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?”
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 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.”