All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a free-lance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio, on the north side of the Rocky River valley.

Surprise House

By Ed Staskus

   Everything happened when Eva and Nick got out of whack and the adventure rides burned down, although most of it happened before that. It started when Eva, who grew up one of four Lithuanian girls in the family in a two-bedroom house, married Nicolae Goga, a handsome Romanian man. She turned 18 the day of the wedding. He was 28. She made up her own mind about it. They had to elope, crossing the state line, finding a justice of the peace in a used-up roadside Indiana town.    

   Afterwards, the day after the fire, Eva and Sammy and Agnes walked to Euclid Avenue and flagged down a three-wheel bicycle peddling Louie Kaleal’s Checker Bar ice cream. When the black man opened the box on the back of the bike white smoke from dry ice poured out. Agnes made sure she ate all of her ice cream while it was still cold in the sugar cone.

   Two years later on Christmas Eve, while Sammy and she stood on the lip of the front walk, below the light in the window of the upstairs front bedroom, she remembered the night when the Surprise House burned down, and how Sammy and Eva and she looked over the tops of the trees, watching the fire on the far lakeshore.

   They didn’t know what was going up in oily clouds of orange-gray smoke, finding out only the next morning when Eva showed them a front-page photograph about it in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

   Agnes snuck a peek at her mother getting out of the car across the street where she had parked and let them out, walking flatfooted on the icy driveway, and knocking on Anna MacAulay’s side door. She glanced back over her shoulder, waving them towards the house with black shutters and red front door where she and Sammy had grown up. Eva wanted them to talk Nick into giving her a divorce, even after he had said no more than a thousand times. She wanted to marry somebody else, an ex-military policeman from Rochester who was their father now, more-or-less.

   Eva’s grandparents from the old country didn’t approve of Nicolae from the beginning, even though he got medals for shooting Commie’s in Korea. That’s why Eva and Nick had to elope. Grandma and grandpa were stern and unforgiving. When they made tracks out of Lithuania during the war, not dying of bombs bullets hunger exhaustion, they made it. They never talked much about it, about the hardships they faced. They stayed stone-faced about it.

   When they were growing up, Agnes and Sammy didn’t see their grandparents for a long time. They had disowned Eva. Even when they were finally allowed, they hardly ever saw them because they still didn’t want to see their faithless daughter. It didn’t look like their new man was in the running either, even though he was Catholic instead of Lutheran.

   “Come on, bub,” Agnes said, starting up the walk.

   “Don’t call me bub,” Sammy said, slouching behind her with a long face.

   “I told you I don’t like you doing that,” she said, tugging him up hard by the back of the collar.

   “You’re a stick,” he grunted, pulling away.

   “What does that mean?”

   Agnes was upset when she thought of the Surprise House burning down, the signal flags on top of the roof on fire, and sick to her stomach when she remembered not knowing Euclid Beach Park hadn’t closed for the season when she was ten years old but closed for good. She found out the next summer, the summer before the fire, when school let out and Eva told them, and later said they would go to Williamsburg for a family vacation, instead.

   But they didn’t go to Williamsburg, so they never saw the reenactments she heard about from Sandy next door, who had gone there three times, just like they never went back to Euclid Beach Park. They went to Fredericksburg, instead, where Nick played golf at the country club while Sammy and she dragged after Eva sightseeing sunburned Civil War battlefields and staring up at the fancy plaster ceilings of the Kenmore Plantation.

   When Sammy complained the long four-day weekend that his head was hot and his neck hurt, Eva pointed to the plank floor in a dusty corner of the plantation house beneath a high window.

   “Lay down for a few minutes,” she said.

   When Agnes and she got back from the foursquare garden behind the house, he was curled up on his side asleep.

   “Did you know this was George Washington’s older sister’s house?” Agnes said as they walked to the car.

   “She wasn’t older,” he said.

   He ran after mom, reaching for her hand.

   The winter before Sammy was born her mother told Agnes she was making a little friend for her to play with. By the time summer came she was ready to tell her mother he wasn’t what she really wanted.

   “I can’t play with him. Can you take him back?”

   But Eva never did, even though Agnes asked again.

   “I’m hungry. Can’t we go to Williamsburg? I don’t like it here, eating dried strawberries all the time,” Sammy said.

   “Your father told you it’s too far,” Eva said.  

   Agnes remembered thinking, why are we in Fredericksburg? Everybody goes to Williamsburg, not Fredericksburg. Why didn’t we go there?

   Eva was born in Noorkoping, south of Stockholm, after her parents made their getaway from Lithuania. The Germans were invading and since there was Jewish blood in the family, and since everybody knew what the Nazis were doing to Jews, they stepped on the gas. Their grandfather was an import export up-and-comer and had a car. Their grandmother was a high school teacher. They left everything behind, drove to Estonia in the middle of the retreating Red Army, and from there found a boat to Sweden.

   When the family got to America after the war, they first lived in Pittsburgh, but it was too dirty. They had to keep all the windows in the house closed all the time. They moved to Cleveland the next year. Grandpa got a job in the Collinwood Rail Yards and worked days there the rest of his life. Grandma got a job at Stouffers making frozen food and worked nights there the rest of her life.

   One of them was always at home to watch the kids.

   Nick worked for Palmer Bearings, downtown on Prospect Avenue, on the backside of the angle before E. 46th St. He was vice-president of sales, which meant he went to all the steel factories in the Flats and to lunch most days on Short Vincent. When he wasn’t working, he was on golf courses on all three sides of town. He played afternoons with clients and weekends with clubhouse men and his private friends, but not with their neighbors. 

   He said they were different, the neighbors. Eva didn’t know what he meant. He never invited them over for dinner, either.

   By then Eva’s first-born sister was getting to be a big wig around town, but she never invited them over for picnics or holidays. She had grandpa and grandma blood in her. They had four children, all around Agnes and Sammy’s age. They hardly ever saw them. One day Eva went to their house to pick something up and she took Sammy and Agnes with her in their Mercedes convertible. It was a fun ride, the ragtop down. Their aunt made them wait in the garage, shuffling in the half-light, while she found whatever she was looking for. It turned out to be a Lithuanian relic she wanted Eva to deliver to an old lady who lived near them.

   When Agnes saw her at the door, Eva handing her the box, she thought, “She’s like a relic herself, why does she need more old stuff?”

   Eva got married on the first day she could, the year after she was Miss Boat Show of 1959. She and Nick met on the main stage of the Karamu House, auditioning for an amateur production of a play called “The Glass Menagerie.” They didn’t get the parts but got each other.

   She got hitched because her three sisters slept in the second bedroom while she slept on a daybed in the kitchen, because her mother was always telling her what to do, and because she was a free spirit. She had to get away from it all. She meant away from her stiff-necked mom and dad and her no bedroom and the old neighborhood, the church, and the community hall where she wasn’t happy anymore.

   Sammy and Agnes hardly knew their grandparents, although they knew a little, about how grandma’s sense of humor was top-secret, and grandpa was missing in action because he worked nights for the New York Central.

   Eva loved Nick the minute they met, and only waited until the day she was one minute older than she had to be to get married. She wanted her own bed in her own room. She wanted her own family.

   Nick’s parents weren’t alive anymore. His father was shot dead by robbers and his mother died after Eva put her foot down and she had to move out of their house to an old folk’s home. They were buried in Woodland Cemetery where Nick left plastic flowers every spring.

   The summer Sammy and Agnes started going to Euclid Beach Park, their grandparents went on vacation, and when no one else could watch their dog, Eva volunteered. She fed watered walked the dog every day. One day her older sister stopped by and when she opened the side door, the dog, surprised, ran out. Eva chased him down the street to Lakeshore Boulevard, but it was too late. A car hit the dog and he died. Her parents didn’t speak to her even more than they hadn’t before that for even longer.

   When they went to Euclid Beach Park, racing down Lakeshore Boulevard since Eva had a lead foot, she dropped them off, and told them exactly when she was going to be back. They were to wait for her just outside the main entrance gate arch, which looked like a gigantic letter H, so she could pick them up without having to get lost in the parking lot.

   The arch was underneath an old dusty giant pin oak tree. They knew it was an oak because acorns littered the grass, and knew it was a pin oak because it had pointy leaves. Sammy said it was five hundred years old, but what did he know?

   Admission into the amusement park was free. They just walked in, like magic. Eva always gave them enough money for fizzy drinks, popcorn balls, and two-dozen rides. She gave them bananas, too.

   “A banana is the best snack,” she said, pushing them down into their pockets with quarters dimes nickels.

   The first thing they did was run through the park to the Rocket Ships. Moving fast through the arch, they could see the tops of the cranes above the shade trees and hear the band organ that was beneath the second-floor platform.

   “Just in case we lose all our money, or something bad happens, this way at least I’ll know I was on my favorite ride,” Sammy always said.

   The Rocket Ships were three shiny aluminum spaceships that flew fifty feet up in the air over Lake Erie as they whirled around a twice high tower. Sammy said it was a great view and cooled you off on hot days, but Agnes wouldn’t ride the silver ships because she heard one of them had broken its support chains once and been hurled into the lake.

   None of the riders was ever seen alive again.

   After Sammy was finished flying around and cooling himself off, they rode the coasters together, starting with the Thriller. At first, Agnes was afraid of them, of the sickening hills and valleys, until the VW bus neighborhood hippie boys took them to the amusement park one afternoon.

   “It’s not what you think, it’s not the giant slide,” they said. “On the slide you can see everything ahead, everything that might happen, and that’s scary. On a roller coaster you never know what’s going to happen next. You can’t see that far ahead. It’s like a Zen pop. It’s the best ride because it’s always right now.”

   The Thriller was an out-and-back coaster with part of it running along Lake Shore Boulevard. They could see the tiny roofs of the cars on the road from the top of the first rise, just before they tipped plunging and screaming. The last hill was so steep they couldn’t help not standing up as they careened down, pressing against the lap bar.

   It was hair-raising because it might crash anytime. Everybody knew so. Coming into the station once the train behind came in too soon and rear-ended the other, and the cargo of boys and girls got banged up. The next day the platform was fixed, and it looked like nothing had happened. Sammy and Agnes found out they stored different shades of secret paint so that when they repaired the coasters and tracks, they could paint them so they all looked worn the same way, and no one could tell that anything bad had ever happened. 

    The more Agnes rode the coasters the more she liked them. They were like the peanut butter maker at Holiday Sands, twisting in the sky but bigger. She loved the sound of the wood trestles groaning and heaving on the turns. Even though she thought the riding might take her somewhere, it only ever took her back to where she started.

   The Racing Coasters were next to the Thriller. They were a double out-and-back, running beside the first leg of the Thriller, and there were two separate continuous tracks, the blue cars racing against the red cars. The ride ended on the other side of the station, everybody screaming their last go-go-go’s as it slowed down.

   The Flying Turns were the highest of the rides. They were scary loose nerve-wracking. The trains were freewheeling. “It’s a coaster without tracks!” Sammy liked to tell anyone who would listen, even though he had to sneak on, since he was smaller than the yardstick beside the gate.

   The cars weren’t attached to the track. The train careened in a bobsled trough, threatening to overturn at any second. There were only three toboggan-like cars for every train and only two rode in any one car, one directly in front of the other, white-knuckling the snap-of-the-whip turns.

   On “Nickel Days” they rode the Tea Cups between turns on the coasters, which were a four-table cup ride, like a Crazy Daisy. They spun in circles and looked like they would slam into each other any minute, but always missed by a sliver. Getting into a teacup one day Sammy found a plastic baggie tucked into the bench seat. A man with a ponytail came back before the ride started and asked if they had found anything.

   “It’s my happy weed,” he said when Sammy handed it to him.

   Walking around the park they munched on Humphrey’s Candy Kiss salt-water taffy and bought pictures of their favorite stars at the movie star photo booth. They yukked it up riding the black-light Laff-in-the-Dark and got soaked to the bone on Over the Falls.

   They steered clear of the Surprise House until the end of the day, not because it was bloodcurdling, which it was, but because of Laffing Sal, right outside the entrance, cackling her face off inside a glass case. Her hips gyrated like a hula hoop and she never stopped her nutty squeaky helter-skelter laughing talking.

   She had blazing red hair and shiny dead eyes in a head that jerked side-to-side back-and-forth. They tried to not look at her bloated painted face. It was too much.

   The front of the Surprise House was painted lime green and purple. It glowed lurid-like in the sun. The sign above the arch framing the doors was yellow with black letters. They had to give seven tickets to the bow-tied operator at the booth. He put the tickets on a conveyor belt that carried them to a chopper that shredded them.

   Once they walked in, through a fog cloud, right away around the corner was a screen door puzzle. Only one of all the doors was really a door and while they searched for it, all the doors banged open and shut so loud all around them it was baffling.

   When they found the right one, they walked into a narrow room full of rock formations and wild animals running up-and-down the rocks. The floor suddenly became a moving floor, zooming up and down and sliding side to side. The wall beside the moving floor was glass and people outside the Surprise House watched and laughed as they struggled to not fall down, much less walk.

   At the far end of the floor was a giant Grandfather Clock. When they got to it a spotted snake sprang at them from cuckoo doors beneath the clock face. Jumping away sideways from the ugly thing they had to run through a rolling barrel to get away.

   Most of the Surprise House was a maze of moving floors and stairways leading to elevated platforms, creaking doors, and dead ends. One room was so weirdly slanted sideways that just standing was all-in-all defying gravity.

   Pitch-black hallways led from one room to the next. Excruciating screams filled the air and loud knocking on the floors and ceiling overhead drummed in the darkness. There were siren whoops and unexpected clangs near and far. Blasts of air from secret holes hit them in the face coming around corners, and they never knew when a wind gust would blow up their shorts from the floor.

   At the end of one passageway were three porky sailor boys with tin whistles in their mouths. When they stepped up to them, they blew their whistles in their faces. When they stopped at a window to see a fireman with a hose, he whirled around and sprayed, except the spray hit the window, not them, jumping back in alarm. At a wishing well when they looked down into the water, they could see themselves as though they were looking at themselves from behind. 

   At the far end was a distortion mirror maze they had to find their way through to get out of the Surprise House. The curved mirrors stretched and squeezed them like screwball bubble gum.

   After all the strange moving floors and dark and noise it was a shock to step through the exit on the quiet side of Laffing Sal and suddenly stand blinking in the sunlight with people strolling by not knowing anything about what they had just been through. Sammy and Agnes were sad and excited at the same time, not sure what to do next.

   When the park announced closing time and everyone was on their way out an army of skunks came waddling up from the beach palisades, hard on their heels, eating the litter and discarded goodies. They threw banana peels at them and watched the skunks drag the peels away. They meowed like cats with sore throats.

   They didn’t know the last time they stumbled out of the Surprise House and tossed their leftovers away as they walked to the arch and Eva’s convertible that it was the last closing time at Euclid Beach Park. They didn’t know Eva was going to leave soon and not come back, either

   She and Nick started arguing when she started going to college. When she got a job, it got worse. After that it never got better.

   “Why do you need to work?” he asked her. “We have enough money. You don’t need to work. Stay home and take care of the family, for Christ’s sake.”

   But Eva was sick of asking him for money all the time, not just for groceries, but for everything, for her clothes, nice things for the house, and just everything. She got sick of him, too, of him always telling her what and what not to do.

   They argued more and more that winter, even in the morning at breakfast and over dinner and late at night when the Sammy and Agnes were supposed to be asleep. One night they had an argument in the living room because Eva had stayed out the day before until four in the morning.

   “We were at Reuben’s house,” she explained. “Nothing happened. I just lost track of time.”

   She meant Reuben Silver, who was the showman at Karamu House, where Nick and Eva had first met. He was a friendly man with a black beard and slicked-back thinning black hair. His wife wore purple turtlenecks and always took Agnes’s hand when she saw her backstage.

   “Nothing went on,” Eva said. “We went to the Playhouse and saw “Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” that’s all, and then we were at their house afterwards, talking.”

   “Gamma Rays? What are you talking about?” Nick went to the movies sometimes, but he didn’t go to theaters anymore. That was all over.

   He thought Eva had done something behind his back. He didn’t say what, although Sammy and Agnes could tell from his face it must have been wrong. When Eva went into the kitchen Nick followed her.

   She stepped into the hall and went up the stairs. They could hear them in their bedroom, screaming at each other in different languages. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Eva came running down the stairs out the front door and 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. He looked unhappy, like he had lost his golf clubs and fancy spiked shoes.

   When they went upstairs, they looked into their parent’s bedroom and saw a hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. They found out later Nick had thrown it at Eva 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. Agnes liked that about her mom, keeping the cleanest house anyone ever saw. She vacuumed twice a day and they could eat off the floor if they wanted to.

   Their father said he was going to call Sears about fixing the bedroom wall, but he never did. He just left the hole to fester. Maybe it was like their marriage by then, not worth fixing.

   Anna MacAulay came over the next day when Nick was at work. She always just walked into the house. Nick hated that. She and Eva talked for a long time. When they were done talking Eva packed her bags.

   Looking up across the sidewalk at their house on Christmas Eve, Agnes thought she had probably known all along that her mother was going to leave her father, but back then surprises still upset her. Eva was going to marry the new man from Rochester, one way or another. There was no surprise about that. Agnes was going to do her best to help out.

   “If I can get my divorce,” Eva said, “we’ll have enough money to send you to Germany when you’re done with junior high.” Agnes hated her junior high and was sure she would hate high school. One of her aunts had gone to Vasario 16-osios, the Lithuanian high school in Germany.

   “You can stay summers with your grandfather’s sister in Diepholz,” her aunt Banga, Eva’s youngest sister, said. “She enjoys bringing food to the table. She’ll fatten you up a little. You can go to Italy with your friends. You’ll love it. When you come back, I’ll take you to Dainava.”

   She could go to summer camp the talk of the town, not a nobody, not like the first time, when they told her to leave. Agnes knew she would keep her word. She was her favorite aunt. She was her mother’s favorite sister. Banga means “Little Wave,” washing over you but not knocking you down.

   Going to school in Europe would be the kind of surprise Agnes could handle.

   “Come on, bub,” she said, taking Sammy’s hand when he reached for hers, and they started up the icy chancy sidewalk.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Champing at the Bit

By Ed Staskus

  Vicki, Bettina, and Dottie plunked down their fifteen cents apiece at a NYCTA booth and walked down the stairs. Dottie stopped to look at a yellow sign trimmed in red on the wall at the entrance to the tunnel.

   “Please cooperate. When in doubt, ask any employee. Help keep the subways clean. Use receptacles for paper. Do not rush. Let ‘em off first. Move away from doors. Keep to the right on stairways. Try to shop between 10 and 4. Always be courteous.”

   “Run!” she suddenly shouted, running up the platform. “It’s one of those air-conditioned cars!” 

   Two months earlier the transit system had rolled out the first experimental air-conditioned cars on the East Side IRT line. They were fitted with deodorizers and filters and piped-in soft music. The temperature was maintained in the mid-70s. Signs on every third window said, “Air-Conditioned Car. Please Keep Windows Closed.”

   They were taking the IND line across the river to Brooklyn, across Gravesend, to the end of the line. When they got off the train they walked, crossed Mermaid Avenue, and hoofed it to Coney Island Beach and the Boardwalk.

    Dottie felt light as lemonade.

   They stopped at the Sodamat on West 15th Street as they strolled on the Boardwalk. “Good Drinks Served Right. Skee Ball 5 cents.” There were prize games, hammer games, rifle ranges, freak shows, and fortune-tellers up and down Coney Island.

   “Look, they have waffles,” said Dottie, pointing to a sign on the front of a counter behind which a man in a white jacket and soda jerk cap was making waffles.

   “I thought you wanted a Nathan’s,” said Vicki.

   “I do, but later,” said Dottie.

   “Did you know hot dogs were invented right here on Coney Island, almost one hundred years ago?” asked Bettina.

   “Not so fast, how could Nathan have done that?” asked Dottie. 

   “It wasn’t Nathan, it was Charley Feltman, who used to boil sausages on a small charcoal stove inside his wagon and then slip them into a roll. He called them red hots at first, but later changed it to hot dogs.”

   “How about some ball hop before we eat?” asked Vicki, pointing into the arcade behind the food counter.

   “My game is stickball,” said Dottie. “Skee ball is for jellyfish. They don’t even play stickball here. They play coop-ball. That’s for jellyfish, too.”

   “Do you only play stickball?” asked Vicki. 

   “Oh, no, we play ringolevio and skelly, too, although some kids call it scummy top. Skelly is fun, but all you’ve got are your chalk and the squares and your caps. Ringolevio is way more fun, we run all over, and there’s a jail, and jailbreaks, and everything.  Chain, chain, double chain, no break away!” 

   “Let’s break the chain and go eat,” said Betty. They ordered waffles.

   “That was the best waffle I ever had,” Dottie said afterwards

    “You had two of them,” said Vicki.

   “She’s a growing girl,” said Betty.

   “Those were the best two waffles I ever had,” said Dottie.

   “Where to now?” asked Betty.

   “I want to jump off the Eiffel Tower!” exclaimed Dottie. 

   The Parachute Jump at Steeplechase Park had been built for the 1939 World’s Fair and later moved to Coney Island. It stood 250 feet high, was open-frame, and everyone called it the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn. Twelve cantilevered steel arms sprouted from the top of the tower, eleven of them supporting two-person canvas seats and parachutes. The riders were belted down, hoisted to the top, then released into freefall, caught by the parachute, and floated to the ground. Shock absorbers were built into the seats, just in case.

   “I’m not going up on that thing,” said Betty.

   “Do you remember the parachute wedding?” Vicki asked her.

   “No, I never heard of it.”

   “A couple got married up there. The minister was in the seat next to them and the whole wedding party was on the rest of the seats. When the ceremony was over the married couple parachuted down first, and everyone else followed them, except for the minister. The cables on his seat got tangled and he was up there for more than five hours before firemen could get him down. The tower is right on the ocean, and it was windy, and he got sick as a dog, puking on the wedding party.”

   “That cinches it,” said Betty.

   “You and me both, sister,” said Vicki. “Time to plow back through the crowd.”

   “Why do they call it Coney Island?” asked Dottie, taking a last longing look up at the parachute ride she wasn’t going to ride.

   “It’s because of the Dutch,” said Bettina. “When they were here, maybe three hundred years ago, there were lots of rabbits in the dunes, so they called it Konijnen Eiland, which means Rabbit Island, which became Coney Island after the English took over.”

   “How did they take over?”

   “Somebody always takes over,” said Betty.

   “Why does somebody always take over?”

   “It’s the way of the world, child,” said Betty.

   “I want to go on the Wonder Wheel,” said Dottie. 

   “I think we’re up for that,” said Vicki.

   The Wonder Wheel at Luna Park was a Ferris wheel and a Chute-the Chutes and a slow-moving roller coaster all in one. It was once called Dip-the-Dip. Some of the cars were stationary, but more than less of them moved back and forth along tracks between a big outer wheel and a smaller inner wheel as all of it rotated.   

   They walked past an eight-foot high neon sign spelling out “Wonder Wheel.” Through the middle of the sign was an arrow blinking and pointing to the ride. “Thrills!” it said.

   Dottie sat between Vicki and Betty in one of the sliding cars. 

   “You can see Manhattan,” said Vicki when it was their turn at the top of the 150-foot-tall big wheel and it stopped for a few seconds.

  “Look, you can see the Rockaway,” said Betty.

   “It takes you low and it takes you high,” said Vicki.

   “When you reach the top it’s like you can touch the sky,” said Dottie. “You can see the whole world.”

   “One minute you’re on top, the next minute down you go,” said Betty. “I say, stay in your seat, it’s going to get bumpy, enjoy the ride.”

   “Top of the world, ma, top of the world,” said Vicki like a crazy person, bulging her eyeballs and throwing her arms up.

    Betty laughed.

   “One day he’s a mama’s boy mad dog killer and the next day, older and wiser, he’s Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

   Dottie wondered, what are they talking about? 

   The Wonder Wheel shuddered and started down again.

   “Can we go fast now?” Dottie asked when they were on the ground.

   The Cyclone was in Astroland at the corner of Surf Avenue and West 10th Street, almost 2700 feet long, with six fan turns and twelve drops. The lift hill was 85 feet high. Six years earlier a man who hadn’t spoken in fourteen years, riding a roller coaster for the first time, screamed while going down the first drop.

   “I feel sick,” he muttered when the train returned to the station. He dropped to the ground in a dead faint after realizing he had spoken.

   Dottie peeked over the front edge of the front car down at the track of the Cyclone as the train creaked to the top of the lift hill, where it was going to curve over the rails and hurtle down. Vicki and Betty were in the car behind her, after she had pleaded with them to go on the coaster, and she was with her new friend, Ronald, a boy her age whose parents had stayed behind on the platform. 

   “I have a friend who counts the seconds until the ride is over,” said Ronnie. 

   “Why does he do that?”

   “He can’t stand it.”

   “What’s the point of riding it in the first place?” 

   “I dunno,” said Ronnie. “Every time I ask if he wants to go with me, he says, sure, as soon as I’ve lost my mind, but he always goes anyway.”

   “The Cyclone is for when you want to be scared and thrilled all at the same time. Maybe he should stick to the merry-go-round.”

   “Yeah,” said Ronnie. “You don’t want to ride the roller coaster when you’ve got diarrhea.”

   “No way,” said Dottie, making sure their buzz bar was locked in place.

   “Did you hear about that girl who got hit in the face by a pigeon and broke her nose going down this hill?” asked Ronnie.

   “No!” said Dottie.

   “It was alright,” he said. “She had some Kleenex and stuffed it up her nose nostrils to keep the blood out of her eyes.”

   “Yikes!” said Dottie, as the Cyclone shimmied shook roared down the other side of the lift hill. “If that happens, I don’t have any Kleenex.”

   They laughed up and down the trick hill, leaned into the banked turns that twisted and tipped the train, ducked beneath the head-choppers, and inside of two minutes pulled back into the station where everybody clambered off. 

   “My legs feel like fried bacon,” said Ronnie.

   “Yeah, that was the mostest fun,” said Dottie.

   “Bye.”

   “Bye to you, too.”

   “That was sketchy,” said Vicki.

   “Shoot low, they’re sending Shetlands,” said Betty. “Did you feel that tower sway when we got to the top?”

   “You bet I did.”

   “I’m hungry,” said Dottie.

   “You’re always hungry,” said Bettina. “Doesn’t Stan feed you? Do you have a hollow leg, or what?”

   “So am I, hungry, I mean,” said Vicki.

   “How about a red hot at Nathan’s?” Betty suggested. 

   “Yippee ki yay!” exclaimed Dottie.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

My Two Best Friends

By Ed Staskus

   When Nick Goga met Wayne Biddell, the burly man had two bum knees, although they were the least of his problems. He had been a Cleveland Police Department detective for fifteen years and a uniformed officer before that. He told Nick in all that time he only drew his service handgun three times and never once fired it. He lived with the same bullets on his belt all his life.

   He had bad knees from playing handball at the downtown YMCA.

   “I probably never should have played that game, but I loved it, although it and my job cost me my legs and my marriage,” he said.

   Nick met Wayne after his marriage fell apart and he lost his house, which was a lot like what happened to Wayne. They met on the grassy courtyard of the apartment complex on East 222nd Street in Euclid, where they both lived, when Nick saw him messing around with his golf clubs on a warm dry spring day. The ex-cop was retired and living alone.

  Nick wasn’t retired, not exactly, but he lived alone, too.

  They played golf together for the next three years. He was the best friend Nick ever had, even more than Mattie Haylor, even though Mattie ended up doing more for him later on. Wayne was affable and did many things for him that he never even asked him to do. After Nick moved to Lakewood, Wayne got him a car, convincing his lady friend to give him the old Ford she was planning on trading in when she got her new car. He later mailed him a check for five hundred dollars, to live on, knowing Nick was strapped, knowing his ex-wife had taken him to the cleaners.

   It wasn’t his fault the Ford’s transmission blew out, stranding him in Tremont, and his son-in-law wouldn’t lend him the money to get it repaired.

   “Fixing it will cost more than the car is worth,” he said. “You’re better off sending it to the scrap yard.”

   He knew Jack was right but knew he didn’t want to lend him even one dollar, at the same time. He could tell Jack didn’t trust him, even though he had always been an honest man. All his friends said so. He wasn’t sure what his daughter Agnes thought, whether she was just backing her husband up, or not.

   He junked the heap and got a hundred bucks for it.

   After that he had to walk to the Lakewood Library and McDonald’s, the grocery and the bus stop all that winter, the winter Wayne blew his head off, and all the next spring until Mattie died and left him a hundred thousand dollars, after all was said and done. The trust sold Mattie’s house and old furniture and threw everything else out. He was able to buy a new car, a two-door Suzuki that never ran out of gas.

   When his wife Eva walked out on him, and took all the money out of their joint accounts, swooping up the kids and talking him into taking a second mortgage out on their house so she and her new boyfriend from Rochester could open a restaurant, and Palmer Bearings went bankrupt, putting him out of the only work he had ever done since getting shipped home from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, it was then he played more golf than he ever played in his life, and waited to be thrown out of his house.

   When he finally got the boot and moved out of Indian Hills, down the hill to Euclid, he was in his late 50s.

   “I was hanging on, waiting to get to 62, so I could get my Social Security early. I needed the money bad. When I worked for Palmer Bearings, they gave me a new car every year, with an expense account no one ever questioned, and I was in line to be made a vice-president, up to the day the Shylocks closed the doors without a word of warning to me.”

   Nick had a chip on his shoulder about it. He was aggrieved and bitter. Sometimes he went for a walk to cool down.

   “There were years when I almost always had a thousand dollars, or more, in cash in my pockets every day. Those days were gone. I had made the day for the Jews who ran the business. In the end they took it all away from me, just like my wife did. Eva broke me down inside.”

   When he moved to Euclid he moved into a no-rent apartment, an apartment that Angelo, the maintenance man at the apartment complex, who he met through Stan, a Pole he often had breakfast with at the railroad car diner on Green Road, not far from the giant Fisher Body and TRW plants, got for him when he was hired to be his helper.

   “Stan and I talked all the time over cups of coffee. We got to be good friends, even though he was a thick Polack. He was a hell of a bowler. He was good enough to bowl in tournaments, and I went to a couple of them to watch him. It was hop, skip, and glide to the line. He was always pounding out strikes. It got old, though, and I stopped going, except when the beer and pretzels were free.”

   Angelo was from Texas and was a Korean War veteran, like Nick. He talked the man who was the boss, who owned the apartment complex, into hiring him. Nick didn’t like the man, didn’t like his shrewd face, but he kept his mouth shut.

   “He was Hebrew, and that’s who runs the country. They run the money, which means they run everything else, too. They own most of the gold in the world. They marry inside the family, keeping it all together for themselves.”

   He shoveled snow, did some of the gardening, and vacuumed the hallways. He cleaned apartments when they went vacant and got paid extra whenever he had to clean kitchens, scrubbing the stove and emptying out the fridge, throwing away spoiled food. He made a few bucks here and there, one way or another. He stayed quick on the uptake. He kept his head above water.

   The apartment complex had been built during the Second World War for government workers. It was built like a tank, sturdy as a fort. The brown brick buildings were three stories with garages in the back. Fox Avenue intersected the complex and ran all the way to Babbitt Avenue, where there was a golf course. Wayne and he shuttled to it on good days, getting in eighteen holes.

   “He wasn’t any good, and complained about the walking, but we got along. I always went looking for the balls he shanked.”

   Wayne worked part-time at night, in a booth selling betting slips at the Thistledown horse track in North Randall. He was on his own during the day, which was how he and Nick were able to go golfing together whenever Nick was free to go. They went to tournaments in Akron, to watch the professionals. Stan went with them once, but he wasn’t used to hiking more than a bowling lane and got worn out.

   After Nick lost his car Wayne always drove. He had gotten a new dark blue Mercury four-door sedan. “He loved that car and talked his lady friend into getting one, too. That was how I got her old Ford.”

   When he moved to Lakewood, on the west side, to a no-frills apartment across the street from St. Ed’s High School, Wayne visited him a few times, even though he didn’t like the small apartment or the building.

   “It’s a dump,” he said.

    Nick took him to Joe’s Diner for breakfast. “I could tell he was suffering. It wasn’t just his knees. He had prostate cancer and was hurting. It was just a matter of time. I called him on Christmas Eve and wished him happy holidays. He didn’t sound good, but he didn’t sound bad, either. At least, that’s what I thought. I was dead wrong.”

   Wayne’s son was a pre-law student at Miami University. He had tried out for the football team as a walk-on and made the cut. That fall he saw playing time as the team’s back-up quarterback when the starter was injured. “He was a hell of an athlete,” Nick said. He drove up to Euclid from Oxford to see his dad the Christmas weekend. Wayne told him all about his new Mercury.

   “Take my car and give it a little ride,” he said. “I haven’t driven it for a while. It needs to be out on the road.”

   His son got the car and drove it up and down Lakeshore Boulevard. It had snowed overnight, but not much, and what snow there was had been plowed to the side. When he got back, he found his father in bed. Wayne had put a pillow over his head and a gun in his mouth. When he pulled the trigger, it was the first and last time he ever shot a gun at a human being.

   After the funeral Nick hoofed it around Lakewood until summer, when Mattie, his golfing buddy for many years, who was in his 80s, got sick. He was taken to Fairview Hospital, and when there wasn’t anything else the doctors could do, they moved him to the Welsh Home in Rocky River.

   “Mattie was a great guy and great friend of mine, my other best friend for a long time. He was on our golf team in the Cleveland Metropolitan Golf Association. We had about ninety members and most of us were friends. We played golf until it was too cold to walk the courses. After that, any of us who could afford it went south to play. I went to sunny parts of the country to play golf many times, when I was married, in the clover, and even afterwards, until I couldn’t afford to go anymore.”

   Mattie passed away in his sleep and a month after his funeral Nick got a registered letter from a lawyer saying he had been included in the will. “He left me his house. It surprised me but didn’t surprise me. I was the only person who ever listened to what he had to say, who stuck around when he lost track of his thoughts, who waited for him to reminisce about something else he was bound to remember sooner or later, even though it was a lot of nothing. After the house was sold, I got a check for a bundle.”

   He bought his new car, paying cash for it. He paid off his credit card debt, the plastic he had been living on, and bought a new laptop computer, so he didn’t have to always go to the library to work on his get-rich schemes. He stopped sending e-mails to his son-in-law when Jack exploded about them one day, saying he was sick of the schemes. He told his father-in-law he was never going to buy in to any of them.

   “I always was a good friend with different people, including Wayne and Mattie, who were my two best friends. It’s good to be best friends with your friends. Otherwise, you end up with duck eggs. My ship is coming in one day. When it does, I’ll dump the Suzuki in the blink of an eye and get an Audi convertible.  I’ll go to Florida every winter. I’ll play golf in the sunshine again.”

   He bought new shirts and shoes and ate better. After squirreling the rest of Mattie’s money away he was in good shape. He stayed in his dog-eared apartment to keep costs down. He thought about buying birthday presents for his niece and nephew. He didn’t work at much of anything and played golf all the next summer at new nicer courses. He went to both Wayne and Mattie’s graves and paid his respects. He only went once, but it was enough.

   He made some new best friends.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Farm Girl

LITTLE-BEET-TOPPER-PC-001-E1575408158239.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

When Angele Jurgelaityte was born in January 1928, it snowed until it got too cold to snow anymore. By the end of the month the thermometer rose to ten degrees below zero. When it warmed up the first week of February and the snow melted, a half-foot of slush was left behind. The next week there was heavy rain and her father’s fields were left under water. If it froze there would be acres of ice rink.

“I was born in an area we called the New Farm, in Suvalkija,” said Angele.

Suvalkija is the smallest of the five regions of Lithuania. It is girdled by the Nemunas River to the north. The region‘s identity was molded in the 19th century when it was a part of Congress Poland. Suvalkija was an agricultural area, generating substantial sugar beet harvests. Sugar beet yield in Lithuania was almost half that in the United States, even though the country is 151 times smaller than the United States.

“My father’s name was Jonas Jurgelaitis. My mother’s name was Julija. We lived on a small farm. It was three miles from Marijampole.”

Marijampole is in the far south of Lithuania, bordering Poland and Kaliningrad. Lake Vistytis is nearby. The town was a center of book spreaders and freedom fighters in the long struggle leading to the country’s independence in 1918.

Their farm was thirty-seven acres. The nearest neighbors were out of sight, even though they were hard by. Woodlands of Scots Pine and Norway Spruce and copses of Birch were scattered along the periphery of their land. Her father kept a pair of horses, three to four cows, chickens, and a sounder of swine. Every week he loaded 10-gallon 90-pound milk cans into his wagon and took them to a local dairy. Their croplands were mainly devoted to sugar beets, a cash crop, harvested in early autumn.

Suvalkija has less forest than any other part of Lithuania. It has been brought to bear for tillage. Kazlu Ruda, a large forest, nearly 230 square miles of it, is in Suvalkija, but it is on sandy soil that doesn’t work for farming.

Rye, wheat, and barley have been cultivated in Lithuania for two thousand years. Potatoes got rolling three hundred years ago. The country has always been able to sustain itself with foodstuffs. After gaining home rule from the Russians, land reforms in 1922 turned over ground suitable for the plow to tens of thousands of new landowners. Two years later the Academy of Agriculture was established to oversee land exploitation and management.

“My mother was tall and thin and pretty. She looked like a Romanian, even though she was born near where we lived. I didn’t look like her, at all. I looked like my father.”

Her mother gave birth to eleven children in less than twenty years. Six of them survived infancy. Those that did survived World War Two, the forty-six year subsequent Soviet occupation, and lived to see Lithuania regain its freedom.

Justinas was the oldest boy, born in 1919. “Justinas would invite his friends, and girls, to our house in the summer for dancing, before he joined the army.” Irena and the boys Sigitas and Jozukas were the youngest. Jozukas, the tenderfoot of the family, was two years old in 1938.

Julija started suffering chest pains that year, losing her appetite and losing weight. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a major killer in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost ninety years later tuberculosis is still prominent in Lithuania, one of the most highly TB-burdened countries in the world, falling behind most nearby countries in the prevalence of the disease.

“She went to the sanitorium in Kaunas the next year and got better.”

When family responsibilities and the family’s finances called her back, she got worse. Angele helped with the housework and cooking. She kept up her schoolwork, kept up her chores, and with her two older brothers nursed their mother.

“Irena and I went to school in Gizai, which was less than a mile from our house. In the winter, when it was snowy, my father hitched one of the horses to a sled and took us there. I went for six years.”

The family farm was five miles from Marijampole. It was forty miles southwest from Kaunas, the country’s second largest city. Vilnius, the capital, home to nearly a half million, was eighty miles away. It might as well have been a million miles away.

“We all had to work on the farm, but my father did everything. We had to work, since we were poor.” There were no hired men or seasonal laborers. “I mixed feed for the pigs and fed them. We earned our money by growing sugar beets. Irena and I helped, but Sigitas and Jozukas were too small. We pulled them out of the ground in the fall and used a big knife to cut the leaves away. We threw them in a cart and when we had enough to fill our wagon, my father hitched the two horses and took the beets to Marijampole.”

The family home was a frame house, clapboard siding painted green, two stories, although the second story was only an attic for storage and for smoking pork.

“We had another small house, a small barn where we kept wood for the fireplace.” They sawed their own cordwood. “On the second floor, up a ladder, there was hay for the animals and rye and barley for bread. Justinas and Bronius slept in a room beneath the loft.”

A brick-lined jumper duct fed heat from the farmhouse fireplace to the barn. Still and all, in the winter the young men gathered their blankets up and warmed them before going to bed. In deep winter the nights are 17 hours long.

Lithuania is a flat fertile country overlooking the Baltic Sea. The summers are mild, and the days are long, but the winters are cold and dark. Temperatures often drop well below freezing. The ground is ice and snow-covered from December to mid-March.

“We had a dog, in a house next to the barn, whose name was Sargis.” Saugotis means beware, watch out. “He was our guard dog, always tied up, who barked whenever a stranger came near. We had cats, too, who killed the mice and rats who ate our grain. We never let them into the house, though, they were only for outside.”

Barn cats lead a rough life, hunting vermin in outbuildings and fields. They sleep where they can, stay warm if they can. Living feral, they don’t live long.

The family knew everyone in their neck of the woods. Everyone was wary of strangers. Although they had no immediate neighbors, her mother’s father, a tailor, lived nearby, and her father’s mother also lived within walking distance.

”When my mother made potato pancakes, she would sometimes give me a platter of them, and I took them to grandma’s house.” Her grandmother lived on the other side of the woods, with one of her father’s older sisters.

The family fed itself.

“We made our own bread and butter, made cheese, gathered eggs, and collected berries.” There were patches of wild blueberries at the edges of their fields. Although they didn’t have a cellar, they still canned pickles and beets. “We grew our own pigs and my father killed them.”

When the time came, Jonas selected a pig for slaughter, marched it to a clearing beside the barn, hit the animal between the eyes hard with a club hammer, and cut its throat. With the help of his two eldest sons he cleaned and skinned the pig with a sharp knife, keeping a knife sharpener at hand.

“We never sold our pigs to anyone. We ate all of them.”

Once the skin was separated from the muscle and fat, they cleaned out the guts and sawed the pig’s head off. After quartering the animal, Jonas found the hip joints and slid his knife into them, cutting off the two hams. He did the same thing when cutting the shoulders of the pig off. At the center, where the ribs are, he took whatever meat he could find.

They made sausages, bacon, and cured slabs of pork with salt and pepper. Jonas had built a closet around the chimney on the second floor of the house, which could be gotten to by ladder. There were no stairs. He smoked the pork in the closet, laying the meat on grates, opening a damper to vent smoke into the closet.

“I was scared of the upstairs, although the meat was delicious. When we ran out, we killed another pig.”

Whenever her mother got sick, from the time she was ten years old, Angele cooked for the family. “My oldest brother Justinas helped me until he went into the army, and then Bronius helped.” She cooked up pork logs, made soup, and served bread and butter every day.

After Justinas apprenticed to a tailor, and learned the trade, he joined the army. Everyone knew a war was coming. “He became a cavalryman and was stationed near Marijampole. He rode home a few times, on his horse, in his uniform. He was so handsome.” He had just turned twenty-one.

When the Red Army invaded the Baltic states in June 1940, their troops numbering some fifty divisions, supported by tanks, they swept the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian forces aside in a matter of days. Justinas spent the rest of the war sewing and mending, first under the thumb of the Russians, then the Germans, and then the Russians again.

A woman whose husband had died, who had no children and who lived on a nearby farm, helped Angele learn to bake bread in their brick-lined oven. They made five and six loaves at a time, working up to ten pounds of dough at a time, baking the free-standing loaves loosely arranged in front of a smoldering pile of coals that had been burning for several hours, pushed to the back of the oven. They added wood as they needed it, shifting the fire from side to side.

“We always had bread. We never had tea or coffee, just water. When we could, we collected herbs, and had herbal tea.”

The house did not have electricity or running water or indoor plumbing. They had oil lamps and an outhouse and a well. There was a sink in the kitchen. “The well had a pulley and a bucket until we finally got a hand crank.”

In January 1940 a bitter cold wave enveloped Lithuania, driving temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The next month it dove to 54 degrees below zero, the coldest in 160 years. The Baltic Sea iced over. Some people froze to death and more than 10,000 in the Baltics were severely frostbitten.

When Julija had a relapse, she went back to the sanitorium, but returned home soon after in the fall. “A taxi brought her back. My mother said she had to be with her children.” She was not fully recovered. When winter bore down again, she ran down and became bedridden.

Jonas laid down rough wide planks over the packed dirt floor in one of the three rooms. He moved a metal stove into the room. His wife died in her bed, the head of the bed at the window, early the next spring. She was forty-three years old.

Her father re-married four months later. “He needed a woman to take care of Sigitas and Jozukas.” Jonas had decided to ask the nearby widow with the farm, the woman who had helped Angele bake bread, but by then she was spoken for by another man. He found a single woman in Gizai.

“It was where we always went. My school was there, and there was a church, a police station with a policeman, and a hardware store that had everything. Whenever we had a coin we bought candy there.”

Jonas’s new wife was younger than Julija had been and healthy. She had a daughter a year older than Angele, even though she had never been married. The wedding was in early September. It wasn’t long after the move-in before Angele realized she couldn’t stay.

“My new mother and my father started arguing. She loved the younger ones, and she loved her own daughter, but they started arguing about me. My father stood up for me, but he needed a wife. I don’t know what I was thinking, but one day I left.”

It was late September. She packed a loaf of bread, some cold pork, what clothes she could carry, and set off in the morning at first light for Alvitas, for her aunt’s house. Ona Kreivenas was her mother’s sister. Her aunt’s husband, a police captain, had been deported to Siberia by the Russians that summer, leaving her with three children and giving birth to a fourth.

Even though two German army groups had smashed into the country in late June that summer, ousting the Russians, by then it was too late for Jonas Kreivenas, who didn’t come back from Siberia for fifteen years, and when he did, found out his wife was living in Philadelphia, in the United States.

“I knew life wasn’t going to be any easier in Alvitas, but I had to go.”

Alvitas is about fifteen miles from Gizai. It took her most of the day to walk there. She passed a small prisoner of war camp crowded with Soviet soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht. When she got to her aunt’s farm the sun was near to setting.

“I lived with my aunt for the next three years, until the Russians came again, and we had to run to Germany. I never went back home, except to visit, as a guest. I loved my father, and my brothers and sister, but I couldn’t go back.”

When Angele woke up early the next morning, she had a new home and a new mother. “She was my mamyte now. They were my family.” She helped her aunt make breakfast. There was strong black tea at the table. The first frost wasn’t far away, but that morning was an Indian summer.

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Toeing the Line

By Ed Staskus

 When I was a little kid and in grade school, before I knew anything, Harrison Elementary School was BAD. Later on, when i knew something, McKinley Middle School was HORRIBLE. Everything was WRONG about those schools. Everybody always says tell kids what’s right and wrong. Don’t tell a kid what’s right and wrong. He already knows all about it.

But that’s where I found myself. It was where I found out you don’t have to be bad because bad things are going on around you. As terrible as it was, there were some first-rate kids who were doing their time there.

The day I got to McKinley, in 6th grade, we had a young vice-principal. We got along great. But the next year he got a principal’s job somewhere else. A newer older man got his job. He was on the crabby grumpy side of things. On top of that, I don’t know why, but he didn’t like me.

With him and me it was better never than late. He personally had something against me. I don’t know what I ever did to him. I’m sure it was nothing. I always showed up on time. I wasn’t a troublemaker, like a lot of the four hundred kids in the school. I didn’t come to blows. I got good grades, rather than not. I didn’t riot whenever I wanted more time in the library.

I didn’t get any detentions, although I did get some once in a while. I mean, everyone’s going to get a detention sometime. You’ve got to do it all, hit the books, go to pep rallies, get detentions.

At an assembly one afternoon I asked Mr. Kakis, the new vice-principal, what would happen if someone brought a gun to school. “Would they get expelled?” I asked. It got dead quiet.

It was the same question I heard at an assembly at Lakewood High School that I went to with my dad and Sadie. My older sister was a freshman there then, before she went to her on my own BW college, living the Life of Riley. Everyone calls her Sandy, except the idiots who call her Sadie Masochist.

My mother named her Sadie because it means princess.

Asking that question got me in a buttload of trouble with Mr. Kakis. You would have thought I was going to use a gun to break kids out of detention. He just didn’t like me that much, even before that. I got called into his office about the question. Why, I don’t know. It’s a free country, unless you’re a kid.

His office was like a waiting room at a police station.

In public schools all the stuff is the same. The rooms all have to have the same desks and cupboards. You walk into a class and there are desks on each side of the room, there’s an aisle, and in front there’s a teaching table. There’s a big white board across the whole front of the room and a Promethean in the middle. A projector shoots pictures on it. It’s all very smart, all computerized, and stuff. There’s a PC on the teacher’s table and they have shelves and bookcases for their things.

The teachers always have something in their offices on their desks or office walls that’s about them. Mr. Kakis had crappy hunting duck decoys on his bookcase and duck posters. He had won a fishing contest twenty years ago and there was a dusty plaque on the wall about it, which was his trophy for hooking the fish. He also won a rib cook-off once and there was a smaller plaque for that, too.

He probably wasn’t married. There weren’t any pictures of any wives or kids or dogs anywhere. He just had his crappy trophies.

“Winning takes talent,” he said. “No almost about it.”

He was a smaller man than most of the teachers, under five-foot-seven for sure, and mostly bald. He wore a little mustache, gray and scraggly. He was probably in his 50s, but I always thought of him as in his 60s. He usually looked worn out used up.

He was missing a finger. The pointer finger on his left hand, the whole finger, was missing. It just had a little bit of a nub left over. I never asked him what happened. He would point his missing finger at me whenever I was in his office, jabbing what wasn’t there at my chest, pointing out my shortcomings.

He was an awkward man. Sometimes he would stumble around for no reason, losing his balance. He always wore a faded dress shirt and dark pants. He kept a jar of lubricant on his desk. His hands were chapped. They were stubby fat hands with blotchy marks on the backs of them.

One day at lunch he pushed a kid, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Teachers weren’t allowed to manhandle us. He tried to roughhouse Billy, who was my friend, against a wall, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. Someone told Mr. Kakis that Billy had stolen his Chicken McNuggets. They weren’t really nuggets, anyway, just nasty chicken school food, bits and pieces of disgusting something.

The cafeteria gave us milk that was four years old.

“It’s frozen,” they said. “It’s OK because we thawed it out.”

Mr. Kakis stormed into the lunchroom fast for his age, kept his balance, and picked Billy up by his underarms, pinning him against the wall. But Billy was taller and bigger than Mr. Kakis, even though he was only thirteen years old. He shrugged Mr. Kakis off of him and just walked away. He didn’t look back. Never look back. He didn’t even get into any trouble about it because he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Billy the Kid walked out of the lunchroom leaving Kakis the Man behind him in the dust. We all just watched quiet as mice. It was literally power outage dead quiet. There were more than fifty of us watching. Mr. Kakis gave us the stink eye. After he walked out nobody said anything for a minute, but then everybody started talking at once.

He was mostly a mean grouchy man, overall. Nobody knew nobody cared nobody bothered about what his problem was.

At Harrison it seemed, at least, like the teachers cared about you. At McKinley they didn’t even pretend to care. If you wanted to do better and needed help, most of them truly didn’t care. In the 6th grade some of them helped. In 7th grade a few helped a little bit. But in the 8th grade, not so ever. NOT AT ALL!

Eighth grade is the hardest year, too.

“We are willing to help you,” they would say. But they didn’t care. It was how they acted that was the tip-off. If you needed it, they acted like you were a nuisance. They didn’t give it to you.

Mrs. Hack was one of the worst. She more-or-less cared about you in the sense that she sort of wanted you to learn. But she would pile so much stuff on us that it was hard to learn anything.

“You’re going too fast,” we would tell her.

“We have to move on now,” she would say. “We have to get through the units.” She was obsessed with the Civil Revolution, which is what she called the Civil War. She was wacky.

It was toward the middle of the year when she started on it. She wanted to get to it so bad that we rushed through everything else, and then we stayed on it for most of the rest of the year. Whenever we told her she was going too fast and asked her to review something, she wouldn’t do it.

“You should know this because you’re an advanced class,” she said.

“Just because we’re an advanced class doesn’t mean we know it all,” I told her.

But she waved me off. She was a tall skinny ashy-skinned woman with bony hands. She kept her hands balled up in fists.

I wasn’t getting bad grades in her class, but I wasn’t getting good grades, either. I got good grades in most of my classes, but her class was too hard. She expected us to know everything that ever happened to the Yanks and Johnny Reb, even though it all happened a thousand years ago. She even wanted us to memorize how much booze General Grant drank and how many legs and arms General Hood lost.

“I’m having trouble,” I told her. “Can I do something for extra credit to catch up?”

“No,” she said. She didn’t care. Even though I was putting out a max effort and still not getting a good grade, she wouldn’t help me.

Mrs. Hack had no eyebrows and always put on a ton of make-up. She wasn’t old, just older, probably in her 50s. She was married, but nobody knew anything about her family. She had wacko hair, short, and messy. Her clothes were no-style funky and she hunched over a little when she walked because she was so tall. She wore flats and weird dresses with stockings.

She had an accent, like she was English, but she wasn’t even from England.

She taught history in first period. We started school at 8:30 and there were eight periods. My other classes were math, computer, science, health, and consumer studies, which is all about cooking and etiquette. My fifth period was lunch and home base, which wasn’t like a study hall because you could run around and go crazy.

I had a Spanish class, too. There were twenty-five of us in it. Our teacher was a Spanish lady with a Ph.D. Why she had to be so smart to teach us, I don’t know. Her name was Mrs. Puga. She had been to every Spanish country in the world.

“Ola, chicos, how are you all?” was the first thing she said on the first day of school. She told us all about herself and the class and then DROPPED HER BOMB.

“After today and for the rest of the year there will be no English speaking in class,” she said. We all thought it was a joke.

But that was just about the last English we heard in class. None of us had ever taken Spanish before, but for the rest of the year we weren’t allowed to speak English. She would yell at us about it. Everybody hated the no-English rule. Nobody was OK with the all-Spanish la regla. Some kids did all right, probably because they were better learners, but most of us suffered.

Mrs. Puga was short, dark, and blonde. Her hair had sweet highlights. She wore glasses, dressed nicely, but hobbled because she had had her hip replaced, but it still didn’t work like new. When you’re old, operations are useless, like replacing a flat tire with a used tire. Whenever she got mad, she would stare at you, make faces, and her features started twitching. Whenever she was downpressing and her face was twitching, I would lean forward and look at her. I would just stare at her, dead serious.

Sometimes we would stare and stare at each other. She would eventually go on to something else. I would say, watching her walk away, “Not at the table, Baby Carlos.”

Everyone in class got to pick a Spanish name for themselves. It was like a nickname. I picked Carlito, or Baby Carlos. It’s from a movie about some guys who find a baby in their closet. They’re sitting at the breakfast table and one of the guys picks up the baby’s hand and starts smacking a lady’s butt with it. While he does it, he says, “Not at the table, Baby Carlos.”

Sometimes when Mrs. Puga talked nonsense my friend Noah and I cracked up, but then she would yell at us. She hated us pretty fast, even if we were good most of the time.

She was married and had six kids and more than twenty nieces and nephews. She kept pictures of them in the classroom, some on her desk, and showed us slides of herself on vacation with her family. Everybody always looked happy.

Mrs. Cash, our consumer science teacher, was a nitpicker. She yammered at us for not using the right font on a crumb project that counted for a millionth of our grade. That drove everybody crazy. She was a nut, for sure.

Science was my favorite subject.

Mr. Maxinhimer was our science teacher. He looked like an angry elf. He was short, only a little taller than me, and chunky soup. He was a dead-on little Oompa Loompa. His goatee fell off his face down his neck and over his collar. Noah and I played a game every day of who could touch it the most.

We would sneak away from our desks and try to finger it whenever we could, which was basically whenever he wasn’t looking. When we saw him in the lunchroom, we always tried to walk up behind him and touch his goatee from the back.

The teachers didn’t eat with us, but they had to be in the lunchroom while we ate. We would start talking to Mr. Maxinhimer, touch his goatee, and dart away. It was only Noah and me, at first. But after a while, we got a trend rolling, and everyone started trying to touch his beard. We were the fastest, though. Other kids tried to do what we did, but they just didn’t get it. They didn’t have the right technique, no way.

Mr. Maxinhimer always got mad about it. He threatened to send us to Mr. Kakis’s office. But he never did. We never grabbed or pulled his face hair, anyway, just touched it.

He showed us pictures of his family and their two little girls. He was a solid dresser and dead serious most of the time, too. He would try to tell jokes, but he never was good, always off. He talked loud in a weird, scratchy voice. Sometimes he would sit at his desk and stare off into space.

Mr. Maxinhimer was only thirty years old, but he was already losing his hair. He was sick 24/7, like he had a cold or the flu. His nose always ran, and he sneezed more often than not. We liked him the best of all the teachers.

We got shuffled from class to class at McKinley Middle School. Everybody had to do the same things all day long. We weren’t even allowed to carry bags and backpacks, for some safety reason nobody understood, like it was national security, so we had to trudge from classroom to locker to classroom between every period.

But the worst thing about McKinley was that everything smelled bad most of the time, even though we were a top state-ranked school, with computer labs and all that. Somebody was always spraying Axe in the hallways. It smelled like disinfectant and cheap perfume.

It smelled horrible, no matter what, like you just wanted to get away from the bad tang.

Excerpted from “Ricochet” at http://www.slightlyunhappyconstantly.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Cabin Fever

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By Ed Staskus

The nearly 80,000 people who plug away every day on Prince Edward Island go to work in lots of places, including groceries school offices, aerospace and bioscience and pouring coffee and serving breakfast, but mostly in agriculture, fisheries, and tourism.

Grains, fruits, and potatoes lead production on farms, bringing in cash receipts of about $500 million.  “Good soil is better than money in the bank” was once a commonly used expression on Prince Edward Island. It is still true, although it doesn’t hurt to have a bundle in the bank, something for a rainy day.

The lobster fishery lands 40 million-some pounds, valued at more than $200 million. Every last person on PEI is too few to eat all the lobster, so exports are vital. There are more than 4,000 commercial fishers and 47 licensed processing facilities. The enterprise employs as many as 8,000 people during peak production times.

Tourism rounds out the big three. A million-and-a-half visitors come from all over the world to golf, eat, relax, and experience “Anne of Green Gables.” It is far more come and go in summertime than lives on the island.

When you live and work on PEI summer starts when the snow melts and the days get longer. If you are in a business dependent on tourism, ice cream theaters restaurants transportation accommodation, summer starts when summer is over.

Tourism on PEI generates 15,000 to 17,000 full-time, part-time, and seasonal jobs. When summer is over many in the trade go somewhere starting in mid-autumn, looking for a few weeks of summer in another country. The sweltering heat of Cuba is a sticky thing, but it is super in winter, when there are plenty of dry sunny days and lots of blue sky.

Visiting Prince Edward Island in summer means warm enough to go to the beach, swim sail kayak, and go walking, running, and biking. There are plenty of days in July and August when t-shirts and short sleeves are the order of the day, and maybe a pullover for cooler nights. It’s about four months on PEI of being able to get out the door and outdoors.

It is aces having a big cabin if you get cabin fever. But nothing is as wide open big as being out in the open air. Besides, not everyone has a big cabin, or a cabin big enough. Even the largest cabin is dwarfed by the overarching sky.

Yoga means “to yoke.” Even though nobody gets paid for doing it, it is a kind of work. It is also its own reward.

Most people consider yoga an indoor activity. It is mostly practiced indoors, the weather being what it is in North America. Yoga studios are almost always inside buildings, anyway. That is a good thing if it’s the middle of winter in Vermont, or the armpit of summer in Mississippi, or fall winter a wet spring on Prince Edward Island.

Almost 120 inches of snow falls during the winter on PEI. Skiers going to Vermont are happy if 80 inches has fallen during the season. The wind off the ocean can make everything feel colder than it is on the island. Sometimes harbors are still frozen stiff into May.

That was why Frank and Vera Glass never left northern Ohio on the edge of Lake Erie to go to Prince Edward Island until June. Although it was never a sure thing, they tried to make sure they could get outside as much as possible.

Doing yoga indoors means being able to practice in the middle of a blizzard or a thunderstorm, or even a light sprinkle. It means doing it in a space set aside for exercise and breathwork, or just meditation, without interruption. It means being able to be consistent in one’s effort, a good habit thought to be fundamental to gaining ground.

No rain checks are ever needed when unrolling a mat at your local studio or your rec room. They are private spaces, spaces in which the environment is controlled. If you’re looking for insight, lightning might strike, but it won’t be literal lightning. If you’re just looking for a dry place to exercise, you’re in the right place.

Some yoga, like Bikram Yoga, is only done indoors only, in sealed-up steam-filled rooms, like heat-ravaged parts of the world in the grip of a climate change event, when you might as well be outside. Even then it probably wouldn’t live up to what Bikram Choudhury, the eccentric mastermind of hot room yoga, calls his “torture chambers.”

K. P. Jois, the man who inspired and developed Ashtanga Yoga, on which most yoga exercise of the last half-century is based, recommended that it be practiced indoors.

“Outside don’t take,” he said. “First floor is a good place. Don’t go upstairs, don’t go downstairs.” When asked about yogis in in the past practicing in the forest, he simply said, “That is very bad.” K. P. Jois was a man of few words.

Even though there are problems associated with practicing outdoors, including that it will inevitably defy the weather forecast and rain the one day you try it, people do it all the time. Southern California is littered with classes like ‘Beach Yoga with Brad.’

“Ditch the confines of the indoors!” recommended CBS-TV Los Angeles, reporting from the great outdoors.

“If you’re doing yoga indoors then you’re cheating yourself,” said Sarah Stevenson, a Yoga Alliance-certified instructor in Orange County. “The sun’s rays and fresh air provide not only improved physical health, but also spiritual and emotional wellbeing.”

It isn’t just warm clime folks, either, who roll out mats regardless of rocks and roots and bugs. From Missoula to Minneapolis, any place where the winters are long and dark, the sun-starved come out in droves in the summertime.

Frank was a fair weather man, but some don’t wait for the solstice.

Members of ‘Y-8’ routinely practice their ‘Alsteryoga’ on the thick ice of the rock- hard Lake Alster outside the northern German town of Hamburg. They make sure to pull the hoods of their insulated sweatshirts over their heads when in headstand.

Whether it’s ice or sand or grass, the instability of ground outdoors makes for an easier said than done experience. Some people even practice on paddleboards when rivers and lakes have defrosted. “When you’re not on a solid wood floor surface, you end up using different parts of your body,” said Jennifer Walker, an instructor in Maine. “Outside, you end up engaging your core much more to stabilize your whole body.”

Although Frank Glass often got out into their backyard in the summer and fall, he still rolled out his mat indoors more often than not because he had carved out a space he liked at home, and because the weather in Lakewood, just outside of Cleveland, is unpredictable, while the midges and mosquitoes that fly up out of the Rocky River valley are predictable.

Sometimes, though, he jumped the traces.

The three mostly sunny weeks he and his wife Vera spent in North Rustico, on the north central coast of the island, at the Coastline Cottages, he moved his mat outside. Sometimes in the morning, but more often in the afternoon, when the crab apple trees at the back of their cottage cast welcome shadows, he unspooled it on the grass and set about doing yoga exercises, warming up with sun salutations.

“When I practice outdoors, there is this amazing energy,” said Angela Jackson, an instructor in Oakville, Ontario. “I feel more connected to the earth, the birds, the animals, the sky, and to myself.”

He did it almost every day, because they were on vacation with plenty of time, and because the days were warm, and it was fair and breezy where they were on the Atlantic Ocean. He was bitten every one of those days, sometimes more often than less, by creeping flying bugs, occasionally by black flies from the scrubby conifer woods next to the fifty acres of soybeans behind the cottages.

Prince Edward Island is predominately a farming and fishing province. There are croplands and cattle and fishing boats everywhere. A few years earlier they had stayed in a cottage one town down next to a field and a barn full of cows and thousands of flies. Every room in the cottage came equipped with a fly swatter. They checked to be sure all the screens were safe and sound and in place.

The reason we feel more connected to the earth when we do yoga outdoors is because we are standing directly on the earth, on the soil and grass of it. PEI is made of soft sandstone and its soil is an iron oxide red. The contrast of bright green grass and red land beneath a high blue sky on a sunny summer day is always striking.

Frank saw lots of sky doing things on his back on his mat behind the cottage. Insects crawling took shortcuts under him, the long way over him, or just bumped into him and zigzagged away. Seaside birds flew overhead. Most of them were cormorants, an easy to spot coastal bird with short wings and a long neck. There were plenty of wood warblers and a couple of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, darting in and out of the crab apple trees.

One afternoon behind their cottage a week-and-a-half into their stay on the island, a red fox hunkered down thirty-some feet away on the grass and kept his eyes on Frank for a long time. The fox surprised him, out in the open, even though he knew they were all over the north shore. They had seen plenty of them, on the shoulders of roads, or the edge of woods, always looking for handouts.

Vera ran on the all-purpose path every day and kept a wary eye out for them.

From 1900 until the 1930s black silver fox farming – the silver fox is a mutation of the island’s ubiquitous red fox – was a booming cash crop on PEI farms. Fox pelts were in high style but used to cost an arm and a leg because they could only be got from trappers. No one knew how to raise them until in the 1890s two men, a druggist and a farmer, perfected a way to domesticate and breed them.

It made many of the locals rich. The price for a bred fox pelt, never mind a trapped pelt, in 1910 was a jaw-dropping $1,200.00. To put that into perspective, farm laborers on the island in 1910 averaged a dollar a day in pay for ten-and- twelve-hour days.

The Great Depression and changing fashion in the 1940s crippled the market and by the 1950s fox farming was finished on the island. Most farmers simply let their animals loose. The foxes were glad to go, glad to be back on their own, glad to not have to be a fashion statement anymore.

“My grandfather raised horses, and kept foxes for their pelts,” said Kelly Doyle, a North Rustico native whose Coastline Cottages they were staying at. “But then they weren’t cool anymore, so he let all his foxes out, and since my father couldn’t make a living at that became a farmer.”

Rubbing eyes with a fox in woods or fields used to be out of the ordinary, but nowadays sighting have become commonplace.

“Whereas foxes once avoided human contact, they now venture up to parked cars, presumably looking for food,” said Ryan O’Connor, who grew up on PEI and is a historian of Canada’s environmental movement.

Although some of the issues with yoga in the great outdoors are biting bugs and bad weather and sometimes too much sunshine, rarely is the issue a wild animal. Red foxes are wild, but not so wild, too. They live in woodlots and sand dunes, are intelligent and adaptable, and have no trouble living in close association with human beings.

They are still wild, though, living out in the wild.

One moonless night, sitting on their deck overlooking Doyle’s Cove, they heard a god-awful noise somewhere out on the long dark sloping lawn. The next morning Kelly Doyle had to clean up the remains of a dismembered rabbit. Every fox hunts every night for mice rabbits voles.

Frank don’t know when the red fox slipped behind their cottage to watch him on the yoga mat. He saw him midway through his series for the day, when he lengthened into plank from down dog and transitioned into up dog, and there the fox was, nearly near-at-hand.

There is a rule at the Coastline Cottages. “Don’t Feed the Animals.” The rule is to discourage foxes from loitering, looking for food for their kits. Frank and Vera hadn’t seen anyone breaking the rule, because who wants a fox at their door cadging for a handout? But there was the red fox, plain as day, behind their cottage, giving Frank the once over.

“They won’t bother you, or bite you,” Kelly had told them.

Frank had no reason to doubt him, so he continued doing what he was doing, sneaking a peek at the animal now and then. The fox wasn’t small or overly large, maybe 20 or 25 pounds, with a reddish-brown coat, white under belly, and a black-tipped nose. One of his eyes was cloudy, as though the animal had been hurt or had a cataract.

He lounged and shifted and moved more like a cat than a dog, although foxes are a part of the dog family. His ears were triangular. When he cocked his head and his ears went up erect, he looked like a Maine Coon cat with his muzzle in mousing position.

All during the rest of Frank’s yoga practice that afternoon the fox never made a sound, and even seemed to doze off for a few minutes. He stretched and yawned. When he went away, sliding into the soybean field, he walked on his toes, heels off the ground, agile canny swift. No amount of yoga Frank ever did was ever going to get him to be able to move like that.

He didn’t see the fox with the bad eye again the rest of their stay, although Vera spotted him one day miles away near MacNeill’s Brook.

Living far north of Mason-Dixon, Vera was by necessity forced to run on a treadmill and Frank to do yoga indoors most of the time. But moving one’s mat outdoors isn’t necessarily for the birds, if only because that’s where the energy is. The fountainhead is under the arching sky in the wide blue yonder.

In the world of yoga, the word prana means energy or life force and pranayama means breathing exercises. To practice outdoors is to be immersed in the source of prana, whether you mean it as the source of life or simply as the air we breathe.

Bringing a breath of back roads air into your body mind spirit is refreshing. Great wafts of it are even better. It’s no holds barred taking in the old-school oxygen of the island. There’s more air in the air on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean than there is in most other places.

There was more than enough of it for both the red fox and Frank the afternoon they shared it, both of them dwarfed by a sweeping horizon and puffy white clouds blowing out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, behind a cottage next to a soybean field.

“How was it?” Vera asked when Frank stepped back inside through the door.

“It was a breath of fresh air in my brain,” he said.

A version of this story appeared in International Yoga Journal.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Dancing the Night Away

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By Ed Staskus

I went to our Homecoming dance with a girl. She wasn’t a girlfriend, not exactly, just somebody who happened to be a girl. Nobody is allowed to go by himself or even with another guy, no matter what kind of friends you are. You have to go with a date to go to Homecoming. The dance was in the main gym the night after we smash-mouthed a mouthwatering win over Moeller’s, the Fighting Crusaders.

The big bad Crusaders slouched back to Cincinnati and afterwards we called them the Sad Taters. They weren’t singing the Blue and Gold Fight Song. St. Ed’s takes no prisoners on the football field. No, SIR! Mr. Rote, our religion teacher, says mercy is a virtue, but not on Friday nights.

My dad worked the refreshment table at the dance. He’s a member of the Father’s Club. It was awesome for my friends and me. We had a boat load of free drinks, for sure. I must have had four or five cans of Mountain Dew.

Homecoming was the night Jake and Jess broke up. It isn’t the kind of thing that usually happens at Homecoming, but that’s what happened. It started when I saw Bert making out with Jake’s girlfriend. They were dancing and the next thing anybody knew they started kissing, right on the dance floor. When you’re somebody else’s girlfriend that’s rude and inconsiderate, especially out in the open.

Allan and I both saw it happening. Allan is one of my best friends. He’s a football player, not much taller than me, but he’s at least 250 pounds. He’s a lineman on the team, although he had to sit out after he got a concussion. He’s a white kid and pasty, which isn’t pretty, but he’s on the dot on the line.

We all saw Bert kiss Jess plain as day. Allan walked right up to Bert. He was mad about it.

“Bert, what the fuck, what are you doing?”

Bert plays soccer, is taller than me, but he’s a toothpick. He’s kind of ugly, too, to be honest. He was really scared for a minute.

“I was, like…” he stuttered.

Allan was angry about it and I wasn’t happy, both of us being Jake’s friends. Allan faced Bert down, who started backing away. I stood there for a few seconds and then ran to find Jake. I didn’t want to leave him hanging. Hanging for what? I had to tell him. Bro’s before ho’s. That’s what a brother does. Everybody says so. She was obviously that if she was kissing another kid.

Jess is short skinny blonde and sort of pretty in her own way. I might even have liked her once. She had been to my house for dinner, with Jake, one night when Allan and Paul were over.

Jake was outside getting a drink at the refreshment table when I found him. There was Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, and Mountain Dew. He was picking up a can of Sprite. The can looked big in his hand. Jake is almost a midget. I’m on the short side, but he’s shorter than me, by a long shot.

“Jake, Jess kissed Bert,” I said.

“What? Are you kidding me?”

“No, dude, I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

He was sad at first, and depressed, that he had just lost his girl. “I’m going to talk to her about this.” We went into the main gym.

“I’m sorry, dude,” I said. He was down in the mouth. But then he jumped her on the spot, surprising everybody.

“Yeah, gangster,” I thought out loud.

“Thanks a lot,” he said, all sarcastic, and then said something to her nobody else could hear.

“We’re done,” he said, flashing his thumb and finger and walking away. He dumped her on the spot. Her jaw dropped. She was left standing there. Jake wasn’t blue about it the rest of the night. He had only been going out with Jess for less than a month, anyway.

I was rocking in the mosh pit later when a girl suddenly threw up all over the floor because she was wasted. Somebody slipped on the mess and fell down, hitting his head and getting puke on his clothes. He smelled like beef liver with onions in a can after that.

Everybody merks their beer and booze before the dance. It used to be weed, but this last summer the school principal’s brother got a sweetheart contract for himself to drug test us, so now it’s drinking instead of drugs. At least it is during the school year. It doesn’t even do any good to shave your head, because they snip a different kind of hair from you, and the drug test works exactly the same way.

“Maybe I’ll just do LSD,” DB said, spinning his head in fast tight circles. DB is a nut, but that’s what happens when grown-ups get involved. They’re so crazy they make everybody else go crazy.

They don’t test for LSD because they have to get your pee, not just your hair, to do that test. The St. Ed’s ’s men would probably start peeing on each other if that was a rule. It’s too expensive, anyway. Our military even stopped testing for it because it costs so much.

I don’t drink much of anything, just sometimes, nor do my friends, but that doesn’t mean anything. If it weren’t such a big deal to drink or not to drink, guys wouldn’t do it so much. HONEST to GOD!

It’s mostly about being rebellious. Kids think it’s cool and it makes them be cool. If guys could drink whatever they wanted they wouldn’t do it as much. They just wouldn’t, honestly, since the temptation would be all gone. But that’s the exact thing, the light in their eyes, they’re doing something forbidden, it makes them feel SO MUCH cooler.

Drugs, drinking, and smoking cigarettes at Homecoming are a tradition. Oh, yeah, I can feel it and smell it when I’m in the mosh pit. When you’re in the pit it’s pushy noisy hot rowdy dowdy. It’s sweaty and the tang is bad, all armpits and hot dog water. You dance and two-step in the pit and have fun. There are a thousand guys and girls all pushed together and the teachers are stuck and dumbstruck on the outside.

Not everybody crams into the mosh pit, but a large crowd does, for sure. There’s a stage at the front of the gym and everybody swirls it, surging in tight, and facing whichever which way and all ways. We dance to slow songs, rock, techno, whatever. The best are Skrillex, Kid Cudi, and M & M. I love ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ except I hate it at summer camp, where the kid on the bunk next to me plays it every night on his guitar. We finally broke his guitar. There’s another song, ‘White Roses,’ I’m high on for slow dancing.

It’s all horseplay in shirts and ties. The girls look sweet in their dress-up. Nobody’s brains are guaranteed in the pit. Everybody goes there to live it up, that’s all. We like it. The girls like it. That works for us. We all get going get amped get excited in the pit. No one can help it. Romping in the pit is the greatest when you’re rubbing up against some girl to Lady Gaga’s ‘Disco Stick.’ You don’t even have to look them in the face since most of the time it’s from behind.

The parents don’t know the grinding that goes on. Girls put their butts on you and figure eight. Sometimes we form lines, forty or fifty of us in a conga line. Nobody’s parents want to know about that.

NO WAY! BELIEVE ME!

You can get in trouble for grinding. All the teachers are there, and they watch out for it. They call it pelvic thrust dancing, or at least Mr. Rote does, who’s got an eagle eye for it. He’s young and knows, and he’s our religion teacher, too, and knows that, too. There’s a strict rule you will get kicked out of the dance for doing it, but none of the teachers can ever get into the pit, so hardly anybody ever gets caught.

They will mark your hand with a Sharpie if they do somehow catch you, which Mr. Rote does all the time, like a weasel after rabbits. If they catch you a second time, they kick you out of the dance. Guys go all crazy, all sweaty and flustered, after the first time, trying to rub the indelible Sharpie mark off as fast as they can.

Not many guys ever get kicked out of the Homecoming dance, but Allan’s older brother did. Qe were all laughing, although he didn’t think it was funny. Girls don’t ever get kicked out because it’s at our school. Just the guys get the boot. I saw a couple of them being dragged from the pit and kicked out of the gym. The Dean of Students got their cell phones and looked through all their messages.

St. Ed’s is a private school. They aren’t funded by the state. They don’t have to stick to the state rules like the public schools. They can’t hit you, but they can, if they want to. If a teacher hit me I would be very upset, but they can do just about anything. THEY CAN DO WHAT THEY WANT! Everybody knows that. The school from end to end is just like Mr. Hittbone’s Rules

They can look through your phone and anything else of yours. I’ve seen cell phones thrown into trash cans. They downpress you and there’s nothing you can say. They can drag you away by the scruff. I don’t even know all the stuff they can do.

They can kick you out of school, for sure. If you do something bad it is suddenly Steck Time. He is the Dean of Students, a completely mean man, tall thin pale. He can say, “Don’t come back tomorrow.” When Mr. Steck-It-To-You says it, he means it and he can make it stick. Because it’s a private school they can lock you out and you can’t ever go back. And then you’re out, that’s all, and you have to try to explain it to your parents and the neighbors, who will for sure never understand what you did.

Nobody ever believes you and they even resent your explanations. I’ve heard of kids who got thrown out once-and-for-all for good no matter how much they begged. That’s bad. You’ve got to watch your step.

They won’t kick you out of school for grinding. We all know that. You have to get caught stealing computers, or smoking weed, or something like that. Not always kick you out, though, since it depends on who’s doing the doing. There’s a guy’s father who owns a jewelry store in Rocky River, and when his son got caught smoking weed on campus, he didn’t get kicked out. Diamond Jim talked to the Dean, somebody probably got a karat, and after the deal was done the kid might still have gotten thrown out, but he didn’t, obviously. It wasn’t even close.

The girls at our dances sometimes come from public schools, but mostly they are from St. Joe’s, Magnificat, and the other Catholic schools. Are good Catholic girls the same as good girls? Are you pooping on my face? God, no, they’re not good! That’s why they’re Catholics. We believe we’re bad right out of the gate. That’s why we can go grinding at the school dances and not worry about it. There’s always confession.

There isn’t much difference between a Catholic girl and a public school girl, although there is. It seems like bad Catholic girls can be even worse than regular bad girls. They go to extremes, like wanting a guy more than regular girls do. They just want to have boyfriends. They want to have somebody, anybody, they can say is their boyfriend, someone to be on their hip side. They are thirsty for guys, like bright-feather barnyard hens at the well.

The Catholic girls aren’t even that hot, at least not most of them, not most of the time. They think they are, but thinking doesn’t make it so. There are hotter public school girls than Catholic girls. Some of the Catholic girls think they are better on the scale of everything than other peeps, which is rude, and mostly mistaken by them.

Many of them seem to think they are on a totally upper level over other girls. They totally believe their status is higher, which I think is ridiculous. They truly think they are better than other people, at least better than public school girls, for sure.

I have some good friends who go to Mag’s, but St. Joe’s, not even. St. Joe’s girls are Catholic girls all out. They are ever not so nice. I will jog past Joe’s with Scar and keep going before I even look at them playing lacrosse on their fancy new playing field on Rocky River Drive.

If you are hanging out with public school girls, or Catholic girls, and the other side walks up, it shakes out that the public school girls are the nicer girls. They can be like your friends right out of the box and they are nice to you, too. The Catholic girls are kind of low and frank. The wrapping stays right in your face. The public school girls are like me, asking what your name is, and being interested in you.

Catholic girls are like, “Oh, hi, WHO are you? I have to GO.” You can tell they don’t care. The only time they CARE is when they’re GRINDING, but that’s a TOTALLY different kind of caring.

It’s the kind of caring you care about for ten minutes, maybe less.

Excerpted from “Ricochet” at http://www.slightlyunhappyconstantly.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

On the Ropes

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By Ed Staskus

   Nicolae Goga was always excited by Catholic girls. His mother was a Lutheran, and she raised his brother Tomas and him as Lutherans, but Catholic girls were for him. That’s why he married one. But they had to be a nine or ten in the good-looking roll call at the same time they were Catholic. If they weren’t, they didn’t count, not in his eyes.

   All the guys rated girls, one way or another.

   He went to Florida every winter after he got back to Cleveland, before he got married. He came back from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, and after he got back on his feet, went right to work for Palmer Bearings. They put him in sales the minute they saw him. He was 22 years old, clean-cut, proportioned, and full of pep.

   His city pals, the young men he knew who had the dough to go south for a couple weeks when it got dark and cold on the south coast of Lake Erie, got peeved about him being picky.

   “All you do is keep looking for a number ten girl, and half the time you don’t got any girl on your arm,” Elmer said one day while putting back a Blatz. “Me, I get a number three or four, so I’ve always got a gal, and by the end of the week they all add up to more than a zero.”

   Another of his pals, a wise guy on the camel train, said, “Nicky, if you ever land a ten, she’ll be out of your league, anyway.”

   Eva was Catholic, between a nine and a ten, and 15 years old when Nicolae met her. He was 25 years old. She lied about her age, not that she had to. But after he found out he made sure she was eighteen before they got married. “We missed out on the cash envelopes and presents, since her family was dead set on me staying single and Eva marrying somebody else.” He didn’t care. He wanted Eva. He wanted getting ahead fast.

   They met at the Karamu Theater. Nick lived at the Delrey Hotel on East 55th Street, not far away, and Eva took a bus from Collinwood, from the Five Points. He loved acting and trying out for parts. Nick looked like Paul Newman, which didn’t hurt his chances. He was always trying out for shows at the Chagrin Little Theater, too.

   “I met a boatload of lookers that way.”

   Eva was in one or two high school shows and danced ballet. She had taken dance classes ever since she was a little girl. She could straighten a leg, keep her foot flat on the ground, and raise the other one to the ceiling.

   “I don’t know how the hell she did it. I always liked ballet dancers. I fell in love with one when I was in high school. Her name was Margo. She was a beautiful girl with a beautiful body, the same age as me, but an inch taller. She was one of the gym leaders and danced ballet on stage at our school. Another guy liked her, a lousy Serb who played a hillbilly guitar, and he was always angling to get into shows with her.”

   Nick started trying out, trying to get close to Margo, trying to elbow the Serbian boy out.

   Eva and he met auditioning for the same show at Karamu. He kept his eyes on her from the minute he set eyes on her. “She came on to me and would do stuff like, ‘Can you give me a ride home?’ I had a convertible, she had stars in her eyes, and on starry nights it was a nice ride. She sat close to me on the bench seat.”

   She would sometimes leave something in his car, like her wallet or watch. “She would call me, and I would drive to her house, returning it, seeing her again. It was those little tricks women do.”

   Her parents were set in stone about her wedding bell plans. “It won’t work,” they both insisted. He was Lutheran, ten years older, born in the United States but Romanian. They were Catholic and Lithuanian, from the old country. He had a better job than either of her parents, making more money than them put together, but it didn’t matter. Eva and Nick had to elope, driving across the Ohio state line to Indiana, where they found a justice-of-the-peace on the side of the road, and got married.

   They went to Florida for their honeymoon. “We drove straight there in a new sports car I had just gotten. We stayed in the same motel my buddies and I used to go to. Our suite had a small kitchen and there was a big pool we went swimming in.” They sat out in the sun. They discovered each other in the dark.

   When they got back to Cleveland Eva’s parents disowned her, and she didn’t see them for years. They moved in with Nicolae’s mother, in the meantime, in the old neighborhood, East 65th Street and St. Clair. Most of their countrymen worked in factories, ore docks, and knitting mills. His father had operated a corner store until he was murdered by two young thieves.

   “I worked hard, saving my salary and commissions, and the next year we bought a two-story house in Indian Hills, up from Euclid Avenue, near the Chagrin city park.”

   The house fronted a big sloping wooded lot. Their daughter Agnes was born the next year and their son Sammy two years after that. Their problems started three years later. They never stopped getting worse.

   “We started out great, got the year of living with my mother out of our systems, moved into a big house, three bedrooms, newer than not new, got the kids grown up enough to walk, and my job got booming the more I worked. I took clients out for golf and dinner three and four times a week. I kept my waistline under control by walking the courses. My handicap took a nosedive.”

   He was making money hand over fist. “I made a lot of money for Palmer Bearings. Those heebs loved me, as long as the pipeline was full and flowing.”

   His bosses said, “Keep up the good work.” His neighbors envied his new cars. Eva complained about Nick never being home.

   “I do a lot of business on golf courses,” he said. “It’s work, don’t think it’s all just fun and games, it’s not.”

   When he did come home right after work, Eva came running out the front door, grabbing him, giving him a hug and a kiss. He thought, this is embarrassing, the neighbors are watching, even though he barely knew any of the neighbors

   “Cut it out,” he said. She gave him a queer look. He kissed the kids and read a book while Eva set the table and prepared dinner.

   “I took her to dinner and shows, but it was never enough. I always let Eva do whatever she wanted. I let her teach cooking at the high school. I let her get a job at a restaurant. I let her go to Cleveland State University. It got to be a problem, because no matter what I did, it was never enough.

   Eva was a good-looking young woman, blonde and shapely, and men eating at the restaurant were always hitting on her, but Nick’s biggest problem was the young men she met at college. “One time I found a note in a drawer from some guy named Dave, thanking her for the great time they had. When I asked her about it, she said it was just a bunch of them from one of her theater classes going out for a drink.”

   “That’s all it was, Nick,” Eva said.

   “You’re not getting together with him?”   

   “No,” she said, “of course not.”

   He didn’t believe her, not for a second.

   Nick found out more, small things that looked like big things, about other men she was cheating on him with. He was sure of it. One night he answered a call from a man who sounded like he was from India, asking for her. He hung up. She was coming home later and later at night, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, midnight. It started to look like the babysitter was going to have to live in.

   “Where the hell were you?” he asked one night when she got home close to two in the morning.

   “Oh, my keys got locked in somebody’s trunk.”

   “It was always some bullshit story like that. We got into an argument. We got into a lot of arguments.”

   “Not so loud,” she hissed. “You’ll wake up the kids.”

   “It was her idea to get separated. Later it was her idea to get divorced. I loved her. I loved my kids. I didn’t want a bust-up. We could have settled the split between ourselves, but she had to get a lawyer, which meant I had to get a lawyer, too. Her mouthpiece must have put something in her ear.”

   He stopped at the Cleveland Trust Bank downtown on East 9th Street one day, after lunch with clients on Short Vincent, to withdraw some money, but the teller said, “There’s no money in your account, sir.”

   “What?”

   “The account is at zero,” the man said

   “Eva had taken it all. She raided our joint bank account and took all the money in it. All I had left was what I had been keeping in a personal account she didn’t know about, the scratch I kept separate, and our insurance policies. She charged all kinds of stuff on our credit cards before I wised up and cancelled them all.”

   He paid his lawyer five thousand dollars, in cash, since he had a separate business going, apart from Palmer Bearings. The lawyer was a golfing buddy of his, but he still had to pay it all up front. “The son-of-a-bitch, right away he joined the Shaker Country Club with it, and never invited me to play golf there, not even once, not even before I almost punched him in the face.”

   When they went to court, Nick picked a fight there and then. Not with Eva, but with their two lawyers, his and hers. “The Saul Goodman’s get together with their crap, take all your money, and leave you with nothing. They are like morticians, just waiting for you to come back to life.”

   Between Eva and them, he complained loud and long afterwards, they left him with only table scraps.

   Nick knew how to handle himself. He boxed Golden Gloves before going to Korea. He got to the finals in his weight class, and even though the other fighter was dazed purple bloody, the judges gave the first prize to him. He was a Marine and Nick was an Army draftee, so the Marine staggered away with the trophy.

   “I could have levelled both of the shysters in a minute flat. The bailiff, and a policeman, and the judge, had to restrain me. The judge gave me a hell of a talking to after everybody was back in their seats.”

   It was a hell of a commotion on the third floor of the Lakeside Courthouse, under a high ceiling of ornate plasterwork, paneled walls, and leather-covered doors.

   “They’re all the same, talking through their hats.”

   Eva moved into the new Park Centre on Superior Avenue, the same building her new boyfriend lived in, and the same building where some of Richard Hongisto’s right-hand men lived. He was Cleveland’s new top lawman, although inside a couple of years Dennis Kucinich, the kid mayor of the city, fired him on live TV. It sparked a recall drive to remove the mayor from office, which was the least of his problems, since the city was going bankrupt fast. The bankers hated the mayor and withdrew the helping hand.

   “I say a plague on all of them, except that whoever did the car caper with her got me the last laugh on Eva, for what it was worth.”

   Nick bought Eva a brand new four-door Mercedes Benz, hoping it would make her happy. She loved the car, although it didn’t make her any happier about him any more than she wasn’t already. When they separated, she reported the car stolen. She called Nick about the insurance money. He told her he would let her know. He didn’t tell her the car was in his name.

   “A month later I got a letter from a parking garage in Buffalo, saying we’ve got your car here, you owe so much for parking, come and get it. I was sure one of Eva’s cop neighbors cooked it up with her, driving the car away, and leaving it in the garage. When I got the insurance check for the car, I cashed it and tore the letter up.”

   Eva was a ten in her time, or close to it, always worth a second look. Nick wasn’t sure how she looked when she got older, since after their last fight he didn’t see her again, after her looks might have gone south. “I’m sure she wasn’t the beauty she had been. I’m sure she looked like hell. That’s something I would bet money on.”

   She had beautiful handwriting and wrote Nick hate letters after their divorce.

   “Your kids don’t want to see you, you haven’t sent me enough money, all that kind of crap. I had to pay child support, even though I was used to a certain style of living for myself.”

   Nick rubbed his face.

   “I had to go on dates, too, looking for another woman, but it wasn’t easy. I couldn’t operate. I didn’t have much money. You’ve got to have money to do things. I was nearly broke. I had to take care of my kids. I didn’t want to be a deadbeat father.”

   She took up with a new boyfriend, a handsome Italian from Rochester, a Vietnam veteran. They moved in together, with Agnes and Sammy. They didn’t pretend to be married, even though they lived like man and wife. Nick wouldn’t give Eva a divorce, no matter how many times she asked.

   “They got it into their heads to go into the restaurant business. Eva asked me to take a second mortgage on the house. I said no, restaurants are the worst thing you can get into. But in spite of myself I took a second mortgage on the house and gave her the money. It put me in a spot.”

   Eva’s restaurant became two restaurants. The new family moved up to the eighteenth floor of Park Centre, to a three-bedroom end suite facing Lake Erie. They opened a bar on the new Eat Street in the apartment complex.

   “The guy from Rochester, he was always telling me, take it easy, like he was trying to be my friend. I wanted to tell him how mad I was about not being able to get Eva back, about never seeing my kids. I never said one bad thing about her, but the divorce hurt me bad.

   “After the mess in court, after we split up, I thought, if that’s the way it’s going to be, I don’t want anything to do with her anymore. I don’t want to talk to her, and I don’t want to see her. And I never did, except once.”

   Eva and Sammy came to the family house in Indian Hills on a quiet autumn afternoon. She asked Nick to mortgage the house again, a third time, so they could expand some more, but he told her a second mortgage was all the bank would go for. She said she needed more investment money and that he could sell the house, splitting whatever he might get for it with her.

   “If I do that, where am I going to live?”

   “That’s up to you.”

   “She was living downtown, in her fancy high-rise. What did she care where I lay my head? It could be some crummy cardboard under a bridge, as far as she was concerned. We got into an argument about it. Sammy stuck up for his mom. I didn’t blame him, though. I liked that about him.”

   Eva slapped him hard in the face when Nick finally had enough, nose to nose, shouting that he wasn’t going to sell the house, that they were through once and for all, and that was that.

   “She scratched me with her fingernails when she slapped me, cutting me, and drawing blood. I pushed her away.”

   They glared at each other.

   “Quit it.” 

   Eva’s mouth went cold thin-lipped, she twisted around, reached for Sammy’s hand, and stamped out with him. She didn’t look back. The front door slammed shut. It was the last time Nick saw her. He never saw the money he had lent her, either. He knew the TKO was on its way and there was nothing he could do about it.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Six Oysters Ahoy

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By Ed Staskus

“He was a very valiant man who first adventured on the eating of oysters.”  King James VI and I

“I checked the weather report,” said Frank Glass.

“What did you find out?” asked Vera Glass.

“It’s going to be the same today as it was yesterday.”

“Is it going to rain all day?” asked Vera.

“You don’t need a weatherman for that,” said Frank, throwing a glance at the window.

A steady rain was falling outside the large front window of the cottage, down on the long sloping lawn of the Coastline Cottages, on the Gulf Shore Parkway, on the three houses on the other side of the road, and out to the horizon as far as they could see. The sky was dark over Doyle’s Cove. Broad surfboard-sized waves worked up the water. When Frank looked out the northwest-facing kitchen window, the sky, where the weather was coming from, was even darker.

“What should we do? It rained all day yesterday. I’m getting cabin fever.”

“We could play cards, read, and talk among ourselves. How about dinner and a show?”

“That sounds good, especially the part about dinner,” said Vera. “Where do you want to eat?”

“There’s a show opening tonight at the Victoria Theatre.”

“All right, but what about dinner?”

“We could eat at the Landmark, it’s right there.”

“I’ve always liked the Landmark,” said Vera. “Eugene is a great cook. They have the best meat pies.”

“Somebody told me he sold it and there are new owners,” said Frank.

“What? How can that be? Eugene and Olivier and Rachel are gone?”

The Sauve family tree had repurposed an old grocery store in Victoria into a café restaurant in the late 1980s, adding a deck, digging a basement for storage and coolers, and expanding their dining space several times. They were a perennial ‘Best Place to Eat on Prince Edward Island’ in the magazine Canadian Living.

“It’s now called the Landmark Oyster House.”

“I love oysters,” said Vera. “Let’s go.”

It was still raining when Frank and Vera drove up Church Hill Road and swung onto Route 6, through North Rustico to Route 13, through Hunter River and Kelly’s Cross. It was still raining when they pulled into the small seaside town of Victoria on the other side of Prince Edward Island, on the Northumberland Straight side, 45 minutes later. It rained on them as they rushed into the Landmark Oyster House.

There wasn’t a table to be had, but there were two seats at the bar.

“Look, we’re right in front of the oysters,” said Vera, as they sat down at the closed end of it. “I love this spot.”

Kieran Goodwin, the bartender, agreed, standing on the other side of the bar, on the other side of a large shallow stainless steel bin full of raw oysters on ice.

“Best seats in the house,” he said. “They were going to put the bar in the front room, but the dimensions didn’t work out.”

“Who’s they?” asked Frank.

Vera looked the chalkboard on the wall up and down. The names of the oysters on ice were written on the board. There were six of them, Valley Pearl, Sand Dune, Shipwreck, Blackberry Point, Lucky Limes, and Dukes. She looked down into the bin. She couldn’t make heads or tails of which were which. She knew raw oysters were alive, more-or-less.

She wondered, how could you tell?

“Greg and Marly Anderson,” said Kieran. “They own a wedding venue up the road.”  It is the Grand Victoria Wedding Events Venue, in a restored former 19th century church. “When this opportunity came up, when Eugene was looking to tone it down a bit, they decided to purchase it.”

“I worked at the Oyster House in Charlottetown shucking oysters for almost five years,” said Marly. “We heard that the family wanted to retire because they had been working at this restaurant for 29 years. We already felt a connection to this place and we are friends and neighbors with the family.”

“They’ve put their roots down in the community, are making their stand here,” said Kieran.

“I like what they’ve done in here, casual but upscale,” said Vera.

“It looks like the kitchen is more enclosed than it was,” observed Frank.

“Yeah, they did up a wall,” said Kieran. “When you used to walk in, you could peek right in.”

“I remember Eugene telling us once he learned all his cooking from his mom. Who does the cooking now?”

“Kaela Barnett is our chef.”

“We couldn’t do this without her,” said Greg Anderson.

Somebody’s got to have a steady hand on the ladle that stirs the soup.

“I’m thinking of doing oysters and a board,” said Vera.

“That’s a good choice,” said Kieran. “I recommend the large board. You get a bit of everything. I personally like getting some cheese.”

“Me, too.”

“Are you oyster connoisseurs?” asked Kieran.

“Not me,” said Frank. “I can’t remember the last time I ate an oyster.”

“I wish I was, but I love them,” said Vera. “We were on the island last year and went to the Merchantman in Charlottetown with Doug and Rachel, Eugene’s daughter. We had oysters and she went through all the ones we ate, explaining them to me.”

“Would you like something from the bar?” asked Kieran.

“I’ll take the Gahan on tap, the 1772 Pale Ale.”

“What wine goes with oysters?” asked Vera.

“We have a beautiful California chardonnay,” said Kieran. “It’s great with shellfish. I recommend it.”

“This is good, fruity,” said Vera, tasting it.

“We have six oysters,” said Kieran. “You could do one of each.”

“That’s what I’ll do,” said Vera.

“I think I’ll have the seafood chowder and some of the board,” said Frank.

“Oh, Frank, try one,” said Vera.

“Lucky Limes are my favorite,” said Kieran. “It’s a good medium oyster.”

“OK, I’ll try it,” said Frank, shrugging.

Kieran handed him a Lucky Lime.

“How do I eat this thing?” Frank asked Vera.

“Sometimes I chew it, sometimes I don’t,” she said.

“Some people like putting stuff on it, like horseradish, which kills the taste,” said Kieran. “But straight up is best. That’s how islanders do it, just shuck it.”

Frank looked down at the liquid-filled half shell.

“From the wide end,” said Kieran.

He slurped the oyster into his mouth and swallowed it.

“Now you’re a pro,” said Vera.

“That wasn’t bad,” said Frank. “How could you tell it was a Lucky Lime? They all look the same to me.”

“If you look at the chalkboard, it’s one through six. That’s one way.”

“Can you tell by looking at them?” asked Vera.

“I can tell by the shell,” said Kieran. “The ones that are more green, that means there’s more saltwater content. So this is a Sand Dune, quite briny. That one is almost straight salt water.” He pointed to an even darker greener shell.

“The Shipwreck, the name made me nervous to have it, but it was mild,” said Vera.

“It would be farther up the estuary, closer to fresh water.”

“Blackberry Point was very salty.”

“The Blackberry’s are from Malpeque, which is near Cavendish,” said Kieran. “The Sand Dune is from Surrey, down east, and the Lucky Limes are from New London Bay. Valley Pearl is from Tyne Valley and the Dukes are from Ten Mile Creek.”

“I thought you were just making all this up,” said Frank.

“No, its like wine,” said Kieran.

“How did you get into the shellfish racket?” asked Frank.

“I graduated in business, traveled, lived in New Zealand and Australia, and then came back home, and worked in a bank as a financial advisor for six years, in Summerside and Charlottetown, but then I just got tired of working in a bank, and went back to school.”

“How did you find your way here, behind the bar?”

“I date Jamie, who is Marly’s sister.”

“Are those pickled carrots?” asked Vera, pointing at the charcuterie board in front of her.

“Yes, and you have raisin jam, too,” said Kieran.

“Chutney, stop the madness!” exclaimed Vera. “Oh, it’s strawberry jam. It just looks like chutney. It’s delicious.”

“We had raisin pie at a small diner in Hunter River the other day,” said Frank.

“The one by the side of the road, up from the Irving gas station?” asked Kieran.

“That’s the one,” said Frank. “The waitress told us she always thinks of raisin pie as funeral pie, because back in the day, if there was a funeral in the winter, women always made raisin pies for the reception after the memorial service, because raisins kept all year round.”

“Can I take my oyster shells with me?” asked Vera.

“Sure,” said Kieran. ”We can get a little bag for you.”

“You can really taste the sea eating oysters,” said Vera. “Blackberry Point was a little thin and too salty, but once you eat one, and you don’t like it, whoa, what are you going to do? Valley Pearl didn’t have a lot of flavor, but there was some good texture to it. Lucky Lime was very good. My favorite was Sand Dune. It had a strong ocean flavor, briny.”

“I’ve heard people say oysters are slimy, but the one I had, it didn’t seem that way,” said Frank. “I can see having oysters again.”

“Don’t people sometimes say the world is your oyster?” said Vera.

“Do you want dessert?” asked Kieran.

“Do you have carrot cake?”

“It’s made here.”

“We’ll split a slice of that, and two coffees, thanks.”

As Vera and Frank dug into their carrot cake, there was a commotion at the other end of the bar. Kieran, Jamie, and Marly were huddling over glowing screens.

“Did your electronics go haywire?” asked Frank when Kieran brought them coffee.

“The microwave in the basement tripped the breaker. We hardly ever use it, except to melt butter sometimes. It’s weird, it’s been working until now. We have a thing that magnifies our wi-fi signal. We just found out it’s on the same circuit.”

“My mother was a pastry chef,” said Vera. ”She didn’t use microwaves much, but whenever she did, she always said, ‘I’m going to nuke it now!’”

Frank and Vera used their forks on the last crumbs of their cake and finished their coffee. Frank checked the time on his iPhone. “Time to go, sweetheart,” he said. They paid the bill and stood to go.

“Enjoy the show, hope to see you again,” Kieran said as Frank and Vera walked out of the Oyster House.

“It’s raining and sunny at the same time,” said Frank as they dashed across the street to the Victoria Theatre, yellow slanting sunlight leading the way.

“That’s PEI for you,” said Vera. “By the way, what are we seeing?”

“Where You Are.”

“I know where we are,” said Vera.

“That’s the name of the show,” said Frank.

“Aha, I see,” said Vera.

“Hustle it up, we’re almost late.”

They went up the steps into the theater, got their programs, and sat down. Vera tucked the bag of shells under her seat. “Wherever you are, there you are, oyster boys and girls,” she thought, making sure they were safe and sound.

“How could you even tell?” she wondered, as the lights went down and the show started.

Photograph by Vanessa Staskus

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Chips on the Spaldeen

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By Ed Staskus

“It’s a hell of a good day for it,” said Dwight Eisenhower, smiling broadly.

It was going to be his first full round of golf since June. He’d had a heart attack last year. Then when summer rounded itself into shape, he needed surgery for ileitis. The past week had been filled to the brim with the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Even though he had been unopposed, no need for a stampede, there had been some hard campaigning to drop Dick Nixon from the ticket, to no avail.

Ike was president because it was his duty. Richard Nixon wanted to be president. He wanted it for himself.

“Any man who wants to be president is either an egomaniac or crazy,” thought President Eisenhower.

The Negro singer Nat King Cole had spoken at the Cow Palace yesterday, the last day of the convention, to some jeers. Ike made it happen, no matter the carping about it. He knew he had to give in on the Vice-President, who was a hard-line anti-Communist, who the rank-and-file supported with cheers. But he knew he didn’t have to give in to Jim Crow. He could take the high road and leave the contrivances to Tricky Dick.

They drove up to Pebble Beach before the convention ended, before the Nixon’s could invite him to dinner. Richard Nixon’s father was seriously ill, besides, and Ike urged him to go before it was too late. There were three cars full of Secret Service fore and aft. Charlie Taylor, who’d been at it for years, was in one of the cars.

One night when Ike was having trouble opening his safe, and asked for help, his agents told him safecracking wasn’t part of their training. Ike was beside himself until Charlie Taylor got the cranky combination to give with no problem.

“I won’t know whether to trust you, or not, after this,” said Ike, glancing at Charlie.

He was driven to his golf outing in a black Lincoln Cosmopolitan. It was one of ten presidential touring cars. They all had extra headroom to accommodate the tall silk hat he wore on formal occasions. The cars were almost 20 feet long, V8’s with Hydra-Matic transmissions, and heavily armored, weighing in at close to ten thousand pounds. One of them was a convertible, a 1950 model built for Harry Truman. It had been fitted with a Plexiglas top since then.

Ike called it the Bubble-top. Charlie Taylor called it a pain-in-the-ass. Mamie didn’t like sitting under a dome, but she put up with it.

It was a high blue sky day, sunny, dotted with seaside clouds.

“It’s a pleasure, Mr. President,” said Turk Archdeacon, his caddy.

“Why, that’s fine,” said President Eisenhower.

Turk had been caddying at Cypress Point since he was nine-years-old, almost 40 years since. He and Ike walked to the practice tee. It was a cool morning. Ike started whacking balls out into the distance. He played with Bobby Jones woods with the official five-star general insignia engraved on the heads. At the putting green he lined up three balls down on the ground 20-some feet away from the cup.

He sank all three.

“I should quit right there,” he laughed.

He’d been practicing on a green on the White House grounds, and been hitting wedges, irons, and 3-woods, sometimes hitting balls over the south fence. Whenever he did, he sent his valet to retrieve them.

The squirrels that prowled the lawn dug up his putting green, burying acorns nuts hardtack. They left small craters behind. One morning he finally had enough. “The next time you see one of those goddamned squirrels go near my putting green, take a gun and shoot it!” The Secret Service asked the groundskeepers to trap the squirrels, instead, and release them in a park somewhere far away.

In a week August would be come and gone.  He would be 66-years-old soon.  “I’m saving that rocker for the day when I feel as old as I really am,” he said, pointing to the rocker in the Oval Office. More days now than not, he felt like that day was drawing close.

His birthday was on October 14th. CBS was planning a “Person to Person” style TV show the night before. Eddie Fisher was going to sing ‘Counting Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.’  Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel were going to sing ‘Down Among the Sheltering Palms.’ Nat King Cole, with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, was singing ‘It’s Just a Little Street Where Old Friends Meet.’

He was looking forward to it.

In six weeks he would be throwing out the first pitch for the first game of the World Series. There were five or six teams in the hunt, although the New York Yankees looked like a lock at least to get there. If he were a betting man, which he was, he would be putting his money on the Bronx Bombers.

He liked Cypress Point because it was set in coastal dunes, wandered into the Del Monte forest during the front nine, and then reemerged on the rocky Pacific coastline. The 15th, 16th, and 17th holes played right along the ocean. He’d played golf on many courses around the world.

This was one of the best of them.

On the other coast it was hot and humid in Hell’s Kitchen. It was in the 90s and stagnant. The heat was trapping the humidity in the air. Dottie was playing stickball in the street.

The street wasn’t West 56th.  Her father had told her to never play stickball on their own street. The fronts and windows of buildings were ruled home runs. Stan didn’t want any broken windows near where they lived. Dottie and her friends always played on West 55th or West 57th.  A boy bigger than her had once teased her about it, pushing her to the ground.

“You always do everything your old man tells you to do?” he said, curling his lip, looking down and straddling her.

She still had the stickball broom handle in her hands. Looking up from the gutter she whacked him as hard as she could across the shins. When the boy’s father showed up at their apartment that night to complain, her father threw the man out, dragging him down the stairs by his collar, threatening him and his son and any of their neighbors with harm if they ever laid hands on his daughter again.

“You did the right thing Dottie,” he said. “If somebody says something rotten to you, be a lady about it. But if somebody pushes you, or grabs you, or hits you, you hit them back as hard as you can. You always do that. That’s so they won’t push you down again.”

“OK, dad,” she said.

It was a good day for stickball. Eight kids had shown up, they had made their teams, and Willy, her friend from Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School, had brought a new pinky ball. It wasn’t a Pensy, either. It was the cream of the crop, a Spalding Hi-Bounce.

“Spaldeen!”

They drew a square rectangle with chalk on the brick wall at the back of a vacant lot on West 55th to represent the strike zone. The buildings on both sides were the foul lines. They chalked first and third base on the building walls and second base was a manhole on the sidewalk. If the ball hit any of the buildings across the street, it was a home run. If it hit a window they would run like hell. If it hit a roof it was a home run-and-a-half.

“There ain’t no runs-and-a-half,” a snot-nosed kid from Chelsea, visiting his cousins, sneered.

“If you’re going to play stickball on West 55th, you better learn Hell’s Kitchen rules,” gibed Willy.

Dottie was batter up. She smacked a hot grounder, but it was caught on the first bounce, and she was out. Willy got as far as third base, but three strikes and you’re out finished their inning. By the time they came back up in the second inning they were behind by five runs.

Dwight Eisenhower looked out at the par-5 10th hole. He had taken off his tan sweater, but still had a white cap on his head. Seven months ago Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, living legend professionals, had taken on Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward, amateurs, but talented and skillful, in a friendly foursome at Cypress Point.

The same 10th hole turned out to be the key to unlocking the contest.

“I bet they can beat anybody,” said San Francisco car dealer Eddie Lowery about the two amateurs, who were his employees. He was talking to fellow millionaire George Coleman. The bet and the match were on.

Harvie Ward was a two-time U.S. Amateur champion. Three months later Ken Venturi came within one stroke of winning the Masters. The cypress-strewn rolling dunes of the course on the wind-swept coast, the deep ravines, knee-deep grass, sand on all sides of the fairways, weren’t redoubtable, not to them.

Ben Hogan won the day on the 10th when he rolled in a wedge shot for a 3. The eagle and 27 birdies testified to the unfriendliness of the match. The drinks at the bar rubber-stamped the camaraderie afterwards.

Ike was playing with Harry Hunt, the president of Cypress Point, Sam Morse, a one-time football star who had developed Pebble Beach, and John McCone, a businessman who had been the undersecretary of the Air Force. Dwight Eisenhower was partnered with Harry Hunt. They were playing a dollar-dollar-dollar Nassau bet. It was even-steven at the halfway mark, even though Ike had stunk up the 8th hole.

“Where is it?” he had asked getting there, looking for the green across the dogleg.

He sliced his tee shot into sand. When he got to it he hit it less than ten feet further on. Then he hit it fat, the Ben Hogan ball soaring twenty feet, and falling into somebody’s heel print.

“I’ve had it, pick it up,” he said.

“Having a little trouble?” asked Sam Morse.

“Not a little,” said Ike, “but a lot.”

“All right, all right, let’s pick it up, let’s get some roofies,” yelled Willy, urging his team on. “But chips on the ball. I mean it.”

He meant that if his new Spaldeen was roofed, and couldn’t be found, everyone would chip in to pay for a new ball.

Hal came up to the plate, wagged the broom handle menacingly, and planted his high-top rubber-soled Keds firmly in the unravelling asphalt. They were new and felt like everyday’s-a-Saturday shoes. His batted ball hit the side wall at third base where the wall met the ground and bounced back to home plate in a high slow arc.

“It’s a Hindoo,” he shouted.

“No, that ain’t a do-over, foul ball, so it’s a strike,” shouted back Dave Carter, who everyone called Rusty because his hair was red.

“What do you know?”

“I know what I gotta know.”

“Go see where you gotta go,” said Hal.

“No, you stop wasting my time,” said Rusty. “It was a foul ball.”

“Ah, go play stoopball,” shouted Hal.

Stoopball was throwing a pinky against the steps of a stoop, and then catching it, either on the fly or on a bounce. Catching the ball was worth 10 points. Catching a pointer on the fly was worth 100 points. A pointer was when the ball hit the edge of a step and flew back like a line drive, threatening to take your eye out. When you played stoopball you played against yourself.

“You got a lotta skeeve wichoo,” Rusty shouted back at Hal.

“All right, already, strike one,” said Willy, finally.

He knew Rusty would never give in. He was a weisenheimer, besides, someone you had to keep your eyes on, or your Spaldeen might grow legs. It wasn’t that Rusty was a thief. He just kept his nickels in his pocket. Willy had heard he was such a tight-wad he still had his communion money from two years ago.

Rusty had been born in Philadelphia. That was his problem.

Hal hit a cheap, a slow roller, but when Rusty let his guard down, reaching leisurely down for the Spaldeen, it went between his legs, and the next second Hal was standing at first base, smirking.

“Comeback stickball,” he whispered to himself.

Eleven batters later Dottie’s team was on the plus side of the scoreboard, nine to five.

On the tee of the 17th hole Ike lined up his shot. Sea lions on the rocks below him barked. “It’s hard to hit a shot and listen to those seals at the same time,” he said, but not so either of the Secret Service agents with them could hear him.

Dwight Eisenhower was accustomed to having guards around him, during the campaign in North Africa, and later as commander of the Allied Army in Europe. The Nazis had tried to kill him several times. Secret Service agents near his person nearly every minute of the day was like a second skin. He knew what it took to save his skin. When he moved into the White House he didn’t mingle mindlessly, shake hands in crowds, or do anything foolish.

“Protecting Ike works like clockwork,” said agent Gerald Blaine.

Mamie Eisenhower gave her agents nicknames. One, who was a good dancer, was “Twinkletoes.” He asked Mamie to keep it between themselves. Some of the agents called her “Mom.”

“You don’t have to worry about me, but don’t let anything happen to my grandchildren,” Ike told Secret Service chief U. E. Baughman.

The Diaper Detail guarded the four kids. Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the presidential retreat in Maryland from Shangri-La to Camp David in 1953. “Shangri-La is just a little fancy for a Kansas farm boy,” he said. He renamed it in honor of his 5-year-old grandson, David.

When Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union leader, visited the retreat he said the name sounded like a place where “stray dogs were sent to die.”

Ike looked for the fairway on the 18th  hole.

“Where do we aim here?” he asked.

“Keep it away from the left,” said Harry Hunt. There was a stand of pine trees on the left. “That’s the Iron Curtain. You’ll never get through that stuff.”

Ike laughed and hit a long drive. His next shot was a 4-iron and he nailed it onto the green, 20 feet short of the pin.

In 1954 eighty people were convicted of threatening the president, and sent to prison or locked away as madmen. In 1955 nearly two thousand credible threats were made against Dwight Eisenhower’s life. The year before, the Russian KGB officer Peter Deryabin, after defecting, told the CIA about a plot to kill the president in 1952.

“We were preparing an operation to assassinate Eisenhower during his visit to Korea in order to create panic among the Americans and win the war in Korea.”

Shortly after Mother’s Day the Secret Service investigated a threat to plant two boxes of explosives at a baseball park where the president was planning on taking in a game. Whenever he played golf, stern-faced men with good eyesight and high-powered guns took up vantage points on hills, surveying the course with telescopic sights. Other agents, dressed in golf clothes, carried .351 rifles in their golf bags as they tagged along. In the parking lots the “Queen Mary,” an outfitted armored car, was the rolling command center.

“Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination,” Adolf Hitler had said not many years before. “This is the war of the future.”

Dwight Eisenhower and the Allied Army derailed the Nazi night train. No one was going to take him by surprise. He was planning on sitting in his rocking chair one day, rocking back and forth, watching over his grandchildren.

The woman sitting on the stoop across the street watched Dottie and her friends walk away down the sidewalk, their stickball game over, one of them bouncing his pinky, all of them talking happily.

“We killed them, just killed them,” said Willy.

“We sure did,” said Hal.

“What a game!” said Dottie.

“Yeah, first we were down, came back big, you put some Chinese on that ball between Rusty’s legs, they slipped ahead, and then we score fourteen just like that, and it’s all over.”

“Did you see Rusty, the putz, pulling that long face?” asked Hal.

“Oh, he’ll be back, he loves stickball,” said Dottie.

Dwight Eisenhower had served in the armed forces from one end of his adult life to the other. After he retired he was dean at Columbia, and then president. He was still the president and, he was sure, he was going to defeat Adlai Stevenson better than he had four years ago.

Dottie was so glad her team had won.

Even though he’d commanded millions of men in the last war, Ike thought war was rarely worth going to war for. He hated it. “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

They had scrapped for every run. It was worth it. She didn’t mind losing once in awhile, but she liked winning better.

“Didn’t you once say that we are going to have peace even if we have to fight for it?” asked Harry Hunt.

“When we have to, but always remember, the most terrible job in the world is to be a second lieutenant leading a platoon when you’re on the battlefield. There‘s no glory in battle worth the blood it costs. When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it themselves.”

Dottie stripped off her hot sweaty clothes, rubbed down with a cool sponge, and put on a fresh pair of shorts and a t-shirt.

The Cold War wasn’t as hot as it had been ever since Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality earlier in the year, as well as admitting the Man of Steel’s crimes, the crimes committed against Mother Russia. A door had been cracked open. Ike had long thought war settles nothing, even when it’s all over. He was afraid of the arms race, the march towards a nuclear catastrophe.

“You just can’t have that kind of war,” he had told his inner circle. “There aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”

Dottie put her stick bat away in a corner near her bedroom window. In the summer she loved her friends, no matter what team they were on, and stickball more than anything in the world. She even liked Rusty a little bit when it was sunny and warm.

“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative” is what he had written and wanted to say at the Cow Palace, but didn’t, not with Dick Nixon and the Red Scare and the military hand-in-hand with industry. He wanted to call it what it was, a military-industrial complex that was always crying “fire” in a crowded theater.

But he couldn’t, at least not until after he was re-elected.

In the meantime, he planned on speaking softly and carrying a big stick, even if it was only a long shaft wood driver, the biggest club he had in his bag.

Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”