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...