by dm gillis
As a child I lived on East Broadway in Vancouver, right next to an ancient, once elegant Victorian home that had been converted into a boarding-house. It was owned and run by a Portuguese couple named Joseph and Maria. Joseph was a carpenter; Maria attended beauty school. They were not the only Portuguese people I have ever known, but they were the first. Later I discovered that the Portuguese, a people of the Mother Church, habitually named their children Joseph or Maria, perhaps in hopes of tilting the odds in favour of divine future outcomes. But even though Joseph and Maria were devoted Catholics and not indifferent to the possibility of having passed on celestial genes, they were also people of the new world. So, when their first child, a boy, happened along, they named him Mitchell.
Mitch was my age. We were chums, and during a time when the world had seemingly taken a temporary hiatus away from eating its children alive, we had the whole of our own section of the east end of Vancouver in which to run free. We lived on the edge of a rain forest, however. And many was the day when the two of us, eight year olds both and savage with unspent, self-indulgent energy, would sit looking out at the rain soaked world with nothing to do. No comic or storybook, no matchbox toy, not even the glorious invasion of my sisters’ Barbie collections with the inevitable imposition our sadistic, little boy brand of fascist stricture could hold our attention for long. Mitch and I were born to be wild. We were creatures of the secret shortcut, the gravel shouldered side street, the vacant lot and abandoned playground.
At the time, the boarding-house concept was on its way out. Vancouver was becoming a city of apartment dwellers. Loggers, fishermen and miners, long the traditional mainstays of the boarding-house economy, were starting to earn living wages and could afford to buy homes. As a result, their operation was only a meagre supplement to Joseph and Maria’s income. On top of this was the sad fact that boarding-house tenants were never the most reliable subset. During the late sixties, however, this got even worse. The hippie movement was at its most robust and organic, still yet to be monetised by soulless corporations through its transformation from philosophy to fashion. The transient population of the city, a slippery group at best, was becoming even more mobile, fluid and unapologetic. Adopting an acronym frequently encountered in the daily news, Joseph, in his musical broken English, came to call those who skipped on rent MIAs. They were missing in action, often leaving most of the rentable rooms in the house vacant. For Mitch and I, this meant opportunity. There was rainy day adventure to be had in the empty rooms still buzzing with the eccentric energy of former tenants.
We often discovered abandoned pieces of the MIAs lives, left behind in closets and chests of drawers. There were guitars and fishing rods, vinyl LPs and wax 78s, a shiny green jacket and pants my father, upon inspection, declared, with some whimsy in his voice, to be a zoot suit. There were girlie magazines that Mitch and I, at our tender age, found strangely fascinating but difficult to comprehend. Once there was music box containing a ring of undetermined value that Maria took custody of. There were multiple harmonicas, a carved walking stick, hats, eye glasses, dresses, row upon row of shoes, power tools, photo albums, pulpy paperback novels, half empty bottles of liquor, incomplete diaries of incomplete lives, an artificial leg and even a rifle that Joseph said was cheap and dangerous after holding it for only a moment.
The boarding-house was like a mysterious castle that Mitch and I had at our disposal. We dashed from room to room playing cops and robbers, spy versus spy and complex, daylong, running games of hide and seek. And it was during one of these that Mitch and I discovered a moveable panel on the second floor, a false wall that opened into a hidden, windowless room. Inside there was an oddly shaped light bulb suspended from the ceiling by a worn wire, but no switch on the wall. We allowed our eyes to adjust to the dim light. The walls of the room were covered with a pale flowered paper. There were framed watercolours hung, land and seascapes along with three or four portraits. Placed against the wall opposite the secret doorway was what Maria called a vanity. It was like a writing desk with a large oval mirror attached to the back. Beneath a thick layer of dust was a busy collection of unidentifiable bric-a-brac, a vase containing a long withered bouquet and an ornate kerosene lamp. All of these things placed upon an intricately spun doily that hung glamorously over the sides.
“This is where a lady would do her hair and put on her face,” Maria said.
She picked up an antique frame from the vanity top and dusted it with her sleeve. The picture was of a smiling young man and woman wearing old fashioned hats and long coats. There were buttons on the woman’s boots. It was autumn or winter and they stood at what looked like EnglishBay, holding hands.
“Maybe this was her,” Maria said, and reverently placed the frame back on the vanity.
There was a matching chair placed in front of the vanity. After Maria checked the drawers for contraband, Mitch and I each claimed half of the seat and rifled through them looking for loot. We found a card of Millar’s Patented Platinum Bobby Pins, a hairbrush and hand mirror Maria said were made of ivory and very valuable and many other items we assumed to be too old to be accurately interpreted by anybody. Holding up a small tin I’d found, I tried to read a strange, new word on the label. Roog, I said. Mitch laughed, but a strange voice behind us said, “That’s rouge, honey. The girls use lipstick nowadays, but way back when it was rouge or nothin.’”
“Hello, Miss Stella,” Maria said to an elderly woman in a tattered floral housedress standing in the doorway to the hidden room with a cigarette burning down to her knuckles.
“Looks like you’ve found a secret compartment, there fellas,” Miss Stella said. “Lucky there wasn’t the remains of some fair damsel in here for you to discover as well. Don’t tell a soul about this, though, or they’ll be linin’ up to get in and pilfer yer swag. Time and this old house’ve saved this up fer you, so protect it with yer lives. If you’re able.”
Mitch and I stared at the old woman, mouths agape. Maria smiled politely.
“Brought you yer rent, Maria,” Stella said holding out an envelope. “Joseph did a good job repairing the head. Thank him for me, will ya.”
“Yes, Miss Stella. Thank you, Miss Stella.”
“And you boys look out for trapdoors in this here old floor.” Stella said this while stamping the heel of her worn slipper down on the bare floorboards. “A trapdoor will swallow you up faster than a shark knocks back a lazy Polynesian. An old house like this has got trapdoors galore, you betcha. I know what I’m saying, mind you. Lost someone important through a trapdoor once. There one second, gone the next. No time for good-byes. Just a lot of empty space where he’d been standing only moments before.”
“Trapdoors?” I said looking to Maria.
“Yup,” said Stella. “And who’s to say where they’ll lead to in an old barn like this. Not over the rainbow, I’ll tell you that much. One or both of you could end up in the lap of something carnivorous.”
“Thank you, Miss Stella,” Maria said.
“Well I guess you’re right, Maria. No point scaring the little darlings, is there? World’s a rotating horror show as it is without me adding paragraphs. Tragedy and tears, tragedy and tears. TTFN, everyone,” Stella said walking away with a half-hearted wave.
“Who was that,” I said.
“Stella Garfield,” Mitch said. “An actress.”
“She’s no actress anymore,” said Maria. “Now she’s just an old lady. The upstairs tenant. She was here when we moved in.”
“What’s TTFN, Mamma?” Mitch said.
“I don’t know, Baby. But she says it a lot.”
We continued our search, pulling each drawer all of the way out so we could fully inspect it. On the bottom of one I found an envelope fastened with brittle yellowing tape. On it were written, in an old fashioned hand, the words To Rebecca. Mitch stopped to watch me remove the envelope.
“What’s inside?” he said.
Shrugging, I checked the back to see if it was sealed. It wasn’t, so I opened it and pulled out the letter it contained. There was more of the same handwriting. If I’d had the word in my vocabulary at the time, I would have called it elegant. It was dated June 26, 1915.
I write this to you under the most difficult of circumstances, but I must inform you of what has transpired. I have joined the Seaforth Highlanders and will soon leave for training and then sail for England.
I know that you forbade me to do this thing, but what is a man in these times that sits at home while others of his generation fight and die in France? Your reasons for me remaining home and avoiding the fray have merit, but you are not a man. You cannot know the weight of the anxiety that comes from not joining the fight.
Forgive the brevity of this letter, but what more is there to say. I love you with all of my heart, but I must go join my brothers.
I pray to God that you can forgive me. For going off to war without your forgiveness will be the first and, possibly, the most egregious wound of my service.
I will not embarrass you with pursuit. But if you wish to see me once more, meet me at the Carnegie Library in the west reading room where we have sat together so many times before. I will be there waiting for you on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. If you do not come, I will know that I have lost you to this decision of mine.
All of my love,
I understood very little of the letter, except for its unmistakeable gravity. I gave it to Mitch to read. He shook his head. Then I carefully placed it back in the envelope and later put it into a pocket atlas for protection.
After that the hidden room became the discovered room. Joseph, being a carpenter by trade, cursed himself for a fool for not spotting the anomaly in the existing floor space from the start. After inspecting the discovered room to ensure Mitch that there were no trapdoors, Joseph spent three hours comparing the floor plans and found nothing else. The impossible promise of finding another hidden cell, however, kept Mitch and me searching until Christmas.
Now that I had met Stella Garfield, she became a recognisable member of the neighbourhood. Soon she was employing me, on an infrequent basis, paying me nickels and dimes to carry her grocery bags and bring her milk delivery up to her rooms from the front porch. Summer approached and with the improved weather, Stella and I often sat together on folding lawn chairs in the backyard of the roaming-house. I was fascinated by her. She was an endless source of stories and tricky wisdom, but my mother was cautious.
“She’s a sweet old gal,” my mother said. “But she’s lonely. She likes having you around, so she makes things up.”
But even though I recognised my mother to be a reliable source on almost all topics, I sensed something suspicious in her near vilification of Stella. Stella had, after all, been in show business during the end of what she called the Vaudeville era. She’d also performed in what she referred to as burlesque – a word Stella almost whispered and would say with a wink. She spoke of exotically named music halls and theatres that had existed in mystical cities, and even here in Vancouver. In my childish mind the theatre names resonated. My nostalgic father confirmed and repeated them. In Vancouver itself were The York, The Capitol, The Majestic, The Orpheum and The Pantages. We located the cities Stella mentioned on a National Geographic map of North America; Toronto, New York, Calgary, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Moose Jaw, Cincinnati, Pensacola, Halifax and Kalamazoo.
Stella’s own sincerity in the matter was confirmed for me by two things. First was a dilapidated photo album containing black and white pictures of a much younger, far more robust Stella wearing show costumes. Among others were photos of Stella in a line of dancing girls, at a makeup table, signing autographs, in a costume consisting of a gigantic array of ostrich feathers playfully boxing with a stage clown, and, the clincher, on a street in a city Stella said was Manhattan with a man I recognised as Bob Hope. It was signed To Stella, Break a leg, baby! Bob. Second was her reaction the one time I called her an actress. She was adamantly opposed.
“I wasn’t ever an actress,” Stella said. “Never some flighty, high maintenance prima donna. I was a singer, a hoofer, a chorus girl. I was an entertainer, a trooper. There was never a star on my door. Ha! Sometimes there wasn’t even a damn door.”
Showing Stella the letter from the discovered room was an exercise in show and tell. But also, I had become aware that the tiny missive disturbed me. In my mind, the two characters connected to the letter had lived out their lives and were now dead. The world they had left behind, with their thin transparent residue upon it, was now dust and cobwebs. Indeed, a room of it had been sealed shut, hidden for what may have been decades. Though unconventional, they were nonetheless ghosts. They haunted me, tapping on my shoulder and forcing me to turn and look at nothing there.
“They’re dead,” I said to Stella as I presented the letter.
“How can you be certain, David?” she said.
“The letter is so old, 1915. It’s 1969 now.”
“Yes, but how old am I? Can you keep a secret?”
“Well, I’m 81 years old,” Stella said. “That means that when the century turned, I was already twelve years old. I was older than you are now. I’m still kickin’, aren’t I? I’m probably even older than Rebecca.”
“Yes, but the man went to war.”
“Not everyone who goes to war dies, David, though some wish they had. And not everyone who claims to be going off to war actually arrives there.”
“Where are they, then?” I said.
“Who can say?” Stella said taking the letter from me and struggling with her glasses. “Maybe they’re in the boneyard, or maybe they live in a castle on a mountain. Now, let me read this.”
I watched as Stella’s eyes scanned the sheet of yellowed paper. By the end, she was frowning. She let her hands drop into her lap and said, “Men are stinkers. Unfortunately, my dear, you’re a member of an iniquitous sex. Try to stay a child as long as you can.”
“Was he bad?”
“Not bad,” Stella said. “Perhaps not even mildly so. But when all sense tells a body to hide and be safe, most men ignore it and run into the fire. Maybe William didn’t; it’s possible something happened to interfere. Most likely, though, he put on his dandy little uniform and marched like a noble and obedient fool right into the shit, pardon my French.” She was quiet for a moment. “I knew someone like him once, a reasonable enough young man with a kind heart and good intentions. A handsome face and pale blue eyes.” She smiled but there were suddenly tears on her cheeks.
“Did he go to war?” I said.
“He most certainly did. The same damn stupid war as William.”
“Was he okay?”
“No,” Stella said. “He came home, but he was never okay again.”
“Yes,” Stella said looking for something in my eyes. “If a man can ever be a lover and a friend.”
Stella thought a moment and said, “You ever hear the saying, When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail?”
“Well,” Stella said. “There is such a saying, and it applied to him after he got back, and in spades. They made a hammer out of him, and he made me his nail.”
“Yes, that’s what I remember saying an awful lot – oh.”
“He hurt you?”
“Yes, but I recovered. He did not.”
“What happened to him?”
“I sent him away,” Stella said. “I never really expected him to go, of course. I couldn’t imagine life without him. But when I showed him the door, he faded faster than cheap wallpaper. Once in ’32, when I was on an extended date at The Pantages, I saw him in the front row. By then I wasn’t hoofin’ anymore, just singing, and I’d earned my own dressing room. No star of course, out of principle. After the show, someone knocked at my door. But I sat very still and ignored it.”
“Was it him?”
“I’m almost certain it was. But a moment or two after he knocked, he walked away. I remember listening to his footsteps fade as he walked back down the hall, and there’s me sitting there like a scared kid waiting for a piano to drop on my head. But it never dropped.”
* * * *
At the end of summer, Stella died. Joseph found her on her threshold. It had been a massive stroke. Fast, my consoling mother said. A week before it happened, Mitch and I came across Stella in the discovered room. She sat at the vanity Maria had restored to showroom condition and upon which she had arranged all of the found artefacts. Stella was wearing one of her threadbare floral housedresses. She gazed into the mirror brushing her long white hair with the ivory brush. It was like she was lost in a trance. We stood in the doorway watching and listened as Stella hummed a then unfamiliar tune.