Hoolanhan’s Flat, Oxford Avenue
By Stephen Morrissey
Behind the flat
in the lane, where coal cinders
filled potholes, I made
a small garden in the dirt
beside the garage door;
it wasn’t really a garden,
just dirt smoothed flat
and weeds arranged,
the kind of thing a child
makes, but quickly it became
a place again for garbage cans
placed there by Rolland, the janitor
of all Hoolahan’s flats,
who fed coal to fifty furnaces
up and down two city blocks
of fourplexes, all brick buildings
looking the same
on Oxford and Harvard
streets where I grew up
I have traveled many miles
to reach home;
where does my soul journey
from here? Where does my soul
find the tree of wisdom?
Clouds seemed to follow me,
after staring at them,
as I ran down Oxford Avenue
on my way to school.
Be wary of horses pulling milk wagons
one woman’s nose was bitten off
(an apocryphal story perhaps)
but what is true is Blackballs,
a boy whose ominous presence
was a fearful thing: he insisted
on escorting me to school,
unless I could avoid him.
I remember Harry’s corner store
and Harry’s son shooting at people
with a BB gun
from his second story bedroom window,
hitting a woman below; her angry husband
broke the gun in two, when the police
and a crowd gathered outside
after the boy surrendered.
We moved to Oxford Avenue
when I was four—only doors away
from Father’s brother, Uncle Herb;
the Nuttalls lived upstairs,
Audrey Keyes next door and across
the street my friend, Ica Shamebloom.
We lived two years at Grandmother’s flat
on Girouard Avenue, when Father
was too sick to stay
in the small apartment on Avonmore
with two young children—my parents
on a waiting list for their own flat,
after the war with shortages
in housing. Young soldiers
returned home, food rationing ended.
Then we moved to Hoolahan’s flat,
with three bedrooms, hardwood floors,
oak doors, and a fireplace in the living room.
I played beneath the front gallery
hid broken pieces of red plastic
between bricks and dug a hole
“to China” under the front stairs,
buried an old metal box.
I’d like to dig it up now,
retrieve whatever is left—which
can’t be much—of those years,
most of it lost from memory.
In summer Father would sit outside
waiting for Mother to drive him
to work at Windsor Station,
while I played with Audrey Keyes—
always “let’s pretend”.
I lay in bed between my parents;
only once I ran down the hall
away from Father,
afraid of being punished
for something I had done.
Grandmother and Aunt Mable
stayed with us in our flat
when Father, in a Boston hospital,
was dying. My brother joined Mother
staying at the YWCA hotel.
At home, I prayed each night
that Father live—now I ask
when does grief end? When is one
finally healed of remembering
thoughts of what could have been?
“Don’t abandon me,” cries the child
in his solitary bed, praying to God:
“Please send Father home.
Please make him well.”
We waited for news of Father
in November, with the cold streets
and autumn’s short days, snow falling
early that year. Grandmother
sat in the living room
knowing already the grief
of her children dying—first
Elsie and Stella, now Edgar.
I lay alone in bed at night
the hall light left on
while I said my prayers;
Mother not there to tuck me in,
only prayers that Father come home;
Grandmother and Aunt Mable
sleeping in the room
across the hall.
Mother, home from Boston,
announced Father’s death;
these are moments weighing
in the heart as lead,
and the heart sinks
to the bottom of the lake
where it is immune to feeling,
only the dulled sound
of someone’s voice or the slow
throb of my heart, beating, beating.
I fell into deep water
surrounded by darkness and cold—
O Father, the child weeps,
why have you deserted me?
As though his death
were my defeat;
as a child I sang
my single treble note:
In my child’s heart
I knew there was no return
to the way things
used to be; no return
to the days that are memory,
weighing heavy in the heart
the face I loved
disappearing into shadows.
The teenaged girl Mother hired
to be at the flat
when my brother and I arrived home
from school, invited her friend over
and in mid-afternoon
drank themselves unconscious,
passed out on the living room floor.
When Mother returned from work,
overwhelmed by anger and distress,
she kicked the girl
where she lay on the floor,
then called the girl’s parents.
After that the days grew darker
and winter arrived, no girl
to meet me when I returned home;
my brother in his room,
distant and absent,
except for fights between us:
“Here, eat this candy
from a boot,” he said,
but it was dried dog turd
from the street.
He was Mother’s helper
with groceries and accounts,
working as a part-time janitor
washing floors at a nearby apartment;
then cheated of his pay
so Mother’s brother, Uncle John
had to intervene, demand
what my brother was owed.
Now I entered the darkness
of the flat alone, the front door key
attached by a foot of string
to a belt loop on my pants.
Watching television after school
I lay on the floor eating white bread
with Miracle Whip,
my feet on the hot radiator
to keep warm until Mother came home.
Late one afternoon my brother and I
ran barefoot into the snow-covered street
and raced back, seeing how long we could
endure the cold, back and forth we raced
knowing cold that turns to pain.
Once I lay in the snow
outside our flat,
stars clearly visible
in the dark winter sky; I wondered
where does the sky end?
Where are the outer limits of outer space,
the final conclusion of stars
distant and unknown to us?
The Keyes next door
adopted two children,
Bobby and Audrey.
Mr. Keyes played some part
in building St. Joseph’s Oratory
which we explored as children,
overwhelmed by the smell of incense
and the heat of ten thousand burning candles;
in the darkness of the church
walls covered with crutches and canes
left by those healed
by Brother André, whose body
lay in a large black granite casket,
with messages and prayers folded into small
squares of paper and squeezed
between the cracks of the casket;
his heart in a red glass urn
illuminated from behind, while outside
penitents kneeled praying on each stair
taking hours to reach the church.
We played in Audrey’s room,
always “let’s pretend”, until
she went to a private girl’s school
and one day stood in garters and brown nylons
in her bedroom window. Then I rode
my bicycle with Ica Shamebloom
wildly through the streets
eating French fries
in brown paper bags
from the Chalet Barbecue.
I drifted off inside myself,
a dreamer the teachers ignored.
Sometimes on a Saturday
I went downtown with Aunt Mable
and ate an early supper
at Woolworth’s counter,
visited Grandmother with Uncle Alex
on Sunday afternoons.
Meanwhile, I failed grade two
always staring out the window
imagining faces in the clouds,
and wishing I were home.
When I was nine years old
I awoke one morning from this nightmare:
two men came with a cage
to take me to the orphanage—
they waited at the back door,
grey painted stairs leading to the lane.
I knew then that life has no security,
no safety from loss and abandonment.
One evening, Mother said
she was leaving us, she packed her things
and went to the car
in the garage, but I was waiting
in the backseat. Mother’s hat,
for Father’s funeral,
bought at “Nathalie’s” on Decarie
blew off her head
the winter after he died. I found
the hat in the snow,
and not knowing
whose it was, pulled off
the zircon decoration
and discarded the hat.
Shirley, until she married
my cousin Herb a year later,
lived with us; on a cold Christmas
my brother played his new
Everley Brothers record,
“Wake Up Little Susie” before Shirley left for the day.
One Saturday afternoon
Mother and I went downtown
and bought a new kitchen set,
chairs and table, and this seemed
to end the time of Father’s death,
as Father was never mentioned again.
Everyday Mother drove to work,
I stood behind white curtains
at the living room window
watching until she was gone
from view, then waited
a half hour before walking to school.
Uncle Herb and Aunt Dorothy
lived next door
but when my cousin Linda
graduated from high school
my brother and I stood
on the sidewalk and watched,
not invited to the family party.
Aunt Dorothy’s flat,
which I visited only once,
had all modern furniture,
the living room for adults only.
Once, I delivered something
to her door, which she answered
dressed only in a towel,
and I saw her naked back
as she ran down the hall
holding the towel in front.
Some Friday nights I’d go downtown
to Eaton’s Department Store
on Ste. Catherine Street
to see the first RCA colour televisions,
a huge wooden console costing
around $1,900 in 1959—I’d watch
the NBC peacock open its multi-coloured
tail. One night when I was six or seven
I stayed at Grandmother’s flat
and lay on the kitchen floor,
trying to see up Great Aunt Essie’s dress,
there were holes in her baggy drawers.
One Christmas we returned home
late from Grandmother’s
and I opened my presents alone
before bed, a cardboard container
of small interlocking logs
to make little cabins. Meanwhile,
my brother made gunpowder
setting off small bombs
in model airplane bottles
in the lane, one exploded
leaving glass in his back
and the days of bomb building ended.
My bedroom at Hoolahan’s flat
was Father’s old den; after
he was gone I slept
with the hall light on,
kept my room in order
the bed always made,
at my child’s roll top desk,
writing stories at night.
Here I was close to Father,
close to what was left of him:
his papers from the C.P.R.
on the top shelf of the cupboard,
expense accounts, business
letters, and old 78 rpm records
from the 1940s. I would examine
as a map to lost treasure
or ancient manuscript;
the banality of the papers
did not matter, to hold them
was to be with Father,
and there was always
in the papers: blueprints
to our country cottage in St. Eustache,
whole areas of our family’s life
foreign to me, from before
my birth. As a child
I decided I would be like Father,
filed away what I wrote,
poems and diaries. I wanted
to remember as much as possible,
keep an accurate record against time.
I became an archivist of memory
an archeologist of the soul.
Copyright © 2007, 2012 Stephen Morrissey