On the Ropes

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By Ed Staskus

   Nicolae Goga was always excited by Catholic girls. His mother was a Lutheran, and she raised his brother Tomas and him as Lutherans, but Catholic girls were for him. That’s why he married one. But they had to be a nine or ten in the good-looking roll call at the same time they were Catholic. If they weren’t, they didn’t count, not in his eyes.

   All the guys rated girls, one way or another.

   He went to Florida every winter after he got back to Cleveland, before he got married. He came back from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, and after he got back on his feet, went right to work for Palmer Bearings. They put him in sales the minute they saw him. He was 22 years old, clean-cut, proportioned, and full of pep.

   His city pals, the young men he knew who had the dough to go south for a couple weeks when it got dark and cold on the south coast of Lake Erie, got peeved about him being picky.

   “All you do is keep looking for a number ten girl, and half the time you don’t got any girl on your arm,” Elmer said one day while putting back a Blatz. “Me, I get a number three or four, so I’ve always got a gal, and by the end of the week they all add up to more than a zero.”

   Another of his pals, a wise guy on the camel train, said, “Nicky, if you ever land a ten, she’ll be out of your league, anyway.”

   Eva was Catholic, between a nine and a ten, and 15 years old when Nicolae met her. He was 25 years old. She lied about her age, not that she had to. But after he found out he made sure she was eighteen before they got married. “We missed out on the cash envelopes and presents, since her family was dead set on me staying single and Eva marrying somebody else.” He didn’t care. He wanted Eva. He wanted getting ahead fast.

   They met at the Karamu Theater. Nick lived at the Delrey Hotel on East 55th Street, not far away, and Eva took a bus from Collinwood, from the Five Points. He loved acting and trying out for parts. Nick looked like Paul Newman, which didn’t hurt his chances. He was always trying out for shows at the Chagrin Little Theater, too.

   “I met a boatload of lookers that way.”

   Eva was in one or two high school shows and danced ballet. She had taken dance classes ever since she was a little girl. She could straighten a leg, keep her foot flat on the ground, and raise the other one to the ceiling.

   “I don’t know how the hell she did it. I always liked ballet dancers. I fell in love with one when I was in high school. Her name was Margo. She was a beautiful girl with a beautiful body, the same age as me, but an inch taller. She was one of the gym leaders and danced ballet on stage at our school. Another guy liked her, a lousy Serb who played a hillbilly guitar, and he was always angling to get into shows with her.”

   Nick started trying out, trying to get close to Margo, trying to elbow the Serbian boy out.

   Eva and he met auditioning for the same show at Karamu. He kept his eyes on her from the minute he set eyes on her. “She came on to me and would do stuff like, ‘Can you give me a ride home?’ I had a convertible, she had stars in her eyes, and on starry nights it was a nice ride. She sat close to me on the bench seat.”

   She would sometimes leave something in his car, like her wallet or watch. “She would call me, and I would drive to her house, returning it, seeing her again. It was those little tricks women do.”

   Her parents were set in stone about her wedding bell plans. “It won’t work,” they both insisted. He was Lutheran, ten years older, born in the United States but Romanian. They were Catholic and Lithuanian, from the old country. He had a better job than either of her parents, making more money than them put together, but it didn’t matter. Eva and Nick had to elope, driving across the Ohio state line to Indiana, where they found a justice-of-the-peace on the side of the road, and got married.

   They went to Florida for their honeymoon. “We drove straight there in a new sports car I had just gotten. We stayed in the same motel my buddies and I used to go to. Our suite had a small kitchen and there was a big pool we went swimming in.” They sat out in the sun. They discovered each other in the dark.

   When they got back to Cleveland Eva’s parents disowned her, and she didn’t see them for years. They moved in with Nicolae’s mother, in the meantime, in the old neighborhood, East 65th Street and St. Clair. Most of their countrymen worked in factories, ore docks, and knitting mills. His father had operated a corner store until he was murdered by two young thieves.

   “I worked hard, saving my salary and commissions, and the next year we bought a two-story house in Indian Hills, up from Euclid Avenue, near the Chagrin city park.”

   The house fronted a big sloping wooded lot. Their daughter Agnes was born the next year and their son Sammy two years after that. Their problems started three years later. They never stopped getting worse.

   “We started out great, got the year of living with my mother out of our systems, moved into a big house, three bedrooms, newer than not new, got the kids grown up enough to walk, and my job got booming the more I worked. I took clients out for golf and dinner three and four times a week. I kept my waistline under control by walking the courses. My handicap took a nosedive.”

   He was making money hand over fist. “I made a lot of money for Palmer Bearings. Those heebs loved me, as long as the pipeline was full and flowing.”

   His bosses said, “Keep up the good work.” His neighbors envied his new cars. Eva complained about Nick never being home.

   “I do a lot of business on golf courses,” he said. “It’s work, don’t think it’s all just fun and games, it’s not.”

   When he did come home right after work, Eva came running out the front door, grabbing him, giving him a hug and a kiss. He thought, this is embarrassing, the neighbors are watching, even though he barely knew any of the neighbors

   “Cut it out,” he said. She gave him a queer look. He kissed the kids and read a book while Eva set the table and prepared dinner.

   “I took her to dinner and shows, but it was never enough. I always let Eva do whatever she wanted. I let her teach cooking at the high school. I let her get a job at a restaurant. I let her go to Cleveland State University. It got to be a problem, because no matter what I did, it was never enough.

   Eva was a good-looking young woman, blonde and shapely, and men eating at the restaurant were always hitting on her, but Nick’s biggest problem was the young men she met at college. “One time I found a note in a drawer from some guy named Dave, thanking her for the great time they had. When I asked her about it, she said it was just a bunch of them from one of her theater classes going out for a drink.”

   “That’s all it was, Nick,” Eva said.

   “You’re not getting together with him?”   

   “No,” she said, “of course not.”

   He didn’t believe her, not for a second.

   Nick found out more, small things that looked like big things, about other men she was cheating on him with. He was sure of it. One night he answered a call from a man who sounded like he was from India, asking for her. He hung up. She was coming home later and later at night, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, midnight. It started to look like the babysitter was going to have to live in.

   “Where the hell were you?” he asked one night when she got home close to two in the morning.

   “Oh, my keys got locked in somebody’s trunk.”

   “It was always some bullshit story like that. We got into an argument. We got into a lot of arguments.”

   “Not so loud,” she hissed. “You’ll wake up the kids.”

   “It was her idea to get separated. Later it was her idea to get divorced. I loved her. I loved my kids. I didn’t want a bust-up. We could have settled the split between ourselves, but she had to get a lawyer, which meant I had to get a lawyer, too. Her mouthpiece must have put something in her ear.”

   He stopped at the Cleveland Trust Bank downtown on East 9th Street one day, after lunch with clients on Short Vincent, to withdraw some money, but the teller said, “There’s no money in your account, sir.”

   “What?”

   “The account is at zero,” the man said

   “Eva had taken it all. She raided our joint bank account and took all the money in it. All I had left was what I had been keeping in a personal account she didn’t know about, the scratch I kept separate, and our insurance policies. She charged all kinds of stuff on our credit cards before I wised up and cancelled them all.”

   He paid his lawyer five thousand dollars, in cash, since he had a separate business going, apart from Palmer Bearings. The lawyer was a golfing buddy of his, but he still had to pay it all up front. “The son-of-a-bitch, right away he joined the Shaker Country Club with it, and never invited me to play golf there, not even once, not even before I almost punched him in the face.”

   When they went to court, Nick picked a fight there and then. Not with Eva, but with their two lawyers, his and hers. “The Saul Goodman’s get together with their crap, take all your money, and leave you with nothing. They are like morticians, just waiting for you to come back to life.”

   Between Eva and them, he complained loud and long afterwards, they left him with only table scraps.

   Nick knew how to handle himself. He boxed Golden Gloves before going to Korea. He got to the finals in his weight class, and even though the other fighter was dazed purple bloody, the judges gave the first prize to him. He was a Marine and Nick was an Army draftee, so the Marine staggered away with the trophy.

   “I could have levelled both of the shysters in a minute flat. The bailiff, and a policeman, and the judge, had to restrain me. The judge gave me a hell of a talking to after everybody was back in their seats.”

   It was a hell of a commotion on the third floor of the Lakeside Courthouse, under a high ceiling of ornate plasterwork, paneled walls, and leather-covered doors.

   “They’re all the same, talking through their hats.”

   Eva moved into the new Park Centre on Superior Avenue, the same building her new boyfriend lived in, and the same building where some of Richard Hongisto’s right-hand men lived. He was Cleveland’s new top lawman, although inside a couple of years Dennis Kucinich, the kid mayor of the city, fired him on live TV. It sparked a recall drive to remove the mayor from office, which was the least of his problems, since the city was going bankrupt fast. The bankers hated the mayor and withdrew the helping hand.

   “I say a plague on all of them, except that whoever did the car caper with her got me the last laugh on Eva, for what it was worth.”

   Nick bought Eva a brand new four-door Mercedes Benz, hoping it would make her happy. She loved the car, although it didn’t make her any happier about him any more than she wasn’t already. When they separated, she reported the car stolen. She called Nick about the insurance money. He told her he would let her know. He didn’t tell her the car was in his name.

   “A month later I got a letter from a parking garage in Buffalo, saying we’ve got your car here, you owe so much for parking, come and get it. I was sure one of Eva’s cop neighbors cooked it up with her, driving the car away, and leaving it in the garage. When I got the insurance check for the car, I cashed it and tore the letter up.”

   Eva was a ten in her time, or close to it, always worth a second look. Nick wasn’t sure how she looked when she got older, since after their last fight he didn’t see her again, after her looks might have gone south. “I’m sure she wasn’t the beauty she had been. I’m sure she looked like hell. That’s something I would bet money on.”

   She had beautiful handwriting and wrote Nick hate letters after their divorce.

   “Your kids don’t want to see you, you haven’t sent me enough money, all that kind of crap. I had to pay child support, even though I was used to a certain style of living for myself.”

   Nick rubbed his face.

   “I had to go on dates, too, looking for another woman, but it wasn’t easy. I couldn’t operate. I didn’t have much money. You’ve got to have money to do things. I was nearly broke. I had to take care of my kids. I didn’t want to be a deadbeat father.”

   She took up with a new boyfriend, a handsome Italian from Rochester, a Vietnam veteran. They moved in together, with Agnes and Sammy. They didn’t pretend to be married, even though they lived like man and wife. Nick wouldn’t give Eva a divorce, no matter how many times she asked.

   “They got it into their heads to go into the restaurant business. Eva asked me to take a second mortgage on the house. I said no, restaurants are the worst thing you can get into. But in spite of myself I took a second mortgage on the house and gave her the money. It put me in a spot.”

   Eva’s restaurant became two restaurants. The new family moved up to the eighteenth floor of Park Centre, to a three-bedroom end suite facing Lake Erie. They opened a bar on the new Eat Street in the apartment complex.

   “The guy from Rochester, he was always telling me, take it easy, like he was trying to be my friend. I wanted to tell him how mad I was about not being able to get Eva back, about never seeing my kids. I never said one bad thing about her, but the divorce hurt me bad.

   “After the mess in court, after we split up, I thought, if that’s the way it’s going to be, I don’t want anything to do with her anymore. I don’t want to talk to her, and I don’t want to see her. And I never did, except once.”

   Eva and Sammy came to the family house in Indian Hills on a quiet autumn afternoon. She asked Nick to mortgage the house again, a third time, so they could expand some more, but he told her a second mortgage was all the bank would go for. She said she needed more investment money and that he could sell the house, splitting whatever he might get for it with her.

   “If I do that, where am I going to live?”

   “That’s up to you.”

   “She was living downtown, in her fancy high-rise. What did she care where I lay my head? It could be some crummy cardboard under a bridge, as far as she was concerned. We got into an argument about it. Sammy stuck up for his mom. I didn’t blame him, though. I liked that about him.”

   Eva slapped him hard in the face when Nick finally had enough, nose to nose, shouting that he wasn’t going to sell the house, that they were through once and for all, and that was that.

   “She scratched me with her fingernails when she slapped me, cutting me, and drawing blood. I pushed her away.”

   They glared at each other.

   “Quit it.” 

   Eva’s mouth went cold thin-lipped, she twisted around, reached for Sammy’s hand, and stamped out with him. She didn’t look back. The front door slammed shut. It was the last time Nick saw her. He never saw the money he had lent her, either. He knew the TKO was on its way and there was nothing he could do about it.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”