Here Lies Pattie Walsh [excerpt] – Dennis Pells
September 3, 2019
Some of my earliest recollections are of his eyes upon me. Watching. Waiting. There was something sinister in his gaze, in the touch of his hand. It felt like a lick or a sniff, as if… as if he were tasting me. In his embrace, in his extra squeeze there was a check, to see if I was ripe. I guess, somewhere in the back of my consciousness I always knew what he wanted.
At a distance Uncle Nick smelled sweet, like cherry pipe tobacco. Up close he just stunk. Mom thought it was cute the way he fawned over me. Who knew what Dad thought. This memory comes to mind like a snapshot in time, I was on his lap, my new Easter dress fluffed around me. There was Mom and Dad standing in the dinning room, Mom, a drink in one hand a cigarette in the other, her mouth open in a laugh. In my palm I cradled a hardboiled Easter egg.
His hand under my bottom I remember he used his thumb, he didn’t say a word, he just watched my eyes. When he pushed my panties aside, his other hand held out a chocolate bunny. It hurt a little, but I didn’t move, didn’t breathe. I knew it was wrong, yet I didn’t make a sound.
My hands quake at this memory, his memory. I ate the chocolate bunny. I was nine I think, and at fifty-three I can still smell him, but for some reason the taste of chocolate lingers too.
I often wondered how different my life would have been if I’d cried out or run, I guess I’ll never know. Never know.
It’s been almost twenty hours, I think my son Johnny’s plane should be touching down about now. I know my son, if he said he’s coming, he’ll be here. We planned this out when he was down last, he knows I’m terminal, now that the time is come I made the phone call. I see the pain pills on the coffee table, they stare, just like Uncle Nick. This time I’ll pass. I want to be awake, I want to be awake when Johnny gets here, and I guess, I want to be awake when I die.
I can feel the ache so deep it must be molecular, I don’t know if the cancer is trying to gnaw its way out or burrow deeper. But I know it’s time, I’m decaying from within, piece-by-piece I feel me crumbling, tumbling off into the abyss.
You wouldn’t know it now, but I used to be good looking. A real head turner, better legs than Betty Grable, that was my claim to fame. Too bad I wasn’t a child of the sixties, mini-skirts, hot pants and all that. Back in the forties we had to wear skirts, long skirts. I had a nice face too and a spontaneous infectious laugh, or so they said, but try putting food on the table with that.
You see in my life I had to work hard, it was something my father taught me. He said the Irish got a bad rap, bunch of lazy drunks. He’d say, “Work smarter not harder, leaves more time for drinking.” I guess I will never be as smart as he was.
My memory of him seems fixed, even now when I picture him I feel my head tip back, I’m looking up.
Daddy taught me the only way to make money in this world is to own your own business. He must have started his machining company when I was real young or maybe even before I was born. It was noisy and dirty, except for his office. There I would find him behind his magnificent mahogany desk, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to his elbows, tie hung loose from his neck like an ill-fitting leash. Mom and I would bring him lunch, he’d be busy, mostly smoking cigarettes, but with fixed concentration. My father was a talker, I could sit and listen to him babble for hours on one subject or another, and sometimes he would talk about nothing at all, but he always had my attention.
Uncle Nick wasn’t really my Uncle you know, he was actually my grandfather, my dad’s dad. Mother said he didn’t like being called grandpa. It made him feel old. He always dressed to the nines, had a Clark Gable mustache, hair slicked back like he walked onto a movie set. He was loaded too, you could tell, there was a reverence paid to people with money. My Daddy’s voice took on a different tone when talking to him, more serious if you know what I mean. He was the only man I can recall Daddy used that voice with.
I think Uncle Nick was what you’d call a ‘silent partner’ in my dad’s business. Daddy wanted to buy a new piece of expensive equipment for his company and he knew Uncle Nick was fond of me. So, the day he went to Uncle Nick’s for the loan he dressed me up and took me along.
I wore a pink dress and I had a matching ribbon in my hair. Daddy drove over to the big house and took me into Uncle Nick’s smelly study. He motioned with his eyes for me to sit on Uncle Nick’s lap and Daddy took a seat across the desk from us talking in his serious voice. I didn’t pay any attention to either of them, I just wanted to know when I’d get some candy.
They stood to shake on the deal, their hands almost gripped together when Uncle Nick said. “If it’s all the same to you John, I’d like Pattie to spend the afternoon with me. I thought she might enjoy a pony ride.” I watched Uncle Nick study my daddy’s eyes. Before they shook he said, “Deal, John?”
It was the first time Uncle Nick got me alone. After Daddy left he ran his eyes over me, gave a sniff and told me I needed a bath.
“Uncle Nick, I just took a bath.” I said.
The corners of his mouth curled to a smile. “I bet you never took a bath eating chocolate and drinking soda.”
I said, “Couldn’t we ride the pony first?”
He said, “We have the whole afternoon besides I have to call over and make sure the ponies are ready.” Even at that young age I knew what he was up to. He wanted to see me naked and I remember thinking, Ok, let’s just get it over with so I can ride that pony. First he fills the tub and has me get in. He tells me he’s going to wash my back and sits on the side of the tub, then he leans over and accidentally on purpose falls in. Next, he got out and began to remove his wet clothes. That’s when he turned to me and grinned. Like a thundercloud he loomed over me, his grin, a crescent moon. Soon the storm enveloped me. His hands, his face scoured my lips, my chest, between my legs. It hurt. I don’t know if I said a word.
When Dad picked me up that night he knew I was mad, we didn’t say anything to each other the whole ride home. I think he thought I was angry I didn’t get a pony ride. I was upset… it was so strange, in a tangle of darkness I felt pressure between my legs. There was a searing pain and I heard a sharp cry. The report shot from between my lips like the crack of gunfire, a warning shot that ricocheted off the porcelain and around the room. Uncle Nick began to moan and tremble. He stiffened. My eyes opened to him pressing it into my face, my mouth. I was scared… I screamed.
I began fourth grade that fall, going to school with kids I would know for the rest of my life. Mitzy and Betty were my best and worst friends, depending on the day of the week. Mitzy’s family actually owned a pony. They kept it at a farm in Brookfield and when we were on speaking terms we would go out to ride. All I wanted to do was ride, but she insisted we groom and feed the horses before we left the stable. After a couple of hours of that I remember thinking I would rather get a tooth pulled than work that hard. Besides Mitzy bossed me around, telling me what to do. Later, how to ride and where, always saying don’t do this or that until she took all the fun out of it. I think if my dad had a say in it he would have gotten me a pony. But Mom put her foot down, said she’d better get her own car first even though she didn’t have a license to drive.
I was the fastest kid in grade school, faster than the boys. There was one hotshot that always wanted to race me, he was quick off the line but it was like I had an extra gear. When we’d get close to the finish line I’d kick it in and blow right past him every time. I had a strong arm too and was laser accurate, around the playground as long as I had a rock in my hand I was feared.
My fourth grade teacher said I was a talented painter. I think her name was Pebbleton, Ms. Pebbleton. It’s funny of all the teachers I had she is the only one whose name comes to mind. She was nice, always encouraging me until one day she decides to get up in my business. Things were never the same after, she left the next school year and I recall thinking, good riddance.
Like I said, Mitzy and Betty were my best friends but if you hung out with someone else they could be as cold as… well you know what I mean. There was a new girl that showed up at school one day, her name was Elizabeth Burrow, sounds like an aristocrat doesn’t it? She wasn’t, she smelled, had a dirty face and tattered clothes, she reminded me of a baby rabbit who’d been dropped into the dogs’ cage. She had a scar the shape of an X in the flesh of her jaw. Betty could be a real snot, she told Mitzy it was the mark of the devil. That really pissed me off. She was no devil. I remember during recess, I was playing with Mitzy and Betty when I spotted Elizabeth sitting by herself. The rest of the kids shunned her, being new and all. Looking at her, she appeared wounded. It wasn’t like she had a broken arm, or bandages, it was deeper, it was on the inside. After a while I moseyed over and sat next to her. She let me take her hand, it was balled in a tight little fist. At first it felt like I was holding a cold stone. I don’t remember if I said anything but she leaned into me and I could feel the cold from her hand being absorbed into mine, then slowly, it grew warmer and warmer until I felt a pulse. It was as if I were holding her beating heart. She trusted me with her heart. After that we were thick as thieves, Elizabeth and I. A few months later her family pulled up stakes and split town, eventually we lost all contact but the memory of Elizabeth remains to this day. I wonder what ever became of her?
I was an average student; mostly C’s not like Betty who got A plus on every test she ever took. Betty was smart and beautiful. She had the most amazing blue eyes. Sometimes I would catch myself staring at her like I’d been hypnotized or something. I think she cast a spell on me. I thought she was destined to be a famous actress when she grew up. Instead she married some Joe Palooka and the union produced seven ugly kids. So much for being smart and beautiful.
Mitzy was smart too, not like Betty. Mitzy was more grind it out smart, determined smart. I don’t know that Mitzy was pretty, she was more of a Ford four-door sedan whereas Betty was a two door Cadillac Coupe with a hopped up V8. You could dress Mitzy up, put heels on her and a skintight dress and it wouldn’t help. She had a shape like a tongue depressor, kind of thick without any curves.
What I’m going to tell you next is said without judgment or malice, I love Betty, I really do but she is as deep as her reflection in a mirror. And yes she is smart, but she only looked for the answers she thought the teachers wanted, she could care less what they meant or how you arrived at it. On the other hand Mitzy was as deep as the ocean. She was inquisitive, she knew shit, not just answers.
If you want to know the truth, I hoped Mitzy would discover my secret. I could never tell anyone, but I think it would have been ok if Mitzy figured it out on her own. Not that she should share it with anyone, not that she and I would ever talk about it, but just knowing she knew would have been alright, I guess. Kind of like helping me with the dirty dishes, one washes, one dries, no need for talking.
Mitzy’s parents had money, her dad owned a meat packing plant in town. Her dad never physically went into the plant yet I could smell the blood on him. It was a thick viscous odor you could taste. Occasionally I would catch a whiff of it on Mitzy, it scared me.
Mitzy’s dad was a tyrant, I don’t recall him ever saying anything nice to her, anything tender. He treated her mother the same way, he would sit in his overstuffed chair and bellow, “Martha, mix me a drink,” or “Mitzy, get me my newspaper.” Never a please or thank you.
Mitzy would eventually marry an engineer and pop out one kid. I remember thinking what a wonderful life. A stay at home mom. One kid, a boy they could send to all the right schools. Thinking of it now, maybe it wasn’t such a wonderful life. Maybe it was just an existence, no hills, no valleys. A straight line like on a heart monitor.
After that one day at Uncle Nick’s he couldn’t keep his hands off me. He was always dreaming up some cockamamie story to get us alone. When I think back on it, I don’t know how he didn’t get caught. Wouldn’t you think it odd if someone said, “Hey, I’m going to the barber shop, how about I take your daughter with me?” But nobody caught on. And the more he did it the more natural me going off with him must’ve seemed. Like I was his sidekick or something. Like, oh, there goes Uncle Nick and Pattie again. I wonder where those two rascals are off too now?
He got it in me, eventually. After, he told me he loved me. I should have laughed in his face. He told me I was special and I agree, I could keep a secret. I never told anybody. How could I? Looking back, I knew I was different. I had a secret side, a dirty side.
I knew Uncle Nick didn’t love me, he never even asked if I loved him. I often wonder if things would have been different the first time, at Easter, if I’d only gotten up. I knew it was wrong, I realized it at the time but I was just a kid. Think of Eve. Who in their right mind would take an apple from a God damned talking snake? She did. And she was no nine-year-old kid. She was tempted by Satan, was I any different? Did she regret what she did? It got them kicked out of Eden, it altered their lives forever. Was she sorry? Am I sorry? What the hell do you think? The instant I bit the bunny’s ear I knew I was a bad child, a child even God wouldn’t want. After that it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.