Ashes of Roses
This is the story of five remarkable people -- physically handicapped people who were left behind in the town of Remick Corners when the good times ended.
Remick Corners is only a shadow of its former self, and when the wind blows across it from the east you can smell the stale diesel oil, the decomposing kelp and the sour pitch. The gulls that once fought for a place on the roofs and chimneys of Remick Corners have all left for the few nearby towns that can still support them.
The war times were good times -- the place was called Port Remick Corners then, and it was home to one of New England's busiest Navy Yards. It was also the site of a Naval Prison -- an almost unavoidable consequence. The two institutions went hand in glove. The more ships, the greater the number of sailors in town, there were never enough women to go around, and one harsh word led to another. The upshot of it was that Port Remick Corners wallowed in the good times of war and even humpbacked Gregory Slocum had a steady job at Bailey's Auto Repair.
Every evening about this time the crooked form of Gregory Slocum can be seen in the belfry of the East Church. He's been up there since breakfast and he's considering coming down for something to eat in the Yankee Diner. It's been a long day for Gregory. He will light a final cigarette from the stub of his last one and flip the butt in a graceful arc to the street below. If you're down there, you will notice the street is littered with cigarette butts, for Gregory is a heavy smoker. There is really nothing else for him to do, looking down on the worn out town of Remick Corners -- it's a sad sight to be sure.
The brass bell in the belfry of East Church was removed during the wartime scrap metal drive to make shell casings. It was never replaced. This gives Gregory ample room to stretch his legs and gives him a clear unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. Keeping track of things is Gregory's job. It's a self imposed job .... he's paid by no one, and the only reason he's up there at all is to alert his friends, the one eyed Fritzie Downs, her 'dog boy' son and the dwarf, Frenchie LeMoine, that the bus is coming.
Gregory is blessed with remarkable eyesight. Perhaps it is a compensation for his hump, but whatever the reason, he has the eyes of an eagle. It is said that an eagle can see a mouse in tall grass at a thousand yards -- compare that with Gregory's documented ability to see the lighthouse keeper trim his wick on Barrington Island 23 miles out to sea. From his perch in the East Church belfry Gregory can also see the bus coming from either Bangor or Boston twenty minutes before it arrives in Remick Corners. He will sound his bosn's pipe loudly, and Fritzie will snap the leash on Albert and hand him a stack of newspapers -- some from Exeter, some from Newburyport, and some from York -- Frenchie will clear his throat and slip his fingers through the straps of his imported Italian concertina, and "Deaf Chef" Hutchins will light the Budweiser sign in the window of the Yankee Diner.
The passengers on the bus coming down from Bangor or up from Boston provide the five friends with their livelihood. The passengers are not bound for Remick Corners, (nobody ever is) but it is the geographic center of the Boston and Bangor route and a convenient spot for a bus stop. A quick stop -- just enough time for a visit to the john and a 'cuppa joe' in the Yankee Diner, whose chief cook and bottle washer is "Deaf Chef" Hutchins, the fifth and final member of the group. The johns are not spotless, the coffee's foul and Hutchins is an irascible old bastard. In addition to hamburgers and fish and chips, Hutchins offers a generous slice of "Applesauce Pie" made from an old Fritzie Downs family recipe. When Fritzie feels up to it, she offers her pies for sale at the diner. Sad to say, they are not fresh, they were baked a week or more ago.
During the wonderful days of the war, and before the loss of her eye, Fritzie was a good looking woman. A great dancer and more than willing to do her part for the boys in the armed forces. It was during one of these patriotic moments that Albert was conceived with the help of Seaman 1st Class Digby. Albert was the only thing they had in common and their marriage was stormy.
It's probably incorrect to say her eye was lost, in view of the fact that her new husband, Seaman 1st class Digby was responsible for the loss of it. He knocked it out with a wooden salad fork during a drunken argument shortly after the birth of Albert. As a result, seaman Digby was sent to Remick Corners Naval Prison and Fritzie followed him there. She bore him no particular grudge -- knowing how difficult it had been for him to accept the sobering reality of Albert. Sobriety in fact, was a missing element in their marriage to begin with, and may have contributed to Albert's strange condition. But all that is water over the dam. The sad fact is that Fritzie has only one eye. She normally wears a patch to conceal its absence, but when the bus arrives she will snap in a glass eye that medicare has provided. It gives her a detached and preoccupied look, as though she has just remembered she forgot to lock her front door. Disconcerting as it may be to visitors, their attention is quickly diverted by the sudden appearance of Albert and Frenchie LeMoine. They are more assertive.
Albert the dog boy is intimidating. He barks and bares his teeth while blocking the Yankee Diner bound passengers with his newspapers. If they try to pass him without buying one, he will bar their way while Fritzie makes a great show of restraining him by the leash on his choke collar. For this reason some people prefer to stay in the bus and hold their water until they get to Boston or Bangor. But they are not secure there either -- Albert and his mother will board the bus and terrify them as they wait.
Not to be outdone by Albert and his mother, Frenchie LeMoine, the dwarf, while escorting the passengers into the Yankee Diner, is singing his sea chanties at the top of his voice.
Give us th' time an' we'll blow th' man down!
I'll sing ye a song if ye'll listen t' me.
It is unfair to call Frenchie a dwarf. He is a normally proportioned man until you get to his knees. At this point, his feet begin. When he sits with his friends at the back table in the Yankee Diner, he appears to be the only normal one in the party. Unfortunately, he is no taller when he stands, and whatever authority he radiated from a sitting position is quickly melted away. He does not have the features of a dwarf; fate spared him the protruding jaw, the prominent forehead and the poor dental structure, but his legs are not all they should be. While bantering at the table with Gregory, he will often say, "You're hiding them in your hump." But alas, Gregory is hiding nothing in his hump but himself.
It's a pity that sea chanties are not better understood and appreciated by a wider audience. Each of them is an echo of America's watery past -- Frenchie knows them all. He knows where they came from, on which ships they were sung and their deeper sociological meanings. He is a Solomon of chanties but an ignoramus in the circumstances of the present. With his penetrating tenor, he will follow the bus passengers into the Yankee Diner and accompany them right up to the door of the rest room. He will circulate behind the few who sit down to have a bite to eat at the fly specked counter, all the while singing
An' hear ye're name called by a son of a bitch.
Give us th' time an' we'll blow th' man down!
"Deaf Chef" Hutchins pays no attention to the music of Frenchie LeMoine, but the diners will drop a coin or two in the tin cup Frenchie wears on the top of his cap just to get rid of him. At the same time, they study the menu printed in a shaky hand on the slate blackboard hung on the wall between the sink and the dish-washer. Just above the menu is an elegantly printed sign saying "CHEF IS DEAF - POINT TO SELECTION." If a diner points to anything other than hamburger and fries, or fish and chips Hutchins will ignore him.
There are better things on the menu but rarely found in the kitchen. During the war years Hutchins employed three waitresses, a cook, a pastry chef and a bartender, he and his wife shared time at the cash register -- business was good. But now, if it wasn't for the bus trade, there would be no business at all. Gone are the days of oysters Rockefeller, New York cut sirloin steak and lamb chops en brochette -- although they have never been erased from the menu.
I hope I have drawn this background clearly enough to establish Remick Corners and introduce the troubled characters we have come to know as Gregory Slocum, Fritzie Downs and "dog-boy" Albert, Frenchie LeMoine and "Deaf Chef" Hutchins. They have clung to life like the mussels on the rotted pilings of the abandoned Navy Yard. Their daily bread is the gift of the hourly bus bound for Boston or Bangor. It would be unfair to call them beggars, for they have maintained a degree of dignity, and they continue to offer something of themselves for the small change they accept. So long as Remick Corners remains on the bus route to the two cities, these five people will sit together in the Yankee Diner at dinner time, and while Frenchie sings them a song, they can tell their sad stories of the wonderful days of the war.
As I was walkin' down Paradise Street,
W-ay! Hey? blow th' man down!
Oh, it's "Are ye a rouster from off th' Black Ball?"
W-ay! Hey? Blow th' man down!
It is the best of all possible worlds. They have few options, and although they face a sea of uncertainty, they thank each new day for the chance to live like normal people.
The bus! Yes! It is the bus that makes it all possible. The driver, an Indian from Rajasthan senses it too, and he wonders how he might break the bad news. Hutchins is busy behind the counter, Fritzie and "dog-boy" are in the bus and Frenchie LeMoine is serenading the diners at the counter. The only one the driver can talk to is Gregory sitting by himself in a booth at the back of the diner.
"Mr. Slocum? .... You have a minute?"
"Sure, thatís all I got? How come y'know my name? I don't know your name."
"You're famous, Mr. Slocum .... the man with the eyes of the eagle. Me? I'm nobody -- I drive for Patriot Interstate -- three years now, ever since Kennedy."
"I know, I seen you here before. Why don't'cha sit down?"
The driver slid in across from Gregory and held his cup of coffee in both hands to warm them. "I hate to tell you this, Mr. Slocum."
"You think you can tell me bad news, sonny? I carry bad news on my back all day long."
"We begin to take I-95 next week. We won't be stopping in Remick no more. There's an IHOP just west of here on I-95. It's gonna cut 15 minutes off the run .... the boss don't like this town anyways .... y'know they don't even light the street lamps no more after dark?"
"Thanks fer tellin' me kid. What'cha say yer name was?"
"Funny name for a bus driver."
Everything changes, Mr. Slocum."
They sat until the driver finished his coffee. "I must go now, I am late already -- have to drive very careful through these streets. No lights, you know?"
"Have a good trip -- Aghessan .... was it?"
"I'll be careful."
"See you around, sonny -- 'til the end of the week anyway." Through the dirty window Gregory watches the riders walk slowly back to the bus. One of them has actually bought an applesauce pie from Fritzie. As the bus doors close, Frenchie's concertina collapses with a dissonant wail and he shakes the coins out of the cup on his hat. Fritzie unleashes Albert and the three of them walk back to the Yankee Diner. "I am the privileged one," Gregory thinks. He rubs his eyes with the backs of his hands and reminds himself. "I was blessed with sight -- insight and outsight and what good is it now? I see the game is over." "Deaf Chef" is putting the last of the coffee mugs in the dishwasher, and soon the five will be eating dinner together, as they have for what seems like a lifetime.
Dinner will be what "Deaf Chef" Hutchins has not been able to sell that day, and they will share it together. It is one for all and all for one between these five handicapped friends, and not one of them would think of taking money from the other. As they dine on the uneaten fish and chopped meat -- and savor the second-hand chips and fries, it seems important to Gregory to drop the news of the change of route for the Boston and Bangor Bus line in the gentlest way possible.
".... and they ain't comin' back, we gotta live on what we got and what the government passes along. THING IS," he shouts at "Deaf Chef" YOU WON'T BE COOKIN' FOR A BUS LOAD NO MORE. JUST US AND THE FEW OTHER SAD SACKS IN THIS DYIN' TOWN."
"Deaf Chef" puts his half eaten sandwich down and looks up at the once white tin ceiling. His eyes drift around the Yankee Diner -- to the familiar furniture, now worn and battered -- the roughed-up black ranges encrusted with burned fat. "Y'know," he says, "There was good times here, durin' the war that is. We had a German pastry chef -- name of Gerhardt. Couldn't get a job nowheres else, due to the war and all. Paid him hardly nothin' -- I think he'd of worked fer nothin' anyways just fer the love of doin' pastry." Deaf Chef takes another bite of his sandwich and seems to have trouble getting it down. "Over there -- there, by the front door -- that's where we kept the pastry cart. You'd see it first thing when y'come in the door. Beautiful stuff he made .... mile high Black Forest cakes with shaved curly-cue chocolate chips and glazed fruits -- Napoleons -- seven layer cakes with diff'rent fillin's. People'd come in and their mouths'd water afore they ever sat down t'eat. I never see the like." "Deaf Chef" puts his sandwich down and looks around the table. "I don't ever expect t'see days as good as those was. It's okay by me if you're the only ones left -- it's okay by me. How 'bout you, Frenchie?"
"It's not good to depend on outsiders," Frenchie says. "Y'can't find them when y'need them most. Besides -- we gotta be together. There's a song .... " He reaches next to him for his concertina. "Gimme an inch two of elbow room, Gregory, and I'll sing ye a song."
"They might have split up or they might have capsized,
They may have gulfed deep and took water--
And all that remains is the faces and names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughter."
Frenchie puts the concertina down and wipes his eyes on his sleeve, "That's from the sinkin' of the Edmund Fitzgerald. They's thirty three more verses to that tune .... I guess you don't wanna hear no more."
Frenchie folds the accordion and moves closer to the wall. Gregory slides back closer to him and looks at the others. "Funny, ain't it?" he says. "The way an old song can come back and mean the same thing today as it did way back then. You gotta great way of lookin' back, Frenchie -- like you seen everything before. I guess we all seen a lot in our day. I wish I could remember half of what I seen."
Gregory wipes his eyes with his dirty napkin. "I'm fer stayin' together," he says, "There ain't a whole one amongst us, thatís físure, none of us can make it alone the way the world goes. You with us Fritzie?"
"I remember when I was a little girl," Fritzie says. "My mother would take the last roses of the summer .... 'them was the best' she'd say, 'The last ones are the sweetest' she'd say, then she'd stuff them in little cotton bags -- dry 'em out and crush them. Durin' the long gray winter -- when the stink of life got too much fer her, she'd have her ashes of roses. That's what she called them, 'ashes of roses'. What it did, I think, was to bring back the good times. The sweetness came on strong and blocked out the stink of winter."
There is a tear in Fritzie's good eye, and the other one stares blindly across the table; although it is glass, it seems to cry in sympathy. She smiles fondly at Albert sitting next to her. "When things ain't what I'd like them to be -- I got Albert. Oh, he ain't much t'see I know, but when I look at him I remember Digby, the good times and how wonderful it was in the beginning." She sits up straight and looks at the group with pride in her bearing. "Somebody loved me once .... loved me good enough to give me Albert. Albert's my ashes of roses."
©Harry Buschman 2001