Except for the front row, the room is crowded. I am not up to the front row. I spot one empty space in the back. Once I see that space, I don’t bother with the front row or any other, although I’m not sure why I don’t.
There is a woman up front; she is talking, her voice smooth as butter, a song of comfort ringing underneath. She must be forty, but she carries herself like a gracefully aging youth. My knee tickles a little, an old habit plaguing me. It started the first time I sat in the lunchroom at Saint Mary’s Residential school. I was six. I am not sure why the tickle came, but when it did, made me squirm in my seat. Every time I squirmed, one of the brothers would come over and bark, “Sit still, Henry.” Henry, it was not my name when I got there. I hated that name for a long time, but then one day in tenth grade I was out on the soccer field, someone hollered Hank and I realized that I did not remember my other name and it was too late to ask my parents. They both died while I was at that school. I am barely in the door and I feel sorry for myself already. Why did I come here?
“You all must be Canadians,” the lady quips. The crowd laughs a little. We are Indians: we know there is a punchline coming, but we like laughing beforehand as though we need a laugh. “Did you know that about Canadians?” We laugh again, as if we do. We do not. At least I do not. “Canadians are modest, shy and humble. They fill a room from the back, no one sits up front—look, the whole first row of seats is empty and there are three people standing against the back wall. What is that?” We roar. It isn’t all that funny. Some more people walk in the door as she waves to the people at the back to move to the front. Only the newcomers shuffle to the front, obediently, while the audience giggles a little.
“Are you American?” she asks. One of them says, “Yes,” and now we are totally cracked up.
The tickle crawls down my leg. I cross one leg over the other like that will end it. I close my eyes. It’s as if I am in a black box and there is some tiny little hole in it where the light outside the box shines through. Christ, pay attention.
“On my right is Vera Manuel. She is going to talk about her experiences at residential school; on my left we have the United Church pastor and a representative of the Catholic clergy. Oh,” she throws her hands up in the air. “Excuse me, gentlemen you have names…” I stop listening. I don’t want to know their names until I can remember my own. Her voice fades.
I open my eyes. My foot shakes not like it is cold, but like it wants to run. The other foot feels like it is nailed to the floor. The lights glare, the glare burns, sparks a scream that invades my ears. The scream won’t stop for a while. The last time it started it didn’t stop until I went out and drank myself into a barroom brawl. Please god. Make it stop. We are already on to Vera and I missed the names of the two white guys. Vera’s voice is so gentle and her accent is so untarnished I can tell she is Shuswap. My armpits drip sweat. Why the hell did I come here? Where the hell is George? I can hear someone near the coffee stand stir a spoon in their cup and I smell good coffee, not the kind that comes from the urn at the back. The seat next to me shifts and someone sits—it’s George.
“Did I miss anything?” I can’t believe he said this out loud.
“Bother to whisper eh?” I hiss. Vera is talking about her experience at home and at school.
“No,” Vera answers him. We all laugh. “That’s the thing about us Indians,” she says, working the joke, “We arrive at exactly the right time, even when we are late.” The crowd laughs some more. George has a big goofy grin on his face, tips his cup to her, like some guy would doff his hat. My knee stops twitching. The screaming from the light’s glare stops too. Vera’s hair was cut, her body deloused on the first day of school; she didn’t recognize the food, was prohibited from speaking her language, all rubber ducky kind of trauma stuff.
Last Friday over a beer I told George that I have a harder and harder time waking up to go to work. We start at eight; I arrive at nine. George asked, “What’s up?” I told him that I went to bed early enough, but I had a tough time getting up.
“This happen often?”
“Oftener and oftener.” I knocked the nearly full beer back in one drain. It made me feel a little self-conscious because George doesn’t drink.
“Discharging,” he said, like I’d know what it meant. “Some guys get a wild hair up their ass and they want to sleep, others can’t sleep at all. The first one is called ‘discharging,’ the other is insomnia. Something’s got you by the short and curlies and unless you deal with it, you will be screwed.”
“I got a good job. I own a house, could use a wife, maybe. I see my kids every weekend. I don’t have too much debt. You tell me, what could be the matter?”
“Actually you do know, in fact, you are the only one who knows, but for some reason you want to sleep rather than look at it.”
I cracked up. It wasn’t funny, but it felt so right to laugh.
“There’s a conference this weekend, might be the answer to your questions.”
“Are you going?”
“You want to know the answer so bad, you’ll go to a conference?” I asked. Everyone laughed, clicked glasses. I’m a regular fun guy.
“Yeah,” George said. “I’m the other guy—insomnia.”
This bit all the laughter in half. Then I saw the bags under his eyes, the sagging skin along his jawbone, the fatigue that bent his shoulders slightly. He cradled his cup like he was at rope’s end. Why hadn’t I seen that before?
Vera and the priests have finished. The crowd scoots their chairs back, strolls to the coffee urn. George and me stand with our thumbs hooked into our britches, wondering what we should do next.
“Hey guys, got some space for the moderator?” Her smile lights up the room. A guy pulls a team of huskies clear across the arctic for a smile like that. I am not the only one that feels like this, because all three of us jump out of the way. She gives us one more smile as she slips away.
“She’s so pretty she’s dangerous,” some guy standing behind us says. “Sam.” He offers his name and puts his hand out. We shake hands, and then sidle to the back wall and slip out the door for a smoke.
“Didn’t bother me,” Sam says, like he’s answering a question we had asked, “Residential School.”
“You didn’t like your parents?” George says.
Sam shifts from one foot to the other, gripping the cigarette just a little too tight. “Sure, I like them enough.” He draws a short sharp drag and lets it go noisily.
“I mean you didn’t like them enough to want to be at home?”
My knee is twitching again. Did I like my parents? Did I want to be at home? I scan the sidewalk for something to lean on, nothing there. If I liked them so much, how come I can’t remember the name they gave me?
“Well sure, I missed home. But everyone did. We were all in the same boat.”
“Long as it was all of us, it wasn’t all that bad?”
Shit, George, let it be. George is always walking on the cutting edge of things. At work he volunteers to swing out from the scaffolding to lay the rafters. Sweat starts trickling down my armpits again and I know what’s coming next—the scream, the fucking scream.
“Didn’t go to the same school as me.” It drops from my mouth before I know I’m saying it. “Some of us did okay, others got licked every day, some of us saw the dark of the basement, mice and rats, water around the ankles, others got the inside view of a closet, or the confessional that was never intended for the use it got.” My voice constricts; otherwise I could have just gone on and on.
“What happened in that confessional?” Her voice is so serene and slow it rolls out like a smooth clean wave of water. I close my eyes and wait for her to say more. “Did you spend a lot of time in the confessional?”
“Yeah,” I manage. Her voice brought me back there, like I felt safe enough to go there because she was there with me. I could see a sliver of light somewhere through the dark of that box shining in my eyes. I turn my head away.
“What are you seeing, Henry? Who is there with you?”
“Fuck,” Sam whispers. George leads him away. George’s voice dims but I still hear him. “We were so lonely there, Sam. We all wanted to recognize one another as family, so we convinced ourselves that we were all treated the same, that we were the same, that we were family, so we wouldn’t miss our real family, Sam.” No response from Sam.
“I see a light.” All heads flip to look at me.
“What?” George’s voice is filled with concern.
“A light, a sliver of light,” I answer.
“Does it look far away?” she asks.
“You have a light inside, Henry. Turn it on. Shine it at the light in the distance.” There is this light in my belly and I flash it at the light far away. The distant light comes closer. My knees are so weak.
“Do you need a chair, Henry? Are you having a hard time standing?” She slips her arms around my waist and leads me away from the sidewalk. My eyes are still closed. I stumble a little. She tightens her hold. She is strong. For the first time in what seems like forever I relax and lean on someone. I am seated somewhere. There is a shadow behind the light. She is talking still. I lean my face into my hands and the shadow becomes a face. It is the brother. He has come for me. He is taking me to the confessional. Not this fucking time. I leap. She catches me, holds me. Her voice is more commanding now, but still gentle, “What is he doing?”
“He is taking me to the confessional.”
“Is it dark?”
“It’s the middle of the night.”
“Where are you now?”
“Inside the box.”
“Is there anyone there with you?”
“Just the brother,” I say. “I can hear him unzip his pants.” A small “oh no,” high-pitched, follows, and it sounds so young as it fills my ears. Who is that? Oh my god it’s me. I am just a kid. I must be used to this because I don’t resist. He grips me by the hair, then slides back and forth. I vomit right there as he comes in my tiny little mouth. I whimper for a while.
“That’s good, Henry.” I feel her hand on my shoulder. “That’s years of old hurt and shame coming up.”
My eyes open. George is next to me. He has hold of my hand. “What was that all about?” I know. I just have a hard time believing it. Brother James molested me in that confessional. I want to puke again. I want to kill someone. My shoulders rock back and forth, my head moves from side to side. I feel the energy leaving, almost see it slipping away. I want to watch it, give it some colour, see it dissipate all purple and gold, watch it wash the city block across the street from the Indian Centre in its haze.
“You were raped.” She utters the forbidden words quietly, flatly, like she’d known all along and had just been waiting for me to see it, to remember it, to feel it.
Across the street there is a woman pushing a baby carriage. She looks like she is in a hurry trying to get away from something invisible that always seems to follow her. I snort, but stop short of laughing.
“What is it?” She asks, looking at the women hurrying down the street.
“I had a girlfriend. We broke up a few weeks ago. You want to know why? She kept turning on the lights. She liked everything bright. Me, I’d sit in front of the TV in the dark. She would come home from shopping or something—all happy and cheery—flip on the light and I would look for some reason to give her hell. Sometimes it took a while for her to give me one, but in the end she would.”
“That’s the thing bro,” George says. “You can always count on people to be imperfect.”
The laughter rises from my belly like thunder. It loosens my legs and slowly restores my strength. I get up and we head back into the building. At the door it dawns on me that my name is Bear.
“Bear?” the woman asks. I had no idea I’d said it out loud.
“My parents called me Bear before the school changed it to Henry. Do you think that would be on my birth certificate?”
“How old are you?”
“No. You are too old for them to be allowed to call you that.”
“What do you mean?”
“For a long time, it was against the law for us to use names like that—they had to be Christian names, and Bear is not a Christian name.” She pulls the door gently and it closes behind us. “You can always change it,” she says, like changing your name is so easy.
“I remember my name,” I say.
She touches my hand. “You will remember a lot of things, some of them not so good,” she says. “But when we forget the past, we forget the good stuff too.”
She lets go of my hand. I look at all the people in the centre and for the first time in my life, I’m not afraid of the crowd.