Note: The real names of the individuals in this story have not been used in order to protect their identities.
I wasn’t old enough to get a real job, but a sixth grader named Lance chucked the newspapers around Lewis Drive and graciously offered me his flyer route. I got twenty-five cents a flyer, which was pretty decent given that you could fill a tank of gas back then for around twenty bucks, but only a fraction of what Lance was making. I took the gig despite the low pay. Besides, what would a 10-year-old on Hammonds Plains Road need a pocket full of quarters for except, maybe, to fill the other pocket with gummy worms and Sour Patch Kids?
Lance said he didn’t really care if I finished all the homes. Everyone got a flyer, but only certain homes got the paper – that’s probably why he dumped the flyer route on me. Still, he was a decent guy and never gave me a hard time. Odd for a seventh grader. The others wouldn’t let me breath without breaking my balls. I looked up to Lance. He was like a superhero to me. Did his own thing. Stood tall, looked really cool and collected, and had a dope name to boot: Lance. I wished that my name was Lance.
So I took the route. I can’t, for the life of me, remember how long that went on for. There was a big wooden bin at the corner where Lewis Drive met the Hammonds Plains Road, right in front of the blue sign that read: Peerless Subdivision. Every Saturday morning, I’d leave my house (conveniently located across the street), and would dart across the Hammonds Plains Road. It wasn’t all that busy back then, not like now. Wouldn’t dare send a kid across that road now.
Anyways, I’d check the bin every Saturday morning. There were two compartments in the bin: the one on the left was for Lance’s papers and the one on the right had my flyers. If the left compartment was empty then I knew that Lance had already gone ahead of me, which he usually had. On top of the flyers lay a blue cotton sack with a single shoulder strap, and fluorescent orange electrical tape that ran along its trim.
This Saturday was a pretty one. A gentle breeze, sun, blue skies and all that. I usually knew it was the right kind of day for being outside because I could hear the grasshoppers buzzing in the tall grasses. It wasn’t hot enough to make you sweat, but it was dry enough to have fun without getting too messy. Getting messy was always a gamble. The messier you got the longer it took to get cleaned up, and that meant fewer minutes playing Excite Bike on my Nintendo.
I grabbed a quick breakfast that morning and dashed across the Hammonds Plains Road. Checked the bin, Lance had already gone ahead. By that point, I had enough experience to know that I’d probably only manage a couple bundles. Each bundle was bound with two of those poly cord straps. I tore off the straps, stuffed the flyers into my shoulder sack, and started on my route.
There were easily over a hundred homes in that subdivision and it was a long trek. I’d try to get to at least a quarter of them. I went about this somewhat selfishly, delivering to the people I knew and liked. I don’t suppose they were too grateful, but they pretended to be. Maritimers are like that I suppose. Maybe it’s from all those visitors coming through the ports.
Usually, I’d make my way up Lewis Drive, skip the first few houses on the right because they were the grumpy sort, and then I’d take the first turn down Olive Avenue. I knew a few people on Olive, like the Bowmen’s, but I left my favourite homes for last. These fell on a short strip of Lewis Drive between Estelle Avenue and Olive Avenue. So after delivering to a few homes on Olive, I’d make a quick dash for Estelle.
Now, there were two reasons for this. The first was to get back to Lewis Drive quicker, so that I could catch some of those “good folks” on their lawns. The second reason was to avoid the corner of Olive Avenue and Bernard Street. That corner sent my head for a spin, my knees would get weak, and my heart would start racing. It was the kind of panic that was probably handed down to us by our ancestors back when we were rabbits anxiously looking out for wolves. But Bernard street had no wolves; instead, it harboured Jeremiah, JP, and Kurt. There were a few other kids who tagged along for the obvious benefits, but would also play with me so long as the “gang” wasn’t around. Fairweather friends.
On that fine Saturday morning, I happened to get a little distracted tracking hoppers through the grasses along the road, and ventured a few meters past Estelle. The moment I realized where I was, I looked up towards Bernard and there they were – the whole gang – playing baseball on the street.
“Hey faggot, come here!”
I wasn’t gay, but back then any kid who was prey was also a faggot.
“Come on faggot, don’t be a faggot!” Jeremiah’s rusty voice was unmistakable. He was a tall lanky boy who always wore a ball cap over his greasy dishevelled hair. I had never seen him in a fight, but we were all scared of him. I think it had something to do with his older brother, but I hadn’t been around long enough to appreciate the subtle politics of the neighbourhood. All I knew was that Jeremiah Valen ran the pack. He was a loud, bad-mouthed, perverted psychopath, and he loved to scare the crap out of me.
“Get your ass over here faggot, we need an extra body for the game.”
I took my time, but not really. If I moved too slow I knew they’d continued to bark humiliating insults at me. There were some girls on that street who I sort of had a crush on. None of them really noticed me, but I didn’t want them to see me like this. I concentrated on my private areas to keep myself from peeing. It was really hard to manage all these things while carrying a sack full of flyers.
“Jesus paki, why’d you take so long? Grab the damn bat!”
Jeremiah shoved the wooden Louisville Slugger into my chest and walked with long lanky strides to the pitcher’s mound: a thick white line scratched into the pavement with a piece of granite. I didn’t quite understand at that point why they called me ‘Paki’, though I figured it wasn’t something people wanted to be called.
The boys all arranged themselves at their respective positions. First, second, and third base were marked off by white squares, and the outfielders stood near the treeline where the road ended. JP crouched down behind me, he was always the catcher since he was the only one who owned a catchers mask. I knew a little about baseball, but wasn’t all that good. My dad really wanted me to be, but I just couldn’t get all the rules. Besides, I was never really interested in winning anything, and that wasn’t the type of attitude coaches wanted to see in their players.
“You ready paki?! This ball’s got your name on it.”
I was terrified. I wanted to cry right there, but we all know how that would have ended. I looked over at Aaron who was on first base, he was one of my fairweather friends. He looked sad but hopeless, like he wanted to help me but there was nothing he could do. Aaron pursed his lips and shrugged as to say, “sorry dude.” Knowing I had an ally a few meters away only made me feel worse.
Jeremiah’s smile ripped across his face, ear to ear. He was frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog and cackling like a crazed hyena – at least, that’s how I remember it. I knew I was about to get beamed with a hard ball and I knew it was going to hurt really bad. Jeremiah was one of the top pitchers in Triple A, and he was savouring this moment. Right then and there, he wound up and pitched a fast ball that I was never meant to hit.
It was the worst pain I had ever felt. The ball smashing into my ribs, the tears gushing from my eyes, the boys laughing and howling, the sounds of hands striking hands, the celebration of my pitiful state, pathetic little immigrant kid keeled over in the middle of Olive Avenue. I pissed myself, couldn’t breath, couldn’t stop crying, but I managed to keep my mouth closed. I didn’t want them to hear me hurting, I didn’t want them to call me a paki faggot again.
* * *
It’s been almost thirty years since that day. Still, I can’t get it out of my head. I live in Ottawa now. My life has taken, maybe, a predictable route: Now, I speak truth to power working for an agency that oversees Canadian prisons, ensuring that the rights of prisoners are upheld and that correctional administrators are held to account. Maybe I did this because I couldn’t face the bullies when I was a kid.
In the winter of 2019, I was visiting my parents in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One afternoon, on my way to my parents’ place after picking up some groceries from the Sobeys in Bedford, I decided to take a short detour. A warm late-afternoon sun cast its red glow over the hilly suburbs of Hammonds Plains. It was the sort of view that sets your mind to reflecting on the past. I turned up Lewis Drive towards the scene of the crime.
Besides the extension of a few roads past the old limits, not much had changed. The streets seemed shorter, and the peaks and valleys seemed a lot shallower. Otherwise, same homes, same street signs, but as I drove up Olive Avenue something felt different.
The fear was gone.
I drove by the homes of my aggressors and felt pity instead of hatred. Because I knew that they were children who grew up in environments that taught them things, like how to be and who to hate. Something was taken from them that they were trying to get back. Something was given to them that they just wanted to get rid of. They were mean because nobody taught them to be any different. They craved power because someone had made them feel powerless, and they feared to lose that power because it would make them feel vulnerable.
I felt pity, but I also felt thankful. Thankful that, on that day of brutality, I was able to relieve Jeremiah, JP, and Kurt of their insecurities, that I was able to unite them, that I was able to empower them.
As I circled around Bernard street I saw a man, around my age, playing with his kid. They seemed happy, and the child was laughing as her dad lobbed a large round softball in her direction. As I drove by, the man looked towards me and we made eye contact. We smiled and nodded at each other.
I drove off while watching them disappear in my rear-view mirror.