4

“I can’t believe I agreed to this,” Mom told me as she leaned in through the open driver’s side window and pecked me on the cheek. You were at her side, looking up at me quizzically, wondering why I hadn’t put you in your car seat yet. Maybe you thought I was playing a new type of game. Surely I’d explain it to you at any moment.

Of course, your car seat was sitting up in Mom’s apartment, but you didn’t know that yet. She didn’t own a car, but I figured she’d need it in the event she managed to wrangle a lift for the two of you somewhere from one of her neighbours. She’d probably get much more use out of your stroller, which I’d left behind in my old room. I was a little worried about her trying to haul you and it on and off a city bus, though, I have to admit.

Despite Mom’s protests, she’d taken quite the shine to you during our short visit. Though she kept complaining that she wouldn’t be able to keep up to you with her arthritis, I could tell that she was secretly excited by the challenge. You were giving her renewed purpose. I cynically looked at it as a chance at a do-over for her, an opportunity to make amends for the mistakes she’d made with me.

It wasn’t until I started up the car and you were still standing there with Mom’s hand firmly around yours that you realized something was horribly wrong. You were being abandoned yet again, passed off like a proverbial hot potato. The look of horrified betrayal on your face almost made me shut off the ignition and reconsider everything.

“Go,” Mom said firmly, over the muttering of the engine. “Just go. You must have known it was going to be like this.”

In fact, I hadn’t bargained on such a tragic reaction from you. I’d naively thought you’d take it all in stride, like you had so many other things as we’d slogged our way through four provinces together. Okay, maybe I’d thought you might shed a few tears, but nothing like that. We’d known each other less than two weeks. Who knew you had grown so attached to me?

“He’ll be all right,” Mom said, picking you up and trying to console you. “I’ll look after him. Go on.”

I reluctantly shifted the car into drive. Your face was deep scarlet by the time I glanced back around the trailer at the two of you. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I was so distracted I nearly got obliterated by a dump truck.

I can’t tell you how confused I felt as I drove out of town. I resented that you’d upset all my plans, as sketchy and unambitious as they’d been. And yet, I felt like a failure for leaving you behind. I tried to remind myself that your mother was the one to blame for everything, that I shouldn’t be beating myself up for not being prepared to drop everything and look after you. I persuaded myself there wasn’t any sense in turning around. And so, I kept driving.

My first couple of weeks in London were pretty much as I expected. The buddy who’d told me about the job put me up for the first couple of nights, but then his wife got tired of having me underfoot, and I spent the next week-and-a-half sleeping in my car. On the plus side, I bluffed my way through my job interview well enough to land a job selling home security systems for a mom-and-pop shop. The owner liked it when I told him my father had been a salesman. He made some clever remark about acorns and oak trees that I let pass. Once I knew I’d have money to pay rent, I found a cheap apartment in the east end of town, which allowed me to empty out the car and get rid of my rented trailer. It wouldn’t have looked good for me to pull up to my first customer’s home in a vehicle that I still lived in.

Suffice it to say, I was glad I hadn’t brought you along.

At the start, I called Mom every night to see how she was making out with you. You were proving to be a handful, not because you were misbehaving especially, but because you were a normal, active fifteen-month old. “He keeps looking out your window down at the parking lot,” she told me. “I think he’s waiting for you to come back.”

“I’ll come collect him soon,” I assured her. “Just let me get myself established here first.”

By my second week in London, the frequency of my calls dropped to every few days. I guess I wasn’t all that keen on hearing Mom complain one more time about how a woman in her sixties wasn’t meant to raise small children. I also didn’t want to have to admit to her that I’d been sleeping in my car until recently, even though that would have justified why it had been better for you to be with her. She would just have turned the truth against me. If I’d applied myself in high school and been a little less moody, I wouldn’t have found myself in such a sad situation.

I’d never really done sales work before, and my first couple of weeks on the job were a misadventure in trial and error. I knew my boss was keeping tabs on how many deals I closed in my first month. Whether sales was in my genes or not, he wasn’t going to keep me around if I didn’t pull my weight. That’s why I delayed collecting you from your grandmother, or so I told myself. I didn’t want to bring you to London and then find myself without a job and without any money to pay the rent. Mom saw it as stalling. She told me I’d always be able to find a reason why “now is not a good time.” She said that before she knew it, she’d be raising you permanently. And she most certainly hadn’t signed on for that.

So, I called her even less often as time went on. I knew I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain, but I didn’t need her to keep hitting me over the head with the fact. My assurances that it would be “just a little while longer” had begun to sound hollow even to me. I started to wonder whether she was right about me. Maybe I was looking for a way to conveniently avoid my responsibilities to you. After all, the prospect of raising you on my own still scared the hell out of me. The chance of getting it all wrong was something I didn’t want to think about.

I’d been on the job barely two weeks when the other sales guy who worked for the company took me out for a cup of coffee. I tried to convince him that things were going well for me, but he could tell right away that I was feeding him a line. Before I knew it, he had me spilling my guts, telling him about you and how it had never mattered to me before whether I fell flat on my face, but with you in the picture, that had all changed. Once I’d done telling him my sob story, he looked across at me with what I could only describe as a smart-ass smile. My heart sunk to my shoes. It occurred to me that our boss could have put him up to this. If that was the case, then I was toast. But instead, he leaned across the table where our coffees sat and said to me, “Sounds like I need to show you a few tricks of the trade.”

It turned out that he’d had paternity issues of his own and so had sympathy for my predicament. He proceeded to take me under his wing. He taught me that the best way to find prospects was to keep an eye out for news and police reports on where the latest break-ins had taken place and to contact the victims before they had a chance to call any other alarm company. It seemed that the principle of closing the barn door after the horse had bolted was alive and well in our business. He also showed me how not to sound like I was selling something, at least not right off the bat. The key was to come across like I always had my customers’ needs at heart, to get them to believe that I’d never try to get them to buy something from me unless I knew it would solve their particular problem. He even went with me on a couple of sales calls and gave me helpful pointers afterwards. By the end of the month, I’d come close enough to my quota that the company kept me on. I began to wonder whether selling might truly be in my genes after all.

You’d been with Mom six weeks when after work one night I picked up a message from her on my new answering machine, telling me that she’d be bringing you to London the following Saturday. She hoped I had day care arranged, because she didn’t intend to stay on as a babysitter or take you back with her to Ottawa.

I returned her call and told her I was glad she’d phoned because I was planning to come collect you in a week’s time anyway, but she knew I was making it up. She curtly asked for the directions to my apartment and said to expect you both late Saturday afternoon. Lily would be driving the two of you down. Perry would have done it, she said, but he had commitments at the hospital over the weekend. Of course he did, I thought. Not that I’d really miss him.

To be honest, I was glad that I’d be seeing you again. I just wasn’t sure I was ready to be your father on a permanent basis. What caught me off guard, though, was how much I was looking forward to seeing Lily again.

The three of you arrived on schedule. The elevator in my building was out that day, so Lily was the one who carried you up to my place on the third floor. You were sitting on her hip when I opened the door. I couldn’t help noticing the sheen of perspiration on her bare shoulders from the climb up the stairs. Having her there suddenly made my lonely apartment feel more like a home. I decided she was the only thing I really missed about Ottawa.

“Look, Aidan!” she said in a sing-song voice. “Look who it is! It’s your dad.”

“Hey there, slugger,” I said, holding out my arms.

You looked at me warily as I took you from her. I couldn’t tell whether it was because I’d faded from your memory or because you remembered me only too well as the guy who’d left you behind. Either way, you glanced over at your grandma to see whether I could be trusted. It occurred to me that you’d spent more of your life with her at that point than you had with me.

“So this is where you live,” Mom said, clearly unimpressed. In fact, the building wasn’t that much different from the one she lived in. She made me give her a tour of all four rooms: the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and living room. It didn’t take long. I didn’t have much furniture in the apartment. I’d given away a lot of things I’d had in my Halifax place rather than try to cram them all in the trailer. The bloodstained chair I’d taken to the dump. Despite what she’d said on the phone, I got the sense that she wasn’t about to hand over her grandson to me if it meant he’d have to live in a dive.

“You’ll want to get safety latches for your windows,” she told me. “He’s a curious little fellow. I don’t want him wriggling through an opening and falling three storeys.”

“I’ll get some from the hardware store today,” I told her.

She rhymed off a list of other things I’d need to do to make the place suitable for you. I got a piece of paper and wrote them all down. When that was done, she gave me one last sideways look, as if she were trying to decide whether I was just humouring her. Meanwhile, you were playing peek-a-boo with Lily.

“We brought a few things with us,” Mom told me. “You’d better go help Lily unload them from the car.”

She stayed with you while Lily and I headed downstairs. As we stepped outside, we were greeted by the scent of corn flakes wafting in on the breeze from the Kellogg’s cereal plant a kilometre upwind, a decidedly odd smell for six in the evening.

“So,” I said. “You survived seven hours in the car with my mother.”

“Piece of cake,” Lily said. “Come spend a shift with me in the ICU sometime.”

We arrived at her SUV. It looked new and expensive. I wondered how much she and Perry hauled in each year. She opened the hatch and pulled out a large, flat cardboard box.

“A crib?” I said, reading the words on the box as I helped her ease it to the ground. I could see that it had been opened and taped shut again.

“Aidan’s been sleeping in it the past few weeks,” she said. “We’ve got a high chair for him as well.”

“What do I owe you?” I asked. I wasn’t about to take any more charity from her or my brother.

She smiled. “I’m hoping Perry and I will need this stuff ourselves in a couple of years. Why don’t you just take care of it for us until then?”

I looked at her like she shouldn’t take me for such a rube.

“Do you always treat offers of help with such suspicion?” she asked, continuing to unpack the SUV.

“I guess so,” I said. “It must be my noble, self-reliant nature.”

“Is that what it is?” she said, slamming the hatch closed. The pavement behind her SUV was covered with enough stuff to fill a small day care. “My apologies for mistaking it for bloody-mindedness.”

“Apology accepted.”

“Your prickly exterior doesn’t fool me, Dean Lajeunesse. You’re just a softy underneath. Perhaps you don’t realize how irresistible vulnerable curmudgeons like you are to a nurse like me.”

“Lucky for me,” I said.

“For instance, you pretend not to care what your mother thinks about you, but you desperately want her approval.”

“If you say so.”

Another woman was trying to tell me what I felt before I knew it myself. Your mother had been the first. The difference with Lily was that her interest in me seemed genuine. She wasn’t trying to solve her own hang-ups through me, as far as I could tell. She struck me as someone who definitely had her shit together. Better yet, she was officially out of bounds. No chance of me getting too close for my own good.

Lily placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “You’ll do fine as a father.”

“How do you know that? I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.”

“No one does when they first become a parent,” she said. “Listen, I’ll give you some pointers before I leave. I used to work in pediatrics. And, if it makes you feel any better, I’ll call you now and then to make sure you’re doing okay.”

“I bet Perry would get a real kick out of that,” I said.

She leaned in, put her arm around my shoulder, and whispered: “He doesn’t have to know. It will be our little secret.”

I heard my heart pounding. I told myself not to read too much into her enthusiasm for going behind my brother’s back.

It took a few trips to haul all your gear up to the apartment, but by the time we were done, the place didn’t look nearly as spartan as it had when the three of you had arrived. Much to my relief, you weren’t treating me like such a stranger by the end of the evening, especially after Lily gave me a crash course on understanding and responding to the idiosyncrasies of toddlers. She and Mom stayed overnight at a motel on Wellington Street near the 401 and treated us to breakfast the following morning. Mom gave you an extra-long hug in the restaurant parking lot before climbing in the SUV to begin the long trip back to Ottawa. I think she was worried it might be the last time she’d see you in one piece. Lily, on the other hand, simply gave me a conspiratorial wink and a thumbs-up as she pulled away. I hated to think of her returning to Perry.

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