Rocket from the Tombs

By Ed Staskus

   Tommy Monk had an alarm clock on the stand next to his bed, but except for Saturdays and Sundays he never set it. When 5:30 in the morning happened, he knew his dad would be coming through the door making him get up. He was more commanding than the clock. It was Sunday July 6, 1975, and since it was, he had set his alarm clock the night before. His dad always slept in on weekends, snoring his head off, reading the newspaper the rest of the morning, catching up on that week’s news, and drinking a pot of coffee. His mom was up at the crack of dawn making meat pies and casseroles for the rest of the week.

   His mom was from the Baltics. She grew up on a family farm. His dad was from Finland. He grew up in a city. They met in Espoo after she escaped her Russian overlords. She got away across the East Sea in a stolen rowboat. When they got their green cards after the new American immigration law came into effect in 1964, they emigrated to the United States, to Lakewood, Ohio. Tommy was a blue-eyed one-year-old when he was followed by a brother and soon after that by a sister. His dad changed the family name from Muukkonen to Monk when he went to work as a bookkeeper for TRW. He was still working for TRW, except he had moved up to accountant and gotten a raise. When he did, he bought a Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon.

   “You’re the best dad ever,” his kids said a month later driving to the Pymatuning State Park in their new car for camping and campfires. Tommy and his brother sat in the rear-facing seat telling each other scary stories. Their sister had the back seat to herself. She liked it that way since she considered both her brothers to be nitwits. Her father was the strong silent type. Only her mother was worth talking to.

   Tommy was called Tommy by everybody except his mom and dad and friends. His mom called him Tomas. His dad called him Bud. His friends called him One Shoe because one day, getting on the CTS bus that took him to grade school at the West Park Lutheran School, he discovered he was wearing only one shoe. It was too late to get off the bus and go home for it. He spent the rest of the day shuffling to class, to lunch, back to class, and back home. He became Tommy One Shoe. When he got home there was a hole in his shoeless sock. A blister was peeking red-faced through the hole.

   After Tommy got the alarm clock calmed down, got dressed, and got himself to the garage, he started inserting the front page and sports page sections into the Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He had already gotten the comics and classifieds and the rest of the newspaper on Friday when his route manager threw the bundles out the back of his truck onto their driveway. He put those parts together on Saturday afternoon, after which he went collecting.

   He collected the week’s payments once a week. Most people left the payments in an envelope under their doormat or taped to the front door. Some old folks liked handing it to him personally and liked hearing him say thank you. He kept the money in a cigar box in his mom’s dining room cabinet. The route manager stopped by early every Monday morning, counted the money, and left him a receipt. Tommy lost the receipts as soon as possible. He worked hard but wasn’t a meticulous businessman. He delivered the newspapers seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, on foot, as fast as he could. The houses in his neighborhood were close together, which helped plenty. He had to be done in time to catch the bus to school. 

  His paper route was all of Ethel Ave. between Clifton Blvd. and Detroit Rd. There were 97 houses. He lived on the north end of the street, making his life easier than it might have been. He walked a loop, first north to Clifton Blvd., then south to Detroit Rd., and finally north again. He crossed the Conrail tracks twice. When he was done with the next-to-last newspaper he was home, back where he started. His dad’s newspaper was the only paper he white glove delivered. The rest got delivered airborne flying from his hand to a front porch. He never looked back to see whether anything unpredictable had happened, like a paper rolling off a porch into flower beds in a rainstorm.

   Monday through Saturday he stuffed the newspapers into his shoulder slung bag. Every time he threw one on to a porch the bag got a little lighter. He left it in the garage on Sundays. The paper was too big that day to carry in his bag. He pulled a Radio Flyer with removable side panels. The panels kept the stacks of newspaper in place. The wheels were rubber. They were slick as baloney skins. They gripped the sidewalk well enough three seasons out of the year. They slid every which way in snow and ice.

   The last home on the corner of Ethel Ave. and Clifton Blvd. was one of the first houses on his route. It was a two-story brick house with a detached garage to the side, unlike all the other houses whose garages were in the back. The front door of the residence faced Clifton Blvd. The driveway was a short slab of concrete. An Irish man lived in the house with a good-looking young woman who nobody ever saw. He had grown up in Lakewood after his mother married an American soldier in the 50th Field Artillery Battalion. The newlyweds left Belfast for the United States the minute World War Two was over.

   Tommy knew to throw the paper at the base of the back door which he could do without even looking. That Sunday, however, he didn’t have to throw the paper. Bill O’Sullivan came out the back door as Tommy was rolling up with his Radio Flyer. The man unlocked his car and got in. He never parked in the garage. He always parked in the driveway, the nose of the car facing the street. The car was an Imperial LeBaron, the heaviest and most expensive car in the Chrysler line-up.

   “Hey kid, over here,” Bill O’Sullivan called out, waving for him to bring the paper to him. Tommy knew the man’s name. He didn’t know everybody’s names on his route, but he knew who the man in the black pinstripe suit was. He gave him better tips than anybody else. There was always an extra dollar in the envelope inside the back screen door. He gave him twenty dollars on Christmas. Tommy was his unofficial look-out on the street.

   “You see anybody funny hanging around, you tell me right away.”

   “What do you mean funny?” 

   “Funny like they look like they don’t live around here. It will be a man, probably one man, sitting in a car looking like he’s just wasting his time. He might be wearing a hat, maybe an old-fashioned kind of hat. He might be pretending to be reading the paper. He’ll be smoking, for sure, and throwing the butts in the street.”

   “All right, I’m on it, “Tommy said.

   “You’re jake, kid.”

   He hadn’t spotted anybody suspicious the whole year nor the year before. Ethel Ave. was a quiet street. Their mid-town neighborhood was a quiet neighborhood. Lakewood was a quiet suburb, not like Cleveland, where bad things happened day in and day out. He handed Bill O’Sullivan his copy of the Plain Dealer. The front page was full of the world’s bad news

   Tommy walked to the crosswalk, crossed the street, and turned left. It was getting on 6:30, a half-hour after sunrise. It wasn’t light but it wasn’t dark, either. A man and a woman pushing a sleeping baby in a stroller went by on their way to Lakewood Park. Lake Erie was only two blocks away. He was just about to throw a newspaper at the first house on the corner, the first house starting up the west side of Ethel Ave., when a sudden walloping noise and shock wave from an explosion knocked him down. He fell face first, barely able to break his fall with his hands. When he landed he cupped them over the back of his head. He did it without thinking. Something landed with a thud beside him. The noise of the explosion became an intense silence. He stayed on the ground for a minute.

   He could hardly hear a thing. All he could hear were his ears ringing. He looked back across the street. The big Chrysler LeBaron was a fireball. He stood up, unsteady, staying where he was. People were looking out their windows. A dog was barking like a nut case. A fat man in a bathrobe ran out of a white house. “Don’t move, stay there,” he shouted, gesturing with his hands, inching toward the fireball before turning around and coming back. They both stayed on their side of the street watching the smoke and flames. It wasn’t a minute before they heard sirens coming from two different directions.

   Tommy looked down at what had landed beside him. It was a hand. There was a silver ring on the pinkie finger. It was Bill O’Sullivan’s hand. It was a charred fist clutching a part of the newspaper. The paper was smoking, tiny flames licking at the edges trying to become bigger flames. Section four of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was in the fist, a section called ‘The Spotlight.’ The headline of the full-page lead feature read in large letters, “Bombing Business Booming Here.”

Excerpted from “Bomb City.”

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

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