Monday, December 23, 2013

Larger Than Life. Peter Henderson.

They just don't make 'em like that any more. 

by Louis Shalako

One of the great influences in my life passed away a few years ago. It's one funeral I’m glad I attended, for my broadcasting instructor passed away and I missed his funeral.

At least I knew when it was! But I had to help my brother or sister move, (forget which) and I recall sort of resenting that a bit at the time.

Honestly? There was this girl, and I was sort of wondering if she might be there…

Fifty-fifty chance, right?

I never even knew my old journalism instructor had passed until someone mentioned seeing it in the paper.

But Peter was different. He was larger than life. It sounds like bullshit.

Peter showed up one day when my old man dragged him home, probably the result of some long and involved conversation, over a couple of small pitchers of draft—my old man liked it because it was cheap, but honestly, it was a bit watery and the foam was pretty much gone by the time it got to the table.

There was a lot of thumping and talk and the sound of a dog, if you can imagine. He had this deep, rich, tobacco-brown voice, a sardonic voice with a note of contempt, superiority, enough to raise the hackles on any rogue male, and perhaps inspire a tremble in the midriff of any female lucky enough to still be of child-rearing age.

That guy always had the moral high ground. I don't know how he did it.

Yeah .I crawled out of the crib, and over a glass of un-needled moloko my old dad told me that Peter was renting his room for a hundred a month and was that all right or what?

“Well, sure,” I said doubtfully.

Why in the hell would anyone care what I thought, but of course my old man was always looking for someone’s approval.

That explains much.

Peter had a red Irish setter named Blue, and a nice short-haired grey cat, kind of old and arthritic, it was a Russian Blue, a cat with one eye named Squint, and he had been living in the camper on the back of a 1973 Ford F-150 which was mostly white but it had a blue stripe up the side.

He was returning from Montreal, but spoke English extremely well. He had grown up a few blocks away from where we lived.

So my old man took the smallest of three bedrooms. I had my own room, the fifteen year-old high school dropout with his own room, complete with stereo and mirrors on the ceiling as I recall, and Pete got the master bedroom for $100.00 a month.

My old man told him, “That’s room only, but we got plenty of peanut butter and I probably won’t let you starve.”

Peter had just taken a job with the local radio station. What a voice. Holy, crap, what a voice.

He had the morning talk show. The previous host had dropped dead of a heart attack while shoveling snow, and Peter had played a bit role in some National Film Board Canada documentary set in the Arctic, fuckin’ Nanook or something, and the station was willing to take a chance on him.

I listened to that guy, as you can well imagine, as well as looking after his cat. The dog, now, that thing rode to work with him and wandered around uptown all day. As far as anyone knows.

But Peter Henderson was the one who told me, “You’ve got a fucking brain in your head Louis. What the fuck are you doing laying around in bed all day until three o’clock in the fucking afternoon—(Peter always enunciated very well, putting the ‘g’ on the end and everything) and you can’t even get a job at a carwash and maybe try helping your old man out…”

I’ll never forget the way he pronounced fucking.

Oh, yeah, ladies and gentlemen, old Peter had a few things to say to a lazy teenager.

Peter was about six-foot three, with a big red beard and flaming, curly red hair. He came and went with a leather briefcase—I’ve never owned a briefcase in my entire life, but he had a leather jacket, a tie, shiny shoes, and he had the morning show, and I sure as hell listened to the most interesting son of a bitch I ever had heard in my entire God-damned fifteen year-old life.

Yeah, Peter and my old man drank at the kitchen table. I listened then too, but then my old man was buying and Peter was a hungry man back then. Peter ate my old man’s Viet Cong Stew, a favourite back then for us all. The recipe is now lost to history and maybe that's a good thing. He ate his peanut butter and his onion sandwiches with the salt and the pepper, which made him fart something terrible. It was a sore point between us, I can admit that after all these years. I gave him some awful painting and he hung it up on the bedroom wall, where he could lay on the bed with his dog and look at it.

“It brings me great peace,” he told me once.

I shall always treasure that remark.

But, ah, he went on to hold that show and this town, for many years, and I was sort of his snarky acolyte or denier or something and he told me a few other things besides.

“With that face, and that voice, with that fucking brain, Louis, you should be on TV.”

Think about what that did. It’s not like I ain’t got an IQ of about a hundred-forty and people do sort of look up to me, and even then I towered over Peter, my dad, and pretty much anyone around here. So why not, right?

But the man definitely had influence. He ran for election at some point, and the local politicos either loved him or feared him or just thought he was a pain in the ass, depending on how hungry they were getting. He would talk about them on his show, of course. It was a kind of power, I reasoned.

That thought stuck with me.

I finally did get a job, more than one, mixing mortar and carrying concrete blocks around in wheelbarrows and stuff like that, and what the hell, old Peter married a girlhood friend of my mother’s, and I attended the wedding along with some other folks, all attired in my own sort of tailor-made leather hippie jacket and I have, quite frankly, been a bullshit artist ever since.

Pete was a wonderful, loving, tough, loud sort of a talker. Never forget that guy. He’d stick his face right in mine, bad breath he always had, and he’d say, “You’re a lazy cunt, Louis.”

He'd grab me right by the collar and make it stick, too.

He was right, too.

Yeah, you couldn’t slide too much past old Pete.

He had a way of getting people talking, though.

There was the CBC on the radio, of course. We had eight or nine channels on the TV. Peter had a way of reading the local paper, knowing all about current events, and then he had his spiel. He’d open up the microphone at the top of the hour and spew out some reactionary, provocative point of view, just to piss people off more than anything, and then he’d go to a commercial, and then he’d nod at the producer—oh, yeah, I went in there a time or two just to watch, and then they’d open up the phone lines.

Let’s be honest, it worked every time.

After my old man died, my mother told me, “He blamed me for you becoming a writer.”

That’s a strange idea at the best of times. I worked my ass off at this like any other failed writer-bastard.

But seriously, folks, Big Frank really ought to have blamed that frickin’ homeless guy, the big red-haired one, the Shakespearean actor sort of guy, the one he dragged home, half drunk and staggering around with a silly grin on his face and talking all kinds of shit, all those long years ago—and that would be about 1974, as I recall.

The world was young back then, and full of promise, none of which has been wasted.

If there is a heaven, I can just imagine you two old sons of bitches up there, looking down here at us, raising a glass of the house draft, i.e. by that I mean the cheap stuff, and if you can have a good laugh at me that’s fine too.

You are gone but not forgotten.

You can figure out who’s to blame, for all of this, while you’re at it.


Blessed Are the Humble. Louis Shalako. (Amazon.)

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