THE EERIE MRS. HEALY

                                By Joanne Madden

     When I was a child, there was a strange, lonely woman who lived on our street. Her name was Elizabeth Healy and she quite reclusive. In fact, Mrs. Healy seldom left the confines of her home. Although we managed to catch an occasional glimpse of her, we possessed scant knowledge of her personal life. We only knew that she was a widow with no offspring. On occasion, a young, dark-haired lady would visit the old woman and take her shopping. She was thought to be Mrs. Healy’s niece.

     Rumours and speculation about the elderly widow ran rife in our community. She was the favourite subject of gossip for the denizens of our neighbourhood. Some people said that Mrs. Healy practiced witchcraft. Others swore that Mrs. Healy had had a criminal past and that she had once served time in prison. A small but vocal group was firmly convinced that she had murdered her husband. This group postulated that Mrs. Healy had gotten away with stabbing her dear, departed spouse in the back. Another group vehemently claimed that she had poisoned him with arsenic.

     Our parents warned us to keep our distance from the old woman, but my friends and I were intrigued with Mrs. Healy. Every Halloween, we wondered what would happen if we rang the doorbell of her house. On that night, the lights were always turned off in her home. Many of my companions were curious, but few were brave or foolhardy enough to approach the Healy residence. One Halloween when I was 8 years old, a boy named Greg McCall declared that he intended to ring Mrs. Healy’s doorbell. He invited us to accompany him.

     Greg was a popular lad and quite a braggart for a boy of his tender years. His family had moved into the neighbourhood recently and he had become very persuasive and influential among my circle of friends. It wasn’t a good idea to be out of favour with Greg. We knew he would label anyone who refused to accompany him to the Healy house as a coward and a loser. Since no one wanted to be ridiculed, we all agreed to follow our leader. Although I was one of the reluctant ones, I decided to join in because I did not want to risk being shunned by my peers.

     It was cool and windy that Halloween night as we marched toward Mrs. Healy’s red brick home. Greg McCall walked up to the front door and confidently rang the bell. He ordered us to stay put and not to run away. We waited in front of the door for a response. A few moments passed and then we heard the sound of footsteps. Linda Martin and her little brother became frightened and ran home immediately. The rest of us waited holding our breaths.

     The door opened slightly and we shouted, “Trick or Treat.” A spindly, wrinkled old hand dropped some candy to the ground. Then the door was quickly slammed shut. We all looked at each other nervously. Greg picked up the candy and examined it carefully. “We can’t eat this,” he declared. “It’s stale and it might even be poisoned. Let’s just leave it here. That Mrs. Healy is just a weird old lady!  This is a waste of time.  Come on!   Let’s move on  to the next house.  I don't have enough candy in my bag yet."

     So we left the stale sweets on the door mat of Mrs. Healy’s abode and continued on our way. Although I pretended otherwise, I was a bit shaken up by the incident. Greg, of course, was very nonchalant about the whole matter. He dismissed Linda Martin and her brother as a couple of “babies”. He implored the rest of us not tell our parents about our experience, and so we never did. However, they did learn about it eventually from Linda Martin’s mother.

     Greg McCall was furious with the Martin children. He condemned them as a couple of “rats” and “tattletales” and he vowed to never speak to them again. From then on, Linda Martin and her brother were persona non grata among the children in our neighbourhood. I felt sorry for Linda, and when Greg wasn’t around, I always spoke to her in a friendly manner. As for the domineering Greg McCall, his father found a new job in another city and, much to my delight, the family moved away.

     Mrs. Healy has long since passed away. Her red brick house no longer exists. It has been replaced by a “monster home,” an ugly, sprawling edifice that sits lazily at the corner of the street. The people who live there now have never heard of Elizabeth Healy. They have no knowledge of that Halloween night so long ago.  Although the years have come and gone, we have never forgotten about Mrs. Healy.  The old neighbourhood has changed considerably, but there are still those of my generation who are convinced that her restless spirit wanders about the area every All Hallows Eve.

Copyright 2010 by Joanne Madden


                          A THANKSGIVING TALE
                                       By Joanne Madden

     My name is Jack Shea and I am a computer software salesman. In my line of work, I am often required to be on the road. During my travels, I have had many experiences, but one stands out above the others. I shall probably recount that incident to my grandchildren some day, most likely over Thanksgiving dinner.

     It happened a year ago on a Monday in October. I found myself driving home from a business trip to Boston where I had spent a week drumming up clientele and visiting with an old high school buddy. The trip to Beantown had been extremely productive and satisfying. Now it was time to return to Toronto and celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with my family.

     Revelling in the beauty of nature is something I seldom do. However, during the drive home, I couldn’t help but bask in the colourful autumn scenery. The fall season in New England is undoubtedly splendid, but as I drew closer to the border, my thoughts turned to other matters. After all, I had been on the road for quite a while. I was weary and looking forward to enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner at home with my wife Emma and our two young daughters. I hoped I would clear Canadian customs quickly and make it home in time for the feast.

     By the time I reached New York State, I was really quite fatigued. I decided to stop for a brief rest in Buffalo. It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon when I finally arrived there. My mouth was dry and I desperately needed something to quench my thirst. There was a service station just off the highway with a small convenience store adjacent to it. As I approached the front counter to purchase a can of root beer, I heard the thud of footsteps behind me. It was then that I saw the horrified expression on the face of the clerk.

     Two men wearing balaclavas stood menacingly at the rear of the establishment. One of them stepped forward and pointed a revolver at the clerk. The petrified man immediately raised his hands. The thief loudly demanded cash and the clerk handed over the money. There was only one other customer in the store, a pudgy teenage girl who was so shocked by the robbers that she dropped her cell phone. The thief who had remained at the back of the store grabbed the cell phone and promptly smashed it to pieces.

     Meanwhile, I made some quick observations about the two brigands. There wasn’t much time, but I took note of their height and weight and any other distinguishing features. Only the first bandit had spoken, but his voice was not unique or unusual in any way. After he had finished destroying the cell phone, the second bandit pushed the frightened girl over to the front counter beside the clerk. The first bandit waved his gun at both her and the clerk.

     The second bandit then swiftly turned his attention to me. He pulled out a knife and ordered me to empty my pockets. I detected a slight accent in his voice but I was unable to identify it. Within seconds, he robbed me of my wallet, my BlackBerry and worst all, my passport. The two thieves then fled rapidly from the scene of the crime and hopped into a getaway car. I noticed the make and model of the car but didn’t have time to get its licence number.

     The clerk and I comforted the teenage girl as she was quite shaken up. Her lips trembled and she babbled somewhat incoherently. She informed us that her name was Amy. She was 14 years old and lived nearby in Buffalo. After pacifying the young teen, we called police on the old fashioned land phone and waited for them to arrive. Within moments, we sighted a police car with its lights flashing and siren blaring. Amy phoned her parents and they assured her they would pick her up as soon as possible.

     When I phoned my wife, there was no answer.  I left a message filling her in on my predicament. I then made sure to cancel my credit cards. Suddenly I felt naked, vulnerable and terribly bereft. I had no identification, no money and I was in a foreign country without a passport. All I wanted was to go home for Thanksgiving. Yet, home seemed so far away right now.

     The police recorded all the relevant information. When they heard I had been robbed of my wallet and passport, they advised me to come to the police station to file a report. At that moment, Amy’s parents arrived on the scene. Their daughter told them of my plight and they were very concerned about me. They insisted on accompanying me to the station.

     We went to the police station and I signed the appropriate papers. It took quite a while to get through all the red tape. I was instructed to return to the station tomorrow to pick up some more documents. Then I would be able to cross the border. I was getting late and I felt too tired to drive home anyway. My first thought was to stay in a motel for the night. I realized that I didn’t have any money, but I planned to ask my bank to send me some. To my surprise, however, Amy’s parents offered to let me stay at their house for the night. I decided to accept the offer.

     When I arrived at their home, I phoned Emma again. This time she answered and I told her of my ordeal. I expressed my disappointment and regret that I could not make it home for Thanksgiving dinner. She replied that there would be other Thanksgivings and stressed how fortunate we were that I had not been physically injured. After speaking with my daughters, I joined Amy’s family in their living room. When I told them that I had been on my way home for Canadian Thanksgiving, they proposed that I celebrate it with them. They didn’t have time to cook a turkey, but they served a delicious dinner and toasted the holiday with me.

     The next day I crossed the Peace Bridge and headed for home. I didn’t relish the thought of replacing all my identification cards. Fortunately, I had been issued a temporary driver’s licence for the drive home and the traffic was fairly light. Although I had endured a traumatic episode, I didn’t feel too devastated. I was grateful that I was physically unscathed and relieved that I did not have as much as scratch on my body. I was ready and eager to return home and get back into the rat race.

     I will not soon forget how I came to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with an American family in Buffalo. I just wish that I hadn’t had to have been traumatized by thieves in order to experience such hospitality. As for the criminals, they haven’t been brought to justice yet. The police tell us they are still working on the case. Emma and I have kept in touch with Amy and her family. We have invited them to spend American Thanksgiving with our family in Toronto this November.

Copyright 2010 by Joanne Madden

                                            DOM’S VARIETY

                                           By Joanne Madden

     Time passes much more slowly during one’s youth. That’s what my elders told me when I was a child and it was the last thing I wanted to hear. I desperately yearned to grow up, to participate in all the rites of adulthood and to drink liberally of its many privileges. There was nothing I resented more than to be told to wait until I was older. If I complained, I was invariably reminded how fortunate I was to possess youth. “What’s your hurry, Anthony?” they always asked me. “Your time will come. Be patient because one day you’ll be wishing for the years to pass more slowly.” I, of course, didn’t believe a word of that. I thought it was some kind of diabolical plot, an adult con game to prevent me from doing all the special and mysterious things that grown-ups were able to do. However, now that I am an adult, I realize, to my chagrin, that they were right.

     As the years passed, my world and the adult world became more and more intertwined and I remember vividly the first time the adult world invaded mine. It was September of 1940. I was 14 years old and I had just started high school. My summer vacation had been idyllic and now I was getting ready to face the challenges of a new school. I smile to myself when I recall that my biggest problem that summer had been to rid myself of acne before school started. As I prepared for the first day of classes, something else, something much more confounding than acne began to worry me. It was something from the adult world, something I couldn’t completely fathom.

     All summer there had been talk of the war and Hitler. Everybody said he was evil and that he must be defeated. I didn’t quite understand all the nuances and complexities of war. I only knew that I did not want a conflict somewhere out there to upset the equanimity of my life. Yet, I realized instinctively that it would and that the constant and soothing pattern of my existence would be changed forever.

     In those days, my family and I resided in a modest but comfortable apartment above my father’s convenience store in Toronto. It was just an ordinary store called Dom’s Variety but it was my father’s pride and joy, his life’s work. A Sicilian immigrant, Dominic Russo had arrived in Canada with his wife Marina in 1925, four years before the stock market crash and the arrival of the Great Depression. Dominic had worked assiduously, getting up every day at the crack of dawn to buy fruit at the market. He had peddled that fruit in his bright green wagon until he had saved enough money to purchase a corner store. That store meant security for his young family; I was born in 1926 and my sister, Sofia, followed three years later.

     Until the war started, I had never given much thought to my ethnicity. The Russo family did not live in Little Italy because my parents preferred to reside in a more diverse neighbourhood. They encouraged me to socialize with everyone and they eschewed what they believed was a ghetto mentality. So I tried to be accepting and open-minded. Unfortunately, some people failed to reciprocate and were not so accommodating. Looking back, I must confess that I hadn’t known how to deal with that at all. In fact, I had found it very unnerving.

     Oh sure, my parents had had a talk with Sofia and me when Italy joined the war on the side of Germany. They had endeavoured to explain the situation to us and they had tried to prepare my sister and me for unpleasantness. Indeed, they had been quite candid. They had told us that some people would treat us cruelly and to expect to be the target of some bitter animosity.

     I was the recipient of that animosity on my first day of high school. Yes, I had been called nasty names before, but never with such virulence and ill will. As I stood beside my locker, an older boy taunted me relentlessly. Later that morning, after making some discreet inquiries, I learned that my tormenter was a Grade 12 student named Bob Reese. In the days that followed, I discovered a lot more about young Mr. Reese.

     I learned that Bob’s dad, Gordon Reese, was an affluent lawyer and a respected member of the community. Apparently, Bob was an occasional customer at my father’s store and he was well aware of my identity. He was also a very popular student and an accomplished athlete. He played junior hockey and was considered by some to be a prospect for the National Hockey League. With his handsome features and brown wavy hair, Bob Reese was a favourite among the females of the school and several had crushes on him. There was no doubt about it. He was the quintessential golden boy. Why then, I wondered, was this golden boy so angry and bitter?

     Aside from the unpleasant incident at my locker, something else of significance happened during my first week of high school. I made a new friend. His name was Alan Roth and he sat next to me in math class. We worked on some math problems together and became acquainted. It was great to have an ally, someone to confide in.

     Alan was Jewish so he knew what it was like to be called names. His father, Jack Roth, was a merchant whose shop was located on Eglinton Avenue.  Alan and his three siblings lived above the shop. The Roths were conservative Jews who went to synagogue every week and adhered to the dietary laws.

     During the second week of school, I had another unpleasant encounter with Bob Reese. This time Alan was with me and we were eating lunch in the cafeteria. Suddenly, my nemesis and his buddy (another athlete whose name I later learned was Brian King) walked past our table taunting me and shouting anti-Semitic remarks at my friend. There was no time to react because the two older boys had caught us completely off guard. They had vanished before we could say a word, leaving us angry and bewildered. As we regained our composure and finished lunch, Alan and I tried to think of the best strategy for dealing with Mr. Reese. We decided to be prudent, to bide our time before making any decisions.

     I considered discussing the cafeteria incident with my parents but when I got home I found my father in a sullen mood. Business had been sluggish lately and to add to his woes, some merchandise had been pilfered from the store. All through supper, he vowed to my mother that he would catch the thief. He said he wouldn’t rest until the culprit was apprehended. My mother, as usual, was sympathetic and she tried her best to soothe him. Sofia and I also did our part. We assured him that we would act vigilantly and report to him the moment we noticed something amiss in the store.

     A few weeks passed without incident. Then, one afternoon I came home from school and found my father speaking with a fair-haired boy and his parents. My dad was gesturing in an animated fashion and his face was flushed with anger. I realized instantly that the fair-haired boy had been caught stealing some items from the store and when I observed him more closely, he seemed vaguely familiar. I pondered for a moment and his identity became clearer to me. I was sure I had seen him a few times in the library at my school.

     I stood quietly in the background and listened to some of the conversation. The boy’s parents spoke with thick German accents and they referred to their son as Kurt. They apologized profusely for the actions of their son and they told my father that Kurt would be punished severely. Then they implored my dad not to get the police involved. They told him that their son was only 15 years old and they assured him that this would never happen again. Meanwhile, Kurt’s face was impassive. He tilted his head slightly and he did not look anyone in the eye.

     Finally, my father agreed not to contact the police as long as Kurt stayed away from Dom’s Variety for the next two years. With the approval of his parents, Kurt consented to the agreement and promised to abide by my dad’s stipulation that he be banned from the store. The young man mumbled a curt apology to my father and then he and his parents departed. Dominic Russo trudged to the front counter and served a customer.

     That evening at dinner, my father had surprisingly little to say about the incident with Kurt and his parents. He told his family that he was very weary. He was relieved that the thief had been caught and he just wanted to go to bed early and get a good night’s rest. I did learn, however, that Kurt’s last name was Bauer and as I fell asleep that night I resolved to have a conversation with Kurt Bauer.

     The next day I went to the school library hoping to find Kurt. He wasn’t there and I was about to leave the library when I noticed Alan doing his math assignment at a nearby table. I sat down beside him and we worked on some algebra problems. On the way to our next class, Alan mentioned to me that he had obtained some interesting information about Bob Reese. Alan’s older brother, Martin, was in Bob’s history class. According to Martin, Bob was infatuated with a girl named Laurie Wilkinson. Laurie was a popular Grade 10 student and a cheerleader at school football games. However, much to the frustration of one Bob Reese, she was happily dating a young man in her English class.

     I thanked Alan for the information and went to my locker to pick up some books. My mind was a whirlwind of speculation as I strode briskly to my next class. I came to the conclusion that the more I knew about Bob Reese, the easier it would be to understand his motives and to deal with him. Using pure conjecture and a bit of amateur psychology, it wasn’t difficult to surmise that Laurie had rejected Bob and that he was taking his frustrations out on people like Alan and me. As I walked home from school that afternoon, I remember thinking that although the Reese information had been fascinating, I had more pressing concerns. For one thing, I needed to speak to Kurt Bauer and I needed to speak to him soon.

     Three days passed before I came face to face with the elusive Mr. Bauer. I was just about to leave the library when Kurt sauntered in very quietly and took a seat in a secluded area. Feeling a sudden rush of boldness, I did not hesitate to confront him. I sat down right beside him and softly uttered his name. He looked at me with annoyance but I remained undeterred.

     “What do you want?” Kurt asked too loudly.

     “Ssssh….I just want to talk to you. My name is Anthony Russo. My father owns Dom’s Variety.”

     Kurt winced when he heard my name. “Leave me alone, Russo!” he exclaimed. “I’ve already been through the Inquisition. I’ve answered enough questions. Just leave me alone!”

     “Why did you steal from my dad’s store?”

     “None of your business. I told you to leave me alone.”

     I was about to say something else when our conversation was interrupted by a slim auburn-haired girl in a green dress. “What’s going on here, Kurt?” she inquired. “You look like you’ve been arguing.”

     “Everything’s fine, Laurie,” responded Kurt. “I’ve finished studying so why don’t we go to the cafeteria and get something to eat?”

     “Are you sure everything’s all right?” Laurie persisted. “Is he bothering you?”

     “No,” Kurt replied emphatically. “We were just having a little discussion. This is Anthony Russo. His father owns Dom’s Variety.”

     “I go there sometimes,” said Laurie cautiously. By the way, I’m Laurie Wilkinson.”

     My mouth dropped when I heard her name. I tried to conceal my surprise but I was so taken aback that I dropped my pen. It rolled beside Kurt and I retrieved it as inconspicuously as possible. There was an awkward silence and Laurie eyed me curiously. Kurt glanced at his wristwatch. “We have to go now,” he announced. “We’re just going to have a quick bite to eat and then we have plans to see a movie. Laurie quickly nodded in agreement. “We don’t want to be late,” she said. So they excused themselves and left me alone with my thoughts.

     That night I slept very restlessly. I couldn’t help thinking about my encounter with Laurie Wilkinson and my discovery that she was Kurt Bauer’s girlfriend. I wondered if she knew that he had stolen items from my dad’s store. My instincts told me she was unaware of her boyfriend’s thievery and that he had no plans to tell her what he had done.

     The next day was a glorious day in early October. It was a crisp autumn morning as I stepped into the schoolyard. The leaves were changing colour and they looked magnificent. Despite my lack of sleep, I found myself in a surprisingly good mood as I opened my locker door. I had grown more accustomed to the rigours of high school life and I felt more confident. The corridor was bustling with students chatting and laughing. I picked up my books and turned around. Standing right in front of me was Laurie Wilkinson.

     Laurie greeted me and then she got right to the point. “I want to talk to you about what happened yesterday,” she said.

     “What do you mean?” I asked innocently.

     “What happened between you and Kurt in the library?” she demanded.

     “We were just talking,” I replied.

     “No you weren’t,” she insisted. “You were arguing and I want to know why.”

     “Why are you so convinced of that?” I asked.

     “Because Kurt hasn’t been himself. He’s been nervous and upset and I know something’s bothering him. Your reaction to me yesterday leads me to believe you know something. I can’t forget the surprised look on your face when I introduced myself and the way you dropped your pen. Something is going on. Please tell me what it is!”

     Laurie’s hazel eyes pleaded with me. I just didn’t have the heart to resist anymore so I told her the truth. I told her that Kurt had stolen some items from my father’s store. From the look on her face I could tell she had no knowledge of her boyfriend’s actions. Then she revealed something to me. She told me that Kurt had been presenting her with little gifts lately, various trinkets and some chocolates and magazines. She was certain that he had stolen the items from Dom’s Variety.

     “He gets an allowance but it’s probably just enough to cover his school expenses,” Laurie said. “He wants to shower me with gifts and he just can’t afford to do it. I had no idea he would resort to taking things from a variety store. Now I’ll have to confront him about it. Thanks for telling me about the situation.”

     Laurie tried to be nonchalant but I heard the dismay in her voice and I saw the unsteadiness of her manner. She clasped my hand briefly and then departed. As I turned to go to my next class, I noticed a tall young man standing directly behind me. It was Bob Reese’s friend Brian King and from the look of self-satisfaction on his face, it was obvious that he had overheard my conversation with Laurie. “How can you stand being Reese’s stooge?” I shouted at him furiously. He avoided eye contact with me as he scurried down the hall.

     The remainder of the school day was very difficult for me. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies and I was seething with ire. At lunch, I discussed what had transpired with Alan. He almost jumped out of his chair when I told him about Laurie Wilkinson. However, his attitude toward the whole situation had changed. He wondered if we were getting too involved and he feared that we might regret the consequences. He even questioned whether I should have accosted Kurt Bauer in the library.

     Alan caused me to a look at the situation from a different perspective and to assess my own behaviour. Maybe he was right, I thought. Perhaps we should just stand back and mind our own business. There was one thing I feared, however. What if we were already so involved that we couldn’t extricate ourselves? What then?

     By the end of classes, my anger had subsided. I went home feeling emotionally fatigued but determined to make some sense of the situation. There was one thing I knew for certain. Brian King had told Bob Reese about Kurt’s misdeeds. I thought about how Bob must have enjoyed hearing that story. I imagined how he must have laughed and congratulated Brian for getting him the information. There was nothing I could do about that, I told myself as I finished my homework that evening. Exhausted, I went to bed and fell into a deep sleep.

     The next three weeks were quiet and uneventful. I walked past Bob Reese a few times but he said nary a word to me. Laurie smiled and waved whenever our paths crossed and Kurt just avoided me. I was beginning to think that everything had settled down and fallen into a routine. It was November now and the time had come to prepare for exams. One day I stayed after class to ask my math teacher, Mrs. O’Donald, a few questions. As I left the classroom, I heard some loud voices down the hall. Bob Reese and Kurt Bauer were shouting at each other and Bob was calling Kurt a Nazi lover and a thief. The two boys were creating quite a stir and they were just about to punch each other when Mrs. O’Donald rushed out of her classroom and put a stop to it. She immediately sent the duo to the principal’s office.

     Bob and Kurt received detentions. The incident was news around the school for awhile but the novelty wore off and interest quickly waned. By December, it was almost forgotten. Winter and Christmas were coming and there was so much to do. My friends and I enjoyed skating and playing hockey. I spent a great deal of time outdoors and I didn’t think much about Bob Reese at all.

     With the approach of the Christmas holidays, my father was in better spirits. Business had improved slightly at Dom’s and he was looking forward to the Yuletide season. He talked about getting a large Christmas tree and how we would decorate it beautifully. My mother planned to do some baking, and of course, Sofia and I couldn’t wait to eat her Christmas cookies and her panetone. Little did we know what was in store for us as we blithely prepared for the season of joy and goodwill.

     On Christmas Day, my father locked up the store and we made our customary visit to the home of my Aunt Rose and Uncle Vince. They lived in the east end of the city, about a twenty-minute drive from our place. Sofia and I were in fine spirits during the ride and we laughed and sang Christmas carols the whole time.

     As soon as we arrived at Rose and Vince’s house, the festivities began. My sister and I were happy about spending some time with our thirteen-year-old cousin Frank, but it wasn’t long before we were summoned to the dining room. As we began our Christmas dinner, the telephone rang. It seemed to ring loudly and piercingly. Uncle Vince answered the call and by the grimness of his voice I knew something was very wrong. He put down the receiver and called my father to the phone.

     The news was devastating. My father’s face paled and he choked back tears. He quickly put on his coat. “There’s been a fire…at the store!” he cried. “I have to go. You all stay here.”

     “Hey, don’t worry,” said Aunt Rose graciously. “You’re all welcome to sleep here tonight and you can stay here as long as you want.”

     I implored my dad to let me go with him that day. I thought I could be of some assistance to him if only as a calming influence. However, my father disagreed and he stubbornly refused to allow anyone to accompany him. Instead, he rushed away by himself and we found ourselves anxiously awaiting his return. He came back about two hours later looking quite sombre. His hair was dishevelled , his face wan and his voice shaky as he delivered his report.

     There had indeed been a raging fire and much damage had been done to our business and to our home. The only good news was that the place had not been burnt to the ground. The fire department had done a fine job in minimizing the destruction. We all realized, however, that even though our home was salvageable, it would take months of costly repair to restore it completely.

     My father told us that the police were investigating the incident and that arson was strongly suspected. The arsonist had obviously planned to set the fire on Christmas Day because he had known that our family would be away. The police did not believe that a random act of vandalism had taken place. They felt that the culprit held a grudge against my father or perhaps another member of the Russo family and, thus, they were interested in knowing if we Russos had any enemies.

     My dad also revealed that he had informed the police about Kurt Bauer. Though reluctant to implicate Kurt, he hadn’t wanted to withhold any information from the police. Dominic firmly believed that it was up to a court of law, not the Russo family, to determine Kurt’s guilt or innocence. Still, no matter the outcome, we all knew that young Mr. Bauer was going to have to face a lot of grief and aggravation. It was unavoidable.

There was always the possibility that someone had witnessed the crime and would be able to identify the perpetrator. We hoped that that would happen and we waited anxiously for someone to come forward and reveal the identity of the arsonist. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long. It turned out that someone had indeed been a witness to the crime and it was none other than my friend Alan Roth.

     Alan had quite a story to tell. On Christmas Day he had been taking a leisurely walk in the neighbourhood. While nearing Dom’s Variety, he had begun to cough suddenly and fiercely. Clouds of smoke had permeated the air and he had looked in horror as bright red flames engulfed the store. Alan’s first instinct, of course, had been to get away from the fire and call for assistance. However, while running to a nearby telephone booth, he had noticed something out of the corner of his eye. He had slowed down to take a look and to his amazement, he had caught a glimpse of Kurt Bauer racing away from the scene of the crime. Not being in a position to stop Kurt, Alan had simply entered the telephone booth and called the fire department. It was he who had informed the firefighters of my family’s whereabouts.

     With Alan’s story, the police had firsthand evidence against Kurt to go alongside an obvious motive. It was so cut and dry, so uncomplicated. Kurt Bauer had set fire to my father’s store out of revenge because my dad had caught him stealing and had reprimanded him. Yet, despite that simple explanation, I remained uneasy. Something did not seem right.

     One snowy afternoon, Laurie Wilkinson came to see me and she begged me to help Kurt. She was convinced that Alan was either mistaken or he was lying. She insisted that Kurt was with his family on Christmas Day and she refused to believe he had committed arson. I did my best to appease her and assured her that if Kurt were innocent, he would be exonerated.

     The New Year arrived and our lives gradually returned to normal.  Classes resumed after the Christmas break and Uncle Vince cheerfully drove Sofia and me to school every day in his 1938 Pontiac. Friends and relatives took up a collection to ease us through our trials and to defray the costs of repairing the store. Dominic and Marina Russo accepted that outpouring of generosity in a somewhat reluctant fashion. It was not that my parents were unappreciative. It was just that they felt uncomfortable about being the recipients of charity. However, they were compelled to swallow their pride because my father’s insurance policy only covered a small portion of their expenses.

     During our stay at my aunt and uncle’s house, I had a lot of time to think about the fire. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that there was a missing piece to the puzzle. Now, don’t get me wrong. I was certainly no great fan of Kurt Bauer but I didn’t want him to pay for a crime he didn’t commit. Each day, I became more and more determined to uncover the whole story and I knew I could not rest until I learned the truth. There was only one thing to do and that was to go directly to the source – namely Alan Roth.

     Alan had been distant and preoccupied lately. I decided to have a talk with him and I hoped that he would take me into his confidence. As we sat in the cafeteria, I broached the subject in a cautious and diplomatic manner. I asked him about his mood and inquired as to why he was so withdrawn. To my surprise, he was very agreeable. In fact, Alan seemed quite relieved that I was questioning him, as if he were eager to rid himself of a burden. “Okay, Anthony, “ he said. “I’ll talk to you. I can’t hold it in anymore. I’ll tell you everything but let’s go outside so we can have some privacy.”

     As we walked around the school grounds on that blustery February afternoon, Alan related to me what really happened on Christmas Day. “Everything I told you was true,” he declared, “except for one major detail.”

     “Oh come on Alan, I cried.” Why don’t you just say it? What you really mean is that you lied, don’t you?”

     “All right! All right! I lied.”

     “And what did you lie about? Oh, excuse me, I mean what was the major detail?”

     “You don’t have to be so sarcastic, Anthony. I’m trying to tell you the truth. And the truth is that the person I saw running away wasn’t Kurt Bauer.”

     “Who was it?” I inquired anxiously.

     “It was Bob Reese’s pal, Brian King.”

     “Brian King,” I repeated incredulously. “Alan, why did you lie? Why did you say it was Kurt?”

     “I had a reason,” he replied tersely.

     “Look, Alan,” I said with frustration in my voice. “You have to come clean. Kurt has a court date tomorrow. He could be sent to reform school.”

     My friend took a deep breath. “Bob Reese tried to bribe me,” he began. “He offered to pay me a lot of money to say that Kurt was the person I had seen. Bob wanted Kurt out of the way so he could have a chance with Laurie. Of course, I refused the money.”

     “Well, I’m glad to hear that!” I exclaimed loudly. I know you’re not that kind of person. But if you didn’t take the bribe, why did you lie about the identity of the arsonist? What possible reason could you have had to protect Reese and Brian King?

     Alan’s voice choked and he became very tense. “Okay, Anthony,” he said. “The truth is I wanted to punish Kurt Bauer. His family is German and I wanted them to pay for what Hitler is doing to my people. Yes, I know Kurt isn’t responsible for what the Nazis are inflicting on the Jewish people. But somehow, in my mind, he represents them. Whenever I hear his German name, whenever I consider that his parents have German accents, it makes me sick, Anthony. I know it’s wrong to think that way but my feelings are very powerful. They overwhelm me.”

     I was absolutely stunned by Alan’s confession. He had revealed a side of himself that I had never seen. “Look, Alan,” I said with a deep sigh. “Even though I’m not Jewish, I can understand how you must feel about Hitler and the Nazis. But that doesn’t justify what you’ve done. I think you know that.”

     “Yes,” he replied quietly, his voice still quivering. “I’ll go to the police right away and tell them the truth. Then, I’ll apologize to Kurt Bauer and his parents.”

     “There’s just one thing, Alan. What proof do you have that you witnessed Brian King running from the scene of the crime? It’ll be your word against theirs.”

     “I have evidence,” replied Alan.” “It’s incriminating evidence. You see, while he was running away, Brian dropped something and I picked it up. It was a cigarette lighter with the initials BK. I picked up with a handkerchief because Brian’s fingerprints are all over it.”

     Alan explained everything to the police and he turned in the cigarette lighter. He was harshly rebuked for lying and for placing Kurt Russell’s future in jeopardy. Brian King and Bob Reese were promptly arrested and charged with arson. It took some time but they finally confessed to the crime and admitted their guilt. Although Bob’s father hired a prominent lawyer, the two young men were convicted and sent to prison.

     Bob Reese never made it to the National Hockey League. In fact, he never reached the age of twenty-one. After serving his time behind bars, Bob decided to enlist in the armed forces. He perished overseas, a casualty of the ill-fated Dieppe raid in August of 1942. My friend Alan became a distinguished mathematician and after all these years, we still keep in touch. As for Kurt Bauer, he eventually married Laurie Wilkinson and the couple moved to Winnipeg. They had grandchildren and lived a quiet life until Kurt died of heart failure last year.

     I’m a retired journalist and I still reside in Toronto. Every once in a while I stroll around the old neighbourhood and marvel at how much things have changed since the days of my youth. Dom’s Variety is long gone. It was demolished in 1962 to make way for a subway station. Marko’s Fish and Chips, the place next door to Doms, went out of business about twenty-five years ago and has become an electronics store. After all this time, though, I can still picture Mrs. Marko carefully wrapping fish and chips in pieces of newspaper for her customers.

     Pete’s Diner, across the street from Dom’s, is now a fast food restaurant. Yet, in its heyday, Pete’s served the best hot beef sandwich in the city. I remember how my mother and I used to sit in one of its many cozy booths and how I would ask her for some coins to put in the jukebox. To my regret, Pete’s Diner and the other places are just memories now.

     Nevertheless, it is my custom, whenever I visit the old neighbourhood, to take note of all the changes that have occurred since I was a boy. This does not mean, however, that the old neighbourhood is dead. Oh no, it is very much alive.  If I close my eyes, I can always be fourteen again and I can see my father behind a counter, happily serving the customers at Dom’s Variety.

Copyright by Joanne Madden    

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