If you didn't know the elderly man bounding along Nineteenth Avenue, or if you lived on the next block or around the corner and only knew of him, one might think he suffered from overactive bowels, and that he was scrambling to reach porcelain. He wasn't. The man was my Uncle Frank, and he was likely making for Food Dude, where he'd pick up household incidentals, and--the reason for the sprint--to consult with Ming, produce manager at the hipster food mart, regarding evening mounts at the Hastings Park Racecourse. After a spirited exchange of data, they'd pass their picks and appropriate sums to Ming's second cousin, Danny Dang Ling Tam, who'd peel off in his metallic blue Trans Am to place the bets. In exchange for, it goes without saying, "a small processing fee."
My uncle had been playing the nags since before the war. According to my father, "Frankie didn't win often," but when his horse surprised, "look out." Festivities would begin with pitchers of draft for all at the legion on Commercial Drive before graduating to stiffer mead at The Surly Wench, an after-hours joint a newspaper columnist had described as "the epicentre of this town's scuzzy netherworld." A bevy of whores helped winnow his spoils.
It was these memories and more that I shared with Claire on the Cathay Pacific flight from Singapore to Vancouver. We'd met five years earlier at a refugee camp on the Laos-Cambodian border, where I was part of a resettlement team. Claire, an American, nursed at the children's clinic. Disasters have a way of multiplying in this world, and the UN had decided to reorganize again, splitting the burden between NGOs in neighbouring countries. We were both invited to stay on and relocate to the facility of our choice, but caring for the dispossessed can be trying. After six weeks decompressing on a Thai beach, we felt it time to transition back to civilian life. Our concern now was for Jason, age three, who, for much of the flight, sleep-farted silently in Claire's loving arms.
I'd called family members, who spread the news of our pending arrival. My older sister lived in Montreal with her family, and my brother fished out of Prince Rupert, so I wasn't sure where we'd settle. Days before our flight, I received a letter from Uncle Frank, who'd recently retired. He was offering us his basement suite, vacant since his younger brother Mel had passed from lung cancer, and who'd resided in the stairless lower half of the house due to a bum leg.
For many years Uncle Mel had worked the graveyard shift at the sugar refinery, a gruesome waterfront edifice he referred to as "a stinkin' hellhole." He was a generous but reclusive man who smoked heavily, the probable cause of his demise, a man whose eye--he was blind in the other, the result of a childhood mishap--was often trained on the pages of a Mickey Spillane novel. He preferred the hackneyed storylines of pulp fiction to the vile shenanigans of Homo sapiens.
"I haven't been downstairs in years," Uncle Frank wrote--printed, actually, beginning with large, fitful letters that shrank as his note ran out of paper. "The place might need a coat of paint, but it's yours if you want it."
I remembered the house well: a modest two stories with a tiled roof and a cedar and stucco exterior, a common East End hacienda. It was a corner lot at the top of a hill that in winter made a precipitous toboggan run. Pushy real estate agents were always saying the unobstructed back porch view of the city centre and North Shore Mountains would earn Uncle Mel, who owned the property, a considerable premium.
Uncle Frank was sharp in regards to numbers and conversant with current events. I think he perused two newspapers a day, a morning tabloid and the afternoon broadsheet, to compensate for an elementary school education. A ketchup-stained Merriam-Webster dictionary was a permanent fixture on the kitchen table, a place to rest the teapot. It was there, at the rear of the house, that he spent many a day squabbling solitarily with callers to a contentious talk radio program. For a time he attended lectures at the Fisherman's Hall sponsored by the Communist Party. "It was the Fifties. In the parking lot, undercover RCMP were recording license plate numbers."
Visitors were mostly neighbours or fellow war vets, one of whom, Norman, used the house as a hideout from a nagging wife. He was a reserved man with a lopsided smile--"a kindly mutation," in the opinion of Uncle Mel, himself, with that dead eye, a frightening sight. Norm also had an unusual gait, a lurch rather than a stride, yet it had been those bowlegged limbs that had charged up the storied Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944.
For my last few years of high school, I resided at the house. My parents were going through a venomous divorce, the reason my uncles invited me to bunk in an unused room at the back of their basement. "When I woke for school in the morning," I told Claire, "there were always a few bucks poking out of my sneaker."
"How did you spend them?"
"I started a business."
"Washing cars? Mowing lawns?"
Our plane had stopped in Honolulu for a refueling; we were stretching our legs in the terminal building. Little Jason was restless, squirming to free himself from the stroller. He'd thrived at the camp. The place lacked many things, but playmates were not one of them. He seemed to sense we were jetting off into the unknown, and we were.
Though Claire had heard my story many times, and I, hers, she endured another recitation: Our ancestors had fled Scotland's bloody Highland clearances for Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. My father had been the eldest of three boys sired by an alcoholic who'd deserted the family when the kids were toddlers. Tuberculosis claimed their mother at the untimely age of thirty-two.
My uncle had no memory of his mother, yet he handled the one scuffed photo of her reverentially, wrapping it, as though it were a rare stamp, in a soft cloth. The sepia image captured a slim, pretty woman, with an enigmatic smile and a long braid of dark hair spilling over each shoulder. Her three orphaned boys had been shuttled between relatives back east, where they were made to feel, my father once said, "like a promissory note." For a time they resided in a Catholic facility for the unfortunate, a cold and bleak place of which nothing good was ever said. They were eventually returned to Vancouver, rescued by their maternal grandmother, who ran a boarding house on Heatley Avenue. "Until she fell ill and was moved to a care home," my dad said, "she smothered us with love."
Uncle Frank dropped out of school and found work as a delivery boy for a downtown beauty and barber supply firm. He'd mix the sweet-smelling concoctions and slap a label on the jars, loading them onto a cart he hauled behind his bicycle. He was a good athlete, and a backup catcher for a baseball team that included several former pros. Their home field was the Powell Street Grounds, in the city's Little Tokyo. "I was a light hitter, but good enough defensively to make a pretty good team." Dominant in the league at the time and a fan favourite was the Asahi, a scrappy club disbanded in 1942 when thousands of Japanese Canadians were interned as enemy aliens. "They weren't the enemy, and they weren't aliens, but the stupid had been convinced they were."
He was also an amateur pugilist, fighting as a light welterweight. On a few occasions he was transported to Washington State where, for cash, he fought as a substitute. "One of the sportswriters at the News-Herald took a shine to him," my father told me. "He was always saying nice things about Frankie, even when he lost. They often ran his picture."
He trained at the Athletic Club, and would run most days on the train tracks as far as the municipal boundary. "There was a hobo jungle in the woods out that way. I'd sometimes stop there for a drink of water. They were a nice bunch of fellas."
His worst loss was a third-round knockout. Picking himself up off the canvas, staggering back to his corner, the trainer handed him a raw steak, a proxy for medical treatment in the Thirties and believed to possess recuperative powers. "He told me to keep it pressed on the eye. Problem was, both my eyes were closed. I lived a few blocks away, but I was probably concussed, because I didn't find my way home until the next morning. Gran gave the steak a good rinse. We had it for dinner."
The suite needed more than paint. Time can be unkind to vacant spaces, especially in the mould mecca of rainforest British Columbia. Emptied, we realized the place needed serious renos--and someone who could bang a nail and cut wood without crushing a thumb or severing a limb. We made a list and passed it to a qualified tradesman. I wasn't having much luck finding work in my field, but I felt we could afford the cost. I was driving a cab every weekend, the airport run, two twelve-hour shifts, and tips were good. My uncle declined our contribution. "Save your money for the kid." It would become a refrain.
He and Jason hit it off, passing that first summer at the playground and goofing around in the yard. My uncle would fill a plastic wading pool he bought at the Army & Navy department store. He had Food Dude's Ming deliver tins of cookies, an assortment of sugary cereals, and plenty of ice cream, much of which health-conscious Claire returned surreptitiously. When a couple down the street had to visit an ailing relative up north, their dog, a lively black lab named Night, joined us. It slept with Jason, his first ever BFF. Every morning the two of them walked the pooch around nearby Trout Lake.
As a new mother, Claire was understandably wary of strangers. Initially, I think she believed someone sired in poverty and who'd boxed and fought a war would retain some of the brutality of those experiences, and she didn't want her child unduly influenced. But if Jason smashed a glass or spilled food, Uncle Frank would laugh it off and clean it up, just as he had when I was a youngster. It took a few weeks, but she soon fell under his spell.
Claire had played college basketball, and still jogged, cycled, and swam. She was impressed with his conditioning and discipline, the situps and pushups, those long walks into town and back. There was a grace and economy to his movements that falls away with men as they age, something catlike the way he glided quietly from room to room in his stocking feet. Having played ball with him growing up, the rounds of shadow boxing under the oak tree shading the yard, I always believed it would be unwise of anyone to bully him, even in his senior years. He might not whip a younger opponent, but whoever challenged him would at least regret having done so.
Once the renovations were completed and her application for citizenship was making its way through the system, Claire began taking the nursing courses needed to work in Canada. She found the requirements undemanding, and because my uncle's health was declining, and she was incapable of inertia, she decided to do something about the upstairs, where empty rooms give off a mournful echo. Years of bachelorhood had allowed dust and grime to accrue. We vacuumed regularly, washed the windows inside and out, every wall and ceiling, and waxed the hardwood floors. Doors were thrown open whenever the temperature mellowed, and I got the fireplace working again. She replaced the curtains, updated the furniture. Claire was of Iowa farm stock. Her vegetable garden and flowerpots produced bountifully.
As a nurse familiar with challenging personalities, she knew persuasion is best advanced not with confrontation, but incrementally, and with a warm smile. She took this approach persuading my uncle to part with his threadbare duds. Within a few months she had him prancing around the house, a new man in snazzy new athletic wear and jogging sneakers. When her papers came through and she'd landed part-time work at Burnaby General, she bought him pajamas, slippers, and a housecoat. Judging by the gleam in his eye, the smile on his lips, you'd think he'd won big at bingo.
The toughest task she saved for last: his avoidance of regular bathing. Some years earlier he'd slipped climbing out of the shower and broke a wrist. He concluded, and not incorrectly, that he couldn't fall again if he didn't shower again. Claire brought home a kitchen chair she'd found discarded in the alley and secured it with wire rope in his shower stall, hoping her enterprise would impress him. It did. We could hear him every morning thereafter. Atop his chair, "singing in the rain."
In the camp there was a movie every Saturday night. But for war flicks, all genres were featured. I was never able to entice Claire to join me when an action-adventure or a murder mystery was showing, and she couldn't abide "another silly super hero." Whenever a romance was scheduled, though, she was all in, no matter how clichéd the outcome. I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when Claire said she'd asked Uncle Frank while trimming his hair one night why he'd never married.
But for the stories I'd heard of his binge years, I knew nothing of his history with women. When my father passed, and I was sorting his things, I did find a photo of my uncle at a wedding. He was about forty, with a full head of slicked-back hair. He was wearing a black suit, a white carnation pinned to the lapel. The bride had her arm tucked under his. Was he the groom? The best man? I didn't know, and I wasn't about to pry. Everyone has a right to their secrets, say I. Let it be.
Friends and relatives were always trying to set him up. As a teenager I'd heard of a divorcee who'd set her sights on him. He was coaxed into meeting her at a friend's apartment, but the woman lived in the Gulf Islands, a ferry sailing from the mainland, and strong winds had delayed the departure. The version of the story I recall had her arriving long after the agreed-upon hour to find him sprawled incoherent on the floor. Upended nearby was an empty bottle of Jamaican rum. The rendezvous was not rescheduled.
Is he gay? a friend once said. The question is probably asked of all unattached adults, but only the blind could live under the same roof as long as he and I did without knowing something as paramount as an individual's sexuality. I never saw any indication of him being so inclined, but it wouldn't have mattered a fig to me if he was. As for the reason my father's two younger brothers lived together, remaining unmarried, I can't say, though I always felt it had something to do with the trauma of being orphaned and handed off like freight to unsympathetic strangers. Looking out for each other. Having each other's back.
The night Claire questioned him about a spouse, Jason and I remained downstairs, patching a dinosaur puzzle. She felt my uncle might confide in her about a subject he may not feel comfortable sharing with a man, even a nephew. In my family, as she'd noted, men didn't express themselves in a forthright manner. We weren't huggers. We didn't touch cheeks and blow air kisses. And we didn't go on about feelings, or say out loud how much we loved someone. Liquored up, though, we did all of the above, and sloppily. For us, it's been both elixir and poison, the swill. Uncle Frank quoted his beloved Gran as often as some in those days cited Churchill. "She used to say drink was the devil's buttermilk."
At breakfast the next morning, she spilled the beans: While serving with the Royal Canadian Air force during the war, he'd been based at an airfield in Ireland. Villagers in the vicinity hosted socials for the foreign visitors, who they referred to as "birdmen."
"He met a girl. Her name was Molly Quinn."
He accompanied her home, and on several occasions met with her in the village. They'd walk in the hills, she'd take his hand. For obvious reasons many couples in wartime postponed matrimony, but he intended to propose anyways, though he'd not thought about how they'd survive or what Molly's family might think. When they next got together, and before he could express himself, she told him she felt as he did, but that her parents would not allow a serious relationship. "They say that if I married a birdman from away, I'd be lost to the family."
He'd been too shy during the brief courtship to lean in for a kiss, so Molly, who wasn't, led him behind a sycamore tree that damp and chilly night and opened her mouth to him. He remembered the salty tears sliding down her Celtic cheeks. The floral bouquet of her mail order perfume. Before he could steal another, she'd turned and scampered off.
On the road leading from the property, he found one of her gloves. It was wool, frayed. Should I knock on the door and return it? he mused. Leave it on the landing? He decided to hang on to the glove, its return a clever excuse to meet again. But before a tryst could be plotted, his squadron was reassigned to a base in northern England. All he had of Molly Quinn was the memory of a first smooch on a dark, Hibernian night. And, now, her glove.
He retrieved the glove from his room and laid it out on the kitchen table for Claire. Insects had nibbled on the palm and along the edge. "It was as yellow as a spring daffodil," she said. As she spoke an image came to me, a bed of dark soil, the dew-sodden petal listing on its slender stem. "Shauna, my Irish roommate at nursing school, lives outside Dublin. I could ask her to make some inquiries."
After the war, veterans were given first dibs on government jobs. The post office rang him first. During the Christmas season, homeowners would invite their delivery man inside for a glass of cheer. Teetotallers might proffer something hot and filling. At year's end, the sight of federal employees with empty mailbags staggering along our streets was not uncommon. "It brought people together. It's not good when everyone's a stranger." The practice had waned over time, possibly because the many immigrants entering the country were unaware of our ways, or maybe because more people were learning of the damage alcohol could do to one's innards. My uncle, though, kept the observance alive. If his postie declined a swig, he'd slip them a few dollars.
There was an incident on his route at the home of a widow, I remember. He spotted smoke billowing from a window and pounded on the door, waking her from a nap. Fire trucks arrived promptly and doused the blaze, which had flared on an untended stovetop. Widow and postman were invited to a neighbour's for "a nice cup of tea" until the air cleared and the lady's blood pressure had subsided.
In the next issue of a local newspaper, one of those trashy giveaways, his mug was splashed across the front page. His role had been spun into an act of heroism. Word of mouth fanned the flames of the fiction even further: He'd climbed in through a window, it was being said. Tossed the old woman over his shoulder. Charged back into the inferno and rescued her beloved kitten. "I did nothing of the sort," he laughingly told family. "She didn't have a cat. And she was a big woman. I couldn't have lifted her an inch."
People asked how he, a retired letter carrier, could afford to be so generous, but it was no secret to those who knew him. He lived as a pauper; frugality underwrote his generosity. He didn't smoke, own a car, borrow money, or believe in credit. He wore shoes until a hole appeared or they came apart at the seams. While Uncle Mel was alive, in exchange for rent, he covered the grocery tab. Yes, he boozed, but not every day, and after we'd moved in he seemed to lose interest in the ponies. Every month he received three cheques: the government pension, a union benefit, and an allowance for his service overseas. Much of it was added to a savings account.
In the Fifties, a TV became a must-have for most. For years my uncles refused to buy an "idiot box," and they heaped scorn on those who did. One day, however, and over their objections, Dad surprised them with a Sony, which required the installment on the roof of an ungainly antenna. "It's time to join the modern world, boys!" he exclaimed.
The moment the contraption was plugged into the wall, the bachelor brothers couldn't turn away. They became addicted to soaps like Days of Our Lives and General Hospital. Uncle Frank stopped shouting at the radio. He redirected his ire at the TV screen.
Every other year following the divorce Dad would drive to Las Vegas to gamble, and he finally persuaded Uncle Frank, after numerous attempts, to join him. Uncle Mel was also invited, but he didn't like to stray, and he wasn't about to start. "Somebody has to watch the house," he said, and he volunteered his one good eye. I suspected a touch of agoraphobia.
Vegas was to be a two-week holiday; it included a few days at the Santa Anita Park racetrack in Arcadia, California. A week into the getaway, Dad called the house. He was furious. "You've gotta wire me some money!" he hollered. This was before American Express and Mastercard. Why? "Because Frankie has given all of his away, and I didn't bring enough to carry us both."
Gave it to who? "Cab drivers, waitresses, the hotel valet, strippers…" We wired the money, and Dad repeated the story to anyone who'd listen until they day he died.
My uncle never told his brothers, but he did tell me, that every Christmas he visited their father, my granddad, the man who all those years ago had abandoned his dying wife and three children. He'd track down the old man to whatever flophouse he was living in at the time and give him things like a new toothbrush and warm socks. The last time he saw his father, "I gave him a few hundred bucks and a bottle, but he wasn't right in the head. I don't think he knew who I was."
In his eighties, he began feeling poorly. He waved off treatment with an oft-repeated stoicism: "The ambulance comes for each of us." It was around that time, when time was the very thing he was short of, that he began talking with some urgency about the war. He'd spoken to me about the conflict over the years, the signature event of his generation, but anecdotally, and mostly about the men he'd served alongside, their lives, and the places he'd seen. For a man who couldn't remember if he'd dropped a cube of sugar into his teacup seconds earlier, his recall of detail was uncanny. "All my friends wanted to fight the Huns, but we were just kids. Give us a uniform and some shiny badges, and we would have jumped off a cliff." I could picture him and his scrawny companions standing on the bustling corner of Main and Hastings on a warm, summer evening in 1939. Their adolescent swagger. The delusional brio.
He'd never been in a building higher than a few stories or fired a starting pistol, yet at nineteen years the former bicycle delivery boy was aboard a Lancaster bomber, dropping explosives on German factories, roads, airfields, viaducts, dams, U-boat pens, and whatever else the brass wanted blown to bits. Because of his bantam dimensions, he served as a tail gunner, which entailed squeezing into a Plexiglas bubble at the rear of the aircraft, manning four Browning machine guns.
"I peed in an empty soup can."
"What would you do," I asked, "if you forgot the soup can?"
"I had two boots."
Of the seven-man crew, only he was fully visible to the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt fighter jets. "You could hear 'em coming, those damn things. They sounded like a swarm of angry hornets." The temperature inside the plane could drop to minus forty degrees Fahrenheit. It was even colder on moonless nights when he had to remove a panel in the Plexiglas to better sight the enemy.
In the event of a bailout, everyone on board was issued an escape kit. It contained a compass, counterfeit money, a silk map of Germany, and dried fruit. He learned at briefings that at an altitude of sixteen thousand feet, an average-sized man whose parachute fails to open would plummet earthward at one hundred and twenty miles per hour. "It's something you never forget: The fall takes ninety seconds. A body makes an indent of twelve inches."
When the Lancaster approached the target, all the lights on the ground would be turned off. Allied Spitfires would drop flares where the bombs should be aimed. "I remember the first time flak punched through my shield. A few inches to one side, it would have taken my head off. Some missions were like fireworks from hell. I couldn't stop shaking for days."
A Lancaster's fuel might amount to five hundred gallons; the typical payload weighed about fourteen thousand pounds. The bombs--phosphorus, incendiaries, cookies, and tallboys-carried enough boom to disappear a town. "A four-pound incendiary could reduce a body to a blob of carbon."
In the canteen one afternoon, the maintenance team finishing their inspection, a pilot told him about the Grand Slam. Ten Ton Tess, as it was called, was the most powerful non-atomic bomb used in the war. It was delivered by a modified Lancaster. "He told me Tess makes a crater thirty-five feet deep, with a delayed explosive designed to detonate after the enemy's rescuers had arrived. When it was dropped, the plane jumped more than three hundred feet."
The target on his final mission was a fuel storage site in the Ruhr Valley. On the return flight over the North Sea, a Junker appeared out of a cloud, flying in the opposite direction, which meant it had just bombed a target in England.
"A Kraut on board showed his face at a window. He waved at me."
"What did you do?" I asked.
"I waved back."
He showed me a postcard-size memento, a horizontal photo on a cardboard backing snapped from the Lancaster's open bay. You could see the shells hurtling toward a factory below, people scattering, fires raging. It was signed by the crew, each of whom carried a talisman or good-luck charm. Some birdmen wore Christian crosses around their necks, others clipped a rabbit's foot to their belts. A flight engineer attached his wife's pink panties to the radio antenna.
"Someone pinched them."
His laugh progressed to a harsh cough.
"I had a glove."
Claire took a leave to care for him when the illness worsened. His knees were bothering him and he'd sometimes spend all day in bed. I'd been working for an NGO, part of management, so we didn't go hungry. Jason had a part-time job stocking shelves at the Superstore on Grandview Highway. He enjoyed school and played competitive hockey. He had a girlfriend, Angela.
One day Claire received an email from Shauna, her Irish friend. Her first inquiries years earlier had drawn a blank, but she tried again when expanded Internet search engines were realized. "She found this."
The attachment was a newspaper obituary for one Molly Quinn, who'd passed away at the age of sixty-eight. It had been published in a paper from the village where her family had lived. "She'd been widowed for many years," the obit said, "and had six children, and ten grandkids." There was a grainy photo of a friendly looking soul with tidy white hair. "She enjoyed knitting, volunteering, and singing in the church choir." We didn't show him the clipping. What was the harm in him believing her alive?
He couldn't walk. The eyes were bloodshot, his skin the colour of leftover oatmeal. Claire had a stash of painkillers, but he refused to visit any more "witch doctors." We had a wheelchair to move him around the house.
As darkness gathered, that tailing of the day he called "the gloaming," he enjoyed sitting by the kitchen window and watching the lights of the city begin to twinkle off to the west. It always amazed him how the metropolis in his lifetime had fanned out in every direction, but mostly skyward, while the great blue-green mass of the mountains where he'd climbed as a boy, clouds clinging like tendrils of smoke to its jagged ridges, remained immutable. And though the mail by then was mostly junk, he liked to listen for the thud of the postie's boots on the front stairs, the sound of envelopes being stuffed through the slot.
"Anything?" he'd call out to Claire.
"Same old, same old," she'd reply most days.
One Friday morning that June was not a same-old. There was a real estate brochure and fast-food coupons. There was a bill from the gas company. His eyes were closed when she came into his room, waving a manila envelope. I knew what was up, and slipped in behind her. Jason was massaging his swollen feet.
"Something for you," she said.
An eye opened.
And then the other. He looked at me. At the kid.
"What's up? I win the lottery?"
She handed him the envelope.
"Open it for me, will you?" The arthritis in his hands had curled some fingers.
She tore off the top, peeked inside. "Hmm." Jason helped him sit up.
Claire tipped the envelope, and out it tumbled into his lap. She'd found it at the Salvation Army thrift store on Twelfth Avenue. It was a fine match. As yellow as a spring daffodil.
Don McLellan has worked as a journalist in Canada, South Korea, and Hong Kong. He has published three story collections and been nominated for several awards, including the Pushcart Prize, a ReLit Award, and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. More info at donmclellan.com