So long ago. The steps. The regrets. The loves, the tears and the joy.
We lived on a dirt road, across from an old shanty house. At the road’s edge, the house had a bright metal mailbox whose door was embossed with U.S. Mail. The sunny side of it, stenciled in black, read W. Sweeney. It was the only new thing to be seen on that property. The day its post was anchored and its box screwed down was, I think, the first time we saw the Mister up close. He had tipped his hat to us as we watched unabashedly, but had said nothing. The crowning touch to the mailbox was a large iron triangle, painted bright white, that supported it and anchored it to the post. It was open work, and had fanciful curlicue designs all through it. I thought it very fine, for I had never seen a thing so beautiful and new.
Mark and I were seven and nine, and did not know much about very much, but we did know that we lived in Canada, not the U.S. of A. , and that was funny. In the exuberance of a youthful day, and the ennui of country life with an absent father, we always got the most out of anything that could make us chuckle. Consequently, we ran around our yard shouting USA! USA! until we were out of breath and rolling in the grass.
The Sweeneys were our brand new neighbours, having bought the place “for a steal”, more for the land and the broken down farm equipment than for the house. They had plans. So said their two little tykes, a boy and a girl, only slightly younger than us. On the day they moved in, their mother (one Janet Sweeney) had ushered them into our drive and had made hasty introductions, leaving them to play with us and stay out of the adults’ hair for a while.
We were smart enough, at least at first, not to tell them The Story about their old house.
You see, we had only found it out through accidental eavesdropping. A family named Gilhooley had lived there long before we came, and had been there many years before we were born. The story was that they were very poor, and had failed at farming. Mister Gilhooley owed money around town, and so it came that they were going to lose the farm. He had just gone out to the barn one night and pulled the trigger. What happened to the family after that, we never knew.
The Sweeney boy, Lucas, was something of a bully. He liked to be “in charge” of any game we were playing, and fancied himself The King of Everything. And I, being the eldest kid on my side of the road, should have been the one to challenge him. I confess that I was not much good at it, and suffered many humiliations. He had a sister, two years his junior, whose name was Rosie. As we became more comfortable with these two, it was evident that she was the more mature of the siblings. Rosie and I became fast friends, and it was not long before Lucas was put in his place. She held thrall over him, and apparently had a memory bank full of his dastardly deeds that she could use as currency at any time.
When Mrs. Gilhooley had gone to live with her sister, after having been evicted by the bank, there was one thing of value that was left in the house. It was a piano. An “upright grand”. To me, it was a thing of beauty, and it looked almost new. The whole house seemed to have been built around it. The bank had seized it against money owing, and were preparing to auction it off with the rest of the chattels when Mister Sweeney made an offer they couldn’t refuse. Rosie was learning to play it, and indeed they were having her tutored twice a month, an expensive undertaking for a farm family. Lucas showed no interest, except a sullen resentment that he was being “tutored” to run the farm equipment while money was spent on his little sister . My brother Mark took more of an interest in the farming than did he, and was over there every chance he got when their Dad started the tractor.
And me? Well, I listened for the whistle. Rosie’s whistle. She was one of those people who could put two fingers in the mouth and produce that loud and piercing sound.
To me, it meant Piano Time. She was becoming better at it with age, and she knew I shared her fascination for it. Her patience with me was remarkable. We sat side by side on the wide wooden bench, and I would play some off notes in between hers just to get a rise out of her. We would wind up pushing each other off the bench in laughter.
Rosie’s lessons were usually on Tuesdays, and one of these dawned in a cold dribbling rain. She knew I would be watching, waiting for the teacher, so, instead of whistling, she waved at me crazily from her fogged up window, sticking her tongue out.
Markie was getting himself ready for whatever farm work they would do on a day like this. In his oversize gumboots, yellow slicker, and strap-on rain hat, he looked pretty comical, and more so when he made sure to stomp on every puddle he could find on the way.
Mother said I could run across without boots if I would take an umbrella and stay out of the puddles. It was a good thing that I was bused to school, because if I ever was seen toting an umbrella, I would have been the laughingstock of the schoolyard. But to see Rosie, I would have worn Markie’s outfit as well. Today was kind of special, being the first time I had been invited to sit in on a tutoring session. Rosie had pleaded my case with her mother, who had relented, and there was even a nice lunch of home made French fries and Dr. Pepper.
Rosie’s teacher, Mrs. Turnbull, was just taking her leave when there was a commotion from the back door. Mister Sweeney yelling “Lucas, get twine and some short pieces of kindling, right now!” “Janet, I need as much of your thickest fabric as you can bring! Then call the hospital!” Mrs. Turnbull, Rosie, and I ran to their back mudroom to see what was the matter. There, on a flat bench, was Markie. He was wrapped in a heavy grey blanket, soaking through with blood. His boots were gone, and he looked dead, his hair in ringlets sticking to his head. “Ronnie, go and get your mother. We’re bound for the hospital! Go now!” I ran crying, crying through the blackening rain. Shoeless, I slipped on the wet grass and split my lip on the cement steps. Mother saw me right away and let out a scream, yelling questions how did it happen? I sobbed out “It’s not me. It’s not me. It’s Markie. Let’s go. We gotta go now. Hospital.”
By the time I got mother over there, Mister Sweeney and Janet had already made three tourniquets to staunch the flow from Markie’s wounds. I can’t describe what he looked like, and I won’t. There had been an avoidable accident. The two boys had been fooling with machinery. There was enough blame to go around. I sat in the back of the station wagon with Markie, holding his hand. He was breathing, but shivering. His eyes were closed and tears ran down his cheek. The hospital was fifteen minutes away, and they were waiting for him. We had an unexpected Police escort the last few minutes of the trip.
My Dad was notified, and he went rushing back from some town he was staying in for his sales meeting. It would be an overnight trip of several hundred miles.
Markie died that night from blood loss and sepsis. We weren’t in time.
A famous songwriter once said “Does anyone know where the love of God goes…..
when the minutes are turned into hours?” The Sweeneys drove home in the night’s stony silence. All in shock. All mechanical motions. I couldn’t say goodbye to Markie. He never saw his Dad again. Mum and I stayed at the hospital and waited.
Dad had to stay with us awhile. Mum was inconsolable. As for me, I spent much of my time in our treehouse out back. I tried to help with the cooking and cleaning, as Mum had lost interest in those things. Attempts to cheer her up were met with either anger or tears. Some weeks after that day, and even though it was raining once again, I had taken a blanket and closeted myself up in the tree with a couple of peanut butter sandwiches and some comic books. I had really lost three people. Markie gone, and Mum and Dad not the same anymore. I began to blubber uncontrollably, hitting my fist on the barky wall until I bled.
A knock came, and, with my nose still dripping, I pulled back the makeshift door and let Rosie in. Neither of us said a thing. I could not look at her yet. She squatted down beside me and put her arm around my shoulder, leaning her head against mine.
“I love you, Ron.” is what she said. We stayed that way for a time, then she left. But not before saying “Just remember.”
The next spring, we moved away. We had to follow Dad with his business, which took him further and further away. Rosie was sent to a private school, and was getting room and board in town. We had to say goodbye.
The years are thirty since then. Funny, but I have never married. Instead, I have followed in my old Dad’s footsteps, punching the time and climbing life’s long ladder. Mum died of sadness, I think, some years ago. Dad continues on and on in a little apartment.
And, on this hot mosquito night, I make a turn that I hadn’t planned on. Or maybe I had. The road is still of dirt and gravel, and the dark is coming on quickly, but I know my way.
Our old house still stands, but it’s been added onto in a patchwork way. Clothes flap on the line, and there’s a new hydro pole out front. Across the street, there’s a new house of red brick. I wonder who lives there now. I stop for a second and see, in the beam of my headlight, an old mailbox, dented now and leaning. There is no readable name on it, but next to it, on the lawn, is a new sign. It says “R. Sweeney- Piano lessons.”