Feel This

The doorbell rang as we were sitting down. A maid went to answer, and a few moments later my brother walked into the dining room. He had been overseas three …

Mask IV (2005), collage by John Stezaker / Courtesy of the Approach, London

The doorbell rang as we were sitting down. A maid went to answer, and a few moments later my brother walked into the dining room. He had been overseas three years. We all thought he was in Africa.

I’m sure Daddy sensed trouble right away. This was July 1944. You don’t expect a soldier — an airman — to come home from the war unannounced, not when the war’s still on. Jack had joined the air force as an enlisted man because he had wanted to get overseas fast. He’d shipped out when most of the boys we knew were still at training camp in Ontario, and the last we’d heard from him he was in Gambia. Now he was home. Maybe it meant the war was nearly over. I ran to telephone my sister Margo, who ran a canteen for servicemen at Windsor Station. Margo hadn’t heard from her husband, Johnny Taschereau, since D-Day, and every time the phone rang or an unfamiliar car drew up outside the house, we all felt sick to our stomachs. We didn’t talk to each other about it — we believed it was weak and ill bred to talk about things we were afraid or ashamed of. Silence was strength. Talk demonstrated a lack of faith, and was unnecessary besides. God already knew everything we were feeling, and that ought to be enough.

At first, Margo thought I was calling to say there’d been a letter from Johnny Taschereau. I told her about Jack, and she promised to grab a cab as soon as she could get away.

In the dining room, Jack was telling them about flying across the Atlantic from Prestwick, Scotland, in a B-17. I knew it was rare for enlisted men to rate air transport. Most passengers on the bombers were vips, generals, or politicians.

“Are you on leave?”

“Unofficial leave. Supposed to report to base in Ottawa, but I hooked a cab at the airport.”

I could tell from the thrust of his jaw that Daddy didn’t like the sound of “unofficial,” but he didn’t say anything. Since D-Day, there had been an atmosphere of tension and dread in the house, because Johnny Taschereau’s regiment was almost certainly in France, and the casualty lists in the Montreal Star were longer every day. Jack had been away for so long by then that he wasn’t in our thoughts in quite the same way, and anyway West Africa had seemed a long way away from the fighting.

I could see Daddy at the head of the table, light from the chandelier blinking in his spectacles like semaphore code. His eyes were fixed on Jack, and I guess he was wondering why his son had flown home across the ocean, and whether he was in some kind of trouble.

We heard the cab pulling up outside, and my brother went to meet Margo. They were the two eldest and had always been close. Whenever Daddy had one of his spells, it was always Jack or Margo who would be sent down to New York City to bring him home.

Spells always began with Daddy saying he was going away on a business trip to Detroit, Boston, or Quebec City. Then Mother wouldn’t hear from him for a week or so. Then the telephone call came, always from an assistant manager in some large New York hotel. They sounded embarrassed, reluctant to spill secrets, but it was always the same story. A do not disturb sign had hung on Daddy’s door for four or five days before the chambermaids finally entered and found him passed out across the bed or on the floor, surrounded by empty Powers Irish whiskey bottles, with the windows shut and all the ashtrays heaped with cigarette butts.

Jack or Margo would catch the overnight train, settle the hotel bill, get Daddy dressed and into a cab, then head back to Grand Central and the next train to Montreal. Once Jack made the cab stop at Brooks Brothers while he ran in and bought a summer suit. Margo always brought us back cartons of Chesterfields — we liked American cigarettes. Neither of them ever said a word about how Daddy had acted in New York or on the train, or whether he tried to explain his behaviour or apologize.

Jack did love to tease, and if he happened to overhear Daddy laying down the law to my sisters and me over curfews or clothes or deportment, Jack might start whistling “The Sidewalks of New York.” Or even sit down at the piano and play “Give My Regards to Broadway.” It was cruel, but Daddy could be cruel, too. We couldn’t stop laughing.

I imagined Daddy feeling disgust and disgrace at the start of each trip north, but sitting up straighter and straighter as the train ran up over the Green Mountains and along the shore of Lake Champlain. By the time it stopped for customs, I pictured Daddy as nearly himself again: watchful, wry; a man of few words, most of them sharp. Between the border and Windsor Station, I could see him tipping the Pullman porter a dollar to shine his shoes and press his suit, so that when they pulled in at Windsor Station Daddy would be thoroughly himself again, tipping redcaps, using his walking stick to summon a cab. He certainly did not appear a hopeless drunkard climbing out of the cab in front of No. 10, leaving his suitcase for Jack or the maid to handle, striding up the walk, with the leather soles of his handmade shoes crackling on the flagstones. He would disappear into his study until late supper was served, when he’d sit at the head of the table and order one of us to say grace.

While we were having coffee, the maid brought in Margo’s three-year-old, Tess, and she looked very sweet sitting on her Uncle Jack’s knee — maybe she thought he was her daddy. After the maid had taken Tess off to bed, Mother and Daddy retired, and the five of us trooped downstairs to our old playroom in the basement, which Jack and Margo had re decorated as a Parisian bistro, complete with zinc bar, café tables, and Toulouse-Lautrec prints.

Jack was the sort of string bean who preferred stretching out on the floor to sitting in a chair. He lay with an elbow crooked under his head, we sat at one of the café tables, and Margo went behind the bar to fix manhattans. Jack said he’d have only a glass of ginger ale. I only realized how thin he was when I saw him stretched out like that. Underneath the mahogany tan, his face was parched, the skin drawn tight on his forehead. I could see veins on his temples, like worms.

Margo was cracking ice in the bucket. “So how did you rate a plane ride home?”

My brother began unbuttoning his shirt. He touched a spot just under his rib cage, on the left side. “Feel this.”

No one else made a move, so after a moment I knelt down. He took my fingers and guided me. I could feel a hardness underneath the skin, and the edge of something round and the size of grapefruit.

Margo had kicked off her shoes, and her feet in nylons made whispering, brushing sounds as she came toward us. Jack took her fingers.
“What is it?” Frankie said.

“See for yourself,” Jack said.

Frankie and Patty each knelt and touched the place. “They gave me my file, and I opened it on the plane. I’m going to die. That’s why they’ve let me come home.”

Margo said, “Who says?”

“Read the file, Margo.”

“Everyone knows air force doctors are quacks. Daddy will get you a real doctor.” Margo began buttoning Jack’s shirt, a cigarette dangling from her lips, her eyes half shut against the smoke. “Daddy can get you into a real hospital.”

Jack reached for Margo’s cigarette and took a puff. “I feel pretty good right now,” he said.

Margo informed Daddy the next morning while he was eating his soft-boiled egg, and he started making phone calls and pulling strings, determined to get Jack admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital, which we all believed was the best in the world. Jack was still in his old bedroom when we learned that two neighbour boys had been killed in France. The next day, I went for a drive with Jack and Daddy in Daddy’s little Ford coupe. We were stopped at a traffic light on St. Antoine Street when Daddy suddenly asked if Jack wanted to go into the tavern on the corner for a glass of beer. I was in the back seat, but I think Daddy must have forgotten I was there. Women were not allowed in taverns in those days.

As far as we knew, Daddy never drank beer, or touched any liquor whatsoever, except during a spell.

“No, I can’t hold down a beer,” Jack said.

Daddy drove home without saying another word, and the next morning Jack was admitted to the hospital, where a famous surgeon cut him open and reported the tumour was inoperable. Daddy and Mother spent that night sitting by his bed with a private nurse. The next morning, he was still conscious when Margo, Frankie, Patty, and I got there, but his face had gone bright yellow. Mother went home around noon. Daddy stayed. When the nurse went off for her lunch, Jack asked for a cigarette. Frankie lit one and gave it to him, but he dropped it and it rolled under the bed. Frankie had to get down on her hands and knees, and somehow the four of us found this terribly funny. We were giggling. Even Jack was smiling. Daddy just sat there with his hat on his knees and his polished English shoes pressed so close together. He was such a stranger. He didn’t even look related to us. He could have been the family lawyer, or a judge, or even, with a different collar, a priest. He looked so alone that I suddenly wondered if he would be able to bear what was coming. There hadn’t been a spell since Jack had gone overseas, but I wondered if Daddy would even be able to wait until he got down to New York City.

In those days, we all had rosary beads in little silver cases in our purses. It was Margo’s idea that we say a novena. We were into the second decade of Hail Marys when Jack began complaining his legs were cold. Margo started rubbing them, and she was still rubbing his legs when he died. We finished the decade, then took turns approaching the bed to kiss him. Daddy was the last, just before the nurse came back.

As soon as we got home, Margo ran to tell Mother, who met her on the stairs and told her, “God has taken Jack, but now your Johnny will come home.”

I was upstairs in the sewing room a few hours later when the undertaker’s van turned the corner and came down the street quietly under the summer’s canopy of fresh green maple leaves. They brought the coffin into the living room and opened the lid. I peeked in only once. My brother looked dead and strange. We probably entertained two or three hundred visitors over the next couple of days. Every room downstairs was crowded with white lilies. People would duck into the living room to pay their respects, then come out for sandwiches and cake, tea, and whiskey. Daddy hardly came out of his study, and every evening, after the last mourners had left, four little French Canadian nuns would arrive in a taxi. Mother had arranged for them to sit with the body through the night. It was the custom; you weren’t supposed to leave the dead alone. They brought sewing baskets with them.

I was in bed with Life magazine the night before the funeral when there was a knock on my door. It was Margo, wearing her red doeskin dressing gown. She sat on the bed. “Do you think it’s true, what Mother said? That Jack’s dying means Johnny will come home?”

“He’ll come home, Margo, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Jack dying.”

Margo had always been closer to our brother than anyone else, and I could see how it troubled her to think that his life might have been traded for her husband’s. But it had also given her hope, a straw to cling to.

My sister’s husband was kind and cheerful. Despite the death dancing around that summer, scenting the air with lilies and the fragrance of maple seed, I could not imagine him not coming back to her.

“She didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”

“What did she mean?”

“She meant you shouldn’t give up. You have to hope for the best. It’s what faith is all about.”

That’s what I said then. Now I wonder if what Mother meant was, everything must be paid for.

I took my cigarettes from the night table, and we smoked without saying anything more. I was wondering how Daddy would behave at the church, at the cemetery. I wondered whether he would be leaving for New York City, and who would be sent to bring him home. Margo had too much on her mind, so it would be Frankie or me. In a strange way, I hoped it would be me. I needed to see him broken down. Not because I was angry with him, or hated him, but because I loved him and wanted to feel close to him. I wanted to see the hotel room, the overflowing ashtrays, empty bottles scattered on the floor, and Daddy lying there like an animal hit by a car. I wanted to see Daddy as he was.

We finished our smokes, and what happened next was very unusual. Instead of returning to her room, my sister, without saying a word, lay next to me. She curled up as she used to, summer nights at our cottage on the lake, when we’d hear noises out in the woods. When we were frightened children.

I put down the magazine and switched off the light. I lay with the weight and warmth of my sister’s body pressing against me in the darkness, and I smelled flowers, and maple seed. Death was filling our house, and there weren’t the words to begin to explain.

Peter Behrens

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