I still cannot watch Planet of the Apes. The original one with Charlton Heston. In the evenings I would be left alone in the apartment and often times I could not put myself to sleep. I was eight. Some nights I’d panic when it got late and I’d kneel before the large icon of Jesus being held by Mary (it was illegal for us to own religious property, but we did anyway) and pray someone would come home. I am embarrassed to think about that now, but I was a boy and I was just simply scared. I read Jules Verne mostly, and Renart the Fox. I played cowboys and Indians in the park, with sticks, during the day after school. With friends. Boys who grew up to be I don’t know. Informers maybe. Traitors. Laborers. Torturers. Prisoners, most likely. Or engineers. Sometimes I’d be locked out of the apartment until my father would get home hours after I’d get off school, and I’d have to piss badly. Often times I pissed on the stairs of our building, waiting. Waiting. I took some of the nastiest beatings from my father for pissing on the stairs. But I kept doing it. I don’t know why. Not even now. I took some of the nastiest beatings also for having terrible handwriting and shitty calligraphy. I wrote in ink and invariably I’d make a mistake and try to cover it up. Scratch out the ink with the corner of a razor blade. It was awful. It was always a botched up job. And my father would wail on me for trying to cover up the mistake. He said he wouldn’t be able to correct me if he didn’t see the mistake originally. But I kept scratching off the ink. I don’t know why I didn’t stop. I don’t know why I didn’t leave the mistake there. I didn’t trust him maybe. I didn’t trust that he wouldn’t beat me anyway. And so I took my chance.
The night of the earthquake I was alone in the apartment and they showed Planet of the Apes on television. The original one. With Charlton Heston. It was on. It was off. And somehow I got myself to sleep before the building started swaying. I got up. It was pitch black. They were there, the two of them. They must have come in. I don’t know. It was late. My mother, not realizing I was out of bed, rushed and picked up an armful of blankets. Or my father. They are the same, my parents. One entity sliced into two halves. Neither one better than the other. Neither one more significant or insignificant than the other. It smelled like chunks of wall. Of paint. Of gas. Of something burning. Like pig’s singed hair. Or. Skin. Outside, the building next to ours had half-collapsed. There was moaning from the people trapped under concrete and steel. It was foggy. Thick with rubble. A man came out of the dusty cloud and offered to put his hat down so my mother could step into it. We were all barefoot. We slept in the park in which I played cowboys and Indians. No policemen came to tell us to get off the grass. There were no pensioners sitting on benches. There was no sun after that.
I lost a friend in the collapse. A boy. And his mother and father. In the building next to ours. Later, when you looked at it, as it stood un-touched and somehow wounded, it seemed a giant sword had sliced down the building vertically. The only thing exposed were the toilets on each floor. I thought it indecent. There were rusty pipes. Toilets and rusty pipes with shit still flowing inside of them. It was an indecent way to be remembered if you lived in one of those units. People were still moaning from underneath the rubble. There were looters. Blankets. Whiskey from the forbidden shops. Kent cigarettes. And days later, German Shepherd rescue dogs with the Red Cross insignia on a white sheet tied around their torsos. People passed judgment on other people. Looters shrugged it all off and found customers who bought the stolen booty. My mother never took the man’s hat. Never stood inside of it.
I was sent to the country. To a school there. It was some weeks. Or months. Time flows strangely for an eight year old. I had English class and I said things like: “yellow.” Or: “this is the house that Jack built.” Or: “an egg in an egg cup.” I bathed in a large bucket with water that had been heated by my grandma on the stove. I took the first shift, the cleanest water, before my grandpa got in and had his wash. My father sent a letter that said structural engineers were reinforcing our apartment building and that I’d be able to return shortly. Meanwhile there was: “advertisement” and “good night” and “I am well, and how are you?” in English class. I learned how to build a raft from sawgrass or corn stalks or reed from the other boys in the village. Once, by accident, I struck one of them in the head with a large tree branch I had found in the fields, and was swinging above my head like a lasso. I was sent back I don’t know when. Time flows in weird patterns for an eight year old.
It hardly rains in the summer in this city. Later, I am to find out it’s on the same latitude as Montreal and that explains the brutal winters. It doesn’t look anything like Montreal, though. Later I find that out, as well. The boulevard, ten stories below, is soaked with whipping gusts of water. It’s deserted. The boulevard is most always deserted. The half-standing apartment building next to ours is getting a new half. Walls are being raised around the exposed toilets, up on each floor. It’s like someone is slowly covering the flesh of a bashful, discreet, abused child standing in the middle of a cold, interrogation room. There are laborers hammering steel into concrete. Raising parapets looks violent and wrong and not at all elegant. Our apartment buildings are all institutional and remind me of dormitories or hospitals. I watch the workers out of our kitchen window, which has thin chicken wire attached and rigged by my father just outside the glass–puffed out in a weird way–in order to prevent me from falling out if the window is opened. One man is on a higher floor peering down below in the torrential rain. He yells:
No one answers except the persistent rain hitting the glass of our kitchen window.
The floor of the kitchen moans and I know my father has entered the room.
The laborer is peering down seven stories. He stands on a wide open sheet of concrete, close to the edge, and I know if he leans out much further he’ll come down fleshy and soft and spongy.
The kitchen floor moans again and my father asks something about eating take-away schnitzels from the pub near Lido’s, for dinner.
Rain. Chunks of wet concrete. “Yellow.” My father: “…and potatoes?” This is the house that Jack is building. “It’s not AD-ver-tisements, it’s ad-VUHR-tisments. You are learning the Queen’s English.”
The first laborer leans over further and yells:
“Fuck your mother up the ass!”
And then he laughs and flicks his cigarette butt over the open platform, down to the wet ground.