by Phil Jones
At ten years old I could sniff out a mystery. I was forever creeping around, listening in, sifting conversations from hiding spots. Couldn't help myself. The good stuff only leaked out when you weren't around. Or when they thought you weren't around.
I was there, for instance, the day my father bought the Mercedes. He kept circling the thing, running his hand up the wheel wells and peering in at the engine. Some old dude was there too. He was smoking a pipe, grinning around the stem as my father did his inspection. Neither of them noticed me behind our garden shed.
My father slept late as a rule on Saturdays. He'd roll out of bed around ten and disappear into the throne room with the Globe & Mail. By that time mum was shopping downtown and us kids had scattered like bomb fragments to all corners of the neighbourhood.
This morning was different. He was up with the birds, and staring at this car the way I'd seen boys stare at my older sister. Like he wanted a bite.
The old dude's grin is more like a smirk now. He's scoped that hungry look too. After a final lap father stops, throws his shoulders back and sets his jaw. I strain to hear them over my hammering blood.
"The mileage is high Mr. Schmidt," father says, bending, picking at the car again, "and there's some rust."
"It's a Mercedes, Dr. Jones. You know Mercedes?"
Mr. Schmidt pulls his hat off, smoothes back a few grey strands and fixes my father with a meaningful look. Each word comes out slowly. His accent thickens as if to remind my father that he and the car are from the same place.
"German engineering." he says. "A man like you, a professional, should know such things. The prestige alone is worth twenty five hundred."
My father's face darkens. Mr. Schmidt strikes a match and holds the flame over his pipe, puffing vigorously until the air around him is draped in thick white smoke. "Aside from that," he adds, "It's the only Mercedes in town." He flicks the match away.
Father's head turns, following the wispy trail into his rose garden. He takes a deep breath and expels it through pursed lips. Temper control, mom calls it. She's always warning him, "Five deep breaths before you speak, Bill." I don't know how it worked with the general public, but it gave us kids time to clear out.
He rolls around the car and pulls up just short of the old man.
"It seems we've arrived at $2250." Mr. Schmidt knocks his pipe on the heel of his boot and offers my father a tired grin. He plods to the Mercedes, lowers himself in and starts down the hill. My father stands, hands on hips, staring at the spot where the car was parked. His shoulders slump slightly just before he raises an arm.
Brake lights flash far down the drive.
This would not please my father. He didn't like losing and he didn't like Germans.
"They have no honour!"
My father's voice, diminished only slightly by the two closed doors between our kitchen and my bedroom. It's 1:30 in the morning. Mom is at her sister's in Seattle for the weekend. Dad is whooping it up down stairs with his buddies from the Legion. I slip from my bed and peer out the window. The front drive is clogged with cars. Chrome fins wink in the yard lights like huge metal fish.
It's 1957. The boom is on. Every family in town has a new house and a new car- in fact, with little deviation, the same new house and the same new car. Macmillan Bloedel signs all the cheques, except my Dad's. He's the town doctor.
The guys down in our kitchen are his party friends, the ones he never has over until Mom is gone. These are big men with red faces and huge hands. They argue and drink too much and plug every hole in a conversation with the word fuck. Fuck this, fuck that and fuck you.
"Honour? I'll tell you about goddamn honour, Bill!"
The voices grow clear, the words pull away from each other as I slide along the cool tiles of the hallway.
"Those boys in London, now they had honour. Took off knowing, goddamn knowing they wouldn't be back..." The voice catches and trails off. There's a beat or two before someone screams, "You're fucking drunk Maxwell!"
"To the RCAF boys!"
There is a roar and another crash of glasses, followed by silence. I crab walk down to the landing. From there I'm able to pick out individual voices again.
"Just following orders my ass," father says, his voice husky from smoking. "It couldn't have happened anywhere else in the world." There is some snorting and chuckling and general agreement. "They were willing," he concludes, "every one of them."
The men are quiet after this and for the first time I can hear Frank Sinatra crooning lowly from the hi-fi. I pull my knees into the crooks of my arms and wait.
"I think that waitress was sweet on you, Bill." Dave Ketchum's voice, I think.
"Which one?" my father asks."The one combing your hair with her tits all night. Mary, Maureen, or whoever."
"How'd you like a little piece of that Billy boy?"
I know when I'm going to hear something I don't want to. I swing around the corner into the kitchen. There's six of them under the dirty yellow poker light, shirts rolled to the elbows as if they'd sat down to hammer out some big plan. Mr. Maxwell looks up, his eyelids red and heavy behind thick glasses. It takes him awhile to focus on my shape in the doorway.
"Young Stewart, I presume."
The other five heads turn in unison. They're all pissed drunk, leering like lizards across the room.
"What the hell are you doing out of bed?" Father demands.
I don't answer. I chew on my lip, squirming until Mr. Maxwell pipes up.
"Come on over wee laddie!" he thunders, "come on over and have a wee drinky!"
Now they're all smiling, except my father. I don't look at him. Instead I work my way towards Mr. Maxwell. He pulls me into the circle. They all reek of Aqua Velva and Canadian Club.
"Good looking kid, Bill."
They tussle my hair and stretch my cheeks. I'm passed from one set of rough hands to the next until everyone has approved of my progress.
"You gonna be a doctor too, Stewart?"
"He'll be a lady's man, that's for sure"
"Chip off the old block."
Mr. Maxwell slops a finger of rye into an empty glass. He leans in with his tobacco stained teeth and sour breath.
"You drink this boy, help you sleep." I take the glass in both hands. Mr. Maxwell pulls away, giving me a clear view of my father. He doesn't look happy. I lift the glass to my lips, peeking at him over the rim. Just as the whiskey starts to slide downward his head twitches. My father had a whole catalogue of headshakes, dozens of ways to say no without uttering a word. This twitch meant 'no', of course, but mostly it meant 'don't ask'. It wasn't a thing anyone else would catch.
I lower the glass.
"Where were we?" Dave Ketchum asks.
"The Krauts," father answers.
"Not in front of the kid." Mr. Maxwell lays a protective hand on my shoulder. He was with the Canadian infantry during the war, the only one of this bunch who saw real combat.
"Hell yes in front of the kid." father barks, "Did we go through all that to pretend it never happened." He pulls me out of Mr. Maxwell's grip. I resist at first then allow myself to be dragged onto his lap.
"They teach you about war in school, Stewart?" he asks. I shake my head, wanting more than anything to be back in bed.
"That's right, and do you know why?"
He makes his voice low and soothing, his thick fingers knead the flesh of my neck. My hands start to sweat.
"They want us all to forget," he says, sweeping his arm around the table, "But we won't. Not now, not ever again."
"Never again," someone echoes.
He waits for this to sink in. I stare blankly back.
"Stewart," he says, "your true friends are yours for life. It's the same with your true enemies."
He taps my temple lightly and looks around at his friends.
"For life boyo." he says. *
The Mercedes whines back up the hill in reverse. Mr Schmidt is smiling big again as he pulls himself out from behind the wheel. My father has his wallet out. He counts the bills in a long row across the roof of the car and steps back. Mr Schmidt's eyes shine like black marbles. He scoops up the cash, flicks expertly through the pile, folds it and tucks it into his trousers. He sets the keys down and reaches for a shake. My father quickly pumps his hand. Up, down and done- a judge with his gavel- then turns to swipe a finger across the hood of the Mercedes.
"Needs a wash," he says to himself.
Mr. Schimdt doesn't seem to realize their business is finished. He stands watching as my father sets out a chamois and a bucket. Finally he turns, shuffles slowly down the drive and out of the yard.
Father begins to whistle. He's unwinding the garden hose when he notices me standing beside the car.
"Who was that?" I ask. He throws a broad fan of water over the car.
In the dim autumn light his head twitches. It wasn't a thing anyone else would catch.
About the author:
Phil Jones lives in Langley, BC with his lovely wife and two kids. He has been published in Danforth Review, Inkpot, Zygote, Words Journal and a few others.