Bloodlines

By Ed Staskus

   There are more than six thousand kilometers of two-lane roads from one end of Prince Edward Island to the other end. There are some fast roads but most of them are step-by-step. Tractors cows dogs slow the going down. About two thousand of the kilometers are unpaved and even slower, even if it was a sports car or a Jap motorcycle trying to get up to speed. The ruts and chuckholes would make short work of them. All the unpaved roads are red clay dirt. Most of the paved roads are reddish to the naked eye, too.

   When the roads were built island stone and beach sand was mixed into the concrete. The land is layered over sandstone bedrock. Sandstone is dug up by backhoes simple as ABC. Wet weather transforms unpaved tracks into what some call baby poop. The sandstone is leavened with iron oxide, or rust, giving the landscape its red color beneath blue skies overlooking green fields. The natives who lived on the island before European colonization called their land Epekwitk. They thought Glooscap, who was their god, after he finished making the rest of the world, with a final flourish mixed all his colors and made their island.

   “When I was a kid most of the roads around here were dirt,” Conor Murphy told JT Markunas. “Sometimes after a bad winter storm you couldn’t go anywhere for a day-or-two.” He took a bite of his fish sandwich. They had picked them up at Carr’s Shellfish Market and were sitting on the front deck of the Sterling Women’s Institute, what everybody called ‘The Hall.’ The market was down the hill on the Stanley River.

   “I see kids jumping off that bridge down there all the time,” JT said.

   “That’s been going on for a long time,” Conor said. “Generations, if you want the truth. Parents show their kids how to jump the same way they were shown.”

   “Don’t they worry about their kids getting hurt?”

   “Those that worry, their kids are never on that bridge. Those that don’t worry don’t have anything to worry about.”

   “Maybe they say a prayer and leave it at that,” JT said.

   Stanley Bridge was settled in the mid-eighteenth century. It took a hundred years for the first church to be built. It was a Presbyterian congregation. It lasted twenty-five years before a new one needed to be built for the ever-expanding flock. It got back to saving souls in 1895, became the United Church in 1925, burned down four years later, and was replaced by a near likeness the next year.

   When the Presbyterians moved out of their building, they kept the deed in their pockets, and rented the upstairs to the local Masonic Lodge, who later bought the land and building in 1920. When they did, they rented the lower part of it to the Sterling Women’s Institute. When the Masons ran out of steam, they sold the building to the Institute in 1978.

   “What do the women do?” JT asked.

   “I don’t rightly know,” Conor said. “Probably something to do with good works.” He took a pull on his bottle of lukewarm Red Rock Lager. He had brought one for JT and one for himself.

   “This isn’t half-bad,” JT said. “I don’t think I’ve seen it around.” 

   “That’s because it’s not around. I have two or three cases of it, which is probably the last of it. My brother Danny runs a seafood pit stop down on the waterfront and he gave them to me after the brewer went out of business.”

   “They brewed it here on the island?”

   “Yeah, right in Charlottetown,” Conor said. “The Island Brewing Company got started a few years ago, the first brewery to operate on PEI since around the turn of the century. There used to be dozens way back then. They hired an English brew master who had worked for Bass. Old Abby, his first draft, was a big hit. They couldn’t keep the kegs filled. They invested in a bottling system two years ago and launched Red Rock Lager. It didn’t go too well, don’t know why, and a year later they were out of business They sold all their equipment to an outfit in Ontario and that was that.”

   “That’s too bad.”

   “You know we had Prohibition here from the turn of the century until 1948.”

   “No alcohol?”

   “Total ban on alcohol.”

   “There must have been some serious bootlegging going on.”

   “We had some smuggling, you could say.”

   “Heavy drinkers hereabouts?”

   “Some, sure, but the other half of it was the money. I remember a guy by the name of Roy Clow from Murry Harbor, my dad knew him, who couldn’t make a living selling his crops and his fish, so he put his mind to running booze. There was real money in that.”

   Real money meant enough money to feed clothe house your family.

   “We’d sell our turnips in the fall. The Newfoundland schooners would come in and we’d get 15 cents for a two-bushel bag of turnips,” said Roy Clow. “Potatoes was 10 cents a bushel, some years less.” He got two and a half cents a pound for his lobsters.

   “There is an older man right here in Stanley Bridge, Tommy Gallant, whose family did more than their fair share of bootlegging,” Conor said.

   “My father Henry drank heavy,” Tommy said. “He done all the things and more in them days that he thought was going to make money. He bootlegged some serious.” There were 11 children in the family. Money was tight. Their salt cod sold for one cent a pound. A gallon of rum sold for four dollars.

  “As we started to grow up, we thought we should sample it. And we did. We could steal it from our father easy because he had it everywhere. Those were the days when the runners were off Cavendish all the time.”

   Henry Gallant hid his 120-pound 10-gallon kegs in nearby woods or in the ocean. His children knew all his hiding spots.

   “On his way home with a load of rum, he would run a long line and he’d put all this steel on it and tie the kegs on it. And, of course, it’d all go to the bottom. And then he had a landmark and at night he’d take a dory out and he’d pull up one end and he’d take a keg ashore.”

   When the kegs were empty, he used them to salt mackerel.

   “Us young fellas were schooled by our father. We had a big tree in the woods, probably 80 feet in height. My father used to tell us kids ‘If the RCMP is here before I get home, one of you boys go up that tree and wave a flag three times, when I’m coming up the bay, so I can see that plain, and I’ll know they’re there and I’ll sink the rum in the bay.’” 

   “That’s a lot of trouble to go to for a drink,” JR said. “I’ll bet everybody except for the bootleggers were happy when Prohibition was repealed.”

   “They were, the way I hear it, but it didn’t get all that easier to have a drink in peace. As soon as the ban was over a Temperance Act was made law.  If you were an islander, you had to get a permit to buy liquor. Even then you could buy only so much of it. If you were a tourist, you had to get a special temporary permit. Maybe you didn’t if you were staying at Dalvay-by-the-Sea.”

   “Why is that?”

   “Back in the 30s and 40s it was owned by Captain Eddie Dicks, the number one rumrunner on the island. They might still have some of his Irish whiskey left over. They might still be serving it.”

   The first roads on Prince Edward Island were built in the late 1760s. At the turn of the 20th century cars were banned on most roads most of the time, especially on market days. It didn’t have anything to do with drunk driving. A Red Flag law was passed ordering there be a man at the front of every car with a red flag, ready to wave it just in case a horse or wagon or human was in the way. Everybody who had a car got sick of the flags soon enough. Twenty years later the law was thrown out, the red flags were put away, and cars went anywhere they wanted, so long as there was a byway that they could handle without breaking an axle.

   “I grew up on a mixed farm,” Conor said. “It wasn’t anything elaborate, basically turnips, which is a rutabaga, and we grew grain, barley, and wheat. My father was the farmer.”

   Conor Murphy’s father Danny farmed 100 acres, although they had 400 acres. “They rented most of their land out, the same as I do now. They had seven fields on our 100 acres, but I’m going to shave it back to three fields. I don’t want potatoes growing on my land.”

   “Why not?”

   “Too many pesticides.”

   By the early 1900s most of Prince Edward Island’s wall-to-wall forest had been cleared and ninety percent of the land was being farmed. There were more than 15,000 farms, almost all of them less than one hundred acres. The land was sub-divided by dikes, walls built of rocks dug up from the fields.

   “All around those dikes was full of berries,” Conor said. “Our mom used to send us back in the fields with buckets. We’d come back with them full of wild raspberries and blueberries.”

   After World War Two technology and machinery led to bigger farms and one-crop planting. On the eve of 1990 there were just 2,500 working farms on PEI and more than half of them were growing potatoes. It had gotten so it was called Spud Island.

   “Fields were smaller thirty years ago,” Conor said. “Maybe it should have stayed that way. Now the dikes are being ripped out and sprays kill all the wild berries. It’s a shame to see it.”

   Danny Murphy and his wife Dottie were the only Murphy’s who ever farmed.

   “My great-great-grandfather was from Ireland,” said Kelly Doyle. “It was on his sailing to the New World that he landed hereabouts and stayed. He did something so that the Queen, or somebody, granted him land, and two shore lots. We’ve still got his British Army handgun from back then.”

   “Does it work?”

   “I don’t know. I’ve never shot it. My dad kept it cleaned oiled wrapped up and locked up. There are some bullets for it, but God knows if the powder is still any good.”

   By 1850 a quarter of the people on Prince Edward Island were Irish. The last wave of immigrants were the Monaghan settlers. They came from County Monaghan. They paid their own way and made their own way once on the island, rather than tenant farming. The freeholders farmed and controlled livestock. By then the island was exporting surplus foodstuff to neighboring provinces and Great Britain. The Murphy’s, however, raised horses and propagated thoroughbreds. Later the family got into the fashion trade and bred black silver foxes for their pelts.

   The secret of breeding foxes was solved in the late 19th century on Prince Edward Island. Twenty years later single pelts sold for as much as $2000.00, at a time when farm laborers were lucky to make a dollar a day. In 1913 the provincial government estimated foxes were worth twice as much as “all of the cattle, horses, sheep, swine, and poultry” on the island. But, after the Second World War the business was wiped out. It fell out of fashion. Many farmers lost their shirts. They stayed warm wrapped in fox furs. Fox tails started popping up on car aerials.

   “When they went out of style my dad let all our foxes loose and he became a farmer.”

   Conor went to the Stella Maris School, across the street from the Church of Stella Maris on Church Hill Rd. The school was built in 1940 and burned to the ground in 1954. “We stood looking utterly helpless in our misery,” a nun at the nearby convent wrote in her diary. The village re-built their school the next year. “It is the most modern fourteen room school in the province,” the island’s Guardian newspaper noted in its feature article.

   “I went grades one through nine. Almost everybody my age quit in grade nine. It was the 60s. There was no need of education around here. Fathers would tell their kids, you’re not going to do anything in school, get to work in the boat or the fields. We all said we’ve got better things to do and banged out of there.”

   But he wasn’t ready for work, roaming Lower Canada instead, and moving to Montreal. He sowed a bushel full of wild oats, later joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. After he left the force, he ran restaurants.

   “When I was growing up and even now, she was lean here. There was no money around for years.” All through the 1980s the gross domestic product of Prince Edward Island was still the lowest in Canada, just a nudge more than 50% of the national average. Next to Newfoundland, the province had the lowest per capita income in the country. 

   “Back then all the fishermen around here had a gasoline engine in an old wooden boat. Everything was done manually, except for hydraulics to haul gear off the bottom. The steering was even done by chains. Now everything is going fiberglass, and everything is going diesel.”

   Fish men going door-to-door selling cod was a way of life until the 1980s, when a ban on the taking of ground fish was put in place. Fish stocks had been over-exploited up and down Atlantic Canada for a century and were severely depleted. “Everybody was baiting all the hooks they had and they was trawling for halibut, haddock, and cod. They took all they could get. Then the moratorium came in. After that all they were allowed was lobster.”

   “Every harbor I stop at, what I see are lobster traps,” JT said.

   “You got lobsters you got traps,” Conor said. “They’re as simple as mousetraps, which this island has plenty of, too, mice, I mean, but you can’t eat them.”

   Like mousetraps, they almost always get the job done. Invented just more than one hundred years ago, they had changed little since. Even though entrances to the traps are one-way, any lobster that tries to escape can get away, if it has a mind to. They hardly ever get away, though.

   “My thought is there are two ways lobsters get caught,” Conor said. “One way is what I call simple simplemindedness.” Lobster brains are about the size of the tip of a fountain pen. “They won’t usually back out the same way they’ve come in. They crawl up the net, there’s a flap on it, and once they’re in that they can’t go back. The other way they get caught is they just stay in the trap all day eating bait, and when they’re jerked out of the water they get tossed into the back, by the sheer momentum of getting pulled up with the hauler.”

   Lobsters spend most of their time racking their brains about where their next meal is coming from, crawling on their walking legs to get to the table, and finally eating all the crabs, mollusks, fish, and even other lobsters they can get.

   Conor’s brothers all fished at one time or another. “We weren’t farmers, not exactly, but we weren’t fishermen, either, although I think it was naturally in our blood, since every one of us is at ease on the water.”

   Flynn Murphy fished for several years before marrying and moving to Ontario to start a family. After he zipped up, he brought his new family back to Prince Edward Island. He was one of the few men who came back to work and live on PEI. Most men left to work and live somewhere else. He opened Andy’s Eatery across from Lorne’s Snack Shop. 

   “Danny had rubber boots and oil gear and he went out, too, but then he got into TV’s.” He was one of the first satellite television providers on PEI. When he left the boob tube behind, he transitioned from catching lobsters to serving them at the Blue Mussel, his new seasonal seafood restaurant, at the far end of the North Rustico harbor.

   “In the 1960s my parents ran a small restaurant in Cavendish,” Conor said. “It was 7 cents for pop, 30 cents for a hamburger, and 17 cents for fries back then. That was the kind of money you made in 1964. There were five kids in our family. Some of those French Acadian families had a dozen births. It was no different for anyone. Maybe we were all in our separate boats, but we were all in the same pond.”

   Hugo Murphy spent some years as a hand on local boats, and after that got to working on his own boat.

   “He’s an able man behind the wheel.” Conor said. “He fishes with Paul Doucette, his partner, out of the North Rustico harbor. Their boat is the Flying Wave.” It was a nearly new, high-bowed fiberglass craft built in nearby Kensington.

   “Paul, that’s my buddy, that’s my partner in crime,” Hugo said “He’s roundish, built like a buoy, strong as can be, even though he drinks a bit too much beer. He lives right here in the crick.”

   North Rustico had long been known as the crick. “There is a creek that runs right through the village,” Conor said. “Some people from Charlottetown didn’t know what a creek was, or misunderstood, being from the city, and ended up calling us the crick, so we ended up being nicknamed that.”

   “I’ve heard it can be rough work,” JT said.

   “You can get black and bruised on a boat for sure,” Conor said. “When it’s rough, you do everything slower, no matter how strong you are. You need to be more careful with your gear, your traps, and the rope under your feet when the ocean is up. You have got to watch your P’s and Q’s.”

   “You’re right in the National Park,” JT said. “How did that happen, that the land stayed in your hands?”

   Murphy’s Cove and the family’s land were in the National Park but weren’t part of the National Park. The park was established in 1937 and encompassed more than 5,000 acres of coastal headlands, sand dunes, and beaches. The Murphy’s didn’t sell their land when the park was being formed on the central north shore of Prince Edward Island.

   “We didn’t sell an acre,” Conor said. “But they have the patience to wait everybody out. That’s the beauty of the National Park. You don’t want to sell right now? That’s fine. Your son will want to sell, and if he doesn’t want to, his son will. If it takes two hundred years, we will get you out of this park.”

   “So, you’re staying?”

   “Yeah, I think so, so long as no more bodies get dug up.”

   “It’s a hell of a thing,” JT said. “There was a man murdered in Charlottetown last year, but the homicide rate here on Prince Edward Island, next to the Yukon’s, which is zero, is the lowest in Canada.”

   The young man who was strangled and stabbed to death in the bedroom of his home on a quiet street in Charlottetown less than a year earlier was Byron Carr. “I will kill again,” was scrawled on the wall. The killer was never found. He hadn’t killed again, not that anyone knew.

   “When I got back, I seen there’ve been a lot of changes around the island, but it’s nice to come home and say it hasn’t changed much right here,” Conor said. “That’s another beauty of the National Park. It stays pretty much the same. Only the rabbits and trees get bigger, and the roads get better. When I was kid there wasn’t much of a road. When the National Park got around to it their new road cut our farm in half, but none of us complained. Before that it was a hillside. When it rained in the early spring or late fall, and especially when it rained all day, it turned into a red clay slippery slope. Sometimes no road will get you where you want to go, but a good road under your feet is the way to go in the right direction.”

   Conor and JT finished their sandwiches and warm beer.

   “Do you think you’ll get whoever done it?” Conor asked about what was on both their minds.

   “If he’s still on the island we’ll find him sooner or later,” JT said. “Unless they’re contract killers. Most killers don’t know where they are going, which means every road gets them nowhere.”

Excerpted from “Bloodlines” 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.”

Getting a Move On

By Ed Staskus

   Not everyone was too big at Born to Travel, but except for Rita Staskus and Sally Steiger, the office secretary, they were either full to the brim or getting close. Sharon Karen and Vivian were in love with the feedbag. Gino had a strong hankering for the beefy. Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker had fallen into the trough a long time ago and weren’t coming up for air.

   The travel agency was in Beachwood, a far east side suburb of Cleveland. The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with, making it a tight fit. It was a squeeze coming and going to their desks. The staff of six had to wiggle sideways to make their way past the two boss ladies.

   Everybody except Rita and Gino were Jewish. Gino was Italian, a gay man, and hated Sandy and Sima. Even so he was there before Rita started working at the agency and he was still there when she quit after the gasoline tanker truck flipped over and she had had enough.

   Rita was the blonde girl who was good for business.

   Before she went to work at Born to Travel, she worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A jug-eared man who lived down the street owned the business. He put her desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought she would attract whitish waspy people from the college.

   “Oh, look, they have a Christian girl there,” is what he hoped everyone would say.

   Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like their cousin, who was sweet-natured, but ultra-Orthodox. Sandy and Sima were on the lighter side of Reformed. They didn’t take it seriously, although they could get serious in a second, if need be. They came to the United States when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in McMansions in Beachwood. They only ever talked about the homeland when one of their tour groups was going there.

   In the 1970s Sandy was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. The Mad Hatter had a bubble machine, a strobed multi-colored dance floor, and sticky red-shag carpeting. She wore white go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 200 pounds later she showed Rita a picture of herself, in a shimmering sleeveless fringe dress, doing the funky chicken.

   Rita could hardly believe it and said so. Sandy didn’t like her tone. She lit a Virginia Slim cigarette and puffed on it, vexed.

   Sandy and Sima’s world revolved around food. They loved the buffet. Their favorite time of day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up now. They were supposed to fast during the Jewish holidays, but because they were fat, they were diabetic and had to take medication. They had to take their pills with food, so they couldn’t fast. But they were sticklers about breaking the fast. Sandy would rush home right away and make a batch of potato latkes.

   Sima had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was the head butcher. He brought kosher cows and sheep home. Sandy had three daughters and her husband, a tall balding man with a nice smile, was a porno movie wholesaler. He sold them to video stores around the state. He made a good living selling glossy naked girls.

   All of Sandy’s daughters were pudgy-cheeked fat and fluffy. The youngest one was 22 years old and clocked in at close to three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. When they started hunting for husbands all three got gastric bypass surgery and lost weight by the boat load.

   No one ever knew what got into her, but Sima went to Weight Watchers for a month. She kept a journal and wrote down what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks. But she lied to her journal.

   “I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she explained.

   “They’re not going to be checking up on you,” Rita said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”

   Gino didn’t believe she was going to lose any weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” he said. He chewed his cud about it. Rita encouraged her to keep it up, but Sima didn’t lose any weight.

   Sandy went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon every day. She brought it to the office in the morning. There was a microwave in the fax machine room. She tossed slices of bacon into it every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like fried meat for hours.

   “I don’t know about all that bacon,” Rita said. “It can’t be good for you.”

   “I’m on the Adkins Diet,” Sandy said. “I’m allowed to eat as much of it as I want.”

   “She’s double-crossing herself,” said Gino. Everybody looked the other way. Sandy didn’t lose any weight, the same as Sima.

   Whenever Sandy had to go to the bathroom, she would hoist herself up from the desk. It took a minute. She could have used a crane. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped down in her chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and groaning.

   Every year, two or three times a year, Sandy and Sima went on cruises. They loved cruises for two reasons, which were all the food you could eat, and gambling. They didn’t care what cruise line it was, so long as it was the cheapest. No matter how cut-rate it was, you could still eat all you wanted, and they all had casinos. The nightlife didn’t matter, either. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating chuck wagon with one-armed bandits.

   Rita went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was creaky old but not yet rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sandy and Sima spent every waking minute eating and betting. Rita got sun poisoning at the pool the first day and couldn’t sit there after that. The rest of the trip she had to stay on the shady side of the ship with the 70-year-olds.

   She was bitter about it every minute of the cruise.

   When gambling started showing up on computers, Sandy started gambling at work. She played winning and losing games at her desk and made Sima do all the work. She bossed Sima around most of the time, anyway. Sandy was the older of the two, although Sima was the harder worker, so Sandy could throw everything at her without caring too much about it.

   They bought clothes from magazines because they couldn’t find their sizes at department stores. Catalogs came in the mail to the office every day. Their clothes were XXL, but nice looking. They didn’t wear sack dresses. Most of the clothes were sets, coordinated stretchy pants and a top, like turquoise pants and a turquoise blouse.

   Sandy and Sima were both top-heavy, even though both had skinny legs. Sandy talked about her legs all the time. “Look how thin I am,” she said, pulling up her pants. “My legs are so thin.” But from the waist up she was huge. She never pulled her top up or down. It would have been indecent.

   It was when Sima got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy processed food and not brushing and flossing nearly enough. She was in pain for months because of the new teeth and hardly ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy about it, but she lost weight for a while.

   She didn’t like having to buy new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet had gotten skinnier, and she needed them. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out, she would buy another pair the same as before. “I can’t live with sore feet,” she said.

   Sandy wasn’t happy about the change in her sister. She didn’t like Sima losing weight, especially whenever she sprang out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Sima started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smell,” whenever Sandy lit up, since she had stopped smoking. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, arguing about whoever did whatever it was they were doing better than the other.

   Everybody in the office smoked, except for Rita. Sima went back to blazing. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. They were in a non-smoking building, but nobody cared. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the office, they bought devices that supposedly sucked smoke out of the air. One was next to Rita’s desk, although she was never sure it did any good.

   One day after work she met one of her friends for dinner. When they got to the restaurant her friend said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

   “Have you ever seen me smoke?” Rita asked.

   “No,” she said.

   “OK then.”

   Gadi Galilli, Rita’s boyfriend, made her change her clothes the minute she stepped into the house after work. He didn’t smoke and didn’t like the smell. “I know they are well off, but it smells like poverty,” he said.

   She always smelled like smoke, since she sat in the office all day, an office where someone was always lighting up. Gino’s desk faced hers, which made it worse. She had a cloud of smoke over her head most of the day. It wasn’t just them, either. Most of their clients had the same bad habit, as though the agency specialized in people who smoked cigarettes.

   If Sandy wasn’t lighting up a Virginia Slims, Sima was lighting one up. One or the other was always huffing and puffing. They were a pair of choo-choo’s.

   Sandy’s wastebasket under her desk caught fire one afternoon. She absentmindedly flicked a butt into it instead of stubbing it out in the ashtray. They had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by the time he got it under control the fire burned the underside of the desk and all the wires to her computer.

   She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to anyone in the office. She never said anything about it. But she denied it to the insurance company. She didn’t want to pay for a new desk and a new computer. She didn’t start the fire purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement in the end.

   One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Blvd., turning too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside the office building. The street slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the ruptured tanker ran down the road like smeary water. None of them knew anything about it until a fireman with all his gear burst in.

   “Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”

   Gino Sally and Rita grabbed their coats.

   Sandy leaned halfway up from her chair.

   “Nobody takes their car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start a car, you’re going to get arrested.”

   Sandy and Sima wrestled themselves up to their feet.

   They all went into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping, and waiting their turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sandy pulled out her hard box pack of cigarettes, her BIC lighter, shook out a Virginia Slims Luxury Light 120, flicked the lighter, and lit up.

   The fireman came running over to them.

   “Stop!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

   He pulled the cigarette out from Sandy’s lips and crushed it between his gloved fingers. “Give me that lighter,” he said. Sandy gave it to him. She was furious but didn’t say anything. Rita thought she was going to burst, but she gave the fireman the stink eye, instead. 

   He didn’t care. He threw the BIC lighter in the trash. He kept his eye on her.

   When they got outside everybody was walking up the road, up to the bridge over the highway, away from the gasoline. Sandy and Sima turned the other way. The office followed them. As they walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, Rita realized why they were walking in the opposite direction from everybody else. Sandy and Sima couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. They were also going towards the stretch of fast-food restaurants where all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were blocking the road.

   They stopped at Burger King and had burgers and fries. Firemen tramped in and evacuated them. They had to move on. They stopped at Taco Bell and had chicken tacos. The next thing they knew firemen were evacuating them again. They stopped at Wendy’s, and everybody had a frosty.

   The gas smelled like more gasoline than Rita had ever smelled in her life. She didn’t have an appetite, although she had a strawberry frosty. Sally had one, too. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger, and scarfed the menu up.

   Sandy called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s, and he came and picked them up in his family van. He deposited Sandy and Sima at home, drove Gino to his apartment, and dropped Rita off in Cleveland Heights.

   While parked in front of Rita’s up and down double, the engine running, he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty pictures?”

   He flashed her a warm smile.

   “No,” she said.

   “You could make a lot of money,” he said. “We’re always looking for sick minds in healthy bodies.”

   “No thanks,” she said.

   He looked down in the mouth for a minute but took it like a man.

   Walking up the sidewalk to her front door, as Sandy’s husband drove away, she thought, “I’m going to have to quit my job soon. Who needs a sex maniac, and all those stinky butts? That can’t be good for me.”

   That’s what she did, finally, the week after New Year’s. “Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke blowing in my face,” she said to Gadi, peeved. “They don’t even pay me hazard pay.” 

   They never asked her, “Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” She was just the blonde girl to get the goys to cough up. They were topping off the tank, Virginia Slimming, smoke screening it, gasoline flood or no gasoline flood, rolling in the dough, while she was saving every spare penny to get ahead.

   “I don’t care if they are spoiled rotten, or not,” she told Gadi after clearing her throat and breaking the news. “They don’t pay me enough to stay. I’m not bringing home the bacon I need. I’ve got to go.” 

   Gadi waved his hand, brushing away imaginary smoke. “Go change your clothes,” he said.

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.”