A Pillar of Truth
My grandfather, Bill Shuster, lied to my grandmother. I guess it runs in the family because I lied too. On a cool September afternoon when the birds fell silent and the grass still needed clipping, my 12-year-old son, James, returned home from school. I was trying to read.
James asked about our family history. “An essay for class,” he said. “I need to know all about my family’s heritage.”
I told James that his great grandfather, Bill, was a fine man. But really Bill was a slacker and an incorrigible drunk. His wife, Louisa, stuck by him for 33 years. Just why she did, I never knew.
“Your great grandfather was a pillar of the community,” I told James.
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“Pillar — what?”
“You know, a column or a corner of a building that holds it up strong.”
“My great grandfather was a pillar?”
“He worked in construction, rebuilding stuff, like that old red brick building down by the river. You should be proud of him — a well-respected guy.”
At this juncture, James informed me that he would definitely prefer to work on the essay another time and off he went outdoors to claim his freedom. I settled back to read, but soon I put the book face down, closed my eyes and settled into my own reveries.
In 1953, my grandfather told his wife, Louisa, that he had a respectable construction job. It was full-time work on Newbury Street. He pulled on a pair of work pants and a worn cotton shirt; packed a metal lunch box with two cheese sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. He added a freckled banana and a dimpled apple to the lunch. He set off at dawn, saying goodbye to his wife with a dignified bow and a sloppy kiss. Bill waved farewell.
Louisa saw him off with a flap of her dish towel. She waited at the front porch while he walked down the length of Fernwood until she could discern only a black silhouette swallowed in the shadows of morning sunlight. Back in the kitchen, she stowed the cheese and re-sealed the bread bag with a severe knot of determination.
For the first day or two, Bill was an honest man. The crew foreman was Frank Chalmers, a by-the-rules sort of fellow who thought of himself as a skilled professional. Frank sent poor Bill up to the peak of the sloping roof of the Newbury Shipping and Storage Co. instructing him to pull off the old weather beaten shingles. He gave Bill a new pry bar sheened with light oil and the smell of raw steel.
Bill worked with energy and speed. The ragged shingles screamed when he ripped them free. The pry bar softened and darkened his work gloves. Sweat dripped and clotted dust into Bill’s clothes. By ten o’clock on the second day, Frank found Bill lying flat on his back on the roof, baking in the weak sunshine and staring straight up as soft clouds etched the sky with white fibrous mares tails and vapour trails.
“Shuster! You’re a lazy, good-for-nothing piece of work,” Frank said. He inspected the small area of bare roof; too small for a full morning’s effort. “Knew you was a lay-about right from the get-go.”
“Just takin’ my first wee coffee break. Hey, there’s no brew, but that’s okay!” Bill laughed. “Saw some big honkers flyin’ south! Did you see ‘em? Wunder how those geese don’t bump into each other?”
He was fired right there on the roof.
For two weeks, Bill pretended to go from home to work. He toted the lunch box like a badge of legitimacy and Louisa watched him go. He frittered away his mornings in the Majestic Eatery or the Oyster Bar, and even sometimes at the Golden Palace Chinese Restaurant — anywhere he might meet up with a chum or spread his charm to an over-worked waitress. In the afternoons, he went to the Reno Hotel and drank himself silly. He eased up around two o’clock to sober just enough to face Louisa.
When the pay check didn’t arrive, Louisa suspected. When she caught a whiff of strong green peppermints, she knew.
She found him in the Reno Hotel Bar and Grill. He was sober for a change.
“Bill Shuster! You’re nothing but a crazy lyin’ old fool!”
“I tried honeycombs,” he said. “Really I did.” Bill brushed a pile of pie crumbs from the table with the side of his hand. “Really, I tried,” he said staring at the table.
Louisa sat down across from him.
“That young pumpkin-head. You know, Frank Chalmers; was expecting way too much.”
“I know Bill. I know.”
“I worked hard. Truly I did. Young buck! He’s ‘bout half my age ya know, a real case. And he thought I should have the whole damn roof done in one measly day! One day — one flamin’ day!
“Yes dear, one day.” Louisa reached for his hand and patted his fingers in a motherly fashion. “It’s time to go,” she said.
Bill didn’t get up right away. “That boy! He don’t know nothin’. I… I… should have… I mean, that dang idiot! Fired me for nothing. I tell ya Lou Lou, he’s got spaghetti-for-brains. Someday, I’ll show him. Really I will.”
“Forget it Bill. What’s done is gone. You should have told me,” she said. “And, on the day it happened, ‘stead of all this pretending and hanging about.”
“Yeah, I s’pose so.”
“Well, c’mon home now. You old piece of work. Or I guess, well maybe, I ‘spect not a piece of work.” She laughed softly and then she sighed. “You might put new hinges on the bathroom door. It’s drooping down on one side and scraping the floorboards.”
They went home then, the two of them arm-in-arm, the lunch box dangling from Bill’s big right hand.
He watched his wife busy herself around the old kitchen. Bill liked the way she made tea. She liked the way he drank it.