I was pleased to have another short story published in Island Writer Magazine. Here’s Part One.
It was November 20, 1955, six days after my tenth birthday. We were sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch. Mom and Dad were at the ends, with me in the middle. As usual, Dad tuned in the radio to the news, and although it blared, he leaned in close. The war had damaged his hearing.
The big story of the day was that US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was sending advisers to Vietnam. I didn’t know what it was all about, but the announcer told the story like the world might end; but he paused for a second or two, and then in a party voice said,
“And now a word from our sponsors.” A series of ads followed, some with musical jingles. I remember a couple of them – like these:
“You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.”
“Smoke DuMaurier, for real smoking pleasure, DuMaurier the cigarette of good taste. A mild cigarette with the best filter yet, that’s why the trend today is to DuMaurier.”
In the schoolyard, we made a game of making up less flattering words for some of the ads.
Anyway, Dad used these news breaks as his cue to light a cigarette – but not a DuMaurier. Oh no. Those were for women. Dad rolled his own with I was cigarette papers and Players tobacco. The Players can had a picture of a bearded sailor, and the cigarette paper package had a big rooster on it. Dad said it was a Chantecler rooster, but that didn’t really help. A smoking sailor I got, but I couldn’t figure out what a chicken had to do with cigarette papers.
When Dad lit his cigarette, the tip turned bright red. Then, twin streams of smoke jetted from his nostrils curled upward and formed a blue cloud that hung over his silver hair like a cap. The smoke and its harsh smell drifted over Mom and me. When it got too thick, Mom would waft at it with her hand and give Dad an annoyed look.
The telephone interrupted our lunch. There was no pleasant ringtone – just an ear-splitting, clanking bell. Cupboard doors rattled and even Dad with his bad ears jumped. In the heat of summer when the neighbours had their windows and doors open you could hear a phone ringing three houses away.
The phone was Mom’s realm. Her place at the table was the farthest from it but she always answered. She’d be relaxing with a cup of tea but when a call came, she sprang up and rushed to answer as if her life depended on it. Mom was the social hub of our family and she had a lot of relatives, friends, and Eastern Star sisters. After taking a call, she’d make a dozen more to pass on the news of the day. These talks, especially those discussed in hushed tones could go on for hours. I usually didn’t pay much attention but it seemed that the story changed a bit with each call.
We’d had the phone less than a year but I’m certain that Mom would have given up electricity, running water, milk delivery, and on some days maybe even me, before parting with it.
On this particular day Mom, as usual, hurried to answer the phone. Rushing by, she hand-signalled Dad to turn down the radio. In our house, a phone call was the only thing that trumped the news.
Our telephone was an ugly black box fixed to the wall separating the kitchen and living room. A three-foot cord joined the handset to the box. You had to make or take a call standing in the doorway. Our kitchen was small and so sitting at the kitchen table, Dad and I couldn’t help but hear Mom’s part of her phone conversation.
“Helloooo,” Mom sang into the mouthpiece, her trademark greeting with a Scottish accent; a pause, and then, “Oh, hello Mary!” Probably my Aunt Mary.
“Yes, yes,” Mom interjected every few seconds – a longer pause and then, “Oh my!”
Another pause and then the clincher, “No! You don’t say!”
That snapped Dad and me to attention. Mom looked at us wide eyed for a second, and then turned away and spoke back into the phone.
“Oh, today?” A pause, and then, “Oh, oh yes! Thanks, Mary. We’ll come over right after supper.”
Mom hung up and strode back to her place at the table. She stood, hands on hips and announced, “Big John has bought something. It’s a surprise. They want us to come over after supper.”
Uncle Big John was Aunt Mary’s husband. I thought that they called him “Big John” because he was – well, big. But it was really because he was Mom’s older brother, and it was a way to tell him from the other “Johns” in our family. My name is John, and my grandfather was John. Uncle Big John had three sons, and one of them was John. I had another Uncle John in Ontario. Ontario Uncle John had a son named John, and his son also had a son named John. To lessen the confusion, both of those Johns went by “Jack.” The older Jack was of course, “Big Jack.”
“So, what is it? What has John bought now?” Dad said. He was sure that Mom was holding out.
Mom shrugged and shook her head. “I really don’t know. Mary wouldn’t say – but she did say that it’s important – something we need to see today right after supper.”
Dad stroked the stubble on his chin for several seconds, the way he did when he was thinking. Mom and I watched, waiting for his pronouncement. Finally, he put his hand down and said,
“I know what it is. I’ll bet he’s bought a new car and wants to show it off.”
That made sense. Uncle Big John liked trendy gadgets. A few months earlier, he’d bought a tape recorder and had all of us over. We took turns recording our voices and then he played them back. I’d never heard my own voice before. I couldn’t believe how I sounded.
A new car would really be a big deal. Uncle John had an old black Austin with little arms that popped out from the side when you pushed the signal light lever.
“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see,” Mom said. She sat down and resumed her knitting, passing time between phone calls.
I’d rather have been playing outside, but the wind shaking the house and rattling windows convinced me to stay indoors. I put a model airplane together in the warm comfort of my room, but I couldn’t help wondering about Uncle John’s surprise. The day dragged on.
Finally, it was time. Dad had gone out fifteen minutes earlier to start the car and warm it up. Mom and I pulled on our winter gear and dashed to the car, gloved hands held to our faces against the cold north wind. It had been a long winter and Uncle Big John’s surprise, whatever it was, added some excitement to another dreary day.
Part 2. Next week!