Thank you to the tracks of my life: Bart and Sarah-Nelle
Jackson. What a wonderful journey you give me.
And to Dinah’s friends:
Visit Dinah on her blog
—never a blah-g, she promises—
Old sins cast long shadows
— ENGLISH PROVERB
Take it from me, Dinah Galloway. You think the past is gone. It isn’t. It comes back.
Like the broccoli you stashed under your bed three weeks ago that starts to smell up your room. Or the annoying piano practice tunes from the Edna May Oliver exercise book that soft-shoe into your brain.
Or the jailbird friend of your late dad.
The Knave of Hearts
I thought I’d met Ardle McBean for the one and only time seven years ago, just before my dad got drunk, crashed his car into a tree and died. Ardle was grizzled, with wispy, pale brown hair almost the color of his scalp. You had to squint to see his hair, as if it were one of those optical illusion tests. Which made Ardle himself seem not quite real, like a dream. Or maybe a nightmare.
When the doorbell rang, I was belting out a kids’ song called “Black Socks”—
Black socks, they never get dirty,
The longer you wear them
The blacker they get.
Someday I think I will wash them,
But something keeps telling me
Don’t do it yet,
Not yet, not yet.
I ran to the door, even though I wasn’t supposed to answer it on my own. At five, I’d already established a firm pattern of not following instructions. I squinted at the man on the front step.
“Somethin’ wrong with your eyes, kid?” he asked me and gave the laugh-cough of a heavy smoker.
“I might have to get glasses,” I informed him. (I did, soon after.) “But I’d need a pair of binoculars to see where your hairline begins.”
I was getting lots of talks from Mother and Dad about making personal remarks to people. How these remarks, even if true, can hurt people’s feelings. However, the man just laugh-coughed at me. He wasn’t the uptight type. “Nuthin’ wrong with your voice, though, kid. Sure packs a wallop. Plannin’ to sing at Carnegie Hall one day?”
He chuckle-coughed, but I didn’t find it funny. I took my singing seriously. My Dad encouraged me to. Besides, I found singing—well, such a relief. Through my voice I could use up my energy, which I had a lot of.
“Yes, I am planning to sing at Crumbly Hall,” I said boldly, despite not having heard of the place. I could never resist a challenge. Besides, to me a “hall” was our church hall at St. Cecilia’s, a basement where teas and St. Valentine’s dinners were held. “I might just go there this week.”
That really set him off. He laugh-coughed so hard he had to back up to our flowerbed and spit into the pink cabbage roses.
“That oughtta cut down on this week’s watering,” I commented.
It was a hot, hot summer, the kind where you can see the heat wavering in the still air. As if the world is holding its breath for something to happen. This man was the type to make things happen, I thought. Good or bad things, I wasn’t sure.
It was then that Dad’s hand landed on my shoulder and whisked me behind him. “Ardle McBean,” he said, “I thought I’d talked you into turning yourself in.”
I peeked round Dad’s legs at Ardle. “Turning yourself into what?” I inquired with great interest. I was heavily into fairy tales at that point.
Ardle, whose thin face had grown glum at Dad’s remark, cheered up again. He lit a cigarette, took a deep drag on it and laugh-coughed all the time he was exhaling. “To the cops, kid. I pulled a break-and-enter last week and was dumb enough to leave my fingerprints all over the place. Old McBean is slippin’!
“But, see,” he bent down confidingly, “there’s somethin’ your dad’s keeping for me. In an envelope, like. I just need to know it’s safe.”
Dad demanded, “You know the dangers of secondhand smoke to a kid?” He pushed me behind him again; I popped right out, like a jack-in-the-box.
Ardle laugh-coughed. “Okay, I’ll git. I just wanted to make sure the king was okay, that’s all. Guess you don’t want to talk about the king in front o’ the kid, though.”
He gestured at me with his cigarette, scattering ashes over the porch Mother had just swept. “That sure is some songbird you got there, Mike. She makes ‘Black Socks’ sound like a Broadway show.”
Dad grinned at me. “How do the lyrics to that go?” he teased and crooned:
Dinah’s socks, That she never washes, You’d hardly notice One from the next.
“No, no!” I exclaimed, jumping up and down. “Not like that, Dad.”
But Dad was narrowing his eyes at Ardle. “The king is safe, okay? Hidden, so no one will find him. We clear on that?”
“Yeah, we’re clear,” Ardle said.
“We can discuss it more at the—” Dad glanced down at me and amended, “downtown.”
At the bar, I thought wisely. That was the place Mother and Dad had shouting matches about, late at night. I’d wake up and hear them. I wasn’t exactly clear on the bar concept, except that when Dad came home his words fell all over each other, and his breath smelled like cleaning disinfectant. Once he’d come into my room and cried.
It sure was more fun when he didn’t go to this bar place. He and Mother would laugh a lot. He told the funniest stories. My older sister Madge, who worshipped him, would sit and glow. When sober, Dad was magnetic.
And he’d play our ancient piano while I sang.
We’d bought the piano from our church for fifty bucks. Dad had tuned it, which Father Rourke called a miracle because, A, the piano was considered junk and, B, Dad had tuned a guitar before, but never a piano.
Dad had so many talents. He just never seemed to organize them very well.
Anyhow, Ardle McBean shuffled his grizzled gaze from Dad to me. “Okay, Mike. I just wanted to make sure about the king. Y’know, in case I get put away for a while.”
“What king?” I asked. I ransacked my brain. “The King of Hearts?”
I began jumping up and down again. “‘The King of Hearts called for the tarts and beat the Knave full sore.’” Then I repeated the line, only louder, with bigger jumps. “‘…AND BEAT THE KNAVE FULL SORE!’”
Instead of looking irritated, as most adults would’ve, Ardle regarded me with bemusement. “And folks say there’s an energy crisis,” he cracked. I grinned at him.
Dad didn’t. “ARDLE.”
Ardle held up hands with fingertips yellow-stained from nicotine. “I’m goin’, I’m goin’.”
Backing away, Ardle tripped against the bicycle-plus-training-wheels I’d left to one side of the front path. He spun in a maelstrom of flailing skinny legs and arms before crash-landing in Mother’s violets. “Whoa, Nellie,” he exclaimed, and his laugh-cough hacked out merrily.
Ardle sure was a good sport, I marveled. Last week a similar mishap had occurred to a door-to-door entertainment-book salesman. He’d threatened to sue.
As Ardle laugh-coughed his way down the long Grandview neighborhood hill, I tugged at Dad’s hand. And re-tugged. He seemed kind of distracted.
“Is Ardle the Knave of Hearts?” I demanded. I still had the nursery rhyme going through my head.
I was also trying to joke Dad out of his faraway thoughts. Usually I could do this. But this time he looked down and gave me a sad smile.
“I guess if anyone’s the Knave of Hearts around here, I am,” Dad said.
That didn’t make sense to me, not then.
But I was right about that hot, still summer. Something was waiting to happen, and it did. Within three weeks, Dad was dead.
After that I forgot all about Ardle McBean, except for a comment I overheard at Dad’s funeral. One of Dad’s friends was talking to someone else: “Ardle? Oh, he’s in the slammer again. Once a thief, always a thief. Turned himself in, though, I hear, thanks to Mike.”
I didn’t forget about Dad’s Knave of Hearts remark, though. It bothered me for a long time. Then, one day this past year, I was in a sound studio, recording a new jingle for Sol’s Salami on West Fourth. The sound people were all ready. I opened my mouth to belt my heart out, even if the song was about extra-garlic salami. My dad told me to put my heart into my singing, so I always do.
And all at once, thinking about belting my heart out, I got it. I understood what Dad had meant. He was the Knave of Hearts; that’s what he’d been saying. The Knave, the unreliable one, the scoundrel.
Dad must’ve sensed that, with his drinking, he’d one day disappear and take our hearts with him.
And he did.
A Discordant Piano Lesson
I thumped the piano keys, PING, PANG, PONNGG!! higher and higher up the scale. I liked making the high notes sound like screams.
For good measure, even though high notes weren’t in the Edna May Oliver exercise book propped in front of me, I struck them again. PONNGG!! Out the living room window the notes charged, hurtling down our East Vancouver street to Commercial Drive.
Colorful, with lots of delis and galleries, the Drive is a tourist attraction. Well, it was my civic duty to welcome visitors with a flourish, I decided. I thumped the keys some more.
My white and pumpkin-pie-colored cat, Wilfred, accompanied me with my playing. To the beat of my PONNGGs, Wilfred clawed fresh grooves in our old plush sofa. “He and I oughtta form a duet!” I shouted over the music at Mrs. Chewbley.
Mrs. Chewbley had such an odd expression on her face. She’d scrunched her features right up as if she were in pain. Oh well, I thought. That must be how piano teachers smile with delight. Soon Mrs. Chewbley would be telling everyone about her gifted student, twelve-year-old Dinah Galloway, the powerhouse pianist.
Shoving my glasses up my freckled nose, I splayed my fingers again for a fresh attack on the high-note keys.
Whoa. That was pretty impressive—considering I hadn’t actually lowered my fingers to the keys this time.
Hey, that was Mrs. Chewbley screaming. I followed her bulging-eyed gaze out the open living room window.
A green face with pointed teeth covered in blood was gaping in at us from among the hydrangeas.
“Oh hi, Pantelli,” I greeted my buddy.
Pantelli Audia pulled the mask from his face and rested it on his untidy black curls. “Hi, Di. Sorry, Mrs. Chewbley. I just wanted to find out if Dinah had packed yet. For our train trip back east,” he added as Mrs. Chewbley continued to tremble from the shock.
Hairpins were dripping from the piano teacher’s untidy hairdo; her gray bird’s nest bun was collapsing. With an effort, she managed a weak smile at Pantelli. He was her star pupil, up to grade eight in piano. His family’s mantelpiece was crammed with all the gleaming trophies he’d won.
Mrs. Chewbley assured him, “I know that you, Dinah, and Talbot St. John will be performing together on Tomorrow’s Cool Talent, that Toronto TV show. I’ll be watching proudly, I promise you.”
Talbot St. John, who lived down the street, rounded out our three-person ensemble by playing guitar. Talbot was the studious, conscientious type adults adored. He had solemn brown eyes and a long forelock of dark hair that some girls found attractive—okay, I did too, though only very mildly.
The chance to appear on Tomorrow’s Cool Talent had come up a few weeks earlier, when the show’s host had overheard us. That is, overheard Pantelli on piano, Talbot on guitar, and me on—well, on pipes, I guess you’d say. We had just solved a mystery in North Vancouver involving spotted owls and hang gliders. My sister Madge and I had been house-sitting in a posh neighborhood.
But I Di-gress.
Anyhow, we would be going to Toronto by train because Pantelli threw up on planes. He didn’t make any promises about not barfing on the train, but said it was less likely. Still, Talbot was firm about not taking a sleeping berth below Pantelli.
Mr. Wellman, my agent, would be coming with us, and so would Madge. Her fiancé, Jack French, planned to fly to Toronto and meet us for a mini-holiday.
Jack’s summer job was coordinating a wildlife preserva–tion group, which led to a lot of tiresome jokes about how he’d also have to look out for the wildlife, i.e., yours truly, back east. Unfunny. Like I always say, these older folk should leave the jokes to me.
“I’m particularly looking forward to hearing you, Pantelli. Your playing is divine,” Mrs. Chewbley was busy oozing. “So subtle…” She gave me a despairing glance.
I would’ve been insulted, except that Mrs. Chewbley, who was plump and jolly, had a mega sweet tooth just like me. Every time she came over, she unwrapped a box of mint creams or strawberry truffles or something equally yummy and non-nourishing. So I wasn’t rude to her, and I never put glue on her side of the piano bench or anything like that.
Not that I would, at the lofty age of twelve and two-thirds, but…you know. Thoughts do flit across one’s mind.
“We’ll chat later,” Mrs. Chewbley said fondly to Pantelli. “For now, Dinah has her lesson. She needs to finish her—er, playing.”
“BOO-WAAA-HA-HA” was Pantelli’s evil response. He slipped the mask back on and sank slowly into the hydrangeas. This would have had the sinister effect he no doubt intended, except for the pained screech that followed—“Yeeow! A wasp!”
“Maybe we should shut the window,” Mrs. Chewbley suggested.
“To prevent the wasp from flying in?”
“To prevent the neighbors from having to hear you play.”
I began a menacing scowl in slow motion. This was my new technique, based on the theory that a slo-mo scowl is much more frightening than a quick one. I got the idea from this story our teacher read aloud last year, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” by Edgar Allan Poe. Instead of a quick death, the prisoner is sentenced to watch a knife-sharp pendulum swing down toward him. Slowly…slowly…
Sorry, I got a bit carried away there. That story’s such fun. Anyhow, I was just turning my mouth down at both ends to match my scrunched-up eyes when Mrs. Chewbley gave another scream.
As before, she was gaping out the window. This time she also jumped, so the box of strawberry truffles that we’d only half polished off tumbled from her lap. Wilfred left the side of the sofa, where he’d been waiting for me to start playing again, to trot over and sniff the scattered truffles.
“Pantelli, give it a break, will you?” I demanded.
Then I heard it—the echo of the summer seven years ago when I lost my Dad.
I unscrunched my eyes, and there he was, grinning at us across the windowsill. Ardle McBean. More lined than I remembered, and that optical-illusion hairline had retreated. What hair he had hung in long straggles, not unlike the wisps of smoke twisting from the cigarette he held.
Mrs. Chewbley let loose another scream.
“Obviously an anti-smoker,” Ardle joked and cackled.
I was in rerun land. I was having a triple-decker sensa–tion that went like this: Ardle was here, therefore I must be five again, and therefore Dad would appear with dadly indignation and be all angry and protective.
Fast forward, Dinah. Not Dad’s hand on my shoulder, but the icy, unsympathetic hand of reality. I was on my own, Dadless. Now and lifelong.
“Hey,” said Ardle, leaning over the sill. “You aren’t cryin’, are you, kid?”
“I never cry,” I said and, lifting my glasses, wiped the back of my hand against my eyes.
“Sung at Crumbly Hall yet?”
“It’s Carnegie Hall,” I snapped. I now knew that Carnegie Hall was in New York and that my idol, Judy Garland, had performed there. Had practically split the rafters with her belting out. “And, no, I’m not booked there, but keep checking with Ticketmaster.”
I was also annoyed at Ardle for having startled poor old Mrs. Chewbley. Pantelli and I were very fond of her. Pantelli’s regular piano teacher, Mrs. Grimsbottom, was a holy terror. As in, screeched at him for not practicing enough. Then, a few weeks ago, Mrs. Grimsbottom got sick, and Pantelli’s mom found Mrs. Chewbley.
Mrs. Chewbley had turned out to be so very nice that Mother and Mr. Wellman, my agent, finally convinced me to start taking lessons. Mr. Wellman said, “You never know, Dinah. It might help you when you’re older to be able to accompany yourself while you sing. Like Diana Krall.”
Up to now, the only Krall I’d experienced was on my skin, at the thought of taking piano lessons with the dreaded Edna May Oliver exercise books and practices.
Pantelli liked Mrs. Chewbley even more than I did. She actually puts up with my ranting about trees, Dinah.Can you believe it? Okay, so she lets out the occasional snore, but still…
Anyhow, back to Ardle’s sudden arrival. Mother rushed in, wrapped in a bathrobe and with a towel round her hair. “Mrs. Chewbley, what’s with these repeated screams? I—”
She caught sight of Ardle.
There’s nothing like the sight of other people getting upset to calm oneself down. I gulped down the last of the lump in my throat and announced, “Mother, this is Ardle McBean, an unsavory friend of Dad’s.”
Ardle laugh-coughed and winked at me. Jamming his cigarette in his mouth, he shoved the nicotine-yellow fingers of his right hand over the sill. “Sorry ’bout the abrupt arrival.” Ardle grinned, displaying fewer teeth than I remembered. They were long and skinny, like him. “I saw the black-haired kid present himself at this window, and I thought maybe that’s how they do things chizz Galloway.”
“I think you mean the French word chez,” Mrs. Chewbley corrected rather crossly. She was pushing bobby pins back into place to re-secure her bird’s nest bun, which had come undone with all her screaming.
“No, I mean ‘chizz,’” said Ardle, and he laugh-coughed. I had to chomp my lower lip not to laugh with him. This was the kind of humor my friends and I found extremely witty.
Flushing, Mrs. Chewbley started gathering strawberry truffles from the floor and placing them atop the piano. Even slightly crushed, they looked good. But I had to restrain myself. Mother had this irritating rule about eating things off the floor.
Ardle winked at me. He knew exactly what I was thinking, I was sure of it. I had a feeling Ardle had never bothered much about irritating rules.
Mother ignored Ardle’s outstretched hand. “You couldn’t have been that good a friend of my husband’s,” she said coldly. “He never told me about you.”
“I reckon I’m not the type he’d want to show off to his family,” Ardle said agreeably.
With a sudden, lithe movement he hoisted himself on the sill. He used his still-outstretched hand to take three of the strawberry truffles Mrs. Chewbley had rescued. He piled them into his mouth all at once and winked at me again.
Ardle said, with his mouth full—another no-no for yours truly—“I just got outta the slammer, and I’m here to collect something Mike owed me.”
Mother was edging toward the phone. I didn’t have to be a psychic to know that the number in her mind was 9-1-1. “And what might that something be?” she asked.
Ardle displayed chocolate-covered teeth. “Eighty thou–sand dollars.”
Eighty thousand dollars—Mike Galloway? Our Mike Galloway? Mother and I were statue-stiff with shock. Everyone knew that Dad never had any money at all. If he earned some, he spent it instantly on extravagant gifts for us or else booze.
“That’s impossible,” Mother finally blurted into the stunned silence.
“Nope.” Ardle removed a much-creased piece of paper from his tattered denim jacket. “Got the IOU right here.”
He unfolded it, and we saw, in Dad’s untidy scrawl, I’m keeping $80,000 for Ardle McBean—Michael Galloway, with a seven-year-old date underneath.
How a Prank Capped Dinah's Day
To my disappointment, Mother went ahead and punched in 9-1-1. Oh, I know that was the prudent thing to do, what with Ardle being an ex-con, but to me it was anti-climactic. Ardle scuttled away, though not before grabbing some more strawberry truffles. A fast exit, but a sweet one.
Two police officers showed up, took lots of notes and were very reassuring to Mother. If Ardle hassled us again, they’d charge him with extortion—a long word referring to his demand for the eighty thousand dollars.
“So, back to the Big House for him?” I said chattily to the nearest police officer, as one sleuth to another. Talbot, Pantelli and I had learned the term big house from all the old prison movies we enjoyed watching on Turner Classic Movies.
“Huh?” the officer said, puzzled—and Mother reminded me it was time for softball practice.
Whipping the bat round, I smashed the ball. Straight into the ground. Dirt flew.
Talbot St. John, who was helping teach girls’ softball at our neighborhood park, stepped toward me from the pitcher’s mound. “Interesting technique, Dinah,” he observed. “Though awfully close to home plate, that would qualify as a live ball—and you might make it to first on the shock factor alone. The other team would be numb with amazement at a hitter who aimed for China.”
“I have power,” I defended myself. “The actual range will come later, I’m sure.”
Talbot looked at me, his dark eyes skeptical. He made some notes on the chart attached to his clipboard. Talbot took his job as assistant instructor very seriously. As a matter of fact, Talbot took life very seriously—but I was working on that. There was hope for him yet.
On a rare athletic impulse, I’d got Mother to sign me up for these summer softball lessons, organized through our community center. Talbot had suggested it. He said he’d noticed that when he, Pantelli and I tossed a ball around, I had “potential.”
Talbot pitched some more balls. More dirt flew. “You’re making good progress, Dinah,” Talbot said quietly, amid the guffaws from the girls on the bench.
Next up was Liesl Dubuque, the neighbors’ niece. Liesl, with raven hair and a pale pretty face that finished in a sharp chin, was staying next door for a year while her parents traveled.
Liesl and I did not like each other. Almost from the time she arrived on Wisteria Drive, she’d taunted me for being loud—which at first puzzled and then annoyed me because I’d always prided myself on my VOLUME. My voice was my heart, so in putting my voice down, she was putting down the essence of Dinah Mary Galloway.
Unfortunately, I was forbidden to insult Liesl or show her any sort of unpleasantness. The reason: A couple of months ago, in an e-mail prank, I’d tricked Liesl into chopping off that pitch-black hair she was so anxious to grow.
Except that she who snickers last snickers best. Now Liesl could insult me all she wanted, while I had to maintain a saintly silence at all times. Or else, as Mother warned me, I’d be grounded for a year.
I took my place on the bench. Liesl was beckoning Talbot over from the pitcher’s mound for a “personal consultation,” as she called it. I weighed the immediate bliss of an insult or, even better, a running tackle against a year’s worth of being grounded. If only Mother hadn’t laid that on me. Why couldn’t she be one of those irre–sponsible parents?