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  • Under the Ribs of Death
  • Written by John Marlyn
    Afterword by Neil Bissoondath
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780771093913
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  • Under the Ribs of Death
  • Written by John Marlyn
    Afterword by Neil Bissoondath
  • Format: Paperback | ISBN: 9780771098666
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Under the Ribs of Death

Written by John MarlynAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Marlyn
Afterword by Neil BissoondathAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Neil Bissoondath

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Set in the immigrant community of Winnipeg’s North End, Under the Ribs of Death follows the progress of young Sandor Hunyadi as he struggles to cast off his Hungarian background and become a “real Canadian.” Embittered by poverty and social humiliation, Sandor rejects his father’s impractical idealism and devotes himself single-mindedly to becoming a successful businessman. Equipped with a new name and a hardened heart, he is close to realizing his ambition when fortune’s wheel takes an unexpected – and possibly redemptive – turn.

Combining social realism and moral parable, Under the Ribs of Death is John Marlyn’s ironic portrayal of the immigrant experience in the years leading up to the Great Depression. As a commentary on the problems of cultural assimilation, this novel is as relevant today as it was when first published in 1957.




The street was quiet now. His footsteps beat a lonely tattoo on the wooden sidewalk. The wind behind him ruffled his hair. Above him the lights went on, and over the face of Henry Avenue, half-hidden the moment before by soft, fraudulent shadows, there sprang into view an endless grey expanse of mouldering ruin. From the other side of the freight sheds came the rumble of the engines as they started on their nightly round of shunting box-cars to and fro.
Through the mingled odours of the neighbourhood, the pervading smell of coal gas and wood rot, there reached him suddenly the aroma of frying meat. He breathed it in hungrily and quickened his steps until he remembered that tonight there would be bologny for supper, with potato salad—yesterday’s potatoes in vinegar and water with onions.
His shadow moved before him, rippling buoyantly over the uneven boards of the sidewalk. He watched it grow and a deep longing came over him. He saw himself the way he would be when he was a man, sitting in the lobby of the Hotel, bright button shoes on his feet, his hat and cane on a table nearby—rich and well fed and at ease there in one of the great leather chairs, smoking an after-dinner cigar.
Some day he would grow up and leave all this, he thought, leave it behind him forever and never look back, never remember again this dirty, foreign neighbourhood and the English gang who chased him home from school every day. He would forget how it felt to wear rummage-sale clothes and be hungry all the time, and nobody would laugh at him again, not even the English, because by then he would have changed his name and would be working in an office the way the English did, and nobody would be able to tell that he had ever been a foreigner.
Sandor crossed the street. He climbed to the bench in front of the house and peered into the front room. His father sat there in his working-clothes with his back to the lightbulb, reading; a sad grey figure with bent back and softly moving lips, his face aglow with the reflected light from the open book.
A faint scowl came over the boy’s face. “Yah, books,” he muttered, and dropped quietly from the bench and walked around to the side of the house, cursing as he stumbled over the rubbish that littered the back lane.
Now everything depended upon his mother. She had but to raise her voice and his father would give him a beating. He was late, his clothes were torn. He had not done his chores, and worst of all, he had been fighting again.
He crept to the open window of the kitchen and looked in. His mother was in the centre of the kitchen with the baby in her lap, humming while she swayed to and fro. It was the first time he remembered seeing her in repose. Her face was free of anxiety, her dark, luminous eyes sad in their depths. He wondered why both his parents always seemed so sad. When he looked at her again it seemed to him that he was looking at a stranger. He had not known that she was beautiful nor had he noticed that she looked so tired.
He tip-toed to the woodshed and had already begun to chop some kindling when he noticed a pile of it stacked beside the door.
“Christ-aw-mighty,” he groaned. “Pa’s done it awready.”
He banged the door shut and walked into the kitchen, rejecting the solicitude that came into his mother’s eyes.
“You been fighting,” she said in a low voice . . . but not low enough.
There was a sudden stir in the front room. His heart sank within him as his father appeared.
The place where his lip was swollen began to throb now that he felt his father’s eyes upon it. He lowered his head.
“Come with me.”
As they walked into the front room his father reached for a length of cord from behind the door. “Only one thing I beat you for,” he said. “Fighting. You’re nearly twelve years old already—old enough to understand. Why do you fight? Does it prove something?”
He waited for an answer and then suddenly shouted, “Can you reason?”
His voice rang out. “Reason!”
He raised his arm.
Sandor closed his eyes as the cord came down across his shoulders. The pain was bearable. It was the world filled with hate and injustice and himself impotent in his humiliation that threatened his resolution not to cry. The cord came down again. He gritted his teeth.
He knew that he had only to cry out and the beating would stop. But it was a matter of pride with him not to do so. Instead he kicked and lashed out until, finally breaking loose, he ran into the kitchen and sat down on the window- sill.
Beating me for nothing, he thought, and bitterly wiped away his tears. He hasn’t even got the right to beat me. He’s not even my father. . . . His real father was an English lord. One day he would return and then this Joseph Hunyadi had better watch himself.
Out of the yielding stuff of memory he spun a familiar, consoling fantasy. There came back to him an image of a tall, distinguished man high above him on the deck of the ship that had brought him and his mother to Canada. Every day this man had appeared with an orange for him and a smile for his mother. He remembered the colour on his mother’s cheeks and her embarrassment . . . and the mysterious death of an older brother who must also have been the son of that English lord. This Joseph Hunyadi had found out about it and killed him.
Sandor shivered, whether with fear or delight or with both he scarcely knew. There were times when Joseph Hunyadi looked at him strangely. Did he suspect? If he did . . .
He looked up and waved his mother away as she approached him with a face-cloth.
“Why do you fight?” she asked.
“I like to fight,” he shouted.
She glanced into the next room. “Your father should hear you. Are you hurt?”
“No.” He pulled away from her as she turned his head to the light.
“So here, take the towel and wipe your face,” she said. “Now where’s the messer to cut the bread?”
Sandor cupped his chin in his hand and gazed out into the back yard. Behind him his mother bustled about the kitchen. The baby began to cry. Upstairs two of the boarders were arguing. He stuck his head out of the window to listen. But they were talking Hungarian.
He wished that supper were over so that he could join the gang inside the red fence.
“Sandor.” His mother pointed to the stove. “I want you should take this soup upstairs to Mr. Laszlo.”
For the first time he became aware of the rich odour that filled the kitchen. Beef soup. He caught a fleeting vision of a brimming plateful of it with fine glistening bubbles of fat floating on the surface, with home-made noodles and the steaming fragrance of the vegetables—and meat, real meat that one could sink one’s teeth into. It was more than he could bear.
“I won’t take it,” he shouted. “We eat bologny and Mr. Laszlo eats our soup. And he’s not even paying.”
“You’re not ashamed?” his mother asked. She sighed. “Poor man. To be sick and so far from home.”
“Yeah and we’re not poor,” he jeered. “No, we’re millionaires. We like eatin’ bologny every night for supper. Lookit my clothes. The English kids laugh at me in school. For over a year I been wantin’ to get a bed insteada sleepin’ on those chairs. An’ lookit our house—not even a bedroom, no oilcloth on the floors and not even a icebox or a . . .”
His mother looked at him and nodded in the direction of the front room. He grew silent. It was not her fault. If she had her way the boarders upstairs would have left long ago, or at least started paying for their keep. But she was only a woman. In the end she always gave in to his father.
“Mr. Schwalbe has taken the kartofel salad for the others upstairs awready,” she said. “Now go take the soup.”
“Poor man,” he snorted as he mounted the stairway. What did he have to complain about lying in his bed up there day after day and being waited on hand and foot? If anyone was to be pitied it was the family that was supporting him; and those three friends of his—eating and sleeping up there week after week, not paying a cent, and no one in the house daring to say a word because of his father who thought more of other people than he did of his own family.
His feet dragged. He would have hated them even if they were paying for their board and room. Mr. Schwalbe, who was paying, was even worse than the rest. They were all foreigners, every one of them, and as though that were not bad enough they were actually proud of their foreign, outlandish ways. Not one of them had yet made a serious effort to learn English.
He opened the door. They even smelled foreign, he thought, as he surveyed the grey sodden underwear and shirts and the coarse yellow socks hanging on the clothesline that had been suspended between the rafters.
His gaze shifted. He watched them silently, his eyes filled with hate. They were sitting in a semicircle on wickerwork trunks around Mr. Laszlo’s cot, in a dim smoke-shrouded tableau, silently intent upon a photograph behind the candle above Mr. Laszlo’s head. The expression on their faces annoyed him. It was as though they were glad and peaceful within themselves and unhappy only outside.
Probably wishing they were still in the old country, he thought, where the sun was always supposed to be brighter, where everyone laughed and sang all day, and where even a crust of bread tasted better. Well, why didn’t they go back there, then? He placed the tray on the table and as he did so he noticed that they had covered the tablecloth with a newspaper.
“Yah, when it’s too late,” he muttered. Two days ago they had spilled coffee all over it. He noticed that the newspaper was a foreign one and stared at it resentfully. It was German. All he could read was the date—May 17, 1913. It reminded him, for the fourth or fifth time that day, that tomorrow was Saturday. And two days later it would be Monday, he thought. That’s the kind of a world it was.
As he walked back he looked into the private cubicle of Mr. Schwalbe who was sitting there writing a letter. His red moonface glistened with sweat, his paunch rose and fell. The last time he had come waddling downstairs to pay for his room and board, he had unerringly and for the second month in a row chosen the only hour of the day when Frau Hunyadi was out of the house and Herr Hunyadi was alone in the front room. What happened then was almost beyond belief. Sitting at the kitchen table doing his homework, Sandor had overheard every word that had passed between them.
His father could truthfully say that he had not refused the money, but he had inquired with such solicitude and at such length into the state of Mr. Schwalbe’s finances that the boarder, after a whining recital of his outstanding debts, had simply pocketed his money and gone upstairs whistling. That Sandor on the following evening had had to stand and humiliate himself in front of Mr. Letzman, the grocer, for a few cents’ worth of ground meat—that, evidently, meant nothing to his father.
How could he be like that, Sandor wondered.
Some of the things he had done were almost unbelievable, like the time he had gone into partnership with Schwalbe and a friend of his who claimed to be a jeweller. What happened then was still not clear, but Schwalbe and this other man had taken his father to court and when the lawyers were through, Schwalbe had the shop, the money, and what was more important, his father’s watch-repairing tools. Without these he had been unable to return to his own trade and had had to take a job as a janitor.
And then one fine day who should return but Mr. Schwalbe to weep on the Hunyadi doorstep and beat his breast with a long tale of woe? He had remained there until the master of the house not only forgave him, but fed him too, for the next six months.
Sandor shook his head in sorrow and bewilderment. Then his lips tightened. They had seen him.
“Here’s Mr. Laszlo’s supper,” he said in German. “And don’t forget it’s only for Mr. Laszlo—so don’t the rest of you go and gobble it up.”
He ran down the stairs and into the kitchen. His parents were waiting. He sat down and began to eat, not raising his head until he became aware toward the end of the meal that they were talking about him. He could tell by the way they avoided his eyes.
They were speaking Hungarian, of which he remembered scarcely enough to ask for a crust of bread. When they had arrived in Winnipeg it was to find that for every Hungarian there were twenty Austrians or Germans, so that over the years the Hungarian language was heard less and less at home and German, the second language in their mothercountry, more and more. English began to alternate with German when Sandor was present; and it was only on rare occasions now, or when they had something to keep from him, that they spoke Hungarian.
As he sipped his coffee, he smiled to himself at the ease with which he had nevertheless assessed the subject and the overtones of their conversation. He was scarcely surprised when his mother turned to him and inquired whether he would like to go out with his father. “He is going to call on Mr. Nagy,” she said, “and then he is going back to work. He thinks maybe you would like to help him.”
Sandor lowered his head. It was not help his father wanted. This was just his way of trying to make amends for the beating.
But Mr. Nagy was the only Hungarian he knew who was an office man. To see him was one of the great and rare pleasures of Sandor’s life. And the things he might hear in the building where his father worked—in the barber shop, in the billiard room, and the steam bath—intriguing, forbidden things, the mere prospect of which sent a shiver of delight through him. It was an unusual concession on his father’s part to suggest that he might enter there. It was also very clever of him. The temptation was strong, but he struggled against it.
“I’ve still got my homework to do,” he said.
It was an irreproachable reason for not going. Anything to do with learning was sacred in his father’s eyes. That his father was probably reflecting at this very moment upon the fact that Sandor never did his homework on Friday night merely added piquancy to the situation.
That’ll learn him how I feel when I get a licking for nothing, he thought. He raised his head. His elation collapsed at the weary look of resignation on his father’s face.
“I can do my homework later,” he said. “I got the whole week-end.” His father had already risen. Sandor jumped to his feet. “Honest to God, Pa, I can do it later.”
“So hurry awready,” his mother exclaimed. “What are you waiting for? Go and get your father his cap.”
She sighed as she wiped his face on her apron.
Sandor ran to the front room, found the cap and handed it to his father who was waiting for him at the door.
It was pleasantly cool outside. People sat on their doorsteps, the men quietly smoking, the women sewing or knitting, talking to their neighbours, watching the children at play. A westerly breeze stirred the manure lying on the road. All day long it had been drying in the sun, flattened by waggon wheels, shredded by sparrows. Now the wind brushed over it, with soft fingers pried it apart in little flakes and carried it to the billowy clouds of smoke gushing heavenward from the freight-yard engines, blotting out the early stars; and then settled it slowly and leisurely on the houses and heads of the people below.
From the red fence came a distant sound of laughter. That meant that Louis was in a good mood, Sandor thought. Right now he and the older fellows were probably sitting in the hideout under the ramp smoking, and later on, if Louis had had a good haul, there would be a feast. He wished he were with them.
Above him he heard his father clearing his throat.
“Why did you fight?” he asked gruffly.
Sandor trembled.
The shame he had felt that afternoon standing in front of the class, spelling out his name for the new school nurse, while his teacher smiled and even his friends giggled and grimaced—the hatred he had felt for everybody and everything swept over him again.
“I didn’t wanna fight,” he cried. “I don’t like fightin’, but they made me.” His voice grew shrill. “They call me . . .”
It rang in his ears, the way he heard it sometimes in his dreams before he wakened clammy with sweat and terror. “Hunky, Hunky—Humpy Ya Ya.”
“Everywhere I go,” he cried, “people laugh when they hear me say our name. They say ‘how do you spell it?’ The lady in the library made fun of me in fronta all the people yesterday when I took your book back and she hadda make out a new card. And the school nurse . . . everybody . . . even the postman laughs. If we changed our name I wouldn’t hafta fight no more, Pa. We’d be like other people, like everybody else. But we gotta change it soon before too many people find out.”
“So?” his father laughed, “and who are all these people?” And there was an indulgence in his voice that caused Sandor to take heart. The subject was an old and bitter one between them but tonight he felt that he might be able to make his father understand.
“The English,” he whispered. “Pa, the only people who count are the English. Their fathers got all the best jobs. They’re the only ones nobody ever calls foreigners. Nobody ever makes fun of their names or calls them ‘bologny-eaters,’ or laughs at the way they dress or talk. Nobody,” he concluded bitterly, “’cause when you’re English it’s the same as bein’ Canadian.”
His father walked on a few steps before answering. But at his first words Sandor knew that it was hopeless. His father would never understand.
“ . . . to the first point,” he heard his father saying in German. “You told me the English make you fight. But not once have you told me that you tried to reason with them.”
“But, Pa, for God’s sake they chase me,” he cried. “When they catch me they make me fight. How can I talk to them while they’re punching me?” If he continued, he knew that he would start to cry.
He grew silent.
“It is not only stupid,” his father said. “It is meaningless to call anyone a foreigner in this country. We are all foreigners here. And what is more I detect a prejudice against the English in what you say. This is wrong, as I have told you many times. Nationality is of no consequence. In the things of the spirit there is no such barrier.”
Things of the spirit, Sandor scoffed. That’s all he thinks about.
“ . . . Spencer, Huxley, Darwin,” his father said reverently. “If you must envy the English, let these be the Englishmen you envy and emulate.”
“Yeah, and that Russian Kropotkin,” Sandor thought, “and his Mutual Aid.”
He loathed the very sound of their names. From their books, he suspected, had come his father’s idea that success and wealth were things of no account. And suddenly he was glad that they were poor. His father’s notion of sending him to University to become a benefactor and a philosopher and one of them humanitarians he was always talking about would never be realized. There would never be money enough. It was a small consolation.
As they approached Main Street, he felt his father’s hand fall lightly on his shoulder. “You are ashamed of the wrong things, Sandor,” he said. “It is shameful to be a money-chaser, to be dishonest, and to remain ignorant when the opportunity for learning is so great here. But to be ashamed of your name because you are Hungarian and are poor! When you grow up you will laugh to think that such things ever troubled you. . . . Do you understand, Sandor?”
“Yes, Pa.”
“You will go further than I,” his father continued. “Things will be easier for you. A man who is his own teacher is not complete. There must be implanted early the habits and discipline of learning. Even to think correctly must be taught. There is a logic in such things.
“And so ever higher from father to son,” he went on. “My father was a peasant and his father a serf. Yes.” He paused. “And I, I am a working man. But you will go to University, Sandor, and do great things. You will teach, as Kropotkin has said, that the war of each against all is not a law of nature. You will serve mankind . . .”
At this point Sandor noticed that they had reached the corner of Logan and Main. A few hundred yards down the street was the Chinese café the gang had broken into only last winter; not so long ago but that the police might still be searching for them. As he passed by it, he peered furtively from behind his father into the window.
He had nothing to be afraid of, he assured himself. He could say truthfully the rest of them had done it; that it was the older members of the gang who had broken in. It was also true, however, that he and Willi Schumacher had stood outside to keep watch. But on the other hand, he had made certain that Willi and not he had accepted the cigarettes and stuff which they had handed out through the window.
He breathed easier when they had passed the café door. In spite of himself, he could not help admiring the way Louis had arranged everything. He had planned the whole job with nothing more to go on than the fact that a new pane of glass had been set in the back window of the café. To the rest of the gang it had meant nothing at all. But Louis had immediately grasped what this might lead to. The putty in the window was still soft. That same night they had come back and removed it with a pocket knife.
Sandor nodded emphatically. Louis was a real leader.
Now and again he heard his father’s voice. He was talking about the brotherhood of man. Somebody by the name of Spencer was wrong. He was a great man, but he was wrong. Not the survival of the fittest but mutual aid was the deciding factor . . .
Mutual aid, Sandor thought. He should come to school with me for only one day. The English gang would soon leam him mutual aid!
He walked on, suddenly feeling tired and depressed, until in the distance he saw the lights in Mr. Nagy’s window. They brought back to mind the purpose of this call: to pay for the steamship ticket for Onkel Janos, his mother’s youngest brother. There was a picture of him in the front room; a young man, his lips upturned with laughter beneath a ferocious moustache, dressed in a sea-captain’s uniform with buttons like saucers. Sandor recalled the stories his mother had told him about this uncle—stories out of which he had spun fantasies by the hour.
As far back as he could remember, he had dreamed of him, sailing on that sea which he had never been able to pronounce, to strange far-away ports. About him was an aura of treasure chests and peril and adventure.
But they were approaching Mr. Nagy’s office, and beside Mr. Nagy, Onkel Janos’ adventures faded away into insignificance. As they drew near, Sandor’s pace quickened. His nostrils quivered. He opened the door and took a deep breath of the musty air. It was like wine. His eyes shone. He felt his heart pounding against his ribs.
The moment his father had passed by, he released the door and ran down the aisle between the bench and the long oak counter to the little gate at the end. He stood there and looked about him, entranced. Everything here, every scrap and particle of it, was invested with an air of enchantment. When he grew up he was going to be like Mr. Nagy. He gazed  at the great oak desk strewn over with folders, the encrusted marble inkwell he remembered so well, the same great ledger with its clasped lock (what secrets did it contain?), the same dusty brown-paper parcel, and on the wall above the safe a Notary’s Certificate in a green frame.
In this little office were power and prestige and wealth. If you wanted to buy or sell or rent a house, you came to Mr. Nagy. If you needed a steamship ticket, citizenship papers, an insurance policy, or you wanted to change your name, Mr. Nagy was the man to see. Police trouble, money trouble, trouble with your neighbours, you called on Mr. Nagy. If you were scared of the Health Inspector or you wanted a licence for anything, Mr. Nagy was always there. He slept in a little cubicle in the back of his office—always polite, always ready  with advice, always smiling and ready to oblige. People spoke to him with respect, even people who were not Hungarians. And Sandor had heard it whispered that there was a fortune locked away in that safe.
His glance shifted to the beaverboard partition behind which lay Mr. Nagy’s private office. He caught the murmur of voices, and as he strained against the gate to hear what was being said, they grew suddenly loud; there was the scraping of chairs and then Mr. Nagy’s voice in German, “In a few minutes . . .”
The door opened. Sandor caught a fleeting glimpse of Mr. Kostanuik, Mr. Nagy’s contractor. Then Mr. Nagy appeared, a pallid little man—with a mouth, Sandor now recalled with sudden indignation, which Mr. Schwalbe once said reminded him of a toad. That’s only because he knows Pa don’t like Mr. Nagy, he thought. But at the same time he was compelled to admit that there was some truth in Schwalbe’s sneer that Mr. Nagy looked dusty. He had the feeling that if Mr. Nagy were ever to go out in a strong wind he would come back clean, except for his nose. There the dust seemed to have settled permanently in little nodules under the skin, making it knobby and shapeless. But that didn’t matter very much since Mr. Nagy always reminded him, when looked at from the side, of that picture of a Roman emperor in his Latin reader. Sideways, his nose looked fierce and splendid.
He smiled shyly as Mr. Nagy looked down at him, and was rewarded with a few words. “Well, well, Sandor. And how are you? Your father now trusts you to come alone? That is fine.”
Sandor looked at him in bewilderment. “No—I—” he stammered, and looked behind him, and discovered his father sitting on the bench reading. “Pa,” he cried, “Mr. Nagy’s waiting.”
“Ah, good evening, Herr Hunyadi.”
They began to talk in Hungarian. Sandor shifted in an agony of suspense. He caught a word here and there, but was unable to tell whether his father was being friendly or not. He watched him counting out four dollars and laying them on the counter—that was for the ticket for Onkel Janos; another five dollars for the instalment on the house; and then two toward the debt to Mr. Schwalbe’s partner.
Mr. Nagy made out the receipts. They were still talking. Sandor looked up anxiously at Mr. Nagy. He saw the smile on his face; but that told him nothing. Mr. Nagy always smiled. Finally, he could bear it no longer. “Pa, talk English,” he cried shrilly. “I can’t understand.”
“Ho,” Mr. Nagy said. “So you want to understand?” He leaned out over the gate and patted him on the head. “Wait,” he said. “I have something.” He winked, and reached under the counter.
Sandor had almost forgotten. After every payment, it was Mr. Nagy’s custom to give him a small gift—a pencil, a tin whistle; sometimes, on rare occasions, a small bag of raspberry drops. Sandor’s mouth watered. He hoped it would be raspberry drops.
To his astonishment, Mr. Nagy thrust a small Union Jack under his nose. Sandor gulped. Then suddenly his face lit up. “It’s for the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birthday,” he cried, grasping it and waving it excitedly. “You know sumpin’, Mr. Nagy? My birthday’s on the same day as Queen Victoria’s. May Twenty-fourth’s my birthday.”
He stopped abruptly and glanced at his father out of the corner of his eyes. At that moment he wanted more than anything in the world to impress Mr. Nagy, to tell him about the school contest; the composition he had almost finished about “Victoria Day—What It Means to Me.” . . . But his father, if he heard of it, would insist on helping him and would change it and write down things that would spoil his chance of winning the prize.
“We’re gonna have a holiday from school,” he finished lamely, and observed that the flag was beginning to tear away from the stick. He lowered it so as not to embarrass Mr. Nagy, who was smiling approvingly at him—not his business smile but a warm, special smile just for him.
And suddenly it came to Sandor that if his father had stayed in the old country his birthday would have been just a birthday and nothing more. What was May the Twenty-fourth in Hungary but just another day? Here in Canada it was a national holiday. There would be a parade with soldiers and bands. The streets would be decorated. He sighed as his father took him by the hand. He waved to Mr. Nagy as he walked out.
On the street once more he thought of the prize he would win. He knew he was going to win. He had to. Nothing could stop him.
And yet it was not for the prize alone that he had worked so hard, but in order to show the English gang what he could do. He laughed quietly to himself. They were English and yet it was his birthday that came on Queen Victoria Day. It was the kind of joke he appreciated. He chuckled to himself and lengthened his stride to match his father’s.
No, it was certainly not the prize itself he was after. What good was it anyhow? A book—and on Canadian History of all things. He had therefore promised it to Mary Kostanuik. His smile widened and softened; a half-shameful, tender expression came over his face. She believed everything he told her. He remembered how she had cried the day her family had moved away from Henry Avenue.
Sandor looked up at his father uneasily. His mind drifted. He glanced absently into the window of a secondhand store.
That day he had watched the movers carrying out the Kostanuiks’ furniture, little things had come back to him, warnings of the new status they had achieved, which until then he had noticed but not fully understood: Kostanuik’s steady job, winter and summer, with Mr. Nagy, and the white store-bread he had seen in their house, Mary’s store dresses, and the fact that Mrs. Kostanuik had over the months slowly stopped borrowing lard and sugar and things from her neighbours. And there was the new floor-lamp in their front room.
If the Kostanuiks could buy a new lamp and eat store bread and move away to a better neighbourhood, why couldn’t his own family do the same? Mr. Kostanuik, before he had got this job with Mr. Nagy, had only been a carpenter—an ordinary working man—while his own father was a watchmaker. Why, then? Because his father didn’t believe in getting rich, because he always tried to see how other people felt and never worried about the feelings of his own family, that was why.
Sandor came to with a start. They had arrived.
The barber shop was empty. But the peppermint-striped sheets hanging over the chairs gave it a festive air that was augmented by the clean, sweet odour of the lotions and the soap. And there was something gay in the glittering reflection of the coloured bottles in the mirrors. The private white shaving-mugs, row upon row of them, each in its tiny cubicle, proclaimed this a man’s world. Beyond lay the pool room. Sandor’s face brightened as they entered it. He began straining at his father’s hand. He always had the feeling that something was about to happen here. It was noisy and smoky and exciting. He looked about him to see if he could catch sight of Mr. Friedel, the owner. Mr. Friedel usually gave him a package of cough drops or peppermints. Next to Mr. Nagy he liked Mr. Friedel better than any man he knew.
Through the smoke spiralling lazily upward to the green enamel reflectors he caught a glimpse of the men who were playing. But it was their talk that fascinated him. From the looks on their faces, yellow and seared when they came within the glare of the lights, he was sure they were talking about women. He tried to stop, if only for a moment, to overhear something really gross. He hung back tugging at his father’s arm and was unexpectedly rewarded by a mild obscenity—which no member of the gang would have deigned to utter—on the lips of a young man who looked directly at him as they passed. Sandor stared at him enviously. He was dressed in the height of fashion; his hair, parted in the centre, was smeared down flat and smooth against his scalp. Beneath a dove-grey waistcoat, across which hung a series of gold ornaments on his watch-chain, he wore a light-coloured shirt with armbands. His collar reached almost to his ears. But it was his shoes that wrung a sigh from Sandor’s lips: glittering black patent-leather, they were, with dove-grey buttons that matched perfectly the cuffs of his tight narrow trousers.
He turned back to look at him as his father hurried him along. The next moment he was on the back stairs. The air was heavy and damp. Here, too, at the foot of the stairs, he dragged his feet. To the left was the steam bath. A month or so ago, as he was passing by, the door had opened and he had seen several naked steam-enshrouded figures in the act, so it appeared to him, of enthusiastically flagellating themselves with bundles of twigs. He made only a half-hearted attempt to hang back here, however. One night a week those members of the gang who could raise the money went to the Public Baths where they could observe all the naked men they wanted to. But what was the good of that? It was not naked men they wanted to see.
His father left him in what Sandor called his office: a dimly lit little hole walled in on three sides by packing-cases which were stuffed with soap and towels and water-stained cartons. A packing-case served as a table, an upturned box as a chair. From a row of nails hung a few damp bills and receipts and some bath tickets.
Sandor brushed aside a cockroach and sat down. He removed an invoice from one of the nails and glanced at it absently. It was depressing down here. He wanted to get upstairs again. He rose to his feet. “Pa,” he shouted, “I wanna help you. Kin I?”
“Stay where you are,” his father called back. “I won’t be long.”
He sat down again, listening to the rattle of the furnace, thinking of the work his father had to do, the long hours he spent here from six in the morning until six at night, every day of the week, and every night after supper to return and look after the furnace and clean the bath tubs. And besides this, there was the stove in the steam bath, the floors in the pool room and the barber shop, the mirrors and the sinks.
For eleven dollars a week. . . . This was what happened to you when you worked with your hands. And all he had to do was get some paying boarders upstairs and save the money he got from them and in a year or so he would be able to buy some tools and open his own watch-repair store. But no, he had to . . .
An angry roar from the top of the stairs brought him suddenly to his feet. It was some time before he recognized the voice. It was Mr. Friedel’s. There must be some mistake, he thought. Mr. Friedel wasn’t like that. He couldn’t be talking in such a tone to his father, who had come to Canada on the same ship with him and from the same village in Hungary. Mr. Friedel was almost a relative. He was a landsmann.
“Joseph! Where the hell are you?”
Sandor held his breath. He heard his father answering as he hauled a log to the furnace.
Then came the owner’s voice again. “Well, damn your soul, what do you think I’m paying you for? To sit on your ass all day? Get some steam in those boilers . . .”
It went on and on. The words were like blows, only they hurt more, more than any pain that Sandor had ever known. They went deeper. They were already a part of him. Every time he looked at his father from now on they would come back. He felt a sudden, overwhelming need to take them upon himself, to shield his father from them. His father was not made to cope with such things. They were foreign to him. In his world people did not talk like that.
In helpless anguish he pounded the fist of his right hand into the palm of his left until he heard his father’s voice again. It was quiet and strong, the way he had not dared to hope that it might be, with the unhurried calm dignity of his father’s way of living in it.
But the owner was still at the head of the stairs, his bellow crashing through the cool, reasoned texture of his father’s words. “Those boilers are good enough for me. You just get more steam up, you hear? And pretty damn fast or get the hell out.”
Then silence, and Sandor, his head in his hands, crying with deep racking sobs. That’s how it was, then. It was not the first time his father had been spoken to this way. He could tell.
His father, who was wise and knew four languages and read deep books, who loved all men and whose only thought was to help others, yelled at and ordered around like a dog! He worked so hard in this dirty, stinking hole that sometimes when he came home at night he could not even straighten his back. And what was it for? So they could eat bologny and onions and dress in rummage-sale clothes. That’s how it was. If you were rich, nobody would yell at you. Nobody yelled at the owner or Mr. Nagy. Why couldn’t his father understand that?
The furnace door clanged. Sandor heard footsteps approaching, and his father came in. He looked old and tired. His back was bowed; his hands hung at his sides. Sandor’s lips trembled and a sob broke from his throat.
“Pa,” he began. But the word choked him.
“Pa,” he said, under his breath.
His father held out his hand. They walked silently up the stairs, through the pool room and barber shop, and out into the street.
Neil Bissoondath

About Neil Bissoondath

Neil Bissoondath - Under the Ribs of Death

Neil Bissoondath was born in Trinidad, and lives in Quebec. He is the author of several award-winning works of fiction, including A Casual Brutality, Digging Up the Mountains, The Innocence of Age, and in non-fiction, Selling Illusions. He is host and writer for "Vision World," international documentaries on development themes for Vision TV.

  • Under the Ribs of Death by John Marlyn, afterword by Neil Bissoondath
  • January 26, 2010
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • New Canadian Library
  • $15.95
  • 9780771093913

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