Cloak and Dagger

By Ed Staskus

    Frank Laukaitis took a short pull on the bottle of Schlitz in front of him. He didn’t pay any attention to the talking and low-hanging cigarette smoke from one end of the bar to the other end. All his attention was focused on the two men at a table at the back, their heads huddled together, up to no good. He kept his looking at them secret. There were two of them and only one of him. He was sure both men were armed, maybe even better armed than him, but he was also dead sure he could shoot straighter than the two of them put together. He had his Colt Detective Special on his belt. His badge was in his wallet in his back pocket.

   The police detective wasn’t tall or short. He wasn’t thin or chunky, either, except when he wore a bulletproof vest, which made him look chunky. He was able-bodied, although he was near-sighted. The closer something was to him the better he saw it. When he had to, he wore black brow line glasses to see far away. He was half-Lithuanian and half-Russian. He kept his hair not-too-neat and didn’t shave too often. He read the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper every morning except Sunday when there was too much of it. There was hardly anything about him likely to draw anybody’s attention. When he was in a bar at the bar with a beer in front of him, a Lucky Strike smoking itself at his elbow, nobody ever gave him a second look. He worked out of the third floor of the Cleveland Police Department’s Central Station at East 21st St. and Payne Ave.

   The Central Station had been in business for fifty years. It had replaced the Champlain Street Headquarters. When it did the Plain Dealer reported, “The minute the new station opens, the ancient Champlain Avenue mausoleum of crime and rats which has been functioning as a police headquarters for perhaps twenty-five years too long will start to crumble before the wrecking engines.” Fifty years later the Central Station was in the same boat, overflowing with crime and rats.

   Frank took another look at his bottle of beer. It was getting lukewarm. It didn’t matter to him. It was only in front of him so he could hide behind it. He loosened his tie and the top button of his shirt. Mitzi Jerman was working the bar. She asked if he wanted more peanuts. “Thanks, but no,” he said. He hadn’t touched the bowl. The bar didn’t serve food, just peanuts, pretzels, and pickled eggs. He hadn’t touched anything, yet, although he might if the two gangsters stayed long enough. He was getting hungry. He knew the goon with jug ears doing all the talking had worked the numbers for Shondor Birns. He was sure enough the other one had been up to the same thing. He wondered why they were near downtown and not the near east side where the Negroes lived. That’s where their bread and butter was this time of night. 

   Jerman’s Café was on East 39th St. and St. Clair Ave., although it wasn’t actually on any street. It wasn’t in a storefront like most corner bars, and it wasn’t on a corner, either. It was on the ground floor of a house. It was set back from St. Clair Ave. with a parking lot on the side. If a drinker didn’t know the bar was there he might end up high and dry. It opened in 1908 when a Slovenian immigrant and his wife opened it. It had lived through World War One, the New Deal, World War Two,  and the 1956 Cleveland Indians World Series win, when the celebrating didn’t stop for days. It stayed open as a speakeasy during Prohibition, not missing a beat. Mitzi’s uncle smuggled booze from Canada those years, making the run across Lake Erie in a speedboat by himself. Mitzi’s mom and dad hid the rum and whiskey with neighbors whenever Elliot Ness was on the loose.

   Mitzi came back to where Frank was sitting and parked herself in front of him. “Working tonight, handsome?” she asked, drying freshly washed glasses with a bar towel. Frank wasn’t handsome, just like he wasn’t young anymore.

   “I’m working right now,” he said in a low voice.

   Mitzi had been born upstairs in the apartment above the bar. It was where her parents lived all their working lives. She slept in the same room she had been born in. There was a piano and a juke box in the bar. A pool table squatted near the rear. She watched Tribe games in living color on a TV set placed high up on a wall. Her pooch Rosco slept at her feet. The bar Frank was sitting at was oak, and the ceiling above him was zinc. Mitzi served Pabst, Stroh’s, and Budweiser on tap.  Everything else came in a bottle and cost more. Frank fiddled with his bottle of Schlitz.

   One of the men at the back table snapped his fingers. Mitzi looked at them. They were looking at the neighborhood girl who worked nights with Mitzi. She was a looker. Some men wanted to hang their hats on her. Mitzi sent her to their table. They ordered two more glasses of Pabst and gave her a pat on the behind for her trouble.

   “Are you working those two bums?” Mitzi asked.

   “I only work bums, and it looks like they are the only two of their kind in this place right now.”

   “Is anything going to happen in my place tonight?”

   “Not if I can help it,” he reassured her.

   Shondor Birns had run the numbers racket for years, until he was blown up on Easter Saturday outside of his favorite strip club three and a half months ago. “SHONDOR BIRNS IS BOMB VICTIM” the Cleveland Plain Dealer headline in block letters blared on March 30, 1975. The big news out of Vietnam that day was below the lead story. “Communists capture Da Nang.” The go-go club was Christie’s Lounge, where Shondor Birns had spent the evening drinking and ogling the strippers. When he was good and drunk he staggered to his Lincoln Continental parked in a lot across from St. Malachi’s Catholic Church. When he turned the key in the ignition the dynamite wired to the ignition blew up. He was blown in half, his upper body catapulted through the roof of the car. Some of him landed in the parking lot. Some of him was sling shot into the webbing of the surrounding chain link fence. Celebrants at the Easter Vigil rushed out of the church when the explosion rattled the stained-glass windows. 

   The street fighter had been arrested more than fifty times since 1925, but hardly ever convicted. He had killed several men, but no charges ever stuck. He ran a theft ring. He ran the vice resorts. He became one of Cleveland’s ‘Public Enemy Number 1.’ When he got into the protection racket many small businessmen discovered they needed protection. “He was a muscleman whose specialty was controlling numbers gambling on the east side, keeping the peace among rival operators and getting a cut from each of them,” was how the Cleveland Press, the city’s afternoon newspaper, put it. “He was a feared man because of his violent reaction to any adversary.”

  What little was left of Shondor Birns was buried in Hillcrest Cemetery on April Fool’s Day. He was gone. They had taken his picture down from the top row of the big board at the Central Station. Somebody had taken his place, even though his picture wasn’t on the board, yet. The policy games weren’t going to stop with the flashy clothes man gone. His fast fists hadn’t been fast enough to save him. The next boss was taking care of business. Frank wanted to know who that was.

   When the two men at the back table got up and left, Frank got up and left, too. They got into a green Plymouth Duster. He wasn’t going to have any trouble following it. He got into his unmarked Ford Crown Victoria. The dark blue car wasn’t much to look at, since it looked like every other unmarked police car in the country, but no other car was going to outrun it if it came to a chase. The Duster drove to East 55th St,, turned on Euclid Ave, and at Mayfield Rd. turned again going up the hill to Little Italy. They parked behind Guarino’s Restaurant and went in the back door. Frank parked five spaces away, near the entrance to the lot.

   He turned the car off. He was hungry but didn’t go inside right away. He thought about going home. Nobody had assigned him this shadow job. He had taken it upon himself. He could go home anytime he wanted to but he didn’t want to go home. He wanted to see his kid but didn’t want to see his wife. She had been getting unhappier by the day since the day she stopped nursing their boy. That was three years ago. She was miserable at home and had taken to drinking. Frank threw away every bottle he found hidden away somewhere, but he never found the last bottle. He could smell it on her breath every day.

   She was eleven years younger than Frank. He knew it was a mistake but at the time he hadn’t been able to control himself. She had gotten to be sneaky and condescending. She complained about him being a policeman. She complained about his unpredictable hours. She complained about his pay and how he dressed. When he tried to explain the dress code behind going undercover, she was patronizing about it, calling him “you poor dear man.” They didn’t kiss anymore, much less talk much. She complained about her housework, even though she did less and less of it. She had started to neglect the kid, leaving the boy with a babysitter afternoons when she went to the Hippodrome.

   “What’s at the Hippodrome?” he asked.

   “Movies,” she said.

   The Hippodrome had the second largest stage in the world when it was built in 1907. It was in an eleven-story office building with theater marquees and entrances on both Prospect Ave. and Euclid Ave. in the heart of downtown. It hosted plays, operas, and vaudeville until the movies took over. After that it was all celluloid. It became the country’s biggest theater showing exclusively big screen fare. A new air conditioning system pumped in water from Lake Erie, keeping everybody cool on sweltering summer nights.

   Frank tailed her there one day. She went to the Hippodrome but didn’t go to the movies. She went downstairs to the lower-level pool hall. She walked to the back and through a door marked “Private.”

   “What’s behind that door?” he asked one of the pool players.

   “The boss is behind that door,” the pool player said.

   “Would that be Danny Vegh?”

   “Naw, this is Danny’s joint, but Vince runs the place. Why all the questions?”

   “No reason, just curious.”

   “If you want to see Vince, you don’t want to right now. He’s got a woman in there and it’s going to be some time before they finish up their business.”

   “Thanks pal,” Frank said. “How about a game of nine ball?”

   An hour later and twenty dollars the worse for wear, Frank gave up. His wife was still in Vince’s office. The door was still shut tight. He walked out and up the stairs to Euclid Ave. He crossed the street, leaned against a light pole, and lit a Lucky Strike. His wife walked into broad daylight a half hour later. A car pulled up to the curb and she got into the front seat. Frank followed the car to their home in North Collinwood. The car pulled into the driveway. His wife got out and went in the front door. The car drove away.

   “Son of a bitch,” Frank muttered to himself. It was looking to him like she was a gal looking for action. She had once promised him more than he was getting. He wasn’t getting much of anything anymore. He wasn’t getting any of her love, for sure. He could kill her for what she was doing, except for the kid. He might kill her anyway. There was more than enough room in the backyard for an unmarked grave.

   Frank’s stomach grumbled. He was hungry as a flatfoot at the end of a long day. He hadn’t popped even a single peanut into his mouth at Jerman’s Café. He could eat here up on Little Italy and keep an eye on the two goons at the same time. He got out of the Crown Victoria, locked it, and walking through the vineyard patio went into Guarino’s. The restaurant had been around since before the 1920s. A Sicilian family ran it then and the same Sicilian family ran it now. It had been redecorated in a Victorian style in 1963, but the décor didn’t affect the food. Mama Guarino led him to a two-top table. He ordered veal saltimbocca. The waitress brought him half a carafe of chianti. He took his time eating, making sure his wife would be asleep when he got home.

   He had always thought there was nothing more romantic than Italian food. He wasn’t feeling romantic tonight, but at least the food was delicious. He took a bite of veal and gulped down a forkful of angel hair. No man could love a cheater and not pay the price for it. Things fall apart when they’re held together by lies. He filled his wine glass with dark red romance and drank it slowly thoughtfully.

Excerpted from “Bomb City.”

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street and Made in Cleveland To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


One Way Street

By Ed Staskus

   When Agnes was a kid, everybody said her mom was the best-looking woman on the hill. Eva Giedraityte’s hair was soft, not stiff like the neighbor ladies, and she colored it champagne blond instead of the brassy yellow and bleached white that was popular. She was shapely with long legs, not skinny or fleshy, or too tall, but taller than her husband. When she walked, even when she was doing housework, she moved like a ballerina with woman-sized hips. 

   They lived on a bluff above the factories on Euclid Avenue, in the Euclid Villas, on the western edge of the North Chagrin parkland, just a few miles from the Lithuanian neighborhood where Eva grew up. In the summer Eva Agnes and Sammy went picnicking in the reservation at Squires Castle and hiked through the forest at Strawberry Lane. The park butted up to their backyard so that they were almost a part of it. Theirs was the end road in the neighborhood and there were deer that rubbed on the tree bark, raccoons that snuck into their attic, and low-down sneaky possums in the woods where they played the knocking game at night.

   Eva always had to be doing something. Whether she was dancing or not she moved like she had never heard there isn’t anything that isn’t set to music. She sang all the time, even though she was tone deaf. At house parties all the husbands except hers wanted to be her partner.

   “There’s no punch to it,” Nick grumbled. He boxed Golden Gloves when he was younger. He was Saxon Romanian and liked small steps in place, rapidly changing steps, tapping and syncopated steps.

    Eva knew all the smooth moves, like the Foxtrot and Waltz, her favorites, and even honky-tonk twisting. She had studied ballet and danced with a Lithuanian folk group. She was tireless and never had to catch her breath, although she wouldn’t dance with just anyone, only with some of the men. “Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance,” she said winking and gliding away with whoever knew how to lead.

   When they went to weddings, she was on the ballroom floor all night, waltzing and trotting, but Anna MacAulay, her best friend, knew she never got in the middle of anybody married, like some other women, because that’s not what she wanted. She wanted to talk and dance the room down and have a good time. Eva knew how to forget everything, even herself, but not the life bubbling up inside her.

   She did all the shopping and housework. Before she had a car, she took buses and taxis to the grocery store. She made breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the three of them, and sometimes for Nick, too, if he wasn’t gone already. He worked all day, and when he wasn’t working, he was playing golf. He wasn’t around the house much.

   He didn’t work around the house or even go outside and do yard work. He hired kids to mow the lawn in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, and shovel snow in the winter. They were the only neighbors he knew or liked on the street, and they liked him because he always paid them on the spot with Lincolns.

   Whenever anything had to be repaired, he called Sears, and the next day a van would pull up in their driveway and the Sears man would ring the doorbell. Even though he had a Craftsman toolbox in the basement, the only thing they ever saw Nick do tool-wise was change a light switch pull chain once, although he didn’t need a Craftsman to do it. 

   After Sammy got the first of his two-wheelers and they started bending breaking falling apart because of his Evel Knievel smash-ups he lugged them to Alex Newman for repairs. He was a big man with a radish-looking nose and worked in a factory. He knew how to fix everything.

   “What did you kids do today? And you better have done something,” Alex usually said, waving and rubbing his hairy hands together, pulling open the garage door, flipping the bike upside down on a workbench and taking care of whatever was wrong with it. Nick couldn’t pump up their bike tires when they were low because he didn’t know where the inflator was in the maze that the garage was to him.

   He was hardly ever home for dinner, even on weekends. But he was always in his chair for the “Ed Sullivan Show” at eight o’clock Sunday night, right after they finished watching the “Wonderful World of Disney.” He looked forward to the comedians like Jackie Mason, Charlie Callas, and Senor Wences, but not the singers, especially not the Supremes, or any of the other Negro groups. He would go to the kitchen or the bathroom whenever they were announced and only come back when he heard Ed Sullivan’s slow voice again.  

   The most unfunny man Agnes ever saw on television was Ed Sullivan. He stood in the middle of the screen like a cigar-store Indian, arms folded across his gray suit lapels, his no personality eyes sunk into their late-night dark bags. 

   “And now introducing on the shoe…” he said after the commercials were over, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, while Nick sank back into his sofa.

   Eva made dinner at 5:30 sharp every day, as though Nick was at the head of the table like the other fathers on the street, which he hardly ever was. From the steps of their front porch Agnes could see, if she wanted to, Mr. MacAulay, Mr. Holloway, and Mr. Newman coming home from work. Her friends ran slapping feet out of their houses as their fathers came up the walk from their garages. 

   That almost never happened at their house.  

   Whenever they knew for sure Nick was on time on his way home, they walked to the far end of Hillcrest, and then to Grand Boulevard and to the blue collection mailbox on the corner. They lay on the sloping lawn of the Robinson house and looked for his car to come up the hill. Eva liked to say good things come to those who wait, but Agnes wanted him to come home so bad she couldn’t sit still, running back-and-forth.

   “Waiting wears out my patience,” she said when Eva called her back to the lawn, telling her to be patient. 

   “I just don’t have a lot of it, and it runs out fast the more I have to wait.”

   The nights Nick was at dinner, instead of spaghetti and meatballs or the Dutch Oven chicken they liked best, Eva did up beef brisket. She busted the family food budget, Nick being near to stingy, taking a taxi to Fazio’s, the big grocery store. He munched on crudités and dip before dinner and afterwards his favorite dessert was apple pie with cheddar cheese on it. Sammy and Agnes weren’t big fans, so they nibbled on hard-boiled eggs floating in mayonnaise, and Eva made sure there was Neapolitan ice cream for them after dinner.

   Celery was Nick’s all-time favorite food, which caused a commotion one summer. Eva wanted a new dress fabric she had seen in a McCall’s sewing pattern and started skimming from the grocery money Nick gave her on paydays. He didn’t notice anything until the week she didn’t buy celery. Nick’s brother Tomas was living with them that summer, painting their house for more than two months, and sleeping on a foam mattress in the laundry room. 

   Uncle Tom and Nick both made lists of what they liked to eat and gave the lists to Eva so she would know what they wanted. Before Tom came, she always made barbecue chicken for Sammy and Agnes on Friday nights, in Kraft’s Original Sauce, but she didn’t that summer after Tom told Nick BBQ was out. Eva knew celery was Nick’s special food, but she thought he wouldn’t miss it for a week. What she didn’t know was that celery was Tom’s favorite, too, because she always threw his list away without looking at it.

   “How could you forget the celery? What were you thinking?” was all she heard from them day after day until Uncle Tom finally moved out the Labor Day weekend before school started.

   “I didn’t stop to think,” she told him, smiling and shuffling, “and then I forgot.” She didn’t tell him about the dress fabric she bought, especially after she sewed the dress and he never noticed how she looked in it.

   Nick ate part of an ice-cold Hershey bar every day. He kept it in the freezer and always knew how much was left. If he suspected any was missing his eyes got small and fixed and he complained to Eva about it.  Sammy and Agnes hardly ever ate any of it because they knew he would be grumpy, and besides, they knew what it was like to come home looking forward to something that wasn’t there.

  Nick loved coffee, too, but not the drinking kind. He kept gobs of coffee ice cream in the freezer, coffee yogurt in the fridge, and coffee nibs in the kitchen cupboard, and no one was allowed to touch any of those, either.

   They had breakfast together more often than their pop-less dinners. But before they were allowed to eat Nick passed out piles of vitamins. They would push the pills into order and then sit looking at them while he drank apple cider vinegar from one glass and black strap molasses from another.

   The first one down the gullet was vitamin A, then vitamin E, while the worst ones they saved for last. Lecithin was a horse pill. Agnes hated it. The yeast, kelp, and liver she swallowed fast, the narky flavors sliding over her tongue. Zinc and garlic were bad later in the day because she couldn’t help burping them up. The desiccated liver was not the worst. The worst thing before Eva brought food to the table was the huge tablespoon of pale-yellow cod liver oil they had to swallow. Their mother secretly slipped drops of lemon into it so they wouldn’t throw up.

   Eva had to get on the bandwagon, too, but she got a Wheateena Juicer for the wheels. She told Nick she couldn’t get the pills down, and needed smoothies and vegetable potions. She told Sammy and Agnes the machine digested everything ahead of time and all they had to do was drink it. She squeezed oranges, and added apples, beets, wheatgrass, and even ice cubes in the summer. Sometimes she would halve carrots on the long side and slide them down the chute into the auger, but then Agnes drank the juice holding her nose since she hated carrots.

   One of the last times she ever ate cooked carrots was when she had a mess of them in her mouth at dinner but wouldn’t swallow them. She had had enough. She felt like she was going to gag and choke. Eva got mad when she saw Agnes’s mouth at a standstill and made her stand in the corner. She still wouldn’t swallow, until Eva finally let her spit the orange paste into her hands, and then clean up at the kitchen sink.

   The only thing worse was koseliena, which their grandmother served every time the few times they went to their house. Eva’s parents had disowned her for marrying a man not Lithuanian ten years her senior. The no-go rules had been since relaxed. Koseliena is chopped organ meat set in cold gelatin with horse radish on the side. It is like meat headcheese Jello. Agnes always said, “I don’t want to try it.” She always had to try it. She always knew she was going to throw up.

   “You should eat your vegetables,” Eva said. “They’re good for you, for your eyes.” Agnes’s eyes were going bad. They were going out of focus, like a screwed-up telescope. She needed glasses.

   “Carrots aren’t vegetables, they’re roots,” she retorted. “I don’t care about seeing in the dark, why should I care, it’s still dark, there’s nothing to see, and I just really, really hate carrots.” Eva gave her the belt after that. Nick never hit the children. It was always Eva. She never said wait until your father gets home because they would have said, “Who?”

   Eva got married because her three sisters slept in the second bedroom while she slept on a daybed, because her mother was always bossing her around, and because she was a free spirit. She only waited until the day she was one minute older than eighteen to get married. She loved sleeping in her own bed in her own room in her own house.

   Nick was always busy selling ball bearings and hitting golf balls so that they only ever went on two family vacations. Eva took Agnes to a Lithuanian summer camp, but it wasn’t meant to be. Her older sister was a bigwig in the community and had the blood of her parents in her veins. She was a bigwig at the camp, too.

   Eva drove her Mercedes, the top down, Agnes’s bags tossed into the trunk, laughing and singing to the camp. It was in Michigan, farmland all around, outside a small town, which is Manchester. The summer camp had been there since the early 1960s when the American Lithuanian Roman Catholic Federation bought 200-some acres for it. They wouldn’t let her stay, though, because Agnew didn’t speak Lithuanian. It was the most alone she ever felt walking back to the car. Eva was sure her sister’s hand was behind it. She spun gravel turning around. Eva was so mad she got two speeding tickets going home, one in Michigan and one in Ohio.

   Before they went to Fredericksburg, they went to Niagara Falls with Bob Bliss, pop’s golf buddy who they had never seen before, and his wife and their little girl. Eva asked Nick to put them up on the Canadian side so they could walk in Queen Victoria Park and Table Rock Point on top of the waterfall. But he wanted to play golf on the American side, so they stayed in New York at a roadside motel with a pool out front.  

   Agnes had gotten a new bathing suit for the vacation, a blue cotton gingham pinafore with elasticized puffy bottoms. Friday morning after breakfast Bob and Nick went golfing and they went to the pool. Sammy played with something he was inventing. Eva sat on the lip of the pool with her legs scissoring watching Agnes paddling back and forth.  

   The bottom of the pool was robin egg blue and the sun felt like a fuzzy electric blanket. By the time she saw the black bug floating on the water in front of her it was too late. She skimmed over it and felt it get under her bib and bite her on the stomach. It stung like crushed red peppers. Eva helped her out of the water and laid her down on the scratchy concrete and they watched a red welt rise on her stomach. 

   “I don’t like looking at sores,” the little Bliss girl said looking down at Agnes.

   Sammy and she were dying to go to the arcades and Ripley’s Believe It or Not across the bridge in Canada. They begged Nick to take them to the odditorium. In the travel brochure it looked like a fallen over Empire State Building with King Kong on the side of it. But he went golfing again the next day and they had to go bowling. She was only seven, but Eva found pint-sized black bowling shoes for her, and a blue marbleized ball she could push at the pins. After twenty minutes Agnes felt like her arm was going to fall off. 

   “One thing about bowling that’s better than golf is you never lose a bowling ball,” Bob Bliss guffawed.  

   They had dinner that night at Michael’s Italian Restaurant. Eva and Nick had liver and onions and they ate all the American cheese and salami from the antipasto plate, and the chicken fingers, hot dogs, and French fries, too, except for the slices of them Sammy tested for floatability in his glass of Sprite. Agnes didn’t drink soda, but Eva let Sammy have his because he liked the lime flavor.

   “Taste its tingling tartness,” he said, slurping it up his straw.

   “Our little bub is starting to tingle. Is there really no pick-me-up in that?” Agnes asked her mother.

   The next morning Eva put out a bread pan of congealed scrapple she had brought with her, slicing it into squares, and frying it on the hot plate in their room.  She made it from pork scraps, everything but the oink, she said, with cornmeal, and mixed in spices. 

   Nick called Eva’s scrapple pon haus. It was a salty meat cracker. “Shoofly pie and apple pandowdy,” he sang, standing next to Eva as she mixed in scrambled eggs and ketchup. “Makes your eyes light up, your tummy says howdy, makes the sun come out, when heavens are cloudy.”

   Perched on the top deck of the Maid of the Mist later that afternoon they set sail for the Horseshoe Falls. Sammy and Agnes hung on the rail at the front of the boat, their faces wet in the swell and noise. Agnes thought about Moe singing his Niagara Falls song in the Three Stooges movies Sammy and she watched Saturday mornings.

   “Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch,” Moe purred, leaning away from Larry, looking sideways at Curly, his eyes slits of mischief and mayhem.

   Everybody on the boat was wearing a blue rain poncho just like everybody else. Even though it was a sunny day they were being rained on. When the boat ricocheted turning in the turmoil at the edge of the falls, Agnes mixed up Mrs. Bliss and Eva, grabbing the wrong hand, Eva snatching at her other hand. She was pulled up on her toes between them.

   Eva learned to swim when her mother took her out on Lake Erie and threw her off their rowboat. But they didn’t have a boat, so Agnes didn’t know how to swim, only paddle like a dog. Eva never taught her how and Nick was too busy to take her to the city pool.

   Afterwards, Nick picked them up at the dock, they stopped at HoJo’s for a dinner of beans and sweet brown bread, and drove straight home, the sun sinking into the twilight ahead of them.

   While Sammy napped with his head lolling in her lap, she looked at her leather moccasin change purse. The Shoshone Indians had sewed it. It was studded with green, red, and pink glass seed beads. Marcia her best friend brought back souvenirs from her family vacations, the change purse from Yellowstone, a gold-trimmed Ghost Town cowboy hat from Lake George, and a “Don’t Mess with Texas” t-shirt from the Alamo. 

   Five years later coming home from Fredericksburg from their second family vacation Agnes kept her eyes down while Sammy stared at his reflection in the back-door window. Their parents were at it again, cutting and slashing each other up all the way home while Sammy and she fidgeted in the back seat.

   “I give you cash, so when I say don’t use the credit card, I mean don’t use the credit card,” Nick insisted.

   “But you don’t give me enough cash,” Eva told him.

   “That’s what I give you the credit card for,” he told her.

   “But you’re telling me not to use the credit card, to wait until you give me cash, which you don’t do,” she said.

   They argued and fought about money from Hagerstown to Youngstown, loud and mean, until they finally ran out of steam. Later, after nightfall and a gas station stop, Nick started up again. He laid down the law and insisted she promise to never use the credit card. He said she was ruining them by spending all the family money, and their nest egg, too. Sammy and Agnes didn’t know what that was and didn’t ask.

   “I’ll just charge it,” was one of Eva’s favorite things to say as she slid her Diner’s Club card out of her purse.

   “Doesn’t that sound weird to you?” she asked, twisting across the car seat towards the children. “He wants me to put food on the table, clothes on your back, and fill up the piggybank with money he never gives us. What do you think about that?”

   Nick said people were putting things into head, and Eva said her head would be empty as pie in the sky if it wasn’t for her friends and college professors.

   Agnes stared at the change purse she had filled with pebbles from the Fredericksburg battlefields. The closer they got to home the more Eva and Nick argued. He said he brought home the bacon. She said he had bacon for brains. Every twenty thirty miles he threatened to throw her out of the car. 

   “Get out of the car or I’ll throw you out” he yelled, mashing down on the gas pedal, even though they were already going faster than all the other cars. But he didn’t throw her out. When they got home, he slept on the sofa downstairs for a week until he made up with Eva, but they were never the same again

   Eva started taking classes at the college downtown when Agnes was eight years old. Nick didn’t want her going to Cleveland State University, and he didn’t want her going downtown, where the school was, even though he worked near downtown and ate lunch there every day.

   “I don’t like you going downtown,” he said.

   “What about you?”

   “That’s different.”

   Eva and Agnes went downtown every week, Tuesdays and Thursdays for Agnes’s ballet lessons, and Wednesdays for white gloves and party manners classes at Higbee’s. Sometimes they stopped at the Hippodrome, where there was a movie house, and said hello to Vince. He had an office next to the poolroom in the basement. Eva explained he was the man in charge. He wore a brown suit and always gave them something to drink, ice water for Agnes, and something in a fancy glass for Eva.

   Afterwards they stayed and saw a movie with the free tickets Vince gave them. They saw “Jaws” and “The Sting” and “Live and Let Die.” Agnes loved the big screen. She loved Roger Moore.

   Nick and Eva loved each other once, but it had drained away. One night at dinner they got into an argument. Eva bolted from the table and went upstairs. Nick followed her. Sammy and Agnes could hear them in their bedroom, screaming at each other in foreign languages. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Eva came running down and ran to Anna MacAulay’s house. Nick came downstairs after she was gone and told them everything was all right. He sat by the back window the rest of the night and stared into the ravine.

   When they went upstairs, they looked in the bedroom and saw a hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. They found out later he had thrown it at her but missed. It lay on the floor until the next day when Eva came home. She cleaned up the dinner table, did the dishes, and put the potato masher away. 

   Anna came over the next day when Nick was at work. Eva packed a suitcase and told them she would be gone for a few days. She took them into the kitchen and showed them the food she had prepared in casserole dishes and explained how to heat it up. Agnes had a hollow leg in those days and could eat as much as she wanted and never gain weight.

   “I’ll be back Monday,” Eva said.

   But she didn’t come back Monday, or the rest of the next week. She finally came back two weeks later, on a Tuesday, just after Agnes had gotten home from school.

   “Mom, we’re almost out of food,” she said.

   They found out she wasn’t ever coming back when she took them to Helen Hutchley’s for ice cream. They sat in a booth in the back. Agnes had strawberry swirl on a plate, Sammy had tin roof in a cone, and Eva had two scoops of butterscotch in a cup. She told them things weren’t going good at home, which they knew, and then she said she was leaving Nick for good and moving downtown. 

   “How can you do that to him?” Agnes asked, even though she didn’t like her father as much as she did her mother, who she loved more than anything. Sammy put his cone of tin roof down on a napkin and wrapped his short arms around her.

   “Whatever you want to do, mom, whatever you think is best,” he said. 

   But Agnes was mad and started to cry. “Finish your ice cream, peanut,” Eva said, so she did, before it melted.

   They lived with Nick for a year after Eva left, but afterwards moved downtown with her. It was hard at home. Agnes never had to do anything when the family was together. Eva had done everything, so it was a chore for her to do anything. She tried cleaning and cooking but it was a rough go. She couldn’t keep up at school. Sometimes she sat inside her closet in the middle of the day, hiding. She was bitter that her father never helped her, either. He was always gone, no matter what happened.

   After they moved away, and moved into a new modern apartment building, the Park Centre on Superior Ave., she only ever had to help her mother with the dishes. It was Sammy and Agnes and Eva, the Three Musketeers again. Nick had never been one of the Musketeers. He was never going to be one.

   Agnes did better in school. She made new friends. She didn’t sit in closets anymore

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street and Made in Cleveland To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”