Girl in the Ground

By Ed Staskus

   The week started by raining Monday and Tuesday, harder the second day than the first day. The wind picked up, gusting fast by nightfall Monday. The rain turned into a thunderstorm and lightning crisscrossed the sky. Bernard Doiron had breakfast and lunch and took a nap. He did the same thing the next day. Wednesday morning it was in the low teens at sunrise. There were only scraps of cloud left in the sky. He had ham and eggs and coffee and fired up Conor Murphy’s Massey Ferguson tractor. It was more than twenty years old and clean. Conor took care of it personally, since his father bought it new and paid almost ten grand for it. It ran like a baby buggy.

   A good two-horse team could plow two acres a day back in the day. Bernie plowed with a five bottom in the fall and a 490 disc in the spring and could do 60 acres from one end of the day to the other end of it. He was going to start across the street from the white house, Sandy’s Surfside Inn, and work his way to the right. He would have his lunch at noon, since he was getting an early start.  

   The spring planting was running late because of rain and cold. Setting day for lobster was running late, too, because of the rain and cold. Fishermen were anxious to get out on the ocean. Lobsters were on the move. Farmers were anxious to get out on the land. Seeds were ready to sprout.

   Bernie steered the tractor to the road on the side of the ocean and up the far slope at a steady 15 KPH. It was nearing eleven o’clock when he saw the red fox. It was thirty-some meters ahead of him, sniffing and digging at something. He slowed the tractor and stopped where the fox was, who retreated, stretched, showed his teeth, and sprang into the nearby trees.

   He had plowed the field in the fall, straight furrows that stayed straight through November rainstorms and snow that buried the island from mid-December to mid-April. It wasn’t usually that snowy, but it had been a bad winter. He stayed snug in his small house on the far side of Anglo Rustico, opposite the North Rustico Harbor. The house was more than a hundred years old, built with island cut lumber and island made shingles. Birch bark was the insulation between the outer wall and the shingles. It cut the wind in a place where it was always windy. He had an oil furnace and a fireplace in the living room and the house kept itself cozy without even trying.

   There was some ground mist. Crows he couldn’t see cawed from nearby trees. He could see a briefcase on the ground on the other side of his front wheels. It was open and attached to something. He hopped off the tractor and walked around to it. The over-sized hard-sided briefcase was empty. The inside lining was torn. There was mud and dried red goo all over it.

   It was attached to a bony wrist grasping the handle. The wrist was wearing a watch and was attached to an arm that was half-buried in the ground. The watch band was gold-colored stainless steel.

   “Ce que ca?” Bernie whispered to himself.

   He knew the arm was attached to a dead man. He looked at the watch dangling loosely on the wrist again. The face of it was cracked. It read three-ten. He suspected he was done plowing for the day. He started walking back the way he had come, to the green house, a stone’s throw from the white house. He stopped and walked back. He looked at the arm and the briefcase again. The fox had ripped into what old flesh was left on the arm. He hadn’t imagined seeing it, not that he thought he had.

   Sandy had a phone, but could be deaf mornings, not answering the door no matter what. Conor didn’t have a live phone yet, but he always answered the door when he was at home and had a fast car to get to a phone fast. It was a 1987 Buick GNX, two years old. It wasn’t sleek or refined, but next to the twin-turbo Chevy Corvette it was the fastest car in North America. 

   Looking for sophistication? Don’t get the GNX. Looking for max boost? Get the GNX. Looking for a pool table ride? Go with the Corvette. It doesn’t matter whether your car bounces on potato roads like nuts and bolts in a blender? Go with the GNX. There were two of them on the lot at the first Chevy Buick dealership he saw in Burlington, Vermont the day he went shopping for a new car. One of them was silver and one of them was black.

   “Do you have any other colors, like red?” he asked the salesman.

   “You can have any color you want as long as it’s silver or black,” the salesman said.

   Bernie drove a 1965 VV Beetle. It was red accented with rust spots. It didn’t look like much and was only powered by forty aluminum-magnesium horses but ran like a charm.

   Conor drove to Shearer Chevy Buick down the street and found out they had the same colors on the lot, which were silver and black. 

   “How about red?” he asked.

   “Sorry, sir, it doesn’t come in red. GM hasn’t built many of them. When they’re gone, they’re gone for good. If you can’t decide, I can tell you the only one we have on the lot is silver and black both.” 

   “How long have you been in business?”

   “Since 1929, sir.”

   He bought it, trading in his 1977 Chevy Impala, which was losing oil and wheezing. When he reached an empty stretch of I-87 south of Champlain, he took the car up to 175 KPH. It was outfitted with a turbocharged V6 engine with horsepower to spare on top of a boatload of torque. It was an automatic but could do 0 to 95 KPH in less than five seconds. When he saw a car a kilometer-or-so ahead he backed off his one-man drag race.

   Bernie was wearing almost new insulated rubber boots. By the time he crossed the Gulf Shore Parkway they didn’t look almost new anymore, even though they still were. Standing on the shoulder of the road he stamped most of the mud off. The road didn’t look new anymore, either, but Bernie doubted the National Park was going to be doing anything about it anytime soon. When summer came tourists would be parking on the shoulders, leaving their cars behind to gape at the cliffs and walk along the undulating coastline. In the meantime, the natives would be slowing down, keeping an eye out for loose kids and happy-go-lucky dogs.

   They never should have laid it down with shoulders in the first place, he thought.

   The National Park on Prince Edward Island went back more than fifty years. It was a watercolor landscape of green over soft sandstone and shale, in the flesh. There were sand dunes and sandy beaches. There were salt marshes and barrier islands farther east. There were white spruce along exposed coastal spots. The Gulf Shore Parkway supplanted an older red dirt road along the coastline and cut through Murphy land, but the Murphy’s hadn’t sold any of the rest of their nearly four hundred acres to the National Park. The Ottawa men could appropriate land for the road, but they couldn’t take all of it with the wave of a pen. They were going to have to wait the Murphy’s out and try to buy it from a generation-or-two down the road. That was their plan, at least.

   Bernie banged on the back door of the house and waited.

   “What’s up?” Conor asked. “Did you run out of gas?”

   “No, nothing like that. Put some boots on and I’ll show you.”

   Conor was the only one living in what had been the Murphy family home. His parents were newly deceased, his mother dead by heart attack the day before Christmas followed by his father. After burying their mother, Conor and his sister and brothers watched their father giving up day after day until he gave up the ghost.

  He had been living in Montreal the past ten years, but after the funerals and burials moved back to Prince Edward Island. He moved into the green house, even though it was too big for him and needed work. He was the youngest of the five Murphy’s and didn’t know he had missed his birthplace until he returned to it. He made his old bedroom his new bedroom.

   Bernie and Conor walked across the road and up the slope. When they got to the tractor the fox was back. The animal glanced at them and snuck away. They stepped up to the briefcase and arm. It was nearly noon and warmer, breaking into the 20s. What clouds were left had scattered, and the sky was a robin’s egg blue.

   “Jesus Christ almighty,” Conor said. “How did this happen? I haven’t been up here since I came back. Would you have seen it if it was in the field then, when you did the fall plowing?”

   “I think so, but it’s hard to tell,” Bernie said.

   “It’s not anybody from around here, is it?”

   “We would know if it was.”

   “You stay here, watch nothing gets at it, and I’ll go phone the RCMP.”  

   “Should we dig it out?”

   “No, just stay here, and keep that fox away. I’ll drive over to Lorne’s.”

   He took his time driving to Rollings Pond, up then down Church Hill Road, past the graveyard and Stella Maris Catholic Church, to Lorne’s Snack Shop. He reckoned there was no need to hurry. He parked the GNX as far away from the nearest car as he could.

   “Whatta ya at?” one of the two Newfoundlanders behind the counter asked when he stepped inside Lorne’s. They ruled the roost spring summer and fall until they went home to Gros Morne. Lorne worked the shop winters. They made breakfasts and lunches in the small kitchen behind the counter, stocked and sold candy bars and cigarettes, rented out VCR movies in the back room, and cleaned whenever there was a need for cleaning. 

   “We’re finally getting some springtime.”

   “I know, I been rotten with the weather.”

   “I’ve got to use your phone”

   “You know where it is.”

   Conor dialed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They were federal police, but the provincial police, too, the past 50-odd years. They watched over all the communities on the island except Summerside, Kensington, and Charlottetown. They patrolled most of the land and served most of the population.

   “I’ve got a dead man on my property,” he told 911.

   “Do you need an ambulance?”

   “No, not unless he comes back to life, which isn’t likely.”

   “Are you there?”

   “I will be in five minutes.”

   “Where is there?”

   He told the dispatcher and hung up. The younger of the red-cheeked Newfoundlanders threw him an inquiring look.

   “I was some stunned when I overheard what ya said on the phone.”

   “Yeah,” Conor said. “I’ll be back, tell you all about it.”

   Back at the house he parked his car in the barn, walked across the street and up the slope, joining Bernie. A flock of cormorants passed by overhead. They didn’t look down at the two men.

   “Do you have a smoke?” Conor asked.

   “I thought you gave it up.”

   “I did.”

   Bernie shook two smokes out of his pack of Player’s, lit his, and passed the matches to Conor.

   “You’re better off not smoking,” he said. “These things are getting crazy expensive. Ten years ago, a 25-pack cost a Loonie. Now they cost six dollars. I took another look at that watch, on the wrist, and I think it might be woman down there in the ground.”

   “It’s not good, whoever it is,” Conor said.

   They stood leaning against the tractor, smoking in silence, waiting for the gravel road cops.

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

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

Splat Shot

By Ed Staskus

   I started playing racquetball in my mid-20s, at Cleveland State University, while taking my mandatory physical education class. I got good enough to play on an intramural team, then the school team, and finally small tournaments around town. By the time I had played enough and worked my way up to the Open division, I was too old to play in the Open division. It took a year-or-so of beating my head against the wall, but when the pain in my neck finally went away, I started playing in the 30-plus division.

   Racquetball is played with a hollow blue ball on an indoor 20-foot-wide by 40-foot-long court. The walls, floor, and ceiling are legal playing surfaces, with the exception that the ball off the racquet must not hit the floor first. Hinders are out-of-bounds. It happens when somebody gets in the way. Unlike tennis, there is no net to hit the ball over, and, unlike squash, there is not an out of bounds tin at the bottom of front wall to hit the ball above. 

   It is similar to handball and Squash 57, a British game often called racketball. Joe Sobek invented the modern sport in the USA in 1950, adding a stringed racquet to the game of paddleball to increase velocity and control. He called his new idea Paddle Rackets. He was the first person to ever be inducted into the Racquetball Hall of Fame.

   When I started playing, the school supplied racquets, warped wood frame models from the 19th century that generated no velocity and could barely be controlled. Playing a game took forever because nobody could score points, unless it was by accident. Fortunately, Ektelon was on the way with 20th century models.

   Founded by Frank “Bud” Held, it was one of the first companies to go big in a still small sport. Working from his garage in San Diego, he is credited for a clever patented design for a racquet stringing machine. In 1970, Ektelon introduced their first experimental racquetball racquet. The next year they made the first racquet of high-strength aluminum. Six years later they pioneered hand-laid composite racquets, and six years after that the first oversized racquets. They were first in the hearts of racquetball players for a long time.

   Ektelon racquets made a fast game even faster. The leading amateurs and top pros regularly hit drive serves in the 130 to 150 MPH range. Even less-renowned players hit serves and set-up shots at 120 MPH and better.

   Not only is it a greased lightning game it works every muscle group known to man. The arms and upper body are involved in hitting the ball, legs involved in getting to faraway spots on the floor where the opponent is spreading the ball around, and the core for balance and stability. The more I played the better my balance became as my hip and leg strength improved. I became more flexible, too, stretching before and after matchesso I could contort and lunge for difficult shots. My hand-eye coordination got better and better.

   They weren’t classic life skills like reading writing and arithmetic, but they were classic skills for staying relevant on the racquetball court. The game is tops for staying trim, too, since it is aerobic involving constant movement, burning up to 800 calories an hour. Burning a boatload of calories isn’t so terrific at tournaments, which require not only playmaking to get to Sunday’s semi-finals and finals, but stamina to endure the Friday and Saturday matches and make it to payday.

   I asked Danny Clifford, an Open player from Cincinnati, how he did it weekend after weekend working his way to Sundays. He was about the same age as me. He didn’t look the worse for wear. Whenever I made it to Sundays, I looked worn down and out for the next few days.

   “You don’t want to see me Monday mornings,” he said. “I usually have to fall out of bed and crawl to the bathroom, where I run a hot bath and soak for as long as I can before I go to work. If I didn’t have a cushy enough job, I wouldn’t be playing in tournaments.” 

   Playing in an age division was the best thing I could have done. It wasn’t that anyone’s shot making was any the worse, but they were slowly and surely becoming slower like me and got sore and achy just as fast as me. They recovered slower, too. They didn’t party hardy Saturday nights anymore, opting for a good night’s sleep.

   Dave Scott was the undergraduate at Cleveland State University with whom I started playing racquetball. I was an English and film major, and he was in the accounting program, not that anybody could tell by looking at him. He wore his clothes disheveled and his hair long and smoked pot like he owned stock in the farm. By the time we started playing doubles together

racquetball was the fastest-growing sport in America. Entrepreneurs around the country were busy building courts. Back Wall clubs popped up like mushrooms around northeast Ohio. The sport expanded internationally thanks to its fast pace and high intensity. The first world championship was held in 1981.

   “It’s the hottest recreational sport in America, spearheading the whole fitness craze,” said Marty Hogan, the world’s top-ranked player.

   We didn’t know it was happening, but something happened to the sport of the 1980s in the 1980s. Even though there were more than 12 million participants in 1982, the boom was over. 

Aerobics and body building “had a definite impact” on racquetball, says Chuck Leve, editor of National Racquetball Magazine. “You have to understand that a lot of people do things that are ‘in.’ There was a time when racquetball was the thing to do. But the people who played racquetball because it was a fad are gone.”

   The springtime Sunday morning Dave Scott and I were scheduled to play a semi-finals doubles match at the Hall of Fame club in Canton, it was a men’s Open match. I parked on the street and knocked on his back door. By the time we got into his big blue Buick it was 9 o’clock. The match was scheduled for 10 o’clock. The club in Canton was an hour from Cleveland Heights.

   “Don’t worry, we’ll be there with time to spare,” Dave said. When we pulled onto the highway, I found out what he meant to do. First, he lit a Jamaican-style joint. “No thanks,” I said. I had enough trouble hitting shots straight without getting looped. Second, he pressed his foot down on the accelerator and sped to Akron at 90 MPH. He slowed down going through Akron, but once we were just south of it, he picked it up a notch, hitting 100 MPH an hour. Even though there were few cars on the road that early in the morning I gnashed my teeth and hung on to the Oh God! handle above the door. We walked into the club with time to spare.

   The Hall of Fame was a big club with 25 racquetball courts, among other things, like tennis courts, basketball courts, and a swimming pool. We were at one of the glass back walled courts ringing the lobby, putting on our headbands and gloves, when Kelvin Vantrease strolled in. He had two blondes with him, one on each arm. Heads swiveled as he walked towards the locker room. Only Kevin Deighan, a cold sober Open player who hit line drives and nothing but line drives, kept himself to himself. He was getting married soon.

    Kelvin Vantrease looked like he had been up all night. He was scheduled to play on one of the two center courts at the same time as us in an Open semi-final singles match. He looked ready for a long nap. He didn’t look like he was going to unleash his vaunted forehand firepower anytime soon. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There was bliss in his shot-making that morning and it was all over before anybody broke a sweat.

   I played Kelvin once in an Open quarter-final match. He crushed me in the first game. I eked out the second game, partly because he was horsing around. I scored the first point of the tie breaker, feeling my oats. I served again, we rallied, with Kelvin hitting the ball harder and harder. I don’t know what got into me, but I started diving for the ball whenever I couldn’t save it and stay on my feet. I finally left a weak floater that hung around the front of the court. He attacked it, taking it out of the air hip-high, hitting a splat shot, screaming, “Get that!”

   I didn’t get it and didn’t score another point.

   A couple of years later the four-time Ohio junior racquetball state champion and 1984 national doubles champ needed surgery. “When I had back surgery for a ruptured disc, the doctor told me I`d never play sports again,” Kelvin said. ”I had never planned to go pro or even play much on the amateur open level, but when someone tells you that you can`t do something, it makes you want to do it more.”

   He bought a motor home and supported himself giving lessons, churning out up to 40 of them a week. ”I`m like a rat,” he said. ”I can adapt. If I can live in a motor home for three years, I can live anywhere.” Half-Dutch, half-Cherokee Indian, and a full-time beer drinker, he trimmed his Samson locks and cut down on the cornpone, like playing with a frying pan instead of a racquet and wearing swimming flippers instead of sneakers. He started playing tournaments again and by 1986 stood second in the men’s Open national rankings.

   Our doubles match turned out to be the match of the day. The men’s and women’s finals were scheduled for the early afternoon. Other matches were going on, but ours went on and on and finally drew a crowd, in part because of the shouting.

   Our opponents were a lefty righty team, making it tough on us. We played from behind from the start, and from the start Dave did not like the lefty, who was a walking rule book. Hinders are inevitable when playing doubles, and the rule book and his partner were no exception to the rule. They were worse. They were both hefty men and phlegmatic. They had no problem with never giving way. There were hinders galore. At first Dave seethed and smoldered. Then he went off. He argued with them and started harping on the referee about blown calls. The referee put up with it for a while but finally ripped up the score sheet and tossed the crumbs down on the court, walking away. Another referee was rustled up.

   Refereeing was voluntary although the losers of the previous match on the same court were required to referee the next match. The second referee did the best he could but wasn’t able to control or put up with the repeated flare ups, by now involving all four of us on the court. The crowd grew when a third referee had to be recruited. It was standing room only. There was cheering and jeering, huzzahs and catcalls.

   We went to a tiebreaker, playing some exciting racquetball, finally losing by two points. The rule book was smug about it. Dave was gracious except on the ride home when he vented spleen for a half-hour before lighting up again and calming down. I drank a bottle of Gatorade to keep from cramping up and even took a toke to be companiable.

   I continued to practice and play and got a job at a club as an Activities Director so I could practice and play for free. I met others around town who were willing to play practice matches with me. The three brothers Dieghan and Gaylon Finch played in Mentor. Bobby Sanders and Jerry Davis played in Cleveland Heights. Steve Schade and Dominic Palmieri played in Middleburg Heights. I drove to Solon to get my ass kicked by Doug Ganim, who was half my age and twice the playmaker. His t-shirts were emblazoned with “Eye of the Tiger” on the back. His backhand was a rally killer. The only time I ever scored any points was when he committed a youthful indiscretion. 

   That didn’t go on for long. Moving forward, over the years he reached the finals of the U.S. National Doubles Championships eight times with four different partners, winning the national title four times. He is considered one of the best right-handed left-side players to ever have played the sport, all the while promoting the ballgame as an executive for HEAD/Penn racquetball for 28 years and as the President of the Ohio Racquetball Association for almost as long.

   I played racquetball through most of the 1980s, although not as much and not as many tournaments as I had earlier in the decade. I was riding bikes and thinking of trying yoga. I started playing squash and one day put my racquetball gear away for good.

   I got married, bought a house in Lakewood, and put my nose to the grindstone. I spent my days on Main Street. I played squash evenings at the 13th Street Racquet Club in downtown Cleveland and found all the competition I wanted because many of the better players in the city played there. It was only a 10-minute drive instead of driving all over town looking for a tug-of-war. They had a Nautilus circuit and a running track. They had a sauna. They had food and drink at the bar. 

   The only thing squash didn’t have was a kill shot or rollout. It was a burrito short of a combination plate. A racquetball kill shot is hit low and bounces twice in the blink of an eye coming off the front wall. It is nearly impossible for an opponent to return. The perfect kill shot is a rollout because the ball is hit so super-duper low that it rolls back flat after hitting the front wall, never bouncing at all.

   Although gentlemen with squash racquets can be crude at the drop of a top hat, it is a gentleman’s game. Some quiet gentlemen are patient wolves, the most dangerous kind in the animal world. Many of them live on Wall Street. The game of squash has its own pleasures but nothing like the pleasure of ending a hotly contested match with a splat kill shot like shooting a fish in a barrel.

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.”