Canada Day

Certain neighbourhood traditions no one can explain other than to say they keep repeating themselves. The inhabitants of five houses near Beach and Wharncliffe enjoyed one another’s company enough, a shade of curiosity perhaps, that their lives intermingled four or five times a year. If most of these families lived as much as a mile apart they would have nothing to do with one another, but they were close neighbours and their proximity to one another, over the years, had manufactured a bond of friendship that appeared indestructible. It wasn’t, of course. The Browns, occupying a sixth house for years, had moved a few miles up the highway two years earlier and no one had heard from them since.

The neighbourhood matrix, despite the Browns departure, was resolute and its rituals continued unquestioned. The May long weekend camping trip to Whiskey Creek had come and gone, and because two of their three-day stay had featured sunny skies, it was considered a success. Earlier in the year the annual Easter egg hunt, this time held at the Taylors, was full of surprises and, as usual, an equal mix of sharing and hoarding. The Canada Day barbeque for July 1st was next up on the docket and everyone was excited. Marsha Hamilton felt particularly eager because she spent last year quarantined in her bedroom with the measles and she’d missed out on everything. Marsha Hamilton’s mother, Rose, had considered herself an experimental hippie when her daughter was born, years before the phrase came into common use. At the time she hadn’t believed in vaccinations. Mr. Hamilton had worked out of town for years and had engaged in several heated conversations with his wife about the measles outbreak when it occurred because he claimed to be unaware that his daughter had not been justly medicated, although Mr. Hamilton, also ahead of his time, smoked dope three times a day back then and had been unaware of many things.

But that was then and this was now. Mr. Hamilton was home so little of the time that he had forgotten the ordeal, and Rose had started her own manicure/pedicure business, Fingers 2 Toes, which she operated out of her home. Rose wasn’t particularly skilled at her job and the business didn’t last long, but the Hamilton house was nearly paid for so nobody cared. Most of their neighbours were in a similar position. The Webbs, the Sinclairs, the Taylors and the Belangers had all lived close by for more than a decade and they couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.

Marsha Hamilton was eleven going on twelve, and she lingered at that awkward stage where her body was corpulent in a manner acceptable for most ten or eleven-year-olds who were thinning out of their childhood pudgy stage but unacceptable on the days that Marsha Hamilton looked in the mirror and realized in less than two years she would be a teenager. Her mother did her toenails and fingernails monthly and Marsha Hamilton let her, but she enjoyed building forts and fishing with the neighbourhood kids more than anything. Her father sometimes took her fishing to the Cowichan River when he came home, and she could bait a hook faster than most and club a caught fish even faster. Rose had to remind her it wasn’t ladylike to spit in public.

The July 1st barbecue moved around some years but lately had settled at the Belanger’s because they had the largest, most kid-friendly backyard. It had a swing set and a sandbox most of the kids had outgrown, but there was room to play tag or soccer and they had a fenced yard. The Belangers had two tables close to the patio at the back of the house and comfortable chairs for the parents to lounge in while they drank beer and cider and gossiped about the people living in town and some out of town:  pretty much anyone who hadn’t been invited. The kids ranged from eight to fourteen, Norman Webb being the youngest. Marsha Hamilton’s best neighbourhood friend at the time was Valerie Sinclair, the oldest of the neighbourhood gang. Being a year and a half older than Marsha Hamilton she took on the role of a sage in all things to do with growing up and looking over the fence at what being a woman looked like. Valerie had her own record player in her room and sometimes she invited Marsha Hamilton there to listen to songs like “Runaway” and “Tossin and Turnin”. Valerie had a mini skirt and she had used her mother’s sewing machine to make it even more mini. Marsha Hamilton was the only person who had seen her wear it.

Stunning weather outside. The sky dark blue and a few cumulus clouds breaking into shapes overhead. For the last week the cool spring had eased into glorious summer, and it was evident in the burgeoning growth of the Belanger’s verdant hedge and the birds that hopped from tree to tree, primarily apple to plum to cherry and back again, as if it were a game known only to the ornithological world.

The kids belonging to the neighbourhood syndicate, nine in total, played games like Red Rover Red Rover, Eevy-Ivy-Over and Flashlight Tag (the perfect night time game) and all had held runs of significant length over the last year, but recently Squeeze Tag had taken over. The object of Squeeze Tag was for everyone to escape the pursuit of the person who was “it” because if caught, the victim had to succumb to a squeeze so hard it led to submission, then the new person became “it” and the game continued. There were rules, of course. Like most of the games played in the neighbourhood the rules were fluid and prone to revision if the game became stale or someone got hurt, and sometimes because no one got hurt. One steadfast rule stated that those fleeing the “it” had to hide in one of the yards belonging to the five families attending the barbecue. Three of the houses sat side by side and the other two across the street. Crossing the street was dangerous because other than a few parked cars and rows of tall-trunked trees there was little cover and visual observation was probable, so as a result the game of Squeeze Tag  almost always took place in or around the three adjoining yards.

Oscar Dirtch lived almost a block away and was not invited to the barbecue. None of the kids had ever met his mother though it was believed he’d had a mother at one point. His dad looked after him now, care that comprised of providing food, clothing and a roof over his head. Mr. Dirtch worked graveyard shift somewhere, nobody knew where, and he slept in the late afternoons and evenings which meant that Oscar was free to do what he wanted most of the time. There were thin rumours that suggested Mr. Dirtch was a spy of some sort and that was why nobody knew anything about the family.

At night, during the school year, Oscar would saunter down the street to see if there was something worthy of note he could join. If there was food around he always showed up, and he would eat pretty much anything available which helped to explain his current size—Oscar was only thirteen but he looked older because of his substantial girth. He had been held back in the school system after first grade but it had made little difference. When he spoke it was short phrases that escaped his mouth as if he’d been taught that spoken words cost money. Some of his clothes, particularly his shirts, hung on him like they resulted from poor judgement and most knew it was because he wore his dad’s clothes, handed down.

Oscar must have smelled food, despite the barbeque not yet having started, for he appeared at the wooden gate that looked in on the Belanger’s backyard. The kids were restless and despite the adult suggestion they take turns playing badminton with the two available rackets, they were in the throes of agreeing to play Squeeze Tag. Except for Valerie and Norman, the oldest and youngest. Norman had a dislocated finger, now set in a splint, and his mother disqualified him. She’d heard about Squeeze Tag and wasn’t about to take chances. Valerie had made up her own mind not to play and she had her reasons. She had on a light-yellow, easy-to-soil party dress, she had just started her period and a month earlier had received a new Elvis Presley album for her birthday. She covered all her bases by saying she felt a migraine coming on, a trick she’d learned from her mother.

Marsha Hamilton, too, was wearing a dress because her mother had insisted it wouldn’t hurt to dress ladylike for the neighbourhood party. She looked longingly after Valerie, who explained to the throng she would head inside and lie down for a few minutes and get out of the sun. Marsha Hamilton hoped to be invited, but Valerie disappeared, leaving Squeeze Tag as the only viable option.

The seven kids leaving to play, picked up a Rice Krispie square on the way out to the street and there was Oscar, his mouth watering and looking his usual secular self. No one offered either to share or retrieve something for him to eat, but there was no discussion needed to decide that he could play Squeeze Tag. Oscar had a look about him that spelled the word threat, and because he was neither fleet of foot or quick to catch on, everyone knew they could play the game for a good half hour before returning to the refuge of the barbeque and enjoy the knowledge that Oscar would spend the rest of the afternoon searching outbuildings, tree forts, garages and crawl spaces, all perfectly good hiding spots, to no avail. They also knew he would show up at the fence, spying on his chances of being invited in for a hamburger and that Mr. Belanger would tell Oscar he should head back to his house now because the fun and games were over.

Oscar was “it” the first time around. This was always the way. The kids found it especially thrilling to escape being found by him and particularly from being given the big squeeze. An Oscar squeeze was never far removed from submission.

They told Oscar to count to fifty. No one knew if Oscar could count that high, and everyone suspected even if he could that he cheated and peaked over his forearm as the rest ran for seclusion. The solution the kids found was to make noise heading east, sneak into the Taylor’s backyard and use the gate at the back of the property to escape to the road and then move down the street and enter the Sinclair’s backyard that had a shed with an attic space, a chicken coop and a plethora of obstacles suitable for hiding. Oscar was gullible enough to head east himself every time and then, after exhausting the legitimate hiding places thereabouts, move on to the Sinclairs by which time everyone had found a satisfactory hiding spot or possibly moved to where Oscar had already searched. Marsha Hamilton went east with everyone else but she didn’t escape through the backyard as usual. There were plenty of good hiding spots at the Taylors, especially with everyone over at the barbeque, and she wedged herself between a plastic garden shed and the garage in the back yard, a place overgrown with neglect. It was hot out, hot enough she could feel herself perspiring, but  her hiding place on the northeast side of the lot was cool as cool can be. Marsha Hamilton didn’t want to get caught, no one wanted to be exposed to an Oscar squeeze, but she had already decided that one of these days it would happen and when it did, she would confront Oscar about his family of spies. She would be alone with him and refuse to submit until he told her the truth.

Squeeze Tag was always fun in the planning, and when you were designated as “it” you had plenty to do to occupy your mind, but when you were hiding, the passage of time became slow and hard to judge. In late February, Oscar had gone into hiding and no one could find him before the game ended about eight in the evening. It was after ten at night when everyone had been in bed for some time, and they could hear Mr. Dirtch scouring the street before he went to work, calling after his son to get home to bed.

The world was still and peaceful. Twice Marsha Hamilton heard raucous laughter spilling from the neighbourhood barbeque, but otherwise the world had gone quiet. At her feet, in the dank ground that never saw sun, she watched a slug move across the landscape. The slug looked prehistoric, moving from the shed toward the garage, and it was like magic, the whole length of the slug moving as if sculpted out of glistening metal and a magnet somewhere in the universe was guiding it along at a methodical pace on a path of questionable direction. She wondered if the slug knew where it was going. It had two small tentacles that probed the air, but it was as if the slug just felt the need to go somewhere and might not know, if its present journey continued, it would land smack in the face of the garage. The slug moved mysteriously, like snakes she’d seen, only different because snakes wriggled and their movement made sense, earned in some way. She wanted to turn the slug over to discover the mystery of its propulsion, but she didn’t want to touch it with her fingers. She considered flipping it over with a small stick, but the slug was so intent on what it was doing she didn’t feel she had the right to intervene.

The barbeque had become a hush and she assumed that was because the grilling had begun. She watched the slug’s slow procession and decided she wanted to see what the slug would do when it got to the wall, and once that happened she would slip from her hiding spot and return to the party. At the rate the slug moved she had another twenty minutes. She squatted in the damp earth until her legs ached and she finally sat down. She knew her dress would get wet and maybe even dirty, but her mother should have known better than to insist on her wearing a damn dress in the first place. She made the slightest of sounds getting to the sitting position, but if the slug heard, it didn’t bother him. Or her. She had no idea what gender edged toward her.

Then she heard Oscar walking around in the yard. He went hm-m-m from somewhere back in his throat every time he looked in at a potential hiding spot and found nothing. He opened the door to the garden shed and said hm-m-m one more time. It was all Marsha Hamilton could do not to laugh her way to discovery. Oscar would never look behind the garden shed because of the thick weeds and shrubs that didn’t appear to have enough room to hold anything, except maybe a slug. She could smell Oscar. It wasn’t a bad smell, but he smelled musty like something stored in a basement or root cellar for years. It occurred to her that maybe Oscar could smell her. She had, at her mother’s insistence, dabbed Allure perfume around her neckline. She was used to it now, but Valerie had commented on the distinct aroma. The slug had made it more than halfway to the garage wall. He would need another ten minutes.

Got you, Oscar blurted. Marsha Hamilton, had she remained on her haunches, would have been able to fashion an escape, but rising from her sitting position allowed Oscar to pounce before she could get away. Oscar grabbed her arm at the elbow and dragged her from between the two buildings.

I need to know something, Marsha Hamilton said, but Oscar ignored her, spun her clockwise and wrapped his arms around her from behind. I want to know something, she said. I want to know if your dad is a spy. I want to know if you are a spy. Oscar squeezed. Only once before had she experienced the Oscar squeeze and it felt as painful as she remembered. Are you? she said. I’m not giving in until you tell.

Oscar stopped squeezing as hard. He pushed her onto the muddy ground and turned her to face him. He straddled her and pinned her shoulders to the earth. He stared at her and Marsha Hamilton felt scared, suddenly. She shouldn’t have mentioned anything about spying. Oscar looked at her face, right into her eyes, and she could tell he was looking for something and couldn’t find the answer. It’s okay, she said. You don’t need to tell me about your dad. I don’t care if you are spies. I give up. I’ll be it.

Oscar still had her pinned to the ground, but after she’d spoken he did so with less force. He lifted his hands away, but continued staring at her. She leaned forward to get up but Oscar grabbed her and slammed her shoulders back to earth. Then he slid away from her, but kept staring at her face as if to suggest she had better not move or she would pay the price. He lifted the lip of her dress and pushed it up so it rested under her chin. He studied the soft pink underwear she wore. Oscar said nothing. He didn’t say hm-m-m. Marsha Hamilton felt frozen in fear and didn’t utter as much as a word, but when she cleared her throat, he looked up and stared hard at her face again. She swallowed hard and he went back to examining her underwear. He took his left hand and pulled the pink cloth to the side and seemed fascinated by the crevice he found there and the downy soft hairs that promised something. His right hand hovered and then, as if this had been his life purpose just discovered, he reached forward and with the end of his pointing finger gently touched her where she was soft. He looked up at her again but the look on his face had changed, as if something he had never understood before was now clear to him. He got to his feet and bolted around the side of the house and onto the street.


Mud coated Marsha Hamilton’s knees and she was sure to hear about it. Her crumpled dress felt damp and her mother would have something to say about that too. When she got to the sidewalk, she looked around but there was no one to be seen. Two crows flipped from tree to tree, following her up the street. One crow, as if impatient with her progress, flew ahead and landed on an electrical wire overhead. The weight of the crow caused the wire to sway in the air and the crow had to work at keeping his balance. Then he turned his head sideways and scolded her before returning to the tree in the boulevard.

By the time she opened the gate to the Belanger’s backyard, everyone, except Mr. Webb, who concentrated on his second hamburger, had finished eating.

Marsha Hamilton, we were wondering what had happened to you, her mother said. That game you insist on playing ended some time ago. The barbeque is off but your burger patty is in there and should still be warm.

She could feel her mother’s eyes taking in her dirty knees and her crumpled dress. She expected her to say something, but maybe her mother was hoping no one else would notice because she didn’t say a word. Two crows, possibly the same two crows she’d seen earlier, were on the roof of the garage looking for handouts. She could hear their feet dancing on the metal roof. The trees in the backyard were in full leaf and the rose bushes along the fence filled with colour. The adults discussed watching the fireworks from where they sat or possibly walking into town. Norman Webb, with only one useful hand, challenged anyone to take him on in badminton, but nobody responded. The sky was still very blue and the puffy clouds very white. The angle of the sun was different, but on the surface everything else in the world looked the same.


Photography Credit: Jason Rice (detail)

Bill Stenson has published five books of literary fiction. His latest, out this month, is titled Half Brothers, a novella and four short fictions.