Register Friday | June 22 | 2018

Sun Life

“In my family we run around burying feelings the way squirrels bury their nuts then forget where. I’d once thought the world was going to be nice.”

I did not go to school with men—I was a boarder at the Sacred Heart Convent—but I have been dealing with them all my life, one way or another. My brother Jack, right from the start. He was a bit of bully, though we got along well enough.

Jack got a military funeral. They wrapped his coffin in a Union Jack, loaded it on the back of a shiny truck, and six airmen in uniform paraded behind it all the way to the church. The honour guard. Maybe they did funerals every week, though most of the boys killed that summer were being buried overseas, if they were buried at all. But Jack had come home to die, so his funeral Mass was at Ascension of Our Lord, my family’s parish church in Westmount. It stood back-to-back with the French church, St-Léon-de-Westmount, and across the street from Presbyterian St. Andrew’s, St. Matthias and Shaar Hashomayim.

Montreal was crammed with churches, archbishop’s palaces, temples, chapels and whatnot.

The Catholic Church ruled in the province of Quebec. There was more pressure on us to be good Catholics than there was on Protestants to be good Protestants, Jews to be good Jews. Wherever you went, there was a big grey Catholic church. The house of God, wanting to know why you weren’t inside, in the confessional, on your knees.

No one cried at the funeral except a couple of Jack’s old flames, who had married other men. No one in the family. We did not cry in public. People congratulated us on this. There was a belief that not making a display of your feelings was proof of the power of faith.

I lose respect for people who say such things. They build their nests of words and stay in them; you’ll never coax them out. We displayed our feelings sure enough, but first we gave them a good twist. If we were books, you’d have had to read us in a mirror and upside down.  While Jack was in the hospital, dying, I felt everything slow down, like we were swimming underwater. I kept wishing his dying was over and done with so we could just get on with our lives.

Get on with our lives—I’m no better than anyone else. Language thickens like cake mix, unless you’re conscientious.

A cold, bad day in the middle of summer. Six of us ride home in the undertaker’s pre-war Cadillac. It’s pouring rain as we hustle from the smelly old machine into the house, our house, the House Daddy Built, Number Ten, Douglas Avenue, Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, where there is to be a reception—we’re not calling it a wake—for the funeral guests. The mourners.

Our branch of the O’Briens was out of Ireland of course, but it had been a hundred years since Daddy’s grandfather had sailed up the St. Lawrence on a coffin ship, and the tradition of the riotous wake had evolved into a prim tea party that might develop into a marginally wilder cocktail party as the afternoon lengthened. We were Canadians, through and through.

And we were still at the tea-party stage: rented silver-plated teapots and coffee urns on the dining room table, trays of dainty sandwiches and bouchées from Patisserie Dubois, loads of strawberries. I remember looking at the redness of strawberries staining the cocktail napkins people were holding and thinking of blood. There’s a banal image for you. 

Didn’t see Jack bleeding, ever. I guess he would have, during the operation. Tumours are packed full of blood apparently. Also straw-coloured fluid, two pints of which were drawn off: I’d read the surgeon’s notes snapped onto a clipboard at the foot of the hospital bed. Did anyone else in the family ever look at them? Perhaps Daddy did. I’m certain Daddy did. 

A barman I recognized from the Green Lantern on St. Antoine Street was set up in the dining room, ready to mix for the mourners. 

“My condolences, Frankie. Real sorry about your brother.” 

“Thanks, Jerry.”

“Never knew him, but I guess he was quite a guy. Can I fix you a little something? How about a Gimlet?” 

I’d been drinking Gimlets that spring with Wing Commander Basil Fitzgibbon, RAF, one of the cads and bounders the war had thrown upon our innocent shores. Before the war, Fitz had been a car salesman in London; now, he was a pilot in Ferry Command, flying brand-new bombers from California to England every ten days or so, with layovers in Montreal when the weather was bad. The weather had been clear the day before, and Fitz had taken off for Newfoundland, but had he been in town he’d probably have flown over the cemetery waggling his wings, though he’d never known Jack, and Jack wasn’t aircrew. The first and last time my brother flew in a plane was hitching a ride across the Atlantic in a bomber, coming home to die on us.

The mourners were still at the tea and cakes, and no one had asked Jerry the barman to pour anything, and he was bored.  

“Not yet,” I told him, “maybe later.”

The house was filling up. My sisters were all in black, so was I. The only young people there were our friends. Not many of the mourners had known Jack well, if at all. Most of his pals were overseas. The rooms smelled of butter and sugar and rain. It was brutal outside, trees swaying, cold. A maid was on her knees, trying to start a fire in the fireplace.

I heard ice cubes rattle, and saw Jerry diligently pouring Monsignor Laflamme a martini. “Life goes on,” I heard someone say. 

But where does it go? And can I go with it?

At the cemetery, Monsignor stood at the head of the grave muttering incantations while Jack’s coffin was lowered on a couple of dodgy-looking canvas straps. Daddy was staring into the hole, with his raincoat unbuttoned and flapping in the wind, looking like a bewildered bird that couldn’t get off the ground—maybe the wind was too strong and, instead of lifting him, it was dishevelling him, holding him down, trapping him. 

The honour guard fired three brisk volleys, and the noise hurt; I wanted to clap hands over my ears. Barrels of rifles shouting had nothing to say. Gun smoke clung to our clothes; I could smell it in the limousine, tearing home through the rain. I was the middle daughter, perched on a folded-down jump seat, sitting like an equerry at my parents’ feet, staring through beaded glass at streets slipping by. Such a glum city it was. I didn’t care for it, though I didn’t know anywhere else except beaches in Maine, and Manhattan, a little. Trees and streets, streets and trees. Churches ugly as knots. Inside the car, the scent of silk stockings, wet from rain.

Life goes on. One more gorgeous phrase you want to break with a hammer. It was the theme of the party, the only explanation why a crowd of old people and girls, wet and chilled in the middle of summer, were nibbling cheese straws and salmon on brown bread in the same room where Jack’s coffin had been lying, a few hours earlier. They were talking about how green the greens were at Summerlea Golf Club, and the price of nylons. 

In my family we run around burying feelings the way squirrels bury their nuts then forget where. I’d once thought the world was going to be nice. 

The tea party was giving me a brutal headache. I was ready to ditch the festivities and disappear upstairs. There was a balcony off my bedroom where, if it wasn’t raining too hard, I could smoke a cigarette without anyone finding out. Daddy hated to see women smoking. 

I was about to make a run for it when one of the maids tapped me on the shoulder and said there was a telephone call. For me.

The only person I could think of who might be calling was a man named Bill Metternich, whom I’d met at an office party the week before, a few days after Jack had arrived home so unexpectedly. I worked on the twentieth floor of the Sun Life Building on Dominion Square, the biggest building in the British Empire, people were always saying. I worked for the Bank of England. We had about a zillion tons of gold stored in the basement, safe from the Nazis.

The office party had been for one of the secretaries, Francie Duncan-Stewart, who had gotten herself engaged to a lieutenant commander in the navy. We’d rustled up Scotch and gin from the black-market hustlers on Peel Street, and the navy was supposed to be bringing rum. Then, just as things were getting going, Margo phoned to tell me our brother Jack was dying of cancer. The hard, tender area on his abdomen—the spot he’d had us probe with our fingertips the night he arrived home from England—had turned out to be a retroperitoneal tumour the size of a grapefruit, fused to his backbone and pushing into his belly. 

Margo said I ought to come home immediately. I told her she was crazy, there was nothing wrong with Jack except the malaria that he’d picked up in West Africa, which had turned his skin yellow. Margo was crying, and I finally hung up and scuttled off to the ladies’, where I spent half an hour smoking on the john, then almost as long again fixing my makeup. When I came out, the party was going strong. I was introduced to Bill Metternich. I knew most of the faces there but I’d never seen his before. He was tall, good-looking and wore a gorgeous suit. He had an English accent but he didn’t work for the bank. I wondered why he wasn’t in uniform but that wasn’t something you asked at a party. 

“I’ve seen you before. At the Green Lantern,” he said, “and Café Martin.”

Watering holes for reporters, cab drivers, Ferry Command pilots, stale debutantes and those who, in our town, passed for people-in-the-know. 

“You’re one of the famous O’Brien sisters.”

“You can’t be famous in Montreal.”

“No?”

“You can’t have been here very long, or you’d know that.”

“You can be famous anywhere.”

“Try it in Moose Jaw. Where are you from?”              

“Oh, England, but long ago.” He smiled with cloudy blue eyes, then he let himself be dragged into impalpable conversation with a bunch standing nearby, drinks in hand. Listening to his voice, his flat silences and the gaps in conversations that he seemed all too willing to endure, I chalked him up as a cold, mean bastard, a supercilious prick who spent too much money on clothes, probably with bad habits and plenty of secret vices. A person quite like me. 

I lost sight of him. Other men kept launching conversations at me like machine guns firing on slow traverse, and I couldn’t seem to get my brain or my voice organized for counterattack. My glass was being refilled too quickly and the news about Jack grew on my mind like a blister. How dare he fly across the ocean like a piece of evil news, inflicting his death on Mother and poor Daddy? With Daddy it would tip the fanatic balance, send him deep and deeper into dark forest, like a misguided child in a nasty German fairy tale. 

After withstanding an hour, I collected my hat and purse from my desk drawer and scrambled out of there, like a little nun absconding from the wicked, boozy, howling world. Outside, in the marble corridor, nonchalant Bill Metternich stood hat in hand at the elevator bank watching the bronze arrow working its way up the dial. He surprised me by turning and gazing straight at me.

“Are you feeling quite all right, Frankie?” 

“Sure.” “I have a car. Can I drop you anywhere?”

Well, yes. Anything is better than a tram when you’re feeling hateful. At the last moment, some noisy others flung themselves into the elevator with us, and two of them—sailors—tagged along with us outside when they realized Bill had a car.

I might have hated him if he’d been driving a better machine but it was nothing special, an Olds coupe with a smoky tailpipe. I gave directions then kept quiet. The sailors in the back seat, both Loyola boys, were passing a bottle of rum back and forth and whispering sea shanties. When we pulled up outside Number Ten the lights were blazing, and I felt like someone airborne on a parachute plunging into mortal combat with a fully realized sense of hell. The drunks kept right on chanting.

“Good night, good luck, Frankie. Hope I’ll see you soon,” Bill smirked. I bid my adieux, slammed the car door and careened into the house where everyone for the next few days was excited and stimulated and specifically alive: maids scampering like squirrels, delicious scents of roast beef and ham thrusting like fists from the kitchen. Daddy had swung into action like a battleship, phoning grey men in Ottawa, threatening deputy ministers, rearranging schedules of eminent surgeons, demanding and getting the useless best of everything for his dying child.

A thrilling, nauseating, futile ten days, culminating with a coffin reeking of furniture polish, a glinting funeral with banging guns and the morbid tea party. I’d thought of Bill Metternich from time to time over those ten days, but only in fragments, never whole. The pitch of his voice rehearsed in my mind like a movie. His right hand, sinewy on the gearshift. And when the maid summoned me, saying there was a man on the telephone, of course I figured it was him, because who else could it be? Every other man I knew was overseas or munching salmon sandwiches in our living room. It had to be him. But when I picked up the receiver and the voice said, “Uh, is this Frances?” I knew, dead on, it wasn’t.

For one thing, no one I knew called me Frances.

“Who’s this?” 

“I’m a pal of your brother John.”

And no one ever called my brother John, though that was the name,  John Fergus O’Brien, that would be carved into the war memorial in front of Westmount City Hall.

“Hell, I’m in this clip joint,” the voice continued in a not-unpleasant, boozy rush, “and I’m thinking, give the little sister a call. Get together, have a few drinks.”

“You knew my brother?”

I could hear him pull on his cigarette. I knew I ought to hang up, but I’ve always been fascinated by people behaving badly, have usually felt closer to them than to those behaving well. 

“I sure did, sure.” 

He wasn’t a confident liar, wasn’t brazen enough to pull it off. 

“Johnny. Nice guy. Great guy.”

Strictly an amateur. 

There was a pause, and I could almost hear him thinking, or whatever lonely, stupid men do that passes for thinking. Calculating. Reckoning odds, measuring appetites. Brutal and simple. 

“Listen, little sister, I was in the honour guard. Seen you in the church, I asked around, who’s the one with the black hair?” He was slurring, and I knew he had wet lips and probably had spent long, blue afternoons playing hockey on some frozen cattle slough, chasing a puck into a headwind screaming out of nowhere. I could almost smell the rye whiskey.

I could hear the guests talking, their voices roaring and teacups clinking on saucers like screams, like tiny bones being snapped. I didn’t particularly want to go back to that. 

I tried recalling the faces of the men of the honour guard, but couldn’t. He was probably from someplace far away, Saskatchewan, and getting stewed in a blind pig down on de Bullion Street, where the whores were. 

“Oh come on, beautiful,” he moaned, “come on down.”

“Why should I?”

He had no comeback. Wasn’t quick. No snap, no repartee. Maybe he’d never played hockey, never played a single game of anything in his life, maybe there’d been nothing for him but empty gulches and ragged overalls and a devious kind of sorrow. 

I hung up. In the front hall, people were discussing golf, cars and gasoline coupons. Women in ugly hats were boasting about victory gardens though it was the West Indian maids who did all the work. I almost regretted having hung up on the sad sack. Almost wished I’d call a cab, and sped straight the hell down to de Bullion Street or wherever the guy was doing his drinking. I wondered if the honour-guard boys were on a drunk together. If they’d known each other before or were strangers thrown together for the duty. If they shared their pay, cigarettes, liquor and whores. If they protected each other from the dope peddlers and policemen prowling de Bullion Street.  

I hadn’t seen Daddy since we came home from the cemetery. The daylight was dead yellow and green in the house, not summer light at all. I went upstairs and knocked on the door of his study. “Go away.” Daddy’s rumble could sound like a transmission in low gear.

I waited a whole minute and didn’t hear a thing. I knocked again. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap—TAP-TAP. Shave-and-a-hair-cut—TWO-BITS. Daddy had taught me that when I was little. 

Blessed Frankie of the Knock, they used to call me. 

I heard the squeal of caster wheels on his desk chair, and the door unlocking. 

He was wearing a silk smoking jacket Mother had given him and holding the Archbishop’s Mass card. A photograph of Jack, tanned and healthy—Merry Xmas to you all, Jack—was in a silver frame, right next to a bottle of Seagram’s Old Chief Canadian Whiskey that Daddy must have acquired from Jerry the barman.  Daddy slit open a fresh pack of cigarettes, stuck one between his lips and lit it with his desk lighter. “Want a snort?” he said. 

I shook my head. I was on the horsehide sofa, uncomfortable with bare knees. A set of French doors led out to a little balcony, where sparrows nested under the eaves.

“I’ll take a cigarette though.” He raised one eyebrow, then tossed the pack to me, quickly, so I nearly missed it.

 I used to go with Daddy on drives around the city, Daddy never saying a word if he could help it, driving through neighbourhoods no one we knew lived in or even visited. It was his way of getting away from things.

“When are you going to get married, Frankie?”  “I’m not getting married.”

“You will.”

“Is that what you’re worrying about?”

He didn’t say anything. He was looking at Jack’s picture.

“What will you do, if I do? Get plastered at my wedding?”

You could never tell how angry Daddy was, or wasn’t. I’d never talked to him this way before, but any house is changed after a corpse has laid out in the living room, and it excited me to suddenly feel capable of saying anything.

Any changes in the pattern of family life upset him, and my sisters and I had always anticipated him making a fuss at our weddings. He’d kept sober at Margo's, disappearing on a spree immediately afterwards. Mother called the sprees his spells. Four days after Margo’s wedding, the assistant manager of the Biltmore in New York called to say Daddy was passed out in a hotel room surrounded with empty bottles. 

Jack was overseas, and Patty and I were thought too young and innocent to cope, so Margo had cut her honeymoon short and gone down with Mother to fetch him.

“I’m not getting married,” I said. “Why should I want to do that? But I’m moving out, Daddy. I’m getting a place downtown.” 

I had never given much thought to moving out, but the moment I said it, it seemed like a great idea, perfectly rational. “I have a good job, and I’m twenty-two. Plenty of girls live in rooms—where do you think we go when we go to all those wild parties? And you can’t stop me.” 

He was studying the photograph of my brother. Smoke dribbled from the cigarette in his thick fingers. I stubbed my cigarette in his ashtray and took hold of the bottle. “You ought to come downstairs, Daddy. Mother needs all the help she can get.”

I bent over and kissed his head. He loved us, and his love was tenacious, cruel and without limits. It felt like being hated. 

I wondered if Mother would leave him, ever. Margo would be leaving Number Ten the second her husband came back from the war. If I found digs downtown, I knew sister Patty would want to come with me.

I took the bottle downstairs. The party had perked up, shaken its tail. Important men with important wartime jobs who hadn’t been able to show up for a funeral in the middle of the day were putting in appearances now, keeping Jerry the barman busy and keeping one eye cocked for Daddy, who was no longer important but might still, for all they knew, be dangerous. Some wore uniforms but they all looked like businessmen. It was starting to feel like a hundred cocktail parties I’d been to since the war began.  Mother had seen me slinking downstairs with the bottle, but she was being her usual efficient self, organizing sandwiches and coffee for the soldier-drivers and chauffeurs waiting outside, and she never said a word. 

Jerry gave me a nod when I set the bottle on the bar. He was pretty busy now.

“Looks like you might need this after all,” I told him. 

He was shaking a crystal jug of martinis. It reminded me that there was still some sort of a world outside this house, and suddenly I wanted to go there and someone to take me. I knew if I retreated upstairs to my maidenly boudoir or down the hill to a solitary bench in the lilac park, I’d only feel nastier and more wicked. 

The difficulty was that practically everyone I knew in Montreal was at the party. Then it occurred to me that Jerry must know a lot of people. 

“Do you know a Bill Metternich?” 

He thought a moment. “Big tall fella, wears an English suit?”

“Know where he works?”

“Allied Chemicals. Whatever they make, he sells by the trainload.”

In the pantry, I checked the phone book. Allied Chemical Corporation was listed in the Read Building on St. Alexander Street. I dialed the number and when the girl answered, I asked to speak to Mr. Metternich.

“Mr. Metternich is in a meeting. Would you care to leave a message?”

“Tell him it’s Frankie O’Brien, Wellington 7-4391.”

I figured he’d soon call back. I didn’t feel like participating in the festivities, so I went out to the kitchen, bummed a cigarette from the cook, smoked on the back porch, then waited by the phone in the hall, trying to stay out of the way while maids galloped through with trays of cocktail sandwiches and clean glasses. 

I grabbed the phone on the first ring. 

“Frankie?”

I sort of remembered his voice. “Can you come and get me?”

“Where?”

“Home.”

“When?”

“Now.”

“Give me twenty minutes.”

I felt guilty about abandoning Mother and the girls, so I went out and worked the crowd for a few minutes. Monsignor Laflamme was onto his third or fourth martini. People were stuffing themselves on sandwiches and creamed mushroom bouchées and getting plastered, all in honour of Jack.

I kept an eye on my watch and worked my way toward the stairs. When I got up to my room, I exchanged the weeds for a red silk number and a patent leather belt. I tried to fix my hair, gave up, grabbed purse and coat, took the back stairs and ducked out through the kitchen without anyone saying a word.

Cars were parked up and down the street. All the chauffeurs and soldier-drivers had perched on the fenders and running boards of one big Packard, where they were eating the sandwiches and drinking the coffee Mother had sent out. I said hello to a couple of boys I recognized from the crap game that seemed to be always running in the baggage room at Windsor Station, just across the square from Sun Life.

I was waiting at the corner when Bill Metternich’s little yellow coupe made the turn from Westmount Avenue and came chugging up Murray Hill. He pulled over and I climbed in. I felt dizzy from having gotten away so easily. We didn’t say much. I didn’t look at him but I smelled him. He smelled of energy.

I could have been in a plane lifting off—that’s how it felt, leaving behind our house with the people and the feelings it contained. 

Someone—maybe it was my brother—once said that Montreal brick is exactly the colour of dried blood. 

“Hungry?”

Food hadn’t been on my mind, but I realized that I was. I nodded.

“How about Chiriotto’s?” 

Chez Chiriotto was a roadhouse, out near the racetrack, on a highway leading out of town.

“All right.” 

Chiriotto’s had a reputation. There was a motel attached, and if that wasn’t horrifying enough, the owners were sons of a gangster who had been hung just before the war. The café was flashy and noisy, always jammed with salesmen and black marketeers. And ex–convent girls, probably. It was just what I needed. Bill didn’t seem to require conversation. That was fine with me—I was used to driving around with Daddy for hours. All those boulevards named after saints, and neither of us saying a word. 

At its edges the city seemed frayed and bleak—as ugly as anywhere in the world—but I was glad to be in that car, moving. There is a feeling you get sometimes, riding in a car, that nothing can touch you. I liked the feeling of being out there on the edges, nearly gone.