Escape Velocity

By Ed Staskus

   Before Agnes ever went to the Surprise House at Euclid Beach, the city fun park, she went to Holiday Sands. It was her little brother and her friends. It was her mother Eva and their neighbor Anna MacAulay. It was old times and new times all mixed up together. Years later she thought they might have been the best times she ever had in her life. 

   They went from when she was a small girl, right after Sammy was potty-trained and she was five years old. They car-pooled with the MacAulay’s since they had a summer pass and an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser that fit all of them. Olds called the car the “Escape Machine.” Eva made most of the food for the day the night before and the rest of it early in the morning. She baked Texas sheet cake with buttermilk in the chocolate batter and cream cheese frosting. Anna brought puffed Cheez Doodles. Sometimes they had barbecue chicken and other times hamburgers on the grill, and grapes, watermelon, lemonade, and Eva’s new drink, Diet Pepsi. 

   She kept cases of it in the pantry, even though it made her husband Nick mad. “You’re flushing all my money down the toilet,” he complained. She popped a can open as soon as he went to work. Eva Giedraityte knew when to stay behind Nick Goga’s back. It hadn’t always been that way, but that’s the way it had gone.

   Anna was Eva’s best friend on the hill. They saw each other every day and talked on the telephone the rest of the time. They lived across the street from one another on Hillcrest Drive in the Euclid Villas. Nick called their telephone the blower. “All that talk is just blowing hot air through the wires,” he said. Eva didn’t like that. She wanted to call him a blowhard but bit her tongue.

   In the morning when the coolers and picnic baskets were full and they were ready to go they ran to the yellow car, begging Eva to hurry up. Holiday Sands was in Ravenna, a place Eva called the armpit of Cleveland, even though it was where she got her blue and white china with snow scenes on it. It was a long drive and Agnes’s best friend Marcia and she sometimes lost track of where they were because they sat in the rear-facing third seat playing category abc’s.

   Anna and Eva sat in the front talking non-stop, Eva’s arm stuck out the window, Anna steering with one hand and smoking Pall Malls. Sammy wriggled to get next to one of the windows so he wouldn’t have to sit between Diane and Michelle. They were the other MacAulay girls. Marcia and Agnes watched the road going backwards. When they heard gravel crunching, they knew they were finally there and twisted around towards the wormy green wood walls, the signs saying, ‘Stop, Pay Ahead’ and ‘Positively No Cameras’ and the run-down guardhouse leaning sideways.  

   Once they got there none of them could remember getting out of the car or into their bathing suits, only the next thing they knew they were in front of the mirrors outside the bathhouse. They drank water at the frog fountain and ran to the cement edge of the lake, walking around to the beach side and the sand playground, while their mothers spread out blankets and folding chairs and a plastic tablecloth on a picnic table. 

   Their day camp was in a grove of sweet gum trees where they were always cleaning up the space bug seedpods that killed when they stepped on them barefoot. Black squirrels rummaged in the high grass eating handouts and hiding out, jumpy and curious at the same time.

   They ate lunch and dinner like fattening calves at Holiday Sands and lay down afterwards in the shade, looking up at the sky or the giant slide. They weren’t allowed back in the lake for sixty minutes. Otherwise, they might get cramps and drown. Sometimes they would take a nap on the shady side of a hill, but most of the time they never slept until the end of the day riding home on the darkening road.

   Marcia was Agnes’s bosom buddy and barrel champion of Holiday Sands, mean as an old man on the rings, daring and brave on the slide that scared the crap out of her. She was a swashbuckler in a swimsuit on the barrels, taking on all comers until her feet blistered. The two barrels were rusty red white and blue, striped, and swiveled on rods attached to a laddered platform in the middle of the lake. They were sketchy trying get on top of from the platform, wet and slimy, rotating in the water. 

   Nobody could logroll Marcia off them once it was her turn, not the local runty boys with their fast feet nor the stuck-up east side girls from the gymnastic classes. She was like a squid on a skateboard.

   Almost a year older than Agnes she was strong and fast, too, on the big rings that crossed the lake. She was famous for fights with anyone who tried crossing at the same time from the other side, kicking at them and wrapping her legs around them and shaking them off the line into the water.

   “When am I going to catch up to Marcia, so we are the same?” she asked her mother.

   “You never will,” Eva said. “You’ll always be a year apart.”

   “How can that be?”

   The giant slide was on the grassy side of the lake. It was a hundred feet up a corkscrew staircase to a deck that swayed and creaked whenever anybody let a breath out. Agnes climbed up the twisting steps grimly holding on to the handrail, never looking down, and when it was her turn to go Marcia had to give her a shove, even though Agnes knew she could never go back down on the stairs, anyway, because with every step she would have to stare through the slats to the deadly cement slab below. She slid down the ramp slower than anybody ever, chafing and burning her legs as she pressed them against the gunwales all the way to the pitch, finally heaving herself, after a dead stop at the bottom, into the water with a plop.

   Marcia put her arm around her shoulders. “If I wasn’t so scared on that slide I’d be scared to death,” she told her secretly when everybody laughed about her slowdown ride. Marcia always raced it, though, scared or not.

   Most kids started by sitting at the top and tilting over the brink, but Marcia liked to get air, shooting out over the slide at the top and landing on the drop side of the lip with momentum. Sometimes she landed with her legs splayed halfway off but throwing her head up and back, she would straighten out and cracker down like a rocket.

   Whenever she felt more daring than concerned, she would start on her stomach, belly-slam over the hump halfway down the slide, and flip in mid-air at the bottom finishing feet first. One windy day a boy drift-paddled to the base of the slide and looking up saw Marcia suddenly double-flipping over his gaping face. Lots of kids got wedgies coming down, but not Marcia, who came down slick like clean underwear.

   Every hour a recording played on the staticky loudspeakers “Water safety check, water safety check, please return to the shore” and everybody had to get out of the water for fifteen minutes. After the safety check the loudspeakers crackled again. “Remember the buddy system, remember the buddy system, never swim alone.” 

   Only after the safety check did everybody get to go back on the barrels and slides and diving boards. One day a boy who had been in the water didn’t make the count, and everyone thought he might have drowned. The lifeguards swam back and forth, and children circled the lake, craning to see underwater, their mothers hovering over them. Finally, the boy came walking down from the concession stand with a can of Welch’s Grape Juice. He had ridden to the park like all the local boys from Kent did on the back of his older brother’s banana bike, so no one blamed him about causing so much trouble, but one of the lifeguards was peeved, and told them they both had to sit the next hour out. 

   “Let’s go drift to the back of a window,” the bigger boy said smirking.

   Agnes liked the rides in the playground best, the springy mushrooms, lopsided pirate ship, and alligator swing. The round-headed mushrooms were on coiled springs, spotted with colored dots, greasy from baby oil and shed skid. They were stinkhorns, they smelled horrible, and crossing them without falling on the twisting trail was almost impossible. A ramp led to the deck of the pirate ship where tree trunk cannons stuck out the side toward the lake. They flew down pipe slides jutting off the poop deck and rode the rope swings hanging from the spars. Red and purple Jolly Roger flags flew from the mast, dark gap-toothed skulls grinning in the bright light.

   “See the white skeleton, and see that dart in his hand, blow the man down, he’s poking the bloody heart with it. There’s an hourglass in his other hand. Time’s running out, let’s go play.”

   A submarine made of drainage tiles lay in the ditch beside the pirate ship, and the alligator swing was behind them, separated by low cypress hedges. They rode the swing at twilight in the shadows. It had five toboggan style seats, and when whoever was pushing got it going, all scrunched together her friends and she arced up, leaning into the forward and backward swings, taking it to the moon. A boy climbed out onto the nose of the gator and when it reached its highest point, he jumped twenty feet up into the air and flew out over the sand. He broke his arm when he landed with a hard thud on a bare spot.

   “Oh, my Goddamn, damn, damn, damn, that really, really hurts,” he cried and cried, rolling off his cracked arm and cradling it.

   Agnes’s favorite was the corkscrew. Some kids called it the mean green machine and other kids called it the wheel of death. She called it the peanut butter maker, although she couldn’t say why. It was a carousel with horizontal rings made into a circular wheel attached to a maypole by chains stretching from the middle spokes to the top of the pole. The runts got on first and the rest turned the wheel, walking alongside it, the chains shortening and wrapping themselves up the pole, until they jumped on, and the bigger boys kept winding the wheel as far as they could until only the tallest boy was left stretching up on his toes, finally jumping on and grabbing hold.

   The wheel started spinning back in the direction it had come, slowly then faster and faster, the chains grinding and clanging on the maypole. Some crouched inside the frame, while others dangled from the outside rails like octopi. Hanging on they were pulled parallel to the ground as the peanut butter maker spun downwards, and one by one they lost their grips and were sprayed out in all directions screaming and crying. The white sand was soft enough, but grown-ups walking by had to watch out for small fry flying at them like ballistic missiles.

   “Somebody ought to shut that thing down,” a dirty man lying under a tree said, his lips like pink goo, watching them, smoking a dark cigar, his shirt open, ash floating like charred mercury on his belly.

   At the end of the day, they trudged up to the concession stand on the hill, worn-out and exhausted. They had ice cream cones and played their favorite songs on the Rock-Ola jukebox, drowning out the bug zapper with a pile of dead bugs under it, dance shuffling together on the damp concrete. 

   “When I first met you girl you didn’t have no shoes, now you’re walking ‘round like you’re frontpage news, not your steppingstone not your steppingstone not your steppingstone.” 

   They bought pink wintergreen disc candy for the ride home and at sunset ran to the guardhouse to watch a lifeguard play taps on his bugle into a microphone that piped it out to all the loudspeakers. As the park lights blinked on, they cozied into the warm vinyl seats of the station wagon, wrapped in beach towels, sad that their day was over, but glad since they had been in the sun all day.

   Sometimes they were quiet or slept on the ride home, but other times they stayed up and sang songs. Their favorite songs were tunes from TV and the movies. “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can,” Sammy whooped, believing he could sing, and squirted pretend webbing at them from his wrists through the haze of Anna’s cigarette smoke. 

   Agnes loved movies like “Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” and “Dr. Doolittle.” They sang ‘Kissin’ Cousins’ and ‘Talk to the Animals’ and all the “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” songs since they had seen it at least three times. “You’re the answer to my wishes, Truly Scrumptious,” Michelle and Diane sang in the dark, drowning out Sammy while Marcia and Agnes finished the stanzas from the third seat. “And I shan’t forget this lovely day, my heart beats so unruly, I also love you Truly, honest truly, I do.”

   “Can’t you girls keep it down for a minute, just one minute,” Anna barked at them. 

   Nick never went to Holiday Sands, except for the time Eva got sun poisoning. The MacAulay’s Vista Cruiser broke down, so Nick took everybody in his Buick Riviera, piling them in one on top of the other, and leaving a beach carryall and food cooler behind because his golf bag needed room in the trunk. He dropped them off at the guardhouse with half rations and missing Eva’s Coppertone and drove away to the Sunny Hill Golf Course. 

   He was crazy about golf. Nick had heard talk about the South 9 at Sunny Hill, that it was sparkling new and pockmarked with sand traps, and he just had to play it. They watched him drive away.

   “It’s not fair,” Agnes complained when he picked them up after his golf game and they had to leave early before sunset. “I always ride the alligator, it’s my ride.”

   “Your father had a bad game, and he wants to go home and have dinner,” Eva said in the car, her arms wrapped around Agnes while she sat on her lap. She felt cold, even though she had been in the sun all day. Nick steered fast that night, complaining about Sunny Hill, and they got home in record time.   

   Eva had pale Lithuanian skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair she kept in a loose flip. At the park she always wore a wide brim hat and globs of suntan lotion, but that day she only had her hat, shading her face. She got sun poisoning and had to lie in bed for two days. Her legs were swollen like sausages. Sammy and Agnes sliced up cucumbers and spread them out on her thighs, but she was nauseous and couldn’t lie still, and they ended up littering the room. Anna brought hand towels, soaked them in water and apple cider vinegar, chilled them in the fridge, and wrapped them around her legs until she got better.   

   Whenever Nick wasn’t working or at home eating or reading or sleeping, he was playing golf. He loved it more than they loved Holiday Sands. Sometimes Eva said he loved golf more than the three of them. Agnes hoped it wasn’t true. She knew it was true.

   “Golf is a thinking man’s game. It’s all up here,” he said, tapping the space between his eyebrows. “It’s simple, just a ball and a club, but it’s complicated, remember that. No two lies are ever the same, that’s when the ball is on the grass, but when it’s pitch and putt it’s the best thing in the world.”

   Eva liked telling everybody her husband had great legs, and he did, too, because of the thousands of miles he walked on all the links he went to with his clients and friends.

   “I don’t play cart golf,” he declared with pride. 

   Nick always had a tan, except in the dead of winter, and except for his left hand, which was his glove hand. He wasn’t a big man, but he wasn’t small, either, standing trim and compact like a boxer. He still fit into the Korean War uniform he kept in the attic. He fought Golden Gloves when he was young and once made it as far as the main event at the Cleveland Arena. There wasn’t anything mashed up or broken down about him from the fighting, either. He had Chiclets teeth, green eyes, and brown wavy hair. When he finger-rolled Royal Crown into it and combed it back his hair got flat slick and dark, like a street man’s.

   “How do you like your old man now?” he asked Agnes, who was watching him in the bathroom mirror, his suspenders floppy and collar open. 

   Eva hardly ever called him by his given name, which was Nicolae. She called him Nick when they were happy. To her children she always said he was their pop, and that was what they called him. When Sammy was a toddler, he called his father poppy, but after he started walking, he started calling him pop just like his mother and sister did. 

   Nick nicknamed his wife daughter son the Three Musketeers because they did everything together, which they did since he worked all day and played golf the rest of the time. He didn’t punch a clock at work but did at home. He left first thing in the morning, like clockwork. He went home only when the golf game or dinner with clients was over. 

   He never went back to Holiday Sands with them, with his wife and kids, and never became the Fourth Musketeer. Instead, inside of a few twisting and turning years, he became the Count of Monte Cristo, when the dream machine between Eva and him came slowly rolling tumbling down on all of them.

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.”

Spanky and Our Gang

By Ed Staskus

   When the Soviet Union was in charge, there wasn’t a Mafia in Lithuania. The Russians wouldn’t allow it, since they were the Black Hand themselves and didn’t brook any competition. When anybody tried to muscle in on the action the KGB shoved them into a boxcar with a free ticket to Siberia in their pockets.

   But as soon as the Commies were gone in December 1991, it was the same story less the boxcars. The next morning the Lithuanian Mob popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain. The homeboys were just as poisonous as the Russians.

   Nobody could call his own tune in a kiosk, no matter how pint-sized, built onto the side of their house selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes without being on the lookout for them. The gangsters would appear in their grim track suits demanding protection money, or else. It was like Spanky and Our Gang, except “or else” meant they might burn your house down, whether you were in it, or not.

   Like Little Scotty, Spanky’s best friend, they always said, “That’ll learn ‘em.” Of course, Little Scotty was only eight years old, and hardly knew what he was talking about. He wasn’t an arsonist, either. It was only a slapdash kid’s movie.

   If you paid up, you could sleep soundly at night. If anybody went into business across the street, all you had to do was tell your Mob man about it, and the competition disappeared. If you were looking for cheaper gum, they pointed the way to fake Dubble Bubble. 

   It wasn’t just businesses, big and small, that paid protection money. That’s what the Mob called it, like they were doing you a favor, although everybody else called it extortion. It was the same as 1930s Chicago but set in the new frontier world of Eastern Europe. It was all up for grabs.

   “Whenever I stayed in Vilnius in those years, the 90s, I stayed at my friend Birute’s house,” my sister Rita said. She was a travel agent in Cleveland, Ohio. She often visited the native land leading tours of emigrants. “Her husband built a big house and the first time I saw it I thought, the Lithuanian Mob has got to have their eyes on this house. I hope she has police protection, even though they weren’t much better than the Mafia.”

   Corruption was so endemic after Lithuania won independence that the Internal Investigation Service was established in 1998 with its own special jurisdiction. It was on top of the Immunity Service, responsible for preventing and investigating corruption within the police force. There was rot top to bottom.

   Targeting malfeasance became more urgent leading up to the country joining the European Union in 2004. Europe had long prided itself on its trustworthy policemen. Only Croatia had more fast and loose law enforcement than Lithuania. The nation introduced a score of anti-corruption measures, to little apparent effect. More than 60% of the country’s citizens continued to believe crooked lawmen were widespread and oozing spreading fast.

   If you can’t trust the cops, who can you trust, although it’s best to never trust a policeman in a raincoat, especially if it’s not raining, unless he’s Columbo, who always wore a raincoat, rain or shine. He always wore the same one, too. “Every once-in-a-while I think about getting a new coat, but there’s no rush on that, since there’s still plenty of wear in this fella,” he explained.

   Lithuania’s policemen wore coats full of holes. The graft was like moths, eating away at the wool. They needed new coats in a bad way.

   “One of our cousins could have used a policeman the day she lost her kid,” Rita said. “But they’re not always there when you need them.”

   It was winter when our cousin picked up her six-year-old from school, sitting him down in a little red wagon, and pulling him along behind her. Somewhere down the line he fell out of the wagon. She didn’t notice, trudging through the snow, until she got home. When she did, she rushed back, but he wasn’t anywhere on the path they had taken. There wasn’t a badge in sight. When she called the local station, nobody answered. Sunset in Lithuania in early January is at around four o’clock. She finally found him making snow angels on a side street by himself in the darkness. None of the streetlights were working.

   Another of our cousins had a son, Gytis, who was grown up, and had gotten involved with the Mob. He owed them money but was unable to pay his debt. They were looking for their loot. When they got sick and tired of waiting, they rigged his car up to blow up. The next morning when he started it, it blew up, but the gangsters hadn’t used enough dynamite. They also stuck it under the trunk instead of the front seat. Gytis was hurt, breaking an arm in the blast, but survived.

   “I had to go from Vilnius to Marijampole one night and my relatives sent Gytis,” Rita said. “I couldn’t believe it. Why Gytis of all people? The Mob was after him! His arm was in a cast, and he had a friend with him. His friend was from Samogitia and I could barely understand a word he said. It didn’t help that he was smoking Bulgarian cigarettes and coughing up a storm.”

   They were driving a beat-up Trabant, an East German car, which had a reputation for getting old fast. It got old the minute it rolled off the assembly line. Car ownership was exploding in Lithuania, but it was the best they could do. Gytis put her in the back seat and told her to lay low. They didn’t take the highway or the secondary roads. They drove back roads, which were hardly roads, at all. They weren’t paved. The Trabant ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

   “Stay here,” Gytis said when he and his friend tramped away.

   “It was pitch black as could be,” said Rita. “I stayed in the car because there was nothing anywhere. I would have just been wandering around, having an out-of-body experience.”

   After more than an hour, Gytis and his friend came back with an open bucket of gasoline. She didn’t ask where they found it. When they finally pulled into the driveway of our Uncle Justinas’s house, she jumped out of the car, nearly ripping the Trabant’s back door off its hinges.

   By the time Gytis grew up, he was fatherless. His mother went through three husbands. She left her first husband after he tried to kill her twice. One day he wired the front door lock so she would be electrocuted when she put her key into the lock. It didn’t work. Another day he veered off the road and rammed the passenger side of their car into a tree. That didn’t work, either. She was unhurt, although he was a mess, and had to be hospitalized.

   Her second husband was working at Chernobyl in 1986 when the nuclear power plant melted down. Even though he returned home, he suffered from radiation poisoning, and shortly afterwards committed suicide. She took care of his grave faithfully, cleaning and decorating it. Her third husband was a good man, but a year after their marriage she came home from her job as a seamstress and found him dead on the floor from a heart attack. After that she got the message, giving up and remaining a widow.

   “My Uncle Juozukas had a son, Edvardas, who was a policeman, and he always told me to watch out for the police,” said Rita. “He said they were rotten through and through.”

   “Make sure you always have cash with you if you’re ever driving alone, because if you get stopped by them, you will have to pay them,” Edvardas said.

   “You mean I will have to pay the fine right on the spot?”

   “No, you will have to pay them off right on the spot. Otherwise, they will keep you on the side of the road all day and night until you do.”

   Our cousin Mikolas shook his head up and down and said, “That’s right. If their pockets are empty, and even if they aren’t, they will stop you no matter if you have done something, or not.”

   The year before, after the birthday party his parents threw for him, the police were waiting outside and followed Mikolas home. They were after his birthday money. “Maybe somebody told them about the party, maybe not, but I had to hand all of it over,” he said.

   The police car parked behind him when he pulled into his driveway. One of the policemen counted the money he finally handed over to them and said, “It’s not nearly enough, since I have to pay some of it out back at the station, but OK.” He threw the birthday cards and envelopes out the window, backing over them on his way out.

   “You are scum between my toes,” is what Spanky used to say and would have said. When Mikolas asked the cops what he had done, they said, “Nothing, and make sure it stays that way.” They were in the thievery business, not the law-and-order business.

   Edvardas was an honest policeman. He couldn’t condone or handle the rampant corruption. He quit the police force after a few years. Sometimes you’ve got to live with yourself, not the rotten apples. There’s no sense in letting canker have its way, just because it says so.

   When Rita asked our Uncle Juozukas how much he paid the Mob for protection when he was selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes out of the kiosk he built onto the side of his house, he said, “Peanuts, but peanuts I couldn’t afford to pay.”

   There were loads of peanuts up and down and all around the country, as well as bags of peanuts, and truckloads of peanuts, and it all added up to keep the crime wave going full steam ahead. At least until the engine got overheated. When it did there was hell to pay.

   After journalists, businessmen, and prosecutors started getting murdered by the Mob, the country got good and shocked, and repercussions soon followed. The Vilnius “Godfather” Boris Dekanidze was put to death while the Kaunas “Godfather” Henrikas Daktaras was locked up. His jailers lost the key and he stayed locked up forever.

   In the 1990s the Mob employed persuasion, intimidation, and violence to get what they wanted, including pocketing public property for themselves. Everything was on hand on deck in play. In the new millennium the worm turned. The Mob put their brass knuckles away and put on business suits, employing persuasion, intimidation, and bribery to get what they wanted. It wasn’t lowlifes cashing in on the gum and cigarette market anymore. It wasn’t bringing a trunkful of booze back from Poland. It wasn’t stealing used cars. It was the new dodge of cashing in on state and private legal and illegal deals, drugs, sex trafficking, internet gambling, and money laundering. They stashed their brickbats in the basement and repositioned themselves as venture capitalists.

   Not all of them, though. Some stayed true to their roots. Several years later, more than three hundred armed policemen at the crack of dawn broke down the doors of nearly a hundred homes and apartments and arrested members of ONG, the country’s most dangerous crime group. Elite Lithuanian ARAS units dragged away dozens of groggy men wearing wrinkled tracksuits, hands handcuffed behind them. The haul included “a large number of automatic and semi-automatic firearms, ammunition and explosive substances,” according to a Europol press release, as well as a boatload of sports cars and luxury sedans.

   The hoodlums operated out of Kaunas for the most part, smuggling guns and drugs, keeping their shady lawyers and accountants busy and themselves living the high life. They used “various money-laundering schemes that involved legal entities and limited ownership of assets worth millions of euros and maintained strong links with other organized criminal groups in Lithuania and abroad,” a Kaunas Police Department news release said.

   The way most crime lords see it, you can get much farther with a gun and a kind word than you can with a kind word alone. Their guns gone, there wasn’t much they could say. Kindness wasn’t part of their vocabulary. They didn’t even know how to spell the word.

   In the end, locked up inside police stations and handcuffed in cages in courtrooms, few kind words were spoken. There was some rude spanking on the horizon on their way to prison. Alfalfa, Spanky’s right-hand man, his hair neatly parted down the middle, always had the last word when asked if he had any last words for evildoers.

   “Yeah, see ya!”

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.”