38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl): Chapter Two
Author’s Note: This is Part 2 of a series of posts serializing my novella 38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl). For more information on the origins of this novella, including all disclaimers, and a complete chapter list, please see the announcement regarding this series.
In May 1955, I had just turned six. Mikey was twenty—a big spread in ages these days, but not back then, especially with four brothers and sisters in between. I was the youngest in the Mallory clan. Tony was nine, Brenda eleven, Ricky fourteen, and Cathy seventeen—well spread out, but we were still pretty tight.
Mikey had finished school, and spent his days working road construction—flagging cars most of the time, and spreading tar the rest. He had been too young to fight in Korea, and housing was short now that most of the boys were back, so he was still living at home. He had his own room, which was about as cool as could be, even though it was just the old porch Pop boarded up for him. We packed the walls full of straw and newspaper to keep it warm in the winter, and opened it up in the summer to let the breeze blow through. I used to sit under the big maple tree as the sun went down at night, watching the glow of a cigarette move slowly behind the screen. Mikey would lay there for hours after work, sometimes reading, sometimes laying there, puffing smoke rings around the mosquitoes. He was the epitome of cool, and my brother.
I shared a room with Tony and Ricky. Cathy and Brenda had one too, and, of course, so did my mom, Anne, and Dad, Lester. Whenever we had company, I’d sleep with my parents and Tony and Ricky would sleep in the living room, which was fine with them, because they could stay up until the adults went to bed, then turn on the radio real low and listen for the stations out of Toronto and Buffalo. Reception was usually better at night. Sometimes we could get New York City.
Mikey drove an old beater Ford truck, and was always tinkering with it—not to soup it up or anything, just to keep it running. We were always short on cash for one reason or another, so Mikey had to make do with what he could for spare parts. Sometimes he and I would take trips down to the junkyard on the weekend and I’d help him scrounge the parts he needed. He says he brought me because I had small hands and could get stuff he couldn’t, but I always thought he liked having me around. Tony and Ricky were always picking on me, and Mikey was my bodyguard. He’d carry me around on his shoulders when we went downtown, even if there were girls around—especially if there were girls around. Mikey was a looker, tanned from his time on the road crew, and pretty strong. He didn’t need my help in picking up the chicks, he said, but I didn’t hurt, as long as I kept my mouth shut when he was working on one. I learned a lot sitting on those shoulders.
Not that Mikey was a playboy—far from it actually. He was one of those nice, quiet guys; the kind the girls could bring home to papa and papa would love. But girls, they’re kinda funny at that age, even back then. He wasn’t dangerous enough for them, and for all his talking to them, I know for a fact that he’d never gone farther than second base. Mom and Dad were pretty strict about that kind of thing, and Mikey was too damn responsible to get a girl pregnant. Dad would’ve skinned him alive.
When I really think about it, Mikey knew me better than anyone else in the house. Tony and Ricky only paid attention to me when they were beating me up, and Brenda was mommy’s little helper. Cathy was always kind of distant, and drove my parents crazy. She was rebellious enough for all of us, and there were plenty of heated debates between her and my folks. It became this nightly ritual. We were all required to be home for dinner, and for as long as I can remember, dinner was at six o’clock sharp. And every night, she’d be five minutes late. I have a feeling that sometimes she waited outside until she was sure she was late, just to press Dad’s buttons. I never had the nerve to press those buttons. Dad was a scary man when mad. Trust me—I got into enough trouble unintentionally that I didn’t need to test him on purpose. He had a voice like a double-barreled shotgun, and a hand like a two-by-four. I got some pretty good paddling when I was young—like the time I got caught throwing stones at the side of the house. My pride ached for hours, but my ass was sore for days.
But the summer of ‘55 changed us all, and it started the May 24 weekend—Victoria Day weekend to you non-Canadians. It was the biggest party of the year and the first long weekend of the summer. Most of the kids headed down to Picton to the beaches for a blowout party. Those who hung around were either too young, or had to work. Or were grounded.
Cathy was one of the grounded that weekend. She’d missed her curfew the weekend before, and Dad was determined to not let that happen again. Mikey was working overtime on the widening of Highway 15, and getting double-time for holiday pay. The rest of us were a wee bit young to be out partying, so we had a fairly quiet Saturday at home. The weather was finally warming up after a particularly brutal winter and wet spring. I spent most of the day helping my dad pull weeds out in the community garden. Tony and Ricky were playing soccer down at the Legion Hall, and Brenda and Mom were doing a little fabric shopping for some summer clothes. Brenda was pretty good with the push-pedal Singer, and Mom had a knack for designing clothes that didn’t always look like they were homemade. We preferred to think of them as custom-tailored. Of course, with three older brothers, I got a lot of custom-tailored hand-me-downs.
I was on my knees between the new rows of peas, pulling the weeds that had sprung up since we planted a few weeks before, when Cathy came out the back door of the house, and glanced towards the garden. I don’t think she ever saw me. Dad was turning the compost pile in the corner with Charlie Rogers. When she was sure dad wasn’t watching, she hurried down the split between our house and the neighbor’s. A few seconds later, an engine, loud and powerful, roared. I knew it was Johnny McAllister’s Ford. Johnny had souped up a ‘46 Ford Pickup, painted a red flame down the side, and added a blower to the engine that made it hum like a jet engine. Mikey said that if Johnny ever stepped on the gas real hard with that thing, the torque would tear the block from the engine mounts. I was always waiting for that to happen. Johnny’s family had a little more money than most people in town, and every cent Johnny had went into that truck.
Dad never heard the engine, or if he did, he didn’t look up from his conversation. I said nothing. I had learned a long time before that being a tattle-tale wasn’t good for anyone, especially me. Not with three older brothers.
That was about two o’clock on Saturday afternoon. Mikey came home around 4:30, looking every part the road crew he was, with tar splatters on his boots and oil on his overalls. His hands and face were black from the dust and grime, but he smiled like a man who had put in a hard day and was glad to be home. And he was in a good mood. His crew boss had told him that by the end of the summer he would probably be driving one of the trucks instead of flagging or slagging tar. Not only was driving an easier job, it was also better pay. His tan would suffer a bit, he said, but he’d cope.
It was dinner time when Cathy’s absence was first noticed. Like I said, Cathy was always late for dinner, even if she was in her room. I remember Dad’s face. It wasn’t anger he showed, or frustration—more disappointment than anything. He sent me to find her, and it took me only a minute to prove that in fact she wasn’t in the house, which I already knew, but I wasn’t about to let on that I already knew that. I was six, but I wasn’t stupid.
We said grace, and listened as Tony and Ricky described their soccer games, like they were both stars. Mikey listened attentively, and gave some pointers. He had been a good player back in high school. Tony was a good listener, but Ricky had too big of an ego, and kept butting in with his stories. I watched Dad’s eyes as we ate. He kept looking up at the clock on the wall. 6:15 passed by, and 6:30 was coming quick. Mom and Brenda were clearing off the table, and we men were pushing our chairs in when the screen door opened.
“Where the hell have you been?” Dad’s fuse had been lit a while, and the spark reached the powder in no time.
“Out,” Cathy said simply. She had a look of defiance on her face. No apology, no excuse. If someone had dropped a pin, you could’ve heard it for miles.
“Come on boys.” Mikey recognized the signs and gave my head a little push towards the door. Ricky and Tony followed. We knew better than to be in the same room when those two squared off. We crowded onto the front porch. Mikey lit up a smoke, and we all sat down, with me on the floor. We held our silence. We were out of harms-reach now, but we weren’t about to miss the entertainment. It was morbid, and we all had a little grin on our face. The only light in the room was Mikey’s cigarette. The porch faced east and the sun was setting, so we all hid in the shadows and waited for the next words.
“You had your mother and I worried.” The emotion in Dad’s voice dropped.
“You shouldn’t be.” She practically spat out her words. All she had to do was apologize and it wouldn’t have been so bad. But Cathy was a free spirit.
“Damn it, girl. Don’t you take that tone with me.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“You’re seventeen years old. You can’t take care of spit.” Dad’s language rarely crossed into the vulgar range when Mom was around. But the point was understood, by everyone but Cathy.
“That’s right, I’m seventeen. You married mom when she was only eighteen.” Cathy had a point. It wasn’t something that was normally brought up, but even I had done the math with a little help from Brenda a few months before.
“Seventeen is not eighteen, young lady. When you’re eighteen, you can go and make your own stupid decisions. But as long as you are living under my roof, you will abide by my rules.” I’m sure every parent has said that line at least once in his or her life. It’s an old standard. And every kid has a reply for it. Cathy’s wasn’t that original.
“I can’t wait. Three months and I’m outta here. And you won’t be able to stop me.” No matter how many nights these arguments occurred, I was still amazed that Cathy had the balls to talk to Pop that way. And I’m still astounded that Pop took it. If any of us boys had talked like that, even Mikey, there’d be a swift backhand coming real quick. But with Cathy it was different. It was as if Pop knew that she was unlike the rest of us and that kind of tactic wouldn’t fly with her. There was a line with her that even he couldn’t cross.
“Where ya gonna go? You gonna shack up with that no-good punk, McAllister? You think I don’t know about him? Them McAllisters are all the same. You stay away from them, girl. They’re no good.”
“Johnny treats me right. He shows me respect, which is a hell of a lot better than what I get around here.” Even though I wasn’t in the room, I knew that the sudden silence indicated a glaring match between Pop and Cathy. It was Mom who always stepped in at this point.
“Cathy, go to your room.” she said somberly. We listened as Cathy shuffled to her room and slammed the door. There was silence in the kitchen. Those of us on the porch looked at each other and knew it was over—for now. Mikey took a long drag on his cigarette and finished it off, stubbing it out in a half-full ashtray, and blowing a stream of smoke out the screen.
We sat and talked quietly about our days until Mom came to get me to give me my bath, then tucked me into bed around 8:00. She didn’t say much that night. She tucked me in and gave me a kiss on the forehead. I didn’t see Pop that night, but I could hear him in the kitchen, fiddling with the radio, trying to pick up a new radio station we had heard about from friends. As usual, it took me a while to get to sleep. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who heard the window open, but I didn’t get up. I knew who it was, and I knew what was happening. But I still knew better than to tattle.