No Longer 
on the Menu

Fiction

I was surprised but not shocked when my Aunt Milda began to see her dead son up on the telephone pole outside her window in the mornings. 
At her age, anything was possible. I had to do something, and not just 
for her sake. As her tenant, I had everything to lose if she was carted off to 
a seniors’ residence.

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“I don’t know how Frankie manages to perch there,” she said when I came in from my heated garage to join her at morning coffee. “The wire is very thin.”

As if that would bother a ghost. “The wire is immaterial,” I said, humouring her, “like a line on a computer screen.”

She didn’t know what I meant and went on. “I call out from the window for him to come inside, but he never answers me. He just looks at me funny and then he disappears.”

“You mean he vanishes into thin air?”

“I look away and when I look again, he’s gone.”

Aunt Milda wore her hair pinned up in the mornings, but her eyesight was poor and she was getting forgetful. A few wild gray wisps stuck out 
on one side of her head. She wore a beige housecoat and ate rye crisps with blackcurrant jam while she sipped camomile tea. Until a couple of years earlier, she had existed on chocolate and coffee, and now here she was, acting like someone’s eastern European grandmother.

“Don’t look so frightened,” she said. “Remember, you’re my designated favourite nephew.”

As to the vision of Frankie up on the telephone pole, I believed Aunt Milda was working out her grief.

It was an old joke that was supposed to buck me up, but it didn’t work any more.

She meant no harm, but I was feeling sensitive anyway, and had been for a long time. I was glad my parents weren’t alive to know I was staying in Aunt Milda’s garage. Things had gone wrong for me a long time before, and she let me move in “temporarily.” When the first winter came, I heated the garage with a leaky kerosene heater that stank so bad it made me gag. I got used to it.

As to the vision of Frankie up on the telephone pole, I believed Aunt Milda was working out her grief. She had barely had time to mourn the death of Frankie before her husband got sick, and then she was wrapped up in helping him die, so it was only natural that her son’s ghost should appear now, when she had the time for him.

There was no one else left except the two of us, now three, if you counted Frankie; people died or moved away. Who else was she going to talk to? It made me wonder who I’d talk to after she was gone.

It also made me wonder where I’d stay after she passed away. The 
heated garage with the separate entrance onto the back lane had solved a lot of problems for me, but if she ever moved, I’d have to find new haunts.

“What language does Frankie speak to you?” I asked. “English or 
Lithuanian?”

“English.”

I had been hoping to catch her out in a contradiction, to jolt her back into reality, but her answer was the right one. When Frankie was alive, he always spoke to her in English even though she spoke to him only in Lithuanian. 
I had thought she might be making him speak Lithuanian in the afterlife to compensate for his indifference to his ethnic heritage while he was alive.

It’s hard to make ghosts change their habits.

We were sitting in the combination living-dining room in her Dovercourt house, south of Dundas. Everyone else we knew from the old neighbourhood moved west forty years ago, first to Roncesvalles, then High Park 
and on to the suburb of Mississauga—for all I knew, the last of the old Lithuanian immigrants were still heading west. Maybe they’d meet the last Mohican somewhere around Saskatchewan. Aunt Milda had stayed as 
the district shifted, became Portuguese in the seventies, and then filled with young people.

In my day, the street used to be full of Ukrainians and Poles, but now it was leftover Portuguese, aging Gen X hipsters and Gen Y moms with 
baby carriages—a whole different generation, a whole different animal in the zoo.

The beautiful women in sunglasses didn’t seem to come from anywhere at all. They were real estate cool hunters. They grew up in the suburbs, but now they wanted authenticity, and they came to look for it around Ossington and Dundas. The Annex and Little Italy were already too expensive.

I could get whiplash by looking back and forth between the cramped meanness of the past and the cell phone–chattering future.

Nobody cared about authenticity back in the fifties and the sixties. They had crawled out of the muck of their authentic villages and now, two generations later, their grandchildren were back, sniffing the air for traces of horse manure, herring and sheepskin.

If they ever smelled them for real, they’d call in the city health department.

The generation between these two, that would be mine, were embarrassed by their parents—the striving, the yearning, the sadness for all they’d lost were too exhausting a burden to take on. But my generation’s kids seemed heedless and entitled. I could get whiplash by looking back and forth between the cramped meanness of the past and the cell phone–chattering future.

Except for a third layer of asphalt shingles, Aunt Milda’s house hadn’t changed at all for fifty years, maybe longer. The screen door was still wooden, with the netting torn in many places, the halls still painted in middling green so fingerprints wouldn’t show.

Aunt Milda had given up dusting long ago.

“Why should I throw up the dust?” she asked. “It will just have to settle someplace else. For now, just let it be.”

The living room used to be crowded with uncles, aunts and cousins over Christmases and weddings—the grownups dancing so hard that the floor bounced under their feet and the neighbours called to complain.

One of the ladies nicknamed “Little Fly” once got loaded and climbed up to dance on a table. This on-table dancing was some sort of big deal to them, though my aunt could never understand why dancing on tables was supposed to be such a sign of a good party. I couldn’t bear to tell her that 
it was a big deal if the women doing the dancing were undressed, or at least scantily dressed.

Aunt Milda was old-fashioned in some ways, but she was modern in others. I loved her, both for herself and what she reminded me of, all the other ghosts in the room. Architecture and durable goods will leave remnants, something for archeologists to dig up in the future, but the actions that happened in the past leave nothing but memories in the rag and bone shop of my heart. How am I to preserve them?

Aunt Milda’s son, my cousin Frankie, had made my life miserable at 
the end when he was sick and dying. We were always competitive, but now 
he held the moral high ground. He would haul himself downstairs on his crutches—he was divorced by then and his parents were looking after him—face slightly deformed by the operation and head bald from the chemo. He looked with disgust at the food I’d brought, scalloped potatoes, roast beef and salad. He lowered himself into his chair, grunted, and said, “Carcinogens. That’s what all that stuff is.”

Like I needed to worry about carcinogens when I lived in a carbon monoxide factory.

My aunt made me go out to the Arab place to buy tabboulleh and hummus. The neighbourhood had become mostly Portuguese, but Frankie would not eat a spit-roasted chicken if his life depended on it; by then, his life depended on nothing but time.

They were all like that, the dead and missing relatives—irritating when present, achingly absent when gone, sometimes even irritating when gone. I know I annoyed Aunt Milda even though I was pretty much her only companion until Frankie showed up.

I thought I’d try the direct approach to curing Aunt Milda.

“You know,” I said, leaning forward over the kitchen table, “your son really is dead.”

“What kind of dead do you call it if I see him around as much as I see you?”

“This happens a lot?”

“Most early mornings. I invite him in, but Frankie won’t come. He just sits out on that telephone pole. He won’t even talk to me!”

That sounded just like Frankie. When he sulked, he could pull a silent treatment that lasted for weeks.

Then it occurred to me that Aunt Milda was so old, she was seeing the other side already. What did I have to lose by checking the story? I went out to the backyard and walked around my garage home to the alley side.

Nobody takes care of alleys in Toronto, so they’re always a mess of trash: 
a mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, old kettles, old bottles 
and a broken can, old iron, old bones, old rags, old memories of the girl 
I kissed back here on a summer’s night after a party in the front of the house. We played hockey here in the fifties, when the only Canadian kids we knew belonged to working class families too poor to move out, the kinds of kids whose parents were orderlies down at the mental hospital 
at the end of the street. In the long run, hurt by the war, some of our 
parents made it into that same hospital as patients. Some came out and some didn’t.

These Canadian kids of Irish descent were the enemy, the ones you had to out-run in ball hockey, the ones you needed to humiliate before they humiliated you. An immigrant kid never quite gets over having to prove himself. He keeps looking for the next asshole, and if he looks hard enough, he always finds one.

I climbed up onto my garage roof where I could get a good view of the telephone pole Aunt Milda was talking about without standing out in the street and been gawked at.

What did I expect? Nothing, really, and nothing is what I saw unless you count a bend in the light, a distortion by the crossbar at the transformer. 
I could have looked longer, I suppose, but I was embarrassed enough already. I climbed down the ladder.

I went back inside to find Aunt Milda looking out the back window, the way I had come. She seemed pale, unhealthy. She needed something.

“You don’t drink coffee any more?” I asked.

“It makes me jittery without waking me up.”

“Does camomile do anything for you?”

“No. It’s like ersatz, the stuff we drank during the war, not much better than hot water.”

I thought for a while. “Do you remember Tangy Wishniaks?” I asked.

“What are you talking about?”

There was that note of irritation, a special kind of love we demonstrate to those who were once close to us.

“You know, Tangy Wishniaks, a drink they served at the Lakeview Lunch, over at Ossington and Dundas. When I was a kid you or my parents would go there sometimes after mass on Sundays. I always ordered a Tangy Wishniak because the name sounded so weird.”

“That’s nice.”

“Aunt Milda, they’re more than nice, they’re fantastic! One of those would pick me up for the rest of the boring Sunday afternoon. My father once drank a Tangy Wishniak and it cured his hangover. If that’s not a miracle, 
I don’t know what is.”

“You were very young when your father died.”

“I remember it as if it was yesterday. Listen, I’m going to go out to the Lakeview and get you a Tangy Wishniak.”

“I’m not that thirsty. I just had some tea.”

“You’ll be thirsty by the time I get back.”

“What’s the big deal with a soda fountain drink?”

“That’s just it. This is the last real soda fountain drink in the world. Nobody makes those anymore. It will pick you up. You’ll see more clearly. It’s refreshing the way Coke was supposed to be refreshing but never was.”

“Sure,” she said, patting the table next to my hand, “get me a Tangy Wishniak, but take your time. I’m going to take a nap.”

I didn’t want to lie to her, but she might balk if I told her what my real destination was. The Tangy Wishniak was a red herring.

I thought I’d go down to the Lithuanian parish on Gore Vale at Dundas, the one we used to go to when I was a kid. I’d get Father Pete to drop by. He could help out whether or not Frankie was a ghost: on the one hand, the old priest might be able to act like a lay psychiatrist and counsel her; on the other hand, if there was any truth to the ghostly business, maybe he could do an exorcism and take the ghost away. One thing for sure: a Catholic priest was way cheaper than a psychiatrist. Most Lithuanians have peasant roots—they try the cheapest solution first.

I liked to stick to my back alley, so I hadn’t been up Dovercourt in a long time. I became uneasy at Dundas Street, feeling not exactly agoraphobia, but a sense of displacement. Let’s face it, a man who resides in a heated garage is not exactly a man about town.

The street had a lot of new stores on it. It was amazing how fast the place changed. Dundas around Dovercourt was a neighbourhood that never had a heyday. It was made of slapped-together two- and three-storey red brick storefronts, lively but gritty, boomtown rich in good decades, just plain gritty in the bad ones.

On the southeast corner of Dundas and Ossington, there’d been the Lithuanian Community Centre, a dump of a long, narrow building where the old-time boozers sat around all day, drinking beer. Just south on Ossington had been the Aster Theatre, a cinema or maybe an old vaudeville house from before my time.

Both were gone. In their place stood a Canadian Imperial Bank of 
Commerce, a long, ugly, stucco building like some kind of elongated, grey lizard that had settled on the south side of the street.

Luckily, the old Lakeview Lunch was still across the way. This was the restaurant where I’d had my first Tangy Wishniak. It was something like black cherry soda, but homemade. I loved the name, one that sang of Slavic aspirations, and every time there was a new waitress, I’d ask her where the name came from.

I’d get this look, like, what am I, a historian? an anthropologist? a know-it-all?

Who knew where drink names came from? One of my pals said Jews made the drink and another said it came from Poland. Once, when my father sent me down to the Jewish market to buy some bagels, I’d asked the baker there.

“Hey Jew,” I said, “What’s a Wishniak?”

He looked at me like I was a child anti-Semite.

Closer to home, we had a butcher who sold Polish sausage. I thought, if he sells Polish sausage, maybe he knows about Polish drinks too.

“Hey Pollack,” I said. “What’s a Wishniak?”

“Hey stupid kid,” he said. “Learn some manners.”

We were all less sensitive back then. We insulted one another democratically, competitively. Whoever did it the best, won. Now the rules were 
different. Nobody was playing rough any more; nobody was playing at all. 
I guess it was easy for me to say. Hardly anyone knew what Lithuanians were, and those few who did weren’t all that warm to us.

The Lakeview Lunch was pretty much as I’d always remembered it: dark wood panelling and booth seating that had always made me feel grown up. But the place was not full of regular people, the way it used to be: local bachelors or store owners who took their meals there and the slightly higher-end drunks who didn’t want to drink in the Lithuanian Community Centre across the street.

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The place had been discovered by Gen X and Y moms. The everyday food of the past had become the comfort food of the present. Hipsters slipped 
in here sometimes for meatloaf or a hot chicken sandwich, but they did it ironically.

I took a seat on a stool at the empty counter. I must have flagged the waitress three times, but she still ignored me. At the best of times, I was practically invisible to everyone except Aunt Milda.

Finally, a geezer busboy came banging out of the swinging doors from the kitchen. The waitress didn’t notice him either. She practically walked straight through him. He was lean and bony in the way of men who can’t afford to retire, and he wore one of those old-fashioned soda fountain 
hats over a brush cut. He unloaded a stack of milkshake glasses and looked me over.

“You want something?” he barked.

“I’m trying to get a Tangy Wishniak to go.”

“A what?”

“A Tangy Wishniak. It used to be on the menu here when I was a kid.”

“Man, that’s been off the menu for a long time.”

“Off the menu?”

“Right, along with malted milkshakes, butter-fried danishes, lime rickeys, mixed grill, flavoured straws . . .”

“Okay, Okay. I get your point. But is there anyone here who still knows how to make one?”

Finally, the geezer came out with a big waxed-paper cup that folded at the top and had a hole for the straw. He slapped the drink down on the counter.

The geezer pushed his cap forward as he scratched the back of his head.

“Not much to it, really. Soda water, cherry syrup and some kind of 
so-called secret ingredient. There might be something on the back shelf. 
I’ll take a look.”

The double swinging doors went back and forth for a while as he passed through them to the kitchen, and then they hung still for a long time. 
A very long time. At no point, I should add, did the young waitress even look at me.

Finally, the geezer came out with a big waxed-paper cup that folded at the top and had a hole for the straw. He slapped the drink down on the counter.

“Great,” I said. “How much?”

“Forty-five cents.”

“What?”

“You think that’s too much? This is the last Tangy Wishniak you’re going to see for some time, my friend. I squeezed out the last of the secret syrup from a bottle the old owner left behind. Take it or leave it. I’ll drink it myself if you’re too cheap.”

“Okay, okay.”

I put two quarters on the counter and didn’t wait for change.

On the sidewalk, I realized I was the victim of my own bad planning. 
I should have bought the Tangy Wishniak for Aunt Milda on the way back. Now I had to go to the rectory with a takeout cup in my hands.

I walked east along Dundas. Downtown looked pretty in the distance, not exactly the Emerald City, but pretty, a clump of towers in silver, black, bronze and gold, like giants standing on the horizon. There seemed to be more of them than I remembered.

I walked on over to Trinity Bellwoods Park, and had an unsettling moment there. It used to be one of my favourite parks when I was a kid and my parents attended church events. My friends and I would range out into the park valley where the Italian men played bocce and the toughs hung out under the Crawford Street Bridge, smoking unfiltered Exports.

But there was no Crawford Street Bridge any more. I could understand 
a bridge being torn down, but this was not the case. Half the park, a deep valley that was a bit dangerous after dark, had been filled in with earth 
and made level. Crawford Street was still there, maybe the bridge was still under the street, but even if that was so, the open space beneath the bridge was gone.

Even the emptiness had disappeared.

I imagined all the greasers down there still, cigarettes on their lips, hair covered in Brylcreem, their hair-combing gestures frozen like those of the people who had fled Pompeii when the hot ash rained down.

The old Lithuanian parish stood on the corner of Gore Vale and Dundas, a fifties modernist church inspired by the A-frames of the day, with a bell tower without a bell and a steeple that echoed the traditional roofs farmers put above icons in the old country. It wasn’t a belfry so much the idea of a belfry, not so much a steeple as the idea of a steeple. Since hardly anybody went to church much anymore, we were left with the idea of a church.

The church across the street was called Santa Inés, a Portuguese church, but it had been Italian when I was small. I remembered the little kids standing on the steps for photos for their first communions, the boys in black suits and ties and white armbands, a bunch of budding Dean Martins, 
the little girls in white dresses and bouquets of flowers in their hands, little Shirley Temples, all in a row.

The Portuguese were moving out of the neighbourhood now, the surest sign of that being the place’s designation as “Little Portugal” on the 
street signs. You only get a designation like that after you’re dead—it’s a grave marker.

I felt like looking inside the Lithuanian church to see if the gigantic wooden Christ was still behind the altar, but the doors were locked. I banged on them a few times just in case the cleaners were working in there, but 
the church rang hollow. I went down off the steps and around to the rectory on Dundas.

There were two doorbell buttons on the frame, one for the Korean 
Catholic Church and the other blank. Father Pete must be sharing the church with the Koreans now. He was such a good steward of money that he probably had them on timeshare.

Without thinking twice, I put my lips on the straw and sucked up a bit of the last Tangy Wishniak on earth.

I was going to press the blank doorbell, but I looked at the Tangy Wishniak in my hand.

The waxed paper cup was sweating. I was seized with a powerful thirst and I sat down on the steps. How bad would it be to take just a tiny sip? After all, Aunt Milda was an old lady. The odds were that she wouldn’t drink the whole thing anyway.

As I was studying the Tangy Wishniak, the door opened behind me and somebody stepped out. The Korean priest walked down the steps to the sidewalk and headed east without saying anything at all to me.

Without thinking twice, I put my lips on the straw and sucked up a bit of the last Tangy Wishniak on earth.

Talk about refreshing. The whole street became sharper, the way it looks when you walk out of the optometrist’s for the first time with a new pair of glasses and realize your eyes have been blurry for the longest time.

I took another sip, and there were the Italian kids across the street 
on the steps of Santa Inés, standing patiently in the June heat as the photo-grapher squared them up for the group photo. On my side of the road, 
men stood around in fedoras and raincoats, most of them smoking. I saw 
a man who looked like my father, or the way I remembered him. He’d been gone a long time.

I took another sip.

A St. Patrick’s Day parade was coming along the street from downtown, with parish banners held up on flagpoles and an amateur brass band playing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the hymn we learned to sing for whenever our choir visited English-speaking parishes. I could practically sing along the words I had forgotten I still knew:

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

Not exactly Shakespeare, but to the point in a crude way.

This was a lot for an agoraphobic like me to take in one day. Behind the Irish parade I could vaguely see others, people dressed in odd clothes, some of them with feathers. They were a ways off, but I had no desire to study them too closely.

I went whipping back to my place. I moved as fast as I could and still not spill the half cup of Aunt Milda’s Tangy Wishniak. I cut through the lane and went straight to my garage, intending to catch my breath before I went into the house.

But when I closed the door behind me, I found Aunt Milda there, sitting on a stool. My cot was gone and so was the stinky kerosene heater that used to make my head swim on cold nights when I cranked it up high. And she wasn’t alone. She had a priest with her, a modern priest, a Franciscan in his brown robes, but with a goatee and a small ponytail held together by an elastic band—he looked like a Gen Y priest, a concoction I’d never imagined before. Like everyone else that day, the priest ignored me.

“What’s this all about?” I asked. “Who is this priest?”

“This is Father John.”

“I was just out looking for Father Pete.”

“He’s been dead for thirty years.”

Right. I knew that. I must have been a little stressed. I sat down on another stool beside her. The Franciscan stayed on his feet, looking straight through me.

“I brought you the Tangy Wishniak,” I said.

“What’s he saying?” the priest asked.

“He’s talking about a soda fountain drink.”

“Don’t accept anything from him.”

“What do you think I am, some maniac? This is my aunt,” I said.

The priest started to mutter a prayer and the old Catholic magic began to work. Boredom. I immediately felt like taking a nap.

“Now talk to him,” said the priest.

“Dear nephew,” she said, as if she didn’t know my name, “I want you 
to listen to me. I’m very old, too old to live in this house. I need to go to 
a retirement home, so you can’t have this place any longer.”

“You’re not all that old.”

“I am.”

“Take a sip of this drink. You’ll see. It’ll pick you up.”

“I’m sure it’s a very delicious drink, but no thank you.”

“What about Frankie? Are you going to move out and leave your son 
on the telephone pole?”

“Frankie is leaving. Maybe you should go together.”

These were the words that I had been fearing.

“You’re being very hard on me, Aunt Milda,” I said.

“This is what’s best.”

“What should I do with the Tangy Wishniak? I went to a lot of trouble 
to get it.”

“You drink it.”

I was not going to do any such thing. I was going to throw it across the room. I was going to jump up from the stool and make a scene.

But I didn’t either of those things. I took a sip of the drink.

It tasted good, a taste from my childhood, one part flavour and three parts memory.

I took another sip, and then another.

I felt light as dust, a speck floating in the air. The currents of wind 
would carry me far away from this place; I suppose it was about time. But eventually, I would settle somewhere. I would become part of a layer of earth and then, as time passed, a stratum of shale formed by the people of my time: the greasers, the mothers in housedresses, the fathers in fedoras, the street hockey boys, the shopkeepers who had run the stores along Dundas between Dovercourt and Gore Vale, the old boozers who drank away their days at the Lithuanian Community Centre, talking of the homes they had left decades before.

And maybe someday, an archeologist would find us all, like trilobites in shale. When the archeologist chipped away at one layer of shale, my era would come up, and along with it, the smell of our dreams, and the taste of a Tangy Wishniak.


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