Fiction Literature Robert Labelle


By the early 1950s, the town where I grew up was turning into a modern suburb of Montreal, just across the river. New streets were being carved into the surrounding farm fields of the St. Lawrence valley, but the house my parents had put a down payment on, not long before my older brother was born, was a drafty old two-storey brick structure on one of the town’s original streets. The fireplace in the parlour seemed to say “home sweet home” as soon as they’d first walked into the house, but by late fall, while my father was discovering the daily routines of the suburban commuter, my mother found herself dealing with another kind of heat: a coal furnace.

Coal was common enough in the city flats my parents had grown up in, but in those days, they’d dealt mainly with space heaters—one in the kitchen and one in the hall near the front door. A few lumps in the morning and a few lumps before bed; just like feeding a cat, was what my mother heard her mother say.

Here, coal was delivered all at once in the fall to just about every house on the street. Controlled landslides rumbled down wooden chutes into basements barely deeper than crawl spaces, the deep earth and rock exposed underfoot; great heaps that gradually dwindled through the winter as the black nuggets were offered up daily to the iron furnace god. An angry, glowing heat would then be released, firing up the boiler to shoot steam up through a network of shaky pipes. The radiators radiated, emitted a squealing sound with a kind of shocked delight, especially when awoken on the first cold day. Little knobs would then have to be opened and “bled,” a delicate operation left to my father. Without his tentative but manly touch, an intense knocking would ensue all over the house, reminding us all of the furnace god’s mighty presence.

And so, with practice, my parents stuck to their household tasks, my mother learning the exact amount of coal to be scuttled into the grate according to dips and rises in temperatures from the first chills of October to the rising damp of April. She also learned not to knock her head on the cellar beams on her many trips down the pantry stairs.

Despite the dirty hands, the bangs on the head, and the growling, scary roar of heat, my mother marvelled at the shapes of the coal. Each lump looked like a miniature mountain she would say—just like the Rock of Gibraltar pictured on the leather-bound Prudential Home Insurance policy portfolio, which always had a revered spot on the polished dining room table. When I was little, I would run my fingers over the book’s embossed black cover as if it were the family Bible. Sometimes, too, I would follow my mother down the stairs to watch her furnace work. Once the lumps were burnt up, they turned a feathery grey, but their mountainous shapes were delicately retained until the light touch of the little sweeping brush instantly tumbled them to dust. The resulting mounds of coal soot were deposited in bags supplied by the coal company and had to be carried out with the garbage. This was my brother Gordon’s job once he was old enough, and it was eventually passed onto me.

◊ ◊ ◊

With the coming of spring, there was always a lifting of spirits, my mother’s responsibilities with the furnace put on hold, and the coal chute “window” covered with a small screen to let in some light and fresh air.

As my brother and I grew, spring most importantly meant an end to indoor, after-school games and TV shows, like Razzle Dazzle and Mr. Dress-up; replaced by day-long outside adventures. Real adventures.

I took to following Gordon around, who—having just finished grade eight—would go off with his friends for most of the day. I was in awe of these boys, especially the older ones, with their husky chests and deepening voices. Owen Buford, the biggest, most mature of my brother’s friends, smoked—as did my father and uncle—but I’d never seen anyone close to my age do so. Cigarette behind one ear, he kept his sleeves rolled up well past the elbows, displaying part of a swelling bicep, a reveal of untold masculine reserve. Though hardly replicating the illustrated Olympian figures I often marvelled at in the encyclopaedia, as I followed the crew, I often edged closer to Owen, especially when we’d explore the multitude of housing developments then being built in our town. He seemed to have an innate knowledge of building and construction and the others followed his lead as he inspected the recently poured foundations.

One day, while peering into one of the half-finished basements, my brother squatted down next to him, Owen said in a voice loud enough for me to hear, “Does he bite?”

I didn’t yet have the tools to react or even quite understand why he should say such a thing, so I just stopped in my tracks. In response, Gordon turned to look at me, as if unsure where I’d appeared from, and gave a forced laugh. Though his response hardly counted as any kind of defense for a little brother, I took it to be a kind of unmindful acceptance and I continued to follow—albeit at a further distance—watching Gordon, Owen, and the other boys, often through a blur of tears.

Being the younger child, I wasn’t always free to play or wander after older boys. Instead, I was conscripted into helping my mother with shopping. This little job was something I liked at first, but not long after the “does he bite” incident, I began to find it excruciating. It wasn’t the job itself that bothered me, but a suddenly awakened dread of being seen in public with my mother. If llowing my brother and his friends made me an annoying little dog, how would it appear if I was caught traipsing around attached to my mother’s grocery cart?

In her bright print dresses, she—and I—were very visible, and our trips to and from the shopping centre felt like a mini parade. I got the feeling doing the shopping was the highlight of my mother’s week, often lengthened with stops to chat with other ladies—acquaintances in town that women seemed to make much more easily than men. And there I’d be, standing, staring off, feeling on these occasions more like a pet on a leash than a biting dog. The ladies would either completely ignore me or glare at me, glares followed up with unanswerable questions: How do you like helping your mother? And with these, my mother, too, would wait for a reply, looking at me with the same look of casual surprise my brother had.

“I don’t know,” I would say, and to this, both would chuckle, leaving me further lost in confusion.

Even the sympathetic smiles at the butcher’s shop didn’t sit well with me. You’re a lucky boy, he’d say, as if the little pink chops my mother had chosen from the refrigerator display, packaged in waxed paper and tied with a cord and handed to me, were a not-so-subtle warning to watch my step.

And then the inevitable happened.

My mother and I were on our way along the new shopping centre walk that linked all the stores near the A&P, me pushing the grocery cart, when I spotted Owen and another boy coming directly towards us. My stomach clenched, and I slowed my pace. He and his friend were sharing some joke, which produced that mean type of laugh that sounded both ominous and, yes, manly. As the two of them shuffled by—free as birds in their enviably scuffed-up jeans and striped tees—Owen smirked at me and I instantly felt my face burn.

But it was his friend who blurted out the message directly into my ear as they passed.

“Fruit,” he said, and both of them erupted into heavy, grunting laughs, as if they’d delivered the single most brilliant epithet ever to grace the English language.

Once again, I was speechless, but my mother wasn’t. “Rag-a-muffins!”  she said, her voice clear with disdain. Her mother was from Ireland, and a lot of these types of phrases got carried along to us.

I knew what it meant, but to the boys I’m sure all that was imparted was a breath of cold shade against the bright summer day, a little residue of furnace smoke from the winter.

◊ ◊ ◊

With the onset of July, the cold and snow long passed into ancient history, the heat seemed to make my mother almost giddy. It was unlike her to be forgetful, but halfway home from the stores, my release and freedom in sight, she would suddenly realize there was something else we needed, and back we would go, my shopping ordeal extended even more.

Her forgetfulness also included the latch key. This she blamed on the fact that, before she was married, there was always someone in the flat where she grew up, a whole family of growing children and older adults. Not locking the door was one thing, but locking the door and forgetting the key was more of a problem, and this she did. The first time it happened, we had to wait through the back end of a hot summer afternoon until my father came home from work. Down he marched from the streetcar stop at the top of the road, his quizzical look coming into focus just as he spotted the two of us sitting on the front steps. After a few moments of explanation, we went in together, all smiles, but I heard him mutter, “Silly woman.” Something about this irked me, for it was something my mother had nothing to retaliate against. My father, of course, could not be called a rag-a-muffin.

My mother forgot the key again a couple of weeks later. This time the situation felt worse. She looked much more serious as she sat back down on the steps, and I gauged it was the idea of my father finding us there once again that most troubled her. Then, I saw a tear roll down her cheek. “Mum, don’t cry,” I murmured, shyly consoling her for the very first time. “Everything’s alright.”

Both of us grew very quiet, each in our corner, until suddenly I was struck with the most wonderful idea. On one of my adventures following Gordon and his friends, I had watched them sneak into a half-constructed house by crawling through a small basement window, something I was later sworn to never tell anyone about.

“I’ll be right back,” I announced, getting up, leaving my mother seated beside the grocery bags in which another round of little pink pork chops was slowly heating up. I ran around the side of the house and crouched down at the screen window, surprised how easily my nine-year-old arms could dislodge the frame, sending it back into the dark reaches of the basement. I took a deep breath and stuck my head in. Blinking in the sudden dark to catch a view of the earthen floor by the now-dormant furnace, I found myself sliding down the chute.

When I hit bottom, the impact forced out a sneeze of coal dust. I stood up and looked around, a little dazed. Dust moats, disturbed by my fall, swirled like tiny, floating diamonds in the dim light filtering in. Time seemed to hold still for a moment until the purpose of my little adventure returned to me. I turned to find the stairs, and up I ran, letting myself into the kitchen through to the pantry door.

My mother let out a startled cry as I suddenly burst out onto the front steps, and she clapped her hands as if I had performed an amazing magic trick. We picked up the bags, and as we headed in, I told her of my break-in skills.

“Oh, you shouldn’t have done that,” she exclaimed, her breathless tone more admiring than admonishing.

Later, around the dinner table, my father asked what we had been up to all day while he was slaving away at work.  I watched as he and Gordon enjoyed their dinner: the little chops browned to perfection, surrounded by mashed potatoes and canned peas.

They seemed so self-satisfied, the two of them, father and son, shoveling down their dinner like it was their due.

“Well,” I said, “as you can see from what’s in front of you, we went shopping!”

And while my father was trying to decide whether or not I was being smart, I could see I’d somewhat scooped his lecture on how it was he who put food on the table. My mother shot me a quick undetected smile and wink. This was a manoeuvre I hadn’t quite perfected yet, so I answered with a plain, honest blink with both eyes, our escapade of the afternoon becoming our little secret.

◊ ◊ ◊

The summer passed, and on the day just before Labour Day, the two of us were once again out shopping. This time, though, we made a stop at the stationery shop on the way back from groceries, my mother having unfortunately spotted a back-to-school sale. The resulting stack of copybooks, binders, pens, pencils, and rulers—all spanking new—weighed down our bags even more as we left the store and continued home.

It seemed as if these purchases had the added effect of ushering in the coming fall, for by the time we reached home, grey clouds had rolled in, cooling down the air. It seemed to do the same with my mother’s summery mood, for her expression turned almost business-like as she pulled out the key and efficiently marched us through the front door.

In the coming days, the cool weather persisted. The big dahlias in the front beds, my mother’s pride, faded after an early nighttime frost, and fallen yellow leaves spotted the sidewalks.

That same week, my father announced he would call the coal company for a delivery, though my brother said it was too early. By the third week of school though, the temperatures had dropped even more, and my father put in the call. Early one morning, Gordon and I awoke to the rumble of another winter’s worth of coal tumbling into the basement. That night, the furnace was stoked, and the radiators let out their rattle and hiss, as if annoyed at being woken so early. But they did their work, and the dampness lifted from the house.

In the schoolyard at recess that day, there were little puddles with skins of ice, extra slippery for those of us in slick new back-to-school shoes. All that cold-weather play made the class sleepy in the afternoon, and as Miss Charles droned on about the geography of the Canadian Shield, the ticking clock above the chalkboard took on a slow unison with her voice. The class woke up though, when snowflakes began to appear outside, dancing through the bleak sky, and a few of the students jumped up from their seats, running to the windows. Miss Charles’ attempts to get them to sit down were interrupted at last by the bell, and her voice rose, telling the class to leave in a quiet and orderly fashion.

The order was followed by a commotion at the lockers with everyone wanting to be the first to push the doors open at the bottom of the stairs. The waiting school buses were ignored as we marched down the road, not wanting to miss a single frozen-puddle slide. After a while, the troupe divided at street corners into different directions, the snowflakes falling and melting on the sidewalks and pavement around us like big affectionate kisses.

At last, I reached our block. Up ahead I spotted my brother, just as he was headed away from his group of friends to our door. Owen with his recognizably taller, huskier build, led the others further on, probably to the nearby fields to see if the marshy pond there had frozen over too.

I was going to follow them, but thought better of it, dilly-dallying a little longer on our street instead. I encountered one last frozen puddle laying in my path, took a little run towards it, but something made me stop short. There was a round, dark shape on the ice. As I approached, I discerned a bird, laying on its back, little upturned claws caught in a frozen grasp, rust-brown breast spotted with snowflakes that didn’t melt.

“Robin,” I whispered, as if to address it. I got down on one knee and hesitated before touching it. I didn’t have any gloves with me. I had stubbornly refused to put them on that morning, winning out finally when Gordon joined in. “Mom,” he said. “It’s not winter, yet!”

The feathered body felt stiff and light in my hands, the poor little eyes closed against the cold, the yellow beak turned downwards in a birdy frown. I felt a surge of sympathy for the little guy—recognizing, perhaps, a little of myself in his lonely predicament. Carefully, I pulled the front of my jacket up to create a sheltering hammock to carry him in.

“There you are!” my mother said as I came through the door. “Your brother’s already home, and I was wondering where you’d gotten yourself off to.” Her eyes widened as I revealed the bird cradled against me. She took a step back, and one hand went up to her mouth. “Oh, God. What have you done now?” Her voice rose. “Get it out! Get it out!”

“It’s frozen, Mum,” I murmured, my voice sounding more distressed than I thought it would. “Robins aren’t used to the cold; they go south.”

My mother continued to stare wide-eyed at the bird as if it were a ghost. When she looked up at my face though, I could see her relenting eyes. “Well,” she said at last, “let’s place him downstairs close to the furnace. The little thing might have a chance to thaw out down there.”

I followed my mother through the pantry door and down the stairs to the place where she usually crouched to add coal through the grate.

“There,” she said, pointing, and I gently laid the bird onto a set of red bricks. “We’ll just have to wait and see,” she said, smiling at me. “Now, go up and wash your hands!”

I stood up and for a moment was reminded of my fall down the chute in the summer, how hot the weather had been and how a little sunlight had found its way in. This time, there were no dazzling coal motes, only the electric bulb overhead. But looking down at the bird placed there by the grate, I saw how the snowflakes on its reddish breast had already melted into diamond droplets.

◊ ◊ ◊

“There’s a dead bird in the basement,” Gordon announced triumphantly as we sat down at the table for dinner. My mother glared at him, a finger going up to her lips too late.

“It’s not dead; it’s frozen,” I murmured, somewhat unsure of myself.

“Dead as a doornail!” my brother countered.

My father slapped his hand on the table. “What kind of a crazy house do I come home to?” He got up and headed to the pantry door in the kitchen. In a few moments, his voice rose from the basement like a bear in a cave. “So, where is this bird?”

I jumped up from the table, followed by my mother and Gordon. Down the stairs we went, and in a moment all four of us were crowded under the overhead bulb. I stared at empty red bricks.

“Look,” my mother said, gesturing towards the coal chute. “Your robin must have thawed out and flown away!”

We all stared up through the chute opening into the dark night. Then, without much discussion, everyone turned and made their way back up the stairs. I saw my father take my mother’s hand in his and they exchanged a little smile.

◊ ◊ ◊

The following morning, the sun shone brightly into the bedroom, and the furnace god below us was silent. A reprieve from winter had been granted. My brother opened the window, and the curtains fluttered out into the warm air.


Robert Labelle is a graduate of Concordia University’s Masters programme in Creative Writing, and has published in several anthologies, including Queer View Mirror, Quickies (both from Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver) and Identity Envy (Haworth Press, Binghamton, NY). He divides his time between writing, teaching ESL, and playing in one of Montreal’s longest-running post-punk rock bands.