Small Talk

By Ed Staskus

Rita Staskus thought Gadi Galilli was going to help her learn Hebrew, but he didn’t, not even for a minute. He was from Jerusalem, had a boat load of friends who spoke Hebrew, and they yakked it up among themselves all the time. But he never helped her, even though they lived together, and she was the designated driver who drove him to synagogues. 

   She met Gadi when he was with the Cleveland International Group. They were both looking up at the same dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and afterwards she gave him a ride home. Everybody in the immigrant group loved him. He asked her for her phone number. He was a cute guy, and she liked him, but found out later he had almost no patience, even though it is a Biblical virtue.

   He was from a Kurd family, was born in Haifa, and was an orthodox Jew. Rita always thought there was something out of joint with him. He never talked about why he left Israel when everybody else said it was the homeland. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, too, but she always drove him. She dropped him off a block from whatever synagogue he was going to that day and he walked the rest of the way. He didn’t want anyone to see him in a car.

   Rita was working at Born to Travel in Beachwood when she started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood is an ethnic neighborhood on the far east side of Cleveland and many of the people who came to the agency spoke Hebrew. She thought, “Maybe I should learn it. It would help me get ahead in my job.” Gadi and she would have something in common, other than going out and making out. 

   Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker encouraged her. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted Rita to guide tours to Israel. What could be better, they said to one another, hacking and spitting in their trash cans, making their plans.

   They were sisters and both were fat. They were always at the head of the buffet line. Sandy was usually ahead of her sister. Sima worked hard, but Sandy didn’t, since she had Sima. Sandy fell asleep at her desk every day, her head lolling on triple chins. They both smoked cigarettes all day long, stinking up the office, like it was the most important thing to stick in the mouths, next to chow. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back. They weren’t even planning on visiting anytime soon.

   Although Rita wasn’t Jewish and only knew a handful of Hebrew words, she spoke Lithuanian fluently and some German. “I’m pretty good with languages,” she thought. She used to be a schoolteacher and was sure she could learn. At least she thought so until she tried. “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she admitted. It was like having grown up speaking ghetto and trying to learn Chinese and Hungarian both at once. 

    Sima told her about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 10 minutes from where she and Gadi lived. Classes were at night, twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock. She made sure to get there early her first night, although when she got there every last person was already in the classroom.

   When the teacher walked in, Rita could barely see her, she was so short, maybe five feet tall. She had dark hair and was from Yemen. The first thing she said was, “Yemenite Jews are the most Jewish of all Jews. Be glad I am your teacher. Sit up straight and pay attention.”

   Her name was Ayala. She handed notebooks out with the Hebrew alphabet in them to the class. She started speaking in Hebrew, too, right away, and never went back to English unless she absolutely had to. She was all business.

   “Let’s go,” she said clapping at the start of every class.  Everybody had to stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to the business of Hebrew.

   Rita’s biggest fear was Ayala calling on her. “I would have to speak in front of everyone,” she mumbled to herself. She tried to keep her nose buried in her notebook, scribbling notes. She tried to keep her head down in the foxhole.

   Everybody in the class was Jewish, except for her. Everybody had to tell everybody else their names the first day of class, Esther, Joshua, Miriam, Daniel, Alexander. One man’s name was Gilead, which Alaya explained means mound of testimony, although she never explained what mound of testimony meant. 

   Everybody in the class called him Gil, although one wise guy called him Mound of Gil, because he was heavyset.

   “Oh, my name’s Rita,” she said hesitating when it was her turn. Right away somebody asked her, “What’s your Hebrew name?” She wanted to say, “What the hell, I’m not even Jewish,” but said, “My family calls me Rita.” 

   Ayala asked questions in Hebrew, and when everyone around her answered in Hebrew, she realized they all knew at least some of the language, while she knew nothing. It was a beginner’s class, but she was as far back from the starting line as could be. When Ayala found out Rita didn’t know anything, she devoted a little more time to her. 

   Rita couldn’t make out the strange alphabet, and on top of that the writing was backwards. When the teacher spoke, it sounded like she was clearing her throat. She decided she wouldn’t be able to make those sounds. “I’m not coming back,” she decided. But two days later she was back. She told herself, “I am taking the class for work’s sake. I want to travel overseas. I don’t want to admit to Gadi I am quitting after one night.”

   She ended up taking the course from beginning to end, nine months of Hebrew. 

   Every symbol of the alphabet has to be memorized back to front and back. She tried, but it was hoodoo for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the black board she copied in her notebook. She wrote sentences first in English and then in Hebrew. She wrote her middle name until she got it right. 

   She wrote, “We have three children in our family, two boys and one girl,” and then she wrote it in Hebrew, over and over.

  The Pilgrims, when they landed in America, for a few minutes thought of making Hebrew the national language. It didn’t matter that it was the New World, not the Old World. But there’s no word in Hebrew for history, so the Hebrew proposal became history.

   The classroom across the hall was a conversion class. Everybody in the class was somebody converting to being Jewish. Rita’s classmates craned their necks, a sour look on their faces, watching them go in their door. They didn’t like it, at all.

   “Oh, they’ll never be real Jews, those non-Jews trying to be Jewish.” they said.  

   “Take a look at that shiksa,” a skinny man sneered wrinkling his lips.

   Rita thought everybody believed her mother was Jewish, although she didn’t know why. She had shoulder-length blonde hair. “I don’t look Jewish,” she thought, but if you say that in front of Jews, they’ll say, “What? There are plenty of blondes in Israel.” 

   Gino, who was the gay Italian travel agent in the office at the desk opposite her, and she were talking about the Jewish look one afternoon when a man walked in and she said, “Tell me he doesn’t look Jewish.”

   She said it too loud. Everybody heard her say it.. Sandy and Sima put down their cigarettes. The secretary looked up from her typewriter. It just came out. Most people who came to the agency were Jewish, so it wasn’t any surprise, but this man looked like Barbara Streisand.  

   Gino and she were outsiders because everybody else in the office and almost everybody else in the building and neighborhood was Jewish. Sandy and Sima would sometimes say, “I don’t know why the Christians don’t like Jews.” They made it sound like Christians were a crazy clan. They made it sound like being Jewish was God’s big blue-ribbon plan.

   The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the heavyweight holiday. Everybody in Rita’s class was talking about it. One of them asked her, “What synagogue do you go to?”

   Most of the class lived on the east side, including her. She lived in Cleveland Heights up the hill from Little Italy. Rita thought, “Oh, Christ, there are a lot of small ones, but they’re all ultra-orthodox.” She didn’t want to look overly conservative. When she drove to work, she passed the big Sinai Synagogue, so she said, “SInai.” 

   It turned out it was ultra-orthodox.   

   Everybody was good with that, even though Rita didn’t wear a wig or have a real Hebrew name. She decided she had to go to the Sinai Synagogue to see it. The men were all downstairs and the women upstairs, on a balcony, segregated. She took the stairs. It looked like most of the women were wearing wigs. She didn’t have a wig and never went back.

   Her classmates knew she lived with Gadi. He dropped her off at school and picked her up afterwards. He was OK with her saying she was orthodox. Since everybody thought she was Jewish she knew she had to start being crafty about it. She ran into them where she lived and worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the plaza beside Born to Travel, where she went to lunch every day.

  An old lady with a scratchy voice, the mother of a woman she sat next to in class, called her one evening. It was a week before Christmas. It was the day before the last day of Hanukkah.

   “What did you do today?” she asked.

   “I just finished all my shopping,” Rita said. She almost said Christmas shopping, but caught herself. Her family celebrated Kucius, the Lithuanian Christmas Eve. They were dyed in the wool Christians.

   “But it’s the last day of Hanukkah tomorrow,” she said.  

   “In my family that’s how we do it, we do everything the last minute,” Rita explained. “I’m not breaking tradition. Oh, I bought some donuts, too.” Someone had told her to say donuts if she ever felt she was being called out.

   “Oh, I see, that’s good,” the old lady said.

   Rita was never certain whether she was getting a good grasp on Hebrew, or not. After every class she thought, “I’m never going back.” One night she finally didn’t go back. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. That night Alaya called her at 11 o’clock, just as she was going to bed. 

   “Why weren’t you in class?” she asked. 

   Rita wanted to tell her, “You should be asking me why I go, not why I didn’t go this one time.” But she told her because of the holiday coming up, she had to clean her cupboards, getting rid of all the yeast in the kitchen.

   If you’re ultra-orthodox you have to remove any yeast you have in the house, sweep away crumbs, look under cushions for moldy donuts, remove every trace of the stuff.  Most of the people in class were reformed Jews and didn’t take it too seriously, but because she had mistakenly made everybody believe she was more conservative than them, she was expected to be serious about ritual.

   “It never was my intention to say I was Jewish, but a good time to admit it never came up,” she explained to Gadi. What was worse, she was Catholic. That side of her didn’t like Jews. The Lithuanian side of her didn’t like Jews, either. She kept her peace of mind by doing breathing exercises.

   After Alaya hung up, Rita had to meet her on Sunday morning, just the two of them, to make up the class. It was impossible to keep her head down with her teacher breathing down her neck. Alaya told her she was making progress. It made Rita glad.

   Gadi’s brother Oz from Israel visited them for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to Rita in Hebrew, helping her get the feel of the language. It sounded like something between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped her more in a few days than Gadi ever did.

   Since his brother was visiting, the two men went to services together on Fridays, dressed up in business casual. Gadi turned off all the lights in the apartment when they went, walking to the synagogue. He had never done that before. He even unscrewed the light bulb in the refrigerator. When they left, they left Rita sitting alone in the half-dark.

   At the end of the class Rita got a B, even though she more-or-less staggered through it like wandering in the desert. Her reading and writing were sketchy, but by graduation time she spoke the language tolerably well. Even still, she was glad when it was all over.

  She started chaperoning Born to Travel tours to Israel soon afterwards. Sandy and Sima saw her off at Hopkins Airport. They waved goodbye with their long Virginia Slims, their hands smoky, their flat feet achy. They bought giant hot pretzels to tide them over.

   Rita stayed with Gadi’s mother the first time she was in Jerusalem. Oz still lived at home, the family home, and he took her to a wedding. He told her how to dress for it. “Wear a black dress.” Rita wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other side. After the ceremony she sat at a table with the women who passed around platters of food. 

   They were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of the chatter too fast for her. All the men wore black hats and were having a great time, drinking, singing, and dancing, sweating up a storm, their hats bobbing up and down on the other side of the wall. The groom wouldn’t say a word to her when she tried to talk to him. He and his bride didn’t dance together, not once. Rita danced with some of the other women. She had a wonderful time.

   The more often she went to Israel the better her Hebrew got. One day she was walking around Jerusalem by herself, sight-seeing the way she liked it. A young man with red hair wearing a yarmulke asked her something as he was passing by.

   “What’s that?” she asked.

   “Do you know where Jaffa Road is?” he repeated.

   Her tour group was staying in a hotel on Ben Yehud Street exactly where it met Jaffa Road.

   She pointed over her shoulder.

   “It’s over there,” she said in spotless throat-clearing Hebrew.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

From Here to Someday

By Ed Staskus

   Sylvester drifted into the kitchen where I was making pancakes, stood up on his hind legs, and slapped his tongue against the side of my face. I didn’t mind. His mouth was probably cleaner than that of most of my friends. His kiss was less risky than kissing another human being, like my girlfriend. Whatever germs were in his cavernous mouth were mostly incompatible to human beings. I never caught the flu from him since he never coughed or sneezed. Sometimes it seemed he had more of a soft spot for me than any living person.

   My brother left his Great Dane behind when he moved out. The dog cost me an arm and a leg to feed. I had to walk him twice a day. I had to shove him out of my bed whenever he tried to sleep next to me. His germs might have been harmless, but his bad breath was like sewer gas. He was good-natured, though, and we got along. I called him Sly, and he called me the boss. He didn’t know how to talk, but I knew what he meant when he barked.

   Sly was in his formative years and fascinated by cars. He chased them recklessly. I put a stop to it by sitting him down on the tree lawn and driving slowly past with a squirt gun in my lap. The gun was loaded with vinegar. Whenever he lunged at the car, I squirted him in the face through the open window. It only took ten minutes to teach him cars were dangerous and guns even more dangerous. After that I rarely put him on a lead when we walked to the pocket park on the lake for runaround time. He walked beside me and the only time I grabbed for his collar was when I spied another dog coming our way.

   I was living upstairs in a Polish double on the west end of North Collinwood, on a forgotten street, a couple of blocks from Lake Erie. Ray Sabaliauskas lived downstairs with his prize German Shepherd and the wife he brought back from the Vietnam War. I was going to Cleveland State University and paying for it by taking a quarter off every now and then to work for an electro-static painting outfit. They did most of their work on-site out of town. Ray fed and walked my dog whenever I was on the road.

   The day the dog became my dog was the week after my brother’s fiancée Brenda, a girl from Vermont who my brother met while in the U. S. Army at Fort Riley in Kansas, was killed on Route 20 coming home from her part-time job at a restaurant in Mentor. She had been enrolled full-time at Cuyahoga Community College the rest of the time.

   The night Brenda didn’t come home was the night I woke up at two in the morning from a bad dream with a bad feeling. I got up and sat looking out window. It had rained earlier, and the backyard grass glistened. The lettuce in the garden was fat and bright. A cat sat under the eaves of the garage, keeping an eye out for a late-night snack.

   When I noticed Brenda’s Subaru station wagon wasn’t in the driveway, I somehow felt certain something terrible had happened to her. I couldn’t shake the feeling. I stayed up, sitting by the window, until I finally went back to bed, thinking it was the dream that had upset me. Even so, I couldn’t fall back asleep, and when I did, I slept fitfully.

   The next morning a Cleveland Police squad car pulled up outside the house and broke the news to my brother. At first, I thought he hadn’t heard what the policeman said. He stood stock still. But then he asked where Brenda was and reached for his car keys. I didn’t see him the rest of the day or the next day. Brenda’s parents arrived later in the week and took her back to Vermont for burial in the family’s hometown cemetery. When my brother got back from the funeral he moved out.

   Brenda fell asleep at the wheel coming home the night she died, but that wasn’t what killed her. She wasn’t even hurt when the car drifted off the highway and halfway down the embankment. She was able to stomp on the brakes and stop the car from overturning. She even coaxed it back up to the shoulder, where she discovered she had a flat tire. She flicked on the flashers and was getting the jack and spare tire out of the back of the car when a drunkard going her way slipped out of his lane and rear-ended her. She was propelled into and over the Subaru. She died on the spot, blind-sided, never knowing what hit her.

   When I finished my pancakes, I took Sly for a short walk. Brenda and my brother were gone, and the dog was my roommate now. He didn’t say much, which suited me, but he needed tending. I was running late for school. Back home I left him on the front porch to sleep the day away and made my way to Lakeshore Blvd, where I caught the 39B bus downtown for a class. It was cheaper than taking my bucket of bolts and paying for parking. It was Friday and I was looking forward to babysitting a friend’s motorcycle for the weekend.

   Saturday morning, I scarfed down a cream cheese bagel and a glass of Joe Wieder’s. The motorcycle was in the driveway behind the house where nobody could see it. The streets were sketchy, brothers from the hood and hoodlums from the neighborhood prowling for loot. It was a big Honda, slung low like a club racer. My friend had dropped it that spring when the front wheel locked up. A handlebar was bent and made tight right turns tricky. But it handled well, overall, had great acceleration, and was painted a dark ochre.

   I tied my backpack down across the handlebars, turned the key, and pressed the start button. The four-stroke engine made a humming happy sound. I dropped it into gear. At the sidewalk I tipped my helmet to a blonde walking by. She turned her nose up.

   I rode west on Lakeshore Blvd, halfway through Bratenahl, and turned south on East 105th St. I meant to connect with Euclid Ave. I wanted to get an eyeful of the urban decay in Glenville I had been hearing about. It was still there. I took in the ruins. The mess was a place, no place to live, I thought.

   I met my friend Matti Lavikka at our friend Mary Jane’s gray-colored Gothic-style clapboard house on East 33rd St. off Payne Ave. Matti was in the back with MJ, taking it easy in her deep-set narrow backyard. It was a tangle of overgrown hedges, monstrous bean plants, super-sized sunflowers, roses run riot, dwarf trees, and carnations trying to make sense of it all.

   Twin blue-eyed albino cats ran past from next door, across the lawn and over a low fence. One of them was cross-eyed. The hippie artist next door let them do their own thing. They were rolling stones who only ate and slept at home. Matti’s motorcycle was in the drive, a stripped-down 1965 Triumph with short pipes and a glossy black paint job. We decided to ride west along the lake, nowhere special, just drifting in the direction the sun was going

   We gassed up across the Cuyahoga River and stopped at a diner for coffee. Matti was a fireman in Bay Village, where fires were far and few between. He knew his laydown jobs better than most. He graduated from Cleveland State University that spring. He was in a philosophical frame of mind all summer, trying to remember something that had never happened in the way of exercising his mind. 

   We rode on Lake Rd. through Lakewood, Rocky River and Bay Village. We were riding into a strong headwind, but it was no match for our bikes. The sun reached its zenith and kept going. We kept going, too, until we reached Vermilion. There were crowds milling in the streets. We slowed down to almost nothing. Children gamboled here and there. We inched our way to the harbor. A rail thin lady with a perky face told us it was the annual Fish Festival. 

   We caught a break coming into town that day. There were vintage cars on parade, men wearing fezzes and sashes, marching high school bands in starched uniforms, a covey of Boy Scouts, floats carrying gals looking like stars, garish looking clowns, and oafish looking town officials.

   Brenda had been an outdoorsman kind of girl. She would have jumped at the chance to cruise the Fish Festival. She had just turned legal that year. Now she was gone with no future. I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

   We had heaping plates of buttered perch with potatoes and sage. Matti wanted to talk about the future, but I didn’t. I scorned the past as nothing but debris, and the present as grist for the mill. I left the future to chance. Now that Matti had a college degree, he told me I was being irresponsible. 

   “Mind your own business,” I said.

   “That kind of attitude is even more irresponsible,” he said.

   “You’ll be an old man soon enough. Wait until then to talk that way.”

   “I’ll have to look you up when that happens,” he said.

   A shapely gal wearing a bikini with ruffles came our way. She was topped off with a peaked hat two feet high, four feet wide, made of wire mesh and adorned with red, white, and blue rosettes. We admired her glide. When we left Vermilion, we followed a road along the shore winding past small frame houses and cottage resorts. There were big trees everywhere and the air smelled sweet.

   After we reached Marblehead, we took the ferry to Kelly’s Island. We saw sailboats bobbing up and down, leaning to one side of the wind. The ferry rode rough on the choppy water. Matti’s Triumph didn’t have a center stand and he had to lean on it to keep it from falling over. A tow-headed boy getting soaked at the bow laughed like Soupy Sales every time a wave crashed onto the deck. When he saw Perry’s Monument he jumped and pointed that way.

   “Don’t Give Up the Ship” was on Commander Oliver Perry’s battle flag during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. It commemorated the dying words of a fellow commander who fell in an earlier naval engagement against the British. Oliver Perry didn’t give up and the British squadron was sent packing.

   We rode around the island aimlessly with our helmets off and the sunny breeze in our hair. The blacktop dipped and curved. There were boats stashed in harbors tied to docks all over the place. We took a break at a public beach, ogling babes sizzling in baby oil from behind our sunglasses. Back on our bikes we rode across a field to an abandoned baseball field. The chain link of the backstop was rusted, and the painted stands weathered cracking peeling. The pitcher’s mound was overgrown with weeds.

   We shared some weed sitting on the outfield grass. Matti started waxing about the problem of good and evil. I suspected I was in for it and took a deep drag on the reefer. “The Nazi’s thought their actions towards the Jews were both righteous and warranted, while at the same time many other people didn’t,” he said.

   “Especially the Jews,” I said.

   “Who was right?”  

   I said we both knew Adolf Hitler and his supporters were monsters.

   “Sure, but that’s not the point,” he said. 

   “What is the point?”

   “Just trying to touch on something metaphysical here.”

   “All right, but metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy. Arguments about good and evil are useless. Hardly anything except engineering is not relative. Most of it is all made up.”

   “What about your brother’s girlfriend who got killed? Did the drunk driver have the right to determine her life and death?”

   “I hope they hang that guy like they hung the Nazi’s.”

   We took a quarry road back to the ferry dock. We were early for our return ride and walked to a nearby tavern. It had a Louisiana ceiling and wide plank floor. Fishing paraphernalia filled the walls. Teenagers were playing pinball and yukking it up They looked too young to drink but had bottles of Blatz at hand. Over the cash register somebody had scrawled in magic marker that an Irishman was not drunk so long as he could hold on to a blade of grass and not fall off the edge of the planet.

   Matti and I each had a pint of lager while we waited for our boat. Back on the mainland, we took secondary roads as far as Avon, where Matti waved goodbye and roared off for home. I laced up my skates and got on the highway. I crossed the Flats going 75 MPH. Passing the dark Municipal Stadium I fell in with three other motorcycles who were hauling ass.

   I hit 105 MPH keeping up, leaning low over my handlebars. Every part of me was focused on the road flowing backwards in front of me. I had never gone that fast on a car or motorcycle or anything else other than a jet plane. Nothing mattered except keeping my tail on the seat and not wiping out. It took less than three minutes to pass the Cleveland Aquarium and veer away from the pack down the ramp of my exit onto Waterloo Rd. I caught my breath at the stop sign before an impatient blaring horn behind me made me jump and I tapped the gear shift.

   Back home I tucked the motorcycle away out of sight in the backyard. I watered and fed Sly before throwing myself down on the sofa. My legs felt like abused rubber bands. My left palm was puffy from handling the clutch all day. I wasn’t used to it. I wasn’t used to anybody my age dying, either, but Brenda had died and there wasn’t anything anybody could do about it. 

   A good idea is to die young as late as possible. The real pay dirt is to not be there when it happens, although that never happens. It hadn’t worked out for her. Her life was still in the memory of the living, though. Nobody had forgotten her, yet. When it happens, it happens for a long time, the long lights out of becoming zero. It was a shame, I thought, before I stopped thinking about time and fate and fell into a simple as ABC dreamless sleep.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Treasure Island

By Ed Staskus

   “Mommy you know how those men dug a hole and buried daddy in it because he wasn’t alive anymore?”

   “Yes, Maggie.”

    “I saw daddy dig a hole behind the barn and bury something in it.”

   “When did you see that?”

   “I saw it when he came back.”

   “Came back from where?”

   “When he left with all the horses that time and then came back.”

   Siobhan dried her hands on her apron. “Show me where that is,” she said. The widow and her daughter walked out of the kitchen, across the yard, and behind the barn. It was early in the morning, the bottom half of the sun still in the ocean.

   “Look mommy, there’s a fox digging near where daddy buried his treasure.”

   A black-coated red fox was digging, stopping, listening, and digging again. He had long, thin legs, a lean lithe frame, pointed nose and bushy tail. They eat everything, rats, mice, voles, lizards, rabbits and hares, birds, fruits, and bugs. The foxes on their shoreline ate fish and crabs.

   “What is he doing?”

   “When he stops to listen, he’s listening for a rat or a mouse digging underground,” Siobhan said.

   The fox cocked his head. “I know you’re down there,” he said to himself. “You can’t get away.” He dug deeper, not trying to be quiet. He knew he could dig faster than whatever rodent was soon going to be breakfast.

   He was the size of a medium-sized dog. It was a tod, a man fox. The vixen was probably in the nesting chamber with their pups. They lived in the dunes, in burrows they dug for the family. There were three four five ways of getting into and out of the den in case predators snuck in trying to eat the pups. The fox husband and wife stored groceries there, pushing it under piles of leaves, spending most of the day in the safe and sound, searching for food at night.

   The fox looked up at Maggie and Siobhan. She knew they could see as well as cats, their vertically slit pupils glinting. If he yipped and turned to go, he would be gone in a flash. They were by far the fastest animals on the island. Many people thought they were cunning. Some people thought they had magical powers. Whatever spells they could cast never helped when a coyote was tracking them.

   When the fox got his Norway rat, he trotted off with it. Siobhan went into the barn and brought back a shovel. Maggie pointed at the spot to dig. Ten minutes later her mother had a dirty leather tobacco pouch in her hands. She knocked the loose dirt off it and walked to the house, Maggie trailing behind. They sat on the porch facing Murphy’s Cove. When she opened the pouch and reached inside, her hand brought out money in bundles held together by elastic bands. She had never seen elastic bands before and never seen that much money, either. When she finished counting it there was $10,500.00 in her lap.

   It was all in fifty-dollar Dominion of Canada bills. Mercury was on the front holding a map of British North America, along with a harbor, ships, and a train in the background. “50 Dollars Payable at Montreal” was printed on the back. Montreal was where her husband had sold his horses.

   “Look mommy,” Maggie said. “Somebody is coming.”

   A two-man horse and buggy were coming down the road, except there were three people in the buggy, a man and a woman and a one-year-old girl.

   “It’s Clara and Hugh come down from Clifton with their new-born,” Siobhan said as the buggy got closer. Her children were on the porch watching. She stuffed the cash money back into the leather pouch and handed it to Billy, her oldest son. “Go to my bedroom and wait for me there. Keep this on your lap until I come for it.”

   “Good day,” Siobhan said as the buggy came to a stop. Clara handed the child to her. Hugh walked around and helped his wife down to the ground. Lucy Maud Montgomery looked up at Siobhan and smiled. Siobhan smiled back. The baby girl cut cheese, and Siobhan gave her back to her mother.

   “Lucy is a lovely name, but she looks like an Annie to me,” Siobhan said.

   “That’s odd, because you’re the second person who has said the same thing,” Clara said.

   “We wanted to stop and pay our condolences,” Hugh said.

   “Thank you,” Siobhan said.

   “William was a good man.”

   “Yes, he was.”

   Hugh fed and watered the horse. The grown-ups sat and talked on the porch. The children played with the child. When the sun started to set Hugh and Clara started to set off for North Rustico where they planned to spend the night with relatives.

   “Come and have dinner with us,” Clara said.

   “I would love that,” Siobhan said and that is what she did, but not before walking upstairs with Sean, her second-oldest son. “I won’t be back tonight,” she said to him and Billy. “Put the children to bed once it gets dark. Don’t light anything and keep this bag in bed with you tight between the two of you until we decide what to do with it tomorrow.” She kissed her sons, and the others downstairs, and once outside walked alongside the buggy towards town. She carried the baby, cooing at the girl as they walked past the graveyard.

   The next morning, she made breakfast for her children and when they were done, she and the girls cleaned up while the boys tended to their chores. Michael was too small to do much, but Billy and Sean were strong boys who knew their way around animals and farmland. Next summer she might add on to the house, adding two bedrooms so when the boys and girls grew up, they could have separate bedrooms. She would improve the fields and fences. She would hire a farmhand, but not increase the size of her herd overmuch. Her husband had wanted to keep a hundred horses, but she didn’t think the land would keep that many healthy. She would devote three hundred acres to the horses and thought fifty-or-so of them would be best. 

   She didn’t believe in continuous grazing. Horses had a bad habit of grazing their favorite grass close to the ground, then returning to eat the regrowth as soon as it came back. As the year went on there wasn’t enough of it left to capture sunlight and regrow. It had to use stored energy to regrow, and if horses kept eating in the same place, the energy stores ran out and the grass died.

   Horses liked orchard grass, smooth brome, and timothy the best. They could eat it all day long down to the bare ground, which was when weeds started to grow in their place. Siobhan had heard of rotational grazing and that was what she was going to do. She would move the horses to one pasture and let the other pastures rest to recover. Each of the pastures would be left empty for at least several weeks at a time. That was how long it took for forage regrowth to begin after grazing.

   She had four paddocks connected to a sacrifice lot. The lot had a shelter, a feeder, and a water source so that the paddocks didn’t need to have their own. The horses could get to the sacrifice lot anytime they wanted. They liked it that way. Siobhan was determined to keep draft horses. Prince Edward Island was a farming island and farmers needed draft horses more than anything else

   When Friday came and before it went, she told the children they would be going to Charlottetown the next day, and staying overnight, so they could buy clothes shoes boots tools small barrels utensils dishes a new table and chairs and as many household necessities as they could carry back before the long winter set in.

   Her team could trot at 15 KPH and get them to Charlottetown in two hours or die trying. The road wasn’t especially rough or hilly, but it wasn’t smooth and flat, either. If the team walked, they could get to the city and live to tell the tale, although it might take them five hours-or-more. She would take the four youngest children with her and leave the two oldest behind. She made Billy and Sean stand on brown paper and traced their bare feet. She rolled the paper up and tied it with a string. She measured their arms and legs and height.

   The five of them going all together would weigh less than 400 pounds. They would be heavier coming back, but the horses could pull ten times and more that weight with no trouble and do it all day if the distance was slow and steady. She hitched the horses to their farm wagon and started before dawn. Maggie and Michael, the two youngest, sat up front with her. Biddy and Kate knelt in the back on the floor of the wagon leaning on the tailgate, looking back from the way they were coming. 

   When coming into Charlottetown she asked the children if they wanted to see Fanningbank. “Yes, please!” They were unanimous that they did. “Our teacher told us it is the Government House,” Biddy said when she saw it. “Why do they call it Fanningbank?”

   “It’s because a hundred years ago Edmund Fanning, who was going to become the governor, set this land on the riverbank aside for the building of a residence for the governor,” Siobhan said. “The land was his and known as Fanning Bank then, and that is what it has stayed.”

   Fanningbank was a large Georgian style house. It was the kind of architecture popular in England in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Georgian style valued classical balance. John Harvey was the second governor to live there. After the start of the new year of 1837, in the dead of winter, he held the first big dress-up party in the elegant house. 

   “An entertainment, upon a grand and splendid scale, was given by His Excellency Sir John and Lady Harvey at Government House on Thursday evening last. As this was the first occasion upon which the rooms at Government House were thrown open to a large evening party, no pains were spared to give full effect to the enlivening scene. His Excellency and Lady Harvey received their guests in the centre drawing room, and at ten o’clock dancing commenced, which was continued with great spirit and animation until after one o’clock. The rooms were brilliantly lighted, and this, added to the crown of beauty and fashion with which they were thronged, exhibited their handsome proportions and striking appearance to peculiar advantage,” the Royal Gazette reported.

   The dancing mingling gossiping back-slapping took place in the Grand Ballroom, a high-ceilinged large room surrounded by eight columns. When the party was over His Excellency and Lady went upstairs and rooted around under the covers in the Sovereign’s Bedroom.

   In 1864 the delegates to the Charlottetown Conference came to the house in the evening for an official dinner and dance given by Governor George Dundas. They had a grand time excited by their grand ideas, although none of them had any illusions about what it would take to make their ideas come true.

   “Mommy, why do they call them excellencies?” Maggie asked.

   “I will tell you when you are a little bit older,” Siobhan said.

   They continued to the south side of Queen Square, one of Charlottetown’s main commercial streets. It was where Siobhan knew there was tailoring, the selling of dry goods, and the manufacture and sale of rubber boots and furniture. What she didn’t know was that a fire had swept through the section destroying all but one building on the corner of Richmond and Queen. Where wood had stood brick was being laid, but nothing there was ready yet to provide her what she wanted and needed.

   Charlottetown was a small city but with big enough business, and she had no great difficulty finding the clothes and goods she was looking for. One merchant’s loss was another merchant’s gain. The first merchant she visited was the shoemaker Thomas Strangman and Sons. A shoe stitching machine had been invented by an American in 1856. It was known as the McKay Stitching Machine and Thomas Strangman was the first on PEI to have one. Sole cuts specifically tailored to fit the right or left foot were still on the way.

   When she was ready to pay for the shoes and boots for her children and herself, she showed one of the fifty-dollar bills to Thomas Strangman.

   “Is my money good here?”

   He looked at the front and back of the bill.

   “Yes, ma’am, your money is good here.”

   He would take it next door to the dry goods store which was also an exchange bank.

   She bought rice, sugar, and coffee. She bought cotton socks wool socks undershirts under garments shirts denim pants and blankets. She bought rolls of calico, brown shirting, domestic gingham, and bleached cotton. She bought a heavy plaid shawl for $3.00.  She bought a dining room table and eight chairs for $45.00. She bought a Sharps seven-shot repeater rifle and ammunition for $50.00. 

   On the way back to Murphy’s Cove on Sunday morning the children sat in the chairs at the table in the back of the farm wagon all the way home, waving to everybody they saw, pointing out a cross-eyed cow, and singing songs. They took turns sitting at the head of the table. They sang parlor songs and minstrel songs. They sang “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “The Red River Valley.”

   “From this valley they say you are going, I shall miss your bright eyes and sweet smile, for alas you take with the sunshine, that has brightened my pathway awhile.”

   Siobhan kept her eyes fixed on the long road ahead of her.

Photograph: Charlottetown, PEI, 1870s.

Excerpted from “Red Island” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Tracks of My Tears

By Ed Staskus

   I didn’t watch TV growing up because we didn’t have a TV. It wasn’t until a couple of years after we moved from Sudbury, Ontario to Cleveland, Ohio that my parents bought a used 1955 Philco Custom 400. It was a 21-inch model in a cabinet of white oak with a finger-tip tuning system. It had a Double Gated Automatic Picture Control tuner that never worked during storms of any kind, whether it was breezy and slightly damp or thunderstorms.

   At first, I wasn’t impressed. The shows were the likes of “McHale’s Navy,” “Car 54, Where Are You,” and “My Three Sons.” I had no use for “Hazel” and “I Love Lucy” drove me nuts. Lucy was a nut, and everybody hollered and played pratfall like there was no tomorrow. I liked watching baseball and football games, although baseball games went on forever and football games were only broadcast on Sundays. The Cleveland Browns were a powerhouse, and everybody stayed patriotically stuck to the tube when they were playing.

   Cartoons were fun and Westerns were my favorite, especially “Maverick,” “Bart Masterson,” and “Have Gun – Will Travel.” My parents enjoyed “Bonanza” and watched it every Sunday night which meant my sister, brother, and I watched it almost every Sunday night. They took in all 431 episodes, whether we were there, or not. I didn’t care for it, the Cartwright’s being hopeless do-gooders, but I couldn’t and didn’t say anything to my parents about my point of view.

   My favorite was “Route 66.” It was about two young men driving around the country in a Chevy Corvette convertible. Besides the adventures, what I liked about the show was that it was shot on location in a new state every episode. 

   I had been to the Shaw-Hayden Theater plenty of times and seen plenty of space adventure and monster movies. My friends and I always sat in the front row. Movies were the real deal and TV was lame compared to the big screen. Movies were stupendous while TV was furniture.

   At about the same time the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. After praising the professionals in the room, he said that television should uphold the public interest. Then he said TV was a “vast wasteland. When television is bad, nothing is worse.” 

   When I started watching “Queen for a Day” I watched it every day. It didn’t matter that my friends were riding bikes playing ball messing around outside. I watched it laying on my stomach on the floor a few feet from the TV. When I stopped watching it, I went cold turkey and never watched it again. I only watched it for two or three weeks one summer, although it was more than enough to make me sweat bullets. I wasn’t growing much older watching the sob show, but I seemed to be growing up way too fast.

   It was originally a local affair on radio in Los Angeles but became popular enough that NBC picked it up and started broadcasting it nationally on television. The show’s ratings got so high that the network increased its running time from 30 to 45 minutes so they could sell more commercials. They were raking in $4,000 a minute, a premium price nobody else was getting. Sponsorships poured in. Every single prize came from sponsors. Models in slutty faux medieval outfits plugged the advertisers. They had to put up with Jack Bailey the host saying things like, “Let’s give Mary Ann a big hand for finally doing something right.” Pre-recorded commercials ran between segments. Naming all the sponsors at the end of the show took more than five minutes.

   The show went to ABC from 1960 to 1964 until it finally folded up its circus tent. The television writer Mark Evanier has called it “one of the ghastliest programs ever produced, tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting, and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”

   The idea behind the show was simple and savage. 

   “Queen for a Day” was about four women sharing their stories of unhappiness and tribulation in front of an all-female audience. There was always a box of Kleenex on the curtained table behind which the women sat. The host was a pencil mustached smarmy man who always looked like he needed another drink. The stories were about dead husbands and sons crippled with polio. One woman wanted to win so she could repair the bullet holes in her bedroom walls where her husband had committed suicide. He missed several times before getting it right. Determined widows with healthcare problems were a staple. If they had, to boot, a small dying child, they were sure to win. 

   “I had two handicapped sons,” one woman said. “I lost them, and then I took care of an elderly lady in a wheelchair. She passed away, along with my mother and my father, and then my husband passed away. I feel that I would like to have a vacation.” She got her vacation.

   A threadlike woman related the tale of her legally blind uncle. They were a poor farm family in Kansas. Everybody in the family had serious eye troubles.

   “On the show when Jack Bailey introduced my mother, he made a big deal about her being a long-lost cousin because her last name was Bailey,” the woman’s daughter recalled. “Since she was a farm girl, he asked her if she milked cows, and she demonstrated on his fingers. She became the queen that day. My uncle was given everything my mother asked for and more. He got a complete piano tuning tool set and a scholarship to a piano tuning school in Seattle. My mom got a full set of living room furniture and an Amana freezer that lasted for twenty-five years.”

   “My husband died,” one contestant explained. “Then we were evicted and were out in the cold winter.”

   “Well, ha, ha, ha!” Jack Bailey laughed like a drain. “Today is your lucky day, getting to tell your story here and having the chance at being chosen QUEEN FOR A DAY!” Sometimes, unable to help himself, he guffawed and threw out sarcastic remarks, immediately explaining that he was just kidding.

   After the ladies finished, the audience applauded for the woman they wanted to see become “Queen for a Day.” The winner was determined by a decibel-reading Applause Meter, what I called the Thing-O-Meter. I didn’t always agree with the contraption, but what did I know. The winner was crowned with a jeweled crown and robed in a sable-trimmed robe. She got money, appliances, clothes, and a vacation, among other things.

   “I always thought losing was the worst,” said Bill Costello, who like me found himself glued to the boob tube. “Your life sucks, but not enough.”

   Not just anyone was picked to be on the show. They had to somehow appeal to the live audience and the tens of millions watching at home. One woman explained she wanted to be on the show because “it would help me to regain my identity, which I seem to have lost somewhere between the maternity ward and the washing machine.” The best approach was delivering enough pathos and bawling to turn the trick. One woman said she would give her right arm to be on the show.

   My mother spotted me on the living room floor one day staring up at the TV, engrossed in the black and white. She put her dish towel away and sat down in a sofa chair behind me. When the day’s episode was over, she shut the TV off. “Don’t watch that show anymore, ever,” she said.

   She had never forbidden me to watch anything before. I knew there was something wrong with the show but couldn’t put my finger on it. It held me in its morbid grip. The women told fantastic stories, whoever got the most applause for her miserable tale won, got crowned, and walked away with prizes up the wazoo.

   One winner said her husband was killed in a car crash, the family was poor as church mice, their savings exhausted, and needed help bad. “My mother was 28, pregnant, my sister was 8, and I was 5,” her daughter remembered years later. “My father promised my sister that if she got good grades, he would buy her a pony. She did but he died before he could fill his promise. My mother won two bedroom sets, a living room set, a dining room set complete with a set of dishes for a service for eight, a set of silver ware, a cook-set, a built in mixer, a hot water heater, a 7-piece patio set, a complete set of Tupperware, twelve complete outfits that included dress, matching shoes and handbags, twelve pairs of stockings, a complete set of Sarah Coventry jewelry, a complete set of rhinestone jewelry, a diamond encrusted watch, a four piece matching mother-daughter outfit, a swimsuit, a check for $1,000, and a Shetland pony.”

   Jack Bailey always said in his trademark signoff, “Make every woman a queen, for every single day.” He never said what the losers got, although I always assumed they got nothing. Once my mother put her finger on the show, she disliked it instantly. My parents were World War Two refugees from Lithuania and didn’t believe a word about getting something for nothing.

   “I was babysitting my aunt’s four children in 1944 when the Russians came,” she said. “We ran away on a cart pulled by a horse with a cow tied to the back. On our way through East Prussia, we had to sell the cow for food. There was no milk for the baby. We slept under the cart every night and every night either the Germans or Russians bombed us. After the war I lived in Nuremberg in one room with three other women and worked at the Army Hospital. When I went to Sudbury where I had gotten a visa and a job, the job was as a nanny for a family of thirteen. When your father joined me the next year, he had no money and went to work in a cement factory the next day. When we got married, we had no money, but we had the three of you and bought a small house. It’s shameful to go on a TV show, telling all the world your troubles for prizes and money.”

   She hadn’t seen her parents uncles aunts brothers sisters cousins for almost twenty years. The Iron Curtain was locked up tight. My parents never complained about it. They both went to work weekdays and on weekends worked around the house when they weren’t doing something at the church or with the scouts. They didn’t help us with our homework or drive us to the library. We did our own homework and walked to the library.

   She wasn’t telling me anything about “Queen for a Day” I didn’t already know, although I couldn’t if my life depended on it have put it into words. I knew I didn’t like the clapping like crazy for the most miserable story of the day. I suspected there was something wrong with that. 

   “Sure, the show was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste,” the producer Howard Blake said after the program’s nine-year run ended. “That was why it was so successful. It was exactly what the public wanted.”

   He didn’t stop there. He knew it was a trashy reality show that played on people’s misery, while those same people played out their tearjerkers to cash in on the American Dream.

   “Everybody was on the make, NBC and later ABC, the producers, the sponsors, and the suppliers of gifts. And how about all the down-on-their-luck women who we used to further our money-grubbing ends? Weren’t they all on the make? Weren’t they willing to wash their dirty linen on coast-to-coast TV for a chance at big money, for a chance to ride in our chauffeured Cadillac, for the free tour of Disneyland and the Hollywood nightclubs? What about one of the most common wishes they turned in? ‘I’d like to pay back my mother for all the wonderful things she’s done for me.’ The women who made that wish didn’t want to pay back their mothers at all. They wanted us to do that.”

   We never clapped when anybody in our grade school class at St. George’s had a bad day. None of us clapped when a nun slapped one of us and made him or her stand in the hall. Nobody clapped when somebody was a step slow getting to the CTS streetcar taking us home. We yelled and slapped on the windows for the driver to stop. 

   None of us wanted to be a sleazeball.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Blood in the Aisles

By Ed Staskus

   The last summer we lived in the jam-packed immigrant neighborhood around Eddy Rd. was the last year my friends and I took Cleveland’s Rapid Transit downtown every Saturday to mess around and go to the movies. It was 20-some years after the city-owned bus and train system, what everybody called CTS, got rolling. It was 1963. The news was all about civil rights and Vietnam, two issues we barely knew anything about and cared about even less. What we cared about were slot cars, riding our bikes, and summer camp.

   Stevie Wonder released his first live album, “The 12 Year Old Genius.” We were all 12 and 13 years old. None of us were geniuses, not by a long shot, although some of us went on to be able to think more or less clearly.

   Push-button telephones were new, 1st class postage cost 5 cents, and President John Kennedy visited West Berlin, delivering his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. We went around calling each other Berliners and saluting Nazi-style. All of us had voted for JFK in a mock election at St. George’s Catholic School. Our nuns told us to stop saluting and focus on JFK’s good deeds, but they need not have. He was young energetic handsome while Richard Nixon had been shifty old with a five o’clock shadow. 

   The Rapid Transit was a light rail system, what we simply called the train. Tens of millions of riders rode it every year, especially on Saturdays, when it seemed like all of them were riding it at once. We had to stand most of the time. Even when we got a seat, we had to give it up to pregnant women, crippled men, and old folks. Standing and swaying and holding on to a pole didn’t matter. We had ants in our pants for roaming around downtown and seeing a big-time movie.

   All we had known in our earlier years was the Shaw-Hayden Theater, which we could walk to. They showed monster movies, cowboy movies, and space adventure movies on Saturday afternoons. Cartoons and a double bill cost 50 cents. We ignored the newsreels. Popcorn cost 15 cents, and since we were chronically short on hard cash, we brought our own in paper bags hidden under our jackets. Sometimes we stopped at Mary’s Sweet Shoppe and bought penny candy.

   There was a playground behind the neighborhood fire station with Saturday Sandbox contests, but we never went, being too old for sandboxes. There were dances at the Shaw Pool every Saturday night, but we never went to those either, being too young to care about girls.

Before the matinee there was a drawing for prizes. One of my friends won two thousand sheets of paper on a winter afternoon. He was beside himself hauling the reams home in the snow. He complained about frostbite, but he was a whiner at school and in our scout troop, so we ignored him. The theater was big, more than a thousand seats. We usually went early so we could sit in the front row, stretching our legs out, horsing around, kicking each other.

   Going downtown we barnstormed from where we lived off St. Clair Ave. down East 128th St. to Shaw Ave. to Hayden Ave. and followed an unnamed unmapped foot path to the CTS Windermere station. We scrambled up the embankment, crossed the tracks at the rear of the station, and waited on the platform for the downtown bound train. Windermere was the end of the line for the Red Line.

   When the rails rolled into home plate, we dusted ourselves off and ran upstairs out of the station, running through the Terminal Tower lobby and bursting outside, rain or shine. We made tracks around Public Square until we were tired. We liked walking to the movies on one of the three main avenues, which were Prospect, Euclid, and Superior. Our parents warned us about staying away from Prospect Ave., where there were prostitutes, smut stores, and burlesque houses. It was because of their words of wisdom that we took Prospect Ave. to East 14th St. most of the time, although we never talked to the whores and never went into the sketchy bars and clubs. We weren’t interested in smut and besides we didn’t have the money to pay for cheap thrills. All the money we had, we hoarded for the train, the movie, and snacks.

   There were five theaters clustered between East 14th and East 17th. Four of them faced Euclid Ave. while one faced East 14th St. The three blocks were known as Playhouse Square, although none of us knew that. We didn’t pay attention to signs unless they had something to do with food or the movies. All of us had our own money, cobbled together from stingy allowances, paper routes, altar boy service at weddings, and even thievery, if push came to shove and our Saturday was threatened.

   The Ohio and State theaters were built by New York City plutocrat Marcus Loew in the early 1920s, followed by Charles Platt’s Hanna Theater. It was named for Mark Hanna, Cleveland’s big-time wheeler-dealer senator in Washington. The Pompeiian-style Allen Theater opened a few months later.

   The last theater opened at the end of the next year in the Keith Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city. The biggest electric sign in the world was fabricated and turned on the night of the Palace Theater’s opening. The movie house was billed as the “Showplace of the World.” The opening night entertainment was headlined by a famous mimic. Everybody said it was “the swankiest theater in the country.” 

   It wasn’t swank anymore when we started going to matinees, but we didn’t notice. It had wide seats and a gigantic screen and that was all that mattered. The movies cost 75 cents and we were glad to pay it. It was where we saw “Son of Flubber” and afterwards pretended to defy gravity like Fred MacMurray. We saw “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and laughed until we cried. We loved stories about buried treasure. It was perpetual motion and shouting. Ethel Merman was the most likable loudmouth we ever heard. We saw it three times and it seemed new every time.

   We saw “Cleopatra,” but agreed afterwards that Elizabeth Taylor wanted to be first fiddle so bad we got sick of her. “Why is she even in the movie?” we wondered. Rex Harrison and Richard Burton were more like it. Thousands of Romans with swords and spears fighting among themselves was even more like it. Swords and sandals in banshee mode were what we had paid to see.

   We wanted to see “Psycho” but weren’t allowed to buy tickets. We were warned it was too intense and inappropriate for boys our age. We were offended, but when we heard what it was about, we asked each other what all the fuss was. It sounded like a sicko stabbing people, which was right up our alley. We had all seen plenty of horror movies, like “Carousel of Souls” and “Village of the Damned.”

   When “The Raven” was playing we saw it right away, even though none of us knew Edgar Allen Poe from the Man in the Moon. There’s a black bird. There’s a tapping at the door. The night is dark and howling. When the door is opened there’s nobody there.

   “Watch your back,” we yelled at the screen.

   The Big Three in the movie were Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre, even though Peter Lorre was a midget. He had a sinister voice, hooded eyes, and a dodgy way about him, which made up for his lack of height. Vincent Price was disappointing, even though he was the tallest. He spoke and acted like a sissy Gentleman Jim, even though he was supposed to be a big bad magician. In the end the whole business was disappointing. It was more funny than scary, and once we realized how it was going, we enjoyed it for the laughs. The Big Three turned out to be the Three Stooges in disguise.

   We took a chance and asked for our money back, which we hardly ever did, but a grouch in a blue suit ushered us out and told us where to go.

   We heard about “Seven Wonders of the World” on the radio, on WERE-AM, before we ever saw it on the marquee of the Palace Theater. We didn’t go see it, even though we saw it on the marquee week after week and even though it was in Cinerama. We saw everything in Cinerama, anyway, since we always sat in the front row. A wide screen made a bad movie twice as good.

   Our own hometown was where we went to see the wonders of the world. We wandered around in the Flats amazed, stargazing up at the steel plants, looking down on the greasy Cuyahoga River, watching the up and down bridges go up and down as freighters hauling ore slowly made their way upstream. Six years later the river caught on fire, flames and plumes of black smoke turning day to night. We walked along the shoreline of Lake Erie where fishermen pulled perch and walleye out of the dirty water.

   We snuck into Municipal Stadium, called The Mistake on the Lake, whenever we knew the fire-balling lefty Sam McDowell was pitching. He was 20 years old and tall as a tree. Hardly anybody went to see the middle to back of the pack team and we often had most of the 81, 000 seat stadium to ourselves, whooping and hollering it up. When ushers asked to see our ticket stubs, we hemmed and hawed and changed sections. Whenever we ended up in the bleachers there were never any ushers to roust us. If it was hot, we pulled our shirts off. We threw popcorn to the pigeons and pebbles at them when they stooped over their free goodies.

   The movies were magic to us. They were like a dreamland in waking life. It didn’t matter if the story was real or unreal. We were dazzled by the moving images and the music. It was disorienting coming out of the dark auditorium after a matinee into bright sunlight, like after a midday nap when dreams come fast and furious.

   The weekend before our summer vacation was done and we had to go back to school we saw our last movie at the Ohio Theater. It was “Lord of the Flies” and was about boys our age who were marooned on a desert island. We thought we were experts about everybody like us and didn’t know anybody who ever did what they did. We suspected movies were some kind of art form but didn’t like grown-ups making up art about us. We appreciated great trash but not great art. We wrote it off as highfalutin science fiction.

   Going home on the train we saw a fight break out. Two men had been talking, then shouting, then shoving each other in the aisle, until one of them pulled a knife and stabbed the other one in the arm. Real blood gushed and stained his clothes. A real woman screamed. Two real men grabbed the knifer and held him down, while another man took his tie off and tied a tourniquet on the upper arm of the stabbed man. When we got to Windermere there were police cars and an ambulance there. We watched, fascinated, until a policeman told us to “break it up and go home.”

   We went home more marveled breathless than any movie had ever made us.

   John Kennedy was shot and killed that fall, which put a pall over everything. A fire broke out in the Ohio Theater the following year and the other theaters were hit by vandalism. All of them closed between the summers of 1968 and 1969 except the Hanna. We were juniors and seniors at St. Joseph’s High School, and the only pictures we went to were at the LaSalle Theater in our North Collinwood neighborhood. But by then when we went to the movies, we were more interested in our girlfriends than whatever was playing, although we found out horror movies were the way to go. 

   There was never any doubt about what to do with your hands when you were out with your main squeeze and the scary parts started.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Bird On the Wing

By Ed Staskus

   Some men are good at farming. Other men are good at fishing. Storekeepers keep them in gear and goods. A few men are good for nothing. William Murphy wasn’t a man practiced at doing nothing. He didn’t know fishing or farming but was experienced at raising horses. He was going to have a horse farm and make his way that way.

   He stayed on the cove where he had landed, building a rude shelter. He cut limbed sawed trees by hand and split blocks with an axe. The wood would be ready for a stove and fireplace next year. In the meantime, he bought a load of coal from a passing schooner. He found dampness nearby and looked for an underground spring. When he found it, he dug it out, saving himself the work and expense of digging a well. Whenever he could he cleared land. Sometimes it seemed like it was all he did.

   “The islander making a new farm cut down the trees as fast as possible until a few square yards of the blue sky could be seen above. Roots and branches lying on the ground were set on fire and sometimes the forest caught fire and hundreds of acres of timber were burned,” is how Walter Johnson, a Scotsman who came to Prince Edward Island to start Sunday schools, described it.

   Bill Murphy put enough salted cod away to feed a family of Acadians. When the weather changed for the worse, he smoked read ate slept through the season, living in his union suit. The dead of winter arrived near the end of January and kept at it through February. The daytime high temperatures were below zero, and the overnight low temperatures were negative double digits. After spring arrived and the Prince Consort proved true to his word and his land grant was signed sealed and delivered, he continued clearing land and building a house.

   He wasn’t a farm hand, but he had to eat. His first task was putting in a root garden of beets turnips carrots and potatoes. They would store well the next winter. He made sure there were onions. They added flavor to food and were a remedy to fight off colds. Whenever he started coughing or sneezing, he stripped and rubbed himself all over with goose grease and stuffed a handful of onions into his underwear. He always felt better afterwards. Corn peas beans could be dried and stored for soup. A bachelor might even live on it. 

   Rhubarb was a perennial and one of the earliest to come up in the spring. After a long winter it was the first fresh produce. He planted plenty of rhubarb. The island had a short although rapid growing season. He woke up before sunrise and worked until dusk. He kept at it every day. The Sabbath meant nothing to him.

   The Prince of Wales visited Prince Edward Island that summer during his tour of British North America, arriving in a squadron consisting of the Nile, Flying Fish, and three more men-of-war. The Nile grounded trying to enter Charlottetown’s harbor. Once the tide lifted it, the unhappy boat sailed away towards Quebec. Spectators cheered Bertie’s progress to Government House on streets decorated with spruce arches. 

   “The town is a long straggling place, built almost entirely of wood, and presents few objects of interest.”

   It was a cloudy afternoon, but when it cleared, he went horseback riding. That evening there was a dress dinner and ball at the Province Buildings. The Prince of Wales took a moment to step out onto a balcony.

   “Some Micmac Indians grouped themselves on the lawn, dressed in their gay attire, the headgear of the women recalling the tall caps of Normandy.”

   When the squadron embarked towards the mainland it was in a heavy rain. No one who didn’t need to be on deck wasn’t on deck. There were no spectators in the harbor waving hats and kerchiefs. Even the Indians stayed away.

   “Our visit it is to be hoped has done much good in drawing forth decided evidence of the loyalty of the colonists to the Queen.”

   Their loyalty and the Queen’s confidence were soon to be tested.

   Bill Murphy didn’t bother making the long trip into town, having already gotten what he wanted from the royal family. The Prince of Wales was a playboy. There wasn’t anything he could do for him. When he was able to at last inhabit the house against the elements, he started on a horse barn. It would be large, large enough for stabling animals, milking cattle, and storing tools. The haymow would hold more than forty tons to feed his animals during the winter.

   At the same time, he started looking for a wife. He needed help indoors so he could work the outdoors. He needed help planting crops to feed himself and a family. He needed help clothing the body. Life without a woman on Prince Edward Island was a hard life. He found her the same time his work bee was finishing the barn.

   He met her in the cash provision store in Cavendish. Siobhan Regan was 19 years-old, a few years older than half his age. She wasn’t pretty or well off but looked sturdy and round bottomed. He was sure she could bear children without killing herself or the child. She could read, although she seldom did, except for the Good Book. She was ruddy cheeked with big teeth and was a quiet woman, suiting him, who used the spoken word only for what it was worth.

   They were married and snug in their new house, home from the wedding in a buggy retrofitted with sleigh runners, the night before the last big snowfall in April. She got pregnant on Easter Sunday and stayed more-or-less pregnant for the next ten years, bearing six children, all of whom survived. Her husband refused the services of the village’s midwives, refused the services of the doctor, and delivered the children himself. He threw quacksalvers out the door with a curse and a kick. They peddled tonics saturated with moonshine and opium. He had had enough of a taste of both to know they were no good for the sick or healthy, more likely to kill than not. He never drank port, punch, or whiskey, rather drinking his own homemade beer. He liked to wrap up the day with a pint.

   He knew cholera and typhus had something to do with uncleanliness, although he didn’t know what. He had seen enough of it on ships, where straw mattresses weren’t even destroyed after somebody died from dysentery while laying on them. He ran a tight ship, keeping his house and grounds in working order. He didn’t let his livestock near the spring at the house, instead taking them downstream. He had seen the toll in towns where garbage was thrown into the street and left there for years. He and his wife had both been inoculated against smallpox, and as the children got on their feet, so were they.

   The Irishman wasn’t going to throw the dice with the lives of his children. Six out of his ten brothers and sisters died before they reached adulthood in the Land of Saints and Scholars. Their overlords had something to do with it, famine had something to do with it, and their rude lives the rest of it, putting them in early graves. One of them died on the kitchen table where a barber was bleeding him. He bled to death.

   Siobhan Murphy took a breather towards the end of the decade. Her husband and she went to Charlottetown twice that summer to see shows at St. Andrew’s Hall. They saw “Box and Cox” and “Fortune’s Frolic,” both directed by the lively and eccentric Mrs. Wentworth Stevenson, an actress and music teacher trained in London who had formed the Charlottetown Amateur Dramatic Club. 

   They stayed at Mrs. Rankin’s Hotel, having breakfast and dinner there, walking about the city, stopping for tea when the occasion arose, and spent their otherwise not engaged hours making a new baby. When they were done, they went home. The children weren’t surprised that another one of them was on the way.   

   Every farm on Prince Edward had a stable of horses for work and transport. Most farmers used draft horses for hard labor, the nearly one-ton animals two in hand plowing fields, bringing in hay, and hauling manure. It was his good fortune to know horses inside and out, big and small. The carrying capacity of his land was well more than a hundred horses. He wasn’t planning on that many, but a hundred would suit him well if it came to that. He was going to grow most of his own food and sell horses for the rest of life’s essentials and pleasures.   

   By 1867 when Prince Edward Island rejected the idea of Confederation, even though it hosted the Charlottetown Conference in 1864 where it was first proposed, he was well on his way to making his horse farm a going concern. Confederation didn’t concern him, one way of the other. Many islanders wanted to stay part of Great Britain. Others wanted to be annexed by the United States. Some thought becoming a distinct dominion on their own was best. He kept his eye on the prize, his family and farm.

   John Macdonald, the country’s first Prime Minister, always worried about American expansionism, tried to coax the island into the union with incentives, but it wasn’t until they were faced with a major financial crisis that its leaders reconsidered Macdonald’s various offers. It was when they put themselves into a hole that his efforts paid off.

   A coastline-to-coastline railway-building plan gone bad put Prince Edward Island into debt. It spawned a banking crisis. Parliament Hill agreed to take over the debt and prop up the financing needed to resume railway construction. There was a demand for year-round steamer service between the island and mainland. Parliament Hill agreed to the demand. The province wanted money to buy back land owned by absentee landlords, and Parliament Hill agreed to that, too.

   The horse trader was better off than many people on the island. He had a small amount of hard cash while most islanders had no amount of cash to speak of and bartered almost everything. When the chance arose to make a killing during the horse disease of 1872, he took it. The pandemic started in a pasture near Toronto. Inside the year it spread across Canada. Mules, donkeys, and horses got too sick to work. They coughed, ran a fever, and keeled over exhausted getting out of their barns and stables. Delivering lumber from sawmills or beer to saloons killed them outright.

   “There are not fifty horses in the city free from the disease,” a newspaper editor in Ottawa wrote. Another editor in Montreal wrote, “We have very few horses unaffected.” The only place the pandemic didn’t reach was Prince Edward Island.

   “When the disease was raging in the other provinces, our navigation was closed, and our island entirely cut off, in the way of export or import from the mainland, which in fact must have been the reason it did not cross to our shores,” wrote the editor of The Patriot newspaper.

   Bill Murphy drove sixty horses to Summerside where they were loaded on two ships for crossing the Northumberland Straight. Once on shore they were walked to the railhead in New Brunswick and shipped by railcar to Montreal, whose money for the horses was better than all others. When he was paid, he secreted the money inside his shirt with his jacket buttoned up to the collar until he got back home.

   In 1873 the island’s voters were given the option of accepting Confederation or going it alone and having their taxes raised substantially. Most voters chose Confederation, voting their pocketbooks, the same as he did. Prince Edward Island officially joined Canada on July 1, 1873. 

   The weather that day was foul and then a storm rolled in. Thunderbolts lit up the low clouds followed a split second later by sonic booms. The fox in the fields lay low in their foxholes. It wasn’t fit for man or beast.

   It was two years later, as lightning slashed the sky, that the prize horse on Murphy land spooked and kicked him in the head, breaking his jaw, knocking an eye out, and fracturing his skull. Everything he knew about the animals, as well as the money from the sale of them the year before, which he had squirreled away behind the barn, flew out the window with his soul. The gates of the Underworld and Heaven both opened wide to admit him to eternity. He tossed the Devil’s invitation away.

   Flags flew on the island that August when George Coles died in Charlottetown. He had been the first premier of PEI and one of the Fathers of Confederation, which didn’t keep him from dueling with Edward Palmer, another Father of Confederation. He was a feisty man. “I have not met anyone not irascible who is worth a damn,” he said. He was convicted of assault. While still in the provincial government, he spent a month in custody. His twelve children visited him and brought him beer. He had been a distiller and brewer earlier in life.

   Siobhan Murphy folded her flag and buried it with her husband in the village’s cemetery. Alone after the burial, her children gathered around her, she gazed out on the sparkling Atlantic Ocean from the top of Church Hill Road. Her husband had crossed the briny deep at peril to himself to make his fortune, no matter what it might be. He was gone now but the land was still theirs. She would never give it up. It would always be theirs.

   Siobhan had no intention of going anywhere, no matter whether it was Canada or the United States or anywhere else on Prince Edward Island. She couldn’t raise the dead but could raise her children on the farm her husband made. She was determined none of them would ever forget their father. Murphy’s Cove would stay what it was, Murphy’s Cove.

   She started the slow walk with her sick at heart brood back down the red road to the cove and their farm. The smallest of them, a girl her pigtails flapping, pulled at her mother’s dress.

   “Mommy, I have a secret to tell you.”

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Roadkill

By Ed Staskus

   Malcolm Ferguson walked into the Queen Elizabeth Hospital mortuary room like he was seeing it for the first time, even though he had been PEI’s pathologist for 11 years. He waited for the sharp stab in his left hip to relent. He felt woozy. He steadied himself with one arm on the doorjamb. He was steady after a moment, even though his left heel wouldn’t flatten down to the floor. He put his arms at his sides and breathed evenly.

   The hospital was practically new. It was in its infancy. He was getting older by the minute, which bothered him, even though the older he got the older he wanted to be. “Getting old is no problem,” is what Groucho Marx said. “You just have to live long enough.” But sometimes he didn’t feel like he was just getting old, he felt like he was getting old and crippled.

   His hip hurt like hell. He knew exactly what the matter was. It had finally gotten to be bone on bone. The day had always been coming. Posture yoga and walking and strong drink had forestalled the inevitable. But he walked too much the past few days. When the weather had gotten better, he drove to Brackley Beach, and walked two miles back and forth three days in a row. That was a mistake. It wasn’t the same as his treadmill, which had arm rails he could steady and even support himself on. He had three months left before his resignation became official. When he was done, he was getting a hip replacement the next day, going back to Tracadie, and staying there. He would heal up and fish and carve up fillets rather than folks stiff as boards.

   He blinked in the bright light, wondering why there were two tables set up for him. When he remembered the arm, he remembered he was going to have to do two post-mortems, one on the arm and one on the young woman who the arm belonged to.

   Her death was being treated as the result of criminal activity. If it was some place bigger than Charlottetown the post-mortem would have been performed by a forensic pathologist. They investigate deaths where there are legal implications, like a suspected murder. But it wasn’t any other place. It was Charlottetown. It was the smallest capital city of the smallest province in Canada. It would have to do, and he would have to do it.

   When he was suited up, Malcom stood over the dead woman and blinked his fly-belly blue eyes. She was on her back on a stainless-steel cadaver table. It was essentially a slanted tray with raised edges to keep fluids from flowing onto the floor. There was running water to wash away the blood that is released during the procedure. 

   She hadn’t been shot or stabbed. Her face was a mess, though. It took him a minute to see what it was that had killed her. Her skull was fractured. Parts of the broken skull had pressed into the brain. It swelled and cut off access to blood by squeezing shut the arteries and blood vessels that supply it. As the brain swelled it grew larger than the skull that held it and begin to press outside of it into the nasal cavity, out of the ears, and through the fracture.

   After a minute her brain began to die. After five minutes, if she hadn’t died, she would have suffered irreversible brain damage. One way or the other it was the end of her.

   He got down to the rest of his work, making a long incision down the front of her body to remove the internal organs and examine them. A single incision across the back of the head allowed the top of her skull to be removed so the brain could be examined. He saw what he expected to see. He examined everything carefully with the naked eye. If dissection had been necessary to look for any abnormalities, such as blood clots or tumors, he would have done it, but what was the point?

   After his examination he returned the organs and brain to the body. He sewed her up. When he turned his attention to the arm, he saw clearly enough it had been chopped off with one clean blow. The axe, or whatever it was, must have been new or even newer. In any case, it was as sharp as could be. Her hand was clenched in a fist. He had to break her fingers to loosen it. When he did, he found a loonie in her palm. It was Canada’s one-dollar gold-colored coin introduced two years earlier to replace paper dollar bills, which had become too expensive to print. Everybody called them loonies after the solitary loon gracing the reverse side.

   Malcolm looked at the brand-new looking coin smeared with dried blood and dirt.

   “What the hell?” he muttered to himself.

   He put the coin in a plastic bag and labelled it. He recorded everything on a body diagram and verbally on a cassette tape. He put the loonie, diagram, and tape in a pouch and labelled it. When he was done, he washed up and decided to go eat. After that he would call it a day. The work had warmed him up and he wasn’t limping as much as he had earlier. He tested his hip, lifting his leg at the knee and rotating. He would drive to Chubby’s Roadhouse for lunch, he decided. They had the best burgers on the island.

   The phone rang. It was Pete Lambert, the Commanding Officer of the RCMP Queens detachment.

   “What have you found out, Malcolm.”

   “I’m on my way to lunch right now. Meet me at Chubby’s. As long as the force pays, I’ll tell you everything I know.”

   “I’ll meet you there in twenty minutes.”

   Chubby’s was 15 minutes from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and 20 minutes from the RCMP station. 

   While he was driving Malcolm thanked God it was 1989 and metallic hip replacements were as good as they had ever been. The first hip replacements dated back a hundred years to when ivory implants were used to replace the femoral head. Elephant tusks were cheap at the time and were thought to possess good biomechanical properties.  

   Fifty years later an American surgeon performed the first metallic hip replacement. He designed a prosthesis with a large head made of something he called Vitallium. The implant was around 12 inches in length and attached with bolts to the end of the femoral shaft. It worked like a charm. That same prosthesis is what he would be getting, except it was better and the implant would be inserted within the canal of the femur, where bone growth would lead to more permanent attachment. As long as he could wake up and walk first thing in the morning, instead of staggering and grabbing for support, he would be a happy fisherman.

   Chubby’s Roadhouse and Bud’s Diner were next to each other in a pink and baby blue building on St. Peters Road in Dunstaffnage. They did a brisk business. It was a popular pit stop for bikers on poker runs. It was why Pete Lambert had lunch or dinner there two and three times a week, getting to know the riders.

   “We serve burgers and fries and shakes, and fish and chips and clams and all that stuff,” Clarence Foster said. “But I think as far as the burger goes, the best, the one that everybody seems to like is called the Bud Burger.”

   Dances were held in the back of the building with local bands like Haywire. Teenagers with ice cream cones gathered around the pinball machines at the front. Drinkers stayed at the bar, drinking. The bikers ate their Bud Burgers outside during the day and drank inside during the night.

   “We have wedding receptions and things like that,” Clarence said. He told the bikers about them in advance, so that nobody ended up stepping on anybody else’s toes.

   The Spoke Wheel Car Museum was next door. Clarence and his father, Ray, shared an appreciation for old cars. They both liked to smoke but loved cars more. They gave up cigarettes. Instead of up in smoke their savings went toward buying heaps nobody else wanted and restoring them. By 1969, they had 13 cars, including a 1930 Ford Model A Coach that Clarence drove. It was how the roadhouse and diner came into being. 

   “People were coming to the museum and looking for a place to eat,” he said. “Since my dad was a cook in the army, we decided to build a little canteen and it just kept on growing.” 

   It wasn’t the warmest day, although it was sunny.  Malcolm and Pete ate inside at a back table. They had Bud Burgers and pints.

   “How’s the hip?” Pete asked.

   “Hellzapoppin’,” Malcom said.

   “Is that the official word?”

   “It’s how I feel. I’ve got two months and 29 days from now circled on my calendar.”

   They ate and small talked.

   “Find anything out?” Pete asked, finishing his burger and hand-cut fries. The food was good because the beef and potatoes came from the island. It would be a trifecta once islanders started up their breweries.

   “It will be in my report tomorrow, but since you’re interested, I’ll summarize it. She died of a fractured skull. There was tissue not hers on her face and in her hair. I want to say she was hit by a hard human fist that got scuffed up doing it. She had alfalfa on and in her clothes. More than a brush of silage, enough to make me think she was on a dairy farm long enough to roll around in it. The last cut was in late August, so she was put in the ground sometime between then and no later than the end of October.”

   Thousands of acres of potatoes on the island the last fall were left in the ground. Heavy rain and cold temperatures put a damper on the harvest. There was too much rain and cold weather, freezing and thawing, that led to a deep frost.

   “Her arm was probably cut off by an axe, sharp, clean as a whistle. Whoever did it, like the fist, is a strong man or woman. Why it was cut off, since I think she was already dead, is for you to find out. She had a loonie clenched in her missing hand. It was a 1988 issue. No prints other than hers on it.”

   “Are her prints in the report?”

   “Yes, what we could get, which wasn’t much of anything.”

   It was shop talk. Pete knew everything and a batch of photographs would be part of the report.     

   “She wasn’t molested or abused. I don’t think she had eaten for several days. There wasn’t anything remarkable about her teeth, none missing, one filling. She was in her early twenties, five foot five, 118 pounds, green eyes, light brown hair, no moles, birthmarks, or tattoos. She was healthy as a horse.”

   “Anything else?”

   “One more thing. I think she might have poked somebody in the eye. There was retinal fluid and blood under the fingernails of the first two fingers on the cut-off arm. Her nails were 7 mm long and almond shaped, perfect for poking. It wasn’t her blood, either.”

   Blunt trauma to the eye can cause the retina to tear. It can lead to retinal detachment. It usually requires urgent surgery. The alternative is blindness.

   “If that happened, where would the eye be treated?” Pete asked.

   “At a hospital or a large eye clinic.”

   “What happens if it’s not treated?”

   “Kiss goodbye to that eye.”

   “I see,” the RCMP officer said, paying the bill when the waitress stopped at their table. What crowd there had been had cleared out. It was the middle of the afternoon. When the two men went out to their cars, they were the only two cars in the front lot. Pete Lambert was driving an unmarked police car, although it was clearly an official car. Malcom Ferguson was driving a 1985 Buick Electra station wagon. They shook hands and went their separate ways.

   Five hours later a lone biker approached the roadhouse, swerving to avoid a battered fox. There was always more roadkill in the spring and fall. Skunks and raccoons were the most common, although foxes weren’t always as quick and slippery as their reputation. He pulled up, parked, and went inside. He left the key in the ignition. His red Kawasaki Ninja had an inline four cylinder, 16 valve, liquid cooled engine with a top speed above 240 KPH. He had already made that speed and more. He knew nobody was going to mess with his bike because everybody knew whose it was. At the bar he ordered a Bud Burger and a pint.

   “How’s the eye?” the bartender asked. “It looks good. No more pirate’s patch.”

   “Yeah, but I waited too long to get it fixed,” the biker said. “The doc says I’ll probably be mostly blind in that eye from here on. It doesn’t matter, I can still see enough out of the other one to take care of my business.”

   When he left, he paid cash with a new one-hundred-dollar bill.

   “Where do you keep finding these?” the bartender asked.

   “Pennies from heaven, my man,” the biker said, leaving him a tip of a half dozen loonies.

   Getting on his glam motorcycle in the darkness he thought, I’ve got to be more careful about that.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Swimming With the Fish

By Ed Staskus

   There are thousands of restaurants in Cleveland Ohio. Captain Frank’s isn’t one of them. It used to be and when it was it was one of the best places to eat if you liked seafood and Lake Erie waves and wind and waves shaking the building on the East 9th St. pier. Every so often somebody full of cheer and careless after a hearty meal or drunk as a skunk drove off the pier into the lake. 

   “It was my last stop after a night of drinking in the Flats,” said Nancy Wasen. “Every night I was surprised no one fell off the pier and drowned.” It wasn’t for want of trying.

   In 1964 Mary Jane Jereb was 16 years old. She was in a car with her cousin and a neighbor and a driver’s ed instructor. “He took us downtown, to prepare for city driving. I wasn’t driving, my neighbor was. He directed her to this particular parking lot.” It was Captain Frank’s parking lot. They drove straight to the edge of the slick slimy pier. Spray from the Great Lake spotted their windshield.

   “The instructor told my neighbor to turn around and head back to Parma. My short young life flashed before me as she pulled into a parking space and backed out and headed home.” They slowly carefully left the dark deep behind.

   Captain Frank’s was a “Lobster House” or a “Sea Food House” depending on the signage of the year. It changed now and then. There was a panhandler who called himself Captain Frank who hung around outside the restaurant day and night, his hand stuck out. Demoted cops who kept quiet about hidden rooms in gambling joints and pocketed cash in job-buying schemes were assigned to seagull patrol on the pier, always in the dead of winter. They ignored the panhandler and did their best to walk the chill off. Sometimes they helped the innocent just to stay on the move.

   Francesco Visconti was the Captain Frank who ran the restaurant. He was a Sicilian from Palermo whose parents beat it out of Europe the year World War One started. At first, as soon as he could handle a horse, he sold fish from a wagon. After that he operated the Fulton Fish Market on East 22nd St. He was 40 years old in 1940 and lived with his wife, Rose, a son, as well as three daughters.

   He bought a beat-up passenger ferry building on the East 9th pier in 1953 and opened Captain Frank’s. I was a baby living the easy life in Sudbury, Ontario at the time and missed the grand opening. Kim Rifici Augustine’s grandfather was the original chef at Captain Frank’s. “The wax matches he used for flambé caused a fire back in the late 1950s,” she said. The fish shack burned down in 1958. Frank Visconti built it back bigger and better the next year.

   By the late 1950s my family had emigrated from Canada to Cleveland Ohio. We lived nearby, but never went to the restaurant. My parents were Lithuanians and ate bowls of beetroot soup and plates of potato pancakes and zeppelins at their own table. They didn’t know a Mediterranean Diet from Micky Mouse.

   In the Old Country they had feasted on pigs and crows. My mother’s father was a family farmer who kept porkers, slaughtering them himself, and smoking them in a box he built in the attic of the house, the box built around their fireplace chimney.

   “It was the best bacon and sausage I ever had in my life,” my mother said eighty years later.

   They hunted wild crows. “Those birds were tasty,” my mother said. The younger the birds the better. Those still in the nest and unable to get away were considered delicacies. Their crow cookouts involved breaking necks and boiling the birds in cooking oil over a bonfire, serving them with whatever vegetables they had at hand.

   Since I was part of the family, I ate with my parents my brother and sister. My mother prepared every meal. I ate whatever she made, even the fried liver and God-awful ethnic headcheese, although we never, thank God, had carrion-loving crows. Even if I had wanted to go to the Lobster House, I didn’t have a dime to my name

   Captain Frank’s boomed in the 1960s and 1970s. There were views of the lake out every window. There was an indoor waterfall. If you had water on the brain, it was the place to be. The food was terrific. Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy, and Flip Wilson ate there whenever they were in town doing a show. The Shah of Iran and Mott the Hoople partied there, although not at the same time. They weren’t any which way on the same wavelength, other than under the spell of Frank. He never asked them to leave, no matter how late it was.

   There was a luncheonette behind the restaurant that doubled as a custard stand in the summer. When the Shah or Mott the Hoople stayed later than ever, they could sit in the back in the morning in the breezy sunshine with a cup of custard while lake freighters went back-and-forth. “I never went inside Captain Frank’s, but I remember the ice cream shop in the back well,” recalled Bob Peake, a homegrown boy who was a frozen sweets connoisseur.

   Frank Visconti was a made member of the Cleveland Mob. His criminal record dated back to 1931, including arrests for narcotics, bootlegging, and counterfeiting. The restaurant was frequented by high echelon hoods and politician pals alike. Many family meetings were held there. 

   “It was the hangout for Cleveland Mafia Enterprises,” said Tom James on Cleveland Crime Watch.

   Longshoremen went to Kindler’s and Dugan’s to drink before and after work, but between their double shifts went to Captain Frank’s for power cocktails. When they were done it was only a short walk back to the docks. When the weather was bad, they were warmed up and sobered up by the time they clocked back in.

   The restaurant was a football field’s length from Lakefront Stadium, where Chief Wahoo and the Browns played. The ballpark sat nearly 80,000 fans. The Indians were always limping along, their glory days long gone, but the Browns were exciting, and on game day crazy loud cheering rocked the windows of the restaurant. Cold biting winds blew into the stadium in spring fall and winter. In the summer under the lights, swarms of midges and mayflies sometimes brought baseball games to a standstill.

   In 1966 the Beatles played the stadium and after that the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones showed up to rock the home of rock-n-roll. In the 1980s U2 brought its big show to town, raking in millions singing about lovesickness.

   Even though I was grown-up by the 1970s, I still didn’t dine at Captain Frank’s. I was living in a rented house in a forgotten part of town, and it was all I could do to feed myself at home. I didn’t have pocket money to eat out. When I finally joined the way of the world and could afford to go whenever I had some spare change and wasn’t too tired from working with my hands all day long, I ate out. Most of my friends were racing to the top. I was starting at the bottom.

   There was a kind of magic eating at Captain Frank’s at night. I watched the lights of ships making their way slowly into Cleveland’s harbors while munching on scampi and warm rolls swimming in garlic butter. They served steaks the cooks seared, but the seafood was usually just threatened with heat and served. That’s why it was good. Students from St. John College on East 9th and Superior Ave. walked there to have midnight breakfast because it was good.

   The Friday night in September 1984 my friend Matti Lavikka and I treated my brother to dinner on his 31st birthday at Captain Frank’s was almost the last birthday he celebrated on this earth. We didn’t know Frank Visconti had died earlier that year, but in the car on the pier after dinner we thought my brother was dying. He was choking for air. The dinner had been very good, but he looked very bad. We were afraid he might end up swimming with Frank.

   He was getting over a marriage to a Columbus girl that had lasted 56 days. We picked him up in Mentor, where he was living alone, and went downtown. It was a starry late summer evening. We ordered a bottle of Chianti, some pasta, and lots of shellfish. We didn’t know, and he didn’t know, that he was allergic to shellfish. 

   “I don’t know why, but I hardly ever eat fish,” he said. “It doesn’t usually agree with me.” Our dinner at Frank’s that night included scallops, oysters, shrimp, and lobster. He might not have been allergic to all of them, but he was allergic to one of them, for sure.

   Halfway through coffee and dessert, which was sfogliatelle, layers of crispy puff pastry that bundle together in a lobster-like way, he was itching wheezing and his head was swelling. His lips, tongue, and throat were like silly putty. He was breaking out into hives. He was getting dizzy and dizzier. It was like he had eaten a poisoned apple.

   Shellfish allergy is an abnormal response by the body’s immune system to proteins in all manner of marine animals. Among those are crustaceans and mollusks. Some people with the allergy react to all shellfish. Others react to only some of them. It ranges from mild symptoms, like a stuffy nose, to life-threatening.

   Matti was a fireman and paramedic in Bay Village. Looking at my brother he didn’t like what he was seeing. We frog-marched him to the car and made a beeline for the nearest hospital. Matti put the pedal to the metal. The Cleveland Clinic wasn’t far, and we had him at the front door of the emergency room in ten minutes. Five minutes later a doctor was injecting him with epinephrine and a half-hour later he was his old self.

   “Thanks, guys,” he said when we dropped him off at his bachelor pad in Mentor.

   After Frank Visconti died the restaurant limped along. The service and food got worse and worse. The tables and chairs and walls looked like they needed to be scrubbed down. Fewer and fewer people went downtown for any reason other than work. I was working downtown near the Cleveland State University campus, where Matti and I had started a small two-man business. One evening when I got off work, I called my girlfriend fiancée wife-to-be, who was living in Reserve Square, and invited her to dinner at Captain Frank’s.  I had seen her eat buffets of seafood. She had a hollow leg. I knew she wasn’t allergic to any of it. When we got there, however, the pier was dark in all directions. There were no parked cars in the lot and no lights in any of the windows.

   Rudolph Hubka, Jr., the new owner the past five years, gave up the ghost and declared bankruptcy in 1989. Nobody said a word. Hardly anybody noticed. The building was demolished in 1994. The only thing left was litter blowing around in the wind.

   We drove to Little Italy and snagged a table at Guarino’s, a woman out front pointing the way. Sam Guarino had died two years earlier, but his wife Marilyn was carrying on with the help of Sam’s sister Marie, who lived upstairs and helped with the cooking in the basement kitchen.  “Marilyn sat in front, and she was like the captain on a ship, making sure everything was just right,” said Suzy Pacifico, who was a waitress at the eatery for fifty-two years.

   We had a farm-to-table dinner before there was farm-to-table, red wine, and coffee with tiramisu. Mama Guarino asked us how we liked the cake. We didn’t see any fishy characters. When I drove my gal home, we were both happy as clams.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Nowhere to Hide

By Ed Staskus

   Corporal JT Markunas was stationed in Charlottetown with the Queens RCMP detachment. He was a grade above constable, but still pulled service in a police pursuit vehicle. He didn’t mind the car he had drawn today, although he could have done without the blue velour interior.

   He lived in a small rented two-bedroom farmhouse in Milton, where he had planted a root garden. His parents were pleased when they saw the photograph of beets, turnips, and carrots that he mailed them. JT was from Sudbury, Ontario and Prince Edward Island was his third assignment since joining the force. His first assignment had been at Fort Resolution in the Northwest Territories. He missed Sudbury, but he didn’t miss Fort Resolution.

   When he was a child, the Canadian Pacific hauled ore on tracks behind their house. When the train wailed, he wailed right back. When he was a boy American astronauts practiced out in the city’s hinterland, where the landscape resembled the moon. When he grew up, he trained for the RCMP at a boot camp in Regina. He was surprised to see women at the camp, the first ones allowed into the force. They kissed the Bible and signed their names, like all the recruits, and wore the traditional red serge when on parade, but they also wore skirts and high heels and carried a hand clutch. 

   JT was sitting in his blue and white Mustang Interceptor. Even though Ford had built more than 10,000 of them since 1982, the RCMP had only gotten 32 of the cars. He had one of the two on the island. There were lights on the roof, front grille, and rear parcel shelf. He was in Cavendish, across the street from the Rainbow Valley amusement park. He was watching for speeders, of whom he hadn’t seen any that morning. He was thinking of stopping somebody for whatever reason to justify the pursuit car. He was also thinking about his second cup of coffee but waiting until he started yawning. He thought it was going to happen soon. When it did, he would 10-99 the control room and take a break from doing nothing.

   Cavendish was Anne’s Land. It was where “Anne of Green Gables” was set. He hadn’t read the book, but doubted it had anything to do with what he could see in all directions. The amusement park was named after Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1919 book “Rainbow Valley.” It was waterslides, swan boats, a sea monster, monorail, roller coasters, animatronics, castles and suspension bridges, and a flying saucer gift shop. The paratrooper might have been everyone’s favorite ride.

   Earl Davison was looking for a roller coaster when he found it.  He was in Pennsylvania hunting for a bargain at a park turning its lights off.  The coaster seemed to fit the bill at first sight.

   “It’s a terrific ride, but you’ll need to have a good maintenance team to keep ’er running,” the Pennsylvania man said.

   When Earl hemmed and hawed, the man suggested his paratrooper ride instead. “It’s the best piece of equipment I have. I will sell you that paratrooper ride for $25,000 and we’ll load it for you.” By the end of the next day Earl had written a check and the ride was loaded ready to go for the long drive back to PEI.

   Earl Davison thought up Rainbow Valley in 1965, buying and clearing an abandoned apple orchard and filling in a swamp, turning it into ponds. “We borrowed $7,500.00,” he said. “It seemed like an awful lot of money at the time.” When they opened in 1969 admission was 50 cents. Children under 5 got in free. Ten years later, he bought his partners out and expanded the park. Most of the attractions were designed and fabricated by him and his crew.

   “We add something new every year,” said Earl. “That’s a rule.” The other rule-of-thumb was moms and dads with smiles plastered all over the faces of their children. “Some of the memories you hear twenty years later are from people whose parents aren’t with them anymore. But they remember their visits to Rainbow Valley and those experiences last a lifetime.”

   When his two-way radio came to life, instructing him to go to Murphy’s Cove to check on a report of a suspicious death, JT hesitated, thinking he should get a coffee first, but quickly decided against it. Suspicious deaths were far and few between. Homicides happened on Prince Edward Island about once every ten years. This might be his only chance to work on one. When he drove off it was fast with flashing lights but no siren. He reported that the cove was less than ten minutes away. 

   Conor Murphy saw the patrol car pull off the road onto the shoulder and tramped down the slope to it. Some people called the RCMP Scarlet Guardians. Most people in Conor’s neck of the woods called them Gravel Road Cops, after the GRC on their car doors, the French acronym for Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Conor didn’t call them anything. He had been on the force once and didn’t mess with what they might or might not be.

  JT put his cap on and joining Conor walked up to where Bernie Doiron was waiting beside the tractor. When he saw the arm handcuffed to the briefcase, he told Conor and Bernie to not touch anything and walked back to his patrol car. He wasn’t sure what code to call in so called in a 10-64, requesting an ambulance, and asked for the commander on duty. He described what he had found and was told to sit tight.

   “Yes sir,” he said.

   It wouldn’t be long before an ambulance and many more cars showed up. They couldn’t miss his car, but he turned the lights on top of it back on just in case and backtracked to the tractor.

   “Who found this?” he asked, pointing at the arm. 

   “I did,” said Bernie.

   “Is it the same as you found it?” JT asked. “Did you or move or disturb anything?”

   “No, we left it alone,” Bernie said. 

   “And you are?” JT asked Conor.

   “I’m across the street in the green house,” Conor said. “These are my fields. Bernie came down and got me when he found this. A fox has been at the arm.”

   “I see that,” JT said, even though he didn’t know what had happened to the arm. He didn’t jump to conclusions. It was flayed and gruesome, whatever it was. He wasn’t repulsed by it. He was being objective. The final quality that made him a good policeman was that he was patient. He waited patiently with Conor and Bernie for the rest of the team to show up. None of the three men said a word.

   JT looked at the land all around him getting ready for the growing season. There was no growing season where he grew up. His father worked the nickel mines in Sudbury his working life, never missing a day. He had been an explosives man and made it through his last year last week last shift unscathed. He had always known there was no one to tap him on the shoulder if he made a mistake.

   His mother raised four children. She dealt with powder burns every day. They were among the few post-war Lithuanians still left in Sudbury. The rest of them had worked like dogs and scrimped and saved, leaving the first chance they got. His parents put their scrimping and saving into a house on the shores of Lake Ramsey and stayed to see Sudbury transition from open pits and wood fire roasting to business as usual less ruinous to the land they lived on.

   An ambulance from a funeral home in Kensington was the first to arrive, followed within minutes by two more RCMP cars. A pumper from the North Rustico Fire Department rolled to a stop, but there wasn’t anything for the volunteer firemen to do. They thought about helping direct traffic, but there was hardly any traffic to speak of. The summer season was still a month-and-a-half away. They waited, suspecting they were going to be the ones asked to unearth the remains. They brought shovels up from their truck.

   The coroner showed up, but bided his time, waiting for a commissioned officer to show up. When he did there were two of them, one an inspector and the other one a superintendent. They talked to JT briefly, and then the fire department. The firemen measured out a ten-foot by ten-foot perimeter with the arm in the center, pounded stakes into the ground, demarcated the space with yellow police tape, and slowly began to dig. 

   They had not gotten far when the arm fell over. It had been chopped off above the elbow. One of the firemen carried the arm and briefcase to a gray tarp and covered it with a sheet of thick translucent plastic.

   “Has anybody got a dog nearby?” the inspector asked.

   Most of the firemen farmed in one way or another. Most of them had dogs. One of them who lived less than two miles away on Route 6 had a Bassett Hound. When he came back with his dog, he led him to the grave. The Bassett sniffed the perimeter of the grave and jumped into it, digging at the dirt with his short legs, barking, and looking up at his master. The fireman clapped his hands and the dog jumped out of the grave.

   “There’s something there” he said. “Probably the rest of him.”

   They started digging again carefully and methodically. When they found the rest of him three feet deep and twenty minutes later it was a woman. She was wearing acid wash jeans and an oversized tangerine sweatshirt. She was covered in dirt and blood. One of her shoes had come off. What they could see of her face was ruined by burrowing insects. She was still decomposing inside her clothes.

   The coroner stepped up to the edge of the grave with the two men who had come in the ambulance.

   “Be careful, she’s going to want to fall apart as soon as you start shifting her weight,” he said. 

   The two men were joined by two of the firemen. When all four were in the shallow grave they slowly moved the corpse into a mortuary bag, zipped it up, and using the handles on the bag lifted it up to two RCMP constables and two more of the firemen. They carried the bag slowly down the hill, the dog following them, placing it on a gurney and inside the ambulance.

   The constables went back up the hill to join the rest of the RCMP team, who were getting ready to sift through the grave looking for evidence. They would scour the ground in all directions, to the tree line and the road. JT Markunas had gotten his Minolta out of the trunk and was taking photographs. When he was done, he joined them. They spread out and with heads bowed started looking for anything and everything.

   The ambulance was ready to go when Conor came down to the side of the park road, stopped beside it and tapped on the driver’s side window. When it rolled down, he pointed up the slope.

   “Don’t forget the arm,” he said.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Behind Bulletproof Glass

By Ed Staskus

   I should have known better when I told the young woman on the other side of the Walgreen’s bulletproof drive-thru window that I needed the kind of coronavirus test that would get my wife and me into Canada and she breezily said, “For sure, this is it.” She was a trained pharmacy technician, but made up her harebrained reply, assuring me all was well even though she didn’t know what she was talking about. We found out three days later trying to cross the border at Houlton, Maine into Woodstock, New Brunswick.

   Getting a straight answer from the young can sometimes be like trying to give fish a bath. They often have a quippy answer for everything. Their answers are in earnest no matter what they’re asked and no matter their wealth or lack of knowledge. Whenever they are fazed by anything they say, “Oh, whatever.” 

   They say whatever they want when they are behind bulletproof glass.

   My wife and I were going to Prince Edward Island, where we didn’t go the summer before because of the 19 virus. Canada closed itself up tight as a clam in March of that year and didn’t reopen for Americans until early August of this year. Once we heard the opening was going ahead, we got in touch with the folks who operate Coastline Cottages in the town of North Rustico on PEI and let them know we were coming on August 21st and staying for three weeks.

   The cottages are on a hillside, on land that has been in the Doyle family going on two hundred years. A park road cut through their farm when it was built in the 1970s, but unlike other landowners they didn’t sell their remaining acreage to the state, so it sits snug inside the National Park. There are several homes on the bluff side of the eponymous Doyle’s Cove, some old and some brand new. In one way or another every one of them houses a homegrown north shore family, except for Kelly Doyle, who has lived on the cove the longest and lives alone.

   It takes two and half days to drive from Lakewood, Ohio to Prince Edward Island. At least it did every other year we had driven to the island. This year it took us six and half days.

   When we got to the Canadian border the black uniform in the booth asked for our passports. We forked them over to the tall trim guard, forearms tattooed, a Beretta 9mm on his hip. He was young and just old enough to be on this side of Gen Z. He looked our documents over and asked where we were from and where we were going.

   “Cleveland, Ohio,” I said. Although we live in Lakewood, an inner ring suburb, we always tell red tape we live in Cleveland. No one has heard of Lakewood. Everybody has heard of Cleveland, for good or bad. At least nobody calls it “The Mistake on the Lake” anymore. 

   I almost preferred the insult. “It keeps the riff raff rich away,” I explained to my wife. “There is no need for Cleveland to become the next new thing. They will just use up all the air and water and our real estate taxes will go ballistic. On top of that, we would end up knee deep in smarmy techies with their cheery solutions to all the world’s problems.”

   We handed our ArriveCAN documents over. We handed our virus inoculation cards over. We had both gotten Moderna shots. We handed our virus tests over, proving we had both tested negative.

   “You are cutting it close,” the border guard sniffed, shuffling everything in his hands like a deck of cards. I was hoping he wouldn’t turn a Joker up.

   The negative test had to be presented at the border within 72 hours of taking it. We were there with an hour to spare, although it would have been two hours if we hadn’t had to wait in line in our car for an hour. We had driven a thousand miles. It was tiresome but waiting in an idling car wasn’t any more skin off our noses.

   It started to smell bad when a second border guard stepped into the booth and the two guards put their heads together.

   “The antigen tests you took aren’t accepted in Canada,” the Joker said. “It has to be a molecular test. You can go ahead, since you’re from Canada, but your wife has to go back.”

   I was born in Sudbury, Ontario, and have dual citizenship, although I only carry an American passport. I couldn’t tell if he was being serious, so I asked him to repeat what he said. He repeated what he said and gave us a turn-around document to return to the USA when I told him I wasn’t ready to abandon my wife.

   We went back the way we had come, just like two of the six cars ahead of us, although we had to wait in line at the American crossing for an hour. Once we returned to Maine, we found out we could get the molecular test, but it would be a week-or more before we got the results. Nobody we talked to, not even the Gods of Google, was any help. A friendly truck driver mentioned New Hampshire was faster, only taking a day or two.

   The truck driver was stout, bowlegged, wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, a two-or-three-day growth of beard on his face, with a small shaggy dog to keep him company on the road. He wasn’t a Gen Z man. It was hard to tell what generation he belonged to, other than the changeless working-class generation.

   We drove six hours the wrong way to Campton, New Hampshire and checked into the Colonel Spencer Inn. It was Saturday night. We got on-line and made test appointments for noon at a CVS in Manchester, an hour away. We streamed “Castle of Sand” on our laptop. It was a 1970s Japanese crime thriller movie and kept us up past our bedtime.

   Over breakfast the next morning our innkeeper told us to go early since the traffic leaving New Hampshire for home on Sunday mornings was heavy. We gave ourselves an hour and a half to drive the 55 miles and barely made it. Luckily, we hadn’t made appointments for an hour later. We never would have made it. The traffic on I-93 going south was a snarl of stop and go by the time we started north back to Campton.

   We got our test tubes and swabs and stuck the swabs up our noses. I spilled some of the liquid in my tube and asked the Gen Z pharmacy technician behind the bulletproof glass if I should start over with a new kit.

   “You’re fine, it doesn’t matter,” she said, lazy as a bag of baloney. She couldn’t have been more wrong, which we discovered soon enough.

   Gen Z is self-centered and self-sacrificing both at the same time. “My goals are to travel the world and become the founder of an organization to help people.” They want to stand out. “Our generation is on the rise. We aren’t just Millennials.” They say they are the new dawn of a new age. “We are an unprecedented group of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

   Welcome to the future, just don’t take the future’s word for it.

   We spent the night at the Colonel Spencer. It was built in 1764, a year after the end of the French and Indian War. During the war the British, allied with American colonists, weaponized smallpox, trading infected blankets to Indians. The virus inflicts disfiguring scars, blindness, and death.

   “Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion, use every stratagem in our power to reduce them,” the British commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst wrote to his subordinates.

   The results were what the continent’s newest immigrants from the Old World expected.

   “They burned with the heat of the pox, and they died to feed the monster. And so, the village was deserted, and never again would the Indians live on that spot,” is how one of the natives described the deadly epidemic.

   We had dinner at Panorama Six82, not far from our inn. The hostess seated us outside on the patio which looked out over a valley and a series of cascading White Mountain hilltops. The sun went down behind one of them and we finished our dessert in the dark.

   Our server was a middle-aged man from Colombia wearing jeans, a Panorama Six82 signature shirt, and a Sonoma-style straw hat. He went back to the homeland every year to visit relatives.

    “They always want money, so I don’t bring too much of it,” Fernando said. “It’s not as dangerous as most Americans think it is. I avoid some neighborhoods, sure, and I avoid riding in cabs. The rebels are in the hills, not the cities, and besides, they don’t do much anymore. The Venezuelans are a problem, all of them leaving their god-forsaken country. But they do a lot of the dirty work for us these days.”

   We drove back to Houlton on I-95. The speed limit north of Bangor is 75 MPH. I set the cruise to 85 MPH and kept my eyes peeled for moose. The fleabags lumber onto the roadway, sometimes standing astride one lane or another. Hitting a moose is a bad idea. A full-grown bull moose stands six to seven feet tall and tips the scales at 1500 pounds. It isn’t certain that the collision will kill the beast, but it will kill your car, and maybe you. They do most of their roaming around after nightfall. We made sure we got to our motel before dusk.

   In the morning my wife was winding down a business meeting on Zoom when there was a knock on our door. It was the housekeeper. She wore a black uniform and black hair pulled back in a bun. She was young. She was part of the Z crowd.

   “We’ll be out in about a half-hour,” I said.

   “Can I replace the towels and empty the trash?”

   “Sure.”

   “Weren’t you here a few days ago?”

   “Yes,” I said, and told her about trying and failing to get across the border and our search for a fast 19 test.

   It turned out the explanation for the motel being sold-out was because of the same problem. Every other person lodging there had been turned around for one reason or another.

   “You should go to the Katahdin Valley Medical Center,” she said. “A friend of mine went there, they did the test, she got it back the next day, and went to Nova Scotia.”

   “Thanks,” I said. We packed and followed Apple Maps to the medical center. The receptionist didn’t know anything about a fast molecular test. She sent us to Jesse, the man upstairs, who was the man in charge.

   “We test on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,” he said. “It takes about a week to get the results back from the lab.” It was Tuesday. We were already three days late. I started looking over my shoulder for Chevy Chase.

   “Not the next day?”

   “No.”

   We left Houlton and drove to Presque Isle, had lunch, messed around, my wife went running on the town’s all-purpose trail, and we drove to the Caribou Inn in the next town north. While the receptionist checked her computer for our reservation, we heard a wolf whistle through the open door of the office behind the front desk. A minute later we heard it again.

   “That’s just Ducky,” the receptionist said. “She belongs to the manager.”

   “Does she do that often, whistle, I mean?” I asked.

   “Whenever she sees a pretty girl.”

   Another wolf whistle came my wife’s way.

   I must have looked cross, because the receptionist said, “Ducky is a parrot.”

   Ducky was a parrot in a tall white cage just inside the door of the office. Her plumage was green with some red and yellow mixed in. She was a saucy character.

   “She’s twenty years old,” the receptionist said.

   “How long has she been here?”

   “Twenty years.”

   Ducky was spending all her Gen Z years locked up at the Caribou Inn, where flocks came and went. The only lasting relationship she had was with Betty, the hotel’s manager, and the bird’s keeper.

   “I didn’t know parrots lived that long.”

   “They can live to be seventy, eighty years old,” Betty said.

   “Ducky wolf whistles women?”

    “And men. We thought she was a he until she started laying eggs not long ago.”

   The parrot was going to outlive most of us, the 19 or no 19. They sometimes play dead in response to threats. They can also look dead when they are asleep. But if a parrot is lying still and not breathing, looking lifeless, you can assume it is dead.

   We had a non-smoking room, although every hallway that led to our room was lined with smoking rooms. The hallways smelled sad and stale. We were settling in with a bottle of wine and a movie when we got a phone call. It was the lab in New Hampshire that was doing our 19 molecular tests. They had good news and bad news. My wife tested negative, but my test was discarded. 

   “There wasn’t enough liquid in the test vial to maintain the sample,” the lab technician said. “Did you happen to spill some of it?”

   I didn’t bother trying to explain. I got on-line and filled out another ArriveCAN form. When we got to the border my wife had no problem. The only problem I had wasn’t make or break, since they couldn’t deny me entry, test or no test. A health officer gave me a self-test kit and told me to make sure I performed it within four days. She was in her early 30s. I had no reason to be skeptical. She was just out of Gen Z range. I should have been leery since she was wrong. She wasn’t as far out of the field of friendly fire as I thought.

   Four days later, when I went on-line and followed the directions for the self-test, the Indian-looking Indian-sounding woman on the other side of screen was nonplussed when I apologized for waiting to the last minute.

   “I don’t understand.” she said. “You are four days early. You are supposed to test after eight days of self-quarantine.”

   When I started to spell out what had happened, she wasn’t in the mood, and said she would schedule Purolator to pick my test up the next day. Purolator sent me an e-mail saying they would pick up between nine and noon. The truck pulled up just before five. I was grilling dogs and corn on the front deck. The next day I got an e-mail informing me my test came back negative. I had been tested four times in ten days and was finally officially virus-free.

   No matter the generation, Prince Edward Island was the only place and people who got it right. When we arrived late Wednesday afternoon and crossed the nine-mile-long bridge to the province, we waited in one of the many lines edging towards checkpoints. It didn’t take long. A young woman took our vitals while an older man in a spacesuit swabbed our noses.

   “If we don’t call you within two hours you tested negative,” he said.

   We drove to the Coastline Cottages. “Welcome to Canada,” our hosts said. “You made it.” 

   No one from Health PEI called us. We unpacked, watching the day get dark over the Atlantic Ocean, and fell into bed. I drifted off thanking God somebody on our part of the planet knew what the 19 score was, not some mumbo jumbo they dreamed up because they neglected to check the scoreboard.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”