Waiting for Bo Diddley
by Bruce McDougall
Jack walked home from school at noon down Tremont Street past the white house where Mister Patrenzic, the gym teacher, lived. After lunch, he returned to school by a different route so that he could stop at his friend Carl’s house and still get to school before the bell rang at one o’clock. Carl’s mother worked afternoons at the Cloverdale Mall, across the street from their house, selling dress pants, white shirts and nylon socks in the menswear department of Morgans. His father worked twelve hours a day as a plumber, installing water pipes and porcelain toilets in suburban housing developments that were rising from farmers’ fields on the outskirts of the city. His older brother went to the local high school, which was three miles away, and took sandwiches with him for lunch in a brown paper bag. That’s why Carl was always alone when Jack arrived on his way back to school.
Jack liked spending time at Carl’s house. His own father was dead, and his mother was a Presbyterian schoolteacher. In Jack’s amputated family, life’s possibilities depended on your obedience to the rules. Rules were the bannisters on the stairway to Heaven. The more strictly you held to them, the more easily you would make your way through life. Disobey a rule, and you’d tumble down the stairs of propriety to wallow in self-indulgent squalor with foreigners, hoodlums and sexual libertines. Jack’s father had taken a tumble and disappeared from his life. Fearing a similar fate, Jack now clung to the rules with all his might.
Before they continued on to school, Carl and Jack sometimes played ball hockey in the driveway, taking shots at each other with a tennis ball in front of the garage where Carl’s father stored his tools and a plumber’s jungle of iron pipes, brass drain fittings, bathroom sinks and toilet bowls. On rainy days like today they sat in the basement bedroom of Carl’s older brother listening to his record albums by The Coasters, Ike and Tina Turner, Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke.
Jack and his mother had moved into the neighbourhood three years ago, when Jack was nine. A few weeks later, his mother had driven Jack and his new friend Carl to Lakeshore Arena to try out for their first hockey team. Since then, Carl had become an all-star and now played three times a week at indoor rinks in the city on a team whose sponsor paid for all his equipment, including his sticks and Tackaberry skates. Everyone at school expected Carl to become a professional hockey player for the Toronto Maple Leafs. So did Carl’s parents, who dreamed of following their famous son into a life that offered more than relentless suburban drudgery.
At school, Carl told his friends about the bench-clearing brawls that erupted on the ice and spread into the stands, where even the players’ parents punched and wrestled with each other to defend the honour of their sons’ teams. Only players destined for professional careers competed with such sanctioned brutality. Lesser players like Jack went once a week in hand-me-down uniforms to an outdoor rink, where they stumbled and skidded on second-hand skates, exercising camaraderie and good sportsmanship, while their parents stood behind the boards, offered each other cigarettes and stamped their feet to keep warm until the kids’ game ended and they could all go home.
Jack had watched his first organized hockey games with his dad, who promised that Jack could join a league as soon as he was old enough. But his dad had gambled to excess, drunk rye whisky, gone fishing with unsavory characters on weekday afternoons, and hit Jack’s mother a couple of times. By the time Jack was old enough to join a hockey league, his mother had left his father and taken Jack with her. He never saw his dad again and didn’t know how to find him. On the one occasion when his father came to their house, his mother had sent him away before he could speak to Jack. Jack had imagined his dad drifting through inaccessible shadows with all the other deadbeats and rule-breakers from whom Jack’s mother wanted to protect her son. Once in a while, Jack thought of finding his father, but he didn’t know where to look and he couldn’t go far to do it because he was only eight years old and his mother wouldn’t let him leave the neighbourhood. Then, one morning last year, his mother had told Jack that his father was dead. He had drowned in Lake Ontario, she said. When Jack asked how it had happened, her face tightened and her jaw clenched as if he’d touched a metal spoon to an exposed nerve in her tooth. She said she’d tell him more when he was old enough. Since then, Jack had felt suspended in sorrow like a raisin in one of his mother’s jellied salads. Escape seemed out of the question, unless he wanted to break his mother’s heart. He didn’t want to hurt his mother. His father had hurt his mother, and suffered the consequences. Jack didn’t have the courage to face banishment from his own home.
It was just after twelve-thirty today when Carl and Jack started listening to an album by Bo Diddley. They’d listened to the songs many times, and they knew all the words by heart: “I’m A Man”, “Diddy Wah Diddy”, “Mona”, “Bring It To Jerome”, “You Can’t Tell A Book By Its Cover”. The music transported Jack into a world of libidinous fantasy and defiant joy, accessible only to a man with the courage to turn his back on convention and pursue a dream. Jack could only pretend to have such courage. He sat on the edge of the bed plucking at the loose strings of a broken guitar. “Now, lookee here,” he drawled, imitating Bo Diddley.
Carl stood beside his mother’s fold-up ironing board, tapping on imaginary piano keys. “Where you from, Bo?” he said.
“South America,” Jack said.
“You ain’t been to no South America,” said Carl.
“Have too,” said Jack.
“What part?” Carl said.
“South Texas,” Jack said.
“Ee-ee,” cackled Carl, in unison with the high-pitched, gravelly voice on the record player.
Between songs, Jack gazed at the album cover. The cover was as bland and unrevealing as the house of Mister Patrenzic, the gym teacher. You’d never have guessed from looking at it what went on inside. In the photo, Bo Diddley and his sidekick, Jerome Green, stood in a white room as featureless as the walls of a bathtub. Jerome was in the background, wearing a shirt and tie, holding a single drumstick over a snare drum. Bo stood in front of him, dressed in a spotless white sports jacket with a tiny black bow tie. He had his legs spread wide, and the toes of his black shoes pointed out, but you could tell from the way he held his red guitar that he wasn’t really playing, just posing for the picture.
It was now six minutes to one according to the clock on the wood-panelled wall. Jack and Carl had sung along to all the songs on one side of the record. They knew that school would start in a minute. But neither of them wanted to stop the music. Carl turned the record over. “All you pretty women,” they sang, “stand in line.”
When the last song ended, Carl and Jack ran out of the house and up the empty sidewalk toward their school. The street was deserted. Noon hour had ended. There wasn’t another kid in sight. Jack had never been late for school and had never been on the street at this time on a school day. He felt like an astronaut who’d fallen out of his spaceship. Even the grass on the lawns seemed unfamiliar at this time of day.
They pulled open the heavy steel door and hurried through the empty corridor. When Carl opened the door to their classroom, all of their classmates turned to look at them.
“Where have you been?” said the teacher, standing at the front of the class.
The teacher, a former professional football player, had a bald head as big as a cannonball and chewed with yellow teeth on the chalk that he used to write on the blackboard. In the face of such masculine power, Jack assumed a posture of abject apology.
“We lost track of the time, sir,” Jack said.
“What were you doing?” the teacher said.
“Listening to Bo Diddley,” said Carl.
Some of their classmates tittered. The teacher shook his enormous head and smiled. Carl’s status as a future player of professional hockey had already won the teacher’s admiration, and he regarded Carl in a much different light than Jack and the rest of their classmates. Jack hoped that the light would extend to him and that the teacher might give them both a break, tell them to take their seats, while he continued scribbling on the blackboard with his nibbled piece of chalk. If Carl had arrived alone, the teacher would have indulged his tardiness with a wink and a warning. But Jack was no one special, and the teacher had no reason to let him off the hook. “What were you listening to?” he said.
Jack looked at his friend. Carl spread his legs, pointed his toes outward and held in his hands an imaginary guitar, like Bo Diddley on the album cover.
“Now, lookee here,” Carl said.
Jack knew the next line. But he felt frightened of offending the teacher, and he didn’t have the courage defy his fear. His breathing stopped and his stomach clenched. He pulled back his lips in the grin of a thwarted idiot. He turned toward his friend but said nothing. The teacher ordered them both to go to the principal’s office.
In the hallway, Jack thought about his mother. He had dishonoured her reputation as a schoolteacher. His disobedience would shame her. He felt tears welling in his eyes. Something he had done in his short life had already cost him the presence of his father. If his behaviour could have such consequences, how was he to know that the shame he felt now was out of all proportion to his transgression? He dreaded the possibility that he might suffer such a loss again, that his mother might banish him from her life for breaking a rule.
Carl closed the classroom door and looked at Jack. “Say, man,” he said, as if their banishment to the principal’s office amounted to nothing more than a lark.
“Mmmm,” Jack said, rubbing his eyes and trying to hide his tears.
“You look like you been whupped wit a ugly stick.”
Jack ran his hands down his face and then began to scrub with his fingers at the flesh on his arms.
Loose-limbed and nonchalant, Carl strolled down the hall. “Don’t be such a suck,” he said as he walked away.
Jack felt as if he were walking to his own execution. He forced himself to put one foot in front of the other. He longed to escape not just from the school but also from the life of safety and obedience through which his unarticulated grief wafted like the sanctimonious odours of a church.
He thought of bolting down the hallway and out the door, but he didn’t have the courage to defy his guilt and follow his own counsel. He knew that hope lay in engagement, even if it meant engaging with punishment; in avoidance he would find only despair. There was no escape from the consequences of his ambiguity.
All these thoughts occurred to him without form or definition like the ghost of his dead father. He could not put them into words. He could hardly articulate his own name as he stood with his friend at the principal’s desk and wondered as he cried how long he could live with his own failure.
Grief enforced the rules that governed his life. The rules allowed no joy, no glory, no distinction, no diddy wah diddy. They reminded him constantly of his complicity in his father’s disappearance. But he would struggle to free himself from the bland tyranny of obedience to these rules. He would try all his life to stop apologizing for consequences that he had never understood. He would be amazed at the effort it would take, how much time he would need to do it and how sad he would feel when he succeeded. AQ