“Indeed a very heart-touching story that will grasp you from the very beginning of the son’s painful journey.”
Aditi Saha, Goodreads #1 Top Reviewer
A deeply affecting story of how the anti-heroes in life can be our strongest forces for growth, A Father’s Son is a heartbreaking tale of a teenage boy thrust into adulthood prematurely.
When his mother is arrested in September 1988, 14-year-old hockey phenom Justin Maloney has to move in with his estranged father. Unemployed and struggling with addiction, Rick Maloney wants to be a caring, responsible parent to his only child, but soon loses his way and begins a steady descent into darkness that will force him to confront old demons.
Infused with the same prose and pop culture that would define a generation, A Father’s Son also touches on the universal themes of first loves, betrayal and the struggle for identity. Ultimately, the novel is a stirring tale of how parent and child can grow far apart while remaining close through a shared love of Canada’s national passion.
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A Father’s Son
Hanging around 53 Division for hours on end sucked, but getting driven to Dad’s place in a crappy yellow police car really sucked the bag. While at the cop shop, I had to wait around someone’s desk the whole time, doing pretty much what Dad calls “the square root of nothing.” When Mom had been pulled over and handcuffed outside her Pontiac Grand Am, it felt like a dream. It was only when an officer told me she’d be arraigned in court next week that it began sinking in. Even though I had no idea what “arraigned” meant, I knew it was bad because he asked if I had somewhere to go in the meantime. There was no chance I’d move back with Mom’s psycho boyfriend, which meant I’d have to stay with Dad.
The sun was setting when the police car pulled over to the side of the road, across from Dad’s building, a concrete eyesore in the centre of Toronto. To the north was the country’s richest neighbourhood; the south was a bunch of streets and alleyways full of hookers, drug addicts and bums. Officer Brady opened his door and I took that as my cue to get out. Inside Dad’s building, I scanned the black rubber board on the wall. The names, all in white lettering, went from CHERNOVSKY to KAO to RHEE to GONZALEZ. Officer Brady moved a finger down the glass until he found what he was looking for, MALONEY, R, then entered eight-oh-four.
“Mr. Maloney? Sir, this is Officer Jeff Brady. We spoke earlier on the phone. I’m here with your son Justin. Would you mind letting us in?”
The door buzzed and we rode up to the eighth floor without saying anything, which was fine by me because I wasn’t much in the mood to talk. Hands buried deep inside the pockets of my jeans, I noticed a hole at the bottom of my T-shirt as Officer Brady rapped on the door. When Dad opened it a moment later, a sound escaped from the back of my throat. It’d only been four months since we’d last seen each other, but he looked a decade older. His brown hair was shorter than I remembered and most of it had turned grey, the pockmarks on his forehead more visible than ever. He had stubble all over his face, not in the style Crockett or Tubbs wore it on Miami Vice, but more like someone who didn’t care about shaving. What surprised me most was how skinny he was. He must have lost at least twenty pounds over the summer. His black dress pants were seriously creased and the armpits of his white button-down matched his teeth, the yellow of a cigarette butt that’s been smoked down to the filter. Dad looked, I hate to say it, really sad compared to Officer Brady’s crisp uniform and clean-shaven, youthful face.
Directing his eyes from Officer Brady to me, Dad locked his fingers behind him. His glasses were halfway down his nose, which meant he’d been reading before we arrived. “So Merlyn has finally been caught with her hand in the financial cookie jar, has she?”
“Well, as I mentioned to you on the phone, sir, your wife—”
“My ex-wife, Officer.”
“Sorry, your former wife—”
“The term ‘ex-wife’ has a much more incontrovertible feel to it, does it not?”
Officer Brady’s jaw went rigid. “Your ex-wife,” he went on, frustrated, “was arrested and charged with cheque kiting and driving under the influence this afternoon, sir.”
The fact that Mom was sitting in a holding cell somewhere in the city and up on some pretty serious charges didn’t seem to faze Dad. He stared down at his loafers, nodding to himself: “Sunt pueri pueri, puerilia tractant.”
“What was that, sir?”
“Kids will be kids? You reap what you sow? Something along those lines. In any event, my ex-wife always had a penchant for decadence but, sadly, never the means to attain it. Legally, at least.”
“Mr. Maloney, have you been drinking tonight?”
“That, sir,” Dad said at once, “is none of your business. Now, if that will be all, thank you for bringing my son home.”
If he was offended, Officer Brady did a pretty awesome job of hiding it. He looked at me, and for a few seconds I thought he might try and say something uplifting like they do in those made-for-TV movies. But in the end he just turned around. To be fair, there wasn’t much he could say. I’m sorry your mother was arrested, half-wasted no less, and then locked up? I’m truly sorry, but you’re going to have to move in to your father’s latest shoebox?
Dad pulled his foot away from the bottom of the door as I walked in. Classical music was playing in the background, one of those depressing pieces he liked listening to in the evenings. The place reeked of smoke, its painting-less walls the colour of egg yolk. A cigarette burned in an ashtray beside Dad’s record player. This bachelor apartment was the smallest place he’d lived in since the divorce, and I’d spent time at all of them. It was about five hockey sticks long and a little less than that wide. Aside from a bed, a TV, a desk and a grey sofa, the only other thing in the room was a dresser separating the bed from the couch. Directly across from that was a puny little kitchen. Dark grey curtains were drawn closed against the balcony windows. Something seemed to be missing to this whole scene, though I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“It obviously goes without saying that you will take the bed, Justin.” Dad extended an arm as a waiter might when taking a person to their seat at a restaurant.
“Where are you going to sleep?”
I sat down on the wool blanket covering the bed. Dad walked across the room, picked up his glass and drained it with one bend of the elbow.
“The chesterfield will suffice.”
I looked over and saw a book on one of the cushions, and that’s when it hit me. “Dad, where are your books?”
He refilled his glass. “Extraneous at this point in my life, I’m afraid.”
“What does that mean?”
“Extraneous? It comes from the Latin, extrāneus, meaning ‘external’ or ‘foreign’. I suppose you could say ‘unnecessary’ in layman’s terms. Anyway, you must be hungry, no?”
“Dad, I’m serious. Where are your books?”
He took a sip of his drink. “I sold them.”
“What about your first editions?”
“They’re now the property of a literary establishment on Queen West.” I could hear the regret in his voice. “In any event, why don’t I put something together while you regale me with tales from your Homerian odyssey today?”
Dad would read to me at night when I was a kid, the Oxford English Dictionary never far from my side. Anytime I didn’t understand something, he made me look it up and highlight both the word and the definition. His feet would be up on the bed as he made me repeat each new word, over and over, until I pronounced it correctly. I’d developed a pretty insane vocabulary by my tenth birthday; not a lot of fifth graders knew the difference between “erudite” and “pedantic.” That, of course, was all fine and dandy until kids at school began making fun of me. Things really went south with the teasing in grade six, the same year Dad caught wind of Mom’s affair and moved out.
When I changed schools in grade seven, going from a downtown public school to an uptown private school on a hockey bursary, I saw it as a chance to reinvent myself and never use big words again. That was 1986, the same year I switched AAA hockey teams and started playing for the Young Nats. More important, that was also when I got my braces off. It was a pretty wicked feeling to smile again without being called “brace face,” “metal mouth” or “tinsel teeth.”
“Oh, come now,” Dad said, rattling me out of my thoughts. “You’re a growing boy. There must be something here you want.” Dad seemed bent on feeding me, but I wasn’t hungry. Stress turns my stomach into a web of knots. The tremors in my arms and hands come next.
“I mean it. I’m fine.”
“Come now, Justin. I have quite a lot to choose from. Let your father provide you some sustenance on this abhorrent day when your mother—”
“I told you already! I’m fine!” The words came out harsher than I’d meant them to, yet Dad didn’t seem too bothered. He topped himself up as he studied me. “What!”
He did some stupid thing with his lips he thought made him look all cool. Dad calls it a “stalemate” when two people look at each other and neither one says anything. I call it “being annoying.” Our own stalemate ended when the fire alarm went off all through the building. The noise made my head throb and forced me to cover my ears. Dad drained his glass in one fluid motion.
“Should we get out of here?” I yelled.
Dad grinned. “It’s a false alarm.”
“False alarm. Pun intended. Nothing to worry about, kiddo.”
Dad only called me “kiddo” when he’d really had one too many.
A few seconds later, the stupid thing stopped ringing. I lowered my hands, scared it would go off again and make me jump out of my skin.
“See? Momentarily obstreperous, that’s all.”
“You mind if I watch TV?”
“I’ll turn off the music for you.”
I wanted to say thanks, but I was pissed off at my mother for abandoning me today and at my father for living in a place built for the Smurfs. I hit ON, wondering if he had cable or not. When I flipped through the channels, ABC, CBS, and NBC were all there.
Dad removed the record with both hands and slipped it into a case. As he crouched down, sounds popped out of his joints, like tree branches snapping. He returned the album to its home, a red milk crate he kept under the desk. On TV, Ron MacLean and Don Cherry were talking about tonight’s preseason battle between the Leafs and Oilers, Edmonton’s first game since trading Gretzky last summer to the Kings. Dad grabbed his desk chair and dragged it towards the TV. I put my back up against the wall and let my feet hang over the bed as Toronto skated to a four-two victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions.
We drove over to Tony’s place to pick up my stuff the next day. The trip there was uneventful, the conversation between Dad and me as short as it usually was when we weren’t talking hockey.
“Burger or fried chicken for lunch?” he asked.
“Burger, I guess.”
“Harvey’s or McDonald’s?”
Dad nodded. “Want to grab something now or later?”
“Can we get my things first?”
When we arrived at Tony’s bungalow, Dad couldn’t resist taking a potshot at Mom. “This is what she moved on to?”
Tony’s house was in Little Italy. On a street with pretty nice houses, Tony’s crapbox bungalow was rotting from inside-out. As we pulled up and Dad turned the car off, I noticed the eavestrough had come loose at one end of the roof. Dandelions dotted the small front lawn, each one a landmine warning.
“Want me to come in and help you pack your stuff?”
“No. I’m good.”
If there is truly a God, please have Tony out of the house right now.
Not only was Tony home, but he knew nothing about what had happened over the last 24 hours.
“Where the hell’a you and your mother been, huh?” he said from his chair in front of the television, where he was watching a WWF match between “Macho Man” Randy Savage and some skinny pecs nobody. “Ya think you two can come and go here like this is a god-damn hotel? This is my home and that means my rules, ya little shit.” Tony flew out of his seat, beer bottle in hand. “I swear to God, if that slut has hooked up with someone else…” Tony raised a finger and pointed it at me. “I’m gonna give ya five seconds to fess up to what you and your sidekick have done behind my back or so help me God I’m gonna slap ya into next week.”
Tears formed in my eyes. I rubbed them away with a shaky hand as I tried to tell the biggest loser on Earth what had happened: “She was arrested”; “I’m moving to my Dad’s”; “I need to grab my clothes.” This only made Tony angrier. He looked around and zeroed in on the bookcase, which, instead of books, had a bunch of things Mom had collected over the years, including a small glass horse, a handmade doll, and something called an “amphora” that she’d bought in Greece with Dad on their honeymoon. Tony grabbed the fancy vase, smashed it against the floor, then paced back and forth.
“Well? What are ya waitin’ for? Go grab your shit.” Frozen in place and shaking, I didn’t move until Tony yelled, “Now!”
My blood, or at least my skin, felt like it’d turned to ice. Tony had a habit of taking out his problems with Mom on me. The more she screwed up, the worse he got with me. I fetched two big bags from my closet, stuffing one of them with clothes and loading the other one up with school books, my Walkman, a bunch of cassettes, and some stuff I wanted to save, like an autographed picture of Mario Lemieux and a puck Dad had caught at a Leaf game. Down in the basement, I zipped up my hockey bag and raced back upstairs. Tony was watching TV again, the curtains drawn closed. He didn’t turn around and offer to open the front door as I struggled to get all three bags out at the same time.
As soon as he saw me, Dad got out of the car and helped put everything in the trunk. I’m not sure if he could sense how upset I was or see that my eyes were puffy and wet, but I was inside again before he could ask. Leaving behind my posters and trophies didn’t bother me that much; the aquarium was different. These fish were my first pets, and as someone who’d never had a dog or a cat, the angelfish and guppies meant a lot to me.
Keep your head down and don’t look anywhere near him.
The weight of the six-sided aquarium when it was full of water blew me away. It was basically impossible to move faster than an injured turtle without spilling a drop. On the edge of freedom, I tried getting my hand around the doorknob while balancing the aquarium on one wrist. This was costing me precious seconds, a ticking time bomb waiting to go off behind me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find the strength to turn the old brass knob. I looked outside the grimy panes of glass on the upper part of the door and saw Dad sitting behind the steering wheel, taking pulls from his flask. I put the aquarium down, propped the door open, and hoped Tony didn’t lose his mind because of how long it was taking me to get out of his stupid house. Without meaning to, I groaned when lifting the aquarium. I knew the second I did, Tony had the excuse he needed to go seriously bonkers.
Swallowing hard, he chugged his beer and leapt out of his chair. “Hey!” he yelled as I let the door close behind me.
Get to the car. Get to the car. Get to the car.
“Hey!” Tony was racing my way. “I’m talking to you. What am I supposed to do with your mom’s shit, huh?”
Careful now. You’re almost there…
Tony cut me off from the side and snagged the aquarium from me easily, twisting his body and throwing it high in the air like a discus.
One Mississippi, two Mississippi…BOOM!
Glass shattered when it hit the ground, water and fish sent rushing down the street. Dad came flying out of the car. He lowered his head and charged Tony, bowling him over with a football tackle. The Italian Stallion went down hard, shouting, “Vaffanculo!” Locked together on the grass, they pulled and punched and kicked and spat. Elbows, knees, fingernails, hands and feet were all in play. I looked at the fish now dying on the pavement, their bodies flipping from side to side.
When Dad and Tony eventually fell off each other, they lay on their backs, huffing and puffing. Tony had more blood on him, most of it coming from his damaged nose, but Dad had a shiner and a whole bunch of cuts and scrapes all over his face.
Tony was the first to get up from the grass. He marched into his home and slammed the front door. I helped Dad to his feet and got him in the car. Before starting the ignition, he looked over at me and said, “I don’t think he would have made a very suitable step-father.”
THE blue Plymouth Volare limped over a speed bump and into the arena’s parking lot. The car was a hand-me-down from Grandpa Robert, Dad’s dad. Although he was the source of my middle name, I knew pretty much nothing about him except what Mom had told me over the years; Dad never, ever, ever talked about him. When Grandpa had a stroke and couldn’t really take care of himself anymore, he moved in with us, as Grandma Ellie had already passed. The strongest memory I have of that time was near the end of grade four. Mom was in the kitchen and Dad was at work, which meant I had to keep an eye on Grandpa. We were in the living room. He was sitting in Dad’s reading chair, staring off into space, and I was on the sofa reading a Hardy Boys story. Suddenly he waved me over with a limp hand. I flipped The Crimson Flame over to mark my spot (Dad says dog-earing a book is sacrilegious) and shuffled over to Grandpa. He motioned for me to come closer, as if he wanted to whisper a secret into my ear, but instead he just slapped me across the cheek. It wasn’t a hard slap, more like a gust of wind hitting you in the dead of winter. I backed away, more confused than I was hurt.
Now, as Dad turned the steering wheel and looked for somewhere to park, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, I lifted an elbow up onto the padding and rested my chin on the palm of my hand.
“What are you thinking about there, Rodin?” I ignored his question. “Believe that game Koharski called last night?” This was typical Dad, switching gears and bringing it back to hockey whenever I kept quiet. “Bloody miracle the Maple Laughs won with that yahoo at the wheel.”
Dad found a parking space and slid the car into PARK. (I wasn’t sure whether he hadn’t noticed or simply didn’t care, but he’d parked in a spot reserved for handicapped people.) He pushed the car lighter in and tried to get it to stick. Even though it was dark out, I could tell the bruising around his eye had swelled up in the hours since the WrestleMania extravaganza at Tony’s place. Looking at his battle scars now, I felt the tiniest sense of pride. It wasn’t as if he’d saved the day, but Dad had, in a way, come to the rescue. He stubbed out his cigarette and then, just as quickly, lit another one. We both sat there, lost in our thoughts.
“You should get going. Less than half an hour until you’re on the ice.”
“Meet you in the lobby afterwards?”
There are two types of rinks you walk into as a hockey player. One is where the entrance and the lobby are sealed off from the actual ice skating surface. Take North Toronto, our home arena. You’re more likely to smell cigarette smoke or perfume in the lobby than anything connected to hockey.
Then there are places like Forest Hill, where the pungent, unforgettable, gorgeous smell of hockey gloves, wood bench stands, Zamboni exhaust, rubber pucks and the sweat guys have worked up over a game or practice smack you in the face like an uppercut the moment you pass through those doors. At Forest Hill, the lobby’s at the opposite end of the entrance, over by the dressing rooms, so in the time it takes you to reach the door that separates the warm snack bar from the cold arena, your head is already in the game.
That night, we were at Forest Hill: crappy ice surface, awesome smells.
In practice, the coaches worked us hard. Our first game was a week away and some of the guys were still hurting from the long summer off. Dad was the only person in the stands. He sat on the home side. Now and then he drank from his flask, which he kept tucked inside his suit jacket. I’d hoped his being so many rows up would hide his injuries, but everyone was on me after practice.
“Hey, J.R. Did you beat the tar out of the Rickster or what?” Keith said. This drew a few laughs from the room as guys got undressed, wiped down skate blades, and changed into fresh shirts. I might have been captain of the team, but that didn’t mean I was safe from being the butt of a joke now and again.
“What happened, Baloney? Did the Rickster get in a bar brawl? He should get an eye patch for that shiner. They’re totally coming back into fashion, you know.” Ryan laughed a little too hard at his own joke as he looked around to see if anyone found him as funny as he did.
“Yeah, you could use a little help in the fashion department yourself, fagnuts,” Dean said.
“You got a problem with the way I dress, Burks?”
“No. Chicks dig skin-tight acid-washed jeans, Delacrotch.”
“Look who’s talking, shit-for-brains. Just last week I was spanking my frank while thinking about your mother, ’cause I saw her at the Scarborough Town Centre wearing her leopard-skin mini-skirt and trying to bag all the locals.” Our team’s very own Cam Neely, Ryan Delacroix had two unique talents off the ice: making terrible jokes and keeping things light in the dressing room.
Dean wiped a tear from his eye. “I’m just sayin’, is all.”
“Hey, Delacock,” Michael Bolton chimed in, “I heard your mother—”
“No, your mother!”
“—entered an ugly contest and got turned down ’cause they weren’t accepting professionals.”
You could tell Ryan wanted to top that one, but an explosion of laughter drowned him out. Realizing his moment had passed, Ryan knew he was screwed and so looked to get out of the team’s crosshairs. “Yeah, well, anyway, maybe Baloney won’t play like such a Euro anymore now that he’s got his first KO under his belt, eh?”
On our way to the apartment, Dad played coach and talked about what “needed to be improved upon,” saying, “Someone’s got to talk to Atkinson’s kid about how often he goes down on shots.” Dad almost never called anyone on my team by their first name. A player was always so-and-so’s “kid” or so-and-so’s “brat,” depending on how rich his parents were. “He’s got a five-hole wider than a prostitute’s—”
“I’m being serious. You could drive a Zamboni through the gap in his pads. You scored on him 23 times tonight.” Dad’s ability with numbers was frightening, as was his ability to remember them faster than he could drain a glass of whiskey. “And what’s going on with your third line? They can’t even break out properly.”
“It’s still early in the season.”
“Well, this is the year you’ve got to start thinking more long term, as in you need to be playing on a winning team so the scouts notice you.”
“I am playing on a winning team.”
“Right. And I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.”
“What does that even mean? You’ve been using that dumb line since I was born and I still have no idea what you’re actually saying. You know what? Forget I asked. Great. You’ve got a bridge in, whatever, New York City for sale. Wonderful. Can we drop this now?”
“I told you already. You should have tried out for the—”
“Stop it, would you? I’m sticking with the Nats.”
We pulled over to the side of the road, across from what Dad calls “Hooker Harvey’s,” and he asked me to run in and grab us dinner. After today’s fiasco, we’d skipped lunch and gone straight home. Dad poured himself a massive glass of liquid courage and I made myself a slice-of-cheese-and-mayonnaise sandwich.
“I’ll take a cheeseburger with ketchup and relish and some onion rings.” He pulled out his wallet, which was in worse shape than any of my ratty T-shirts, and handed me a five-dollar bill.
“Dad, what do you expect me to get with five bucks?”
Reluctantly, he pulled out two loonies from his pants. “Better?”
We ate in opposite corners of the apartment. I devoured my two burgers while watching a lame movie, one of those feel-good stories about a high school girl overcoming the trauma of not being named homecoming queen and then snagging the cool guy with the cool car at the end. With their sparkling white teeth, her supportive parents offered up the right advice at the right time and with just the right amount of tenderness —and all nicely wrapped with a pink bow on top.
Afterwards, I hopped in the shower and let the hot water soothe my aching muscles. Dad didn’t have any of those fancy shower gels that made Mom’s bathroom smell as nice as a summer garden. All he had was a bar of soap, which didn’t lather very much or feel particularly smooth against my skin.
“Fall asleep in the shower there, Mr. van Winkle?” Dad asked when I got out, steam following me from the washroom.
“Huh?” I searched through one of my bags for a T-shirt and a pair of track pants.
“You were in there for the better part of a revolutionary war.”
“I didn’t know I had a time limit.”
“Hydro is not included in the rent at this abode, young man. And the longer you’re in there depleting the Great Lakes of their greatness, the higher our bill at the end of the month.”
“Sorry.” I had no desire to go down this path. According to Mom, Dad had been a tightwad since they’d met and didn’t ever want to spend a dime on anything, except when it was on booze and smokes. He liked to constantly remind me how money didn’t grow on trees and that I couldn’t come to him for handouts like I was a union member or civil servant.
There was a chill to the air (Dad didn’t use the radiator unless it was deathly cold outside), so I threw on a Patagonia fleece. As I breathed in the heavy smell of fabric softener, I thought of Mom. Whenever she did the wash, she put three sheets of Bounce in the dryer and my clothes came out smelling all fresh and brand-new. Thinking about the arrest now, and the look of terror in her eyes when the cops hauled her off, I couldn’t decide whether I felt sorry for her or angry that she let this happen. I was see-sawing between these two emotions and flipping through my school notebook when my heart sank. “Oh, man…”
Dad looked my way from the sofa. “Problem?”
“You could say that, yeah.”
“Of a personal or academic nature?”
“I forgot I had an essay due in history tomorrow. Crap, crap, crap!”
“And what, may I ask, is it on?” Dad put his book down while I skimmed through Canada: 120 Years in the Making and counted the number of pages I was supposed to read.
“Something about the Battle of Abraham Plains.”
“The Battle of the Plains of Abraham,” Dad corrected me. “Yes, indeed, that defining moment in French history when the merde really hit the fan and Louis XV, le Bien-Aimé, lost his North American bijoux,” he said in his crappy French accent.
I wasn’t interested in listening to him ramble, but I was in a bind because I didn’t have the time or energy to read through the material and then write a half-decent essay. “All right. I could use your help.”
He grinned. “What, precisely, is the subject of the essay?”
“We have to write five hundred words on how the battle played an important role in defining early Canadian history.” I put a finger into my mouth. “Barf.”
“Yes, well, we’re going to look at this essay of yours as an example of…historical irony.” Dad scratched his temple and nodded. “And how French incompetence cost them Lower Canada.”
It was past one a.m. by the time I got to the last sentence. My brain was a messy blackboard of thoughts by then. I took out the four pieces of paper from my binder, paper-clipped them together, and lay down. Too tired to brush my teeth, I just crawled underneath the covers.
“Sweet dreams, Herodotus,” Dad said, liquid hitting glass the last sound I heard before falling asleep.