“What did you do with the money?” the woman’s voice hoarsely whispered before she hung up the telephone. Manuel felt mystified, even anxious, and he looked underneath the bed to make certain he still had the big red toolbox.
“Did you know that you have a brother you’ve never heard of before?”
Manuel thought the voice sounded like his mother, but since she had interrupted him while he was sleeping, during a week in which he had had difficulty sleeping properly, he wasn’t certain later if he had been dreaming or in reality having a telephone conversation with his deceased mother. Later, he was even more vague in his own mind because, as he recalled it, if he recalled what had actually transpired correctly, whoever had called him had quickly hung up the telephone. Manuel had decided to get a home telephone connected in his rented basement room. He realized that, while he might feel compelled to live the life of an ascetic, he could no longer live the life of a recluse or a monk, detached or almost completely cut off from communication or socialization with the outside world. At a later age than most, he had moved from his hometown in Northwestern Ontario to Toronto to pursue academic studies, to acquire a bachelor’s degree and develop a career in teaching English. To pay for tuition he was using the funds, the money, his mother had left him as an inheritance, after she had died from a relatively rare blood disorder in his hometown hospital, amidst the polished stainless bedpans, intravenous needles, oxygen masks, bags of blood, heart monitors, intravenous poles, latex gloves, disposable gowns, tissue paper, and face masks, and a young woman who had attempted to commit suicide in the adjacent bed.
Manuel was living in a small room in the basement of a semi-detached Victorian house in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, near the campus of the university, which he rented from a largely absent, aggrieved bachelor, bitter his dreams of becoming a published novelist never materialized, who worked as an assistant librarian at the city public library. But he had decided that to get into the loop he finally needed to get a home telephone, to get his room wired for a cordless, at a time when all the students he knew were using specialized cell phones and smart phones with a plethora of gizmos, gadgets, and features, including high definition digital cameras and apps for functions as varied as global positioning and video conference calls. After all, he could no longer deny himself the pleasure or necessity of human social contact. In fact, his academic advisors, overseers, and professors in the education program had even advised him to obtain a telephone, since he would soon be entering the praticulum phase of his education degree, when school board secretaries and vice-principals would need to contact him through the telephone to teach classes or work as a substitute teacher.
For the first several weeks, all he got was telephone calls from telemarketing firms, credit card vendors, charities, and call centres based in India, the Philippines, or Mexico who wanted to sell him the services of duct cleaning companies, caretakers, or banks and financial services companies wanted to offer him credit cards with loyalty points and travel and gift bonuses. Finally, one evening he picked up the telephone and heard the hoarse voice of a woman who sounded exactly like his mother.
“You can’t be my mother,” he said faintly. But he also felt a sense of awe and amazement. The woman sounded exactly as his mother would sound if she had smoked a few packages of cigarettes a day since the day she had given birth to him. “My mother is dead. I was there in the hospital, in the intensive care unit, when she died.” He was overwhelmed with emotion. The passion roiled within him. His emotional ability put him at the edge of tears. I saw the priest deliver her the last rites. I saw her laboured breathing. I saw her eyes roll back into her head. I saw the pain she felt before she died and how she started scratching her arms like a junkie as she withdrew from the painkiller. I remember how cold her skin felt when she died, and I remember watching the doctor examine her eyes, and check for a pulse and respirations, and her heart to make certain she was dead. I was there when she lay in her casket in the funeral parlour during the wake. I saw her get buried in the cemetery next to my father. I even tossed a rose and a carnation—in remembrance of The Carnation Revolution—down on the lid before we scooped handfuls of sand on her casket.
If this woman on the telephone was his mother, though, she was no longer the gentle, loving, caring woman he had once known; instead, she sounded jaded and cynical. She had changed. Was this what happened when you died and re-emerged on the other side. Your personality transformed and character metamorphosed. His mother’s words did soften occasionally, though. “Hello. Your mother is here, now, speaking to you.”
He lay back in bed, in his room, which was probably the size of his washroom back home in northern Ontario, where his brother was currently living, reading a monograph on learning disabilities. “How can you be speaking to me now?”
“I’m here to ask you what you’ve done with my legacy.”
He knitted his brow in puzzlement. “Legacy?”
“The house, the investments, the bank accounts.”
“I still have the house.”
He thought he should be careful in talking to strangers about what his mother had left him as an inheritance, but because he believed he was indeed speaking with his mother—in fact, he automatically made this assumption—naturally he allowed his guard down, even though he knew her to be dead. After all, having recently discovered the depths of despair could be a limitless abyss, he had started believing in the existence of an afterlife.
“The house on Railyardside Street?”
“Of course, Mother, where else?”
The woman, who sounded older than he expected his mother to sound over the telephone, still resembled his mother vocally. She even gave him the address of the house, located near the railroad station and the railyard, where the family had lived since his parents had landed in Canada, after immigrating from the Azores. He thought, if she knew the address of the house in his hometown, it had to be his mother. When he started asking her questions, though, she suddenly hung up the telephone and left him alone, in the quietude and solitude, in his solitary room.
He was anxious to talk, though, since he had no friends and relatives in Toronto. A loner and a recluse, was how some classmates training and learning to become primary, secondary, and middle school teachers in the twenty-first century described him. But he was anxious to break out of these lifelong habits, which a psychotherapist and psychologist who acted as mental health counsellors in the education program at the university, where he had sought psychological relief and received bereavement counselling, said was the result of an overbearing and overprotective mother. For a week, he studied hard at his desk in the basement of the house near the campus of the university downtown, gazing expectantly at the telephone when he lapsed into these bouts of absentmindedness, anxious to hear from the departed soul of his mother. Normally, he would have taken the streetcar, subway, and express bus to the campus of York University in Downsview to study at Scott Library at York University, where, during breaks in the cafeteria, he often found himself absently admiring the young women for their intelligence and brains as well as their dress and looks. He found solace in the attractive girls and the books, miles of rows and stacks of books, and, a mature student, he didn’t feel so depressed and lonely in the library, lost in an ocean of youth and the latest technology, deprived of his parents, an orphan at an age when, he thought, most adults shouldn’t have any problem coping with the loss of parents. Instead, he stayed at home and sat at his desk, staring at the cordless telephone, beside the flat screen monitor for his cordless telephone, hoping, praying, expecting some form of communication from his mother. But, since he was living in Toronto, all he got were telephones call from real estate agents—asking him if his house was for his sale. He also received telephone calls from telemarketers across the Pacific Ocean, asking him if he wanted the ducts in the house cleaned. Usually he quickly replied and hung up the telephone.
Finally, the telephone rang, and he quickly answered.
“Are you still arguing with your brothers?” his mother demanded.
The abruptness of his mother surprised and confounded him and the unexpected change in demeanour upset him. He was reminded, too, that at a time when he should have been at peace and mourning the loss of his mother, he and his brothers had been arguing with each other, mainly over her estate, but then that was over the huge gap in the family dynamic her loss had left. “No, we’ve made peace.”
His mother sounded upset by this reply. She quickly hung up the telephone from her end. He was once again left at a loss, and he even felt slightly entranced, as he listened to the dial tone, which deafened him and left him pondering and wondering about the infinity of the abyss. Several days later, in fact, while he was still studying at his desk, reading his textbooks and taking notes, his mother called him again. He had been waiting for her call, and had not left his room for several days, even though he had exams and tests to study for, and he also had to teach a class to some learning disabled students.
“Did you know that you have a brother you’ve never heard of before?”
“Yes, a brother. Or a stepbrother, or a half-brother, whatever you want to call him.”
“Mom, what are you talking about?”
“Before I moved to Beaverbrooke and married your father, I had immigrated from Portugal.”
“Of course, Mom, I know that I’m Portuguese.”
“You are not Portuguese. You are Canadian. You may have some Portuguese genes and heritage, but you’re Canadian. Remember that. Anyway, the immigration authorities demanded that I stay in Toronto for several months while I had problems in my naturalization papers and documents smoothed out. One immigration official got to know me very well and invited me over to his place many times. I might have even married him, but I was already committed to your father. Still, he impregnated me, and I made up excuses not to move to Beaverbrooke before I had the baby and rejoined your father. I never told your father about that pregnancy, and he never suspected anything amiss or awry because his knowledge of human sexuality was so limited. But that son is here now.”
“He is here now? What do you mean ‘here now’?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
His mother hang up the telephone and once again he was left dangling, wondering, faraway from his hometown in Northwestern Ontario, which now felt cold, distant, remote, and isolated. He felt alone in the large city of Toronto, with its bright lights and aloof people.
He stayed in his room for a few more weeks, awaiting some sign from his mother, waiting for another call from his mother. He only left his rented room for groceries at the convenience store down the street at the intersection, beside the bus shelter and city transit bus he took to the subway for the journey to the university campus. He even had an answering machine for his cordless telephone, but he worried that because his mother was a ghost, she would not be leaving any messages.
He did receive several calls from his tutorial assistants, instructors, and professors, warning him that he was in danger of failing his courses in the faculty of education at York University, so that he simply wouldn’t earn his education degree. He wouldn’t attain the accreditation and certification he required if he was going to teach in the province of Ontario. When the university professors and tutorial assistants telephoned, or sent e-mails, he carefully read their words, with a sense of dread in the pit of his stomach. He telephoned or e-mailed them that he was ill, or that he was attending to urgent family business. That seemed to satisfy them, at least temporarily, but they still warned him that he was falling behind in his studies, tests, and in acquiring classroom teaching experience. Whereas, previously they believed he would pass with flying colours, now the professors and TA’s weren’t certain he would successfully complete the curriculum for his education degree.
He lay in bed, awaiting further telephone calls and communications from his mother, having grown bearded and long-haired, thin with worry and fear over his mother, the ghost of her anyway, and his own fate. Within the week, as he began to blanch from the odour of sweat and urine that lingered in his crowded and cramped room, the telephone rang and the gravelly, hoarse, and coarse voice of the woman he believed was his mother answered.
“You said you made peace with your brothers?”
“Yes, mom, there has been no arguments.”
“No arguments or fights?”
“Well, there may have been initially but we managed to smooth out our differences.”
She sounded disappointed, and he even envisioned a dissatisfied expression on her face, judging from her tone.
“And I suppose those disagreements and arguments were related to money?”
“Yes, mother, but you chose your lawyer well. He was a smart man and had our best interests, and not his own pocketbook or bottom line, at heart and in mind. The lawyer you chose to handle the estate thought the priority should lie in us getting along as brothers.”
“I see.” She again sounded oddly disappointed and hung up the telephone, leaving him hanging, alone his room, with his black coffee, peanut butter sandwiches, natural organic peanut butter on whole wheat bread, and his heavy textbooks on pedagogy and learning disabilities.
The next time she called, Manuel had turned up the volume of radio, built into his clock-radio, and was listening to a call-in show, where the radio host of the midnight call-in show was interviewing a psychic. He found himself entranced and enthralled, more so since previously he never believed in psychic or extrasensory phenomenon and would have never paid any attention to psychics or those claiming extraordinary psychological abilities.
She demanded, “Where’s my money?”
He was disappointed his mother seemed so eager and anxious to want to talk about his inheritance, the money she had left him in her last will and testament when she died.
“I used most of it to pay for university tuition, for my English degree. I got an Honours BA.”
“So what are you supposed to do with this diploma or degree? Hang it on the wall and admire it? I mean, so you have an Honours BA. What does that mean?”
“It means that I know that I shouldn’t use a preposition at the end of a sentence and that Jonathan Swift’s classic essay “A Modest Proposal” is one of the best pieces of sustained irony in the English language.”
“So what. How is that knowledge supposed to help. You’re thirty-six years old. You’ve gone back to school at the age of thirty-six?”
“That’s not too old to go back to the university.”
“It might be.”
He was disappointed his mother would express that discouraging sort of sentiment, since in the past she had always encouraged him to further advance his education. He thought that he deserved some credit for what he had accomplished recently. After all, he had earned a university degree, which normally took students four or five years, in two years, including full-time study during the summer semesters, even though he had to admit he wasn’t certain what he would do with a degree in English literature. At the same time, he realized that, if he didn’t get over this funk and depression over the loss of his mother and get motivated, she might be right and his return to university might become a complete waste of time. He thought he might have made her proud by returning to university. “I didn’t want my life to go to waste as a worker at the group home.”
“What’s wrong with that? Your father worked with the retardates—and he didn’t even finish high school. You just took over where he left off. Why did you leave that job?”
“Because I thought I could do better.”
“How could you do better than working with the retardates?”
“I’m actually starting to realize that maybe I can’t do better than work with the mentally challenged, if you want to know the truth.”
“So what? Occasionally, you have to wipe a retardate’s bottom or help a grown man tie his laces. But there’s a certain nobility in helping the disadvantaged and those deserving of charity.”
He could not recall his mother ever using the term “retardates” while she was still alive, which made him wonder with whom he was really speaking; but he couldn’t help thinking that, as a member of the recently departed, his mother’s soul, spirit, and indeed, it only followed, her personality, must have undergone some form of transformation.
“I think ‘disabled’ works better than ‘retardates’ and “personal fulfilment” might be a better term—at least for me personally—but otherwise I agree, mother. Anyhow, at the time I thought it was time for a change.”
“I don’t think you’re a very practical young man.”
“I think you may be right, and I don’t think I’m very young anymore, either, Mother.”
“So what did you do with my money?”
“I paid for tuition, academic fees, a cubbyhole in residence, for the first year, anyway—and then I had to move because it was so expensive—and textbooks with it.”
“What about the rest of it?”
“I kept the house, mother. What else was there to do? It’s the only real and true home I know.”
“And? There has to have been more money. I want to know. I need to know.”
He was surprised by the sense of urgency and impatience in his mother’s voice. “The rest is in a big toolbox I keep locked under my bed. The lawyer said that if I wanted to avoid estate taxes I better withdraw whatever funds were left over in the bank.”
She gasped, hissed, and abruptly hung up the telephone. He couldn’t help wondering if his mother was not showing signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or some other form of cognitive impairment, although he had always remembered her, even up until the moment she died, as sharp, witty, and occasionally abrupt.
The next time she called she told him that he should expect a visit from his brother.
“The brother you never knew.”
He suddenly remembered their initial telephone conversation, which he still wasn’t certain had actually occurred.
“You can expect a visit from him.”
There was so much he wanted to ask his mother, he wanted a sign from her, a positive sign, affirmation, but instead he had gotten an interrogation about the estate, and she merely hung up the telephone. Still, he hoped, wished, and, just when he thought he had lost his religious belief, prayed. He received a few more calls over the university week telling him that he had been expelled from the education program at the university. He felt so shocked he didn’t know how to react. That night he received a call from his mother telling him his half-brother was on the way for a visit. Then she again abruptly hung up.
He tried tidying up his room and changed his clothes, even showered and shaved, and brushed his teeth, which had darkened from coffee stains from his chronic espresso and coffee consumption. He emptied his soiled socks, underwear, trousers, and stained shirts in the laundry washer. The knock came at two in the morning—in the middle of a shower, while he was lathering and shampooing, and his mood had so lightened he was even singing a pop song he had heard on the radio. Then he heard an abrupt, impatient knocking at the door. He pulled back the shower curtain, wrapped a towel around his naked waist, and stepped out of the washroom to answer the door. The man he might have recognized as a relative or half-brother, who had his long wavy hair braided in a ponytail, and wore a black leather vest, blue denim pants, and cowboy boots, introduced himself and then asked him about the money.
“My share of the inheritance.”
Manuel couldn’t help noticing the peculiar facial resemblance and even felt surprised he had been keen enough to make that observation. Then the man who Manuel himself started to believe was his half-brother held the knife to his throat and demanded the location of the money. Manuel showed him the rugged red steel toolbox beneath his bed. The features of the man’s stern face softened with a palpable relief, but then he stabbed him with his knife, aiming for the spot where he thought Manuel’s carotid vein was located. He left him bleeding from a wound that penetrated his chest. His half-brother backed his truck up to the side door and, with laboured difficulty, lifted the toolbox and carried the red steel box, as he grunted and panted, up the stairs and into the back box of his rusted, noisy pickup truck. He covered his precious cargo with some canvas, and then quickly pulled out of the laneway and lost his way in the inner city neighbourhood as he drove away from the semi-detached home.
The drama of Manuel’s family life played out before eyes as he lay, injured, on the bedroom floor. In a quick succession of flashes from the past through his visual memory, his mother struggled to understand why his older brother wouldn’t advance to the sixth grade. He remembered his First Communion when he fainted in the front row of church from the unseasonal stifling heat; he remembered his mother’s shock when his older brother was brought home by the police for tossing rocks at parked cars beside the railroad station. Episodes and fragments from his past family life played out in front of his eyes, before he lapsed into unconsciousness. Manuel felt the smooth cool beads of the black rosary his mother clutched in her cold stiff hands in the casket, which he had wheeled, along with the other pallbearers he and his brothers had selected, out of the funeral parlour and into the hearse to the Catholic church and then the cemetery.
The phone started ringing again in the morning, with a message that he needed to withdraw from the university before he lost the deposit he made for tuition fees for his final semester in the education degree, which would have led to his provincial teaching certification.