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Authors: David Adams Richards

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BOOK: Nights Below Station Street
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The problem was that Ralphie did not know what to do. His marks in chemistry and calculus were the highest in the province in high school, and at university he always made out with the least effort.

When his father was sick he would visit him at the hospital. It was at this point that his mother and he felt as if they weren’t doing the right things, because they didn’t know what to do. He would shovel the walk for his mother to get out to the hospital at night.

Every evening when Ralphie got to the hospital, Myhrra would be in the room before him. She had become a sort of friend to his father during the last few weeks of his life, and wouldn’t leave him for a moment. His father could only speak in a whisper. He was dying of bone cancer. And sometimes when the nurses moved the sheets from under him, or lifted him, they would crack a bone in his shoulder, or in his arm. It had been a progressive deterioration of his bone structure for six years. And everything seemed to have been spearheaded toward nothing else but this moment.

They would go into the room, and Myhrra, sitting there, would instruct them on what had been happening.

“His fingers are all yellow tonight. And his toes – his big toe broke again – and he was calling for someone named Danny?”

“That’s his brother,” Ralphie said.

“Oh, what does he do now?”

“He’s an optometrist,” Ralphie said.

“An optometrist,” Myhrra said. “Well, isn’t that something.” Then she would look at Ralphie as if he was bragging.

She would stare at his mother, and then begin to read, her lips moving softly.

“Who is that person?” Thelma asked once.

“She’s just trying to be kind,” Ralphie said. Whether he was in a hospital or not, Ralphie was always the same. His teeth were large, but seemed appropriate to his face. He seemed to be always smiling.

Sometimes Thelma would not go to the hospital if she thought Myhrra was going to be there. But she refused to tell Myhrra to leave, and Myhrra was determined to stay. So all through Mr. Pillar’s last days, Myhrra – who had not known the family very well over the years – knew all the gruesome and hideous details of his illness, along with her son Byron.

But then, at the very last, just when Ralphie’s father was expecting her to come, she had an argument with Thelma over some telephone call concerning treatment in Montreal. Myhrra had talked Mr. Pillar into asking to go to Montreal where she said they would be able to save him. Mr. Pillar got this in his mind, that he could be saved only in Montreal. Finally Thelma, along with the doctors, had to tell him that there was no possible treatment in Montreal. Because of this, Myhrra took no further interest in either of them, and went to another ward. Mr. Pillar would call her name, and look peevishly angry with Thelma, and refuse to take her hand because she had sent Myhrra away and had not sent him to Montreal. He would lie in bed, tears running down his face as they sat beside him.

After his father’s death, Ralphie missed him and seemed to cling to his father’s possessions – his coat that he wore, a leather flask for drinking, with a picture of the Bluenose on it. And a certain scent of the streets, at a certain time of day, and sometimes the courthouse with its iron railing and worn steps, covered in new snow with pink dying light through the windows, made him sad.

Snow came down on the streets, the buildings, the pits and props in the fields. And he and Ivan Basterache travelled about together, he drinking out of the flask and imitating others as much as possible, sometimes wearing his father’s heavy winter coat, and a small blue toque. Ralphie suddenly had this affinity for Ireland, and everything
about him had to be Irish. He sang Irish rebel songs and drank stout, and proclaimed loudly that he was holding the memory of his father sacred by being Irish. This idea that he was Irish, and that they came over to Canada from Ireland became paramount with him, wearing the old winter coat, and having the mischievous grin.

Although Ralphie already believed that everything in the world, everyone and everything, happened exactly the way that it was supposed to, and that once something did happen, no matter how preposterous it was at first, it was meant to happen and was therefore absolutely natural, he still felt that Adele and he only became boyfriend and girlfriend because no one else seemed to think very much of them. Neither of them knew very much about how to act with these other more special and gifted people – gifted in the way people who assume they are doing all the right things – that is, socially gifted. So he and Adele ended up together. He learned that her father was a drunk and her mother was the woman who had taken care of him when he was a little boy.

Adele’s body was so tiny and so skinny that perhaps he and she were more of a match than most people. Another thing that he discovered at this time – both of them were frightened of music. That is, they would go out of their way to miss a dance, or to stay away from a concert. Adele, because she thought there would be liquor there, and she hated it, and Ralphie, because he had secret fears about bullies on the dance floor since he had been beaten up.

Adele and he would stay home from the dances, or go to the movies together.

At times he would convince Adele to sneak in a bottle for him in her purse, which made them both pretend they were proud and dangerous. And it probably made Adele feel she was fitting in even though she did not drink herself.
Adele would often boo the main feature so loudly that he would have to put his hand over her mouth. Adele also ate her mitts. She would sit in a movie chewing holes in the thumbs and he couldn’t get her to stop doing it, so one day before they went to a movie, he put pepper on the thumbs of her two mitts, and after he did this she said she would never be able to
really
trust him.

Sometimes Ralphie earned some money by running the projectors for the night. He made changeovers and spliced reels much better than the regular projectionist, who always found something wrong with the machines after Ralphie left. This happened about twice a month, Ralphie smelling of solder, wearing rubber boots and khaki jeans, with four extra puncture holes in his belt and his hands covered with grease, and Adele sitting on a stool, kicking her feet against the tins of film.

Some time after his father’s death, Ralphie took an apartment, even though his mother didn’t want him to and demanded he stay with her. After two or three months, other people his age heard that someone had rented an apartment, and most of them came in and out of the apartment any time they wanted. Ralphie never stopped them from using it, and he never knew who he was going to find there. He had no idea that some would rob him, or that they would use it when he wasn’t there. That they did both of these things went right past him.

But the real problem was that they soon became immune to him and treated him like it was a communal apartment, with everyone having the “same ideas” and everyone friends.

It was in the apartment that Adele met a variety of people. She went there every day after school.

People came in and out of town from university – back and forth, to and fro. Ralphie knew most of them, and had
taken courses with some of them. And Ralphie’s apartment became a meeting place for all of them.

Adele, not even knowing that she was doing it at times, tried to ingratiate herself with these people. She believed that what they said must necessarily be true and she began to try to dress like them, with what Dr. Hennessey called “the back-to-the-land-poor look of those who could afford it.”

However, because Adele had been poor all of her life she had seen more of life by the age of sixteen than a lot of these people – or at least a lot of life some people coming from university had taken courses on and pretended to be dismayed about. It was becoming a cultural thing to be dismayed at the right times about the right things. Adele had seen and heard more of all of the things that were becoming sanctioned as the concerns of the day, but she always measured herself against these people, and always found herself lacking.

That is, the affectation of concern was always seductive, but wit and affectation most often eclipsed Adele, with her nervous stomach, her skirt with the hanging hem, and her chewed mitts.

For a while Ralphie listened to the voice of the men at the
N.D.P
. meetings, which took place up a street on the far side. He could see a light in the window, and he saw Burl Thibaudeau and Dr. Armand Savard, the doctor with the professorial look, coming and going. Sometimes at night they would by-pass his door. Savard, with his goatee, and Thibaudeau, with his hair hanging in front of his face. There was the idea that there was something fresh and new about this party, and that this party was more substantial than the others.

Once in a while Ralphie would go and talk to Burl, his old next-door neighbour. He would sit with him in the basement of his house, and Burl would manage to bring the conversation around to the
N.D.P
. and why Ralphie should join. There was the feeling that Ralphie had now gone on, and that Burl had remained where he was – in the small creamery near the tracks, with its gravel and cinder track, and its dark windows. And yet each time Burl spoke, he spoke to Ralphie about how new, fresh, and resourceful the
N.D.P
. was, with his hair hanging about his eyes, and his wife would listen to him patiently and look
over at Ralphie every now and again as if trying to take a cue from him about her husband.

Then he would go home. Ivan Basterache by this time had moved in with him, with his knives and home-made tattoos, and his idea that Ralphie was like his father, or older brother. Ivan was sixteen and had been out on his own for quite a while. When people came in, he would run about attending them – getting them drinks, and making tea. His clothes smelled wet, and his hair was long. He looked like an innocent girl except for his bright eyes. He had “
F.U.C.K
.” tattooed over his knuckles, and “Dangerous” scratched across his wrist. His mother was Gloria Basterache – who was a friend of Myhrra’s – and he adored his mother.

All during that fall people came and went. They shot off a gun and put a hole in the wall, and one boy fell off the window ledge and landed on the porch below. A girl from up river locked herself in the bathroom one night, and poured a bath until water spilled over the floor, and then tried to do herself in by taking all her birth control pills. When they finally got the door opened, she was sitting on the tub rim, with water pouring over the enamel, with her pants and brassiere on, the top of her breasts heaving with unremittant sobs.

What they hated he pretended to hate, and what they liked he pretended to like – so in this way he and Adele fit in, and they both adopted the idea for a while that they also were not inhibited, and that they also were not jealous, and that they too were free of all of that. Suddenly, the more offhanded one was about everything, the more well informed and the better that person was. So Ralphie and Adele would pretend to each other that they were acting exactly the way they should be acting, and this way was the
overall best way to act. Adele would sit on the beanbag chair and with her brown hair hanging down over her eyes take on the look of a person who had suddenly in a matter of hours grown up completely – and had been very much abused.

Adele had friends now who wouldn’t speak to her two months before, and though two months ago they would have ridiculed her at school for being a “sook” – now these girls called out to her, asked her if she was going to the apartment and if there was going to be a party there. And Adele, with her skinny legs and hip bones sticking out, led these girls about as if they were her own popular crew, and throughout the fall she could not help thinking she had made enormous amounts of new friends.

Ruby was one of her friends that year and she would come to the apartment every night. Her hair was long and brown and she wore large earrings. Her face was babyish and pretty and she had a command over Adele because she was pretty. Also she was well-liked and pretended to be wild, although she got others to be wild for her. Little Cindi, the epileptic, whose father always tried to get into her pants, would wake up in the morning with one desire and that was to be as wild as the river just for Ruby, and Adele did also, because she wanted to fit in.

BOOK: Nights Below Station Street
12.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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