WILLIAM - A Short Story

This story has its basis in truth but names and some details are fictional. For anyone familiar with the circumstances I doubt the changed names would prevent recognition.

William’s Story

I know now that he was a young man, but to me he seemed ancient. Sometimes I think of him, and the past creeps into my soul like a mist, clouding the present and making yesterday real again. He was never a major figure in my life then, but somehow has managed to lurk in my mind these fifty and more years. His memory edges into my thoughts unbidden, and among the happy reminiscences of those carefree days, those years of innocence and golden memories, a dark shadow insinuates itself across the landscape. The other side of the halcyon years. The tragic, mean and ugly side. The side nostalgia tries to bury.

Who was he, this phantom that haunts me? What did he think about, did he ever read a book, was there a girl, what could he have been if he had the chance?

Why did he do it?

If he did it!

I was nine years old when we first met. I suppose that means he was about thirty-five. The image burned into my mind is sharp and clear. How much of this picture is accurate and how much is invention masquerading as memory is unclear. And does it matter? The shade that lives in my recall is real to me.

If I have learned anything, it is that there are at least two sides to everything. The idyllic representations of those years are mainly true. The diffused golden light used in movies to invoke post card images. The unpaved country roads, more tunnel than road because of the overhanging trees. The one room country school. Threshing gangs in the front yard for the evening meal. Supper (dinner was at noon), battery radio, whole milk, cowboy heroes, high school proms, the world series, skinny dipping, and a future that stretched invitingly before us.

The other side was in stark contrast and painful even in recall. William was definitely on the other side!

I never knew him to be called anything other than William. No Bill, or Will, always William. No Mister either, just William. “We’re going to town William, would you like a ride?” “I’ve made an apple pie William, for you and your mother and father. Take this home with you”. “Thank you William, we appreciate your help”.

I wonder if my parents knew him. As a person I mean. He lived right across the road in the red brick farmhouse. He and his parents Egbert and Fannie. They were old, nearly blind, weary, lonely and devoid of hope for anything. Waiting silently for the next day, waiting silently to see who would die first.

I don’t know if you have experienced light from a coal oil lamp. There is a romance about it in a cabin or cottage at a resort lake today. It seems to add warmth. It reminds us of our pioneer past. It reflects off our modern appliances and gives us a glow of well being, of cosyness, of safe harbour after a storm. But not to me!

The yellow flickering flame seems to me not so much to light a room as it does to just add a gloom to the darkness. Seen from outside, the dim yellow glow on the windows has the look of poverty. Not the empty belly kind of poverty. The poverty of spirit that comes with a lifetime of hopelessness. Not even the loss of hope. It is the eternal absence of hope. The never having hoped. The lack of even knowing what it means. The absolute proven certainty that there is nothing to hope for. That life is just hard work, bone numbing work, back breaking work, a little rest, a little food, and more hard, bone numbing, back breaking work.

Until you die. Amen.

It wasn’t like that for all of us. Our house was full of children. Children and giggles and games. The coal oil lamps gave a different light in the happier homes. The dark corners of the cavernous farmhouse rooms were great places for hiding, for lurking in the shadows and listening to the adults spin their tribal lore. Robert Louis Stephenson knew what he was talking about when he wrote the words “At evening when the lamp is lit”.

The kitchen stove on a winters night gave off a dry crackling heat that roasted the side closest and left the rest of you in shivers. The pungent smell of insoles from gum rubbers drying on the oven door competed with the homier aromas that filled most farm houses. Apple pie, drying hardwood, the ozone smell of whole milk, and a faint ever present odour of cow manure.

I’m sure the same smells were present in William’s house, but they never seemed the same to me. They were more bitter, rancid, sour. They rose from the three people sitting silently in the gloom and mixed with the others to create a palpable atmosphere of morbidity. Did they hate each other I wondered.

I see them still. Grandpa Grant in his chair beside the little kitchen table, his cane between his knees, bent forward, both hands resting on the cane, his eyes on the floor. Grandma Grant at the other end of the table, her milky eyes turned toward the visitor, a hesitant smile pulling her lips away from toothless gums. And William, sitting in a straight backed chair, beside the stove at the reservoir end, his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands, staring at and beyond the old linoleum on the floor. The little circle of weak yellow light from the glass lamp on the table encompassed these three souls and left the rest of the room in darkness.

Two doors led to other rooms. I could only guess what lay beyond them. In the ten years I knew them as Grandpa and Grandma Grant and William, I never saw beyond the kitchen.

The Grandpa and Grandma designations were a common courtesy for children in those days.

Let me tell you how I remember William. Some of this is memory, and some of it is my adult interpretation of that distant time. William was not a tall man, probably about five feet seven or eight inches. Dark brown hair in a typical farmers hair cut, shaved well up the back of the neck exposing the deep creases and wrinkles common to farmers. A bushy moustache, straggly and uneven, and most prominent in my recall, the patches of whiskers on his cheeks and neck that he missed when shaving. It looked like he pinched the flesh between two fingers at these points, pulled the skin out, and shaved around them. The hair also curled up from the buttoned shirt just below his adams apple.

I never saw William in anything with short sleeves. Generally it was a blue or red checked flannel shirt, sleeves down and buttoned, and the front of the shirt buttoned to the top at the neck. A pair of bib overalls, Bradshaw’s as I recall, leather boots with curled up toes, and a conductors cap completed the wardrobe. For most months of the year, the arms of winter underwear could be seen peeking out under his shirt sleeves.

The weather seemed to have little influence on the way he dressed, as this was the standard for all seasons.

William also owned a suit, black and old fashioned, and I saw him in this on a few occasions, always funerals. He looked like a stranger to me when I saw him dressed up, and in retrospect I think it is because I got a glimpse of a man I did not know, the man he might have become in other circumstances.

In the top front pocket of the overalls, the red Picobac bag of pipe tobacco showed, and the corncob pipe, when it wasn’t in his mouth, was in his shirt pocket, stem up.

William’s right index finger was of particular fascination to me. It was black as a stove pipe from the finger nail to the first knuckle, from the constant poking into the bowl of his pipe. The finger nail was blunt and black, and I wondered if he felt anything at all when he shoved that finger into the smouldering bowl. Since my family were non smokers, his pipe was of great interest, and while my mother described it as “that stinking pipe”, I thought it was the best smell in the world.

To the best of my knowledge, William had never driven a car or tractor. He had never been more than forty miles from his birth place. He had never seen television, except for what he glimpsed through a furniture store window on his rare visits to town. There was no telephone in their house. He had never read a book. He had never had a girlfriend. I don’t think he had a close friend and I am pretty sure his longest conversations with anyone were with my father. Those were mainly on weather, crops, and animal health.

The only bright spots I can think of in his life might have been the infrequent visits by his niece and nephew, and those occasions when he rode into town with my parents in our old chevy. The town was about five miles away, but there was a village only three miles away in another direction. He regularly walked to the village for necessities, and would also walk to town when the village could not supply his needs. He never asked for a ride in all those years, but my parents would let him know when they were going. He would generally respond in the same way every time; “Well, if it is not a bother”.

I am ashamed now of the feelings I harboured. Admittedly they were mixed feelings. Every time William rode to town with us, he offered to buy ice cream cones. My dad would stop at the gas station on the edge of town on the way home, and William and Dad would go inside and come out with a cone for each of us. Cones were five cents, and if all five of us were there, plus my parents and William, that was eight people to buy for. Forty cents! My mixed feelings arose from the desire for the cold delicious ice cream, and the wish that William would not be the one to carry mine with his black finger, and the others looking none too clean either. I would try to eat all the ice cream out of the cone without touching the cone itself where I thought his fingers might have been. I wonder if he knew, and I still feel a deep shame.

Visits from his niece and nephew were short and far between. William’s brother had left the farm and moved to the city before we knew him. His wife was a city girl, and when they visited it was like they were from another world. They had a fairly new car, dressed, if not fashionably, at least not in farm garb, and stayed only a short time. I imagined their noses turned up at the smells, and their not wanting to eat the food prepared by a nearly blind woman.

The two children brought the only real smiles I ever remember seeing on William’s face, and they seemed to return his affection. Both called him something that sounded like Unca Winam, and when they called him that, he laughed out loud, a genuine laugh of total delight. I recall watching from across the road on one occasion as they chased this old farmer around the yard, his deep laugh mingling with their shrieks and giggles. I can only guess at the joy he felt in his otherwise empty world.

In our little world, everyone was in one or more categories. They were Catholics or Protestants or Jews, they smoked or they didn’t (only the men of course), they drank or they didn’t, they were rich or they were like the rest of us, and they were good people or they were trash.

Drinking hard spirits was not like it is now. I am sure that the people we considered to be rich drank socially at the Yacht club, or the golf club, and some even in their homes. In our circle, drinking was not a social activity. The days of prohibition were still in close living memory, and alcohol was a demon for many.

I recall my Dad, having visited his brother on a trip to Detroit (the only trip I ever knew him to make) telling us on his return in a tone of awe that Uncle Harry “had liquor right there in his house. Anything you could ask for!”

Certainly, lots of supposed non drinkers drank. This was mainly done at occasions like funerals and weddings, and was conducted in secrecy, often in the drive shed of the church or hall, where the men would go on the premise that they had to “water my horse”.

By and large though, drinking was a solitary function. It’s purpose was to get drunk. Those who indulged were sinners, of weak moral character, and the mere mention of their name was always accompanied by the unspoken thought “he drinks”.

William drank!

Once or twice a year he would walk to town, setting out in late afternoon on a Saturday after he had finished the farm chores early. On these occasions he would never accept a ride from my parents or any other non drinker. As far as I can gather, once in town, he would go straight to the Palace Hotel, to the dirty and reeking men’s room, and there consume several beers, generally alone, but on occasion in the company of one or two others of similar habit.

I think beer was ten cents a glass. How many glasses did he drink? Did he drink because he liked beer? Did he think about the taste of a cold tangy glass of beer on hot days on the farm? Did he drink because it was sinful, and he needed to do something bad? Did he drink because it took him to another world for a short time? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but my guess is the answer is yes to them all.

Saturday night was shopping night. Because of this, I was acquainted with the Palace Hotel, and some of its habitues.

Mother and Dad would load up the family in the old chev, and off to town. Once parked on the main street, they would leave my brothers and I to our own devices while they looked for the best prices on the necessities. Off we would go, if lucky clutching a nickel or even a dime, to find a way to spend it. I favoured the Steadfast Five and Dime store, and it was across the street from the Palace. My older brothers would sneak into one of the two pool rooms in town, if they did not see anyone they knew that might tell our parents.

Mother did not like me going to the Steadfast, because of its proximity to the Palace. She knew that by seven o’clock there would be several drinkers, if not outright drunks, leaning against the front of the hotel, watching the passers by, and occasionally making smutty remarks to the women. She also knew that fights were not uncommon, and that the language used was not for little ears.

On two occasions I saw William. He was in front of the hotel like the others, his back against the wall, both feet planted firmly on the sidewalk. He was alone each time I saw him, and as I watched he would try to raise his head to peer around, and then it would fall back to rest with his chin on his chest. I remember the chill it caused in my heart the first time when I realized that he had been drinking, the feeling of horror that he was actually drunk. My parents had never spoken about it, at least not in front of us.

Generally, someone would give William a ride home sometime later, and the next day, Sunday, there would be a feeling of total despair emanating from the old house across the road. My parents would whisper, William would go about his chores with an aura of shame almost visible around him, and neither of his parents would be seen for several days. During the days following one of these episodes, William would stay far away from us, not wanting to face anyone, particularly my mother. He was, after all, a drinker!

Over the next week or two, things would return to almost normal. Grandpa and
Grandma Grant would retreat a little further into their isolated worlds, and William would be a little quieter, if that were possible, but life went on.

The events of the next ten years that command a presence in my memory were varied. A hurricane that taught us all the real force of nature. Barns that burned fiercely, illuminating the night sky, and leaving the owners devastated. The usual array of weddings, births and funerals. For me there were girlfriends, football, after school jobs, fires on the beach, dances, and graduation. Life was exciting. Life was fun. Life was full of promise.

I didn’t know then about despair. I had looked it in the eye many times. I had seen its results. I had seen its victims. But I did not recognize it, or was too absorbed with myself to care. So I was only vaguely aware of the ugliness around us, and it did not colour my world.

At least, not then!

Now, some of these things creep out of the recesses of memory. The fact that they remain with me is some indication that they impacted in a much stronger way than I had realized. I guess it is the resilience and the arrogance and the selfishness of the young that acts as a barrier and a protection against these soul staining events. The unwanted pregnancies that pronounced life sentences of anguish, or even death. The police cars that arrived regularly at a run down farm house in reaction to the abuse of an invalid eighty year old woman by her husband. Once he beat her so badly her wheelchair needed repair. He was never charged, so I guess the cops were there to make sure he didn’t go beyond his rights. The kids I knew that were knocked about at home, or locked in dark rooms for days at a time, or used as slave labour. The revenge some of them took when their bodies became mature. The reports of incest; grandfathers, and uncles, and fathers. The shame of having a handicapped child, and the resulting mistreatment of that child, or at best, their life of complete isolation from the rest of the world.

All of this and more I associate with the stinking fumes and yellow light of coal oil lamps. It is almost as though the evil was carried and spread by them. Like they generated and nurtured the environment for depression, sullenness, hopelessness and hatred.

Who was William? To me, then, he was just a bit player , an occasional actor, a one dimensional character that bumped against my life from time to time. I never thought about him at all. It isn’t as though we had a relationship, at least not from my side. It is not like one of those stories where the man befriends the boy in some wonderful way. We never went fishing, or took walks, or talked. Why does he prey on my mind now? Who was he?

I wonder if he was slow, mentally I mean. I don’t think so. Nothing in my recall as an adult gives me any indication that he might have been.

No, I think he was an average guy. I fancy that he was trapped by circumstances. His older brother left the farm, moved away, married, had a family. William was left with an almost nonexistent education, the farm, his aging parents, and a sense of obligation to look after them, perhaps just for a while. Did this happen when he was eighteen, or younger or older? Never mind, it happened. From whatever age he was, he was sentenced to life in a prison as real as those with bars, but he could not know that. I suspect he had hope for a while. Hope that his parents would die soon. Hope that someone might want to buy their dirt poor farm. Hope that he would meet a girl to share his life, and bring children and cheer and laughter to the dismal house. Did he dream about being a father? Could his life have been different if he were born into similar circumstances thirty years later?

I fancy that in today’s world, William would have put Egbert and Fannie in a seniors home, sold the farm, got a job at some blue collar work, driven a not quite new car, got married and had a family, taken vacations and gone to places like Lake Placid, owned a camera, wore shorts and tee shirts, drank a little beer on weekends, and barbecued steaks with friends on a Saturday night. He probably would not be known as a drinker! A pretty unremarkable and ordinary life. But in the setting of those days and times, these simple things were as foreign and impossible as anything could be.

I never attended his funeral!

I was away at the time, nineteen years old, ten years after first meeting him. I learned of his death only weeks later, and on hearing about it, found myself with a sense of grief, or some kind of emotion, totally out of proportion to our relationship. I was stunned and saddened, and strangely moved. It wasn’t so much that William had not been important to me as it was that he was just there, an ordinary everyday part of my life, one I did not have to think about or give a ranking of importance. He was one of the artifacts that constituted the furniture of my life, and any change to that was a shock. I suppose that if I loved my parents and my family, I also loved William. I never thought about loving anyone then, at least not consciously. I don’t think love of family or friends is evident until someone dies, and then it exposes itself to you in the form of grief, a constant aching awareness of that love.

I wish I had attended the funeral. I wish I had seen him in his cheap pine coffin. I wish I had witnessed his face after the undertakers had applied their art. I wish I had heard the preacher say the words. I wish I had seen the mourners. I wish I had these experiences as memories, because lacking them, my imagination allows me only to picture other things.

I picture his purple face, eyes bulging, tongue out and filling his mouth, head and neck awry, overalls twisted around his neck and fastened to the window bars, body slumped against the wet stone walls of his cell. I want to see an image of peacefulness, of having gone to a better world, but I can only see the sadness and the loneliness and the agony.

He was drunk, they said. He was violent, they said. We checked on him regularly through the night, they said. It’s not our fault, they said.

There will be no inquest, they said!

Other voices gave different versions.

They roughed him up pretty good, they said. The coppers just threw him into the paddy wagon, they said. He was not violent, they said. There were bruises all over his body, they said.

He did not hang himself, they said!

Grandpa and Grandma Grant lived only a short time after that, passing within three months of each other, she first, and then were laid to rest beside William in the little country cemetery.

I wondered about them then, and I wonder now. Were they always old? Did they love each other once? Did they gradually change from someone young and vibrant to become the husks I knew? Sometimes in the summer evenings, as the long shadows slid across the fields, I would see them sitting, companionably it seemed to me, on the verandah, on chairs carried from the kitchen. I thought maybe they were trying to catch the last bit of daylight, then go to bed before having to light the lamp.

I don’t know if they died from grief or shame, or just old age, but I suspect it was the shame.

I wonder if William would have wanted them beside him in that cemetery after having been beside them all his life.

In all these memories, and in the parts that are my imaginings, I see mostly victims, few villains.

William would be an old man now. Hell, I’m an old man now, but he sits in my soul and whispers to me.

My memories of those long ago days of the forties and fifties remain as bright and charming and wonderful as ever, but the grimmer images lie just below the surface.

Recalled, they release whiffs of coal oil fumes and tongues of yellow flame.

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