Living Room is a coming-of-age short-story cycle that portrays the life of a young Jewish boy, Lawrence Teitel, from the ages of six to thirteen as he grows up in an English enclave in Montreal during the 1960s. The stories present different stages of Lawrence's life, and are connected thematically as he negotiates the difficult boundaries between the security of home and family life and the world of experience that fascinates and sometimes frightens him.
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When I was six years old I knew our street perfectly. For instance, I could tell you where everybody lived by the colours of the doors to their duplexes: Howard Cohen's had blue doors, Paul Wasserman's green with white trim, and the duplex where Daniel Stern and his big brother Gary lived had shiny varnished doors. Paul's duplex had the best dirt under the stairs for making roads, while mine had the best back yard. And since everybody knew where everybody else belonged we all respected each other's property. If someone was an enemy that week, he knew he'd better not step on the wrong side of the street. "You don't live here!" we'd yell. "Stay off our property!"
Fortunately, the lines between our properties were well- demarcated. Goyer Street, with its rows of neatly parked cars along either curb, separated Daniel and me from most of the other kids I knew, and high wooden or metal fences separated the back yards of those who lived next door to each other. Every back yard and fence was different, in size and look, and we would brag about what we had or, in times of hate, make fun of what someone else had. "My back yard is better than yours and you can't come!"
Sometimes I hated everyone, and then I could lie on the grass in my back yard, under the crabapple tree, shielded by ranks of close-standing wooden pickets. From there, the surrounding duplexes were invisible--even those of Barclay, the street parallel to and behind Goyer but high up a steep slope. Barclay's yards, red brick walls, and iron staircases were hidden by the woods running like a spine down the middle of the block.
The yards of both streets abutted onto the woods, but there were no fences on our side, so I considered those woods part of our property. It was my favourite place to play, with or without my friends, and I explored the woods until I knew every tree, every boulder. I called the biggest tree rising straight up out of the slanting soil "my" tree--it was the one I always climbed or played near, and so belonged to me. My mother would sometimes come out of the kitchen onto the back balcony, and yell at me to be careful as I pulled myself up into its branches to sit in the unyielding fork where I dreamed of building a treehouse. I didn't understand why she was worried, so I ignored her as long as I could before finally dropping to the ground to keep her happy.
She even worried when I played up there without climbing my tree, because the ground sloped so steeply. She was sure I'd slip and break my arm; even my father once said at the supper table that he was surprised that hill didn't cause more accidents, although I had no idea what kind he meant. No matter what they said, I'd never give up my woods.
The only kid in our neighbourhood who ignored the rules about property was a retarded kid named Stevie--we never found out his last name because no one I knew had ever spoken to him and he didn't go to our school. No one was his friend, obviously. Daniel managed to scare us by claiming he'd once been to Stevie's house, and seen where they tied him to the bed or wall to keep him from breaking things and biting people. I half-believed him. None of my other friends ever claimed to have played with him, and I couldn't imagine anyone trying.
Stevie would stand silently nearby and watch us play, occasionally venturing to within a few feet of us. If you tried to talk to him he'd start to cry and run away. As long as he didn't bother us I could tolerate his coming onto Goyer, even though he lived on Bedford, one street down. But even retarded kids had to obey the law, and as far as I was concerned the laws of property were absolute; they were how things were supposed to be, the way the world worked--I even thought the word "property" was based on "proper" somehow.
My best friend that summer was Paul. We would squat in the low space under his front stairs and run the sides of our hands through the dirt, smoothing out roads for our Dinky cars. Stevie would stand not far from us, watching us unless the passing of the 160 bus or a big truck attracted his attention. We could see him peering at us through the sparse hedges that walled the narrow front lawn. For some reason he never came that close when I played with anyone else. I kept hoping God or his mother would take him away from there, but it didn't happen.
"Go away!" I yelled at him. "Get back to your own property!" He'd just stand there as if I'd said nothing, shiny finger between his lips--not so much ignoring me as not understanding. And every day, it seemed, he moved closer to where we were playing, despite warnings, insults, everything we threw at him.
"You should tell your mother," I told Paul once. "He's not supposed to be here."
I stood up as far as I could and walked, hunched over, to where I could watch Stevie's movements, steadying myself with one hand on the gritty concrete. By now he was almost on Paul's walk. "Get out of here!" I yelled, but Stevie didn't move. "Go home!"
I ran up to him, fist clenched, and threatened to smash him in the shoulder. For a split second he looked at me with unfocused eyes, his hair sticking up in all directions even though it was really short. Then he burst into tears and ran, clutching the back of his head with both his hands. I waited until I saw him disappear around the corner of Wilderton before returning to my place under the stairs.
"Don't let him come here," I warned Paul, aiming my index finger at his nose.
"I try!" he insisted. "He never listens to me." I recognized the phrase, and even intonation, that his mother often used about him.
I smoothed a new road in the dirt, in the process forming a ridge blocking a cross-street, one that Paul pressed down with his fingers. The first car I tried on the roads was my black police car with the white doors. It was the biggest car I had, and the most elegant as far as I was concerned. I watched a Daddy long legs scurry by, making sure it was gone into the grass before I continued. "I saw the President on TV yesterday."
"So did I!"
I ignored him. "He was driving in a car like this one." While watching the news my father had insisted on pointing out the procession of black cars going down some street in Washington. Usually I avoided the news, but the parade was too spectacular to miss. "I mean, it wasn't a police car, but it was black and this big." We had watched the President wave as his car turned down a street, his wife sitting beside him and sometimes waving, too. "My father said that he's going to be elected again next year."
I shrugged. At the time, I thought that the President was our President; and when I saw Lester Pearson I knew that he was our Prime Minister, although how they governed the country together was not clear. My father had been very happy when Lester Pearson got elected a few months before, and so, of course, was I. "My father also said Kennedy is the best President we ever had."
Paul nodded, and scratched the back of his hand the way he was always doing.
"How are we going to keep Stevie away from here?" He was becoming dangerous; there was no way of knowing what he would do, especially if he was retarded. Paul didn't answer, so I said, "Should we tell on him?"
I thought about that but didn't know who would be the right person to tell. Someone had to be responsible for keeping people off your property. In school each day we said the Lord's Prayer, and I remembered the part about trespassing. I knew what that meant, because I'd asked my father after seeing a sign on a silver-painted metal fence that said:
No Trespassing/Défense D'Entrer
No matter what it said in the prayer, trespassing was illegal.
Paul ran my huge, black police car around the complex weave of roads we'd made, and we now pretended it was the President's car, slowly winding its way through immense crowds.
At home I told my mother about Stevie. She was busy washing the dishes, hands covered with yellow rubber gloves and white foam. She said, "Ignore him and he'll go away," giving no more thought to her words than to which fork she chose to pull out of the brownish water and scrub with her thumb.
But Stevie kept coming back, refusing to respect boundaries. I did try to ignore him, and in fact after a while he would go away, but then he'd be back--if not after lunch, then the next day. Once or twice I chased him off again, just by coming out from under the stairs; one look at me and he ran. Otherwise, the only thing that kept him from standing there all day was boredom; eventually, he'd run off as if he had somewhere really important to go. But he still had no right to be on our street, and his presence there was, to me, a shocking violation.
He became intolerable the day I finally got to ride on the Borden's delivery truck. I'd just gotten a new Dinky Toy dump truck, with a "dumper" you could actually raise and lower, and rubber tires I hadn't lost yet. We were using it to clear away the dirt from hand-flattened roads when I spotted the white delivery truck crossing Wilderton. I peered out from under Paul's stairs to watch as it rolled slowly down Goyer, stopping at most of the houses. On the side of the truck was a rich painting of Elsie the Cow, almost three-dimensional against the white paint. At each stop the milkman carried a metal basket out of the truck and strode quickly to the porch, where two or three empty bottles stood next to the door. He removed the conical note and bills sticking up out of the mouth of one of the bottles and returned to the truck with the other empties symmetrically arranged in the basket. A few moments later he came out of the truck and brought the order, his every step making the bottles clink noisily, and dropped the change into the remaining empty. I walked to the sidewalk admiring the operation, determined that I would be a milkman myself some day.
"Come on!" Paul yelled. "The road's not finished!"
I ignored him and followed the truck, shielding my eyes against the glare off its glossy side. As the truck passed through the long morning tree-shadows the sunlight flashed off it like lightning. I pretended it was pushing its way through a violent storm, bringing milk no matter what the danger. When it stood before my own duplex I ran to look through its open back doors. Gleaming metal racks held hundreds, maybe thousands, of bottles: many of the bottles were empty, but most were full of blue-white milk, with a whiter band at the top, each bottle capped by crimped aluminum foil. Against one wall of the truck stood a huge square stack of butter in rectangular foil packages, of the kind we bought, but in uncountable numbers. On the other side were neatly ranked egg cartons, and bottles with yellow caps: buttermilk, my grandfather's favourite. Under all the racks were large sheets of thick brown cloth draped over blocks of white ice.
Paul stood next to me, leaning on the rugged metal ramp protruding from the truck's end. He ran his lower lip back and forth under his buck teeth. "Get away or you'll get into trouble," he told me, scratching the back of his right hand. "
"No, I won't."
I'd long dreamed of riding in the back of the truck with all that milk, all that ice, around me. Not to go far, just far enough--maybe to De Vimy at the end of the street. I backed away as the milkman returned, carrying the basket which now held four empty bottles. He looked down at me from under his cap but because of the shadows I couldn't tell if he was smiling or angry. He put the empty bottles into what seemed like carefully chosen places in the racks, and went up front. He drove further up Goyer, both Paul and I following closely. After making another delivery, he got behind the wheel, turned around, and said, "Want a ride?" in what I could tell was a French accent.
"Sure!" I said. Paul and I climbed up and stood in the aisle between the racks. I tried sitting on a ledge of blanketed ice but it was too hard and cold, so I stood up near the back. The truck jolted forward, and I watched the street flow by slowly. I saw the buildings I knew so well scrolling away behind me, holding their cement walks out to me and then withdrawing them.
At the truck's stops we stood aside to let the milkman deposit empty bottles and pick up full ones. He mostly ignored us, which suited me fine, because it meant he wasn't about to kick us off. Each time the truck started or stopped we held onto the racks or cold walls, and the bottles rattled in their steel racks, but amazingly none shattered or fell out.
We continued down Goyer past Howard Cohen's house, past Gail Moscovitch's, even past Gordie Zeitner's, my worst enemy. The street matched my mental map, but was more interesting, more exciting, seen from the back of the milk truck. Every duplex was divided from its neighbours by square-cut bushes, and sharply sloping driveways that ended in garages or stone walls in the middle, with steps leading up to the back yards. I'd never seen the bushes and driveways slide by this way, at least not without a car window blocking me from them and making them look like part of a TV show.
As we neared De Vimy I felt a jab of fear that I might never get off, that I would be carried up De Vimy, past Barclay, into unknown territory. So when we were just outside the home of Mrs. Dorowitz, my mother's old friend and sometimes our babysitter, I hopped off and Paul did the same. We watched the truck turn the corner, then ran back to Paul's house.
When we arrived at Paul's we stopped cold. Stevie was under the stairs, playing with my dump truck! He was rolling it back and forth over the same strip of dirt and making deep engine noises, saliva stringing off his lower lip. He didn't look up at us when our shadows cut across him; he just kept playing, as if it wasn't important to acknowledge our being there, as if he owed us no apology.
"That's mine!" I yelled, grabbing the dump truck out of his hand. He looked up at last, his face twisted in the beginnings of a cry. "Get out of here!"
He started to cry in earnest now, screeching as the tears rolled from his eyes. Paul pushed him in the back, which only made it harder for him to get up and away. "Get off our property!" Paul ordered, but Stevie just sat there, crying, beyond us. I'd never seen anything like it: the world's rules meant nothing to him, he was incapable of following them, like every monster I'd ever read or heard about.
I stood over him, fist raised, and growled, "Go home, Stevie." He cried for a few more seconds, then, exhausted, got to his feet and began running. As he passed me I swung at him, landing a punch on his shoulder. Paul and I chased him down Goyer and around the corner onto Wilderton, running as fast as we could but not really trying to catch him. We chased him around again to Bedford, right to his house, where he raced up his stairs and fell backwards against the front door, one hand clutching the knob. We stood on the sidewalk, not daring to step foot on his walk, because at least we knew the rules.
"REE-tard! REE-tard!" Paul chanted, and I joined in. Stevie began to cry in full force once more, screaming, "Maaa!" over and over again.
"REE-tard! Stevie is a REE-tard!"
The front door was yanked open, scraping against its tight frame, and Stevie's mother looked out at us. Her face was thin, like a skeleton's, and she was wearing a thick housecoat. Gray and black hair floated around her head wildly. Beyond her, I knew, were horrors too awful to imagine.
"Get away from here!" she yelled at us, shooing us with her left arm. Her eyes were round, fiery; she looked ready to kill us. We both answered with one more "REE-tard!" before running home. I had a stitch in my side and could barely run, but I was glad we'd taught Stevie a lesson about how things were supposed to be.
At Paul's house we slipped under his stairs and I felt my stomach sink. The road system we'd built was ruined, the dirt now gashed and mounded chaotically. I'd been holding my truck throughout the chase, and put it down tiredly. I felt hot and drained.
"Do you want to fix it?" Paul asked.
I didn't answer. We'd build it again, someday; I was sure of that. But Stevie could come back any time and destroy it, maybe steal our trucks while we were gone. We'd have to carry everything inside, protect it, if that was even possible. We'd never know what would happen to our work, or when.
But Stevie never did venture onto Goyer Street again. We saw him only a few times after that, when he would stand at the corner of Bedford and Wilderton watching us from a safe distance. As soon as anyone made a slight move in his direction he'd run away. We didn't bother to chase him. Half of me was afraid of what he might do; the other half was satisfied that we'd made everything right again.
A few days after we chased Stevie away I came home from playing at Paul's a little before suppertime. My father's car was parked out front. But when I went upstairs I found no one around. I looked everywhere, then spotted my parents and sister standing on the back balcony. As I pushed the screen door open my mother turned and grabbed me, pulling me against her side.
"What's the matter?"
Other people were on their balconies, too, some pointing, some talking to each other, some even laughing. I looked beyond my mother's breast to the woods between Goyer's back yards and Barclay's, where I played almost every day. A car had somehow broken through the wooden fence behind the Barclay yard diagonally across from ours and rolled down the slope through the woods, to be stopped only by my tree. If my tree hadn't been there, the car might well have kept rolling all the way down into our yard.
I looked up, numb, at the car hanging crazily over our property, its light blue paint striped by late afternoon shadows, and its twisted chrome bumpers black in some places, glaring white in others. I saw a man standing by the hole in the fence, holding his chest, while some other people were talking to him or looking at the car. In the distance I could hear a siren growing louder.
My sister sat on the iron steps of the fire escape, chin on palms, elbows on knees, staring at the scene. My father shook and scratched his head. "Incredible," he said at last, in a low, scary voice.
My mother just pulled me closer, but I didn't mind.