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Clouds of white smoke sat still, as though frozen on the tops of chimneys. Shivering, but not feeling the cold, I stood by the front window of Campbell's Drug Store, just down the street from Drury's Meat Market, my parents shop. An illuminated clock with the smiling, Speedy, the Alka Seltzer kid lit the back wall of the pharmacy; a blue Royal Bank calendar hung beneath it. I looked at the watch my mother had just given me for my fourteenth birthday. Both time-pieces read the same. It was five o'clock in the morning. The date on the calendar showed February 18th, 1966. I took a heavy draw off the cigarette in my hand, gagged and threw up a little. A bubble of snot burst from my nose and blended with the tears that ran down my face. I threw the cigarette towards the reddish sky and pleaded with the sun to stay hidden. Then I screamed and swore. Distant dogs wailed in response.
The previous day I had come home from school to find my mother resting on the chesterfield in the living room at the back of our butcher shop She was covered in a woollen blanket. I'd never seen her rest during the day. Twelve-hour workdays were normal with my family – rest came only at bedtime. She got up finally and made dinner for my father and me. Hamburger stew and mashed potatoes – comfort food. Later, in silence we ate our dinner as the television filled the dining room with animated chatter. Life was normal again.
Thursday nights were my father's once a week outing – a night of 5-pin bowling. For my mother and me, Thursday night was television night. Gunsmoke, with Matt Dillon, Chester Good and Miss Kitty at 8:00 p.m., Eliot Ness and The Untouchables at nine, then the very scary Thriller, introduced by Boris Karloff at ten. I knew that she couldn't have cared less for Matt, Miss Kitty, or Boris, but she always watched with enthusiasm. Mid-way through the evening my mother said she wasn't feeling well and was going to bed. Thriller was my favourite of the three Thursday night shows, but staying up by myself was out of the question. The show scared the crap out of me. The exact words that were exchanged over the next few minutes aren't important. Even if I could remember them I wouldn't want to. I only know that the last words I spoke to my mother were in selfish anger.
I awoke the following morning at 4:50 a.m. All the lights in the house were on. My father looked at me and said simply, "your Mom's dead." Without a word I walked to her bedroom and stared in. She lay on her front – her left arm hung slightly off the edge of the bed. When I turned my father wasn't there.
I quietly dressed, then pulled on my coat. On my way out the door I bumped into Doc Jones. He was whistling a cheerful tune as we crossed paths. “You're too late,” I said. Or maybe it was the wet, rapid, volley of slurred bitterness that came first. The doctor stopped whistling.
My father wanted to open the store that morning. Where would people get their meat, bread and fresh vegetables if the store stayed closed? Part of me wanted him to open the doors – maybe the familiar smell of fresh cured bacon would make this morning go away. Friends and relatives talked him out of it.
No one knew what to do with me so I was shoved into a car with my Uncle Edgar and sent to Toronto to pick up my two elderly aunts, Lilly and Alice. The old women took turns holding me
they stared at me for great lengths of time and cried the entire way back to Tottenham. We were all very Irish Catholic and I was sure that at least one of us would turn to stone or rock-salt during the 40 miles that seemed to take forever.
I grew up real fast that morning. I learned to smile and say thank you to an endless procession of mourners. Some I knew, most I'd never seen before. All of them joined in the need to tell me how sorry they felt. And on that day I also learned to cry in secret. Every night and only at night, in darkness, without a sound, always alone. I grew up real fast that morning. Everyone told me so, told me how brave I was.
In the months that followed I learned to live like a stray dog. Most of my meals came right from the can. As my father cut the pork chops and minced the hamburger, other adults looked at me with worry. I learned to smile back at them reassuringly, with the words “bugger off” teetering on the edge of my tongue. Fuck them. All I needed was a can opener and a fork. Sockeye salmon, Irish stew and rice pudding was my daily diet. After my meal the can went right into the garbage – I wiped the fork off on my pants.
Life is for the living my father might have wanted to say to me. Or maybe he would have liked to have said, pack your bags and get out. Who knows? We didn't talk. He did what he did and I did what I did. We never spoke of my mother again and that was just fine with me. I didn't want him or anyone else of this world to know how I felt. During the day as I went about in my feral way, I didn't think of my mother. But at night, when the lights went out, she was all mine.