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Authors: Mordecai Richler

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BOOK: The Incomparable Atuk
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‘Wow! I’ll say.’

‘More.’

‘Again.’

Afterwards Bette introduced Atuk to Dr Parks. ‘Doc Burt,’ she said, ‘has seven degrees. He’s a doctor of philosophy, divinity, naturopathy and goodness knows what else.’

‘I’m world-famous,’ Dr Parks said, ‘all over Canada.’

Yes, Atuk thought, for it seemed to him this was true of many people he had met in Toronto. What was their secret, he wondered.

‘I’ve only been to Eglinton myself,’ Atuk said, shaking his hand warmly. ‘What college were you at?’

‘What’s the difference what college? A college is a college. Some college graduates end up digging ditches. It’s what you make of yourself that counts in this world, young fellow.’

‘That’s true,’ Atuk said glumly.

‘But don’t you worry about him, Doc. Atuk’s going to be a big success. I’ve told you that I’m helping him, haven’t I?’

‘So you have,’ Dr Parks said, looking sharply at Atuk.

Atuk blushed.

‘He’s shooting for the bull’s-eye,’ Bette said.

‘Have to run,’ Dr Parks said. ‘Off on a Western tour first thing in the morning. But I’m back in the spring, Bette, and I think the sooner you and I have a talk …’

‘Sure thing. Bye now.’

‘You shouldn’t have told him you were helping me. He mightn’t understand.’

‘Doc Burt is so wonderful he understands everything. And you
are
going to be a success now that you’ve overcome … well, you know. I’ve got such faith in you.’ She squeezed his arm. ‘Let’s go to my place.’

But Atuk spotted Jersey Joe Marchette being interviewed by a television reporter in another corner and he wanted to hear what the strong man had to say. ‘In a minute,’ he said to Bette, still wondering where he had seen the Negro with the dark glasses before.

Jersey Joe told the reporter that he had been travelling with Doc Burt’s troupe on and off for nearly a year now and he was so happy with them that he intended to apply for Canadian citizenship. ‘A Negro has a chance in this country,’ he said, ‘a decent and dignified chance.’ He went on to say that he used to be an actor. ‘But they type-cast me in New York. I was strictly limited to coloured roles.’

He added that he hoped to play Samson on CBC-TV.

‘But Samson was a Hebrew,’ the reporter said.

‘Now you tell me something,’ Jersey Joe said, his tone extremely reasonable, ‘if one of them can play Othello in black-face why can’t I play Samson?’

‘Come on,’ Bette said.

I remember, Atuk thought. The man dusting the table at Nancy Gore’s. Blind? ‘Coming,’ he said thoughtfully.

5

Good day. Leafs shut out Beliveau. Twentyman Pulp & Paper up three-quarters of a point. Two swindles, three robberies, and a knifing in the morning paper, but not one Jewy-sounding name among the suspects. Bowels regular and firm.

‘It’s the Eskimo again.’

But no sooner had Miss Stainsby opened the door than Rory got a strong enough whiff of Atuk to make that remark redundant.

‘Can’t see him. No time.’ Rory dug generously into his pocket. ‘Here. But this is the last time. Tell him he must go back to the Bay. Toronto will only break his heart.’

The phone next; his unlisted number.

‘Ruby?’

That could only be his father. Panofsky. There were three children. Rory, Goldie, and Leo. You’d think Rory being the only successful one the old man might have a special feeling for him. No. He spent all his love on Leo.

‘Thanks for all that food.’

‘It’s nothing, Pop.’

‘So,’ Panofsky said snidely, ‘and how are things in the Hitler Youth Camp today?’

‘The children are fine, if that’s what you mean. And there’s nothing wrong with employing a German maid.’

Rory had hired Brunhilde and engaged only non-Jewish girls at the office in order to demonstrate that he was utterly free of prejudice. It was not, as one competitor sneered, that he found non-Jewish girls more respectful, more decorative. Wasn’t Rory an ardent Zionist? Neither was he, as Michele once said, afraid of Brunhilde. It’s true he paid her lavishly and didn’t object when her boy friends went into his liquor, but this was only because he wanted her to learn how liberal
some
Jews could be. Michele’s distaste for Brunhilde was easy to figure out. Michele couldn’t control the kids, Brunhilde could. Oh, my God, the kids! It was Brunhilde’s afternoon off and he had promised to take Garth to the park.

It was lovely, it was so soothing, in the park. I must do this more often, Rory thought, as Garth ran off to play and he opened his newspaper at Jean-Paul
McEwen’s column. On the opposite page there was a photograph of Bette Dolan emerging from the pool to light the sabbath candles at Rabbi Glenn Seigal’s Temple. The much talked about Aquanaut
Oneg Shabat
; he had missed it. Stunning girl, Rory thought. But this reflection was abstract, an aesthetic judgement, not the least bit tinged with guilt or desire. Rory had never been unfaithful to Michele. Even during that dreadfully trying time, following the death of their first-born child, when she had cut him off for six months, he had still not cohabited with another woman. Not that he hadn’t had plenty of opportunities. At the time, in fact, he and Harry Snipes, then still a director, were largely responsible for casting the Twentyman Playhouse series. Many actresses, ambitious as they were luscious, arranged to come in for the last appointment of the day. ‘I’d do anything to get the part,’ more than one said. And Snipes, the boor, would take him aside and say, ‘It’s nooky time, man. Flip you for who gets the wet deck.’

No: not Rory. He understood Snipes’s sort. The eternal Don Juan, so immature that he had to prove himself again and again. Not Rory. He wasn’t, for the sake of a fleeting enjoyment, going to leave himself open to blackmail, disease, and possibly a broken home. Before auditioning girls late in the afternoon Rory choked off desire by masturbating. True, even though the series had been finished long since, the habit had somehow stuck with him. But at
least he hadn’t ended up on the couch. Like Snipes. Rory could handle his own problems.

Funny. Rory hadn’t thought about the death of his first-born, Wayne, for a long time. He and Michele, ineffably happy today, had once been touched by tragedy. Fortunately this had only brought them closer together, but at the time … Wayne, their first-born, had got off to a bad start. He was underweight. The doctors prescribed vitamins and, as the Peels could well afford it, they administered triple the recommended daily dose. The child put on weight – lots of weight – until, finally, too healthy to live, he died.

Rory, glancing up from his newspaper, saw a cop standing at the edge of the path. His heart began to thump. Suddenly he realized that among all the kids, nurses, and grandmothers at the playground, there was only one grown man. Rory Peel.
Why had he worn his grey suede shoes today?
The cop began to move toward him. Oh, my God. Rory groped for a cigarette, was just about to light it, when he decided, no, it might make him look shifty. He looked up at the towering cop, his grin sickly.

‘Hi. Lovely day, isn’t it?’

‘Sure is.’

The cop began to walk on, but Rory stopped him.

‘Thought I’d take an afternoon off from the office.’

‘Playing hookey, eh?’

‘Ha, ha. Sure am.’

In Russia, if his father’s tales were to be believed, the cossacks were to be feared. In Canada, a cop was your pal.
Christ; here he comes again
.

‘That’s my kid over there. Garth. Cute little fella, isn’t he?’

‘Mm-hm.’

But the cop looked puzzled. He walked to the edge of the path, joined another cop, and began to whisper.

Wait. Rory noticed, for the first time, that he wasn’t the only man in the park after all. On a secluded bench under a tree a creamy-faced boy sat with a luscious girl. As Rory turned to look the couple broke apart, flustered. Smoochers. The girl appeared to be somewhat older than the boy … and the boy looked awfully familiar. Now where have I seen that face before? Rory must have been staring because, quite suddenly, the boy hid his face in his hands. He had begun to weep quietly.

The cops started down the path.

‘Garth, let’s go home now.’

‘No.’

‘Garth, I’m your dad. Now let’s go home, darling.’

‘Kiss my ass.’

‘If you come home now, right now, I’ll give you five dollars.’

‘Ten.’

‘O?.’

Kids are easy, Rory thought, taking Garth by the hand. The trick is to use pyschology.

6

What you dare to dream; dare to do.

The next morning, as usual, Atuk leaped out of bed at seven-thirty and hurried over to his radio. He sat, pencil poised, one eye on the dollar bills stuck to the peg board above, waiting for Derm Gabbard to announce the serial numbers on today’s
Lucky Bucks
. If only Atuk could come up with a winning serial number, and make it to the studio before ten a.m., he stood to collect one hundred dollars. This morning, however, he didn’t even come close. Never mind. Toronto was so rich in opportunities that an alert Eskimo could even make a start on his fortune while he slept. Atuk kept his radio tuned to CJFD all night, just in case Night Owl phoned to find out if he was listening and offered him a free television set, washing machine or wrist-watch with automatic calendar and built-in alarm. As he ate breakfast he memorized the first twenty tunes on the hit parade, not one to be caught off guard should
Guess the Melody
pick his number out of the phone book and offer riches. Because he took the
Standard
each morning he was entitled to a free accident policy and as he had the
Gazette
delivered to his door he was automatically covered against harm by hurricane.

Back on the Bay, Atuk remembered, you could
walk into the wind for miles and you were fortunate indeed if you ran into somebody willing and able to buy you a beer. But in Toronto they stopped just short of paving the streets with gold. Any minute a fortune might drop at your feet. Round one corner The Friendly Loan Company beckoned you to just come in and grab what you wanted, and round another, men with guns drawn unloaded bags of money from an armoured car. A fifty cent purchase at Twentyman’s Department Store entitled you to a chit that could get you a free return trip to Rome or the Setting for Ben-Hur, if you won the Lucky Dip. If you signed a five-year lease for an apartment at the Colony then the first six months were free. At the shopping plaza, round the corner from where Atuk lived, the thirty-two-foot yacht on exhibition was being given away by Twentyman Razor Blades for the best jingle submitted by May 1st. Not only that. But each time Atuk joined the rest of the unemployed, and there had never been more in the history of Toronto, to buy bread or a tin of baked beans at the same plaza, he was given a slip to fill out that could win him his own island in the St Lawrence. There
had
to be a winner every week.

So why am I never lucky?

Eskimo luck, he thought, that’s my trouble.

This was, beyond a doubt, the blackest time of Atuk’s young life. Go back to the Bay, you’ll only be corrupted here, said Gore. Rory Peel said, Tell
him he must go back to the Bay. Toronto will only break his heart.

Damn damn damn, wasn’t he aching for home? A chat with the Old One. His brothers and sisters and cousins. The hunt. But how could he return – a failure? Yesterday the pride and hope of the Elders, today a laughing stock.

—We warned you. An Eskimo should know his place.

—You think they’d give you a chance? A young Eskimo.

No. What you dare to dream; dare to do. He would stay in Toronto and fight it out.

Atuk, freshly resolved, went out for a walk. In Toronto, remember, a fortune could drop at your feet any minute. Today, as always, he carried an Ozo soap wrapper with him on the off chance that he might run into the beautiful, prize-giving Miss Body Odour. Although he had no purchases to make, Atuk zigzagged in and out of the magic eye doors of supermarkets, chain drugstores, and department stores, all the way home, just in case he should be the One Millionth Happy Customer to pass through These Friendly Doors, and therefore be showered with munificence.

Nothing.

Atuk, by this time, was so self-absorbed, such was his misery, that he did not even notice he had wandered into an unfamiliar neighbourhood. He stopped at a strange, very fashionable corner and
immediately had to shoulder his way through an enormous crowd. People gaped and wondered aloud as three Twentyman trailer-trucks, escorted by private security police, on motorcycles, sped down the street. Each truck was heavily covered with tarpaulins and bore a shriek of a red sign aloft:
STICK OUT YOUR NECK
.

I sure do, Atuk thought, and all at once he found himself staring into an art store window. Atuk pressed his nose against the glass to have a closer look at the Eskimo sculpture on display and the price being asked for it. He was spellbound. ‘Goddam it,’ he said aloud.

Passers-by saw a short Chinese-looking man dancing a jig in the snow and put him down for a drunk.

‘I’m rich,’ Atuk shouted. ‘I’m rich.’ And he hurried right over to Rory Peel’s office. This time there was no putting him off with a ten-dollar bill.

After Atuk had finished his story, Rory sat for a long while, chin cupped in his hands. ‘Give me until tomorrow morning,’ he finally said.

Michele was for it; she went for the indigenous cultural angle. Twentyman, amused, said sure.

Atuk was waiting outside the office at eight o’clock in the morning.

‘All right,’ Rory said. ‘I’ve thought it over. You’re on, but—’

Atuk beamed. He did a happy little dance.

‘—but only if you let me call the shots. We’ve got to play this Rory Peel’s way.’

‘You’re the boss,’ Atuk said immediately.

I certainly am, Rory thought, feeling a sudden surge of confidence. Superiority. After all, he’s only a dumb Eskimo. Almost a coloured man. Rory told Miss Stainsby he was not to be disturbed. He became very masterful, business-like. ‘Number one,’ he said, ‘is there anything in your past we have to worry about?’

BOOK: The Incomparable Atuk
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