Phil & Stan
"Fifteen–two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six, and three of a kind for six is twelve. That’s game, Tom. All I needed was eight to go out." Exulted, Stan sat rocking the high back wooden chair, then immediately changed the subject. "It’s almost midnight. The Lenons should be here shortly.
As if on cue, the back doorbell rang, and Emily got up from her chair in the kitchen as if to answer. But she came into the dining room with tears in her eyes.
"Pray for me, please, pray for me."
"Now, mother, take it easy and answer the door." Said Stan matter-of-factly without turning to meet her gaze. She complied as usual and in popped Ray and Dot. Ray was in his early 50s like Stan and Emily, and he supported a middle-aged paunch. Dot, on the scary side of 40, a little shorter than Ray, was quiet and reserved. Accompanying them tonight was No. 1 son Jim, the high school football hero. Whenever he deigned to visit, it was usually because of his gargantuan appetite. I don't ever remember anything out of his mouth but a murmur or grunt in between glutting himself with food.
Stan cleaned the dining room table of cards and cribbage board while Em(nobody called her Emily anymore) seemed to brighten up, went into the kitchen, and started to empty the refrigerator of cold cuts and condiments. Then to the breadbox for the remains of a loaf of raisin bread, some white bread, and leftover rolls. All these were placed haphazardly around the table; we all picked and chatted.
The television from the living room provided background noise as Jim slathered 4 pieces of bread with peanut butter. Em gossiped with Dot while Stan drank tea from a large soup bowl with a spoon. Ray made a cold cuts sandwich, I daydreamed, and Phil, Stan's son and my best friend, went to bed.
Fast forward, 30 years have passed as I sit in the rocking chair in my cellar (yeah, I'm a cellar dweller even though my family leases an 11-room apartment across the Common in downtown Salem). It's funny how ones brain’s synapses make bioelectrical connections. I was reading a Tom Clancy novel espousing patriotism, family, and conservatism when the scene as I just described flooded my thoughts. I put the book down.
Em had a prominent proboscis. In her youth, they called her ‘Nosy’. Em was of French-Canadian descent, and, like many of her background, married an Irishman, Stan in Lynn, MA. During the late thirties and early forties, it seemed like the thing to do. Lynn, at the time, was divided into ethnic sections: Irish, French-Canadian, Polish, Italian, Jewish, Greek, and Negro (we didn’t say African-American or Black back then). My Irish relatives referred to the Negro most of the time as ‘nigger’. Amazing when you think of it since they were victims of ‘Irish need not apply’ when they emigrated looking for jobs. But, I suppose it was the times.
Anyhow, the French-Canadians and Irish lived in adjacent neighborhoods, so it was inevitable that the third generation should court, marry, breed, and blend into the melting pot that was the U.S. of A.
Em and Stan’s first born was a girl named Annie. The second, a couple years later, was a son, Roger.
Emily and young Annie went out shopping one day and left memere (grandma) in charge of baby Roger. When they returned, both memere and Roger were dead, the result of a kitchen gas stove having been turned on by memere – without igniting. The resulting gas in the air killed them both. Em went haywire from that point and, eventually, twenty years later, Annie followed suit.
Stan and Em did manage to have 2 more sons, Phil and Frederick.
I met Phil in the baby grade at St. Jean's. 'St. Jean-Baptiste School' (its correct name but everyone called it St. Jean's) was run by Canadian nuns half of whom couldn’t understand or speak English. Consequently, when we attended St. Jean’s, instead of going into the first grade, we went into the baby grade to learn French. Well, not learn to speak French but mainly to understand it.
First day of school, I found myself lost in a class of forty. Out of all the kids, only Phil carried on and cried like his world had come to an end. Gerry Bourque, on the other hand, simply soiled his pants which act placed Sister Albert Marie in the middle of a dilemma since her job description didn’t include how to handle the smell of Gerry and the trauma stricken Phil. Somehow, we all seemed to survive the first day. Phil and I became best friends. It turned out to be a friendship that tested the mettle of both our parents. I tended to be overly sensitive, reticent, and inwardly rebellious. Phil was extroverted and a walking disaster. Memorable episodes included the day in grade 5 when he launched a sulphurous stink bomb into the school’s central heating system that resulted not only in an unanticipated fire drill which emptied the school, but also the first of Phil’s many suspensions. Unfortunately, Phil had a propensity for getting caught.
I recall another occasion during our pyromanic phase when we lit several candles in his attic. He blew one of the candles out with such force that his face was sprayed with hot wax, which in turn elicited a scream and howl like 50 Christians being torn apart by lions in the Coliseum. Stan came walking (not running) upstairs, cradled Phil in his arms, and motioned me downstairs. Stan’s equanimity and self-control never ceased to amaze me. After calling Phil a damned fool, he tended to the burns. Em, as expected, went ballistic, fell to her knees, and implored the saints to take her now.
"Now Emily, take it easy, Phil’s OK, just a few burns. The main problem is getting the wax out of his hair."
Actually, this incident was mild compared with Phil’s closest encounter with death. It occurred at the hands of Sister Saint Pierre. One day in class, Phil was making spit balls with pieces of paper from the Baltimore Catechism. While Sister was writing on the blackboard with her back to the class, he launched several missiles, all of which found their target on the back of her nun’s habit. Half the class almost lost their water trying to squelch laughter. Sensing something amiss, she turned around, scratched at the back of her covered head and produced a spit ball on her finger just as Phil, seated at the back of the room, decided the moment was propitious to pass wind so loud that the rest of the class lost it right then and there. It smelled as if something foul had crawled up his butt and decomposed. Those seated around him left their seats and moved toward the wall. Sister Saint Pierre chose this point to forget her vows. She ran up the aisle like a Veloceraptor after her prey, grabbed Phil by the right earlobe, and dragged him screaming to the front of the class. Her face was scarlet, nostrils flared, a vein on her forehead pulsated. Her eyes reminded me of a coke drugged football defensive lineman on third down and goal to go. Phil got out of her clutches and moved backward toward an open third floor window. She lunged for his neck and started to strangle him, pushing him further and further out the window. Phil gagged and his face took on a bluish hue. At this point, Divine Providence intervened for she suddenly realized what she was doing. She brought his body in from the window, dropped him unceremoniously to the floor, and ran psychotic from the classroom.
I don’t know what happened when Stan met with the principal, but Phil only got a two-week suspension while Sister Saint Pierre requested and was promptly granted a transfer.
"Fifteen-two and a double run is ten! I think I’m going to skunk you this game, Tom." Triumphed Stan. "You know, I spent so much time in the principal’s office during those years, I almost felt obliged to pay rent." Changing the subject, he said, "I didn’t always look like this, you know." Pointing to his nose. "Here, let me show you."
Stan went to the bookcase, took out a picture from a family album, and passed it to me. The picture revealed a handsome young Irishman with a normal nose.
"What happened?" I inquired.
"Youthful fisticuffs. I usually won but my opponent always seemed to find my nose. It’s been broken at least 8 times that I know of. By the time Emily and I married, we looked like Mr. & Mrs. Cyrano de Bergerac. God, I love that woman even now. She wasn't always like this, you know." And, he became reflective for a moment. Stan’s face was pained but then that twinkle reappeared in his eyes and he smiled.
"Your deal, Tom"
I should also mention that Stan had a bad back, so bad that he couldn’t sleep in a conventional bed. This was before the day of Posturepedic mattresses. At about 2 o’clock in the morning, as we finished our last game of cribbage, Stan would go into the living room, pull two 2" X 8" boards from under the sofa, wrap a sheet around them, place a pillow at one end, and prepare to sleep. He never got more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night and I never head him complain, nor did his body ever show fatigue.
The Lenons usually left by one A.M. Em would then crawl back into her cave of self-pity before retiring to bed. I’d usually play a few more rounds of cribbage with Stan.
I haven’t seen the family for years. Recently, I learned that Em had passed away in her seventies, Annie was institutionalized, Stan was in a nursing home, and Phil is now the president of a major corporation.