BY SHEILA HORNE
Sheila Horne is a member of The Markham Village Writers and is currently working on her first novel. Copyright is held by the author.
JACOB SHOWED UP at Mrs. Labelle’s rooming house the summer I started reading Wuthering Heights. Papa wasn’t happy about me reading what he called a grown up book, and he complained to Mama that I shouldn’t fill my 12-year-old head with such nonsense. I should stick to the Nancy Drew, and Hardy Boy books I ran to get at the library every Saturday afternoon.
“Papa, leave her books alone,” mama said, “she’s old enough and a good reader, you should be proud.” Then she coughed and slammed the bedroom door.
I listened to them discussing my reading as I sat in the shade of our concrete porch watching Jacob. He spent most of his time across the street in Trinity Bellwoods Park fighting demons he felt made the park and street unsafe. To us living on Trinity Avenue, Jacob with his tangled hair, rotting Yankees baseball cap, dirty clothes, and worn out shoes, was harmless. To passengers squeezed tight in streetcars and pedestrians walking through the park and on Queen Street, he was a filthy lunatic. I thought Jacob a prince from a far off land left to forage for the rest of his life. On his good days, he pitched ball for the boys playing baseball in the park. He told them stories about when he was a boy, and his father took him to Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees play. He was the best road hockey goalie, the boys ever had, and he happily turned rope for us girls skipping on the sidewalk.
On his bad days, Jacob ripped up floorboards and punched holes in the walls of Mrs. Labelle’s house searching for a mythical creature, he said pried his eyes open at night, and dug little sharp claws into his legs while he slept. On those days he also threw garbage cans around the street, and barked like a dog after cars.
“It’s only Jacob,” I would yell to papa when he asked about the commotion. Then either papa or someone else on the street would phone the police.
“I apologize for the uproar,” Jacob always said as he waved his handcuffed wrists and slid into the back of the yellow police cruiser.
Everyone on the street knew Constable Fields. Papa often gave him a glass of water. He’d gulped the water, then lightly slap papa on his back and shook his head as papa bent down to look at Jacob sitting in the car.
“Jacob,” papa would say, “get better and come back quick.” Straightening up he’d shake his finger at Constable Fields and tap the top of the car letting him know it was okay to leave.
Jacob always returned a few weeks later, quieter and distant and slept all day on the parched grass under a blistering summer sun.
Every day papa drove off in his old black Chevrolet truck with the muffler held up with a piece of wire. He returned with broken console televisions, vacuum cleaners, and other appliances. I held the door open as he hauled them down to his repair shop in the basement of our house while mama sipped tea from a tiny china cup and watched from her seat at the kitchen table.
“Is good Louisa,” papa often said to her, “I am my own boss, I can look after you and Freida.”
Mama would nod, then cough, and spit into the handkerchief she carried, then fold it and shove it back into the pocket of her orange floral housecoat.
Papa took over the running of the house. He gave me 50 cents on Saturdays for helping with the chores. I quickly spent the money at Mr. Kovel’s Tobacco and Gift Store on 16 and Tiger Beat magazines. Papa disliked wasting money on what he called stupidity. So I sat on the store’s dusty wooden floor and flipped through the magazine pages then stuck them under my shirt, and snuck them into my room. Once, after I had finished reading a Photo Play magazine with Elizabeth Taylor on the cover, I left it for Jacob under his tree in the park. Later, I saw him lying on the bench. He had the magazine over his face, and the picture of Elizabeth Taylor pinned to his shirt.
Papa also supervised mama’s garden. “We want them nice for mama Frieda,” he’d say as I watered her plants.
The truth was, mama no longer cared about the flowers she had once planted. She no longer enjoyed her garden or came out of the house. She spent her days and nights shut away in her room. The closed wooden shades and door not only kept the sunlight and noise out, they kept me out. When she did venture onto the porch, she sat with her arms wrapped tightly around her body, rocking back and forth, watching Jacob.
“What you looking at mama?” I asked her one day. I needed her to smile at me. I needed her to mess up my hair, kiss me on top of my head, and call me her beloved and most favourite person in the world, like she had in past years. Instead, she turned, gazed at me for a moment, and ran her fingers across my cheek.
“Only Jacob,” she rasped. For an instant I thought I saw half a smile cross her face before she coughed, and headed into the house.
With Jacob living on our street, a police car in front of Mrs. Labelle’s rooming house soon became normal. But it was an ambulance on the street one evening that brought the neighbours out to stand on the sidewalk. Robbie, the boy who lived three doors down, fell off his bike in the park, and hit his head on the gravel pathway. Everyone watched as the ambulance drove away with Robbie and his hysterical mother. Robbie’s father maneuvered his green Chevy Nova through the idle crowd and followed the ambulance. Eventually, the neighbours returned to the coolness of their houses, thanking the Lord it was not their crisis. Papa, Jacob and I stood in the park. Tears had washed a trail of grime down Jacob’s face and neck. It ended at the collar of his shirt.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t save him…they’re too fast.”
Papa gently led him into our house. “It’s okay, Jacob, all will be fine, the evil ones they’re gone now.” he spoke to him, the same way I heard him quiet mama late at night.
Before he entered our house, Jacob took off his cap. He licked his hand, smoothed his sweaty hair, and adjusted his collar. I knew then, that Jacob, like Heathcliffe, had lost a great love, perhaps named Cathy, and had run away from a grand life to save us.
“Who’s there?” Mama yelled.
“It’s only Jacob, mama.” I said running into the hallway.
She stood at the top of the stairs. I thought she would come down, and make lemonade like she used to do when company came to visit. She didn’t. She went back to her room and I returned to the kitchen. Jacob and papa sat at our table, glasses of coke in front of them. Papa’s hand seemed large around the crystal glass. Jacob eyed his glass. Then he picked it up, took a sip, put the glass back on the table, and left. I ran after him. I wanted to ask him to keep the demons away from us, the ones that threatened to take my mother. He could do it. I knew he could. After all he was the protector of the street, the park and everything good. But before I reached the front door, it closed and he was gone, and I went into the kitchen, and turned on the tap.
Then winter came, cold and snowy. The only footprints in the silent white park belonged to Jacob. They looked as though he’d run crisscross around the park and played hopscotch in the snow. One day they stopped.
“Moved on,” Mrs Labelle said, sweeping the snow away from her walkway. “Kensington Market sounded like a good idea to him.”
I thought of Jacob often. Especially the following summer while I sat with papa and the neighbours on chairs lined up against the wall in our stifling livingroom. Jacob had cried for Robbie the year before, and he would cry for mama now. No one in the airless room cried. The women just sat with their fat black-stocking legs crossed at the ankles, fanning themselves with unused starched white handkerchiefs. Their skinny husbands tugged at the necks of their stiff white shirts and drank papa’s vodka. Papa looked uncomfortable. If he wanted to cry, it didn’t show.
“She’s in good place,” Mrs. DaSilva said patting me on the hand. “She’s happy now.”
“She is right. No more suffering,” Mrs. Peireira nodded. “Poor little Louisa, all that she suffered.”
“Your papa, he knows the suffering, he knows is best,” Mrs. DaSilva added.
Then, they went on to say God had magnificent plans for mama, an angel on earth now one of God’s angels in heaven.
“Ungrateful to shed tears,” Mrs Rodrigues piped in. She made the sign of the cross. They all made the sign of the cross.
At that moment, I jumped up. I ran out the front door and down the street. I ran past Mr. Kovel’s shop. I ran past the bank. I ran past Mr. Fiore’s cheese shop, the bakery, and old men picking their teeth outside stores with fruit and vegetables rotting in the heat. I ran down Augusta Avenue, past brightly painted houses with statues of Mary, and Jesus on small manicured lawns. I had prayed to them, including the angels and all the saints, but no one answered. I ran past mothers walking babies, and children skipping rope, and old women sweeping sidewalks, and tricycles, and bicycles, and cars, and vans, and trucks honking their horns. I ran to Kensington Market.