Liverwurst and Corn Chips
by Morris Marshall
I never thought I’d be doing this. I’d always associated deathbed confessions with high-profile serial killers and mobsters like Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who admitted to knocking off Jimmy Hoffa. Now that I have cancer, I guess it’s my turn to come clean. With a simple lie, I destroyed an entire family in September 1984.
My family was living in West Toronto that fall, in the second-oldest house on Benton Street. The oldest one was at the end of the block.
Visible from the soccer field behind our middle school, the Jensen house loomed over our neighbourhood like a hideous grey monster. Its windows, with exterior shutters and wispy white curtains, resembled eyes that watched while we rode our bikes and played baseball. During windstorms, branches from a large tree out front would tap like skeletal fingers against the green-shingled roof. At night, the Jensen house was always black except for a faint glow in the downstairs windows.
“It must be haunted,” Laura Gillard, who lived across the street from me, said one evening as we walked home from school. “Davy Johnson said a young girl was killed there. The Cowboy cut her up into little pieces and buried her in the basement.”
“Davy’s a liar,” I retorted. “He says his father plays hockey in the NHL. Do you know what he really does, Laura?”
Her red pigtails whirled as she shook her head.
“He’s a Zamboni driver,” I said, “and the Cowboy’s not a child killer.” My dad always said that if you repeated something often enough, you’d eventually believe it.
* * *
One Halloween, Laura and I were walking past the Jensen house on our way home from trick-or-treating. She dared me to sneak up to the darkened porch and peek through one of the windows. Neighbourhood parents told their naughty kids that if they didn’t behave themselves, the Cowboy would come get them in the middle of the night. Now I was on his turf.
Heart thudding, I pushed open the steel gate and tiptoed up the wooden stairs to the verandah. Without warning, the door flew open. Stooping to avoid the top of the doorway, the Cowboy glared at me, his long greasy black hair spilling from under his black hat. “What do you want?” he snarled, saliva dripping from his scraggly beard. “We don’t have any candy.”
I dropped my trick-or-treat bag, sailed over the fence and sprinted home, leaving Laura alone on the sidewalk.
* * *
“Mrs. Gruber saw you at the Jensen house, Chris,” my mom said at dinner the next evening. “You stay away from there.”
Dad looked up from his newspaper. “You’re overreacting, dear.”
“I heard the Cowboy met his wife in a Toronto mental hospital and that he beats her and their kids,” Mom replied. “They look so disheveled. And that smell—”
“They’re just poor,” Dad said. “What kind of example are you setting for our son, spreading all that gossip?”
“Mrs. Gruber’s reliable. It’s a travesty the Children’s Aid hasn’t intervened.”
I rose from the table. “Don’t worry, Mom. I don’t hang around the Jensen kids.”
* * *
We never saw The Cowboy — also known as Bob Jensen — during the day. In the summer, when the windows were open, the sound of heels clicking outside would awaken me around midnight. Jumping out of bed, I’d run to the window and see him walking home, carrying a black briefcase large enough to hold a child’s body. No matter how hot the weather, the Cowboy wore a black leather jacket with fringes along the arms.
Mrs. Jensen talked to herself while dragging her twelve-year old twins Eric and Anya along the sidewalk. Someone called the police on her one summer after she sang Ave Maria on her front porch at two in the morning. Another time, she knocked on our front door and launched into a tirade about taking cover in bunkers to escape the impending Armageddon. It took Mom forever to shoo her off our porch.
Having weird parents guaranteed the Jensen twins a daily dose of abuse. Eric’s second-hand red plaid shirt with sweat stains on the armpits matched Anya’s plaid skirt. Black soot dusted their faces, and they smelled like a combination of smoke and liverwurst. Mrs. Gruber gave a plate of it to my mom one Christmas. One whiff of the reddish-brown sandwich spread made me gag almost to the point of puking.
Whenever Eric or Anya approached us in the schoolyard, we’d pinch our noses and yell “UNCLEAN” as though they were lepers. Touching them was unthinkable and grounds for catching some communicable disease.
* * *
“Chris, could you stay for a few minutes?” Ms. Calloway asked me one Wednesday afternoon as the other students poured out of class.
“You live on the same street as Eric and Anya, don’t you?”
“Eric’s family doesn’t have electricity,” Ms. Calloway said. “They cook and heat with a wood stove. I’m sure you’ve noticed he’s had trouble fitting in.”
“Chris, you’re the best student in my grade seven math class. Eric is struggling with algebra, and there’s a test on Friday. Would you tutor him for me?”
She smiled. “It would only be once a week until he makes some friends.”
I foolishly agreed. I could be stuck with Eric for months, years, even decades. Maybe I’d be Best Man at his wedding, where everyone would be wearing plaid suits and skirts.
Laura was sitting on the school steps when I came out, her yellow backpack slung over her shoulder. The freckles on her cheeks crinkled as she smiled. “What did Ms. Calloway want?”
“Promise not to tell.”
“Cross my heart.”
“Guess who I’m going to tutor?”
I pinched my nose.
She clamped her hands over her mouth. “Liverwurst! I can’t hang around you anymore.”
“Kidding.” She kissed me on the lips. Her breath smelled like cheese-flavored corn chips. She ate them so often her fingers had turned a permanent orange like those of a chain smoker.
One night, after she told me she loved Davy Johnson, I wrote “Laura Gillard smells like corn chips” in white chalk on the wall of her verandah. If she saw it, she never said.
* * *
Most lunch hours, Laura, Davy and I played video games at the variety store across the street from our school. This Thursday I walked through the crowded cafeteria, past the lockers in the basement hallway, out to the soccer field. Eric Jensen sat alone reading a Spider-Man comic book on the grass near the schoolyard fence.
“Spider-Man’s the best superhero ever,” I proclaimed.
Eric squinted up at me. “He’s okay.”
“So... what are you doing after school?”
“I have to walk my sister home.”
“After you take Anya home, how about studying together for that algebra test tomorrow?”
Eric looked at the ground. “You’re just making fun of me.”
“I want to help you,” I said. I meant it. We’d all teased him, but now Ms. Calloway was counting on me. “I’ll meet you in front of your house at four o’clock and we’ll go to the library. Okay?”
After school, I ran home, grabbed a snack and walked down the street to the Jensen house. I paced back and forth in front of it like an expectant father. Mrs. Gruber waved at me from her verandah across the street.
Thirty minutes later, there was still no sign of Eric. I went to Laura’s house and knocked on her door. Her dad answered, dressed in his blue business suit.
“She’s not here,” he said, removing his tie. “I just saw her walking toward the Creek with the Jensen boy. I didn’t even know they were friends.”
The “Creek” was our pet name for a brown stream littered with discarded tires and rusting car parts from a nearby junkyard. I sprinted down Benton Street, past the Beer Store, toward the familiar checkered black-and-yellow “Dead End” sign.
Heart pounding, I scaled a short steel barrier and jumped onto a dirt path that ran parallel to the “Creek” through a dense forest, emerging in an isolated clearing where older teens burned bonfires, drank alcohol and smoked pot. As my feet crunched against wood chips, a chipmunk skittered off into the underbrush.
“Someone’s coming,” a voice said.
Then a familiar voice: “Shut up, Davy.”
Eric lay in a fetal position in the middle of the clearing. His eyes were red and blood streamed from his nose. Davy Johnson stood over him, right fist clenched, while Laura sat on a stump nearby, eating corn chips from a bag.
“We told Liverwurst you were waiting for him at the library,” Davy explained. “We offered to show him a short cut through the Creek. We just wanted to scare him, Chris. Honest. Then he started screaming.”
I ran to Eric and knelt down.
“You... you set me up,” he said to me between sniffles. He wiped his nose with his sleeve.
“They planned this alone,” I said.
Eric sat up, coughed and spit out blood. “I’m telling my dad when he gets home tonight.” Dirt stained his brown corduroy pants and shirt. Leaves stuck to his hair.
Still holding her bag of corn chips, Laura rose from the stump and tried to kiss me on the lips, but missed when I turned my head at the last second. As she lost her balance and stumbled forward, the bag fell from her hands. Corn chips flew everywhere.
“What’s wrong with you?” I said. “His nose could be broken. Help me get him home.”
Eric wrapped one arm around my neck and the other around Laura’s. He moaned as we carried him back up the path onto Benton Street, stopping every few minutes to rest. The ten-minute trip to Eric’s house took almost an hour, and we left him sitting on the verandah.
* * *
An hour later, several knocks sounded on my front door.
“We need to do something, Chris,” Laura said when I stuck my head outside. “When Liverwurst tells his dad what happened, we’ll both be dead.”
“We, Laura? You mean you. And his name is Eric, not Liverwurst.”
“Eric thinks you set it up.”
She was right. My mind cycled from one possible solution to another but each one pointed to the same horrible conclusion. The police would arrest us and throw us in jail or reform school, if the Cowboy didn’t get us first. Midnight was just six hours away.
I brought out two glasses of cola, and we sat on my porch steps, drinking in silence.
Laura reached over and took my hand. “I’m really scared, Chris. What should we do?”
I put my glass down and rested my elbows on my knees, face buried in my hands, eyes closed.
“I think I have an idea,” I finally said and went inside to retrieve the phone book. Turning to the “C” section, I picked up the phone and dialed. After three rings, a voice said, “Toronto Children’s Aid Society. Sandra speaking.”
“I’m calling to report a case of child abuse. The kid down the street, his mother slapped him in the face. There was a lot of blood.”
“What’s the address?”
I calmly answered all their questions.
“We’ll investigate,” Sandra said.
“You’re brilliant,” Laura said when I returned outside and described what I’d done. A bright smile spread across her face. “You’re doing Eric and Anya a favor, Chris. They’ll be better off in a foster home.”
* * *
Eric and Anya didn’t show up for class the next day or the day after. We never saw them again.
A few weeks later, Mrs. Gruber told my mom that the police had placed Mrs. Jensen in Queen Street Mental Health Centre and the Children’s Aid had taken the twins.
Several days later the fire department, responding to a neighbour’s complaint about smelling smoke, found the Cowboy dead on his kitchen floor. The doors and windows had been locked from inside and the wood stove’s chimney had been plugged with rags. A year later, Eric Jensen’s roommate stabbed him to death in their group home.
* * *
Thirty years later, I still have nightmares about Eric. They’re always the same. I’m lugging my blue backpack home from school, past the Jensen house, when footfalls sound on the sidewalk behind me. When I turn around, Eric is standing there smiling, blood dripping from his nose, a knife handle protruding from an ever-widening pool of blood in the middle of his plaid shirt. He plucks out the knife and points it at me. “You killed me, Chris,” he says. “Now it’s your turn.”
I drop my backpack and run, but steps from home I trip and fall to the sidewalk. In seconds, Eric stands over me, raising his knife. He plunges it downward in a steep arc toward my head, but just before the blade makes contact, I wrench myself awake, a scream lodged behind my lips, my sheets drenched with sweat.
I taught college math for fifteen years before lung cancer forced me to go on long-term disability. Now forty-two, I own a condo two blocks from my childhood home. A real-estate developer tore down the Jensen house years ago and built a brick house with marble columns and a winding staircase out front. Every Friday around midnight, I ride past it in my motorized wheelchair, and each time I swear I hear heels clicking along the sidewalk.
Tonight I sit at my kitchen table watching CP24’s nightly news while reviewing the assets in my will. The condo, the car, the four hundred shares of Google stock. My wife is sole beneficiary.
“A woman was stabbed to death this evening on her way home from work,” the news announcer is saying. “Neighbours have identified her as Anya Jensen, a single mom with two young children. Police have a man in custody, but it’s not currently known what his connection is to the victim.” A picture of a middle-aged woman with collar-length curly black and brown eyes stares out from the television. She looks a lot older, but I recognize her as Eric’s twin sister.
I lean forward in my wheelchair. “Get out here, Hon! You’ve got to see this!”
Laura’s high heels click against the hardwood floor as she runs into the living room. “Is it your breathing, Chris?”
I point at the television.
“I can’t believe it,” Laura says, shaking her head slowly. “We made her life hell.”
“I feel awful, hon. I wish we could make things right now.”
“We can, Chris. Give me your will.”
I pass her the papers. She tears them up, throws the pieces in the garbage and together we begin working on a new will.
Copyright © 2014 by Morris Marshall