I can’t step into a church without being reminded of Leo.
Any church, anywhere.
I can still picture him perfectly, standing soberly at attention in the back, leaning heavily on his cane, waiting to usher the parishioners to their seats. I see his labored gait as he escorts each of us in turn up the aisle to our pews, one leg stiff, the rubber tip of his cane squeaking against the polished floor.
Everyone knew Leo. He was kind of a local hero in our small town. My mother told me about how he lost his leg in the War and that he’d been decorated for his heroism at Dieppe. She had survived the war as a young woman and told me it was men like Leo who had kept us free. I never saw him without his hat on, a black beret pulled over one eye. He was a large, bulky man with a muscular build and a thin black moustache which looked like he had penciled it on. The left shoulder of his Canadian Legion jacket was covered with medals and ribbons, lined up in precise rows. On his walks around town, he tipped his cap lightly to the ladies and saluted the men sternly. In the Remembrance Day parades, it was Leo who proudly led the other veterans, waving to everybody, his whole torso swelled with pride.
He was as much a fixture at our church as the confessionals and the 12 Stations of the Cross. When our school class headed across the street for Wednesday devotionals there was Leo, sweeping the front steps, filling up the holy water urns at the back, or arranging the altar in preparation for mass. Father Manley was so grateful for his help he occasionally singled him out for mention at the end of his sermons. “And what would we do without Leo,” I remember him saying one Sunday morning. I turned around to see Leo at the back of the church, beaming, tipping his cap to the congregation.
He was a boarder at my friend Linda’s house. After Linda’s father left when she was just a baby, her mother took in boarders so she could make ends meet. They came and went in a stream. I read the envelopes that waited for them on the hall table and the names were always changing. There was always an assortment of them in the front room, reading newspapers, tinkling on the old piano, or having tea. A fellow named Morris who lived there for a couple of months showed Linda and me complicated card tricks. Hazel, an old lady who Linda told me had lost her husband in a car accident, taught me the notes to God Save the Queen. They all ate meals at different times and Linda’s mom spent most of her time in the kitchen, dishing up food to them from steaming pots on the stove. I loved going home with Linda after school. There was always something going on. The house was enormous with a wraparound verandah, the upstairs full of rooms running off long corridors. Linda and I had secretly investigated all of them at one time or another while the occupants were at work or downstairs. Each one had a large brass number on the door. Inside was an iron bed covered with a chenille spread, an oak dresser, and a sink with a mirror above it. Some of the boarders took time to decorate their rooms, like Helen the retired nurse who had knitted a pale blue afghan for the foot of her bed and Joe in Room 10, another veteran, who had hung pictures of old sailing ships above his dresser.
It was so much more exotic than my house where nothing much ever changed. My mother was always busy with laundry or my baby brother and didn’t notice me much. My other three brothers spent most of their time wrestling in front of the TV set or playing their stupid war games. When my dad came home from work was the only time there was any quiet: he wouldn’t stand for any nonsense. That’s what he’d tell us when we acted up: No nonsense. Leo’s room was upstairs in front, next door to Linda’s. Since he was the star boarder and had been there the longest, he had the best room, the largest of them all, with a big picture window facing onto the street. Unlike the others his door was always open and there would be Leo, lying on his bed as always, fully dressed, hat and all. Linda told me that lying down was the only relief Leo got from his affliction. The room smelled of wet wool from the laundry he dried on his radiator, and of Old Sail, his pipe tobacco. Sometimes he asked us in for a visit and we sat on the edge of his bed talking, or fed his yellow budgie Charlie from a big bag of bird seed on the window sill. He told us stories about his travels during the War and asked us about school. He was always interested and took the time to listen. When we talked he put his hands behind his neck to prop up his head so he could look directly at us. It was bad manners to do otherwise, was what he said. One day in late spring, feeling restless and bored, we went up to his room after school hoping he’d ask us in. We saw him from the hall stretched out on the bed, his cane beside him. Sun was streaming in the windows and Charlie was bustling about his cage. “Come and see Leo,” he called to us. Leo always talked about himself in the third person. We bounded in and he asked Linda to close the door. “I think Charlie could use a snack, Anne,” he said to me. “Are you hungry, Charlie?” I called to the bird, sticking my hand into his bag of food. I discovered that it wasn’t bird seed at all, but a bagful of wrapped toffees, my favourite candy. Grabbing a handful I turned around to tell Linda about my find. She was standing at the foot of the bed watching Leo. As I ran over to her Leo beckoned to me from the bed. “Sit beside Leo, honey,” he said brightly, patting the space beside him. I did as I was told and began unwrapping a toffee. Suddenly he pulled me down beside him. He had exposed himself. I was only nine but I knew what this was. He grabbed my hand and pulled it down so I was touching him there. “I don’t want to,” I said, turning back to Linda, who stood motionless, saying nothing. He moved my hand up and down, laughing softly. He was holding my wrist so hard I felt it would break. “Leo loves you,” he whispered. “Do you like your present?”
“Yes,” I mumbled. I was scared and wondered why Linda did nothing. “I want to go home,” I said softly.
“My mom’s going to be mad at you, Leo,” Linda said from behind me in a singsong voice.
“You won’t tell your mom,” Leo said, his voice now sharp. His penis was rigid and ice cold. Although I tried not to, I started to cry.
“Linda, I want to go home now.” Leo reached out suddenly and pulled my body down on top of him. He was awfully strong. I didn’t yell out, maybe because I felt so complicit, being in a stranger’s room in the first place. But Leo wasn’t a stranger. Everyone knew Leo.
He pushed the back of my head down against his neck and held me so tight I could barely breathe. He rubbed his cheek up and down against mine, the bristles of his beard stinging my skin. I smelled tobacco on his breath. He kissed my cheek over and over again, rasping like he was trying to catch his breath. “Let me go,” I cried out and started to sob. All of a sudden, he sat up and grabbed me by the shoulders.
“I just want to love you, he said angrily. He shook me hard back and forth. I said nothing, terrified. I just sat there, heaving with sobs, scared to look at him. “Go on, get out,” he snarled, and pushed me off the bed. I scrambled to my feet, ran down the flight of stairs and past the front room full of people. Once safe on the street I looked up at Leo’s window and could see Linda’s back to me, still standing at the foot of his bed.
When I got home mom was making dinner and my brothers were watching “I Love Lucy.” Everything looked the same. I was sure if my mom looked at me, she’d know. I went to my room, claiming I had a lot of homework, and when I was called for dinner, I said I wasn’t hungry. I wanted to tell someone what had happened, but I felt overwhelming guilt and wondered if anyone would believe me. Linda and I never talked about that day again. She started hanging around with the two new girls at school, twins who had moved to our town from Toronto and seemed much older than the rest of us. The three of them played together at recess and after school I would see them heading down the hill toward Linda’s. I dreaded seeing Leo again but he didn’t take much notice of me after that. When our paths did cross I looked away and could feel my cheeks grow hot with shame. Sometimes in church I watched him kneeling after he’d taken communion, his wounded leg stretched out ahead of him, the other doubled underneath in support. He bent his body forward so that his forehead almost touched the church floor in reverence. It was almost too painful to watch.