My parents’ next-door neighbor Barry made a bee-line from his backyard to where I was trimming a row of tangled forsythia bushes. Neither of my parents went in for gardening; puttering around their yard with clippers in hand was one of the few chores I could do when I was visiting them that would get me out of the living room for a breather.
“Looked out the window two weeks ago and saw your father mowing the lawn.” Barry jerked his head towards the house in case I didn’t understand which father he was referring to. “Around 8:30. I was just getting my cup of coffee. Saturday.” He crossed his arms and stared at the back of our house for awhile. “I called the wife to come look. ‘Leo’s mowing the lawn,’ I said. The look she gave me.” Barry snorted and tried to imitate Marge’s incredulity. “I told her, ‘Well, he just mowed it yesterday, didn’t he?’ That set her back on her heels.”
It set me back on mine a little, too. “What … .”
He put his big hand up to hush me. He wanted to tell his story straight through. “I was ready to march right over and ask your dad what the hell he was doing, if he had hit his head or had a stroke or something, but she told me to mind my own business. And just then we heard the story on the radio about the guy getting his head blown off out in Skepton by his fourth wife who he’d married twice. Then they mentioned that this guy was from the Bronx and she says, ‘Oh Jesus, that must be Leo’s cousin.’ I didn’t even know your father had a cousin.” Barry looked aggrieved about this last part.
“Yeah, that was his cousin,” I said. Barry gave me an encouraging look, hoping that I’d spill something about this notorious relative with whom, through the proximity of his house to my father’s, he now had a connection, but we both stayed silent for a while. Then he pointed out that I was cutting the wrong branches if I wanted the bushes to bloom next spring and strode back to his yard. I studied the lawn, but couldn’t tell whether or not my father had gone over it a third time since finding out about Ole.
I had already heard about that morning from my mother and then from my sister when they called to tell me about the murder, but neither had mentioned anything about the extra lawn mowing. The three of them had been sitting at breakfast when the story broke on the radio news, and the bit about “fourth wife who married him twice” made my father laugh. “Don’t laugh, Dad,” said my sister. “It could be someone you know.” She was joking, but then sure enough, there it was: Ole Lundberg, aged 52, killed by a shotgun blast to the head while he slept. By the woman who had been his second wife, and then years later, with no excuses for not knowing better, his fourth.
It happened in the trailer where Ole had lived for decades, a long, narrow, silver-skinned trailer with lines that reminded me of those finned cars from the ‘60s. I knew what it looked like and where it sat back from a road bordered by scraggly tall grasses and runty shrubs—Skepton is nothing but swampland--because my dad had taken me there on a visit once when I was in high school. I had no idea where we were going that afternoon and when Ole appeared in the door of the trailer, I was very surprised. I hadn’t seen him since I was a small child, and that was a memory of a shy and sweet man who was showing off the tiny new infant in his long arms, one of the many kids he would leave in his wake of wives and women.
It was around that time that the family officially banished Ole from their midst, a move my mother liked to take credit for. She was the one who had insisted on going over the books of the business that my father and Ole were trying, unsuccessfully, to get off the ground, “Cousins TV Repair and Antenna.” It was the 1950s, and everyone needed an antenna on their roof if they hoped for any kind of reception for the black-and-white sets that were suddenly a staple in every living room, so the cousins were busy, working on weekends to catch up with all their orders. It should have been a good choice for two daredevils who were good at problem-solving and tinkering. For years I kept a matchbook that had the name of their business stamped on the cover hidden under the satin lining in the bottom of my jewelry box, thinking that the dangerous magic of this object resided in the horrible and forbidden potential of the matches. But it was the reminder of Ole’s betrayal, siphoning off money behind my father’s back until their business went bust, that invested the little square packet with its five words and old-fashioned phone number, FE8-2230, with so much power.
According to family legend, my father’s brother had gone down to their store upon hearing the news, dragged Ole outside, and threw him headfirst through the plate glass window. They were renting the store, and paying for a new window used up the last of what was left.
Curiously, Ole stuck to the business of TV repair after the cousins dissolved their partnership. He died as the proprietor of “Lundberg TV Repair” and the local newspaper article about his death, a big front page headline and story that continued several pages later, included interviews with the two women who had been his employees there. My mother waited until my father had gone out to the store to show me the article and the paragraph about these women drove her wild: “He was a wonderful boss, good to everybody,” said one, while the other testified that she had worked for Ole for 15 years and never met a kinder man.
“Two women working for him? What the hell were they doing there?” she fumed.
“Maybe they fixed all the TVs,” I ventured.
“They never fixed a TV in their life! And he hardly had any business, everyone knew that. ‘Never met a kinder man!’ Kind! Kind! Couldn’t they see what a bastard he was? Were they blind?”
After the business broke up, Ole stopped coming to the weekly family gatherings and never showed up for holidays or even funerals, but he remained in the old photographs, a taller, prettier version of my father with an impressive pompadour slicked up above a long forehead, slanted sad eyes, and full lips. He’s there in my parents’ wedding picture, best man, looking over at my father, his face radiating pure joy. One of my aunts had a snapshot of him bending down to kiss a tiny busty brunette who’s sporting a huge shiner, his first wife. He beat them all, so badly that they finally had to leave him. Including the second wife who married him twice.
For my mother, Ole verified all her theories about evil being real, genetic, and absolute. “He slept in the same bed as your father his whole childhood, and you couldn’t find two men more diametrically dissimilar in their moral makeup,” had been a familiar lead-in to one of her lengthy disquisitions on the immutability of character. The cousins were only six months apart in age, and when Ole was quite young, his mother had had moved with her children into my grandparent’s apartment to escape her own abusive, alcoholic husband. “Your father would cut off his own hand before he hit me—or any other woman, for that matter,” she liked to point out. It was true. Once he had punched the front door so hard that he had a cast on his hand the next morning and there are still three shallow dents in the painted wood made by the knuckles he broke.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Cousins TV Repair and Antenna By Lorna Smedman