I had just come back from a month-long vacation trip back home and I was dead-tired; I had gotten up at an ungodly hour this morning to catch my flight at St. John's, then a two hour lay-over at Toronto's Pearson Airport before the next leg to the State capital and finally, an hour and half by car to get here. Altogether ten hours' travel time ... the only advantage to flying westward is that the stores were still open; I had nothing in the fridge.
I stopped off at Paco's to buy a couple of Red Snapper filets and also bought some of Horace's infamous French fries then drove home. I let myself in, plowing through a month's worth of credit card application forms and furniture wholesaler ads that were piled up just inside my door, and headed for the kitchen, dug out a frying pan, some cooking oil and some sage and pan-fried my fish. Thankfully, there had been a can of beer left in the fridge which helped wash down Horace's fries. Then I crawled into bed...
"BZZZT ... BZZZT ... BZZZT..."
"H ... hell ... Hello?"
"George... ? Larry ... Have you heard... ?"
"Wha ... what time is it?"
"Seven thirty ... why?"
"Aw ... Kripes, Man ... Have some respect for the dying ... Call me back when it's daytime, will ya?"
I dropped the phone on the floor and stuffed my head under the pillow. A minute later, this god-awful wailing sound started drilling holes in my brain ... Oh! BLAST! The phone's off the hook ... I'll never get back to sleep now.
Expressing my feelings with the most colorful language I knew from my cod fishing days off the Grand Banks, I crawled out of bed and into the shower. By the time the hot water tank was empty, I was feeling halfway human again.
After getting dressed, I went out to the car and carried in my baggage, which I threw onto the bed. Digging the keys out of my pocket, I unlocked and opened my suitcase, rummaged about until I found the 350 ml ... Damn! I was back in the States ... I would have to get used to ounces and miles all over again... 10 ounce flask I had stashed in there and stepped out again.
By the time I got back to Horace's, I had managed to gather up the other half of my usually friendly human nature so I greeted every one with a smile and a wave. I grabbed a complimentary copy of the Manatee Bay Monitor and slid into my usual booth.
"Hi, Mabel ... I'll have two eggs, over easy, three slices of breakfast sausage, a toasted bagel with butter, a cup of your paint stripper and a spare cup. Please."
After passing the order slip to Horace, Mabel came back with the coffee pot and the two cups. She was about to fill the second cup when I stopped her. While she stared at me, I poured half the coffee from the first cup into the second and then topped up both cups with my hip flask.
"What's that?" she asked.
One hundred percent pure, unadulterated Newfoundland screech. The best 'pick-me-up' ever invented by man. Here ... try some..." and I passed her one of the cups. She took one, doubtful, sip and her eyes popped wide open. She coughed, hesitated and smiled.
"See what I mean?"
Just then, Horace rang his little bell and Mabel went back to pick up my breakfast order. After she had served me, I settled in and wolfed down my sausage and eggs. My hunger pangs under control, I leaned back, took a sip of my screech-laced coffee, opened up the Monitor and ... sprayed coffee all aver the paper, all over the table and over the head of the patron in the next booth.
I ran out of the diner and ran to the phone booth at the corner. Thumbing through the phone book, I quickly found and dialed the number of the Teachers' Union Office.
"Larry... ? George Cunningham. What IS this crap?"
"Good morning, George. Are you awake now?"
"Knock it off, Larry ... I just got home last night after getting up the equivalent of one o'clock in the morning, yesterday, and spending the whole effing day traveling and being browned out by a three and half hour time differential. Please explain to me, in words of not more than two syllables, what the HELL is happening."
I was sitting on a bollard on Manatee Bay's fishing wharf. As is typical of any commercial fishing wharf, the place stank of rancid seaweed, rotting fish and fermenting bird droppings. When everything went to hell, places like this remind me of the only safe place I had known as a youngster. What am I going to do? Will I EVER get over it? Here I was ... half a continent away and almost forty years older and one stupid newspaper article brings it all back.
I took another sip of my flask but it was tasteless ... I looked at it ... Empty. To hell with it! And I tossed it over the side. I decided to walk home. I couldn't go on like this ... This was the third time I had moved and I was not going to move again ... having to prove I was a competent teacher, going through the trouble of getting certified all over again ... I was getting too old for this!
When I got home, I called the number Larry gave me.
"Ms Jennifer Warren, please? Ms Warren... ? Larry Bridges of the Teachers Union gave me your name and number. I'm a teacher at Manatee Bay High and I am responsible for one of the groups that are to go to Barracuda Beach for swimming lessons. I need your help ... I was brought up at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland, in Canada, until I ran away at fifteen. I need to talk to you about child abuse..."
"Thanks, Jennifer ... Do we make another appointment for the day after tomorrow?"
"Do you think you need to, George?"
"Well ... I dunno ... We've had what ... five ... six sessions now? I feel as if I've put the ole tub in dry dock and steam-cleaned the bilges. Just for that, I'm grateful as hell ... but will it be enough?"
"I can see where that can still worry you. What you need to do is bring it out into the open, to talk about it."
"I thought that that was what I was doing with you..." I said it with a smile.
"I don't count ... I'm safe. You knew that even before you called me the first time, last week, or you wouldn't have dared come to me. Here ... here is a list of names and phone numbers ... when you feel ready to, call any one or as many as you will want to and tell them what you've told me. When you've done that, call me again and we'll talk again ... Don't wait too long; it will only get harder, the longer you delay."
I looked at the list ... there were some twenty names on it with phone numbers, including area codes. The list had no title; it was just a collection of names. They meant nothing to me. Four of them had Newfoundland's area code, the others were all different. I hesitated and then stuffed it in my pocket; I wasn't convinced.
I was sitting in Scotty's Bar and Grill, one block over from what passed as downtown Manatee Bay's main drag, nursing a glass of Seagram's Rye. Scotty's was one of the very few places I've found in the southern states that carried Canadian Whiskey. I wondered if the Bronfman's still owned Seagram's; old man Bronfman had made a pile importing whiskey and other lubricants through Newfoundland during the Prohibition. His grandson was pissing it all away buying up overpriced movie studios.
The ice in the glass had melted; it was my second one and I was thinking about waving to Scotty for a refill but I changed my mind. I had already done that route once before thirty years ago, the first time my past had caught up with me and it had taken me six months to dry out.
Instead, I dug out the list and my cell phone. Choosing one of the names with a Newfoundland area code, I tapped out the number.
"Mr. Tommy Pinsent, please... ? Mr. Pinsent, you don't know me but I was given a list of phone numbers to call ... My name is George Cunningham and I'm a graduate of Mount Cashel Orphanage..."
By the time I disconnected from my third call, I had had enough; it was after one o'clock in the morning and I had talked with each person for at least an hour. Not one had even come close to cutting me off; instead they had let me talk, had listened to me yell and curse, had listened to me sob and when I seemed to hesitate, to close my self off, they had encouraged me to go on. I won't tell you what we talked about; it's none of your business and, in any case, you wouldn't understand unless you've lived through it and, in that case, you wouldn't need to ask. Suffice it to say, before hanging up, we traded e-mail addresses, home addresses and phone numbers and we promised to stay in touch. For the first time in almost fifty-five years I felt I had a family.
I decided to walk home; I wasn't drunk ... far from it; that whiskey before that first phone call had been my last and it may very well be my LAST; I felt incredibly light-headed, as if I had been forty years younger. I strolled by the fishing pier for old times' sake but I didn't linger. When I got home, I undressed, got into my Pj's and crawled into bed. I don't even remember closing the light.
The following morning, I woke up whistling ... I hadn't even known I COULD whistle. After a nice long hot shower; I went all out; shampoo, shave, the whole kit (During the summer, I have a tendency to neglect such niceties and let my self go), I dressed and strolled back downtown to Horace's for flapjacks and maple syrup, then called Jennifer. She suggested I drop by that very afternoon.
Since I was in town anyway and had a good three hours to kill prior to meeting up with Jennifer, I decided to drop by the teachers' union office building and get an update from Larry on this swimming thing; when I had first seen the paper (prior to spitting coffee all over it, ) I hadn't been in too receptive a mood.
"Hey George, come on in. How're they hanging? You ready to get back to the grindstone next week?"
"That's just why I've dropped by ... I wanted to ask you about that. First of all, however, I wanted to apologize to you for the way I snapped at you a couple of weeks ago; you caught me in a really bad mood."