WEDNESDAY: The Powers that Be


Copyright is held by the author.

ALI, A rather serious boy who kept his thoughts to himself, sat silently at the kitchen table eating his bowl of Raisin Bran. He held up a spoonful to the light, carefully studying the soggy flakes as if they held the secrets of the universe. Anyone watching might think him mentally impaired. They would be wrong.

Ali had been placed in the gifted program at his high school and outscored every other grade 12 student in the province in science and math. No other candidate even came close. American universities from as far away as California were waging a campaign to bring him to their campus. Harvard and MIT were hoping to lure him to their schools as well.

The boy was brilliant, but as for his social skills — well, he was not about to win any popularity contest. For all intents and purposes, Ali was invisible, and that was exactly the way he liked it. Universities knocking at his door didn’t know that about him, and, if they did, it would have been of little consequence. In fact, he could have been a mutant as far as the world of academia was concerned. Ali was a powerhouse brain, and that was all that really mattered.

On the other hand, it wasn’t all that mattered to his adoptive parents, Geraldine and Bob McCarthy of Forest Hill in Toronto. They wanted more from the kid they had snatched out of the orphanage in Bangladesh 10 years ago — a lot more.

“Wouldn’t you rather have bacon and eggs than soggy cereal? A young man needs protein, don’t you know.” Geraldine was hovering over the boy and talking non-stop. “Protein — that’s the ticket. That’s what will fight those hunger pangs mid-morning. Yes, protein,” she stressed. “You remember that story you learned in Sunday school . . . about the loaves and the fishes? Well, even Jesus thought people need protein and that’s why he added fish to their diet of carbohydrates.” She paused to let her words sink in. “If you don’t believe me — or the Bible — just look at Daddy. Why do you think he is so strong? Well?” She stared intently at the top of Ali’s head bowed over his cereal bowl. When he didn’t respond, she plunged gamely on. “Did you know that Daddy jogs all through his lunch break? Did you know that? Did you?” She waited for some kind of response, but all she got was silence. Hard uncompromising silence.

She decided to try again. “You know, if you would only get involved in sports, you would see how important protein is. Why don’t you try joining one of the school teams? Sports are good for a growing boy. They build character.” Her words trailed off. She seemed to have run out of steam.

Ali hardly noticed. He had learned years ago to tune her out the way you ignore a buzzing fly that can’t find its way out of the house. You could try to kill it, one supposes, but then you’d be left with an awful mess. Better to just let the thing exhaust itself and then wait for it to lie dead on the bottom of a window sill.

“How’s Ali today?” The good natured voice of Bob announced his arrival in the kitchen. “Hi, Hon.” He smiled at his wife as he pulled out a chair beside Ali at the table. “No time for a big breakfast today. The firm is having a conference over some billing issues and I can’t be late.” Geraldine scowled as she poured her husband a cup of coffee. Bob watched Ali seeming to enjoy his meal. “That looks good,” he commented cheerily. “I think I have time for a quick bowl of cornflakes.”

“You have time for bacon and eggs,” Geraldine scolded. “Now you just stay put while I crack open a few eggs. It won’t take any longer than eating that cold lifeless cereal.” She slapped a pat of butter in the pan fiercely and turned towards the refrigerator.

“Dini, I told you,” Bob said, using his pet nickname for his wife. “I just don’t have time.” The chair screeched across the tiles as he got up to leave. “Gotta go,” he said, smiling at his wife and ruffling Ali’s thick wavy hair. “I’ll grab something at the drive-through on the way to work.” He kissed his wife lightly on the forehead before heading out the door.

“Bob! Bob! You know what the reverend said about setting a godly example,” she cried out after him. “Come back here!” But she may as well have been a fly walking on the ceiling. Ali muffled a laugh. Busy fly! Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!

Geraldine flung her dishrag into the sink with something akin to fury. She inhaled deeply, pulled out a chair next to Ali and sat down. The boy flinched.

“I’ll bet those kids at the orphanage would kill for a plate of bacon and eggs, huh?” Geraldine mopped her brow with the back of her hand. Being a mother was exhausting. “I suppose you’ve been in this country long enough to get spoiled . . . is that it, Ali?”

No, that’s not it, he thought, that’s not it at all. He could have tried explaining himself to her, but then why bother talking to someone who has already written your script for you. And as for being spoiled, Ali wanted to laugh.

How well he remembered what it was like in the orphanage — the unspeakable squalor, the ceaseless racket, the teeming throngs of squirming, smelly children. There was never a time when he was alone. And, then, miraculously, this couple from Canada who were looking for a son — someone sweet and pliable and eager to please.

When they picked him out of all the hundreds crammed into the dormitory, he thought he had died and gone to heaven. He was six years old and already he was an old man, weary of life, and then these saviours — Geraldine and Bob — showed up to take him to the promised land. The Promised Land! How he scoffed at the memory. Who was the promise for, he often wondered? It certainly wasn’t him.

Before his seventh birthday, Ali had things figured out. The man Bob was okay, but the woman! Not a moment’s peace! Except for the fresh food and clean sheets, he really couldn’t see much difference between the life he left behind and the one he was living now. But he did discover an avenue of escape — school. And that was how he became an Ontario scholar. In his room he could immerse himself in his studies and, for a few precious hours at least, give himself the gift of aloneness.

The woman’s voice broke into his reveries. “Do you need a ride to school, or are you still insisting on taking the bus?” Geraldine’s voice was tinged with annoyance, but she couldn’t let it lie. She had to do her job. Motherhood was relentless, and there were no bonuses for a job well done. Just a surly boy who barely looked her in the face while she was knocking herself out to make his life easier.

“Well?” she demanded. “Aren’t you worried about those boys bullying you on the school bus? I heard them yelling your name out of the window yesterday when I went to meet you at the bus stop. Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you?” She glared at him. “Well, what’s your answer, young man?”

“Bus” was Ali’s single word reply. For him, it was a simple decision. Which would he prefer: be tormented on the bus or be tormented in the car? Pick your poison.

He already had.


“I don’t understand why I have to be there. I just got home from work and all I want to do is relax,” Bob grumbled. “You go to the school board meeting without me, Dini. I know you can speak for the both of us. You’ve had enough practice.” He didn’t mean to say it, but he was tired and the words just slipped out.

Geraldine turned away from him in a huff and marched into Ali’s room where the boy was sitting at his desk and already hitting the books. “Here, put this on,” she ordered, throwing a clean plaid shirt on the bed. “We’re leaving in 10 minutes, so start hustling.”

Ali closed his books and began methodically straightening out his desk.

Geraldine turned to her husband who had plopped down in his easy chair in the living room and deposited his briefcase on the floor beside him. “This meeting is important. We need to put pressure on the board to get rid of those subversive books. I mean letting teenagers read smut like The Handmaid’s Tale or that blasphemous On The Origin of Species. Give me a break!” \

Bob sighed. “Honey, this is the 21st Century. You’re living in the dark ages,” he said, readjusting his tie. “At least promise me you’ll be polite — try not to ruffle any feathers.”

“Of course,” she sniffed indignantly. “I’m always polite.” She turned around and realized the boy was nowhere to be seen. “Ali,” she shouted down the hallway, “get out here, young man. We’re leaving in five minutes. And remember, when we get there, we have to present a united front in order to challenge the powers that be.”

Ali chuckled to himself as he buttoned his new shirt and headed out the door. Challenge the powers that be? There was nothing he liked better.

  1. It would be easy to nitpick and there are some niggly aspects of this story that set my teeth on edge. There are two issues, however, that leaped out at me on both the first and second readings. The first four paragraphs are telling, not showing and make for a slow introduction to the story. The second is the change in the POV switching between Ali and Dini.

    Dini got what she deserved, though: an adopted son who despises her for many good reasons, and a husband who, it seems, can barely tolerate her. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

    One final thing, and perhaps I am a little obtuse, but I didn’t find any connection between the story and the last line. How was Ali planning to challenge the Powers That Be? And I was left dangling as to the outcome.

  2. Michael: I took Ali’s challenge to be his passive resistance to Dini.

  3. One of the issues I find with so much fiction and even among bestsellers and honored literary publications is the unimagined protagonist — where the bad guy or bad girl is rooted in cliche, drawn as one-dimensional, and is shown to be nothing more than a foil for the antagonist — a prop. Every character has an interior life and his or her own motivation for their actions. Too often these characters are placed in a scene or story as an excuse for the hero to react. In the story above, the fault lies with both characters. I could not tell which character is the antagonist or protagonist: neither the boy or the mother is likable, and furthermore, I don’t see any reasons behind their actions or their places in the story. Why is this brilliant boy such a d-bag? Why is the mother so annoying and obtuse about her own failings? None of these character show any real sense of self-awareness in their actions or their thoughts. For these reasons and probably more, I find these characters uninteresting, unreal, and unknowable. Sorry.

  4. Georgia, I hadn’t considered that. Interesting.

  5. I’m not great on subtlety … but my reading of the last line is this. He is TOTALLY looking forward to shooting down Dini and her power over him by speaking eloquently against her narrow-mindedness — in a public forum where he will be heard, and where she doesn’t have the balance of power that she has at home.

  6. Ali was very successful in challenging the powers. He is the one with the power, not Dini, his self-involved adoptive mother. What he will do or not do at the meeting is irrelevant. He has already won in the battle of wills that define his home environment. Ali is a survivor who reads people well and has a sense of his own value. He cannot be manipulated, but he can be amused by those who try.

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