The house next door was empty and for sale, but two ghosts still lived there: my father and my good friend, Dick. Each had once owned the historic colonial, which stands near the corner of Peirce and Dedford Streets in East Greenwich.
My father bought the house in the early 1970s after he and my mother separated. One Saturday, he picked me up in Providence to go stay with him overnight. I was 12 years old.
My dad could be distant, and not just because he no longer lived with us. As we drove south on Route 95 that day, Elton John played on the radio. My father sang along and drifted away — “Rocket man burnin’ out his fuse up here alone … ” But then he came back to me. Did I like the song? Who was I listening to these days? I loved talking with my dad about music or books or sports.
I also loved the notes he wrote to me. In letters and birthday wishes, my father’s remoteness vanished. His words were affectionate and knowing. And his penmanship was perfect.
His house on Peirce Street didn’t feel like home — it was dark and smelled old — but I was glad to be there. My dad and I went over to the basketball court at Academy Field to shoot some hoops. And when we returned to the house, he put George Carlin’s “Class Clown” on the record player.
I choked back my laughter when “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” came on. Those were words I couldn’t say anywhere. But my dad balanced a keen wit with a deep appreciation of the well-timed profanity. As he made sandwiches for us in the kitchen, he howled at Carlin’s famous bit — and, liberated by his laughter, so did I.
My father didn’t live in the Peirce Street house for long. It was just one of his many dwellings after he and my mother split, an odyssey that took him to Warwick, Providence and, finally, Centredale. But I never forgot that East Greenwich neighborhood. In 1994, when my wife and I decided to search for a bigger house for our growing family, we found one on Peirce Street — right next to my dad’s old place.
My father had died the previous year. I wondered who owned the colonial now. And then I met Dick. He had been living there for almost two decades.
Dick had a strong voice and quick smile. Like my dad, he lived alone, smoked cigarettes, loved sports, and could elevate cursing to performance poetry. When Dick launched into a diatribe about overpaid pro athletes or brazen politicians — “Can you believe these [bleeping] guys!” — I heard my father. For me, still feeling the loss, Dick was a [bleeping] godsend.
Everyone knew Dick as the Mayor of Peirce Street, yelling at cars that ran the stop sign, and chiding the town’s work crews.
But our family also knew him as the kind neighbor who placed the newspaper at our doorstep before we woke up; the belated Santa who arrived on Christmas morning with presents for our kids; the die-hard Patriots fan who took our young sons, along with his grandson, to a preseason practice at Bryant College. (“The boys watched Bledsoe,” Dick told us later. “I watched the cheerleaders.”)
As my younger son grew up, he was filled with questions. One night before bed, he asked me if I missed my dad. I told him yes, but that I felt my father was alive every time I spoke about him.
“Maybe that’s what heaven is,” I added.
With a 5-year-old’s matter-of-factness, my son set me straight: “You don’t really go to heaven,” he said. “You’re buried. Heaven’s where you go in your head.”
So much for sweet dreams.
One day, Dick knocked on our door. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet. “C’mon,” he said, “I’m stripping wallpaper and need to show you something.” I followed him next door, and we made our way to a downstairs bedroom.
Wet, torn wallpaper littered the floor. “Look what I found,” Dick said, pointing at one of the newly revealed walls. On gray horsehair plaster, I saw the familiar, soothing curves of my father’s handwriting. Years ago, when he owned the house, he had tagged the wall with his signature — Donald E. Walsh.
Later, I told my son the signature was a little piece of heaven, brought to me by an angel. He may not have believed me that time either.
But if there is such a place as heaven, and I am lucky enough to go there, I won’t be surprised if my dad and Dick are on the same bench, sharing a smoke and a laugh, and waiting for me.