Monday, January 19, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS -- (Fiction -- Part II)

I can safely assume that none of you reading this are as deathly old as myself, so my memories of those heady days after the end of the war are not likely to be challenged, but I often wonder if I can trust my own feverish sense of that time, and its heady afterglow.

For days, even weeks -- dare I say months? -- after everything had finally settled and dispersed like a fire slowly burning down to its embers, most of us in my memory walked around in a daze of delight. I would see strangers on the streets of Toronto, and the two of us would share a goofy smile as if we were old chums; other times, an acquaintance from back home in Kingston -- Morgan Thomas, say, that tall goofy tall lad whose slap-shot was so pure, or the butcher's boy, Crandall Fitzpatrick, he of the family that smelled always of pork -- might rush across the road simply to show me that he was still alive, back from the front, all limbs intact, and I would be delighted by his eagerness to show off, his humble bravado. I never felt any animosity from these friends for my own lack of engagement in the battlefields of Europe. It was enough that the whole bloody mess was done. Time to move on, and move on we did.

Even so, as the years have dragged on, often overstaying their welcome, I've accepted that the basic force of memory itself cannot be contained, and I'm often awakened before dawn by stray moments from my past that refuse to fit into the cozy narrative I've written for myself. Was I truly so ecstatic as everyone else all around me? I would say yes, I was -- but I need to qualify that assertion with an acknowledgement of a certain gap in my side.

In the few years after my good friend Henry Meadows left, and long before he returned, I admit that thoughts of his travels occupied my mind more than the war movement itself. This is a rather shameful thing to admit, even now, even since all (and I do mean all) my close friends and family have long since passed on, so any embarrassment I wield is now pretty much moot. When he was gone, I tried to shove the absence of his presence into a shoebox in my mind. Sometimes I succeeded, although the days at the factory were longer without his bad jokes, and his affected-but-amusing ways of expression. Within a few months, it wasn't his daily companionship that I missed, but rather the knowledge that we were exiles together. Other men at the factory were, quite obviously, not 'soldiers' per se, so I was certainly amongst a certain kind of civilian brethren, but I always felt as if he and I were separated from the others by way of our detachment from the whole dreary scene. We were, of course, secretly disgusted to be in some ways too feeble to physically defend our embattled northern land, but our mutual code of compliance meant that we had a means of reconciling this reality by the elevation of ourselves to a higher mode of expression. This is all rather self-aggrandizing, I know, but what I'm saying is this: I realized, when he left, and when he didn't come back, that I was, in fact, now and forever, as we all are, in this life utterly alone, despite my youthful pretensions of solidarity and a kind of communal endurance.

This feeling, vague but persistent, stayed with me, almost embedded itself, even as I married Joyce and had the twins soon after. We were busy with the children and work and watching Toronto become something quite other than what it had once represented. I could feel the Dominion itself come alive, shake off its fusty old coat, letting the dust and mothballs descend on the mouthy land just to the south. My memories of those years are filled with children being bathed in the warm splashes of a tub not big enough for their mirth, and Joyce's own laughter decorating our house with an almost ornamental reality, and my new job as a salesman at the Eaton's department store downtown providing a quiet, daily reprieve to what had been the constant, clanky noise of the factory, its unending smoky drudge.

These are good pictures, vital snapshots, ones I mentally take out and fiddle with more than you would care to know, but I do have to admit that throughout these good years of growth it was the space left by Henry Meadows that refused to be filled. He was now out there; he had left before the war, and remained absent after. As I settled into my life of grateful domesticity, I realized that there was another life that I was not living, and it was Henry himself who was exploring it for me. His was not some grand escape, but more of a time-out, one that allowed him to become almost legendary in my head, a fable taken from life, and although I knew he would one day come back -- how could he not? -- I also understood that he had entered other realms of living that would probably render him almost unrecognizable.

Only now, with the good grace of time, can I acknowledge the tiny thorn that drew blood in my head. The whole country wanted to shove the past into a big box and drop it right into the lake. So many dead, so best just to let that whole era of pain quickly sink into sludge.  Throughout those years, pre-war and after, I lived, worked, ate Sunday dinner, read THE STAR in my armchair that I felt I had earned, and that whole past life with my friend came to resemble what you could call a fond dream. I told myself that I had not changed all that much, even though he surely had, and I pretended that a certain anxiety that I felt was simply indigestion. Sometimes I would shoot up in bed after glimpsing Henry in my dream take off that black badge over his eye, and the light from his pupil was enough to blind me for good. Upon waking, I would shake it off, tell Joyce to roll over and sleep and don't make such a fuss, it was just a bad dream, get your rest and be still, but I also knew that the longer Henry Meadows stayed away, the less I could feel that the war was all done. What was he doing? Where had he gone? When could I know what his adventure had wrought for us all?