the Nuncles were. Their arms were as thick as Toronto telephone books and their legs would have made elephants jealous. Their hands were always clenched in huge mallets that looked like they could bust concrete slabs into dust.
The Nuncles. The three of them. Like triplet Titans. Sam, Tom and Joe. Three Nuncles … three syllables … a whole lot of shit-kicking trouble. Not quite identical, but it was difficult to tell them apart unless one had a discerning eye or the unfortunate opportunity to compare their roughly landscaped faces up close.
The Nuncles would thrust out beefy drumstick fingers when they stooped to pick me up and scoop me off Grandma’s Ossington Avenue porch. They held me high, as if I was a virgin they were compelled to sacrifice to the Sun. But before they tossed me salad-like into the sky, they held me close to their crazy man-in-the-moon howling faces, pock-marked with deep, black craters and pits, and bursting with red and yellowish volcanic pustules that looked as if they would explode like Vesuvius at any moment. They did this often, which is how I learned how to tell them apart.
The Nuncles. That’s what I called my triplet Italoamericani uncles. I was in awe of them; they scared this eight-year-old kid shitless.
Rebel in the Back Seat
I was fifteen when my father stopped beating me. He stopped beating me the day he split my lip and knocked out two of my teeth. It was the day before I quit school and the day after I lost my virginity in the back seat of a 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special parked at Cherry Beach.
Bernadette, the doll in the back seat of the Cadillac, could have been the goddess hood ornament come to life. She was my reward for some quick thinking at Garbo’s, the speakeasy where I worked. The club owners, Sal and Enzo, had her first. Like most men, Sal and Enzo called women dolls or babes or lookers or numbers. While they took turns, I was supposed to sit in the front and keep my eyes peeled for cops—but mostly I peeked into the back seat through the rear view mirror because I wanted to know how to do what they expected me to do.
I wanted to be good so they wouldn’t laugh at me, because when people laughed at me I sometimes lost my cool. And when I lost my cool, I’d fight anybody, any place, any time. Hey, whatcha gonna do? That’s the way it was. It doesn’t happen anymore, not much anyway. Now that I’m older and greyer, I’m also a little wiser. Or so I’d like to think.
I sure wouldn’t’ve fought Sal or Enzo, even if they had laughed at me. I may have been a dumb punk, but I wasn’t stupid. I was tough, but they were vicious—especially Sal. Besides, considering that I was just a punk, they treated me with respect.
I was just a demon punk, right, Pa?
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