Tonight I am in the park alone.
Ma has been slamming cupboards, sweeping, scrubbing the small fridge, muttering. She used to work six days in Friesen’s Bake-o-Rama, and was never around. But when she did come home, she’d open a beer, give me a sip, and tell stories about Lin and Manuela and Crazy Carmen and the other women. Then her hours were reduced to four days, and now just three six-hour shifts. I know what’s what. We can’t pay the rent, that’s what. This is the best place we’ve had yet, in our eleven months in Ontario. We’ve moved at night three times, throwing jeans, T-shirts and blouses and of course Ma’s two books in Slovak, and her precious letters from her sister back home, all into her bestickered suitcase and slowly we opened the door and ran. But when we settled here, Ma said no more running.
This morning we ate the crumbled cornflakes at the bottom of the box and for supper she made pancakes with the last two potatoes, last egg. The pear we’ve been saving is getting mushy and she cuts it into quarters, gives me three. After we lick the goodness off our fingers, she shakes her head, pours herself a short one. She puts on lipstick, hands me two crumpled singles, tells me to go play, buy a Fudgsicle, and when the streetlights come on, to bring a quart of milk. “Take your time, enjoy,” she says. Nagy, who collects the rents for all the flats in the area, squeezes his gut through our door, and then I’m out. Ma has the emergency half-full bottle of slivovitz on the kitchen table.
I need to talk to Fat Man. Fat Man screeches. When the seven of us, neighborhood brothers from Portugal, Angola, Pakistan and Vietnam race through the alleys and the park, we sneak up and pull Fat Man’s scraggly beard and he swats and slaps with his jiggly arms; he slobbers and we whoop and he lumbers, huge stomach bumbling, a few steps after one and then another but soon returns to his stoop, crooning. He sits down, rummages in the front pocket of his overalls for a package of tobacco, his shaking fingers straighten the papers, and he rolls a smoke, inhales deeply. We jump on the swings, and I stand, arm raised high.
I haven’t told my friends, but Fat Man is from my country; I sometimes understand his gibberish. This screech I just heard, that’s a Slovak rooster. His burbly lips are crying, “ki-ki-ri-kee”. His brain is polenta and often when he lifts himself from the stoop, a puddle remains. Ma told me not to tease the poor man, but when Kwanga and Ahmed dash to pull the beard, I join in.
Ma says that before his accident, Fat Man spoke three languages, was a man of culture and refinement, had a house and family, but then his three languages crashed into each other, bounced off the sides of the brain and he can’t get them unstuck.
I know speaking even two languages proper is torture, that’s why I don’t talk much. Back home I had lots of friends, talked all the time. These days my stories get pushed back into my gut, give me indigestion. Ma tells me Slovak fairy tales, over and over, sings us Slovak songs.
Mrs. Lee, in the class for New English Learners, points at pictures of animals and tells us the words in English. So I learn ‘rrrrrooster”. That’s my new name for Fat Man. Rrrrrrooster.
Rrrrrrooster is yelling, “Haf! Haf! Haf!” I understand him again. That’s a Slovak dog.
Slowly I sidle up to Rrrrrrooster’s stoop and he watches warily.
“Dobrý deň,” I greet him in Slovak. He grins. He recognizes those words; he’s heard them before. He burbles an excited animal, a turkey maybe.
I point at a spot next to him; he nods a welcome. The reek of his pants gags me but I sit anyway.
“Nice warm evening,” I say and his eyes shine at the familiar soft sounds, though I’m sure he doesn’t catch the meaning. I point at myself, his cigarette, make a smoking gesture. He pats his pockets, pulls out his tobacco pouch and papers and his worn wallet slides onto the stoop.
I long to explain to him that we are brothers, together in a strange cruel country, that we need to help each other, but although all the sweet Slovak words are on my tongue, they’re stuck.
His wallet is bulging.
My shaking fingers take the pouch from him, then the papers, I sprinkle the tobacco on the paper, lick, strike the match, inhale, cough.
He laughs, honks like a goose.
“Totally right, Mr. Rooster,” I say. “I certainly agree.”
The wallet is in my hands, then in my pocket. I take another puff, cough. I bow thanks to him for the cigarette; my two-finger salute brushes his arm.