THE UGLY ONE IN THE MIDDLE
Alex Stan Campbell
Angus the pig, my second favorite fan, was murdered as I watched, and my dog Laddie met his cruel fate at the business end of a crowbar. Most kids lose pets and family members, but not many children have dead people reclining in the living room. My father invited them.
I have a murky memory, from a couple of years earlier, of holding Papaís hand as we visited Neil D. MacKinnonís house to see an old guy sleeping in a gray felt-covered box, suspended on two chairs in the living room. Papa knelt down and made the sign of the cross in front of the man-in-the-box and muttered a few fast prayers. I stood on the end of the kneeler by my father and peered over the edge, as I held the bronze handles and wondered if the man-in-the-box surrounded by satin might wake up at any minute. He didnít. He didnít appear well. His lips seemed to be stuck together, and his face reminded me of the gray putty my father placed around the windows before winter arrived. There was something about the scene that I didnít like, but I did enjoy the cookies and cake that the women in the kitchen handed out with strong tea. The guy in the box didn't have any. He slept through the whole party, at least while we were there. I suspected that maybe he was drunk. He reminded me of Papa on Saturday mornings after too much Governor General rum.
* * *
I awoke to loud knocking combined with muffled sobbing. It was Saturday, July 25, 1953, at 6:00 a.m. I was almost 13. I had been sleeping on the couch in the kitchen. Our door didnít have a lock on it, so the door-pounding was followed by a sudden whirlwind rush into the kitchen by my Uncle Arthur as he wept. Terrified, I shot up straight in bed.
"Roddie! Wake up! Mamaís dead!" he blurted between sobs.
Papa was scarcely awake and not quite believing what he had heard. "Arthur, what are you talking about?"
"Mama is dead. She died in her sleep last night."
Papa became unusually composed as he stepped out to meet his hysterical younger brother. I heard Mama jump out of bed, but because she hadn't yet fired up her ten-pound hearing aid, she didnít quite catch what had happened until she saw Papaís lip tremble.
"What's wrong, Roddie?"
"Tena, Mama died last night."
"Mother of God!"
Those three words always stopped me in my tracks and frightened me. She only said that when something awful had just occurred, like a sudden death, or a thunder storm.
* * *
Grandma Nellie received the dubious honor of being one of the first people in Jamesville West to be handled by a funeral home. Her body was picked up and taken to the T.W. Curry Funeral Home in Sydney and returned the next day, dressed up to go away.
It was the first time that I had seen a hearse. I was impressed. A couple of skinny, spooky characters in pin-striped pants, who appeared like they could have been funeral home customers, carried her fancy oak coffin from the black Cadillac into her living room and set it up on an expandable base with wheels with two tall candles at each end. I thought that was neat. No matching kitchen chairs for Grandma.
The creepy pin-striped guys told us to leave the room while they opened the lid in case they had forgotten her at the funeral home. Eventually, they invited us in to gaze at her ashen face and say a few rounds of the rosary.
She stayed there for three days and nights while relatives and visitors that I had never seen before came to pray but mostly to chat and tell funny yarns. It was especially irritating when our local story-teller, Angus Rory, was in the middle of a hilarious tale only to be interrupted by the parish priest saying in a booming voice, In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and we had to hit the floor on our knees with one more round of the rosary.
Grandpa was a short, no-nonsense man, tough as nails, but when I saw him break down and cry it shocked me. I also saw him laugh aloud when my Great-Aunt Maude told stories about crazy things that Grandma had done as a young woman. It didnít sound to me like the straight-laced Grandma that I knew.
The stories got zany, and the jokes got funnier as the night wore on. Great-Aunt Maude pulled a chair up to the coffin and rested her elbow on the edge, right next to Grandmaís head and had Ďem rolling in the aisles! Not me. I was ordered off to bed, but I knew that they would be up all night because the adults somehow knew that a dead body shouldn't be left alone overnight. That was a rule. I wanted Papa to explain why, but he ignored me. I don't think he knew why either. I imagined that shutting off all the lights and leaving dead Grandma in the living room seemed spooky, so it kind of made sense. What if you got up in the middle of the night to go outdoors to the toilet and you forgot that she was there?
* * *
Less than a year later, we repeated the whole thing when Grandpa died. Papa alleged that Grandpa died of a broken heart. They did seem to love each other very much. I got that. Grandpa didnít speak to Grandma the boorish way my father talked to my mother. Strange.
My Uncle Arthur took over the John R. Campbell General Dry Goods Store and the post office. We had a fairly good idea where that was going to end up, due to the fact that Uncle Arthur was heavily into anything that had a sub-atomic level of alcohol, including vanilla, lemon, orange, and almond extracts, which he kept in good supply in the store. There was an advantage to consuming those flavorful drinks. He didnít have a problem with halitosis. Even when he barfed, it smelled like oranges.
Some days he was so hammered that he couldnít open the store, which was probably a good thing because he threw up on himself a lot. When customers arrived at the store, they found the door locked, yet they could see him sleeping on the counter. They rapped on the door and windows.
The response was almost immediate. "Fuck off!"
I learned that phrase from my uncle, but I promptly learned that it was not wise to say it to Mama.
"Arthur! Come on, open the door. I need milk and bread for my kids."
"Go fuck yourself! Come back tomorrow. Iím sick."
Uncle Arthur was clearly not schooled in customer relations. As a result, the business went downhill rapidly. Besides learning the f-word from Uncle Arthur, I also learned how to drive a car when I was 13, simply because he was rarely sober enough to keep his car between the telephone poles. I waited eagerly for him to get plastered and develop an urge to go somewhere.
On one of the sober days for Uncle Arthur in mid-summer in 1954, I had nothing else to do but hang out at the store and observe customers and Boston tourists come and go. A black station wagon pulled up out front. Two young guys, dressed to match in black pants and white shirts entered.
"Sir, can you tell us how to get to the Little Narrows Gypsum Plant?" the Elvis look-alike asked Uncle Arthur.
"Yes," Uncle Arthur replied. "Stay on this road for nine miles, and then you keep on for a mile past the ferry wharf. You know someone there?"
"No, weíre with the T.W. Curry Funeral Home," the Buddy Holly type said. "Thereís been an accident, so we have to take the remains to North Sydney."
Uncle Arthur turned to me. "Stanley, you know where the Gypsum Plant is, donít you?"
"Uh, yeah...I know where it is." I was unsure of why Uncle Arthur was asking me.
"Good. Go with them and show them the way. You guys have room for him?"
"Sure, he can sit in the middle," the Elvis guy replied. "Weíll drop him off here on the way back.
Buddy Holly placed his hand on my back. "Okay, Stanley buddy, letís go!"
I had serious mixed feelings, although my friends at school might think that this was pretty neat, riding in a hearse, even if it was a black Ford station wagon. On the way to the Little Narrows Gypsum Plant, Elvis told me that a young man had been killed that morning when the truck he had been driving, loaded with twenty tons of gypsum, had careened over an embankment. I became nervous. This could be ugly.
We arrived at the Gypsum Plant and pulled up to a warehouse, in front of open hangar-type doors where a group of men stood. The two undertakers strolled in with me in tow...far behind. A man I recognized as Dr. Ferguson was busy examining a handsome, young man on the floor. Clearly, he was dead. Blood oozed from his ears, mouth, and nose. Dr. Ferguson bent down on one knee and pressed on the manís chest.
The doctor wrote some notes, made a statement to some serious official man, and gave an okay to the undertakers that they could take the body. I suddenly felt important that I was part of the team. I also felt sad for the good-looking young manís mom and dad. I imagined that he had a girlfriend who would cry for him.
The undertaker guys took out a body bag and enclosed the dead man inside and then placed him in the rear of the station wagon. This was obviously just another day at the office for these guys, but for me sitting in the middle, it was not as agreeable. The dead guyís head was right behind me. I spotted holes in the body bag, and I speculated why. Maybe theyíre there just in case, you know...what if heís not dead? He would need to breathe.
I craned my neck and glanced back momentarily and noticed through one of the holes, an eye, and it was partially open. He stared at me! Shit!
Meanwhile, the Elvis guy drove like a maniac, virtually flying over the rough, crooked dirt road to Jamesville West. As we careened around a curve, he unexpectedly spotted a massive pothole. Elvis Undertaker slammed on the brakes, hard.
I had learned about Newtonís Law of Inertia in school. Every body remains in a state of constant velocity unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force. This means that in the absence of a non-zero net force, the center of mass of a body either remains at rest or moves at a constant velocity.
The body behind me was no longer at rest. The dead man flew forward at a rather high velocity, crashing into the back of my head. I let out a glass shattering screech. My brand new undertaker friends thought it was hilarious. They chortled all the way back to my Uncle Arthurís store. I wrote off one career that I would not consider for my future.
* * *
As I turned 14 and entered high school, girls occupied my thoughts, dreams, and fantasies. I simply dreamed of kissing a girl. I desperately wanted to be desired by a girl. Thatís all. It was the unleashing of an unrestrained obsession. There were no girls in rural Jamesville West, but there were a few cute girls in high school. Regrettably, I was hopelessly bashful. However, I learned that my timidity could be overcome with a few drinks. Actually, a lot of drinks of anything that contained alcohol. My boozing mentors included my Uncle Arthur, who helped me appreciate the joys of lemon extract or little ones, as he called them, and my reclusive Uncle Jim-the-Miner, who offered me my first drink of bull beer, plus some minor sex education, which only confused me.
Getting drunk at 14 was easy. As soon as the first drink hit my stomach, I experienced an instant buzz. I could do anything, dance, sing, walk a tightrope, and most of all, I found the courage to talk to anyone. Hiding my drinking from Mom and Pop wasnít easy, especially when I was anxious to show the rest of the world that I was man enough to drink. But it was a small community, and my drinking got back to them. They didnít seem unusually concerned, outside of a short lecture.
I was a kid, and I did kid stuff, but the growing man in me fixated on girls. I fantasized about Diane, Judy, and especially Sandra Small. Sandra came up to the country from smoky steel-city Sydney in the summer to spend a few weeks with her uncle, who lived two miles down a narrow dirt road from our house. I was enamored with her but too shy to talk to her. We smiled at each other and said hello, and then I slithered off into a corner.
An adorable girl with full lips and a sweet smile, Elizabeth, came up from the city in the summer of '56 with her year-older brother Andy to stay with their Aunt Mary two miles down the road. Andy was my age, and I was alone with no friends to hang out with, so I rode my bike over to their house to goof around on his aunt's farm.
Andy, Elizabeth, and I decided that it would be a good idea to go up and see what was in the abandoned house on the hill behind their auntís place. Some furniture still remained in the house, so it was a fun place to explore. We found a bedroom upstairs, with a bed still in the room. Elizabeth and I sat on the striped mattress. Andy sat on the floor leaning against the wall. I liked Elizabeth. Of course I liked her. She was a girl, and she had a pulse!
We talked about school, music, boys and girls and sex, something we knew nothing about, but we sure were curious. I donít remember who suggested it, but we got around to the oldest boys and girls game in the world, you show me yours, and Iíll show you mine.
I wanted to play this game but my bashfulness was a serious issue. However, I knew that it would solve my ignorance of the female anatomy.
The three of us disrobed, bit by bit simultaneously. Elizabeth hesitated. I wished that Andy would go away somewhere.
"You promise not to laugh?" Elizabeth giggled as her cheeks flushed.
Laughing was the last thing on my mind!
We both let our underwear drop to the floor. I didnít see Andyís face or anything else about Andy. Who cared? Elizabeth and I stared into each otherís eyes and then lowered them to acquire our first lesson in sex education.
One thing was certain. I was visibly excited at the sight of a naked girl, and I began to feel something for her. Actually, I felt more than something. I wanted to kiss her...and more. Nothing more happened, then.
I didnít see much of Andy after that day of innocent naked revelation. I spent the next five weeks with Elizabeth and ignored Andy. Elizabeth and I romped naked throughout the rest of her summer in the country, in the barn, in the hay, and on a remote section of Jamesville beach. It was my first summer seriously kissing a girl. Mom and Pop didnít see much of me that summer, either, and when I did go home, my lips were bigger than Fats Dominoís from kissing Elizabeth. We were in love. At least, we thought we were in love.
Early September came too fast. Elizabeth had to go home to the city. She was still a virgin, and I guess I was too. It was not for lack of both of us trying.
"I love you!" Elizabeth confessed this to me on the day that she left. "Someday we will get married."
"I love you too," I responded in kind but wasn't certain about the marriage part.
Then she made a tearful pledge that I will never forget. "If you donít marry me and you marry someone else, I will become a nun!"
I laughed. She cried. Elizabeth waved out the window of her Momís car and disappeared in a cloud of Jamesville road dust. I never saw her again. I found out years later that she had kept her promise. Our young summer immaculate romance was a fantasy that I sought to replicate for most of my life.
I was about to become 16, and like most boys my age, I was fixated on girls, but I had one particular girl in mind. I didnít know who she was, but she would haunt me for decades. I saw her in my dreams. Four times, I thought I had found her.
I did have one more passion. I dreamed of being on the radio. The dream began with my Uncle Arthur, before he discovered lemon extract and I discovered girls. He invited me to come up to his room at Grandpa and Grandma's house to listen to his Marconi radio late at night. We sat on his bed against the wall, captivated by The Shadow, Boston Blackie, and the Saturday night boxing matches from stations far away. I tried to imagine what kind of world existed behind the glowing dial. It was magic. I was especially fascinated by the announcer.
"Iím going to be the man on the radio," I declared to my mother when I was barely able to reach the radio.
"Thatís nice," she answered, as she darned my fatherís woolen socks.
I knew that she didnít believe me. Iíll show her.