When I called Ollie during my rare trips home, he remembered me. Every time. But I never gave him the chance not to. I always told him that I was Mikey’s sister or Mr. Reuben’s daughter. And he would be so nice to me on the phone. Tired, calm, old, unhurried, confident, masculine-nice, the way he had been when he’d lean against his rake and listen off towards the house as Mom would call us in for lunch.
We had these two pear trees on Jackson Avenue before we knocked them down to build the new garage. They were wonderful trees. We had a hammock strung from one to another, and from upstairs in the boys’ room (when it was painted yellow), I could turn out all the lights and look down at Selma and Ronnie Morris almost kissing as they swung back and forth on the hammock in the backyard. And these pear trees would blossom out in the daintiest, prettiest white flowers in the springtime, and in the summer, we’ would get this bombardment of fruit. Usually, they were wormy or nibbled on by squirrels, so we didn’t pay much attention to them. But Ollie would gather up the pears by the bushel, and he would bring them home to the wife who was a policewoman, and she would do something magical to them and they would come back to our kitchen as preserves or jam.
Ollie always thanked Mom and Dad as though they had done something wonderful for him by giving him the pears. And Mom and Dad would always thank him for the preserves, and when I would take a cinnamony-tasting pear out of the glass jar with the rubber gasket, I’d pretend that the policewoman was Aunt Em preserving fruit for Dorothy before she went to Oz.
At lunch, Ollie would sit on one side of the kitchen table in the breakfast nook, and I and whoever else would sit opposite or beside him. The breakfast nook was important because when the Lady Esther estates were torn down, Mom and Dad went to the auction and bought some French doors and installed them on the north side of the nook so that we could open them out to the backyard and feel elegant.
So Ollie would be eating and I would be feeling elegant opposite him, and Mikey would be waiting for Ollie outside with his soap-box derby cart and his Davey Crocket t-shirt and his happy eyes, and I’d try to get Ollie to tell me about the Civil War, and which side he fought on, and if he’d ever been a slave, and what it was like.
I don’t know if Ollie was putting me on about any of the wars, but to this day, I’m sure that he told me that he did something in the Spanish–American war, and my almanac says that it was in 1898, so it may have been the Spanish Civil War, and if so, he may have known Hemingway...or was it Teddy Roosevelt? And I would keep asking questions; he was like this vast, perspiring, dignified secret that I wanted to look inside of. But I never did, because even though he answered my questions, nothing he said ever seemed to matter to him, although it was said kindly, and he would finish his scrambled eggs or tuna fish sandwich, thank my mother, and go back to raking leaves with Mikey tagging alongside.
I don’t think Mikey talked to Ollie much either. At least, not the kind of talk where you approach a man as if you’re a can opener and he’s a can of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup. They talked about raccoon tails and bicycle races, I suppose. And they’d wipe the sweat off their foreheads and bend down together to lift the piles of leaves into the bushel basket. But I don’t suppose Mikey ever asked Ollie what life was all about.
And I’m sure my father never asked Ollie that question.
I was on the outside, my can opener spinning ineffectively, fully aware that the way I was trying to find things out wasn’t how to do it. But I wasn’t bitter or jealous or resentful of being a girl, because I was still part of it all. Maybe just by sitting in the breakfast nook, looking out at the way my father, Mikey and Ollie could work in the backyard and not-talk to each other with such effortless companionability. Maybe seeing and remembering was my part.
When I think back, I can recall very few specifics about Mikey and Ollie. I’m not sure why I knew that Mikey was Ollie’s favorite. The facts are probably curled up somewhere in some cubby hole of my subconscious, but what and where they are, I don’t know.
Every year, though, when I would come home from New York, I’d ask my father how Ollie was. And every year, he’d say, “Why don’t you call him and find out for yourself?”
Some years Ollie was sick.
Some years he didn’t sound as if he remembered me right off. Some years the policewoman answered, or maybe it was a different wife by then. And some years my father may just have spoken to Ollie and knew that he was all right, so I wouldn’t have to bother making the call myself.
But always. Always, not long after I walked into the orange kitchen in the less auspicious house on Greenbay Road, I would remember being young and looking up at a man as if he contained unimaginably wise secrets, and I would begin to wonder about Ollie.
Even after Mikey died.
I’m not sure how soon after that I thought of Ollie. It may have been as long as a year later, or maybe even two, but eventually I did. And I remember that I was standing in the kitchen and I turned to my father, and I said, ”Do you know how Ollie is?”
But it wasn’t until Daddy suggested I call him that it crashed in on me like those miserable, majestic, raging waves that tear away at Lake Michigan’s shore; if I called Ollie to find out how he was, I would have to tell him that Mikey was dead.
And I couldn’t do that.
Not now. Not ever. Not in a million years.
So I don’t know how Ollie is.
And I don’t want to know.
There are some things in life that one simply cannot do.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben