One of the things about being raised a Catholic is guilt. Yes, they are called the Eight Beatitudes. There is one about tending to the sick that was pounded into our heads. “What if we don’t want to visit the sick?” I asked my parents on the way to Mr. Haverly’s House. I was going through my questioning phase. While it is a phase that a child relishes in, it is a parent’s greatest annoyance. Welcome to the world of eleven years old.
“Just shut up.” My brother Wendell admonished. He was trying to keep the peace on the long ride over. After all, he was forced to be the reluctant junior usher like he was every Sunday. My mother usually hurried to press his wrinkled suit fresh from the floor, pin on his pie and then put his usher pin on. My father and Wendell clashed like oil and water over this responsibility. You see, my dad was like Chanticlear. Mass didn’t begin until he opened the windows, laid out the bulletins and properly stuffed the Pittsburgh Catholics.
On the other hand, my brother could have cared less. As soon as he was able to hold the collection basket he was drafted into the job. Wendell however always found a way to flub his responsibilities as junior usher even after all these years. On the car ride home my father would give Wendell his notes. “You did a better job with collection today but you see, you should stuff the envelopes a certain way before handing them to the priest in the sacristy to count.”
Wendell would roll his eyes back, yessing my dad to death. Of course my father was specific when it came to counting money. Years before he became a successful tax lawyer he had been an accountant for Price Water House. And before all that he had been the son of a machinist in an old school Pittsburgh Mill. The second of seven, my father not only went to college but received advanced degrees in a house where his own father didn’t even graduate high school. Hard work and being exact were big with my father. We didn’t realize it then or even appreciate it, especially Wendell.
“It’s about doing something nice for someone who isn’t well. They spoke about this in church today for those of you who were listening.” My father told us as we made the long trek to Mr. Haverly’s House.
Yes, Mr. Haverly. He was the elder senior usher at our church. He had been a World War II Veteran and as a matter of fact befriended Charles DeGualle. While he had a wealth of war stories and could be entertaining, he could also be a giant pain in anyone’s behind worse than any wart on one’s bum. What I mean is that since his wife’s death, he had several health problems. Rather than go into assisted living this old widower decided to slug it out on his own. One winter’s day when his power went out he became convinced an intruder had broken into his house. Standing up in his pajamas, he went over to whomever he believed was trying to rob him and took a swing. However, the person in question knocked him down. Mrs. Travis, a kindly lady from our church who worked in the bakery at the local supermarket and taught CCD came to visit. Having a key she opened the door and saw this violent encounter. She screamed when she saw it. Apparently, Mr. Haverly was being strangled by a lamp. And the worst part was that his nightgown was hiked up and she saw his old wrinkly ass. EWWWW!
“Yes, and that is why we are bring some food to restock his refrigerator.” My mother said.
“Didn’t Mr. Haverly try to cook for us the last time we were there? He made those delicious potato pancakes.” My sister Skipper remembered.
“Skipper sweetheart, remember how you got sick?” My mom said.
Skipper shook her head. Then my mom told her, “It’s because Mr. Haverly doesn’t believe in throwing out the food in his refrigerator.”
Yes we had eaten those potato pancakes and they had been delicious. However we were unaware that Mr. Haverly was a Depression Era baby. That meant that a penny saved was a penny earned and that waste not want not was the name of the game. He believed food could last for years if you froze it. We found out this information when after the potato pancakes we spent the night over the toilet and Mrs. Travis, who sometimes looked in on the old widower, told my mother on her jaunt to the local supermarket.
“That is gross. That food probably has arms and legs!” Wendell exclaimed.
“Yes but Mr. Haverly is still our friend and we shouldn’t bring up the fact he doesn’t throw out food. He is very sick.” My dad told us. “No body’s perfect. And just remember, there are things about you that people might not like.”
“While we are on the subject girls you are helping me clean out the refrigerator while we are there.” My mom said. She had this fake enthusiasm that I still remember.
However I wasn’t about to play nice. “This sucks!” I exclaimed. “Why do we have to do it? It’s his choice if he wants to get ptomaine.”
“While we are on the qualities of what people don’t like about us let’s talk about April’s mouth shall we?” My dad said.
“I don’t want to clean out his gross refrigerator. It’s bad enough that I am being forced to spend my Sunday, my only day off, in a house that smells like pee and moth balls.” I countered under my breath.
“Well he might not want to spend his Sunday with you.” My dad snapped.
“At least I don’t have to deal with the food that has tentacles and the ptomaine.” My brother whispered. With that, I whaped Wendell with all the force in my being.
“Maybe he has buried treasure in there.” Skipper said. She was always trying to look on the bright side to things. “Plus he has cray fish in his backyard.”
“It’s winter. There are no cray fish.” Wendell said.
“God this visit is going to blow.” I sneered under my breath.
That’s when my dad pulled the car over. “I am tired of your mouth April!” He said. “I want you to work on being a better person. You have not said one nice thing this entire car trip.”
“What nice thing can we say about a guy who’s house we got food poisoning over?” Wendell said backing me up. Apparently he wanted to make this trip less than I did. Skipper looked out the window. It was her way of detaching with love. There was no way Miss Perfect wanted to touch that bacteria filled filth trap he called a frozen food box.
“Anne, are any one of my children unselfish?” My dad asked.
My mom sat silently. “Can we just go back home?” Wendell replied. We were all silently letting my dad know we didn’t want to make this hellacious car trip.
“Look children, no one wants to make this visit. But we have to because it is the right thing to do.” My mom said trying to play good cop. My brother and I rolled our eyes.
“Plus they said today God would want is to.” Skipper pointed out.
“Well at least that makes one of my children.” My dad said as he started his car and continued on the Bhutan Death Drive to Mr. Haverly’s.
When we got out of the car we could feel the March cold protrude through our veins. My parents walked ahead of us at somewhat of a semi-snail’s face. Since they were older, they had better coping skills and were less afraid to face the house of one thousand germs. However, the three of us were in no hurry to go in there.
“I bet his refrigerator comes to life and walks the neighborhood.” I told my brother Wendell.
“Less than likely. But the bacteria is probably the type that could shut down a restaurant.” Wendell corrected.
“Come on guys. Mom and Dad will be mad.” Skipper said tugging on my coat. While this gnome was destined for heaven she was annoying the hell out of me. Then again she was my baby sister, that was her job and she was good at it.
“And he does give us money for Christmas.” Wendell said. With that, the three of us made our way in the Domicile of Doom.
At the door Mr. Haverly greeted us. A corpse of a man, he had old man checkered house clothes on and pants pulled all the way up to his rib cage. He was what was known as a Sunday Morning Widower. Their wives were dead and therefore they were left to their own devices and disastrous sense of fashion.
“Hi kids.” Mr. Haverly said. As he greeted us sure enough the moth ball and pee smell pervaded our nostrils. The three of us tried not to make a face as we entered. It looked as if a light had not been turned on since the lap attack. Therefore he had felt the need to live in the dark ages.
“Watch your step. They are old newspaper clippings.” Mr. Haverly said.
As I saw Mr. Haverly in that chair he seemed sort of helpless. A skeleton of a person, his skin was transparent. Mr. Haverly gave my brother his usual handshake and the sloppy kisses to my sister and I. When we were younger we would wipe the kisses off because Mr. Haverly had gross old people saliva, but because we were older we knew better. “We missed you at church Mr. Haverly.” My dad said to the octogenarian.
“Have a seat.” Mr. Haverly said. We all sat down and the coldness of the house pinched our bones. One thing that made a visit like this particularly painful was that Mr. Haverly didn’t heat his house. If I didn’t know better between the lack of heat and threat of food poisoning I would think this man was trying to kill us dead.
“How was father today?” Mr. Haverly asked. By that he meant Father Donald. Yes, Father Donald cursed with cerebral palsy and always centered every sermon he gave around his disability. Not to leave out the three deaf sisters he had that he always mentioned. After a sermon from Father Donald, usually long and dawn out, on the ride home my mother would go into one of her rants about how two people with a tainted genetic pool shouldn’t have so many children and pollute the world with more defectives. Then my dad would correct her and tell her it wasn’t her place to judge. It would be a heated debate that the three of us would just watch in awe and thank our lucky stars that we weren’t in the hot seat.
“Same old, same old.” My dad said.
“Can we turn on some heat? I’m cold.” Skipper asked. One thing about Miss Perfect was that she didn’t do cold. Even in the summer, this wisp of a human with a fast acting metabolism shivered. As a matter of fact she was so underweight my mother was forced to give her iron pills. Skipper shook as she began to turn blue. Wendell and I had been honest about our dislike of this mission of mercy in the car. Now even Skipper was beginning to crack.
“Naw! Heat is for sailors and sissies.” Mr. Haverly told her. My mother, Wendell and myself exchanged awkward glances. There was no debate, we were definitely in hell. So much for doing God’s work.
“Can’t we light a fire?” Skipper asked as we all sat there in our coats. My father threw a scowl in her direction.
“Just sit tight. The sun is coming out and it will warm up in here sweetheart.” My father told her, surprised his little angel was now the dissenter. This child could make heaven out of hell anywhere, and that’s why Wendell and I always insisted little Skipper was adopted.
“That’s it. I am plugging in the space heater.” My mother said getting up. Before Mr. Haverly could protest she put the plug in the socket and we all felt some relief. No longer were we seeing remnants of our breath in the house that Satan himself had probably conceived on the lid of hell. Slowly it began to warm up. Skipper’s lips went from dark blue to a baby powder shade. Perhaps there was hope after all. And if there was truly a God perhaps he would even deliver us from this misery. But then again, could we be so lucky on an errand where our father insisted it was making us a better person?
“We brought some food for you.” My mom told him.
“Oh you didn’t have to do that. I was going to cook my potato pancakes for you.” Mr. Haverly told us. Wendell, Skipper and I all exchanged a disturbed glance.
“Well Anne didn’t want you to worry.” My dad told him. After all, a man who does mortal combat with a lamp is a man in no shape to cook.
“I’m not worried. The war made me strong and made me know I could do anything. You see, when I was fighting with the American Army, we were in Italy and Mussolini had just been hanged. As a matter of fact they hanged him upside down with his wife and they were punching both their corpses….” Mr. Haverly began.
That’s when my mom said, “Come on girls, I think it’s time we clean out Mr. Haverly’s refrigerator.”
When we got to the kitchen Skipper asked, “Why did you have to take me out of there? I was finally getting warm.” It always took forever for the little spud to warm up. Then again no heater was worth the torture my father and brother were enduring. I felt the worst for Wendell. He didn’t ask for this. However, this whole outing had been my father’s idea. He owed us big time.
However, although it was torture I took after my dad and was a huge history buff. While something like that would have been torture for my mom and sister I would have found this fascinating. Then again, this was history according to Mr. Haverly and this room smelled a little less like moth balls and pee.
“Do you want to hear more war stories? Do you want to see the Nazi helmet with the bullet still in it?” My mom demanded.
“That might be sort of neat.” I interjected. I was the only one in the house who never complained when my dad watched Big Battles. I sort of thought it was neat actually.
“Do you want to hear the story of the helmet and the poem behind it that he has told a thousand times? The poem that his dead wife wrote?” My mom whispered angrily.
I shook my head as well as my sister. “Good. Now open up the trash bag. We are throwing everything in this refrigerator out.”
“But Mr. Haverly will be mad.” Skipper protested.
“Just shut up and hold the bag.” My mom commanded.
“Skipper, just remember how you threw up and were over the toilet all night while me, you and Wendell took turns puking? It was because of this food.” I informed her. A distressed look came over Skipper’s face.
“Why do we have to throw it out?” Skipper asked. “He likes eating rotten food?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do. He’s old and slow and doesn’t know any better. He’s senile and this is called taking care of the sick. Now open the damn freezer.” My mom commanded.
My sister opened the ice box and the stench of rotting whatever was once food touched our nasal cavities. Collectively, my sister and I winced as we held our noses. I swear to God what was once peas and carrots had now spouted eyes and legs. New sorts of mold and freezer burn had taken place in this pit that the CDC was yet to discover. I pictured warms and larvae and other crawling creatures living in there except it was too cold. Then again, I had read my share of science fiction on those rainy days when it was too wet to go out and play. There were bugs who could adapt to the cold I was sure. There were germs that could exist in this place.
“One, two, three, pitch!” My mom said as she began to dump old food into the trash bag.
As we began to dump food my sister asked, “What is this? Maybe this Chinese food is still good.” She asked holding up a General Hsu Ming’s food carton.
I remembered General Hsu Ming’s. They had closed down three years ago because a rumor that they were cooking cat’s drove them out of business. As usual, Mr. Haverly thought refrigeration could keep this junk fresh. My mother had the three day rule, while Mr. Haverly seemed to hinge on three years or more. “Skipper, that was the cat place. It left town three years ago.” I said taking the carton and throwing it in the trash bag.
Then we came across a milk carton. I picked it up and something oozed out. Whatever it was, it was once milk but now had some yellow, brown color that was once white. It was sort of like Michael Jackson’s skin in reverse. As I went to throw it in the trash can the bottom of the milk broke and this mixture of goop worse than anything the mind of a young boy could have ever created exploded. It was so terrifying my sister Skipper let out a shriek. “Ahh!” She said.
My mom quickly put her hand over her mouth. “We can’t let him know we are cleaning out the refrigerator.” My mother said.
“Why Mom? We are making that fossil live a month longer.” I said.
“Because it is the right thing to do. Don’t you get why we are making this trip? You could be out there listening to horrible war stories.” Just then I thought of my brother Wendell trapped.
“Okay, is the old food out? And where do we put the new food?” I asked my mom.
“Good girl.” My mom replied as we finished cleaning out the refrigerator. Taking orders from my mom we heard the droan of war stories in the other room. Perhaps we did receive the better end of the deal.
After we restocked the refrigator and snuck the garbage out of the back door in secret, my mother served some of the food she herself cooked. While she was reticent to touch the microwave, an old school model probably not cleaned since 1982, the year of my brother Wendell’s birth, she had no choice. As we ate we heard even more war stories. By this time our brains were fried. It was no use protesting.
When the visit came to an end Mr. Haverly thanked us for coming. “I don’t get many children here. My grandchildren have all moved away because they are grown.” Mr. Haverly said mournfully. So as a token of his appreciation he gave us each a two dollar bill. Yes a two dollar bill. To give my younger readers an idea they stopped making those years ago.
As we left the house Wendell, Skipper and myself looked at each other in awe. Two dollar bills! Perhaps this visit had been worth the hell. Part of me wanted a much larger denomination of bill, but the other half of me was surprised and stunned to get paid at all for this torture.
Riding home in the car, we were basically silent. That is, until my brother Wendell said, “It is so cool we got two dollar bills. Essentially we got paid for the visit.” Skipper, my mom, and I laughed. After all, we needed some laughter after being trapped in that morgue he called his home. However, the old guy did have a nice streak. Even if he didn’t have heat and didn’t clean out his refrigerator.
“That is not the point of a visit like this.” My dad said clearing his throat. “It was to teach you to do the right thing for the right reason. Today we visited a sick friend in need. There is no money to be exchanged for that. It was nice he gave you money but never expect a reward for doing the right thing.” My dad told us. I suppose it was his chance to drop in his daddy lesson for the day. Still, this audience did not want to hear it. We were over any and all parental lessons. We wanted to enjoy the last leg of the weekend. This included having dinner and junk food in front of the TV and watching some mindless movie starring Van Damme that my mother had rented.
As we ran out of the car and up the stairs I stashed the two dollar bill in my room. Yeah, I vegged out that night. Unfortunately, a year later we would lose Mr. Haverly and the flavor he brought to this world by not cleaning out his refrigerator. However, my dad had left us with a very important lesson. While we didn’t appreciate it at the time he was trying to instill character in us.
Whenever I get greedy and want to do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, I think of Mr. Haverly, that rotten milk, those bad war stories, and that two dollar bill. Sometimes doing the right thing is a reward in itself.