Lies My Father Told Me  

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Chapter II

   I sit on the wagon, excited, watching all the sights
as they pass by. Here, near to home, I will call to
every dog we pass, by name. Some raise their ears
and turn their heads. Some, bored by their city life,
pursue a pace or two.
   We jolt and bounce along the lanes. Something
special, something wonderful is about to happen
around every comer, for at last, after a hundred un-
necessary interruptions, the game of games begins.
   "Rags! . . . Clothes! . . . Bottles! Rags! . . ,
Clothes! . . . Bottles!" Grandpa and I shout, sing,
cry the streets, our voices ringing a joyous hymn to
life to fill and empty the back lanes of my city.
   Every Sunday, unless it rained, we would go out
to play the game. Always the same. Always different.
Grandpa and me smoothing the final turns of the
economic devolution. Tidying the clutter. Shifting
   Down the narrow gullies between the galleried
tenements, we clip-clop clatter. Sometimes a face
looks out of a window to watch us pass. People come
and go on the galleried balconies, pursuing their
separate lives. The sun brings their lives to commune
in the streets, though most bustle by, and we seldom
meet. Men group on corners, sometimes with bon-
homie. The children run, scatter, play everywhere. A
thousand ways to paint the day.
   Up on a gallery, above and before us, a sad-look-
ing little man watches our approach. He ducks down,
picks up and holds out some bottles. Milk and soda.
   Grandpa reins up. He hands me a few pennies,
should I need change. I pocket the pennies, leap
down from the wagon. I've always time to exchange
a greeting with Ferdeleh. I run into the backyard and
start up the strange steps, full of lights and shadows.
Even this is a mystery and part of the wonderful
game, going into these strange and sometimes scary
   Sunday's first client is just an ordinary man, no
prince or wizard, who holds out the bottles. There
are four.
   "A cent a bottle," he states.
   I relay the price to Grandpa, too old now to run
after every improbable nickel. "He wants a cent a
   "I get two cents for four bottles. He can have one
   Our client shakes his head disapprovingly. "A cent
a bottle."
   Grandpa too is unmoved. "Take it to the bottle
company yourself, mister. They'll give you two cents
for four bottles, and you won't have to help feed
my horse. Come, Davie."
   Our client sighs, acknowledging defeat. "Give me
the cent."
   I gather the bottles, an awkward armful, and
make my way down the stairs. A bottle escapes me,
falls, and clatters. I watch in alarm. Maybe . . . But
it splinters and spreads on the stairs. Wince to the
   The confirmed expectations of the sad little man
produce a shallow glee. "There goes your profit."
   Quickly, carefully I run down the stairways, run-
ning to Grandpa to bring the remaining bottles to
the wagon, and to leave my defeat behind.
   "Thank you," he says, and soothes me, his voice
kindly, matter-of-fact, man-to-man.
   "I'm sorry. Grandpa. It slipped."
   "Don't worry about it."
   I place the bottles in the wagon and move to
Ferdeleh's head, walk beside him as horse and wagon
continue their way up the unpaved street.
   In those days of our game, half the back lanes of
the city were still unpaved. It was 1921. As I sit
beside Grandpa, chanting, "Rags! . . . Clothes! . . .
Bottles!" so everyone would know of our passage. I
muse and give thanks that today the roadway is dry,
that Ferdeleh does not have to drag through the mud.
Though, Lord knows, Ferdeleh seemed to like the
mud. Whether the going was firm or soft, Ferdeleh
seemed to progress at the slow selfsame pace. I of-
ten marveled at our one-speed horse. I guess the mud
salved and pleased his feet
   "Rags!... Clothes!... Bottles!"
   From another backyard a magic lady approaches
tipsy-drunk, I'd guess, from her lilt. Red hair, long
dress, and beautiful in a strange way that suits the
wonder of our day. She holds up a tattered dress and
hands it up to Grandpa.
   "How much will you give me for this?" She smiles
    Grandpa examines the cloth. A woman's dress,
shining green velvet, deep-sea luster, once a wonder,
now in shreds.
   "How much do you think you should get for this,
   "A dollar?"
   "For a dollar I can buy a new wedding gown."
   "A quarter, then."
   Grandpa inspects the dress more closely. Very
worn velvet. Threadbare.
   "This isn't worth more than a penny, missus. May-
be you could make wash rags out of it and use them."
   The woman takes back the dress, her forlorn arm-
ful of yesterday. She looks at the old man, begging an
easy resolution of the encounter.
   "So make me an oner."
   Grandpa sighs, and looks at me, and then back to
the woman.
   "I don't want to hurt your feelings. You might have
a sentimental attachment."
   In the woman is growing the need to rid herself
both of the rags and of the encounter. Still she can-
not leave the urge, grown instinctive, to bargain.
   "Ten cents," she says.
   Mr. Elias stares at her with his pitying prophet's
eyes. Silently he seems to be blessing her.
   "Okay. Two cents," she concedes.
   Grandpa reaches into his vest pocket for some cop-
   ''Here's three cents." He throws the rags into the
back of the wagon.
   Ferdeleh turns his head back to see what's going
on, wanting to know if it's time to begin. Grandpa
gives him the go-ahead sign. I take Grandpa's derby
hat and massively cover my head, as we start to shout
in unison again, "Rags! . . . Clothes! . . . Bottles!"
and drift willingly on through another kaleidoscope
   Drift down another dreamway lane.
   A jolly potbellied man on a balcony, standing be-
side what looks like half of an old bathtub, shouts
out to us. "Combien pour cette trash? Alors? How
much for this junk?"
   Grandpa gets off the wagon, nods for me to follow.
Approaching the stairs through the litter of another
backyard. Grandpa spots a shiny bottle and picks it
up, recouping my earlier breakage. He hands it to
me. We mount the stairs to the balcony.
   I had no words like "surreal." Half of a bathtub on
a balcony, sitting there, like our lives, in transit and
ridiculous and magic. Grandpa stares at it and at its
owner, captivated.
   "What happened to the other half?"
   Our client's face wrinkles, and he speaks in
French. "Il se rend compte que le grandpere ne le
comprend pas, et
..." He starts again, more hesitant-
ly, in heavily accented English. "It's too long a
story. How much is this worth to you?" he asks.
   "I can sell it as scrap. Twenty-five cents," says
   Our client is not pleased at all, and starts to bar-
   "I want une piece, one dollar."
   "I can tell you where the scrap-iron yard is, and
you can bring it there yourself. Theyll give you thirty-
five, maybe fifty cents."
    How suspicious is the urban cave dweller. This old
man, with his laughing eyes-will he steal away half
a bathtub?
   "So you give me fifty cents."
   Grandpa turns toward me. "Now, that is a reason-
able man!"
   My infant candor misses the sarcasm.
   "But if he only pays you fifty cents, Grandpa,
we're carrying it for nothing."
   Grandpa nods, and turns back to our client. "And
he's only six," he says. "How old are you?"
   Our client, embarrassed: "Okay, okay, a quarter."
   Grandpa moves close to the half bathtub, stretches
but his arms, and bends. "You'll have to help me
carry it."
   They lift together. At the stairs they pause, and
Zaideh studies the man a moment.
   "I'll give you thirty cents ... tell us what hap-
pened to the other half."
   "You got a deal." Our client laughs. Chuckling,
he explains in French and English how he was trying
to get the tub out of the bathroom, cracked it, grew
so infuriated that he attacked it with a hammer, and
the other half stuck firmly, immovably in the floor. ;
   "You can plant flowers in it," says Grandpa.
   "I''ll tell my wife," says our man, the humor of his
morning retrieved.

   Davie and Zaideh are chanting again, "Rags! . . .
Clothes! ... Bottles!" as the half-filled wagon creaks
along through the back-lane warrens of east-end
Montreal. I'm examining the trove - an old coal-oil
lamp, a broken gramophone - hold up a broken pic-
ture frame to look at the print. Two children in Sun-
day lace in a garden, faces bright. The little girl, my
age, jumping up in delightful expectation. The cap-
tion: "Daddy's coming."
   We acquire a broken-down stuffed chair with the
springs all out of it, and all over, and carry it to the
wagon. Now I am on a balcony holding up a broken
candlestick. Ferdeleh, my patient steed, bears us on-
ward at his one speed. We score an old German hel-
-met. I wear it. It's much too big. Grandpa laughs.
   The wagon travels slowly with its growing moun-
tain of bottles, newspapers, magazines, old clothes,
odds and ends: pipes-stove pipes, a cracked
stemmed tobacco pipe - jumble heaped with the
broken gramophone, the half tub, and the disintegrat-
ing chair. And me on the wagon studying the most
intriguing of treasures, the workings of a broken
clock, looking at the whirligigs, a hint of routes
through the complexity and mystery of it all.
   The fluttering colors and shapes on the clotheslines
crisscrossing above our heads, zigzagging and flap-
ping like fairy-tale flags. A blue cardigan's waving to
me. The houses roll by. And suddenly there is
music rising to us.
   A bareheaded man sits in his backyard and bows a
giant fiddle between his legs. Then it was simply
magic and music; now it is recognized and labeled, a
cello playing Bach. The cellist's eyes are far away,
while under the German war helmet I stare, my mouth
open as well as my ears. Delight is in me, around me.
The music follows us down the lane. Follows me
   Followed us along streets approaching the moun-
tain. There, the green rising hill reveals itself above,
between the houses, and wild my anticipation flies.
The game transcends itself.
   Below the mountain a great stone statue, an iron
angel flying above it, stands awing the concourse.
What was it there for? I didn't ask. Statues are there
to help you remember. Children are playing around
it. Women in large straw hats are seated on the slop-
ing green. More children playing on the grass. An-
other horse and wagon, a buggy, with people in it,
enjoy the mountain. Other buggies with festooned
horses wait by the big statue for customers, to be
driven, like us, to the top of the mountain, where
you can stop at the lookout, and look down on the
miniaturized city below.
   Dirt mountain road. Sun and trees. Ferdeleh snort-
ing. The greener smell mixes with the dust rising
from his hoofbeats on the dirt road. The groaning
complaints of the wagon, how like the women's
voices that echo in our courtyard, far away now.
   Forget that now, now gone, now nothing, now
green, green mountain and my Grandpa, and my
horse. The sun making everything and everyone hazy,
lazy, lovely. Grandpa is sleepy. I am wide awake.
Grandpa hands me the reins, intensifying my excite-
ment. I take the reins. Hold them tightly.
   "Shall we tell Ferdeleh to fly now. Grandpa?"
   "He's too tired today, Davie. Another time."
   Oh, well, another time. Come on, Ferdeleh.
   Slowly, slowly we ascend the winding dirt moun-
tain road. It must be admitted that Ferdeleh is quite
old and tired, and finds any hill, no matter how small,
pretty hard going.
   I have since climbed other mountains, but what
could other mountains give to someone who's had the
luck to climb the magic slopes of Mount Royal with
Grandpa and Ferdeleh. A scampering squirrel, its
bounds circling, encapsuling little time bubbles. A
hopping sparrow zipping time in dashes you can't see.
The sounds of summer-birds, crickets, wind in trees,
in grass.
   I lead Ferdeleh along the edge of a secluded field.
I am vigilant, alert, a six-year-old man. I am a patrol-
ling sentry.
   I lead my faithful steed along one side of the field,
peering carefully in all directions to make sure no
marauders threaten. I see something, and gesture to
Ferdeleh to be quiet. I crouch. An ice-cream vendor
approaches but turns down a side road before he
reaches us. The danger gone, I resume my patrol
leading my trusty steed up the other side of the field. I
hear voices in the tall grass. Stealthily I approach, I
pushing aside the long grasses to peek. A young cou-
ple seem to be wrestling; the girl is giggling.
   I lead Ferdeleh back toward my sleeping grandpa,
and nudge Grandpa awake to report the develop-
   "Spies," I whisper.
   Grandpa pushes back his hat and looks at me
warmly. He turns towards the sound of girlish gig-
gling beyond the tall grass, and turns back to me with
a reassuring look. "They're from our side. Continue
your patrol."
   And back he goes to sleep.
    Satisfied by my renewed contact with this sweet old
man, that everything is well, is fine, is lovely, off I go,
pulling Ferdeleh by the reins, to continue my serious,
conscientious sentry duty, and breathe and see and
hear the mountain.
   Now it is evening, and Ferdeleh and the wagon
roll easily down the mountain road. The horizon has
cut the sun in half, and my head is on Zaideh's knee.
Grandpa is full of the sunset, and the mountain, and
his Ferdeleh. Grandpa is content.


Chapter III