Mr. Harley was one of those fun, quirky uncles who filled a room, except he wasn’t family. He was always at our house. I can clearly picture him perched up on dad’s ladder, a roll-your-own smoke dangling from his bottom lip, one long muscled arm holding a ream of wallpaper against the wall while his smooth round stub of a half-arm smoothed the paper flat. I can’t recall many images from my childhood, and some I just choose not to, but Mr. Harley up on that ladder endures. Not sure if it was the beautifully grotesque stump with the large black anchor emblazoned on his pale skin, the first tattoo I had ever seen. Or it could have been what I learned later about Mr. Harley. The stump was enough, but it was probably a bit of both.
Dad was a shift worker, two weeks of nights then two weeks of days, and Kitty, my mom, worked part time as a bookkeeper on Saturday mornings. I was an only child, but not by design. I’m pretty sure there were other attempts and failures, tears and whispers behind closed doors were a definite sign. Each “episode” Dad would be home even less, if that was possible. He’d appear long enough to change into fresh clothes and to update me on who would be making my dinner.
“Your Auntie Stell is coming for a few days. Mom isn’t well, leave her alone and don’t be a nuisance. And DON’T ask questions.”
I grew up in a traditional 1960s bungalow on the back end of a subdivision typical for any southern Ontario farming hamlet. Each block had a park in the center laid out with identical playground equipment, one slide, one swing set with two swings, a tired old sand box and monkey bars, all made of metal and perfect for sitting on in a lightning storm to watch our hair stand on end. The neighbourhood houses were boxes in a row, the only variation being different colours of brick: yellow brick house, white brick house, red brick house, yellow, white, red. Our house was white brick and Mr. Harley’s was yellow.
Although I’d only been inside one or two other homes while trudging door to door shilling Brownie cookies, I am pretty sure the inside of our home was standard for the era. Unlike the primitive rural farmhouses of my school friends who lived on the outskirts, our “townie” homes had all the mod-cons: teak Scandinavian furniture, shag carpeting, acorn fireplaces and wallpaper, lots and lots of wallpaper. It didn’t seem strange at the time but it now seems unusual that our town of 823 people supported three wallpaper businesses. Mr. Harley was a paperhanger, the Nunez family a few blocks over were hangers and the De Jong’s owned a paint and paper shop in the center of town. But no one went to the De Jong’s after their son Lars was hit and killed in the crosswalk on the way to school. And since the Nunez’s were Baptist, and therefore off limits to my old school Catholic mom, that just left Mr. Harley. I vividly remember Mom whispering to me that the faded Holly Hobbie wallpaper in my bedroom was curling up at the edges because it wasn’t Mr. Harley’s work and that it had been hung by the De Jongs six months before “little Lars became an angel.” For Mom, death and dying could only be spoken of in whispers, much like pregnancy, and race, and sex, and tattoos.
Mr. Harley lived one street over and would walk to our house, paper rolls sticking out of an old military sack on his back, tools wedged under his stump. If he was visiting to show Mom the latest patterns or to help her pick out a new design, he would drag his cumbersome design books in a little red wagon, the kind toddlers ride in. The wagon always seemed out of place since Mr. Harley didn’t have children, or a wife, and he lived with his rarely seen brother. His brother would always be “the other Mr. Harley”; the one with curly red hair and two good arms.
Despite appearing to have our own decorator in Mr. Harley, we weren’t well off. I scrounged for loose change out of the couch if we ran out of bread or milk and I had to bike to Becker’s Variety for more. I wore my cousin’s hand-me-down Horizon brand jeans, rode the neighbour’s cast off bike with one good pedal and a loose chain and I never had money to buy hot dogs or pizza on hot lunch day at school. But for some reason mom always had money to pay Mr. Harley for her wallpaper habit. Every few months she would phone and invite him over with his books to pick a new pattern for the hallway or the kitchen or the bathroom. No walls in our home were safe. All had been papered over at least once, old patterns hidden underneath.
As a townie I walked to and from school on my own. Most days I would bound up the front stoop at 3:45pm, two steps at a time, and be hit with the smell of Mr. Harley’s cigarettes. The two of them would be in the kitchen, Mom at the table with a snifter dangling from her fingers, head thrown back, laughing at something Mr. Harley had said. His paper books would be spread around the kitchen floor and a beer propped on mom’s Bible, his “holy coaster”. Mr. Harley was cheeky that way. He would be perched up on the ladder, a scraper and rag sticking out of his back pocket, sleeves rolled up with a pack of smokes tucked just above his tattoo.
“Look Ramona dahling, Mr. Harley’s here! He’s going to make my kitchen beautiful, just like Natalie Wood’s!”
Mr. Harley would wink down at me. We both knew that Mom with a few brandies in her became “huggy mom”, everyone was dahlingor lovie, the world was her oyster and her dingy bungalow was just a new sheet of wallpaper away from becoming her dream home. On those days I’d lay on the floor among the books and listen to Mr. Harley whistle, ashes falling down around me as his smoke bobbed up and down between his lips, Popeye-style. Mom would be lost in her Hollywood magazines, the “stupid rags” that dad wouldn’t allow; she would tuck them behind the washer before he came home, hide the brandy in the spare closet behind the winter duvets, and wash and reshelve the snifter. All hidden in plain sight.
Mr. Harley always cleaned up and left before dad came home from the plant.
“Gotta run, my brother will have my hide if I’m late for dinner. The temper on that one! It’s a wonder we are even related, me being so calm and perfect and all.”
Then a wink for me, a hug for my mom, his “Kitty-Cat”, and he’d be gone.
I sometimes wondered if Mr. Harley was more than just mom’s hired help. The way she laughed until she couldn’t catch her breath, the secret glances and shared smiles between the two of them, the extra time she put into braiding her long black hair when Mr. Harley was coming over, the smell of Chanel No. 5. She was “sad mom” when dad was around, a meek Stepford wife, her sole focus getting dinner on the table and ironing his pocket-handkerchiefs before retreating into the background.
In 1975, I turned 10 years old and was granted new privileges and freedoms. I was finally allowed to stay out after dark, to join in the evening road hockey games under the streetlight in front of our house and to walk home alone from my friend Janna’s house on the next block over. These privileges weren’t proclaimed or announced, they just slowly appeared. I’d even started to try out the expression, “Oh my God” when frustrated or surprised and hadn’t been sent to my room like in years past. So when mom found Mr. Harley’s scraper and sponge left behind on the hearth one crisp November evening she handed me my jacket, shoved the tools into my hands and pushed me towards the front door.
“Be a love and take these back to Mr. Harley’s house, Ramona. Quickly, before dad gets home.”
I tucked each item in a front pocket, and walked as quickly as I could to Mr. Harley’s house, taking the sidewalk squares two at a time. I can still remember the chill and stillness of that night, brittle leaves underfoot, the flickering of TVs in the neighbours’ windows and the huge harvest moon casting a glow on the empty park. Hopping up onto the Harley brothers’ front porch, I clanged the brass doorknocker, another anchor, and heard giggles and ABBA’s latest hit from the other side.
Our Mr. Harley called out, “No! I’ll get it hon.”
Then suddenly the other Mr. Harley, the reclusive brother, flung the door open. He was dressed in crisp military whites, full make-up, fake lashes, curly ginger hair sticking out from his sailor’s cap and sharply contrasted against the purple feather boa draped loosely around his neck.
He caught his breath at the sight of me, fidgeted with the boa for a moment, and then flung the end over his shoulder with a flourish.
“Oh, Ramona. What can I do for you?”
I can’t recall what went through my mind at the time. I think even my 10 year old brain quickly processed the fact that the two Mr. Harleys were probably not playing dress up and maybe weren’t brothers after all. My confusion must have shown on my face as the other Mr. Harley took the sponge and scraper from my outstretched hands, then gave a wink and a whispered, “Our little secret, right sweetie?”
The door was gently latched shut, leaving me still frozen in place on the stoop, mouth agape, trying to process what I’d just seen. A screech cut through from the other side of the door as the needle was yanked off the vinyl, then silence.
There are moments in life that don’t reveal their significance until much later, in retrospect. I would come to realize that that night was one of those moments for me. I kept the secret as instructed, and didn’t ever speak a word about what I’d witnessed, always unsure of whatever it was that I had witnessed. Our Mr. Harley came back to the house a handful of times after that night. It didn’t seem peculiar then, and it is only in hindsight that the pieces start to fit, but mom and Mr. Harley were never the same after that night. I walked in on them one afternoon after school, Mr. Harley begging my mom to, “Show some compassion, Kitty Cat. Our friendship is worth more than this.” Another time I caught mom thrusting her Bible in his hands and coldly instructing Mr. Harley to come back when he had “faced his demons.” Then his visits stopped altogether, and the wallpaper in our house faded and peeled over the years, never repaired or replaced. I didn’t suspect until much later that Mr. Harley may have shared with my mom what I’d seen that night at his house. The brothers unaware that I would never tell a secret.
I eventually moved away for school, then on to my own family and career, only returning to our little neighbourhood to take care of my dad as he fought his battle with dementia. Mom had been gone for years, a stroke in her sleep in her 60s, leaving dad to a string of bad relationships interspersed with reclusive loneliness. I was shocked to see an obit for our Mr. Harley in the newspaper one day while sitting with my dad beside the acorn fireplace, tackling the daily crossword. I had never told my parents about Mr. Harley, or his brother, or the boa that night, and had naively assumed that the neighbourhood adults of my youth were all long dead. When I asked my dad if he remembered the two brothers, he suddenly became quite lucid and mumbled something about “our own backyard” and “your poor mother”. The obit commended our Mr. Harley for his feats of bravery as a Flight Lieutenant and noted that he was a WWII Distinguished Cross Medal recipient and had been a dedicated volunteer with the local Big Brothers. I felt a weight settle in my stomach that can only be described as shame. How to reconcile our Mr. Harley whom I had clearly underestimated with this new hero? The final line of the obit stated that Mr. Harley was survived by his “loving soul mate of 50 years, John Jefferson, otherwise known as ‘Red’.”
The cold harvest moon on that night so long ago, the uniform, those ginger curls, and that boa. Another piece sliding into place. This piece didn’t bring completion or closure, only regret and sadness. I flipped back to the crossword page and turned to my dad but he had retreated into his own little world again, absently picking at the wallpaper hanging in tatters beside his chair.