Contrary to popular belief, not all babies are born beautiful. Trust me, I should know. As evidenced by my baby pictures, I wasn’t a looker by any stretch of the imagination. But rather than attempting to gloss over my imperfections with words such as “distinguished,” “unique,” and “character,” I’ve adopted a more direct approach, insisting, “I have a face that only a mother could love.” Truth be told, she hasn’t always cared that much for it either.
“You were no prize, that’s for sure,” she used to tell me. “You had these big, floppy ears, your eyes were crossed, and your nose was all smooshed up against the side of your fat little cheek.” According to her, it also took me sixteen months to start walking. “You were the laziest baby in the world. You didn’t even bother to crawl, just rolled around on the floor, a big lump of Play-Doh. I was afraid that I might have given birth to a retard.”
While I can’t explain my looks, I believe my lack of mobility might have been a cleverly designed defense mechanism, offering me early protection from my mother’s debilitating cleaning disorder. Remaining stationary must have kept me safely out of the way as she frantically attended to her never-ending list of daily chores, for soon after my first steps, I was promptly exiled to the outdoors. “Go play in the backyard so I can give this place a good going over,” she’d say, shuttling me out the door. “And don’t come back in until I call you for supper. I don’t need you dirtying up the house before your father gets home from work.”
Were housekeeping an Olympic event, my mother’s dresser drawers would be neatly stacked with gold medals. She’s the type of person who lays down a bedsheet when frying bacon to prevent grease from spattering onto the kitchen floor. Growing up, I tried to help with the chores but never came close to meeting her exacting standards. Take making my bed, for instance. Every morning I’d throw the covers up over the mattress, and, after a quick trip to the bathroom, I’d return to find hospital corners and tucked-in blankets, the creases and lumps in the bedspread miraculously vanished. All that was missing was a fresh mint sitting atop my pillow and a bath towel folded into the shape of a swan. Plenty of other examples come to mind as well, like vacuuming, say, or dusting or tidying a shoe closet. Except for taking out the garbage, everything got redone. Half the time I doubt if my mom even realized she was doing it. She just couldn’t help herself.
This obsessive-compulsiveness played havoc with her health. Bouts of depression, which descended upon her like a dense fog, were common, as were painful-looking, itchy hives that rendered her bedridden for days. Once, following my father’s retirement, my mother threw her back out as they were leaving for a golf holiday. When pressed for an explanation as to why she felt compelled to bend over, walk backward, and brush her footprints out of the carpet as she headed out the door, she lowered her eyes and sighed, “I just wanted everything to look nice for when we came back.”
When I was eight years old, a boy named Martin Semes, who had been my best friend since the beginning of grade one, moved into a new house down the street from me. Unlike my house, which had the antiseptic “look, but don’t touch” feel of a show home, Martin’s house possessed a laid-back quality that said, “Welcome, friend. Kick up your feet and stay awhile.”
Both our families had three kids in them, but while I was barely older than my brother and sister, Martin was the youngest by a longshot. At nineteen, his sister Connie was already living with her boyfriend, Dwayne, in Calgary, and because fifteen-year-old Joanne was hardly ever around, occupied, as she was, with a boyfriend of her own, we mainly had the house to ourselves. Martin’s father, Tomas, who we addressed as “Pops,” was a pint-sized plug of a man whose cheeks were scuffed with blossoms of exploded blood vessels. He smoked cigars down to the nub, jamming the smoldering stubs into the opening of his pipe, and the harsh smoke lent a wheezy raspiness to his high-pitched voice, making him sound the way Mickey Mouse might if the cartoon character suffered from chronic bronchitis. “MeeGrat,” both he and his wife, Marta, or “Mutz,” called me, their pronunciation heavily accented by their Czechoslovakian heritage, but unlike her husband, Mutz was a towering figure, as imposing as the surrounding mountains, with a voice that rumbled like an avalanche. “You no listen to me,” she’d say, sometimes jokingly but most times not, “and I squash you like a bug.”
During the week, Martin and I occupied ourselves with the typical things one might expect from two young boys—card and board games, Hot Wheels, listening to Joanne’s 45s—but come three o’clock every Saturday afternoon, we dropped whatever we were doing to watch Stampede Wrestling. Featuring an all-star lineup, the show was hosted by a local sportscaster named Ed Whalen, who described the matches using colorful catchphrases such as “It’s going to be a ring-a-ding-dong-dandy!” “Whoa, Nellie!” and, inevitably, when something went horribly wrong, the ever popular “There’s a malfunction at the junction!” Ed was at his best, though, while conducting interviews. I’m thinking of all the times things got personal between him and my favorite villain, a massive mound of mayhem who wrestled under the name of Tor Kamata.
Kamata would begin each interview in a good mood, playfully suggesting, “Mistah Whalen, you and me go to Japan and open biiiig Japanese restaurant,” his triumphant voice easily drowning out the crowd’s boos. The pleasantries then continued, with Ed politely declining Kamata’s offers of Japanese silk suits, and it wasn’t until Ed eventually confronted him about throwing salt into his opponent’s eyes that all hell would break loose. “Noooo chancee, Mistah Whalen,” Kamata would growl, backing Ed into a turnbuckle, and, in retaliation, Ed would bash him over the head with his microphone, shouting, “Get away from me, you big galoot!”
Even at a young age, I could tell the matches were staged. I mean, come on, throwing salt into someone’s eyes? But even more enjoyable than the theatrics inside the ropes, was observing Pops’s reaction to it. Like many of the miners from the old country, Pops believed the fighting was real, and once the show’s theme music began playing, he’d lean forward on the couch, puffing relentlessly on his cigar-stuffed pipe. “Aaaah, MeeGrat,” he’d say, patting the cushions. “Come, sit, the wrestling start.”
The program was a wrestling master class: pile drivers, head locks, and sleeper holds; double crosses and cage matches; midget tag teams. Combatants flew off the top ropes, pulled foreign objects from their trunks, and smashed folding chairs over one another’s heads. As the matches intensified, Pops became increasingly engaged, his movements animated, as if he himself were part of the action. “Aaaah, Archie Stomper Gouldie, you no-good crazy shit,” he would scream. “Kill him. Kill him!” He shook his fists and kicked at the air, causing the couch to shimmy, inch by inch, the castors screeching along the hardwood floor until our knees were grazing the TV screen. “Abdullah Butcher, you gonna get it now, you cheat cocksucker.” Punch. “MeeGrat! Go to kitchen and tell Momma I need beer from fridge.” Another punch. “Get him, you son-o-ma-bitch bastard. You be see, I show you.” Kick, followed by an elbow smash. “Momma! Get MeeGrat beer.”
There was always something happening at Martin’s. Neighbors would stop by for coffee in the morning, or an afternoon beer, and then return later in the evening to play a Slavic card game called Hola, which means “nakedness.” No amount of Hola, though, would sufficiently prepare me for a July visit by Krystyna Witkowski, the mother of our friend Danny, who lived two doors down from Martin. Mutz was busy baking a batch of poppy seed rolls and Martin and I were eating lunch when Krystyna showed up, dressed in her latest summer outfit. “So, Marta, what you think?” she asked, her arms spread out, turning slowly before us. A turquoise halter top barely contained her sagging breasts and wisps of pubic hair poked out from under the hot-pink hot pants strangling her butt cheeks. “Is sexy, no?”
Mutz set down her rolling pin and dusted flour from her hands. “What the hell you wearing, you stupid woman?”
“Yoiky! What, you no like my new clothes?”
“You look like old kurva,” Mutz answered. Kurva, Martin had taught me, was the Slavic word for “whore.”
“What you mean, kurva?” Again Krystyna raised herself onto the toes of her wedge sandals and twirled. A fierce network of purple veins coursed through her flabby legs, which were otherwise pasty, the color and texture of bread dough. “Marta, you know nothing. I am beautiful.”
“Go home and put on clothes,” Mutz told her. “Then you come back, and I make coffee.”
As Krystyna stomped out of the house, huffing and slamming the door behind her, Mutz picked up her rolling pin and waved it in our stunned direction. “Hurry up and finish soup, boys, before you lose appetite.”
The image of Krystyna Witkowski’s body became seared into my brain, but, thankfully, the scarring was eventually healed by the glut of porn magazines that Martin had stashed beneath the heat register in his bedroom. During my teenage years, I spent my lunch hours leafing through the pictorials, stopping only to read the Playmate Data Sheet (BUST:36 WAIST:24 HIPS:35; TURN-ONS: the beach, chocolate, kittens❣❣❣; TURN-OFFS: bad breath! hairy backs!!!!) and the back pages, where penis enlargers and other sexual aids were sold. It was there, at the age of fifteen, that I came across an ad touting the erotic benefits of something called “Spanish fly.” LOVE POTION, the caption read, GUARANTEED RESULTS, and seeing as it was Martin’s responsibility to pick up the mail from the post office every day, we were soon placing an order.
As promised, our shipment arrived in an unmarked, brown-paper package, and once we divvied up the red-and-yellow capsules, I was left only with the dilemma of where to store my share. It needed to be somewhere that offered easy access yet remained hidden from my parents, and after much deliberation, I decided to tuck the plastic bag of pills inside my pillowcase. There, I figured, they would be stored in a clean environment, safely nestled under my head every night.
Because I was young and stupid and couldn’t keep my big mouth shut, news of our purchase spread, bringing me some unwanted attention less than a week later, when I returned from school and my mother asked, “Since when did you and Kyle Fenwick become so buddy-buddy?”
I was scared to death of Kyle Fenwick. Stocky, bad complexion, shifty, beady eyes: he was two years older than me, the bullying son of a policeman. “I’m not friends with him,” I answered.
“Well, you might want to let Kyle in on that important piece of information, then, because from the number of times he’s come looking for you lately, I’d have to say he thinks you two are the best of pals.”
Later that evening, I heard the squeaking of our screen door, followed by rapid-fire pounding. “Michael,” my mother called from the living room. “It’s him again. Go and see what he wants. And tell him to knock it off with all the banging. I’m not deaf, but if he keeps that up, I soon will be.”
I went to the back door and found Kyle fidgeting on our patio. “What the hell are you doing here?” I whispered.
“I want to buy some of your Spanish fly,” he said.
I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Bullshit. Everybody knows. And everybody wants some. So I suggest you fork it over.” Kyle held out his hand, closing it into a fist. “Or we can do this another way…”
It didn’t seem like I had a choice. I was no match for Kyle Fenwick, and even if I stood my ground, I’d have a hard time explaining to my parents why I had gotten into a fight with him. “How many do you want?” I asked, and being the greedy little scumbag that he was, Kyle answered, “How many you got?”
“I don’t know, maybe a dozen,” I lied, knowing I had nearly twice that amount.
Kyle pulled five dollars out of his pocket. “I’ll take ten, fifty cents each,” he said, which surprised me—not because of the number he requested but because he correctly figured out the math. “Meet me at the bike racks tomorrow morning.”
I returned to the living room, where my mother was standing at the picture window with her hands on her hips, suspiciously eyeing Kyle as he walked away. “I don’t know if I like the idea of you hanging around with that Fenwick character,” she said.
I quickly reminded her that we weren’t friends, and then reassured her that we never would be, either. “He just wanted to ask me something about a girl he has a crush on.”
“Poor girl,” my mother sighed. “I don’t trust that kid as far as I can throw him. I wouldn’t be surprised if his father winds up having to put him in jail one these days.” Then she eased herself back into the recliner and returned to her TV program. “Now, why don’t you come over here and give your poor old mother a neck rub. My arthritis has been giving me nothing but gyp lately.”
I was hoping things might calm down after that, but a few days later during lunch, the phone rang at Martin’s, interrupting a game show we were watching. “It’s your mom,” Martin shouted from the kitchen.
“It is?” She never called looking for me, and after tearing myself away from the TV, I answered saying, “Hey, Mom, what’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on. You get your butt home right now, that’s what’s going on.”
Oh, she was angry, fuming, in fact, and sensing things were about to get even worse, I told her that I didn’t have time because we had to start heading back to school.
“Nice try,” she said, adding that she wasn’t as dumb as I thought she was. “I found your cocaine pills today when I went to wash your bedding.”
A million thoughts raced through my mind, none of them good. “Those aren’t cocaine,” I finally told her.
“Well, they’re sure as hell not Tic Tacs either.”
Again I considered my options and, realizing I had none, said, “It’s Spanish fly.”
“And what’s that? Some sort of fancy name for an upper or a downer?”
I swallowed hard. “It’s, um, it’s, it’s for making…it’s for making girls…horny.”
“Horn—” and unable to say the entire word, she slammed the phone down, which was just as well, as I’d already heard enough to know that school was going to have to wait.
“Why didn’t you just stick them down an air vent?” Martin asked when I informed him what had happened, and, cringing with embarrassment, I answered, “I thought they would melt.”
Martin laughed. “You big dummy. Why do you think it’s called ‘room temperature’?”
Not long after my mother flushed my remaining supply of Spanish fly down the toilet in a fit of rage, Martin and I conducted an experiment in an attempt to find out, once and for all, what all the fuss was about. We were driving around town in Martin’s car before a school dance with our friend Andrea, a freckle-faced science whiz with a pixie cut who’d volunteered to be our guinea pig. She’d broken open one of Martin’s capsules and dumped it into a bottle of Orange Crush, but instead of dissolving, the powder clumped, creating a murky swill, which led her to question its authenticity. “This tastes like icing sugar,” she said, licking her fingers.
I paused a moment to let that sink in.When it came to these kinds of things, Andrea was usually right, but without any proof, I wasn’t about to admit defeat. “Drink the pop anyway,” I told her. “Give it a chance to kick in.”
Five minutes passed, then ten. After fifteen, the bottle was empty but still, nothing. In the end Martin and I didn’t give up hope until the half-hour mark when, after asking her for about the twentieth time if she felt any different, Andrea turned to us and sighed, “No, so will the two of you just shut the fuck up already?”
After the mines ceased operations in July 1979, Canmore struggled to survive, but following the 1988 Winter Olympics, it began a resurgence, gradually becoming, for better or worse, the mountain resort it is today. It certainly isn’t the same little, sleepy town anymore: picturesque golf courses and multi-million-dollar housing developments now dominate the landscape, especially where the mines used to be. Still, whenever I returned for a visit, it was always comforting to find Martin’s house relatively unchanged, remaining one of the few touchstones to my childhood. Then came the summer of 2016, when I drove into town and discovered that the old blue-and-white bungalow had been demolished. In its place, an enormous dwelling was being erected, swallowing the entire lot. Its design was sleek and modern: clean lines, all glass and metal, the cutting-edge architecture competing with the neighboring pines for attention. Only the address, which was now carved prominently into a steel beam that ran the width of the building, remained the same.
Martin’s house: gone, I thought, and, shaken, I leaned against my car and recalled happier moments from my youth. Listening to the heavy-footed construction workers traipse across the plywood flooring, I pictured the wrestlers I’d seen on Stampede Wrestling, stomping their boots on the canvassed planks of the ring. A skill-saw rang out intermittently, bringing back memories of Pops’s crazy antics and the shrieking couch. Then, without warning, a loud thud emanated from within the structure’s walls, sounding as if someone had been forcefully thrown into a turnbuckle. A thunderous crash followed, and hearing the muffled, anguished cries of an injured workman, I imagined a wrestler writhing in pain after missing his intended target with a body slam.
The commotion shook me out of my stupor, and I ran to within a few feet of the house, thinking, Whoa, Nellie! There’s been a malfunction at the junction. Then I climbed onto a retaining wall and, pressing my hands and face against the expansive windowpanes, peered inside, hoping against hope to catch a further glimpse of the action, and eager, so very, very eager for even the slightest hint of blood.
Michael McGrath is originally from Canmore, Alberta, Canada, back when it was just a grubby little coal-mining town in the Canadian Rockies and not the posh mountain resort it is today. He was a high school PE in Calgary until his retirement. Having since married an American, Michael now splits his time between Calgary and Chicago, and in addition to holding a green card, he’s a dual citizen of Canada and Ireland. His essays have appeared in The Bookends Review, Rocky Mountain Outlook, The Penmen Review, with another forthcoming in the June 2023 issue of Blank Spaces.