I was sitting on the toilet the first time I ever spoke with my mother. It was a bad habit, taking the phone into the bathroom, but I did it every time. Ever since I got one of those phones with the internet and everything, I’d find myself surfing while taking a crap. I figure that it’s just the twenty-first century equivalent of reading the sports section on the john. Of course, the sports section never rings with the phone call you’ve been wanting to get for thirty years.
Don’t get me wrong — I grew up with a mom and dad just like about half the rest of the world. It was almost like the descriptions in a badly written children’s book; we lived in a white clapboard house on a tree-lined street in a quaint little town. The reality is that I don’t even know what clapboard is and the house was blue, except for the year my dad got creative. Mom repainted it the next summer. Blue.
I think she liked the blue because Mom was a cop. When I was little I thought her first name was Officer. I think she would have worn her uniform on her days off if she were allowed. On the other hand, unless you lived with us, you’d hardly even know that Dad had a job. Some people thought he was embarrassed — he was a nurse — but really it was just that he didn’t care about work like Mom did. Dad was a good nurse, but he didn’t love nursing like Mom loved policing. It was just a job for him and he left the patients at the hospital. Being a cop was like Mom’s religion.
Other kids used to make fun of me because of Mom and Dad. “Does your dad wear an apron, too?” they’d ask. I knew it was supposed to be mean, but he did wear an apron sometimes. It never seemed weird to me, I guess because it’s just what was normal in my house. Looking back, I guess I’m lucky they named me Brian; I could have been saddled with one of those horrible gender-neutral monikers you see everywhere these days. Logan, Mason and Taylor, like some kind of unisex law firm.
I was lucky in a lot of ways, I know. My parents never let me forget that they loved me; they even spun the whole adopted thing as a way of proving it. They picked me — I was no accident. And I love my folks just fine, but I can’t say I never thought about it. To be honest, I thought about the fact that I was adopted all the time.
I guess nowadays you’d say we lived in the suburbs, but everyone just called it out-of-town. It was a half hour car ride into downtown, but it was nothing like living in the city. Even now, Saanich isn’t like what I imagine when I think of the ‘burbs. We had a quarter acre of our own and the down-the-road neighbours had a small dairy farm. The neighbourhood smelled like trees and horses.
Growing up in Saanich was kind of weird. It wasn’t the country — I mean it was less than an hour on the bus to anywhere in Victoria, and the bus ran everyday. Once I got older it seemed like I spent more hours on the bus than anywhere else. That bus was like a second home until I moved into the city after university.
But we lived a lot like country people do, I imagine. The neighbourhood kids all ran around feral in the summers. When my folks would kick me out of the house to “get some fresh air instead of spending all your time with your nose in a book,” I’d spend the entire day in the woods with Johnny Frazier, Blair McKirk and Angela Hoeffer. We’d leave our houses first thing in the morning and tear around on our bikes until six or seven at night.
I can’t remember us ever doing anything particularly interesting, but we somehow managed to entertain ourselves in those days. I guess it’s not really that hard to amuse a bunch of ten-year-olds. The big excitement one summer was this abandoned construction project on the other side of the highway. Crossing the highway was a big deal because we weren’t supposed to do it. There weren’t really that many rules, but of course we had to break the ones that there were. So crossing the highway without getting caught was the major goal of almost every excursion. And once we found the lot, we were in kid heaven.
I don’t know what we found so exciting about the place. I guess the construction people cleared away anything of value before they took off. There were no dead bodies, buried treasure or working heavy machinery to be found. But at the time we all thought it was the best place ever. Angela found it first, and she never stopped reminding us it was thanks to her that we had the coolest hangout around.
I was sitting on The Mound, this hill of dirt we claimed as the main meeting spot. It was my turn to bring the food, and I had a bunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches in my backpack. I handed one to Johnny, who started wolfing it down before I’d even managed to give out the rest of them. Typical.
“Jesus, Johnny,” Blair said, taking the wax-paper package from me and rolling his eyes. “Your mom doesn’t feed you or what?”
“Shut up,” Johnny said around a mouthful of sandwich. This was a daily exchange between the two and neither I nor Angela even heard it anymore. I passed her a sandwich and unwrapped my own. The four of us chewed for a while without talking. Blair pulled out a two-litre bottle of Coke wrapped in a paper bag and we passed it around like it was a bottle of rotgut wine and we were a pack of hobos. We were all envious of Blair. His parents were getting divorced, and as a result he and his two sisters could get anything they wanted. This largesse trickled down to our gang in the form of Coke, bags of Old Dutch potato chips and the occasional candy bar.
“We should go look for tools behind the shed,” Angela said after half her sandwich was gone.
“There’s nothing here,” I argued. We’d looked for something decent every day for a week and never found anything left behind.
“We haven’t looked everywhere,” Blair said, looking toward Angela. Everyone knew he liked her, except her and maybe him.
“You got any other ideas, Gumbo?” she asked me as if Blair hadn’t said a word. If it bothered him, he didn’t show it.
I was the only one in our group with a nickname, and I was never sure whether I liked the unique status or not. It was one of those dumb things that doesn’t make any sense but sticks with you forever. When we were all little, we would go out trick or treating on Halloween together. One year — I was maybe seven — I dressed as an elephant. I don’t know where I got the idea or how Dad even pulled it off. He was responsible for stuff like that, though if I’d wanted to be a cop for Halloween I’m sure Mom would have dug up a genuine child-sized uniform for me. I was never once a cop for Halloween.
Anyway, I was dressed up in gray sweats stuffed with pillows and an elephant mask with giant floppy ears and a trunk that hung to my knees. It looked ridiculous, but at least it was warm. The others were already there when Mom dropped me off at Johnny’s house. She walked me up to the door and delivered me to Mrs. Frazier with her annual Halloween warning about flashlights, reflective clothing and razor blades, and I had the usual sensation of wanting the floor to swallow me up. Having a cop for a mom is a permanent state of embarrassment.
After my blush faded, Johnny’s little sister Mary came toddling out to the door. She took one look at me and started jumping up and down and giggling. “Gumbo,” she shouted in that little kid voice. “Gumbo, Gumbo, Gumbo!”
At first we though she was trying to say my last name, but how would she even know what it was? She was only three. After a second or two of confusion, we all figured out that she was trying to say Dumbo. It was her current favourite movie, and the Fraziers had even bought the VHS tape for their new VCR. I guess I should be glad that she couldn’t pronounce it right. I don’t know if I could stand to be known as Brian Dumbo.
“You got any chips, Blair?” I asked, deflecting Angela’s question. I didn’t have any ideas, but I was getting tired of digging in the dirt for non-existent treasures. They been going out to the site every day for a couple of weeks, and Mom and Dad had sent me out with them more days than they didn’t. The novelty was starting to wear off.
Angela wasn’t easily ignored, though. She intercepted the bag of Rip-L-Chips that Blair tossed me and said, “Hang on, Gum. You got something you want to do this afternoon? Digging for tools isn’t good enough for you? You got some hot book you wanna read? Or do you need to go dust for prints somewhere?” My face got hot and I wished I’d never mentioned the Junior Detective Kit I’d gotten for my birthday that year.
“Come on Angela,” Johnny said, hand wrist deep in his own bag of chips. “Don’t be a jerk.”
“Never mind,” I said, getting up and wiping the dirt from my butt. “I just don’t feel like it today.” I half walked, half fell down The Mound toward where the bikes were lying on the ground.
“Where are you going?” Blair called after me.
“Home,” I said, not turning around. I picked up my bike and walked it over to the edge of the lot.
As I looked for my opening to cross the highway, I heard Angela laugh a fake high-pitched titter. I knew then that she felt bad, but it was too late. I was already halfway across the highway and heading for home.
It was sometime in the summer of the construction lot that I first discovered it might be possible to find out who my real parents were. I never called them that out loud; I knew that Mom and Dad would die if they heard me say that. But that’s what they were in my mind. My real parents. And I could maybe find them someday. The thought of it consumed me the summer I was ten years old.
And it consumed me every summer, every winter, every spring and fall for twenty more years, until the one morning I was in the john reading comics on my phone and it rang.