Lies My Father Told Me  

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Chapter III

   Every moment that I spent with my grandfather was
magic and sun-blessed. But not always was the Mon-
treal of my childhood sunny.
   Sunday. The rain hisses like an angry cat. I stand,
very bored, alone on the back gallery, staring into the
empty courtyard. Rubber boots, rain hat and coat.
Alone. How unfair it all is.
   Mr. Vernier, the grocer, dressed in rain gear, with
his leather cap, hurries through the rainswept court-
yard carrying a box of groceries that he's delivering
to Mrs. Bondy below us. What interest that?
   Bored, I pace the balcony. A rilled canyon runs
off the courtyard. Its west wall is the facade of our
house. The wooden balconies run across its face and
across the facing tenement on the other side of the
canyon gully. Across the gully, wooden catwalks fly.

   Do they fly? Or do they squat?
   The rain cascades.
   There's my father. Coming out of the work shed.
On the other side of the canyon. Closing the door.
Striding the catwalk. Carefully he carries his prize, his
surprise. Carefully he carries a pair of trousers over
his arm.
   He goes into the house.
   There's Mamma's voice, and Uncle Benny's, coming
rom the kitchen window. I go over to the open win-
dow to watch.
   Harry is holding up a pair of trousers. Annie and her
brother, Benny, are admiring. Benny wears a mous-
tache to be smart. He is stocky. Short and plump.
There is always surprise and complaint in his voice.
   Annie glows with pleasure at the success of Harry's
perfectly creased pants, as Uncle Benny praises the new
   "It's great. Harry!" says Benny, nodding approval.
   "It's fantastic!"
   "I told you!" says Harry, accepting his due.
   I move to a better spot on the balcony to continue
watching the rain. Waiting for Grandpa's return.
Suddenly a smile. Here's Grandpa now, steering Fer-
deleh into the courtyard.
   I hurriedly run from the rear balcony to the stairs
into the courtyard to meet my grandpa and Ferdeleh
   How we all suffer, not just I, when it rains. Dear
Ferdeleh is covered with a canvas blanket and a hat,
his ears sticking up through holes. Grandpa wears a
rain cape and hat. Even the wagon is covered with
some canvas sheets.
   I hurry to help Grandpa unhitch Ferdeleh and
speed him to the comfort of his stable. "Why can't I
go with you when it rains? It's not fair."
   "Because your mother worries you might catch cold"
   I move under Ferdeleh's head. Pet my faithful's
nose. The mist from his nostrils forms a cloud
about us, and I can feel his pleasure to be near me
again. "But she lets me go outside in the rain. Why ?
can't I go for a ride?"

    Grandpa leads Ferdeleh toward the stable. "Be-
cause your mother doesn't want you to be out in the
rain all day. She's right, you'll go next week."
   Grandpa backs Ferdeleh into the stall. He removes
the horse's hat and blanket, and then his own cape.
   "What if it rains again next week?"
   Grandpa is drying Ferdeleh's head with a towel
"You'll go the week after."
   I stare out at the rain. "It's not fair. God's doing it
just to spite me."
   "God's not here to spite anybody."
   "Why does He have to make it rain on a Sunday?
Why can't He make it rain during the week?"
   Grandpa has finished drying Ferdeleh, and turns to
me. "When the earth is thirsty, it makes its own
prayer." He gestures to the rain. "So God listened to
the earth's prayer this Sunday and not to yours."
   I climb on to the stall. "Then I'm going to pray to
the earth." I look down and address Mother Earth
with a child's admonishing finger. "Would you
please not ask God to make it rain on Sundays? You
can have all the rain you want during the week."
   Grandpa nods his approval. That might work.
We'll wait and see.
   Sometime during all this, in my earnestness, I have
missed Ferdeleh adding his comment, rectally, on the
rain. Time, tide, and horse shit. Now Grandpa goes
and fetches a shovel. I follow with a smaller shovel
We keep a clean stable. And the smell is quite pun-
   By the side of the stable, to the left, is a "Dutch
barn," roofed, but open-walled, where we keep hay
and straw. At the front right-hand comer, by the
stable, is a bin, a temporary receptacle for the manure
We shift the shit in stages. From the stable we shove
it through a hatchway to this bin. Later we will transfer
it from the bin to a garbage pail, and the garbage col-
lectors will take it off our hands.
   Ou! Suddenly, shrill, like an air raid: "My God
The horse shit in the yard again!" Undamped by the
rain, Mrs. Tannenbaum's voice falls on us. "Mr. Elias,
clean up the smell!"
   Mrs. Tannenbaum lives on the second floor, just
to the left of our stable. Her stairway comes down be-
side the front of the Dutch barn. The rain has
brought some seepage from the manure bin in a
trickling rivulet into the courtyard across her path.
   We go out to take a look. Hay, straw, barn; gray
courtyard, rain. Tannenbaum on her balcony: her pol-
luting voice.
   "We should take the law into our own hands!"
she's screaming like a lynch mob above the rivulet
trickle, the thin brown-tinted puddle seeping to the
drain, back to the earth.
   The thing to do with shit is clean it up. It's really
quite simple. Grandpa and I, like noble rustics, are
shoveling manure, cleaning out the bin.
   Mrs. Tannenbaum's screeching has brought our
ally, Mr. Baumgarten, to his doorway. He comes over
to us and hands Grandpa a booklet. "Lenin's Im-
arrived, Mr. Elias. An important work You
will enjoy it."
   Grandpa nods, grateful for the tailor's support, but
Tannenbaum's attrition is beginning to find its mark
She has come down her stairs, to stand perhaps ten
feet away from us, or closer. Here she begins again,

covering her nose, bellowing like an animal. "We're
respectable people! Not animals!"
   She's done it. She has touched him. Shoveling a huge
amount of manure. Grandpa holds it up, arms out-
stretched, to Mrs. Tannenbaum. Still trying to con-
trol his exasperation, he lectures her. "Horse manure,
Mrs. Tannenbaum! Nothing would grow without it!
It's the smell of life!"
   The Elias-Tannenbaum feud is a feature of our
courtyard. It's been going on for years. Mr. Vernier,
the grocer, making his way down the stairs again, is
surprised by this novel development: Mr. Elias stoop-
ing to reply? He stops to listen, and is rewarded by
hearing Mrs. Tannenbaum scoring her first point in
many months. "You like the smell so much, move the
horse into your house!" Her finger shaking. Of course,
that's not really practical with the stairs.
   We wheel the wheelbarrow from bin to garbage
pails, stash the manure, and start back toward the
   Mr. Baumgarten joins us. He hands Grandpa
Lenin's booklet. Grandpa places it in his pocket, and
speaks to him, but his thoughts are far from the excre-
tions of world politics.
   "I'd like to dump a shovelful on her doorstep. Then
she'd really smell it! It would do her good!"
   Today, recalling this idle threat of direct action, I
would surmise that rainy Sundays took their toll even
from my Grandpa. But at the time I simply felt he
was inspired. By God, I liked his idea.
   "Let's do it. Grandpa!"
   "Forget you heard me say that!" Grandpa says

   Typical. My crazy father has a thousand mad ideas
and chases each for months. My saintly Grandpa
comes up with a simple, practical, inspirational
scheme, and immediately throws it away. Where's
   We start up the stairs, leaving Mr. Baumgarten, the
tailor, behind in the courtyard. "I'd like to hear your
opinion," he says, and Grandpa turns and nods.
   Up the stairs, along the balcony, across the catwalk,
and up the stairs. The water cascades, the rain de-
scends, but for me the sun is shining again. Grandpa
is home.
   He fishes in his pocket and produces a strangely
shaped glass object, like a small sea urchin, which he
gives to me. We go into the house."
   It's one of those snowstorm things. Is it a paper-
weight? There's a winter scene. A tiny church, and a
tiny fir tree, a sled, and a white horse, like Ferdeleh.
You shake it, and the snow swarms around.

   How the character of our kitchen changes. With
Mamma, Grandpa, and me it is the center of our
warm home. Sometimes, as Zaideh watches his daugh-
ter by the stove, his eyes go to yesterday, and he
speaks lovingly of his wife, his woman, whom I never
met. But then, with Papa in the room, the kitchen is
a thoroughfare of tensions, from apprehension to de-
   Harry is wearing his creaseless trousers, sharp-
edged, like a soldier. Prussian. It suits him. I'm look-
ing through the snowstorm swirl. The glass distorts.
There's Harry twisted around behind the tiny church.
The spire lances through him. Whenever we pass a
church, Mamma spits three times on the ground. I
like churches. They're grand and peaceful. Grandpa
Says they're tabernacles. Harry is demonstrating his
invention to Grandpa.
   "With twelve machines we figure we can manu-
facture two hundred and eighty pairs a week. At three
dollars a pair, we estimate a dollar profit...."
   If I hold the glass away from my eye, everything
turns upside down and gets very small. I cannot walk,
but stumble, with the world so deranged. I crouch
under the table, and look out at legs and creases.
   ". . . Within one month, we'll double our ma-
chinery and labor force and keep expanding, and
within six months to a year we estimate five thou-
sand, six hundred dollars a week profit...."
   Harry's legs are striding back and forth up and
down the kitchen in their immaculate, perfectly
creased trousers. Mamma and Uncle Benny watch,
they heads swinging to and fro, like they're watching
a tennis match. It's hard to keep Papa in focus in the
glass, him striding about so on the ceiling, back to
front. I get up and go back to the chair beside Zaideh.
   "... Doubling that in a year comes to five hun-
   "What's that. Harry?" asks Benny curiously.
   "...and eighty-two thousand dollars...."
   Harry ignores Benny's interruption. Confident he
can sell anything this evening, he mounts one of the
kitchen chairs, and squats there. "... And that's only
the beginning." Eye-catching casual. Harry is in the
air, with his hands covering his knees. "By then we
can expand plant output to any size we want to sup-
ply the market."
   But Uncle Benny has noticed something peculiar.
He bends forward, trying to get a better look. "What's
that with the knee, Harry?"
   Harry stands erect on the chair. "It's nothing." He
throws Benny a look, an imperative desist, "lay off."
He gets down from the chair. "Five hundred and
eighty-two thousand dollars in two years. Pa." He sits,
hands on knees.
   Benny, a little nervous, gets up and peers. "Stand
up. Harry. I want to see something."
   "Leave me alone. I talk better sitting down. Did you
hear me. Pa? It takes you a whole year to save five
hundred lousy dollars? In two years..."
   But Benny's anxiety will not be put away. "Stand
up, Harry. I want to see that!" He pulls at Harry.
   Harry pushes him away. "Will you go away? Shut
up and let me finish explaining this!"
   Finally Benny manages to pull him to his feet. It's
like a strange ballet. Harry keeps his hands over his
   Benny pulls them away. "What is that, Harry? My
God! You didn't tell me about the knees!"
   The knees bulge out like my Ferdeleh's shanks. But
bigger. The creases around the pantaloon knees stand
out half an inch, like a corrugated-metal-flanged su-
   "It's nothing! I'll fix that! It's a minor bug! I'll have
this fixed! It's no problem."
   Annie gives Grandpa a knowing, sorrowful look.
Grandpa rocks quietly, not surprised at all by the
    Uncle Benny, flabbergasted, is complaining in his
singsong monotone. "My God! I paid down a
month's rent on the shop! It's not ready. Harry! Why
didn't you tell me?"
   "It is ready! It's a minor problem! It'll be fixed!"
   Harry jumps up, totally disgusted with stupid
Benny, who is spoiling everything.
   Benny is anxious and peeved. "You didn't level
with me. Harry! You sucked me into a partnership!"
   All this behind the snowstorm, the fir tree, and the
   "For Chrissake, Benny! This can't miss...."
   If I hold the glass near to my eye and then slowly
move it away, they all distort like gargoyles, like in
the hall of mirrors.
   "I'll use a softer tape at the knees, maybe not even
tape at the knees. The weight of the other tape will
hold the crease. It's nothing to worry about"
   I move the glass away. Suddenly everything blurs.
   Benny holds his head. "It's not ready. Harry! My
   Then suddenly everything comes back into focus,
but upside down and far away.
   Harry is infuriated, exasperated, pacing. His face is
red from frustration. Nobody understands a genius.
   "It'll be ready, damn it! I took it this far, you think
a minor problem like this is going to stop me?"
   Grandpa stands, looks to Annie, raising his eye-
brows, and starts to move toward his room.
   Harry continues, "I'll have it perfect." He notices
Grandpa leaving. "Pa! Where are you going?"
   Grandpa stands in the doorway. "I have to read
Lenin's Imperialism." He disappears into his room.
    Harry takes a long accusing look at Benny. "You
idiot! You screwed it up, didn't you?"
   "It's not ready yet, Harry! It makes a hard sharp
curve at the knee when you sit down!"
   Harry, moaning, storms out, sick with the fools
around him. "Idiots! I'm surrounded by idiots!"
   Calm descends. The snow settles in my glass.
   Benny stares dejectedly in front of him. He turns
to Annie for some reassurance. "He'll be able to fix
it, won't he, Annie?"
   Annie nods, sad and abstracted.
   I look at my mother. "You know what would be a
good idea. Mamma?"
   Uncle Benny's head jerks over toward me, intrigued
and anxiously he asks, "What?"
   "To put some horse shit on Mrs. Tannenbaum's
   Annie sighs. "Go to bed, Davie... it's late."

Chapter IV