peirce street

Living With The Ghosts Next Door

 

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As published in the Providence Journal on August 17, 2014.

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.

 

 

 

Home Away From Home At Academy Field

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It’s after midnight, but I can’t sleep. I leave my house and head up Peirce Street to Church Street, and then up to Rector. That’s my usual route when I walk or run. Habit tells me to turn right at Rector and proceed to Division Street… But tonight, home plate trumps habit.

The night is fair, the neighborhood quiet. Mist floats through a streetlight’s glow. I see the silhouette of the bleachers at Academy Field. And then I am drawn to the baseball diamond.

Is it the memory of games past that tugs at me? A yearning for simpler times? Academy Field lies dormant on this cool, late-autumn night, but as I walk its base paths, ghosts come alive…

> I’m a catcher in Little League and there’s a bang-bang play at the plate, the ball and the runner hitting me at the same time. The ump yells “Yer out!” and he’s right: my head bounces off the rock-hard dirt behind the plate and the game floats away… Next thing I know, my manager’s splayed hand is in front of my face, and he asks me how many fingers I see. “Five,” I say. “Wrong,” he replies. “There are only four – this one’s a thumb.” Play ball!

> I’m in left field at George J. West Junior High in Providence and – CRACK! – a monster drive soars over my head. There’s no fence at West – it’s free-range baseball. The ball hops twice before disappearing into a thatch of tall grass, a rabbit’s tail gone. &%@#$! What if I can’t find it? I sprint to the thicket and thrust my hand in – got it! I throw to the cutoff man, grass blades and all. Whew!

> I’m in the dugout at Davis Park, my CYO team at bat, when our manager calls out, “Father Murray is here!” We all know what that means: it’s the signal to bunt. Well, everyone knows except Steve Ferri, who happens to be at the plate. The pitch comes in and Ferri swings for the fences. Strike one! Our manager stares at Ferri: “Father Murray is HERE!” A mom behind our bench says, “Have you seen Father Murray? That’s nice he comes to the games.” The pitcher winds up and throws: again, Ferri swings away. Strike two! Our manager is incredulous. “FERRI!” he screams. “FATHER MURRAY IS HERE!” Now everyone is looking for Father Murray – moms, the umpires, even Ferri. Our manager calls time, waves Ferri over, and asks, “Do you know what ‘Father Murray is here’ means?” Ferri doesn’t have a clue, but now the other team does. Next inning, our manager changes the bunt signal.

I stand in the infield at Academy Field. It’s 46 feet from the mound to home plate, 60 feet base to base – same as it ever was. My memories are equally fixed. On this still night, I recall with affection days when five fingers became four, when a baseball vanished and reappeared, and when everyone at Davis Park wondered, where the hell is Father Murray?

The Ghosts Next Door

The house next door is empty and for sale, but the ghost of my father will always live there. He owned the Colonial at 118 Peirce Street in the early seventies. I remember coming to stay with him one weekend. We shot baskets at Academy Field. On Sunday morning, he brought me back home to Providence.

When I moved my family into Rose Cottage at 112 Peirce Street, I looked at my father’s old house and saw what hadn’t changed: the giant elm out front, the stone wall out back, the granite step at the front door… My eyes hadn’t changed, either, but they saw the world in a different light. More than twenty years had passed. My father had died in 1993, shortly after my second son, Evan, was born.

Dick Parenteau owned the house now. He would become a great friend and neighbor. In some ways, Dick reminded me of my dad. He was divorced, lived alone, smoked cigarettes, had a great sense of humor, loved cars, and was a sports nut. Like my father, he elevated cursing to performance poetry. When Dick launched into a diatribe about overpaid pro athletes – “Can you believe these !@#$ing guys!” – I heard my father. Dick was a !@#$ing godsend.

As Evan 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 said. With a four-year-old’s wisdom, Evan said, “Heaven’s where you go in your head.”

One day, Dick knocked at our door. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet. “C’mon,” he said, “I have something to show you.” I followed him to his house, and we made our way down the entry hall, through the TV room, and into the bedroom, where he was stripping the wallpaper. Dick pointed at one of the newly revealed walls. On the horsehair plaster, I saw the familiar, soothing curves of my father’s handwriting. Decades ago, he had tagged the wall with his signature – Donald E. Walsh.

I told Evan it was a little piece of heaven, brought to me by an angel.

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