by Emanuel Melo
When Tiago woke at first light, his thought was of his nephews, Tom and James, who were arriving that afternoon. He could already hear their voices, full of excitement, the way the little boys always sounded when they visited.
“Titi, Titi,” they would shout as they rushed to hug him. He would lift each boy and twirl him once all the way round, eliciting squeals of laughter as each had his turn flying through the air. Already, Tiago felt the joy of it.
Usually, he spent his mornings painting and drawing, but today there would be no time. He skipped breakfast and fussed over each room in the cottage, organizing his pencils, paints, blocks of paper, and canvases. And his alphabetized collection of leather-bound first editions was arranged so neatly that you could measure the straightness of the rows with a ruler. Lightly, he ran a feather duster over each shelf of the built-in mahogany bookcase.
In the living room, an art deco rug with intricate designs in deep reds, purples, and greens accentuated the polished, shiny hardwood floor. On top of an art deco side table, white hydrangeas filled a Lalique vase. He hoped the boys would notice the flowers and think of the flowers that laced the winding roads of the countryside of his boyhood home. But, of course, they would remember no such thing; they did not even know where the island was located. They had been born in Toronto, and, just like everyone else Tiago knew, the word Azores brought a blank gaze into their eyes. Over the years, anticipating most people’s ignorance of the islands’ existence, Tiago had memorized an explanation for whenever he saw the puzzled look in someone’s face: In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between Canada and Europe, nine small islands. And almost everyone reacted to this explanation as if discovering the existence of some exotic tropical paradise.
Tiago imagined lighting a fire later that evening, and then sitting with the boys on the floor around the coffee table for a game of Scrabble. Or, perhaps, redoing the puzzle they’d enjoyed putting together last winter. Tom’s face had been pure joy when he triumphantly placed the final piece that completed the silhouette of a solitary man sitting inside a small covered boat, lost in his reading: Monet’s Le Bateau-atelier. “Titi,” Tom had shouted, “I did it!” And Tiago had smiled proudly at his nephew while the younger boy, James, looked on disappointed that he had not been of much help. “Titi, it’s too hard,” James complained, and his uncle had assured him that he’d been a great help, just sorting out the pieces.
At sixty, Tiago (or Mr. James da Silva, his name on the official Staff Directory) had left his job at Crescent School, where he’d taught boys to interpret the beauty of the world through paint on canvas. When a sudden loss of mental equilibrium shattered his mind, leaving him unfit to continue his teaching duties, Tiago had agreed to an early retirement package.
Perhaps what sparked the instability that spiraled and crashed, unfixable, in his brain, was the night Martin had not returned home. Tiago had been unable to sleep, imagining him hurt or killed. When Martin finally arrived in the early hours of the morning, it was to announce that their relationship was over. Tiago convinced himself that he had not seen this coming. But there it was: Martin leaving. The challenge of deciding what belonged to whom became a difficult task for both men after twenty-five years together. Only the books and the artwork definitely belonged to Tiago. They sold the house in the west end of the city, and when they went their separate ways, Tiago bought this place, which was nestled among a row of little cottages with lush front gardens on a secluded street in old Cabbagetown.
When he and Martin were still together, the boys had spent many weekends with their uncles, playing in the spacious backyard, watching movies, eating popcorn. Now he wondered how they would react to seeing his smaller garden and if they would stumble and crush his new flower beds.
At noon Tiago started to prepare dinner. The boys were fussy eaters, but rather than serve them the usual hamburgers or pizza, he thought he would try the Portuguese dish of Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá. Tiago pictured the boys as he chopped and sautéed onions. In his imagination, they were already busy drawing and looking at art books in the cozy living room, sipping hot chocolate.
Tiago was just about to place the cod in the oven when the phone rang. Rosa sounded frantic, yelling that she was running late. “I still have to stop at the cleaners, and they close early on Sundays. And now I’m stuck in traffic. I hate driving downtown. You could come live closer to us, in Markham, you know.”
“Not to worry, that’s okay,” Tiago tried to assure his sister, but she had already hung up.
Tiago had been babysitting his nephews from the time they were born. As they got older, he gave up teaching Saturday art classes in order to take first Tom, and then James, to music and swim lessons, soccer and baseball games. With each passing year, as Tiago’s involvement with the boys increased, Martin complained about the time he spent alone. “It’s not natural,” he’d shouted with frustration, as yet another dinner waited cold and another empty bottle lay on the kitchen counter, “Why should we spend so much time apart, just because of your obsessive commitment to those boys? They aren’t yours, for God’s sake.” Tiago would go quiet whenever Martin brought it up.
Ten years younger, Martin began to feel restless and dissatisfied with the mundane domestic lifestyle he and Tiago had somehow slipped into, like a trap. Martin began to look for solace and distraction elsewhere, first in the safety of Internet sites and later meeting strangers who offered him a quick fix while Tiago was out with his nephews on Saturday afternoons.
The year Martin left was, coincidentally, the same year the boys began to spend more time with their school friends and less with their uncle. After he moved into the cottage, Tiago found himself free most weekends, but by then his friends, accustomed to his unavailability, had stopped calling. At least his old ginger cat Molequinho greeted him at the door when he came home, following him from room to room, demanding the attention that, until recently, he’d been too distracted to give.
It was almost three o’clock. Tiago waited on the sofa by the window, listening for the car’s approach in the driveway. When he heard the slam of the car door he jumped up to open the door. The boys carried badminton rackets, a soccer ball, and games, and because their hands were full, they could not be expected to rush in to hug him.
Rosa had barely stepped inside the house when she threw him a kiss. Before he could say anything, she was off. Tom and James looked around the unfamiliar new place, standing frozen in the front hall.
“Well, what do you think?” Tiago asked them after they toured the rooms. Tom said that the house was much smaller than the other one. James took out the Nintendo from his knapsack and started to play with it.
“So, what about you, James? Do you like the house?”
“It’s okay, Titi.” His curt response puzzled Tiago so much that he asked the boy if he was alright.
“I’m missing a soccer practice to be here,” James responded, then stopped when he saw Tiago’s face.
Tom yelled at him to shut up. “We promised to be nice to Titi.” Tom picked at the badminton racket strings with his fingers and stared through them at the hardwood floor.
Stung, Tiago changed the subject. “I’m baking Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá for dinner.”
“What is bacao blah, blah…? I don’t think I’ll like it,” Tom said.
“I want a hamburger,” grumbled James.
Tiago was shocked by their responses and felt the need to withdraw for a moment. He escaped to the kitchen to check on the cod, pricking it more than necessary before shutting the oven door. The boys had followed him into the kitchen.
“It smells funny,” Tom laughed. James pinched his nose as if a skunk were in the room.
“How about we go out into the garden and play for a bit?” Tiago needed the distraction more than the boys did. How could they reject his dish so easily, without even trying it? It was his sister’s fault. She had never exposed the boys to their Portuguese side.
James dropped his Nintendo on the sofa and picked up his badminton racket. The three of them filed out into the small garden. Tom announced that he didn’t want to play and sat alone on the grassy part of the garden. Tiago tried to catch the birdie with his racket.
“No, no, Titi, that’s not how you hold it. Do it like this.” James tried to show his uncle the right way to hit the birdie, but Tiago only smiled back and joked about how the sun was in his eyes. After Tiago failed to hit the birdie over and over, James gave up.
“You’re no good at this. I’m bored,” he said, disappointed, and threw his racket on the ground. He walked off to explore the back garden where he hoped to find some insects. Tom, equally bored, sat cross-legged, picking at blades of grass.
“Why don’t we go inside, Tom, and you can do some drawings.”
James came inside holding a dead bug between his fingers and dropped it on top of the drawing that Tom was working on. Then he grabbed the pencil box beside Tom and ran away with it.
“Give that back!” screamed Tom.
The boys were fighting—a tug-o-war over the pencil box. Tiago tried to stop them, but they were too agile. They struggled with each other. They raced around the studio, then to the library, tripping over Molequinho, who let out a horrible screech and retreated beneath the sofa. Tiago tried to catch them and make them stop, but they were like slippery eels attacking each other.
“Please, don’t fight,” he begged. “I’ll make some hot chocolate while the two of you work this out between yourselves.”
In the kitchen, Tiago rummaged for the hot chocolate tin but could not locate it among all the boxes of tea that tumbled from the cupboard to the floor.
When he returned to the library, Tom challenged him by saying, “You’re the adult. You’re supposed to know what to do.” James smiled and gave his brother a conspiratorial look.
“So, why don’t we go for a nice walk?” Tiago stammered, stunned by his nephew’s challenge. But both boys gave no indication of interest in the idea.
“How about watching the Spiderman tape? You always enjoyed that one,” said Tiago.
“That’s boring; I don’t want to watch it anymore,” James said with downcast eyes, and Tom, looking the other way, was sheepishly in agreement.
James looked for his Nintendo console in the living room and brought it to the library. He began to play again.
“Is that a DS9?” asked Tiago as he tried to restore order by showing interest in the electronic toy.
“DSi, Titi. You mean DSi,” James corrected him. “But this is only a DS. Mom wouldn’t get me a DSi for my birthday. I wanted a DSi. You can watch videos and take pictures on it. I can only play games on mine,” James pouted, almost in tears.
“You don’t deserve a DSi, you creep!” yelled Tom angrily.
The boys started to fight again.
“I wish I was an only child,” shouted James.
“Oh, yeah? Me, too. I always get into trouble because of you,” said Tom as he punched his brother in the ribs.
This is when Tiago saw the Lalique swaying precariously from side to side, and then, finally tipping over before he could reach it. It fell, not on the carpet, which would have saved it, but on the hardwood floor, spilling the fresh water and strewing the hydrangea blossoms among the glass shards.
“I want to go home!” shrieked James. “I’m telling mom on you, and you’ll be sorry.”
Tom was in tears. “I didn’t see the stupid vase. I’ll get blamed for everything, and it’s all your fault. I’ll be grounded for life. I hate you.”
Tiago bent down to pick up the sharp pieces of glass.
“It’s all right, Tom, don’t worry. It was an accident,” Tiago assured him. After hearing his uncle’s forgiving tone toward his brother, James ran out of the library and slammed the door on his way back to the garden. Tiago let him go while he and Tom stayed behind to look for glass slivers.
Tiago resigned himself to find the telephone and called his sister.
He cringed as he heard the disappointment in her voice. “What’s wrong, James?”
Tiago bit his lip. It had always annoyed him when she translated his birth name into English.
“I think the boys just want to go home now. I’m sorry.”
Tiago went back to the garden to tell James that it was okay to come back inside the house. When he assured the boys that their mother was on her way to take them home, they settled down and waited.
“Titi, read to us,” said James as he sat beside him. Tom perched on the arm of the sofa, listening quietly as he read to them from The Story of Doctor Dolittle. For a few moments the boys were just as he remembered them, eager and attentive to his every word, sitting quietly as he read in his best cockney accent: But I like the animals better than the “best people,” said the Doctor. “You are ridiculous,” said his sister, and walked out of the room. Tiago read the line in a high pitched voice.
Tom laughed. “Sounds like mom,” he said. And James smiled with a hint of disbelief. “Titi,” he interrupted, “everyone knows you can’t talk to animals.” And before he could finish the story, the doorbell rang. Tom ran to open it.
“Is everything all right?” Rosa asked, unsmiling. She looked at her brother, who still sat on the sofa with James. Tiago knew she was searching for some clue to what had gone wrong, but he offered none, and neither did the boys. Tom and James stared silently at Tiago, anticipating his complaint.
“They’re just tired and want to go home, that’s all.”
It only took a few minutes for the boys to gather their belongings and head back to the car. “Bye, Titi,” they said in unison, as if nothing had happened.
Tiago watched them get in the car. He waited for them to wave, but the boys were already absorbed in their video games. He shut his front door before the sound of the car engine faded. He released a deep sigh and began to clean up the mess. The spilled hot chocolate, the papers and pencils strewn all over the floor, the fallen hydrangea, and a few more bits of glass. How could Rosa not have noticed any of this? How could she be so clueless? All she’d seen, he thought, was that her own day had been ruined.
As he picked up the last bit of glass, it sliced his finger. He flinched staring at the trickle of blood that smeared the shard. He would miss the Lalique. Was that old antique shop, The Journey’s End, still there, in his old neighborhood on Markham Street, he wondered. Just across from Honest Ed’s? Perhaps he could go next Saturday and look for another vase. Perhaps the kind old man who ran the shop would remember him.
After he finished putting the house back in order, the rooms became again very quiet and still, with only the antique clock in the library disturbing the deep silence with its slowly echoing tick-tock. Tiago settled in the library where he would spend the long evening that lay ahead. He wondered about Molequinho, still hiding somewhere in the house, unsure if it was safe to come out.
Tiago slouched down in his favorite armchair and tried to read but couldn’t. The words on the page were a blur. Patiently, he waited for the letters to come back into focus. Molequinho, too, he was sure of it, would find the way back to his warm lap before the darkness of night closed the day.
Emanuel Melo was born in the Azores and immigrated to Canada at the age of nine. He lives in Toronto. His short stories have been included in Cleaver, Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora in the United States and Canada: An Anthology, and MEMÓRIA: An Anthology of Portuguese Canadian Writers. His articles have appeared in Mundo Açoriano, (TWAS) Toronto World Arts Scene, and on the website of the Canadian Centre for Azorean Research and Studies. His short story “Avó Lives Alone” was a finalist in the Writers’ Union of Canada’s 20th Annual Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers in 2013. His short story “The Weekly Visit” appears in Cleaver Issue No. 8. Read more at his website.
Image credit: Leo U on Flickr