Ten Houses

Not Book Club Material

When I get back home from my walk I find my mother in the kitchen making her famous stuffed peppers.

This would ordinarily have given me considerable pleasure.

Except my mother has been dead for five years.

It is a bit of an existential crisis and one which I should confront immediately, but I really do love those stuffed peppers.

And not only has she come back from the dead, but she has brought spices and condiments with her.

So I decide to wait it out.

The peppers are as good as I remember, even better, no rust on her cooking at all. She has made a simple salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers, oil and vinegar dressing, and has toasted a couple pieces of pita. We eat in silence. She makes a passing remark about my hair being too long but we mostly just eat without talking. I have missed these Egyptian dishes and am enjoying the combination of flavours and nostalgia. I am clearing the plates and loading the dishwasher when she finally announces the real reason for her visit.

“We did not let you go out for Halloween during the FLQ.” She says, referring to the terrorist organization which in the fall of 1970 had kidnapped a British diplomat and murdered a Quebec politician, causing the prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau to invoke the War Measures act.

“You have to change it.”

So now I get it. She has not come back to cook. She has come back to edit.

She is referring to a new story I am working on called ‘Ten Houses’. The plot hinges on me being allowed to trick or treat, but mostly to collect money for UNICEF, at ten houses on our block on the afternoon of Halloween during the October Crisis in 1970. I find a valuable coin in my Unicef box and have to decide whether to return it to its rightful and unsuspecting owner. It is a morality play which Jules, my actual editor whose culinary skills I am not privy to but who has the editorial distinction of actually being, you know, alive, and I have worked back and forth on. I think it turned out quite well.

“It’s just to help the plot, mom,” I explain. “It narrows down my search to ten houses. I needed a reason why I was only able to go to a few houses.”

She holds up her hand in some sort of Egyptian ‘don’t go there’ gesture, momentarily lifting it from the cup of Turkish coffee she has made from a ‘canaka’, a coffee pot, which I do not own.

Jamais de la vie,” she exclaims. “That would never happen.”

And then, putting an exclamation mark on it, she says in Arabic “bokra fel mish mish.” Which literally means ‘when apricot season comes’ but figuratively means ‘when pigs fly’.

I try to explain how the stories mix fact and fiction but she is not having any of it.

Jamais de la vie!” She repeats.

She then asks if I have any chocolate ice cream. I shake my head no. She arrives with peppers, stuffing, and Turkish coffee but no ice cream?

Then my father, who has been dead for fifteen years, appears in the living room, wearing his customary socks and sandals, holding a bowl of ice cream for me and a small cone for my mother.

He looks well all things considered.

“Show me the story,” he says. I hand him the sheets. My father, though not really a fan of fiction, revered books and writing. He would set emotions aside and examine it rationally and pragmatically. I watch him read my story. I had a funny bit in the second paragraph and although it does not elicit a big laugh I do get a smile. I like that.

Then he looks up and says “It is nice to read about my old friend Taki.” I nod my head. Taki was a colleague of my father’s from work. I brought him into the story as the coin collector who happened to be at the house when I got back. He is the character who tells me the coin is valuable. Taki did not really collect coins. I just made that part up. But my father lets it go. He finishes reading and looks up.

“It is a morality play,” he says.

I say “Yes.”

“The boy discovers a valuable coin in his Unicef box and now has to decide if he gives it back.”

“Exactly,” I reply.

“It is a good story,” he says.

I say “Thanks.”

Then he says “Icarus,” wagging his finger, “you flew too close to the sun.”

“But I…” I stammer.

“That scene makes no sense,” he says. “Nobody is going to believe we let you go out during the October Crisis.”

“It was just ten houses,” I argue.

“No.” He shakes his head. “Look.” He holds up the story and reads from it. “My mother was in charge of our costumes. But really, she was in charge of us not having costumes because she insisted my sister and I wear our winter parkas over any costume we had.”

“Does that sound like someone who would let you go out of the house while there were kidnappings and murders?”

I shake my head no.

“That one inconsistency harms the entire story.”

He is right. My buddy Harold Rosen would never believe it. There was no way I would have been allowed out. The story did not hold water.

I say “It is the 50-year anniversary of the October Crisis. And this year parents also have to decide whether to allow their kids to go trick or treating. I thought it would make a good story.”

“Yes” he says. “It would make a good story. But this is not that story.”

I say “Ok. I will change it.”

He says, “Good. And maybe get a haircut too.”

And then he and my mother disappear.

I never finished the story. Jules and I went back and forth a few times but I could never quite figure it out. By then I had a Goldfarb and Lewberg story which had a few good laughs so I eventually forgot about it altogether. Halloween came. I’m not sure how many kids went out. I can tell you nobody came to my house. I had bought some chocolate bars just in case but knew I was just going to eat them myself. But I didn’t want chocolate bars. What I really wanted was a bowl of my mother’s Syrian soup. A nice bowl of chamd with a scoop of rice.

I power up my laptop and open up a word document.

“This is the story about the time my mother let me go out and play in the middle of winter with wet hair.”

Then I set the table and wait.

The end.