BY DON HERALD
Copyright is held by the author.
MOM DIED suddenly on April first. Everyone who knew Lucy thought that if she was going to pass on, she couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate date. April Fool’s day. Her friends said maybe it was just another of her wacky trickster jokes. Lucy would likely reappear the next day, laughing and kidding them about how easy it was to fool them with a faked death. My Mom liked to do that sort of thing.
But this time, Mom wasn’t joking. She was gone for good. Massive coronary, the Coroner’s report said.
I don’t think Warren ever really got over it or realized that going forward, how so damned difficult his life would be without her.
Looking back at it all now, Dad was always a socially awkward guy who never seemed comfortable with his feelings, least of all telling others how he felt about things. I’m pretty sure all those years of buried feelings caught up to him after Mom died.
As a kid, I never knew Warren to be a guy who was free and loose with his feelings toward anyone. Especially toward me. It was Mom who always came to my hockey or baseball games. I can still hear her crazily cheering me on even in the noisiest arena or biggest ball park. Once, I think, Warren came to a Christmas concert when I was in grade two or three but that was it. Even then, I think Mom had to drag him there. Or perhaps she threatened him in some way that even Warren couldn’t ignore.
During high school, he never helped out with my science projects or appeared to give a sweet pinch about my grades. Warren always seemed to be working an extra shift down at GE or tinkering out in our garage with a mechanical project that just couldn’t be left unfinished. They used to fight bitterly about him not wanting to come to any of my things. “The least you can do Warren is to give Allan a few encouraging words. It won’t kill you, for Christ’s sake.”
But his usual response was “Allan understands. Don’t you, boy?”
To me, Warren really didn’t feel like my Dad. He was just there, taking up space.
In 2011, I graduated summa cum laude from McMaster Medical School. Lucy must have really done a guilt trip on Warren in the days before the ceremony because there he was at convocation, standing uncomfortably beside me in a dark, wrinkled suit that I’m sure he hadn’t worn since his brother’s funeral five years previously. Mom was giving me a big hug, kissing me on the cheek and looking so proud. But Warren just stood there, arms rigid at his side, blank face staring at the camera as if he was waiting for it to squirt a stream of water into his face at any moment.
Mom framed that picture of the three of us and set it on the centre of the mantle in our living room. Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen it in several years. I bet that Warren insisted she put it away and not be so god-damned sentimental about such things. I can just hear him yelling at her. “So the kid’s a doctor for Christ’s sake. Working at GE wasn’t good enough for him, eh? Winding motors on the line wasn’t enough for him? But it put the god-damned bread on our supper table every day didn’t it?” Knowing my Mom, I’m sure she eventually just gave up on him and, trying to keep the peace, took the picture down. I can still see my Mom sitting out on the back porch, slowly smoking her Belvedere Lights and dabbing away tears with a soggy lump of Kleenex.
But let’s face facts here. Like Warren, I’ve never been too touchy feely in any of my important relationships. Maybe that’s about the only god-damned thing my father ever gave me.
“Damn it, Allan. You’re ice when it comes to feelings. You’ve got a serious allergy to expressing feelings. You just can’t help yourself. It’s part of your DNA.” A string of girlfriends always said some version of that when they left me. And there is a lot of truth to it.
I had come to expect that’s the way all my intimate relationships would turn out. Until I met Helen. For what’s it worth, I think I truly loved that woman.
After almost a year together, Helen walked out on me a month after Mom died. She was really close to Lucy. Mom used to say that Helen was my soul mate. I was beginning to believe it too. But when Helen left I wasn’t sure if it was because she was grieving hard over Lucy or just giving up on me because I no longer had the steady influence of Lucy in my life. Whatever the reason, I’m on my own one more time.
Thanks to Helen walking out, I think I can really appreciate just how Warren must have been feeling after Mom died. If I had to take a picture to show how it felt, it would be of my Dad with a week’s worth of grey stubbly beard, sitting at our battered up kitchen table, chain smoking his sloppy roll your owns, sipping steadily from a greasy, cracked but not yet leaking, plastic tumbler almost overflowing with Bacardi White, mixed with a couple capfuls of Pepsi.
Warren lasted almost six months without Lucy. But I believe that the life spirit really left his body when the undertaker closed the casket on her in the Eternal Life room up at Needham’s.
Two months ago, late on an unseasonably chilly Tuesday night, I found him lying crumpled up on the faded orange shag in the hallway outside their bedroom. Just down a bit from my old room with the fading blue “Go Argos” sticker on the door and the light blue and white paint peeling off the wall under the stained window sill where the rain always seemed to find its way in. The television and all the lights were on when I pulled into our double lane driveway after I couldn’t get Warren on the phone. When my calls kept going to Mom’s voice asking the caller to leave a message because “we can’t come to the phone right now,” I knew things weren’t right with him.
I called 911 but asked the operator to tell the ambulance and fire guys not to use the sirens and flashers because my Dad was gone. “No need to bother the neighbours at this time of night with all the commotion of the sirens and lights.”
I sat straight backed on the worn, cracked brown leather sofa in the darkened living room waiting for them, thinking about what a mess the place was. But it was all just too much to tidy up before the paramedics arrived.
The flashing red and blue lights, faint at first down at the end of our street, lit up the living room with a weird, somewhat disorienting strobe effect from their trucks parked out front. I guess its oOK not to use the sirens on a call but the roof lights have to be on for traffic safety purposes. I expect that Warren would have been embarrassed by the showiness of it all.
Of course the cops arrived a bit later because until the Coroner could pass judgement, it was considered an unexplained death. The young patrol officer was business-like but mildly hostile. She asked lots of questions about Warren, his habits. Not so subtly, she hinted at the possibility of suicide. I answered as calmly as I could but she didn’t seem satisfied. After about 15 minutes, she got on her lapel radio and talked to someone.
Soon, an older cop with three stripes on his neatly pressed blue shirt turned up in the living room. Sergeant McGuire, I think he said his name was. He repeated all the other officer’s questions and watched me closely. McGuire was very direct about the possibility of suicide.
I had to agree that suicide was something that had to be considered given Warren’s extreme distress since Lucy died. McGuire seemed to be weighing something up in his mind.
“He’s your Dad, right?” McGuire paused and then continued. “You almost always call him by his first name. Never call him Dad. I find that a bit odd, given the circumstances here.” He waved an open hand roughly in the direction of where Warren lay under a fading green sheet in the upstairs hallway. “You see what I mean?”
I silently and slowly counted to 10 before answering. I had to be careful here with my words or things could get awkward between us very quickly.
“Yeah, he’s my Dad. But he and I always had this thing about our relationship. He was cold towards me. I was cool towards him. He really never felt like a Dad to me. So it was easier just to call him Warren and be done with it.” I half smiled, hoping McGuire would understand.
McGuire’s eyes widened a bit at my answer. I’m sure I heard him suck in a bit of room air. His eyes fixed intently on mine. I felt like he was reading my innermost thoughts. I didn’t care for that one bit. I waited quietly while he worked something out.
“OK,” he said, choosing his words with care. “I get the picture, Allan. At least I think I do. Sometimes father-son relationships can be really hard to explain. Give me a minute and I’ll get back to you.”
McGuire and his patrol cop spoke quietly out in the front hall for a few minutes. McGuire came back in and said he was sorry for my loss and explained that Warren would have to be taken to the Coroner`s office for an autopsy. I could likely pick him up for burial in about a week.
So I went through all the funeral routine again with Needham’s. But this time I had to take the estate through probate and that took a month or so.
Which brings me to why I’m standing here in the middle of the kitchen in my parents’ house. I’m wondering how the hell I’m going to get rid of all this stuff so the house can be cleaned up and readied for sale.
There’s a junk drawer over beside our old, once-white now yellowing Kelvinator. I swear I can still hear Mom and Warren always arguing about it. Warren always kept putting his stuff into that damn drawer while Lucy took stuff out just as fast.
“For Christ’s sake, Warren, why don’t you keep all your junk out in the garage where it damn well belongs?” she used to shout at him.
But my Dad would just smile and tell her not to worry. “I promise I’ll clean it out on the weekend.” But of course, he never did. Their junk drawer war of words went on for years and years.
Standing here now, I realize I haven’t checked out the junk drawer since I left home almost 13 years ago. When I was a kid, I loved poking around in it when they weren’t home. Sometimes I found a nickel or dime tucked under an unopened packet of screws or stuck together with some pink, hardened gum. Finders keepers. So I always slipped it into my pocket and treated myself later to some Smarties or the hard sponge toffee at Buckley’s Variety down at the corner.
Curious to find out what was in the junk drawer after all these years, I stepped over, put my middle two fingers into the centre of the worn brass pull latch and slowly slid it open.
The drawer was jammed full of stuff. It was a wonder that my parents had even been able to get the damned thing closed. But the same rush of excitement and anticipation that I always experienced as a kid when I snuck the drawer open to look for spare change or a stale piece of Juicy Fruit, all of it washed over me once again.
With both hands, I pulled the drawer out and carried it over to the table. I dumped everything onto the green-black formica top then set the empty wooden drawer off to the side. I could smell the peculiar scent only old pine drawers that hadn’t been opened in a very long time could put into the air. Oddly, I found the smell familiar and therefore comforting.
Looking at the large, sprawling pile of junk, curiosities and artifacts spread out before me, I realized that I really should have a large, heavily sugared mug of tea to sip on as I sorted through the bits and pieces, odds and ends. All the accumulated flotsam from many years of two adults and a kid dropping their stuff into the drawer for safe keeping.
In the tall cupboard over the sink, my Mom kept her treasured packets of Darjeeling Green and a small, round tea ball to hold the leaves while steeping. Opening both doors, I found a large collection of liquor and wine bottles that Warren had probably stashed there after Lucy died. Pushing aside a half full bottle of Appleton Estate, I discovered the tea service and liberated it all to the counter. Taking my time and finding the process comforting, I prepared the tea just the way Mom had taught me so many years ago.
Sipping from a large Expo 67 mug, I began to pick through the contents of our junk drawer.
Buttons of all sizes, shapes and colours, many elastics thin and thick, a small ball of rough twine, a band-aid in its stained package, several wooden clothes line pegs, a couple of broken bright red Crayolas, an opened package of black shoe laces missing one of the laces, a woman’s safety razor, a small pale yellow metal packet of Bayer aspirin, a red sucker of indeterminate age flecked with grey pieces of pocket lint, random puzzle pieces of assorted colours and patterns, a partially squeezed tube of Crazy Glue, several shrivelled blue balloons, an unopened package of Eveready nine volt batteries, a small calculator with the Off key missing, a Mickey Mouse fridge magnet with two screws and a shiny bolt stuck to it, a black plastic film cylinder with the word Kodak in yellow and red letters, a pizza take-out menu that judging by the prices was from the mid-60s.
A black framed magnifying glass that I remember my mother using to examine old coins and her broken finger nails, one Oral B green and blue plastic tooth brush with dried paste stubbornly clinging to its nylon bristles, a beat up looking bright orange Stanley tape measure with the initials “WW” carefully printed in black marker on the side. The inventory of items in that drawer went on and on.
But several items captured my attention. I moved each one carefully off to the side of the pile, closer to the empty drawer that had been their home for god knows how long.
In the pile of stuff from the junk drawer, I discovered a swirly blue Cat’s Eye marble. When I was a kid, I loved to play marbles. I had a favourite shooter, an agate-coloured marble slightly bigger than the normal alley or marble. I called it The Blaster. It won me hundreds of games and probably thousands of marbles over my childhood years. I probably won the blue Cat’s Eye from Freddie Long in a several-hours game that became legendary in our King Street neighbourhood. That game made my reputation as the King of Keepsies.
When we got a bit older, my friend Roly Paterno discovered that we could give each different colour marble a monetary value. So rather than playing for keepers, we could play for cash. Best of all, none of our parents would ever be the wiser. I made quite a bit of secret spending money that one summer.
But it all suddenly ended when Warren surprised Roly, Freddie and me along with a couple of rich kids from Weller Avenue out behind the garage, flicking and rolling for nickels, dimes and the occasional big stakes quarter. I was grounded for a week. What was worse, I never saw my Blaster or the bag of Cats’ Eyes ever again. I begged Warren to let me have them back, promising to never ever gamble again. He just laughed in my tear stained face and whispered, “Finders keepers, losers weepers, kiddo.” I hated him for that.
In the junk drawer stuff was a toy soldier. It was a little nicked here and there but otherwise in pretty good shape. He was a shiny green plastic mini version of an American foot soldier. He had an almost exact replica of a machine gun in one hand and the mould caught him in the act of throwing what I always imagined to be a live grenade. He was the last survivor of probably a hundred green plastic variations of soldiers I had in my army. I would spend hours in my bedroom, creating mountains and gullies out of my bed sheets and pillow, fighting wars with my soldiers. They were always bravely led by a green plastic figure that carried no weapon but stood proudly with hands on his hips. I called him Major Tom. But just like with the marbles, he mysteriously disappeared too.
My passion for playing war with toy soldiers caused another, real war between my parents. Warren hated anything to do with soldiers, war, violence, killing or hurting things. On the other hand, my Mom believed that “playing soldiers” as she called it, was good for my creativity and growing my imagination. Every chance she got, Mom would secretly slip me a new, shiny green recruit for my army. But I always had to promise never to tell Warren. I got pretty good at keeping my men hidden from him even though he was always on the hunt for lost or forgotten soldiers.
On the rare occasion that he did find a lost soldier out in the grass or stuck down the side of a cushion on the living room couch, he would rage at me, at Mom, at the whole world, swearing and yelling that no fucking son of his was going to grow up worshipping war and doing violence to others.
Over the years I played with soldiers, I probably lost a dozen or so good men to Warren. When he found one, he would hold it in his hand, wave it front of my Mom and I, then melt it down to a hot, green gooey glob over the kitchen sink with the propane torch he kept under the counter for just such opportunities.
I’ve always suspected that Major Tom died a fiery death at the business end of that propane torch but I could never prove it. Major Tom and the shoe box full of his toy soldiers just disappeared one day. Regretfully, I solemnly declared them missing in action.
From the pile of stuff, I picked up a small, bone handled jack knife wrapped in a darkly stained rag. It had one blade which was still as sharp as a razor with not one spot of rust anywhere to be seen. It was Warren’s. He carried it with him everywhere. “Every man should have a good knife close at hand,” he’d always say. “You’d be surprised how often you need a good blade.” But I never found I needed a good blade any day of the week, so when I was older and could get away with it, I walked away laughing, just to piss him off.
Warren only used his blade for carving and whittling. He was very good at it. He would spend hours working a piece of wood or sometimes a piece of deer or goat antler he managed to find somewhere. For my 10th birthday, Mom gave me a small whistle that Warren had carved from a goat’s horn. Its tone was shrill but nicely tuned. On the bowl, he had carved my initials “AW.”
“It’s from your Dad and me,” she said and gave me a hug so tight I could hear her heart beating slowly through the fabric of her dress. But never once did Warren mention that god-damned whistle to me. It didn’t take me too long to convince myself that my mother made it for me. Quickly, that goat horn whistle became one of my most cherished possessions.
One day, when I was probably 11, the whistle disappeared from my night-table. I never saw it again. I always suspected that for some sick reason Warren took it back but I never straight out asked him. Besides, even if I had got up the courage, I knew all he’d say was ‘“Finders keepers, losers weepers, kiddo.” Then he’d give me his special silent stare with those coal black, expressionless eyes until I gave up and walked away defeated and humiliated once again.
Suddenly angry at the memories of the missing whistle, Warren’s harsh words and heart-stopping stare, I roughly threw the knife back onto the table. It skidded and spun across the chipped formica surface, slamming hard into the side of the empty junk drawer. It made a very loud, hollow sounding “thunk.” That’s when I noticed there was something odd about the drawer.
I examined it more carefully. Considering how roughly the drawer had been used by our family over the years, it was still in pretty good shape. The bottom of the drawer was covered in mysterious dark stains and deep, angry looking scrapes. It smelled faintly of machine oil.
In spite of all my issues with feelings, I do have a really good and practiced eye for small details and how things work. My Mom always said that if I hadn’t become a doctor, she was sure I’d be a mechanical engineer. So it was natural that I quickly realized something was not quite right about how the bottom of the drawer matched up to its sides. There was a thin line of space at the joints where none should be.
I quickly rummaged in the pile of stuff from the drawer, found the Stanley tape and took two measurements. The first was from the inside top of a side to the bottom panel. Three inches. Next I measured the outside of a side panel, from its top edge to the bottom of the side board. Four and a quarter inches.
There was just over an inch of depth difference. I felt a trill of excitement flicker through my body. Unbelievably, it would seem that our old junk drawer might just have a false bottom.
Recovering the magnifying glass from the pile of stuff, I began to carefully examine the interior of the drawer. It didn’t take too long to discover a slight, narrow widening of the space between the front face of the drawer and the bottom board. Using Warren’s knife, I slid the tip of the blade into the space, wiggled it side to side and gently levered it up and away from the face. That was all it needed. The drawer’s fake bottom lifted up along the sides and came out easily into my hand.
A shallow compartment revealed itself. The fake bottom had rested on four small pine pegs glued to the true bottom of the drawer. The interior space had been carefully lined with soft, green velvet. Everything had been meticulously crafted. In my mind there was only one person who could have done this.
As unexpected as this discovery was, it was the contents of the secret compartment that seized my attention and quite honestly, turned my nicely ordered and usually predictable life totally upside down.
In the middle of the space, there was a deep scarlet, soft fabric covered presentation box, somewhat thin and about the size of two decks of playing cards side by side. Inside, I found a small medal in the shape of a silver five pointed star, a maple leaf at each angle. At the star’s centre was a gold roundel, which held a delicately sculpted maple leaf surrounded by a laurel wreath. Turning over the medal, I found the imprint of what looked like a royal crown. Underneath it was one word: COURAGE. Below the word was engraved “Warren Kaye Wyatt.”
I never knew that my father had received such a thing. Yet here was a medal that seemed to suggest some significant honour had come to him. Curious, I took out my phone and googled Canadian medals. It only took a few moments to identify it as the Star of Courage. It’s the second highest award for bravery given to a Canadian citizen. The Wiki notation said: “Canada’s Star of Courage is presented to both living and deceased individuals deemed to have performed acts of conspicuous courage in circumstances of great peril.”
I was left dumbfounded by the discovery of Warren’s bravery medal. Was it a clue to the distant and at times abusive personality of my father? Would the existence of this medal force me to re-examine our relationship? All this was just too much for me to take in at the moment, so I moved on to the other objects in the box.
Next was Major Tom, hands cockily planted on the hips, his shiny green plastic, square-jawed face still staring off to some distant place. The Major lay on his back over in the right side corner alongside my beloved agate shooter marble. The Blaster had been safely secured on its own small, delicately tied knot of green velvet.
A small object, which at first I did not recognize, peeked out of an open end of a beautifully beaded pouch of soft, lightly tanned deerskin. I was stunned when I recognized the delicately rounded stem of my missing goat horn whistle.
Beneath the case holding the medal was what looked like a large photograph folded in quarters. The folds were cracked and, in some places, the fibre had separated with tiny holes quite noticeable. I unfolded the print gently so as to not further damage it. I spread it out on the kitchen table. It was my graduation photo from McMaster. I’m sure it’s the one my mother had framed and proudly displayed on our living room mantle. But like so many other cherished items in my life, it had mysteriously gone missing a few years ago.
So how was it that now I had the photo flattened out on our kitchen table? I had no one to ask. But it was clear by the condition of the print that it had been folded and re-folded many times over the years. There was an oily finger smear down in the right corner of the photo. Right over where Warren’s unpolished black shoes poked out from under the slightly too short pant legs of his funeral suit. Whoever looked at the photo had usually held it on this corner. Maybe it was my imagination, but I’m sure I noticed a faint smell of machine oil when the print was fully open. It reminded me of the smell of the cloth that had wrapped Warren’s knife.
There were several fading Polaroid photos bundled together with a large metal paper clip. On top was a picture that my Mom had taken on Halloween when I was nine. I was in a pirate costume, complete with a black eye patch and a wooden sword that she had hammered together from two pieces of lathe and hastily painted silver out in the garage before Warren got home. Around my head I wore a red bandana, the skull and cross bones hand printed in front. I loved that costume as did my Mom. Warren had ridiculed it, saying mockingly that Halloween was for goofs and most likely the work of the devil.
The other photos were of me sitting on our back porch with my first puppy, Jackson, a black cocker spaniel with soft brown patches over his eyes and darker brown booties on his paws. Another of Warren holding me in his arms while I was still a baby, wrapped tightly in a blanket with knitted wool cap pulled completely down over my ears. Warren was smiling. If I didn’t know better, I would say that he even looked proud of that bundle in his arms. Another of me in my Queen Scout uniform being introduced to Queen Elizabeth during the World Jamboree in Montreal. The last photo was me again, posing in front of my first car, a 78 VW Beetle that I had bought with money I had saved from working part-time at Sobey’s during high school and a thousand bucks that I had quietly re-allocated from my university scholarship fund.
The final item in the secret drawer was a white postal envelope with “Allan” scrawled crudely on the front. It was in Warren’s handwriting. The envelope was a bit brittle so perhaps it had been placed in the drawer quite a while ago. I had never got a letter from Warren, even when I was away at medical school or working in Africa on assignment with MSF.
I removed the envelope and set it on the table. I sipped my now cold tea and tried not too successfully to get my emotions and thoughts under some control. What could Warren possibly say to me after all these years of freezing me out of his life? More importantly, why would I even care about what he had written?
Some time passed. The tea was gone and my hands were shaking. I picked up the envelope, slit it open with his knife and removed the single sheet of yellow scratch pad paper. It was folded in half. One end was torn and ragged, likely from when Warren had ripped it from the pad.
I hesitated to open the sheet. I didn’t owe him anything. In spite of him, I had become somethingn— become someone that many people respected.
I flipped open the page. Written in Warren’s choppy, awkward flow, scratched out with a dark, thick leaded pencil were the words:
I love you, Allan.
I am so proud of you.
Forgive me for all that I have done to you.
You are my son forever.
In a sudden, angry rush, I swept the empty drawer from the table. It crashed into the fridge, splintering one of its side boards, and fell loudly onto the linoleum tile.
I pulled the whistle from the beaded pouch and in spite of my deep sobs, blew it as loudly as I possibly could for as long as I could.
When I no longer had enough breath for the whistle, I picked up Major Tom, held him in my shaking hands, and waited for him to tell me what to do now