Young boy's disappearance is the real life inspiration behind “Kicking the Sky”
On July 28, 1977, a young boy from the Azores was trying to make a few extra dollars shining shoes. Surrounded by the strip clubs, bars, and massage parlors of Toronto’s Yonge Street, Emanuel was lured away from his siblings, promised extra cash for moving photography equipment. Four days later, his body was discovered, maimed, and hidden atop Charlie’s Angels, a Yonge Street body-rob parlour. Emanuel Jaques, lost to his family and stripped of his name, became known only as The Shoeshine Boy. It is this true story that served as inspiration for Giller Prize finalist Anthony De Sa’s second novel Kicking the Sky.
‘“You ever see a plane kick into the sky?” Manny said. His voice sounded funny. “It’s like pumping a swing so high before you jump off or like chasing across rooftops”’
This is how Manny, Ricky, and Antonio spend their time—climbing up the eaves troughs of their neighbours, racing across the black shingles, flying from rooftop to rooftop, only to drop down at the end of the lane. Until one day in the late 1970s when a member of their community was kidnapped, assaulted, and killed.
In the Portuguese neighbourhood a few blocks away, the three boys become blood brothers. They are determined to protect their family and community. Racing across rooftops, making unlikely friendships, finding inspiration in The Little Prince on a crumbling bookshelf and discovering ways to be honest in the face of the uncertain reminds the reader of the resilience of children. The novel is narrated from Antonio’s point of view. The result is an extremely close, sometimes unsettling look at the streets of Toronto and the families that are trying to hold themselves together through truth and a little myth-making.
Here is an excerpt from part one, chapter five of Kicking the Sky, where Antonio visits his aunt Edite after Emanuel, the young Portuguese boy, had been found slain atop a Yonge Street shop.
Kicking the Sky
by Anthony De Sa
— 5 —
The stairs leading up to Edite’s apartment were narrow and dark. All her windows were open, and fans scanned the kitchen like giant periscopes. She had been living there for more than a year now and the place smelled of stale cigarettes. I passed by her bedroom: a mattress on the floor with a ruffled bedspread, a big Chinese fan on her wall in place of a headboard, and a silk scarf draped over her lamp. Clothes, blankets, beaded jewellery, and newspapers were scattered over the floor and bed. It wasn’t like any other Portuguese house I had ever been to. Edite said she liked to keep it that way; she could scoop all her belongings into a garbage bag at a moment’s notice and drive away in her convertible.
I walked down the hall and stopped to make the sign of the cross at Johnny’s picture. It was perched on top one of the towers of old newspapers she kept piled along the hall. Johnny had large dark eyes, and his face was framed with black curls, nothing like his mother’s. Edite sat at her kitchen table, reading the newspaper. Her cigarette smouldered in the ashtray.
SHOESHINE BOY, 12, FOUND SLAIN. Underneath the headline was a grimy photo of the Charlie’s Angels storefront.
“You’re here. What took you so long? Hold on, before you answer that let me call your mother.” Edite picked up the phone and dialed. “You want some coffee?” she whispered, just as my mother’s panicked voice came through. “Georgina, he’s here. He’s okay,” Edite said, looping then unlooping the phone cord around her pointing finger. “No, it’s okay. It’s my fault. I forgot to call you when he arrived.” I caught my mother’s voice directing threats at me in Portuguese. Edite returned the receiver to its base. “In hot climates they drink hot drinks, you know. Supposed to cool you off.” Before I could say no she was at the counter pouring me a cup from her percolator. I chipped away at the sugar until I got about four teaspoon-sized nuggets. I was used to having a milked-down version of coffee that my mother prepared for me, filled with crushed digestive biscuits to sop up all the liquid. “We’re just a bit worried, Antonio.” Edite poured herself a refill. She reached up to the cabinet and brought down a small bottle of something golden. I thought it was honey or maple syrup until she stirred her coffee and I smelled the booze.
The first time I met Edite, at Kensington Market, my eyes landed on her before my mother had even introduced us. She stood beside a barrel filled with pickled herring and plastic bins packed with dried beans, grains, and powdery spices. She was thin and beautiful. Her head was slightly tilted, and a cigarette was wedged in the corner of her mouth. She caught me staring and her coral lips stretched wide. I turned away to look at the rows of stacked cages filled with chickens, ducks, rabbits, and pigeons.
My mother’s hand tightened around my wrist. She kissed the woman on both cheeks. “Antonio, meet your aunt Edite.” Aunt Edite wore makeup and painted her nails. She kept herself thin by cutting meat from her diet, drinking Tab whenever she wanted, and smoking Camels. She had also joined the Vic Tanny’s fitness club on Richmond Street, something no Portuguese woman I knew ever did. There wasn’t a hint of Portuguese in the way she spoke. She had moved to the States when she was fourteen, got married at sixteen, and was widowed at twenty. An industrial accident, my father told me. My mother had agreed to meet her in Kensington Market, amidst all the fruit stands and fishmongers, but then she practically had to drag her home with us. It was clear from the conversation on the way home that my father had no idea my mother knew Edite was in Toronto. Edite settled into her own apartment on Markham Street, a few houses up from where Ricky lived with his father. She said she needed to get away from America for a little while. She told my mother she had been offered a job here working for a newspaper, and she took it. She had worked at the Boston Herald before starting at the Toronto Star. Her hands were soft. Her fingers only knew typewriter keys, not harsh detergents and the chemicals used to disinfect toilets and strip floors.
A few nights later, I had overheard my father fighting with my mother. Edite was louca and uma tola, he said, which I knew meant she was nuts. A single woman living on her own would get people gossiping. He had an obligation to protect our family’s reputation.
From: Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa. Copyright © Anthony De Sa, 2013. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday Canada.
Anthony De Sa grew up in Toronto’s Portuguese community. A short story writer, his first novel Barnacle Love was a finalist for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2009 Toronto Book Award. He teaches creative writing and is a librarian at Michael Powers/ St. Joseph High School. He lives in Toronto with his wife Stephanie and their three sons.