Hi. Cigarette? My old woman won’t let me smoke in the house. Never did. Fifty years. That’s right fifty years we been married, and fifty years we lived in this house and not once in all that time has she let me smoke in the house. I’ve been smoking since I was eighteen. I can even remember the day I had my first cigarette. We were in a landing craft, and I felt sick as a dog. A buddy of mine passed me a cigarette and told me it would settle my nerves. June 6th 1944: an easy date to remember, a lousy day to remember.
It’s not so bad on a warm summer’s day to sit on the back stoop, smoke a cigarette and drink a bottle of beer. Don’t tell my old woman. She took the temperance pledge for both of us, and it gets her dander up to know I’m backsliding. I didn’t take the pledge, you understand? If I’d taken the pledge I’d stick to it, but I didn’t.
I keep the beer under the porch during the spring and fall, close to the wall. No sun gets under there, and it will stay cool against the stone foundation. Remember that just in case your woman takes a pledge. Don’t laugh. I wouldn’t have believed it either if you’d told me in 1946.
That was the year I came home. We bought this house that year. Mighty proud I was. Back then, more than a few houses in Toronto still had an outhouse in the back yard, but not here. Yep. Lived half a century in this semi, and I knew every owner and renter that lived in any of these places.
You bought the place or just renting? Got it for a good price did you? Yep, I bet you did. Did they fix the walls? I guess that’s why you got it for such a good price.
Sure I knew the people who used to own your house. Patrick was his name. Nice enough. He didn’t drink much, except some wine. No loud parties. He and his wife moved in to fix up the place and they rented the third floor to a woman to help with the rent. I could have told him that was trouble. The Chinese picture for trouble is a house with two women in it. Want to hear the story? I expect you’re curious.
Patrick and Norma McLead. That was what they told me, but the old woman checked it out. They weren’t married proper, but just living together, and she hadn’t changed her name. It said Doren on the property title. Patrick McLead and Norma Doren. Well that set off my old mate, and when she saw a second woman living there, she wouldn’t say a word to any of them. She wouldn’t have knocked on their door for a glass of water if she’d been on fire.
Where was I? Oh yea. That house was a fixer upper when Patrick and Norma bought it. I was glad to see them. It had been empty for the most part of a year, and keeping both houses warm was wearing my furnace out. The widow Muir lived there before that, with only her cats as company. She never spent a penny on that place in the twenty years she lived there. Never a coat of paint, or a bit of wallpaper, or stick of furniture.
She moved in after the Rathfords sold it. They’d been renting it. Old Man Rathford was all right. He came around on occasion to fix things and made sure the side walk was shovelled in winter, but he didn’t spend any more than he had to on the place. After he died his widow sold it. I’d bet the paint on the walls when Patrick and Norma moved in was more than forty years old. My old woman has to have every room painted ever second year. Think of it. My woodwork has twenty more coats of paint than yours, every one I’ve applied.
Yep, it was rough. Original wiring (sixty Amp service young Patrick told me) and original steel pipes. Don’t you worry. He got a new breaker panel put in, and a new pipes and added a bathroom on the third floor. That was the first thing he did. After that, they rented the third floor to that other woman.
What was her name? No, don’t tell me. It’ll come to me. The mind is still good. The hips and knees are getting creaky but the mind is still good. Jackson. Jenny? Gina? Something like that. Good looker, and good dresser too. You might hear some stories that she was a hooker but don’t you pay no mind to them. That’s just small evil minds. If she had been, she could have owned her own house, one better than ours.
Oh Oh. Did you hear that? She’s back. If I was you, I’d say how nice her roses are out front. Tell her how you like the way they smell. Me? I’m going to slip over to McGinty’s for a pint. Sure. I’ll meet you at the end of the street in ten minutes.
Mighty nice of you to treat me to a draft. Everything changes. Look at the size of the glass. I remember when they served it in an eight ounce glass, and draft was just draft. You added salt to the beer to cut the taste. Of course, the glass cost fifteen cents. Where was I? Yes, Gina Jackson. She was one of those young executive type women, the ones with a briefcase and a laptop computer, leaving at 7:00 AM and back by 7:00 PM working for a bank. She was young, bright and a knockout. Raven black hair, green eyes and freckles. I know why she rented there, probably the same reason you bought. Walk up the hill for two blocks and you can catch the King streetcar right into the city. Walk down two blocks and you can do your shopping.
Now, I’ll let you in on a secret. The walls between our houses. In between the two layers of plaster is nothing but air. The dust has all settled seventy five years ago. Sound carries. The old woman’s near deaf and too proud to wear a hearing aid. I may need trifocals, and soon I’ll need a cane, but I still have ears like a cat and they’ve stayed well tuned over the years. Oh I can’t hear dog whistles any more (once I could) but I can hear most sounds.
Trouble with being old, is that the bones hurt, and lying in bed makes the muscles stiff and sore. More than likely I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep. Sometimes I just lie there listening to the water pipes gurgling and the faucet dripping in the bathroom and wait for sleep to come back. Other times I wander into the bathroom and sit. Occasionally I go downstairs and slip outside for a smoke.
I don’t know exactly what Gina did, but Norma took to hating her right down to her shoes. Hated her so much she’d brush her footprints out of the snow on a cold winter’s day. Of course Patrick couldn’t understand it either, but he got the bad news out of it. Norma took after him on the subject at every moment of the day or night. The fact that they couldn’t cover the mortgage and loans for the renovations without Gina’s rent didn’t save his ears.
Many a night I’d hear them arguing in bed. Sometimes she’d be yelling and sometimes she’d be crying. Then there would be a bit of a break and then I’d hear the creaking of the bed springs. It’s good to be young. Don’t you waste it.
No, that’s not what happened to the walls. Not exactly. Now part of this is speculation, mind you. Patrick and Norma were working their way through the house, room by room. They’d pull off the old lathe and plaster, pull off the mouldings and send them out for stripping. They’d rewire the room, and then put up new plasterboard.
Well, on the fourth room they tackled, they found it in the wall. What, no one told you? What they found was a brick of blue and purple bills about as thick as one of those paperbacks by Stephen King. Now that’s a hunk of money. Here’s the thing. The bills, mostly fives and tens all had the face of King George on them. That money must have been in the wall for over fifty years. Imagine how much that would have been worth back then.
Patrick started talking to me, asking me about the neighbours and who owned the house. I told him much the same stories that I told you. Of course, I didn’t know about the money back then. I don’t think the Widow Muir would have stuffed the money into the walls. Besides, those blue and purple bills were out of circulation thirty years before she turned up. If old man Rathford had that type of money, he wouldn’t have left it in a wall.
Well you add money to two women, one with a powerful hate, and it’s like adding a match to gasoline. Norma used that brick of money to beat Patrick over their tenant. Now he didn’t have a reason not to throw the trollop out, she screamed at him, and if he didn’t, well that told her how things were. Poor boy didn’t have a chance. He was trussed up and ready for burning.
Then the story broke in the Star, a little story, mostly pictures showing Patrick and Norma, and the money all fanned out. It came to five thousand dollars in old blue and purple bills, and they cleared more from collectors. Naturally everyone in the neighbourhood heard the story, and I know that a few people decided to renovate after that.
Gina heard the story too. One day, while I was taking a smoke out here, I heard her congratulate Patrick and Norma on their luck. That night Norma kept onto Patrick, not letting him sleep until he agreed to give their tenant notice.
Now, I said the Gina was a knockout, and I said she was bright. I never said she was nice. Women are funny about being nice. They work so hard, going to mass, and giving to the cause and taking pledges, but right at the bottom there’s a spike of meanness that would make a man blush. If a man acted as nasty as some women do, you’d walk an extra half hour to avoid talking to him. Not women. They feed off each other’s meanness.
I don’t know who started the story that Gina was a whore, but I’ll bet you it was a woman. I’ll bet you the price of a beer that Norma let Gina know somehow that she was kicking her out of that house. Yes, another beer would sure be nice.
Gina didn’t stay more than a couple weeks after that. She found a place close to the city core, and moved all her furniture on the last Saturday of the month. I remember it clear as yesterday.
The movers, a truck with a funny name, something about two small men with a truck, arrived and moved her stuff. She waited just outside the front door as they moved piece after piece. Once the truck was loaded, she rang the second doorbell for Patrick and Norma.
They came downstairs. (I was watching from the front window in the livingroom, from behind the curtain, to see what would happen. Besides, Gina was worth looking at.) When Patrick stepped out, Gina, gave him a 500 watt smile, the kind that promises everything, took his hand in one of hers and pressed the door key into it, then gave him a peck on the check that turned Norma’s ears a beet red.
Lastly, she put her hooks into them, delivered a curse as good as any gypsy could have. As she left she said, “I wonder if Boyd left anymore of his money in the house.”
Boyd? Edwin Alonzo Boyd. The most famous bank robber that Toronto ever had. He was our answer to Jesse James, and Baby Face Nelson. Boyd broke out of the Don Jail, not once, but twice. He had a hideout on Heath Street, but I know that Boyd never lived on this street. If he had, I’m sure I would have heard the tales when I moved in. On the other hand, one of the gang, Willie Jackson was born in the neighborhood. Those guys were damn near local heroes until two detectives were shot.
Still, I could see that the hook took hold. It made me sick to see it fester. Patrick never asked me about Boyd. When I tried to raise the subject he just danced around it and pretty soon after that he stopped talking to me altogether.
Gina might have been thrown out, but she left some poison behind and Norma drank it down. She turned all her meanness on her man. If she wasn’t after him about that kiss on the cheek, she was after him about money. Where was the rest of the money?
I don’t know how they managed to keep their jobs. They were up all night fighting. It didn’t matter what Patrick said, it was wrong. If he agreed there might be more money, then he was too lazy to find it. If he didn’t agree then he was hiding something. The bed springs didn’t creak at the end of the shouting any more. That’s always a bad sign. Don’t you let that happen to you.
Another Beer? Sure. She kept it up for about a week and then she stopped. Stopped sudden, and that house got very quiet. I could have told Patrick that when a woman stops yelling, things are serious. That’s the time to lock up the guns, and hide the rat poison, and start looking for a good lawyer. I think he thought it had all blown over, poor fool.
His job gave one of those working retreat things, where they make you spend the weekend at some lodge with the people you work with. You know what I mean? They didn’t have that type of tomfoolery when I was working, except for the salesmen, and we all knew what they were up to.
That weekend, from morning to night, Norma was banging in that house. She must have worked from the first crack of light until the sunset both Saturday and Sunday. I wouldn’t have thought a woman could do it, but Norma did. She tore off every piece of lathe and plaster in the house. Norma pulled up the floor boards. She even pulled down some of the ceilings. Well, you know better than I all the damage. You’ve seen it.
Did she find anything? I kind of doubt it. She was still at it on Sunday night when Patrick came home. I was sitting on the front porch when he arrived. I was a bit afraid when he went in, he might lose his temper. Them Irish have a knack for wife beating. Not that I haven’t been tempted on occasion to give the old woman the back of my hand. I think he must have seen some of the damage through the front window. He cut me off as he fumbled for his key and stepped inside.
I waited. No shouting. I listened. I couldn’t hear him hitting her. For a second I thought to call the coppers. He must be strangling her. Then I heard her start in again, a mouth like a washerwoman. He never said a word, but came back out with his suitcase. At the doorway, he took the key from his pocket and threw it down the street as hard as he could. Then he starting laughing as he walked away.
That was the last I saw of him. I wonder where he went. I’d like to think he found someone else, someone better. For all I know he’s living in a trappist monastery, or working on a tramp steamer. I’ll bet you the price of a beer he’ll be a lot more careful before he gets involved with another woman.
No. I’d better no. Thanks for the beer. I best be back to the old woman before she blows a gasket. ‘Man’s best possession is a sympathetic wife.’ In fifty years you learn a bit about timing, and bit about lying, and a bit about trust. You wouldn’t happen to have a breath mint would you?