Frank MacInerny turned 65 last year. He retired after 45 years on the job and now he stayed home full time with Winnie. On a day like today, when the temperature was -28 F., they were trapped together in the little 800 square foot house, grating on each other's nerves. It was Valentine's day: Frank and Winnie had once been love birds, but they barely tolerated each other now. After 40 years of marriage, they were yoked together, with few options for escape either from their marriage or each other's annoying presence in the bitter cold of winter. Tension would build up in that little house, like a lethal gas leak, waiting for a spark to set off an explosion. I swear there were days when the nasty feelings oozed out of their house, slithered five doors down along the sidewalk, and into our front door.
Because Frank was a practising alcoholic, decades ago Winnie had banned alcohol from the premises, forcing Frank to find hiding places all over the tiny house for his mickey's of Canadian Club. She would do a regular sweep, find the stashes, and throw them out. When Frank found his booze gone, out of options, he'd come over to our house. It was a game Winnie and Frank played, and secretly I think the two combative personalities thrived on it.
Winnie called Frank, "the old man" during the good times; otherwise she called him that "goddamned sot." Frank called her "the old bat" affectionately and "Winnie witch" when he was mad at her. They had that kind of relationship; the prickle was what kept the ragged scraps of the marriage in one tentative piece.
I looked out the frosty window. It was 3:00 pm and we knew Frank would be suffering by now if his current stash were discovered. The street was quiet; not a dog in sight, nor a car, nor a single soul. Even the skating rink behind the school was empty. Chimneys were pumping out clouds of smoke; the leafless elm trees lining the street looked like scorched skeletons and the temperature was still dropping. If you put your bare, warm hand on our metal door lock, it would stick. Some poor kid, somewhere in the city, had his tongue stuck on a railing. The radio was blaring from the kitchen about how quickly exposed skin would freeze; we anticipated the upcoming announcement of the wind-chill temperature, a number so unimaginably low, we'd laugh about it.
As I passed the window again, I caught a glimpse of red flashing between the high-piled snow on the either side of the sidewalk. Frank was scurrying along the icy pathway in his carpet slippers, right on schedule. He was wearing a maroon cardigan, the shade of dried blood, buttoned crookedly over his undershirt. He climbed the stairs and took a last drag from the nub of an impossibly short cigarette as Mom opened the door.
"Tobacco-stained" was too mild a description of Frank's fingers. Burnt umber was the color of his skin up to the first joint, fading to ochre near his fingernails. He flicked the butt behind him into the snow where it immediately sank and disappeared below the surface. In the spring, after the melt, there'd be a patch of Frank's miserable butts next to the stairs - an archive of his visits. One of my spring clean-up jobs was to clean the yard of all the ugly accumulata exposed once the snow had gone. Using his fourth finger and thumb in a dainty motion he plucked random tobacco pieces off his lower lip and wiped them on the sweater. "Christ, it's cold!" he declared, hugging himself as he stepped in the door.
Inside, he didn't stamp his feet to knock off the snow like most people did. Frank jigged on the balls of his feet, doing a little warm-up dance. My mother invited him into the living room and asked if he wanted a drink. "I thought you'd never ask," Frank replied.
As he settled in the chair, his small pot belly bulged. One of those wiry men whose arms and legs stay skinny all through life, he'd developed a spare tire since he'd quit working. His thinning white hair was combed straight back from his forehead, shiny from the Brylcreem he used to keep it neat. He pulled a crumpled handkerchief out of his back pocket to blot his rheumy eyes, bright blue and slightly opaque from blooming cataracts.
They went through the same routine every time he visited. "Where's John?" was his next question. My father, enjoying a quiet read in the bedroom, appeared as soon as the ice cubes tinkled, as reliably responsive to this cue as Pavlov's dogs. He emerged and took a chair across from Frank. The men lit up their Black Cat cigarettes and started to talk.
"Hell of a cold Valentine's day," said Frank. "Freeze the nuts off you if you're not careful. Always makes me think about Olive, that ungrateful little twit."
Ten years before, Olive, Frank and Winnie's daughter, had gotten married on Valentine's day. She chose the day partly for romance but mostly because the hall was cheaper in the low season and if they were lucky, the guaranteed frigid weather would keep the big drinkers in the family at home, drinking their own booze. The strategy didn't work; even though it was -14 F. all the cheap Scots bastards showed up, and there was a big bar bill to pay.
Olive had been jumpy as a nervous cat the week before the wedding, anticipating that Frank would get drunk and spoil her day. Plastered, he was maudlin and embarrassing at social events. She took him aside and said, "Dad, I know about the bottle in the sewer and all the other hiding spots. They're not the big secret you think they are. I won't tell Mom about them as long as you behave and stay sober for the wedding and reception. If you don't, I'll tell her everything - and I mean everything."
Frank's fall-back, fall-back last resort emergency stash was the sewer bottle. The sewer hole for the house was in the darkest part of the basement where you had to use a flashlight to see anything, even at high noon. Suspended mid-air and dangling two feet into the gloom was a mickey of Canadian Club cradled in a basket of the finest gauge of all fishing lines. 13 shots in each mickey, there was just enough to keep Frank wet over a weekend, when the "Government Drug Store", the province's liquor store re-opened. Frank's stash had been dangling there for at least 20 years, since the last flood backed up sewers all over the city when he'd fished out the basket and relocated it until the water subsided.
Disclosing the sewer bottle location would be wounding enough for Frank, but Olive implied there was more she knew. Frank was stunned at the extortionate methods being wielded by his only daughter, but it was the "I mean everything" remark that packed the wallop. Shaky and sentimental, he got through the wedding day without so much as a nip, but he never completely forgave Olive. For a decade, he'd been waiting for the other shoe to drop.
.....to be continued