SOUTHERN ONTARIO GOTHIC
Ted McClelland is the author of Horseplayers (2005) and is currently writing a Great Lakes travelogue called "The Third Coast" -- excerpts have lately appeared on the Chicago events/news blog Gaper's Block; for more info, visit McClelland at his site.
Harwich, where my wife and I lived for the first few years of our marriage, is a farming village on the north shore of Lake Erie, about thirty miles southeast of Windsor, in Ontario's garden belt. The highway into town is lined with roadside stands where a traveler can buy crates of deeply colored tomatoes, peppers, cherries, melons and blueberries. Its two-block downtown, Chatham Street, consists of a bank, a post office, a hole-in-the-wall library, and the Harwich Happy Club, where retired farmers play euchre and pinochle. At the end of Chatham, across from the farmers' cooperative, is a shuttered hockey rink, whose windows are papered over with crisping pages from the Windsor Star and the Detroit Free Press.
I worked as a biologist for the Ministry of Fisheries in Wheatley, twenty miles up the shore, but my wife and I moved to Harwich because we'd both grown up in towns of a thousand people, and we wanted our son Nate to do the same. Harwich was different from other Ontario farm towns in only one respect: it had its own derelict. I sometimes saw him pedaling his spindly ten-speed on Chatham Street, or drinking coffee in the diner. He always wore a pair of green work pants that looked dingier and more frayed every week. Once, he confronted me outside the post office, holding forth an open palm. I was so startled I pressed a loonie into it. I wondered why he was looking for alms in Harwich. The town didn't seem big enough to support a beggar.
One evening, on the way home from work, I stopped at the United Church Twice-Around Shop to buy a picture book for my son. When I went to pay, the beggar was in front of me. We were the only customers in the store.
He must have been sixty, but his face wore the simplest expression I have ever seen on a grown man. His blue eyes looked like a child's, peering through a mask of many years. It was an ungainly face: the nose and ears were too large for his head, while the mouth was too small. His bristly grey hair had obviously been cut by a barber who knew he wasn't going to hear any complaints, and he wore a cotton-flannel shirt, even though it was August in the hottest part of the country.
The man was holding a clock radio, with the snooze button broken off. He was trying to force it on the white-haired woman at the register.
"Dollar," he mouthed.
"Douglas," she lectured, "I told you we don't pay for anything. If you want to leave it here as a donation, we'll try to see if we can sell it to someone."
Douglas set the radio on the counter, walked out the front door, and climbed onto his bicycle, which had been propped against the plate glass window.
"I tell him that every time he comes in here," the woman said when I stepped forward with my book. "He's always bringing in some piece of junk he found in someone's trash and trying to get me to give him a dollar for it. He doesn't even need the money. He's got more money than anyone in town."
"He's got more money?" I said, setting the book down. "How does he have more money?"
"Oh, jeez. That's a heckuva question to ask me at five o'clock."
She looked around the store. The aisles were empty -- and no one was likely to come in so close to quitting time.
"If you've got half an hour, I'll tell you the whole thing. It doesn't matter who knows now. Everyone involved is dead. And Douglas is Douglas, so he won't care."
I was due home at five. But Danica would have flayed me if I'd left without this story. She'd been volunteering at the Happy Club twice a week, but the locals still froze her out of the town gossip.
"Now you work in Wheatley, right?" said the woman, whose name, I later learned, was Dorothy. Harwich knew everything about us. We didn't know a thing about Harwich. "When you're on your way to work, do you ever pass a farm on the left side of the road with a big greenhouse and a sign that says Meldrum Farms?"
"Probably. I see a lot of greenhouses back from the road."
"Well, that was the first greenhouse around here. That farm belonged to Douglas's grandfather, Albert Meldrum. When I was growing up, he was the richest man in Harwich. He got the farm from his father, but he was the first one in the area to build a greenhouse, and the first one to start bringing in workers from Mexico, like they were doing in the States. He also owned the only clothing store, so he'd sell them all their boots and work clothes, and he charged them rent to live in his apartments. At the end of the summer, they didn't leave here with anything but calluses.
"Mr. Meldrum had two sons, Al Junior and Jim, and he had a younger daughter, Alice, who was my sister Bert's age. When Alice was 16, the Meldrums suddenly decided they were going to send her to an all-girls' school in Toronto. They did it right in the middle of the school year. Everyone was pretty suspicious, because the Meldrums had never put on airs like that before. Al and Jim had both graduated from Essex Regional High School. We figured Alice would be back in a year or two. That was what girls did in those days."
But Alice didn't come back. Not for Christmas, not for summer vacation, not at all. There was a rumor that she was studying at the University of Toronto and living with relatives. But the Meldrums didn't have any relatives in Toronto. They were rich, but they were still farm people. It was five years before anyone saw Alice again. She returned to Harwich with a husband, and a little boy. That was surprising, said Dorothy, because most girls with money got the baby taken care of, or gave it up for adoption.
"Was Douglas the boy?" I interjected.
"That was Douglas," Dorothy said, nodding. "Douglas Denby. Alice had married a boy named Bill Denby she'd met at the university. I guess he thought Alice and Douglas were worth it, because of all the money involved."
Sure enough, Mr. Meldrum put Bill to work on the farm, as the business manager. Al and Jim objected. They were worried Bill was out to get their shares of the farm. They had both studied agriculture at Western Ontario, and they thought their father was dazzled by this young business major from the U. of T.
"There were a lot of tensions in the family after Alice came home," Dorothy continued. "The only time you would see them all together was at church, and it seemed to me that Mr. Meldrum did not like Douglas at all. He'd helped pay for the rink so his other grandsons could play hockey, but whenever Douglas was around, it just seemed like he wanted to turn away. He never hugged him. Douglas was really quiet, and he was odd-looking even then, and as soon as he went to school, they could tell he was slow. The Denbys had a house in town, and the other kids would come over and say 'Hey, Douglas, want to go fishing?' and then they'd try to get that poor little boy to jump in the lake after the fish. They hired a tutor for him, but the school finally told Bill and Alice he had to go to a special school in Leamington."
After Mr. Meldrum died, Alice and her brothers went to his lawyer's office in Leamington, to hear the will read. The old man had named Bill head of the farm. There was also a clause stipulating that after Mr. Meldrum's children died, all the farm's assets would be put in a trust for Douglas. Jim was so angry he sold his share of the farm to Al, then moved to Leamington to open a greenhouse with an Italian family. But Al decided to stay in Harwich. The way he saw it, he was the heir, and he wasn't going to let some young buck from Toronto swindle him out of his inheritance. Still, when Mrs. Meldrum died a few years later, Al and his wife stopped attending the United Church, because Bill was the treasurer. They became Presbyterians instead.
There was nothing Al could do about Bill. That part of the will was ironclad. But he thought he could have Douglas disinherited because the boy was a bastard. He filed a lawsuit contesting the will. It was just what Alice had been waiting for. At the hearing, she told the judge, "My son is just as much a Meldrum as Al or Jim or any of their children."
"That's when Al figured it all out," Dorothy said. "The court reporter was a girlfriend of mine, and she said Al just went white. He got his lawyer to withdraw the case, but it was too late. Everybody knew the family secret. It wasn't in the paper, because they don't print stuff like that in a small town, but everyone knew before the next issue came out anyway."
"What did Al do after the secret came out?" I asked Dorothy. I had to shift down the counter to put a pillar between my eyes and the window. We had been talking so long the evening sun was now a glare on the glass.
"He didn't do anything," Dorothy said. "He just disappeared into his house. He stopped going to church. He stopped going to the Farmers' Cooperative. It just broke him. He couldn't believe his father would do something like that. I think he must have felt he inherited the guilt, because he was the oldest son. And of course his children had moved away. There was nothing for them here, because Douglas was getting everything."
"So Douglas owns that big farm now?"
"Well, legally. One of his cousin's -- Bill's nephew -- is his guardian. He controls the assets and rents the farm out. I'm sure he takes a big fee for himself, but he lives in Toronto, so he doesn't put any of it back in Harwich. It's not like when Mr. Meldrum was alive. He used to sponsor the hockey team and give all the high school graduates twenty dollars."
I saw Douglas again as I was driving home. He was carrying another of his finds, a rusty serving tray with a Gibson Girl painted in the bottom. I decided to follow him home. This was Harwich. It couldn't be far. I parked my car and got out to walk. I lingered half a block behind until I saw him turn up the walkway of a tall brick house, one of those pinch-shouldered, narrow-windowed 19th-century dwellings that advertised wealth, rectitude, temperance, and loyalty to the crown. In any other town, it would have been a museum by now. But here in Harwich, it belonged to Douglas. His caretaker, a woman in a blue nurse's dress, met him at the door and took the tray from his meaty hands.
After that, I began leaving our junk by the curb, for Douglas. When a lampshade bent its ring, I set it out. Two days later, it was gone. Douglas didn't understand what his birth had done to his family, and his hometown. It wasn't fair to deny him an occupation. I did this for a year, and then one day I had a lot to leave him -- paperback books, toddler clothes, paintbrushes, a computer tower with a broken CD tray, barbells. I had been promoted to senior biologist, my wife was pregnant with a girl, and my son would soon be old enough for peewee hockey. I needed to spend more time at work, I needed a bigger house, and I needed to live near a rink. We were moving to Wheatley.