Throne of Blood

By Ed Staskus

   Little Italy was a fifteen-minute drive from the Central Station. Frank Gwozdz drove slightly under the speed limit and didn’t try to time the lights. It took them twenty minutes. He parked at the intersection of Euclid Ave. and Ford Dr. on the border of city life and Case Western Reserve University. Downtown was its own world. The school was its own world. Little Italy was up Mayfield Rd. It was its own world, too.

   “We’ll leave the car here,” Frank said. “We can walk the rest of the way.”

   “No respect for the law where we’re going?” Tyrone Walker asked.

   “Let’s just say it’s better to leave the car here where the school kids are,” Frank said.

   They walked to Corbo’s Dolceria on Mayfield Rd. at the corner of Murray Hill Rd. After sitting down at one of a handful of small tables in the front, Frank ordered a caffe normale and Tyrone ordered a coffee with cream and sugar.

   “Do you want to try a cappuccino instead?” Frank asked.

   “Whatever that is, no,” Tyrone said.

   Frank ordered a cassata for himself and another one for Tyrone.

   “Do you want it the Sicilian way or the American way?”

   “What’s the difference?”

   “The Sicilian way is with cannoli filling and maraschino cherries. The American way is with fresh strawberries and custard.”

   “I’ll take mine the American way.”

   “Suit yourself,” Frank said, ordering the Sicilian way for himself. Antoinette Corbo, who owned the bakery with her husband Joe, brought them their coffees and cassata cakes. She gave Tyrone a sidelong glance. 

   “Did you know the macaroni machine was invented in this neighborhood 70 years ago?” Frank asked Tyrone.

   “No, I didn’t know. I don’t know anything about this neighborhood.” 

   “It’s kind of like an Italian hill town,” Frank said. “Cleveland is down there and Cleveland Hts. is up there at the top of Mayfield Rd. It’s been here nearly a hundred years. Most of the first immigrants, who were from around Naples, worked at nearby marble works. They were stone cutters. Their women went into the garment trades, mostly lacework and embroidery.”

   “Why are we here?” Tyrone asked.

   “We’re here for you to see the neighborhood,” Frank said.

   “Is this the hot bed of dynamite?”

   “This is one side of the bed. The other side of the bed is the Celtic Club.”

   “I’ve been boning up on the files.”

   “Not here, not now,” Frank said. “After we finish our drinks we can take in the sights and sounds and then walk up to the cemetery. We can talk there. The walls have ears here. The dead don’t care there.”

   “What cemetery?”

   “Lakeview Cemetery. You can’t see it from here, but we’re sitting right next to it. That why all the Italian stone masons came here in the first place.”

   After finishing their cups of coffee Frank and Tyrone walked two blocks down the hill to the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church. It was a Baroque-style building. The house of worship stood four-square on the incline of the street.

   “The dagos weren’t here but a few years before they started building this church,” Frank said.

   “Don’t call them dagos,” Tyrone said.

   “I agreed to not call you a Negro,” Frank said. “That’s all the agreeing I’m going to do for one day.”

   “All right then,” Tyrone said under his breath.

   “Where was I?”

   “Christian charity,” Tyrone said.

   “I didn’t agree to listen to wisecracks, either.” 

   “All right,” Tyrone said under his breath again. Frank was his partner but partner or not, he was still his superior officer. There was no point in making an enemy of him his first day on the job. That could wait for later. He followed Frank up one of the flights of concrete stairs to the double front doors. There were two large arched windows above the doors. There were statues of saints at the top of the façade. A domed bell and clock tower anchored the eastern corner of the church. There was a parochial school in the back run by nuns of Maestre Pie Filippini. Boys and girls were forbidden giving them any lip. The nuns were not above giving them a hard crack. Their parents did worse than that whenever they heard excuses from their children about their misbehavior in school.

   “Since all the Italians back in the day here were stone cutters, like you said, how come this church is built of brick?” Tyrone asked.

   “The foundation is stone,” Frank said.

   “I guess that’s good enough,” Tyrone said.

   “Are you a church-goer?” Frank asked as they stepped inside.

   “Yes, but Baptist, not Roman,” Tyrone said. “How about you?”

   “Not anymore.”

   They went inside. It was quiet as a moonbeam. The church was empty. The sanctuary was brightly colored, but the nave was musty. It felt like a tomb. The police detectives looked around. Frank spoke low and slow.

   “This where the dagos get baptized, get married, and get buried,” he said. “We are always here for the funerals, to make sure whoever is in the casket is the man we won’t miss seeing, making sure he’s really dead, and check out what other hoodlums are in the crowd.”   

   “Do you take pictures of them?”

   “No, we show some respect when we’re here. Beside, we know who’s who.”

   “It sounds like routine enough work.”

   “It’s not the kind of work you’re going to be doing anytime soon, not with your face.”

   “My badge is the same color as everybody else’s,” Tyrone said.

   “The men we’re talking about don’t have any respect for badges, no matter what color they are. They have even less respect for black men carrying badges.”   

   Back on Mayfield Rd. they went across the street again. Frank slipped back into Corbo’s and came out with a cold bottle of San Pellegrino. He looked  back at the church. “They have a weekend here called the ‘The Feast of the Assumption’ every summer. It’s some kind of fundraiser. They hoist the Virgin Mary up on a platform, march her around, and everybody pins dollar bills on her. There are so many people nobody can move.”

   They went up the hill. They stopped when they got to the New Mayfield Repertory Cinema. “Opening Soon – Classic and Foreign Films” an a-frame sidewalk sign announced. “It’s some Jew who lost his job teaching English out in the suburbs,” Frank said pointing at the sign. “He got a year’s pay in the downsize and is re-opening this place. He thinks between the arty college crowd down on Euclid Ave. and the grab bag hippies up on Coventry Rd. he can turn a hobby into a business.” 

   Tyrone wanted to say something about calling Jews Jews but wasn’t sure what to say. It was dawning on him that Frank was less mean mouthed than missing a sense of properness. He wasn’t a babe in the woods by any means but for a big city cop he was somehow more country than big city. He was like white men in Alabama who couldn’t help themselves. A glass encased poster for the opening movie said “La Strada.” It was an Italian movie with Anthony Quin and Richard Basehart in it. Anthony Quinn looked musclebound. Richard Basehart was wearing angel wings and walking a tightrope. The love interest was somebody by the name of Giulietta Masina. She wore a bowler hat and had a clown’s dot on the tip of her nose. She didn’t look like any leading lady Tyrone had ever seen. The director was somebody by the name of Federico Fellini. Tyrone had never heard of him.

   “The funny thing about it is, he had to talk to Blackie first about getting this place,” Frank said.

   “Who’s that?” Tyrone asked. 

   “That’s Jim Licavoli, one of the mob bosses here. They had lunch together and he finally gave the Jew his blessing to lease the Mayfield, even though he didn’t have any ownership in it. It used to be a vaudeville theater that closed six or seven years ago. The way Blackie looked at it, strippers were OK but foreign movies were immoral.”

   “Why do you call him Blackie? His name came up in a file, but it said he’s called Jack White.”

   “He’s almost as dark as you, which is why we call him Blackie. He calls himself Jack White, God knows why. We never call him by that name.”

   “How do you know they had lunch together?”

   “We were nearby and heard the whole thing, although it was more a waste of time than anything else. The Jew had curly hair and was sincere as Shirley Temple. He wouldn’t stop talking about how much he loved movies. We thought he was a faggot. I think Blackie gave him his blessing just to get rid of him.”

   “You go to the movies?” Tyrone asked.

   “Not since I was in the academy,” Frank said. “’The Music Man’ might have been the last movie I saw.”

   “What do you do to relax?”

   “Fight with my wife,” Frank said.

   “She can’t be all bad.”

   “She comes the closest.”

   “That’s too bad.” 

   “Yeah, it’s too bad.”

   They continued walking up Mayfield Rd. When they got to E. 126th St. they turned left. At a dead-end past half-a-dozen houses they walked through a line of trees into the cemetery. Frank led the way, zig zagging to the James Garfield Monument.

   “It’s a tragedy what happened to him,” Frank said.

   “It’s a tragedy any time somebody gets shot, president or no president” Tyrone said.

   “No, I mean it’s too bad about how he died. He had the best doctors in the country, but they didn’t believe in disinfecting their hands and instruments. So, he didn’t die of the gunshot wound. He died of infection. He had only been president four months. He was six feet tall and had been a two-star general. It took him almost three months to die.”

   They stopped to look at John D. Rockefeller’s grave, but Tyrone didn’t want to stay. “He was the richest man in the world, selling his black gold, but he wouldn’t give the black man a chance. His kids did better later, but not John D. He was a son-of-a-bitch.”

   They crossed the cemetery’s Hillside Rd. before coming to the Haserot Angel.

   “What is that?” Tyrone asked looking at it. It was a life-sized bronze angel sitting on a marble gravestone. She held an extinguished torch upside down. Her wings were outstretched. She seemed to be crying black tears.

   “They call it ‘The Angel of Death Victorious’ because of the torch that is out,” Frank said. “Some people call it the weeping angel because it looks like she’s crying. It was put up about fifty years ago by a local man who made his fortune in canned goods.” The name ‘Haserot’ was chiseled into the base of the gravestone. “The man who sculpted it is buried in this same boneyard. Lots of people say this place is haunted, especially this spot right here.”

   They heard a cough and rustling behind the angel. There was a bad smell in the air. Frank put a finger to his lips and signaled Tyrone to step back. Tyrone slipped his Colt into his hand with the barrel pointing to the ground. Frank stepped to the side of the monument. The angel stayed where it was, looking deadpan.

   “All right, come out of there, with your hands where we can see them.”

   What stumbled out from behind the marble angel was a small swarthy man who reeked of booze. There was a pint bottle of it peeking out from his back pocket. It was emptier than fuller. He slapped dirt off his hands and shrugged loose grass off his shoulders. One of his shoes was untied. His shirt was checked, and his eyes were fly belly blue. His zipper sagged at the crotch of his pants. All of him smelled worse the closer he got to them.

   “That’s close enough,” Frank said. “What are you doing here?”

   “Visiting old friends,” the man said.

   “Let me introduce you to Joey Bag of Donuts, one of the bomb makers for the dagos,” Frank said to Tyrone, pointing to the man. “Does Danny Greene know you’re here? He might show up with a shovel.”

    “It takes an earlier bird than that dumb-ass paddy to get the better of a worm like me,” Joey said smiling slyly.

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.”


Head Over Heels

By Ed Staskus

   “The end is always near,” Greg Smith said. I called him Jonesy for fun, even though he didn’t think it was funny. “I dislike glibness,” he said like a grade school teacher. His hands were free and easy on the steering wheel. He was driving well enough to keep us on the road, but his eyes were pinwheels. The magic mushroom he had popped into his mouth a half hour earlier was working its magic. I couldn’t tell him to slow down because he was driving slower than the oldest slowest man in the world. I reached for the seatbelt, anyway. When I did I found out Greg’s top drop Chevy Impala SS didn’t have seatbelts. 

   SS stood for Super Sport. There was nothing super about the car anymore, which came off the line in 1961, except for the engine. It was still super when it had to be. The rocker panels were rusting out, the front of the hood was dented, and the tires were bald as baloney skins. The car was Roman Red on the outside while the interior was scuffed black leather. I reached for the grab bar attached to the padded dashboard.

   “Did you know this car was built by union labor right here in the USA?” he asked, apropos of the Jap and German cars we had been seeing here and there.

   “No, I didn’t know that,” I said.

   “It’s got a V-8 engine. One of my relatives might have built it.”

   “Is that right? By the way, what do you mean the end is always near?”

   “Like they say,” he said, “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”

   At the moment the Chevy was running on V-1 and there were none of Greg’s car-making relatives in sight. What was in sight was the future. There was a flashing red light behind us. It was the kind of light that always looks final. It gave me the blues. The Meigs County cop didn’t have any trouble getting on our tail. He had trouble pulling us over, however, even though the road was straight as a preacher. The manual steering took more than five turns of the steering wheel to go from lock to lock. In the state he was in it took Greg a few minutes and a mile-or-so to master the mechanics of pulling off onto the shoulder.

   The policeman didn’t bother asking for Greg’s driver’s license. “Step out of the car and let me smell your breath, son,” he said.

    Greg exhaled in his direction.

   “You smell all right,” the policeman said. “It don’t seem like you been drinking or puffing on stinkweed.” The car had a vacuum powered ash tray that sucked ashes to a container in the trunk. “Why are you going so slow when you got that power horse under the hood?”

   “I know this road doesn’t go anywhere but I’m looking for the end of it,” Greg said. “I don’t want to miss it.” The Meigs County cop wasn’t fazed by what Greg said. “It don’t go nowhere but it always brings you back again,” he said. Greg looked flummoxed for a minute. The policeman looked the Impala up and down. “This is the car the Beach Boys wrote a song about, son.”

   The song was a big hit in its day. “Nobody can catch her, nothing can touch my 409, giddy up, giddy up, my four speed dual quad 409,” Brian Wilson sang in his big falsetto while the rest of the boys layered the harmonies. The fired-up 409 was fitted with a 4-barrel carburetor and a solid lifter camshaft. The pistons were made from forged aluminum. The heads and engine block were made from cast-iron.

   “Those were the days, boys. Make no mistake, that Impala is a real fine car. Try to put some giddy up into your driving. And keep it on the yellow line.” He got back into his black and white Dodge Coronet police car and u-turned around going the other way. He went away straight as an arrow.

   I was along for the ride on Greg’s ride that day. I was spending the spring summer and fall in a place called Carpenter living with Virginia Sustarsic in an abandoned general store. She wasn’t my girlfriend, but we got along, even though she was a dyed in the wool hippie and I wasn’t. She rolled her homegrown delicately and deliberately. We kept two goats, gleaned plenty of food, and brewed our own beer. A kitten made us his crash pad. The town wasn’t a town so much as a whistle stop, even though the railroad had long since abandoned the place. There were fewer than a dozen residents, including us. There were dust balls in all the corners. Every star in the universe twinkled in the nighttime sky.

   Carpenter was in Meigs County. It was named after Return Meigs, Jr., who was the fourth governor of Ohio. The county is on the Appalachian Plateau in the southeast corner of the state. The Shade River and Leading Creek drain into the Ohio River. Leading Creek ran right through Carpenter. In the 1970s the county’s population was less than 20,000. As far as I could tell there were no Asians, Native Americans, or African Americans. There were hillbilly highways as far as the eye could see.

   Greg was a friend of John McGraw’s, who was Virginia’s on-again off-again boyfriend back home. They both lived on the bohemian near east side of downtown, near Cleveland State University. John was a part-time writer and drank booze right from the bottle. Greg came from a more polite class and drank from a glass. He and John had planned on visiting Carpenter together, but at the last minute John bowed out. Greg came anyway, cruising all the way from one end of the state to the other in his big red Chevy.

   Virginia dressed like it was still the Summer of Love while John dressed like the Age of Beatniks had never ended. Greg wasn’t any better off than them, living half on and half off the American Dream, but he dressed like a preppy. He read the classics. He was studying Latin so he could read Ovid and Seneca in the original. Nobody ever suspected he kept magic mushrooms in his wallet.

   Something came over Greg the minute the Meigs County cop was out of sight. He fired up the Impala. He spun gravel getting back on the asphalt. The next minute we were doing eighty in a forty. The Doobie Brothers came on the radio belting out ‘Rockin’ Down the Highway.’ I took a peek in the rearview. There was no hot potato behind us. I looked through the windshield at what was in front of us. All the danger was ahead.

   “We should maybe slow down,” I suggested as loud as I could yell. 

   The Impala was a four on the floor. She wasn’t good on gas and burned some oil. Greg picked up speed. We were doing a hundred in no time. There were no more gears to shift up into. His eyes weren’t pinwheels anymore. They glinted like icepicks. He leaned over the steering wheel. The car wasn’t sloppy, nor was Greg’s handling of it sloppy, but we were headed for trouble. We were blasting down a back road. It was cracked and rough. Meigs County didn’t have the tax base to keep its roads in any kind of Daytona 500 shape.

    “I’m not asking for a miracle, Lord, just a little bit of luck will do,” I whispered.

   “Every minute counts,” Greg shouted above the wind noise.

   “Keep your eyes on the road,” I shouted back. “You never can tell what’s around the corner.”

   He waved at the outdoors with his left arm. Southeastern Ohio on a sunny day in the summer is beautiful. When we roared around a blind curve there wasn’t anything there, to my relief, until there suddenly was. It was a roadhouse with some cars and pick-ups in the front dirt lot. The sign said Frank’s Roadhouse. There were antlers nailed to the outside wall above the front windows. We pulled in, skidding in three or four different directions. There were half a dozen bungalows in the back.

   Inside there was a bar, a kitchen, some tables, a dance floor, a riser protected by chicken wire, and a pool table. A man and a woman were having mashed potatoes with pulled pork at one of the tables. A bottle of BBQ sauce stood at the ready between their plates. There was some action going on at the pool table but none on the dance floor. Before I knew it Greg had found his own action at the bar, where a cute brunette was sitting, a lowball glass half full of red wine and a paperback book in front of her.

   There was an oblong mirror on the wall behind the bar. It was too smudged to see into. There was a hand-written warning, too. It said, “Don’t eat the big white mint!” I didn’t ask what it meant. I didn’t want to know.

   What’s a simple man to do? I looked around for something to do. I put a dollar on the lip of the pool table marking my turn in line. There were two men playing nine ball. It was the middle of the day on a Thursday. Neither of them was on union soil. Neither of them was being especially efficient. There were seven or eight bottles of Burger Beer on a small round table behind them.

   One of the men looked me up and down. “I’m a pretty big man around these parts,” he said, flashing an ersatz grin. He had sharp teeth. He was shorter than me, but I knew what he meant. “I thought you’d be bigger,” I said. He didn’t laugh. He had the sense of humor of a circus strongman. The other man laughed his head off. My man broke the rack. He was no Minnesota Fats. When my turn came I ran the rack and took my dollar back. I collected a dollar from the local yokel. He tried his luck two more times and paid me two more dollars. He didn’t know, and I didn’t tell him, that I spent more time than I wanted to admit shooting snooker at Joe Tuna’s Pool Hall back in Cleveland.

   I bought them both beers, they clapped me on the back, the circus strongman harder than he needed to, and I went back to the bar, joining Greg and the brunette. He wasn’t paying any attention to her book. He gave me a wink, which meant the main drag from the eye to the heart doesn’t go through the intellect, or words to that effect.

   Her name was Jeannie. She was a third-year student at Ohio University in Athens, 20-some miles to the north of where we were. She was majoring in English. She wasn’t enrolled in classes that summer but had stayed in Athens instead of going home to Cincinnati. She spent her spare time exploring. She had found Frank’s Roadhouse by accident, liked the looks of it, and stopped in for the afternoon.

   “What do you like about this dump?” I asked.

   “It looks real,” she said.

   I was willing to grant her that. When the bartender approached I ordered a Vernors Ginger Soda. Between Greg’s psychedelics and the shot of whiskey in front of him, one of us had to stay sober. “Who is Frank,” I asked the bartender. “There ain’t no Frank, at least not no more,” he said. “What happened to him?” I asked. “Nobody knows,” he said. 

   I reminded Greg we had promised Virginia we would stop at the grocery store in Pomeroy and pick up milk, cheese, and toilet paper. The toilet paper was like gold where we lived. Greg’s eyes had gone soft. He needed reminding. I had to remind him twice. He finally slid off the bar stool glowing like an electric eel.

   Jeannie followed us out to the Impala. “I like your car,” she said. Greg asked her if she wanted a ride back to town. She pointed to a VW Beetle. “Fontasse postem infantem,” she said, jotting her name and phone number down on a  scrap of paper. She pressed it into Greg’s hand. She rose up on her tiptoes and gave him a kiss on the cheek. I never saw a man go head over heels as fast as Greg did that minute.

   Once we were in the car, humming along Route 143 on our way to Pomeroy, I asked him what she had said.

   “Maybe later baby,” he said. “That’s what she said.”

   There was enchantment in his eyes. “Keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel,” I reminded him for the last time. I didn’t have to remind him to keep his hands off the magic mushrooms in his wallet. He was riding high on a different kind of magic. Love may not make the world go round, but it makes the ride worthwhile.

Photograph by Elaine Mayes.

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.”