Last Saturday I drove from Toronto to Selkirk, Ontario—just east of Simcoe and north of Lake Erie—to meet my dad and his childhood best friend, Peter.
Peter has Alzheimer’s disease and for the last few years when he comes to visit my dad in Port Stanley–much further west along Lake Erie–the two of them often drive out this way. Peter lived in Selkirk as a boy. My dad moved from a tiny town called Lenore in Manitoba to Cheapside, just three kilometers away from Selkirk, when he was 11. His father Ralph Allen was the station-master in Lenore and when he retired the family decided to move to Ontario. Before making the journey Ralph met his nephew, also Ralph Allen, in Toronto to look for homes. This second Ralph Allen was the then editor-in-chief of Maclean’s magazine. During his tenure in the 1950s many of this country’s best writers– Pierre Berton, Robert Fulford, McKenzie Porter, Peter C. Newman, Christina McCall, Barbara Moon, Peter Gzowski and June Callwood—wrote for Ralph Allen. So revered was he that Maclean’s held onto his desk, as a kind of keepsake, for decades after he’d left. And nearly four years ago to the day—the day after I had an interview with a new editor-in-chief of Maclean’s—my dad told me who Ralph Allen was.
Anyway, Ralph Allen the editor met Ralph Allen my grandfather in Toronto to show him houses. But my grandfather didn’t want a mortgage. He wanted to buy a house outright. So his nephew took him to Cheapside, where, not surprisingly, real estate was cheap. My dad remembers taking the train from Lenore to Toronto in 1956. From there, my grandmother, Ralph and my dad took a two hour plus taxi ride to Cheapside. When my grandmother saw the house that Ralph had bought, she cried.
Peter and my dad became fast friends. They’d sneak out of their homes at all hours of the night and bike along dirt roads to the other’s home to talk and get up to no good. They discovered Dave Brubeck together. Somebody in town, whom they called “The President”, played Time Out for them in 1959. Peter’s family was eight people strong. My dad loved them. It’s where he first heard Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, he told me. It’s where Lee, the husband of one of Peter’s sisters, told him about Schrödinger’s definition of the meaning of life: “It’s a dynamic equilibrium in a polyphasic unity,” says my Dad. “Actually if you start thinking about the meaning of those words,” he explains, “it’s a pretty good definition: dynamic because it doesn’t stop, it’s always on the movie; equilibrium because we take in food and shit out stuff; polyphasic, meaning that our lives pass through many phases; and it’s a unity because hey, there’s only one of them.”
Peter, my dad and I met at the Sunflower Cafe. I had a clubhouse, Peter had a Reuben and my dad had a cheeseburger. During lunch, we tried to find an auto shop open on Saturday in the area because just as Peter and my dad pulled up to the main intersection of Selkirk, the brakes on the Old Girl–the 1989 Cutlass Sierra that my dad drives–gave out. He suspected a broken break line. But no auto shops were open, save for the Canadian Tire some 20 kilometers away in Simcoe. Our waitress told us that her husband was good with cars and he was coming to drop off the grandkids anyway, so he could have a look.
From behind, you couldn’t tell much about Bill, other than he was short and had long, salt and pepper hair that was worn in a ponytail. He also wore baggy grey jogging pants. From the front, Bill looked kind, but also a bit scary. He inspected the brakes and sure enough, the front left line was clear worn through. Bill did a quick fix of some sort, with a pair of vice grips, and then offered to drive the Old Girl to his place just up the way in Cheapside, where he could fix it once a shop opened up where he could buy the part. I followed, with Peter, in my rental car, and my dad drove Bill’s Jeep SUV. Peter pointed out the house where he lived and a creek that he and my dad used to swim in. We drove along the same road that they’d ride their bikes along. I could imagine how cool the evening air would feel on a humid August summer night.
Once we dropped off the Old Girl, we said good-bye to Bill, who really opened up in the few minutes we’d known him. The three of us then drove to the United Church in Cheapside, which my dad used to clean once a week as a kid, to find the graves of Peter’s parents and my grandfather, Ralph Allen, in the cemetery out back. My dad used to mow the grass between the tombstones, too.
Dad and Peter told me over lunch about some of the peculiar names of the people from the area, like Grover Fess, Bompa Reid, Erie Miller and their old teacher, Hazen Cronk. Go ahead, say those names out loud and try not to laugh. Grover Fess liked to say, “oh my ass, yes.” Remembering this makes my dad and Peter crack right up. In the cemetery, they saw some of those last names marking the graves. “Remember the Makey kid?” My dad said to Peter. “Back in 1956 he told me that Neanderthals had brains as big as ours.”
We found Peter’s parents’ tombstone, and not a few steps away, was Ralph Allen’s: Lt. Ralph Fleeton Allen, 1891-1966. Ralph fought in the Great War and my dad used to tell me that he was there at Vimy Ridge and the Somme. Although later, back in the car, my dad confessed to have maybe confused the matter, on account of seeing newspaper clippings that Ralph collected and all the metals he’d been awarded. Maybe, as a boy, he’d just drawn his own conclusions. Maybe he’d just assumed it all. I cleared away some of the moss that had grown in the grooves of Ralph’s carved epithet. I never met him.
We all got into the rental car and started our journey along Highway 3 to Port Stanley. It must have been about four in the afternoon. The sun was shining. The wind was blowing strong. Peter sat in the back seat and told many stories along the way. His voice would trail off until it was almost inaudible, and he only mumbled. My dad would yell to him, “Peter, speak up! I want to hear what you have to say,” with all the tenderness and familiarity that a friend of 50 years would say to his friend, who is slowly losing himself. Peter did raise his voice and would start telling the same story from the beginning.
I asked to hear one of my favourite stories: about the time Peter and dad hitchhiked to New York. They were only 15. They’d decided that they were done living the sort of existence that teenagers typically lived. So, with white shirts on their backs—the better to be spotted by for potential rides—they started out. My dad brought a leather brief case packed with a change of white shirt and a cheese sandwich wrapped in wax paper. He had a $1.60 in his pocket. The first night, they slept on somebody’s front porch. They also, miraculously, found a full pack of Marlboro cigarettes on the side of the road. It took them three days to get to New York. “To actual Manhattan?” I asked. “Oh God, yes!” Said my dad. Somehow, they ended up in Harlem. Kids were playing on the street running through water spraying from a fire hydrant and eating watermelon. My dad and Peter were so hungry that they picked the discarded rinds and ate what pink fruit they could find. A woman from a window up above saw them and sent her son down with a box of stale cookies for them. “That kindness nearly destroyed us right then and there,” my dad remembered. They slept in shelters. They crossed the Washington Bridge. And they were finally picked up by police officers. Peter said, “Do you remember what the cop kept saying? He kept saying ‘psychological problems’ over and over—like it was the first time he’d heard the word.” My dad hadn’t remembered that.
When the boys were returned to their homes, their respective families reacted a little differently. Peter’s parents said maybe it was time he matured a bit. After my dad apologized to his parents, and said some things that many 15-year-olds say, like “I never asked to be born, you know,” Ralph said to his wife, my grandmother, “Go on, show him the papers. You show him those papers.” So she took her son aside and showed him the papers. Turns out Ralph Allen wasn’t his real dad. His real dad had died—passed out drunk in an alley, or so his mother said—not long after my dad was born. His real dad hadn’t married his mom. That made my dad a bastard. That made Ralph Allen a good man for marrying my grandmother, and taking care of my dad, almost as though he were his own son. Ralph wanted my dad to know how lucky he was. My dad said he wasn’t surprised at the news. There was part of him that had always felt like an outsider, especially after his three half-siblings were born. Ralph, a hardened man, had done his best, though, and so too had his mother. Everybody had done their best.
We arrived in Port Stanley just as the sun was starting to set. Even though I was welcomed to stay, I decided to drive back to Toronto. I had plans to hang out with Erinn and I didn’t want to break them.
I don’t know how to explain what happened next. Instead of heading for the 401, I made a pit stop in St. Thomas, the town where I grew up for 22 years in a small, unadorned house on Manor Road. I decided I was going to bring a pizza back from Capri, a pizzeria that’s been owned and operated by a southern Italian family for many years. I’d never had one of their pies. I think it was too exotic for my family, who usually opted for some sort of 2-for-1 special from Little Caesar’s. But I went to high school with some of the Lattanzio kids, who always struck me as being slightly exotic—or European—smart, and very, very kind.
I told the pizza maker, a tall, burly man with a gruff voice and kind eyes, behind the counter that I wanted to take a pizza home to Toronto. He told me he’d bake the pie only half way. When I got home, I just had to heat up my oven as high as it could go and then pop the pizza in for five minutes. It would be as good as new.
I ordered an extra large pizza—because who knows when I’ll be back in St. Thomas again—with pepperoni and green olives. I handed the pizza maker my debit card. He looked embarrassed when he told me that they only took cash. I ran around the corner to the Bank of Montreal. At the bank machine, I remembered that it was the same branch my parents used to go to. I remembered that they’d let me run inside with their bank card so that I could withdrawal cash for them. “Time me!” I’d yell. It seemed that I always did in 15 seconds, flat. The pizza maker took my money and rounded down the cost of the pizza from twenty bucks and change to an even twenty. “For the trouble of having to go to the bank machine,” he said. This made my eyes swell with tears when I got back into the car. I didn’t want him to think I was some asshole of a city slicker whose opinion of Capri Pizza was changed because they only took cash. I am from here, I thought.
Two hours later, back in Toronto, Erinn cooked the pizza while I returned the rental car. I rode my bike through the cold night back to her place. My hands were frozen. We sat on her couch, drinking white wine and eating our pizza. I consumed several more pieces than she did. We had a really good talk—the kind you know you’ll remember years from now—about sad states, missed opportunities, time passing, where we’ve come from, in every sense of that phrase, who we thought we might be, and who we are, now.
Erinn insisted that I take the Capri leftovers home. I was almost out the front door when she threw a half-eaten tub of Häagen-Dazs Caramel Cone Explosion down the stairs. “Get this out of my house!” She yelled.
I ate the ice cream at home, and fell asleep on the couch with my book on my chest. When the Beast got home around midnight, I told him about the pizza, which he devoured, cold from the fridge. “Tell me about your day,” he asked. I was too tired to talk, and besides, I didn’t even know where to begin.
“Tomorrow,” I said.