Ever since I left home, I always asked about Ollie when I came back. It wasn’t that it was at the forefront of my mind, or that I had it on any obligatory list of things to do “after you’ve finished asking about Eileen and Alice, Uncle Jack and Aunt Libby.”
It’s just that a certain smell might hit my memory and send me back to the breakfast nook on Jackson Avenue, or a certain photograph in Mom’s wallet might have a pile of leaves in the foreground that Mikey and Ollie raked together, or I might hear a reference to the Spanish-American War, and suddenly conjure up an image of Ollie leading the troops over a hill on the way to San Juan or El Paso or wherever the Spanish-American War was fought.
When one or another of these things happened, I’d feel a sudden rush Ollie-ness, and have to know that he was well, who he is married to now (one of his wives was a police-woman), if he was happy (I’d accept anybody’s word on that), and if my father ever got to see him so that they could not-talk to each other in that way they had which made me think they liked and respected each other very, very much.
You see, my father never had any friends. He had my mother, but that didn’t exactly make it as a Humphrey Bogart/Claude Raines relationship. And he had us kids. But that wasn’t enough. I’d always wanted him to have a best friend. Somebody he could say the kind of things that men can only say to men, if there are such things. So, I imagined, perceived or decided that my father and Ollie were such friends, whether they liked it or not.
Ollie was colored.
Now, he’d probably be black, although I doubt it very much. Ollie had the kind of unapproachable dignity that didn’t belong to a race or an adjective or a brotherhood. He was very dark and had a very high, thoughtful, trustworthy forehead, and when I knew him, he was the colored handyman who worked for my father in the city and who came to Glencoe to help my mother with the yard. And as he was, I imagine so he would always stay, for no group or trick of tongue could make a claim on Ollie, since he owned himself.
About the relationship between my father and Ollie, if I had suggested to my father that he and Ollie actually were friends, he would probably just have raised one eyebrow and shrugged. Nevertheless, there was something about the two of them when they worked together. A mutual respect. A 360 degree circle of gentleness, ruggedness, and poised relaxation. I don’t think I have ever seen two men who, mutually and separately, were in less of a hurry to go anywhere or get anything done than my father and Ollie. But they always did get things done, and they were so manly and absolute about it that after a while you didn’t notice that they did it in their own way and at their own pace.
Ollie and my father were like two solid, strong chestnut trees standing on either side of my childhood. And my brother Mikey was this curly-haired darling somewhere in between.
Mikey was probably the most beautiful of all of us. He had eyes that, even when he was still a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen, could melt you and make you know that if he weren’t your brother, and if he were ten years older, and if the music from Ha-je-ba-ba were playing in the background, you’d not only be a member of his harem, you’d be insisting that ladies everywhere pay proper homage to everyone of his long, curly, beautiful black eyelashes and the crazy green speckle in his eyes. I’d sit him down in front of me and say, “O.K., now I’m going to teach you how to make an Omar Sharif look and drive the girls wild,” and I’d do this molten lava thing with my eyes, and he’d do it back to me, and we’d both laugh and take our secret, whatever it was, into wherever we were going together.
But Mikey went places without me. And one of the people with whom he went was Ollie. Much as I liked Ollie, even loved him the way you love someone who seems more like a character out of a book than a flesh and blood person, I got the feeling that none of us were real to him, except my father and Mikey.
Like the time I came home when I was, maybe, eighteen or nineteen, and we’d moved out of the house on Jackson Avenue to a less majestic domicile on Greenbay Road. After a few days home…after I’d inhaled the safety and security and love of my mother and father, after Selma and I had discussed politics, Linda had described her part in the school play, Mikey had beaten me in tennis and Chucky had shown me his newest poem, I remembered to ask my father about Ollie.
Call him up and find out for yourself, he said.
So I did.
But even as I dialed, I knew that I wouldn’t have the confidence to just say, “this is Shelly, Ollie. How are you? I’ve been thinking and remembering and caring.” I knew that I’d preface it by saying,” I don’t know if you remember me, but …”
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben.