Some Things Never Change

Rat

Al crawled up the inside of the drain pipe, hurried along the gutter and made his way into the hole beneath a loose asphalt shingle above aluminum flashing.  The bar was busy tonight.  A Walkman blared tinny music from ear-buds suspended in the rafters and several rats gyrated in synchronized rhythm on the make-shift dance floor.  Al looked to the bar where Tony sat hunched over a thimble full of stale beer, slouching on his stool, his long leathery tail drooping to the floor.  He made his way over to the laminated popsicle-stick bar-top and took a thread spool beside his friend.

“How’s it wigglin?” he inquired with a good natured grin and gentle slap on Tony’s back.

“Eh…,” Tony responded without much enthusiasm.

“Oh, oh.” Al had seen Tony in this kind of mood before.  “What’s up buddy, Agnes again?” Al ordered a beer for himself.

His companion looked up.  Tony’s nose twitched sending his long whiskers into a frenzy. “I swear to God Al, I just can’t please her. If it’s not one thing it’s another.  She’s always busting my balls.”

“He heh…,” sniggered Al. “…and that ain’t easy. You got some pretty hefty balls.”

Tony chuckled half heartedly and repositioned himself on his spool.

The gerbil behind the counter handed Al his order.  After a long slow draught, Al wiped his paw across his muzzle and asked with some resignation, “Well, what is it this time?”

Tony paused, looked at Al, and turned to stare once more into his beer.  “I ate two of the kids.” he responded somewhat sheepishly.

Al’s beer spewed from his mouth, spraying the gerbil full in the face. “Sorry Mac.” Al apologized.  The bartender toweled his face dry, all the while complaining mightily under his breath.

“Geez Tone, not again!”

Tony groaned.  “I know, I know,” he complained.  “But, yah know…,” he struggled for the words.  “I’m out here every night, scurrying around in sewers for any moldy morsel I can find, scouring back alleys and dumpsters for a lousy piece of cheese, and then I come home to a rat-hole full of 75 kids and Agnes…”

“Seventy-three kids!” Al corrected him,

“Yah! Now!” Tony admitted reluctantly. “I swear, all I want at the end of a hard night is to sit back, put my paws up, have a God damn beer and relax for five minutes without six dozen rug-rats crawlin’ all over me.” Tony’s arms fell to his side as he threw back his head and exclaimed, “And now I find out, there’s another litter on the way!”  Tony slumped forward again and returned to whatever comfort he hoped to find at the bottom of his beer.

At that exact moment, Paul Anka’s “Having my Baby” crackled onto the over head speakers.

Ignoring the ironic musical interlude, Al placed a sympathetic paw on Tony’s shoulder. “C’mon Tone, cheer up.  Aggie will forgive you.  What’s two rats outta …” he did a silent calculation relative to current progeny and average litter size, “…eighty plus kids?”

Tony shrugged.

“Agnes loves you, no matter how many kids you eat.”

Tony was not to be consoled.

Al continued in an effort to comfort his friend. “You know Big Carl… you know him…. the big dock-rat that comes into O’Malley’s?”  Tony nodded weakly as Al continued.  “I heard he ate a whole litter of his kids after he got off the boat from his last cruise, and in a matter of weeks he and his old lady were knockin’ out a brand new brood.”  Al’s two sharp front teeth glistened in the neon bar-light as he attempted to smile away Tony’s sour mood.

Tony turned to Al, brightened by the thought of Big Carl’s more serious infraction.  “Yah know, Agnes and I’ve been together for over eight months, the best months of our lives.  We’ve been through a lot.”

Al took another drink, nodding in agreement. “That’s the ticket. You guys were made for each other”

“She’ll get over it.” Tony’s disposition was definitely improving. “I know she loves me.  And I love her too.”

“Sure you do.” offered Al.  “Let’s have another beer to celebrate your renewed dedication to each other.”

Tony thought about it for a moment,”Nah…The sun’s coming up and I’m going home to tell Agnes I love her.  She’ll take me back.”

Tony and Al shared a glance and Al winked. “She always does Tone.  She always does.”

Tony smiled his best rat smile.  “It’s been a long night.  I’m going home grab a bite then crawling into the mattress with Agnes.”

“A bite?” asked a genuinely concerned Al.

Tony tipped his cap and made his way to the hole in the shingle, “Don’t worry buddy, only cheese for me tonight… nothing but cheese.”

Identical Sins

Detective Abernathy perched on the edge of the leather ottoman, staring in amazement at the most perfectly identical twins he had ever seen in his life.  Attractive brunettes in their mid-forties, they sat close on an expensive sofa, holding hands, exchanging nervous glances and stealing occasional brief looks at the portly middle aged man, dead in the doorway.

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“Now… let me get this straight,” the detective questioned, “You’re saying you’re both Mrs. Roberts?”  His head inclined only the slightest degree, indicating the deceased.

“Well, technically…” began the sister on the left, “… Millie’s married to Carl, but we both, eh…that is, we… took turns… playing the part of wife!”

“But Margaret never had sex with Carl.”  The sister on the right added quickly, as if this detail somehow made the arrangement more appropriate. “Isn’t that right dear?”

“That’s right Millie.” replied the twin.  “Just as we agreed.”

The Detective eyed them curiously.  “And how exactly, did this…” he struggled for the precise word, “…relationship, work?

“Well…” Margaret continued, “…we’ve been swapping places for years, even as children.”  She straightened her blouse nervously. “Whenever Millie or I got tired, or bored with a situation, we would swap.  I’d take her place and she’d take mine.”  Millie sat silently but nodded in agreement. “It was always really quite easy, only mother could tell us apart.”

Abernathy stared at them in wonder.  Their similarities were amazing.  As he sat before the sisters, finding it impossible to distinguish any difference between them at all.

“So you would periodically swap places, taking turns at being the deceased’s spouse?  Living together for weeks or months, then just exchange your lives”

Millie spoke up. “Yes, it worked out wonderfully for us. Whenever we wanted a change, we’d just meet up and… exchange.”

“But surely, your… eh…husband…” Abernathy took quick turns looking from one sister to the other. “Surely, he noticed some incongruities in behavior.  I mean your physical similarities are incredible, but your daily interactions, your on-going conversations, your unique personalities, there must have been inconsistencies… your husband would notice?”

“Oh yes,” Margaret resumed, “…it was an endless source of frustration for Carl.  He never could figure it out.  I like roses while Millie prefers orchids.  Millie loves the Opera, while I detest it.  There were a thousand different little things that left him confused.” Margaret looked to her sister for support. “But I believe we treated him wonderfully, despite our little deception.”

The detective adjusted his tie slowly before proceeding. “And tonight?”

“It all happened so quickly.” Millie interjected.  “Carl returned home early.  We weren’t expecting him until tomorrow.  We didn’t even hear him come in.  We were just sitting here talking and then heard a gasp from the doorway, there.”  Millie pointed to the deceased and buried her face in her hands.

“He just grabbed his chest and fell over.” Margaret finished.

Abernathy struggled to comprehend the twin’s casual attitude towards the whole situation.  “I can see how it would be a tremendous shock for a man to discover that his wife was literally two different people.  He gathered his composure, trying to recover his professional disposition.  “Relationships are difficult under normal circumstances, but surely you can understand how seeing you both together would be a shock!”  The sisters tightened their grip on each other.

Abernathy continued.  “Of course I’m no doctor or psychiatrist, but it’s not hard for me to see how your husband may have had a physical or psychological reaction to this…this… discovery!  It’s enough to drive a person insane.”

“Yes, we know.” cried Millie.  “That’s what happened to poor Randolph.”

“Randolph!  You mean you’ve carried out this deception on another man?” Abernathy was incredulous.

“Well four to be precise!” exclaimed Margaret. “Randolph in the State Sanatorium.  Malcolm – suicide.  And Vernon ran off with a Hawaiian girl.”

“Polynesian!” Millie corrected.

Abernathy sat stunned, taking it all in.  His cell phone vibrated in his pocket.

“Excuse me.” he apologized, glancing at his phone.  “It’s downtown.  I won’t be a moment.”

“How’s it going out there?” questioned the Police Chief on the other end of the call.

Abernathy walked to the far end of the room.  “I’m not sure if there’s been a crime.  But I have a lot of questions about what’s going on at my house.”

 

Harry’s Summer Cottage

In the sixties, we may have been the only Findlays living in Canada, but we weren’t the only Tompsons.  My mother’s Uncle Harry lived near Toronto, a two hour drive west.  Along with his older brother Jack and his mother Kate, Harry had immigrated to Canada in the years between the world wars.  He was a short quiet man with an infectious though infrequent laugh.  In his late forties, his hair grayed around his temples. Harry smelled of dark leathery Cavendish tobacco, a scent warm and comfortable and as part of him as the dark briar pipe perched constantly at the edge of his mouth.

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Harry’s hands and arms were calico from some mysterious childhood scalding. In his twenties he had gone off to war in Europe and spent two years in a German POW camp, though he never talked of it.

“You be polite and don’t ask a lot of silly questions.” my parents warned us. And though I managed to stifle my curiosity, I could not resist the temptation to run my hands along his mottled skin. The bleached white hairless patches on his hands and arms gave him the impression of a pencil portrait half drawn.  A black and white composition partially erased. Harry was different, interesting, kind but guarded, a man full of histories we were forbidden to uncover.

In addition to his home in Toronto, Harry and Jack owned a cottage a few hours to the north, near the town of Barrie on Lake Simcoe. On at least two occasions we vacationed there during the summer with Harry, Jack and sometimes Kate joining us on the weekends. The place wasn’t actually on the lake shore, but a short walk down a hedge lined gravel road would find us on the pebbled beach of one of the largest lakes in southern Ontario.  The cottage is one of my favorite summer memories, safe and secluded and appointed with old and quirky furnishings.

Water in the kitchen was drawn by a hand pump over the sink.  In the bathroom, the water tank hung on the wall above the toilet and was flushed by pulling on a wooden handled chain.  Outside the bathroom door, secured to the wall, a cartoon plaque with a rotating arrow could be pointed to a description of the activity of the occupant.  Takin’ a nap, soaking the laundry, sitting and thinking, were but a few of the humorous possibilities.  On a side table in the living room stood a party-line candle-stick telephone that rang in patterned staccato to indicate to which party the call belonged.  But for me, the most fascinating feature of Harry’s cottage was a 1930’s floor model RCA Victor dial-tube radio. It was a thing of beauty.

Harry found humor in my fascination. The radio stood nearly four feet tall, towering over me as I knelt before it, inspecting its knobs, buttons and toggles.  I admiringly ran my fingers along the ornate carving of the wooden panels. The handcrafted oak encasing the mysterious internal electronics shone with the well-polished pride of a prized possession.  Harry had kept it in perfect condition. His amusement and pleasure were evident as I asked with excitement if I could turn it on.

“Sure, give her a go.” He said.

My hand grasped the large brown knob on the face of the radio and turned. It offered surprising resistance. I applied more pressure. Was I turning it the right way?  And then…Click!  But there was nothing. Silence!

Instinctively I crawled around the base to make sure the device it was plugged into the wall socket.  Yes, all was in order.  I looked to Harry, afraid perhaps I had done something wrong, or God forbid, broken the electronic wonder. But Harry just stood there, looking down at me, bemused.

I looked to the dial face.  A warm yellow-white light dawned in the numbered glass. A slight hum emanated from within the frame accompanied by the low familiar “shhhh” of the white noise between radio frequencies.  Harry’s expression warmed, matching the glow of the vacuum tubes slowly coaxing the old radio to life.

“There she goes. She’s getting a bit long in the tooth now,” he added. Bending down slightly he pointed with his milky white finger.  “That’s the tuner.”

The tuning knob felt large and cumbersome in my small hand but turned with surprising ease and fluidity. The red transit line passed across the numbers on the display face.  Fractional, static smeared snippets of popular songs, commercials, and news, crackled from a large speaker concealed behind brown fabric and slotted wood.

I was thrilled, yet unexpectedly disappointed.  My unsophisticated brain had imagined the old radio would play only old broadcasts, “The Shadow” or “Little Orphan Annie”.  Or perhaps the music would be same as the 78 records we had played on my grandmother’s old wind up Gramophone.  Song’s like Gene Austin’s “Love letters in the Sand” or Al Jolson’s “Sonny Boy”.  It was strange, a warp in the fabric of time, like watching Bing Crosby sing The Rolling Stones.

At the summer cottage, my brothers and I would fill our days swimming in the lake or playing croquet in the yard.  Some days were taken up with marathon monopoly sessions, making up our own special rules, building and going bankrupt around the kitchen table.  Mother would make us lunch of cucumber sandwiches, potato chips and pickles eaten outside at the picnic table or sitting with our Kool-Aid balanced on the arms of the brightly painted Adirondack Chairs.

In the evenings we played crazy eights or other card games. But many nights I would just lie on the rug-covered hardwood floor listening to the music playing low on the old radio. My parent’s and uncles sitting around me, their laughter and voices murmuring, I was surrounded by the furnishings of an old movie and accompanied by the soundtrack of the sixties. I would listen until the music and the voices faded and I would fall asleep and dream radio dreams of The Lone Ranger and Superman.

Breakfast Junkies

Often, a Sunday morning will find my wife and me going out for breakfast. We have a few places we favor and occasionally we choose the retro store with the restaurant attached, Cracker Barrel.  Without fail, the place is packed.

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This morning was no different. At least 40 people were playing checkers and sitting in rocking chairs ahead of us, a twenty minute wait the greeter informed us. And sure enough, before our demeanor slipped into “hangry”, we were at a table with a menu, a cup of coffee, and a glass of tea.

So how do they do it?  I mean there’s only a couple of ways you can order an egg for breakfast. You fry them, scramble them, or fold them into an omelet. Yet, every weekend there’s a line out the door of breakfast junkies looking to get their Old Timer fix. I just don’t get it.

Sure, there’s the allure of shopping for everything your Granma ever wanted, but is that enough to explain it?  I don’t think so. There’s got to be something else.  And then it occurred to me.  It came to me like a side of grits with biscuits and saw-mill gravy. There’s something in the eggs. Let’s break it down.

CRACKer Barrel. Huh? Yeah? You feel it?  Makes sense now, right?  You can’t see it, smell it, or even taste it, but it’s gotta be in there, Crack!  I’m surprised they haven’t been caught out on the street corner offering the first egg for free… or haven’t they?  I’ve never been in the kitchen, but I wouldn’t be amazed to discover the eggs over-easy being handed to the server through a slot in a heavy steel door. I mean if they aren’t all jacked up on something, how do you explain how they churn tables like a Ford assembly line?  I had to prove this theory.

So I snuck out a portion of scrambled eggs in a napkin, and made my way through the parking lot full of cars and Fedora’d chickens in pale gray trench-coats, to a small pharmacy run by a guy I know.  In a matter of hours I had the answer, Omega 3’s, my friend.  Omega 3’s! That’s right!  Alpha – Omega!  The beginning and the end!  It was crystal clear to me and I looked at my wife, who had faithfully remained by my side, and recognized the knowing look in her eyes.

I looked at her.  She looked at me. And she spoke the words we had both suspected.

“Hey, perhaps twelve cups of coffee is not such a good thing for you!”