Category Archives: Accidental Realism

Hunting Blind

By Ed Staskus

   Tyrell Carter’s father Abe first spied his mother Olive through a second-floor window at the Majestic Hotel. She was fiddling with her skirt standing waiting on the corner of Central Avenue and East 55th Street for the CTS streetcar. It was a sunny summer day. Olive did pantry work and was on her way home.

   He spotted her from behind his venetian blind.

   “I had just gotten back from Woodland Cemetery, where I sometimes did patrols on foot, which was whenever my sergeant thought there was some small thing I did he didn’t care for.” It was how Abe came to be known as Gravedigger Carter. “She was a sight for sore eyes and sore feet. I put my Colt Positive away in the dresser drawer and stepped outside.”

   During the winter the Majestic let Abe, who was a policeman, have a small room on the East 55th Street side of the hotel. When it got below zero, he ducked into it for ten fifteen minutes to warm up. He helped the house man when help was needed. His room was a half-dozen steps from a secret door beside the drug store, in case anything bad happened there. After a few years he kept the room in the summer, too. The Majestic was called the apartments, but it was a hotel. Abe started going there when he was in his early 20s and the jazz club off the lobby was called the Furnace Room.

   “Meeting your mother was a lot like jazz, it was improvised,” he told Tyrell. “That was it, go ahead and see what happens.”

   The club had dancers and crooners and bands that came through Cleveland on tour. The restaurant serving food all around, to the club and rooms, was Mammy Louise’s Barbeque Café. Their house specialty was braised beef short ribs in gravy. The ribs were like soul music in your mouth.

   Abe was from a small town in the Florida Panhandle and never thought twice about eating chicken fried steak, candied sweet potatoes, and cheesy grits. He ran it off when he was a boy. He walked it off when he was a cop.

   “We went to Mammy Louise’s for dinner and then next door to the club,” he said. “The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were there the night we stepped out. They were an all-girl all-color orchestra. ‘Slick Chicks and Hot Licks’ was what it said on the billboard outside the doors. They raised the roof and we raised hell, dancing up a storm.”

   The Furnace Room became Elmer Waxman’s Ubangi Club, but when Abe first took Tyrell there in the 1950s, when he was twelve years-old, it was the Rose Room Cocktail Lounge. Before the Hough race riots and Glenville shoot-outs in the 1960s, even though it was already mostly a colored neighborhood, the audiences were every which way. Judges and politicians from downtown brought their wives to the Rose Room. It was the black and tan saloon scene. It was its own world in the nighttime.

   But by then no one danced to jazz anymore. That had already changed. It wasn’t that jazz changed, even though it had. It was new music and new dancers.

   When Abe applied to the Cleveland Police Department after high school the merit system broke down, like it always did, because he was a Negro, a man of color. They said he had poor eyesight, even though he didn’t start wearing glasses until he was in his 70s, almost fifty years after joining the force. He had to ask for help from his ward leader to have the rejection overruled.

   He hunted moonshiners in the 1930s, which was dangerous work, before they gave him his own beat. He had to prove himself first. He said you could always tell whether the moonshine was good if you set it on fire and blue flames were what you saw.

   “That’s when you knew it wouldn’t make you go blind.”

   There weren’t many men of color on the police force, and most of those who made the department had to get certification from outside doctors to overrule the official exam of the police doctor. Jim Crow was sneakier in the North than it was in the South. The department kept separate eligibility lists, so that when one Negro died, resigned, or retired, his replacement might be another Negro. When a white policeman died, his replacement was always another white man.

   Duke Jenkins and his group were the house band at the Majestic. They were the first jazz band Tyrell ever heard. Every Tuesday night was Cha Cha Night and on Thursdays Mambo Night was hot. But the big attraction was the early morning Blue Monday Parties.

   “People lined up to get into those jam sessions. Sometimes you couldn’t even get a seat. All the players, the girl singers, the quartets, entertainers like Erroll Garner and Arthur Prysock and Nancy Wilson, they’d be there performing. People went crazy when Nancy Wilson was there because she was so good,” Abe said.

   Tyrell stayed overnight with his father at the Majestic on Sundays and went to the Blue Monday parties with him when they started, which was at five in the morning. Afterwards he drove his son to school. If they stayed too late at the jam session, soaking up the sound, he would call and ask for a squad car to race Tyrell to school, its lights flashing and siren whooping.

   “Eyes lit up like flashbulbs on a camera whenever that happened,” Tyrell said.

   There were only a handful of Cleveland hotels listed in the Negro Green Book. The Majestic was one of them. All the rooms had two beds and a radio on every bedstand, although Abe only had one bed. He had the other one removed so Tyrell and he could have a table to eat at on Sunday nights. Tyrell slept on a folding rollaway Abe kept in the closet.

   When Tyrell was a baby his mother kept his playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. It was so she would know where he was. As long as she heard him picking out notes she knew he wasn’t getting into anything else. When he was in third grade, he found out they had music classes at his grade school. He was eight years old.

   “I’d like to do that,” he told his mother. He lived with her and his grandparents, and it was a surprise to all of them, although it shouldn’t have been. That’s how things were. “That’s just what my place was,” he said. But he found out even the status quo can change.

   There were piano lessons at the Miles Standish School. He learned to play a Chopin waltz sitting beneath a painting of Miles Standish, after who the school was named. The portrait was of a soldier for the Pilgrims when they came to the New World. In the painting he wore armor and carried a matchlock rifle.

   Tyrell played the piano and organ because his grandmother wanted him to. She was the matriarch of the family and conservative about almost everything under the sun. She didn’t believe in bell house music. She was strict about church music, too, so she had a man, who was the organist at the New Liberty Hill Baptist Church, come to their house and give him lessons. Years later, when he was older, he played there himself.

   Paul John was the man who came to their house. He worked in the steel mills in the Flats. He was a friend of Tyrell’s grandfather, who sang in the male chorus in the mill that Mr. John led on a cheap five rank pipe organ. The chorus went to Detroit and Pittsburgh to perform on holidays.

   “Mr. John could play Rachmaninoff, and all, but he was ahead of his time, so he had to give lessons,” Abe said. “That was the incentive for him when he came to your mother’s house and got you started. You put food on his table.”

   Tyrell played sacred music for most of his life and jazz music the rest of the time. The sacred music came from his mother and grandmother, and the jazz music came from his father, who took him to the Majestic and later to uptown clubs like the Tijuana Café Society.

   “When the Four Sounds came to audition at the Tijuana, they were just re-opening, and they didn’t even have a piano on the stage. It was in the corner. I helped them lift it up on the stage to do the audition,” Abe said. He was a tall strong man. “They had been the Four Sounds until they asked me to talk to the saxophone player one night. He had a habit of carrying a gun in his horn case. He wouldn’t listen to a lick of sense. When he said he didn’t want to leave it behind, they finally left out the saxophone and became the Three Sounds.”

   Most days anybody walking by could hear a horn through an open window down the street from Doan Square, where all the action was, a jazz musician reading his lines in the afternoon. Hotels weren’t open to musicians of color, so they stayed in rooming houses. They minded their own business.

   “You couldn’t even go to the Five and Dime store and have a quiet lunch,” Tyrell said.

   His grandmother went to buy a hat one Saturday and when she tried it on, she had to buy it. She had put it on her head to see if it fit and when a salesclerk saw her, she had to pay for it. His grandfather was a mulatto from Cuba. Whenever a white man came to their house, selling something, or on some errand, his grandfather was polite, but as soon as the white man left the porch and was out of earshot he would spit and call the man a cracker.

   They lived on Pierpont Avenue in Glenville, what everyone called the Gold Coast, before Glenville fell apart and the Gold Coast moved to Lakewood in the 1960s. His grandmother died in 1968 and his mother sold the house, moving to Lost Nation Road east of Will-O-Way. His grandfather moved into a rented room. By then Tyrell had finished his studies at the Boston Conservatory and was playing the big organ at the Christian Science Mother Church. In the summer he began playing the piano at jazz clubs in Provincetown and Martha’s Vineyard.

   When he was a boy Glenville was crowded with immigrants, people of color, and Jews. There were orthodox Jews all over the place. He thought they were Santa Claus’s in black suits. There were churches for men of faith, like the Cory United Methodist Church, which had been the Park Synagogue, and the Abyssinia Baptist Church, which had also been a synagogue. There were clubs, movie houses, and department stores.

   There were mom and pop restaurants run by the Jews. There were no bad sandwich shops in Glenville, but Abe always ate at Pirkle’s Deli. He said if he ever spied a good-looking Jewish woman from his window at the Majestic, he was going to hunt her down so he could get up Sunday mornings and stroll out to the deli with her.

   “Those folks never invented anything so fine as deli food,” he said.  “The corned beef at Pirkle’s is as tender as a young lady’s leg.”

    Tyrell’s father and mother were never together as a family. “There were two different families, his and ours,” Tyrell said. Abe and Olive had their room at the Majestic some nights, but in later years she felt he betrayed her. “My father said he wanted to marry my mother, and she thought he was going to divorce his wife, but he didn’t do that.” Afterwards she had a hard time seeing Abe in the light of a soul mate.

   “Your mother shot a hole in my soul,” Abe said.

   Tyrell lived with his mother and after she married another man, she bore two more boys who became his brothers, the boys sharing her. Abe came to their house many times, often in his police car, after he was promoted, which was exciting. He parked in the driveway for everybody to see. It wasn’t as if they were cut off from him.

   He was one of the first colored farmers in Twinsburg, where he kept fowl and pigs. Every November the family got a turkey for Thanksgiving. He had a smokehouse, too, and when the time came to slaughter some of the fattening pigs, he would do it himself. He castrated the males a month beforehand. The family had bacon and ham all winter and into the spring.

   Abe picked Tyrell up on Friday and Saturday nights when he was a teenager to help him forage for feed. They drove up and down Euclid Avenue, on the south side of Glenville, from E. 110th to E. 95th Street, picking up refuse from the barrels and dumpsters behind the clubs and restaurants on the strip. Abe would stick his gloved hands into the slop and feel around the mash for metal and glass before filling up their barrels.

   “Pigs will eat anything you give them. They can be stink and filth, even though their sausages smell great. I would rather cut myself than injure my animals.”

   When their barrels were full, they drove his Ford pick-up to the farm. The pigs would hear the truck coming and know it was time to eat. They started doing what pigs do, getting feisty and greedy. He dumped the food in the trough, let them loose, and they would go at it. That was why, knowing how they behaved, Abe picked through the grease fruit vegetables meat leftovers, because they would have cut themselves, biting into anything.

   Tyrell stopped gleaning garbage when his mother finally told him he had to be careful about his hands. She didn’t want him hurting them, hurting his chances. Olive wanted him to go places, better places than scrounging for scraps behind eateries in the dark.

   He learned more sacred music and fewer blue notes after his mother put him in Empire High. Eleanor Bishop, his music teacher, had been there since the school opened. She had a trim hourglass figure and the only thing that gave her away was that she wore old lady comforters. But she was spry and walked fast. She could catch bad boys anytime she wanted to.

   She was an old maid because she had become a teacher long ago and wasn’t supposed to marry, and by the time the times changed it was too late for her. One afternoon Tyrell found a dedicatory book for Empire High, which was built in 1915. He took it to her office.

   “I see your name in this book, and your picture,” he said.

   She looked at him.

   “Is this you?”

   “Yes.”

   “But you’re old, not like this.”

   “I wasn’t always old,” she said.

   Tyrell was sure she wanted to pinch him, hard, like she did when he hit a wrong note.

   But she didn’t put any mind to what he said. She made sure he practiced faithfully and later helped him get a scholarship to Ohio University, where he studied the organ. After he graduated, he never lived in Glenville again.

   Tyrell lived in Chicago, New York, and Boston. He learned to live alone, like Duke Ellington, who said music was a mistress. He lived in his own world, detached and determined, so he could practice. He had friends who kept him in tune to the here and now, but on Saturday nights he didn’t go anywhere. He had to be ready for Sunday services. That kept him out of wrongdoing. He tried mischief a few times but decided it’s bad when you’re not feeling well in a church setting. He decided he had to do it his way.

   He didn’t see much of his mother, who moved to California to live with one of his brothers, who had become a minister, and his father only when he was passing through the Midwest on his way to Chicago or St. Louis. They visited and had lunch at one or another deli in Cleveland Heights, where all the Jews had moved. Pirkle’s Deli had burned down. Their neighborhood was on the move.

   Abe was an industrious man his whole life. When he retired and his lawful wife passed on, he bought the last commercial building, next to Whitmore’s Bar-B-Q, on Kinsman Road where it starts to snake up into Shaker Heights. It was a barbershop and beauty salon side-by-side. He lived upstairs in a one-bedroom apartment. He could have lived in a house, since he owned five of them, but he didn’t want to.

   “I don’t want to get too comfortable because I may not be here long,” he said.

   His apartment had one bedroom and one bathroom. It had one table with two chairs, one sofa, and one half-empty closet. It looked like no one lived there. He was becoming his own gravedigger.

   He was industrious but changed into a careless custodian of his properties. He got short stingy and mean. He patchworked instead of getting things done the best way, so it slowly deteriorated. He wasn’t willing to pay the price to get things done the right way. When a man has that mindset, he ends up losing more money than he’s spent.

   Abe lost his eyesight while he was visiting Texas. He stepped on a splinter and after a few days his big toe got infected. He had surgery for it, but in the end, they had to amputate the toe. Afterwards he lost feeling in his leg. While he was still in the hospital convalescing, he woke up one morning and had gone blind. He stayed in Texas for a month, and when he came back, he moved in with Tyrell’s sister on the other side of the family, who took care of him.

   He never recovered his sight, which was hard because he had always lived by his senses. The biggest problem, though, were the visions and nightmares he suffered, which were part of the side effects from the medication he was taking. He had them at night when he went to bed. He heard things and saw craziness and wasn’t able to sleep.

   Tyrell never got his father and mother together, even when Abe was dying, and he was staying with him, playing old jazz records together. His father listened to music all day towards the end. He stopped sleeping and eating, drinking cold lemonade, instead. The last time his mother visited Cleveland Abe was near the darkness. Tyrell took her to places in Glenville, some that were still there and others that weren’t anymore, trying to get her to go to the facility on Rockside Road where his father was. She fought him all the way, and in the end wouldn’t go.

   She just didn’t want anything to do with him. “That’s all over, a long time ago,” she said, shaking her head.

   Abe and Olive did what they had to do from beginning to end. Tyrell was just a cameo on the business they had between themselves. When his father died there was nothing left to do in Glenville. He said goodbye to his mother, who went back to California, and drove back to Boston for good.

   Three seasons of the year Tyrell played sacred organ music. In the summer he played jazz and popular tunes in clubs on Cape Cod. On Sunday mornings when the weather was good, he brewed a pot of strong coffee and microwaved a plate of spiced hot cross buns. On his balcony sitting in the warmth and light of the rising sun, he looked for what was behind the brightness, on the faraway blue note side of the cloud-flecked sky.

A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Flower Power

By Ed Staskus

   My father was a firm believer in the harder you work the better your station. He meant better car better house more money in the bank better everything. He was a refugee from Lithuania, getting out of Europe in 1949 with a duffel bag and twenty-five dollars in his pocket. By the time he got to Sudbury, Ontario, he was down to five dollars, but found employment at a cement factory the next day. Even though I wasn’t sure bigger was better, I was barely 15 years old the summer of 1966 and not about to argue with him.

   When I came home from our Lithuanian American Canadian Franciscan summer camp on Wasaga Beach I was immediately put to work. My father got a job for me on the chain gang of a landscaper who was redoing the grounds at Mt. Sinai Hospital. We trimmed trees, took out dead shrubs replacing them with new ones, and planted marigolds.

   Mount Sinai Hospital began in 1892 as the Young Ladies’ Hebrew Association “caring for the needy and sick.” It opened as a hospital in 1903 on East 32nd Street, catering to east side Jews, then moved to a bigger building on East 105th Street in 1916. In time it became the healthcare provider to Cleveland’s urban poor.

   My job was helping unload clods of rolled-up sod and laying them down to make new lawns. That meant removing the old grass and some of the worn-out soil beneath it, preparing the ground with a bow rake, breaking up any large chunks, laying the sod, neatening the edges, and finally watering the heck out of it. Handling the hose was the best part of the job. By the end of the first day, I was dirty and tired and underpaid. 

   I got a ride every morning from Val, a local Lithuanian American like us home from college. He drove a 1960 Plymouth Valiant with push-button transmission shifters. There was no button for park, but there was a lever for it. Moving the lever to the end put the transmission into park and popped out whatever button was in gear. It was groovy as he smacked the buttons from first to second to drive.

   We hopped on I-90 at East 185th St. and took the Liberty Blvd. exit, driving along the winding road through Rockefeller Park to the hospital work site. The 200-acre park was given to the city by John D. in 1897. Four stone bridges carried traffic and trains over the road, there was a lagoon for rowing fishing and ice skating at the end of it, and a couple dozen Cultural Gardens down the three-mile length of it.

   The gardens are a series of landscaped green spots honoring ethnic communities in Cleveland, set up from the south shore of Lake Erie to University Circle. The first one was the Shakespeare Garden in 1916, which later became the British Garden. The Cultural Garden League carved out the next one, the Hebrew Garden, in 1926. After that they were up and running. In the next ten years 14 more gardens were created, including the Italian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian. The idea was to reflect the city’s immigrant groups, which at the time made up about a third of the population.

   In 1936 the city unified the gardens with bordered paths. Busts and statues were installed in many of them. The first One World Day took place in 1946. A parade of nationality floats and bands blaring homegrown tunes started downtown at Public Square, crept six miles along Euclid Ave. to the Cultural Gardens, where there were speeches and a ceremony. Afterwards there was food, souvenir stands, strolling around the gardens and hobnobbing, and dancing to more music. By the end of the day, it sounded like the Tower of Babel.

   We were listening to ‘Hanky Panky’ by Tommy James and the Shondells on the car radio one Wednesday, curving onto Liberty Blvd. on our way to work, when we were brought up short by a jeep with a machine gun mounted on the back. It was blocking the road. There were more jeeps scattered in the distance. A line of cars was backing up and going the way they had come. Val pulled over to the side until a National Guardsman walked up to our car. 

   “Turn around fellas,” he said. “The road is going to be closed today, maybe the rest of the week.”

   “Why, what’s going on?” Val asked.

   “The niggers are raising hell, busting into stores, burning them down.”

   “What about the parade?” I asked. One World Day was scheduled for the weekend. My parents, brother, sister, and I always went. It was a big thing.

   “I don’t know about any parade, but there ain’t going to be one until things cool down.”

   The street fighting started on Monday when a black man walked into the white-owned Seventy-Niners Café at Hough Ave. and East 79th St. He asked for a glass of water to cool down. It had been a hot day in a hot summer. The café said no, get the hell out of here. One thing led to another and before long the Cleveland Police Department had a riot on its hands. The more cops who showed up the bigger the mob got. By the next day there weren’t enough policemen in the city to handle the violence. Mayor Ralph Locher asked Ohio Governor James Rhodes to send in the National Guard. They showed up through the night and deployed in the morning.

   “Why are you home so early,” my mother asked after Val dropped me off. “Did you do something.”

   “No, the colored people did, there’s a riot going on and we couldn’t get to work,” I said.

   In the mid-1960s 60% of Northern whites agreed that Negro students should be able to go to the same schools.70% agreed with residential integration. 80% agreed that they should be able to get the same jobs as white folks. 90% agreed that they should enjoy public transportation just like everybody else. 100% of Lithuanian Americans didn’t care what bus Negroes rode to whatever job, but the same 100% was opposed to colored kids in their schools and colored families moving into their neighborhoods. When the moving started was when the white flight started.

   My parents weren’t any different than any other Lithuanian I ever heard say anything about it. They hated the Russians, disliked Jews, and looked down on Negroes. Their culture was one of nationalism religion property and community. They thought Negroes were bad Americans, slow-moving and shiftless, belonged to the wrong religion, didn’t respect private property, careless stewards of it, and didn’t have a community based on anything other than their skin color.

   Where we lived there were no Negroes, at all. I delivered the Cleveland Press afternoon newspaper door-to-door six days a week and collected money for it once a week. I knew who lived on our street of 90-some houses. There weren’t any black hands on my route handing me their payment of 50 cents and a tip if they wanted their rubber-banded paper to land on the front porch the following week.

   Where I went to high school, St Joseph’s, it was the same as my paper route. I might see a black face once in a blue moon, but not in any of my classes. They were the janitors. There were lots of big Catholic families in our neighborhood of North Collinwood, and they were a solid block of European stock.

   After Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the emerging Civil Rights movement, the times were slowly changing, but it was a bumpy change. Integration meant a big stink ill will and uproar. There had been a couple of incidents at Collinwood High School, a few miles southwest of us, the year before. “With the passage of each year, the western fringes of the Collinwood area are being occupied by the Negro overflow from Glenville,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the morning paper.

   Four years later 400 white students and their friends milling around Collinwood High in the morning started throwing rocks, smashing more than 50 windows. The 200 colored students newly attending the school fled to the third-floor cafeteria. When the mob stormed into the building the Negroes blocked the stairs to the third floor with tables and chairs, breaking off the legs to arm themselves. Cleveland police from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Districts poured in, forming a cordon to keep the whites from attacking the blacks who were boarding buses. 

   “Always be careful around them,” my mother said, meaning Negroes. “They might have a knife.”

   My mother and father believed African Americans went ballistic at the drop of a hat. I took my parents at their word. It was dicey messing with their point-of-view. They survived three invasions while growing up in Lithuania, were in Germany during the convulsive last months of the Third Reich, emigrated to North America with just about nothing except willpower, and worked their way up to tax-paying property-owning Republicans in the New World. 

   Hough was a powder keg the summer of 1966. Downtown was white, University Circle was white, and in the middle was Hough, which was black. The housing was substandard and overcrowded. The area stores were crappy and overcharged for their wares. The cops were surly about who they were serving and protecting. When the race riot got rolling, there was rock throwing, looting, arson, and some gunfire. Four people were killed, all four of them Negroes. Two were caught in crossfires, one was killed by a white passerby while waiting at a bus stop, and one was shot by a Little Italian who said it was self-defense. More than 30 were injured, close to 300 were arrested, and 240-some fires were set. There was an estimated $2 million in property damage, most of it in Hough. Some homes burned to the ground.

   Real family income rose rapidly in the 1960s. From 1960 to 1970, median family income, adjusted for inflation, rose to $20,939 from $15,637. It did, at least, if you were white. It didn’t if you were Negro. It went the other way.

   “It is a stark reality that the black communities are becoming more and more economically depressed,” Bayard Rustin wrote in 1966.

   “There has been almost no change or change for the worse in the daily lives of most blacks,” Carmichael and Hamilton wrote in 1967.

   “Although it is true that the income of middle-class Negroes has risen somewhat, the income of the great mass of Negroes is declining,” Martin Duberman wrote in 1968.

   You can only do so much with less. It’s smooth sailing when there’s money in the piggybank. It’s a hard slog when the piggybank has been smashed to pieces. Living on bits and pieces is bitter.

   “The white man is reaping what he has sown. He is learning you can’t push people around. The trouble is here because the white man won’t treat the black man right,” the owner of a barber shop in Hough said. A grand jury later concluded that the Communist party, outside agitators, and black nationalists organized the haphazard uprising, but the finding was laughed off. No Communists had been seen in Cleveland for years and not even outside agitators nor black nationalists wanted to be seen in Hough, fearing for their safety.

   An angry crowd started a big fire at Cedar Ave. and E. 106th St. at the start of the weekend, burning down most of a block of stores, but that was the low point of the disturbance. Life in the ghetto returned to normal on Sunday and the next day merchants started reopening. The National Guard was released from duty and Val and I went back to work on Wednesday.

   From where we stood on the grounds of Mt. Sinai Hospital, it looked like nothing had happened. But there were two Cleveland Police cars parked at the front, and one near the back, that whole week. There had always been police cars around the hospital, but those three stayed round the clock.

   Nobody talked much about the riot, except to say, “those coons are crazy” and “it’s a damned shame about the parade.” Val and I shouldered on for another week-and-a-half. When the project was done, we were sent out to Bratenahl, mowing lawns for the millionaires who lived in the east side lakeside mansions.

   Our last day, driving home on Liberty Blvd, the Cultural Gardens looking great in the full summer sun, Val said, “Have you noticed there isn’t an African American garden?”

   “No,” I said.

   “They were some of the first immigrants, against their will, but still, you would think there would be a garden for them, especially since this is all in their neighborhood.”

   “I guess so,” I said.

   Val was five years older and wiser than me. He was going to an east coast college, majoring in philosophy. He wore his hair long. Some Lithuanians called him a dirty hippie, even though he worked like a sharecropper.

   The idea of building a garden for Cleveland’s colored community was brought up in 1961 by Cleveland councilman Leo Jackson. He proposed a “Negro Cultural Garden.”  The mayor supported the proposal, but it was voted down by his finance committee. In 1968 the idea came back, including a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated that year, to stand in the middle of it. Nothing came of the comeback until 1976, when Congressman Louis Stokes brought it to life again. Ground for the garden was broken and dedicated in 1977, but the project remained unfinished until 2016, almost forty years later.

   When we turned off Liberty Blvd., curving onto the entrance ramp to I-90, Val punched the spunky Valiant’s push buttons through its gears, and we rode the current of rush hour traffic back to North Collinwood. The weekend was tomorrow. I was glad to be going home.

   “It’s shelter from the storm,” Val said.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Bomb City USA

By Ed Staskus

When I went to work as the night clerk at the Versailles Motor Inn on East 29th and Euclid Ave. in the mid 1970s, Cleveland, Ohio was the bomb capital of the country. There were 37 bombings in Cuyahoga County in 1976, including 21 in the city, making it tops in the United States, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

   “A bombing sends a real message. It commands a lot of attention,” said Rick Porello, an east side career police chief. “Danny Greene was said to have paid Art Sneperger, his main explosives guy, extra if the bombing generated news coverage. Art got paid a bonus if the thing got on television or in the newspapers.”

   The bomb guy made his own headlines in 1971 when, at the behest of Irish mobster Greene, he suddenly inadvertently found himself in hellfire while planting explosives in the car of the racketeer’s old friend and new enemy Mike Frato. Fumble fingers don’t pay.

   Six years later Danny Greene was blown up walking out of a dental office in Lyndhurst. The gangster paid cash, so the dentist ignored the sonic boom. The tooth fairy cancelled her gig that night.

   The bomb was in a Chevy Nova parked next to his Lincoln Continental. It was a Trojan Horse. When it went off, set off by remote control, the Nova, Continental, and Greene were reduced to a tangle of corn flakes. The coroner didn’t bother trying to put him back together.

   The Nova came from Fairchild Chevrolet in Lakewood. “We heard the owner of the car lot might have been involved,” said Bob Gheen. “The bomb was placed in the Nova and left next to Danny Greene’s Lincoln.” The Chevy  had been his father’s car. “They didn’t transfer the title out of my dad’s name. Rick Porello from the Lyndhurst Police Department showed up at our door on Saturday morning and drove us to identify the car. We had to answer several questions and that’s pretty much the last we heard of it.”

   I was taking classes at Cleveland State University but because I didn’t have a scholarship or any grants, and nobody would give me a loan, I had to pay the tuition fees and book costs myself. I was living in Asia Town, in a house on East 34th St, upstairs in a two-bedroom with a roommate, but even though I knew how to live on next to nothing, I needed a little to make the bills and more to pay for school.

   The Versailles Motor Inn was built in the mid-60s, meant to piggyback on the Sahara Motor Inn a few blocks away at East 32nd St., built in the early 60s. The Sahara wasn’t hiring, but the Versailles was, and I thought if it was like the Sahara, I was their young man for the job.

   All the rooms at the four-story Sahara featured a television, air conditioning, piped-in music, and your own dial phone, the first ones in northern Ohio. There were three presidential suites and three bridal suites. There was a heated swimming pool, a dance floor, and a patio on the second floor. There was a continental dining room with velvet armchairs and a starlight ceiling and there were four cocktail lounges. The waitresses wore Egyptian outfits, and the waiters wore fezzes. There were eight-foot paintings of Cleopatra, King Tut, and Queen Nefertiti in the lobby.

   Except that the Versailles had 150 rooms, exactly like the Sahara, that is where the resemblance ended. The Versailles had a bar restaurant, a coffee shop, and a lobby. It featured sunken pit seating in the lobby where nobody ever went. The lighting was bad. The front doors facing Euclid Ave were kept locked under penalty of death. Unlike the Sahara where the plants in the lobby were real geraniums rhododendrons and palm trees, everything at the Versailles was fake. The front desk was veneer and small, a drive-up entrance on the side of the building at one end of it and the door to the bar restaurant at the other end of it. There were two elevators facing the desk.

   The Sahara attracted weddings conventions and business meetings. Sometime TV crews filming episodes for “Route 66” stayed there. The Versailles attracted business like peddlers and door-to-door salesmen, families on a budget, African American ministers, short-term construction workers, sketchy characters who left big tips and said hold all their calls, and the John and Jane trade.

   I was glad to get the job since I could walk there from where I lived in Asia Town, it paid reasonably well, and I would have about half of my shift of 11 PM to 7 AM to do homework. My night clerk responsibilities were mainly checking in guests and taking reservations. I also reconciled the day’s receipts and processed invoices for payment between seeing to guests tramping in and out, getting paid a little extra for doing the night auditor work. I gave travel directions to late-night callers, answered inquiries about our hotel services, which was easy since there were hardly any, and made recommendations to guests about nighttime dining and entertainment options, which was also easy.

   “In the 1970s, downtown was dead. The Warehouse District and Playhouse Square weren’t happening yet. There was no reason to come,” said John Gorman, disc jockey and program director at radio station WMMS. 

   One sleepless night at the Versailles, while nothing was going down on my side of downtown, and I was boning up for an exam the next week, Shondor Birns, Public Enemy #1 in Cleveland for a long time, met his maker outside Christy’s Lounge, a strip club on Detroit Ave. across the street from St. Malachi Catholic Church. It was Holy Saturday, easing into Easter Sunday.

   During Prohibition the Birns family turned to bootlegging, working a still for Cleveland Mafia boss Joe Lonardo. His mother burned to death when the still exploded. After he dropped out of 10th grade, Shondor was arrested 18 times in 12 years. After his 6th arrest a Cleveland prosecutor said, “It is time the court put away this man whose reputation is one of rampant criminality.”

   He hooked up with the Maxie Diamond gang and got into the lucrative protection rackets. He muscled into numbers operations and policy games. He opened restaurants like the Ten-Eleven and Alhambra. His big mistake was hiring Danny Greene as an enforcer. The relationship soured and Birns put a contract out on Greene. When the Irishman found a bomb in his car, he took it apart himself and showed it to Cleveland Police Lieutenant Ed Kovacic, who offered him police protection.

   “No, for whatever it’s worth,” Danny Greene said, leaving and taking the bomb with him. “I’m going to send this back to the old bastard that sent it to me.”

   When Shondor Birns left the girlie show, got comfortable behind the wheel of his car, and the engine turned over purring, a hefty packet of C-4 exploded beneath him. He was blown through the roof of his Lincoln Mark IV. His torso landed near the passenger door. His legs landed fifty feet away. The cigarette he had meant to light was still between his lips.

   Mary Nags owned a print shop on Detroit Road that shared a common parking lot with the strip club. She got a call saying not to come to work on Monday. “They said a man had been blown up and parts of him were scattered around in our back lot.” The CPD spent another day finding all the parts of Shondor Birns.

   Police detectives focused on the lottery number big men in the ghetto with whom Birns had been feuding. That turned out to be a dead end. “It’s dumb to talk about blacks doing Shondor. Shon wasn’t no bad fella. He was white but it didn’t make no difference. Shon had a black soul. He was black through and through,” one of them said.

   After that everybody knew Danny Greene had done it, but charges were never brought when the hitman died. The Irish mobster had contracted Hells Angel Enis “Eagle” Crnic to do the job on Birns. The biker was then himself blown up bungling the sticking of explosives to the underside of a car belonging to “Johnny Del” Delzoppo. If the district attorney wanted to subpoena the Eagle, he would have to deliver the document to the bottomless pit, where he was living next door to Art Sneperger.

   The first time I was robbed at the Versailles Motor Inn I wasn’t robbed, because I was surprised and reacted without thinking. A young black man filled out a registration card, handed me a twenty, and when I turned around to get him his key, started rifling the cash drawer. “Hey!” I shouted, lunging forward and smashing the drawer shut on his hand. He ran out yelping and cursing.

   The second time I was robbed I was robbed. The next young black bandit didn’t bother registering. He was wearing a jacket and suggested he had a gun by patting his side near his armpit. “Know what I mean?” he said.

   “It’s not my money,” I said opening the drawer, stepping back, and raising my hands to the ceiling. He said I could put them down, but “don’t mess around.”

   He took all of the night’s take except the change. I called the police, a patrol car pulled up, I made out a report and they left. The men in blue seemed indifferent.

   “Don’t let it happen again,” my boss said in the morning.

   “What do you suggest?”

   “Do you want to keep your job?”

   “I guess so,” I said hedging my bets.

   “All right then,” he said, and that was the end of his word to the wise.

   My last night at the Versailles Motor Inn was the same as most nights, until it wasn’t. It was busy until 2:30, then it was slow as an orphanage’s graveyard. I sat in the back office reading until I got drowsy. I took a walk through the gloomy lobby and was standing behind the front desk doing nothing when the next split second there was an explosion. The doors of the bar restaurant flew off their hinges and every single glass window the length of the hallway was blown to smithereens.

   Other than the echo from the blast I couldn’t hear anything, slowly backing away from the desk and backing out the side door, sidling along the outside wall until I came to the front of the building.

   I stood outside until I was breathing again, and my hearing came back. I decided I wasn’t hurt since nothing hurt. Back inside the dust was settling and it didn’t look like anything was on fire. The phone was still working. I called the police and they arrived in the matter of a minute, the fire department hard on their heels.

  The firemen hauled hoses inside and sprayed water from one end of the bar restaurant to the other. The hardwood bar countertop was split in half. All the tables and chairs were helter-skelter. All of the bottles and glasses and mirrors were shattered. It was a mess.

   There were 50 or 60 guests tucked into their beds when the bomb went off. Some of them heard the ka-boom. A policeman stood by the elevator and whenever somebody came down asking what the noise had been told them to go back to bed.

   I went over what happened with a detective, twice. He asked me a hundred questions but finally told me to go home. It was five in the morning. I walked up East 30th St. to Payne Ave, past Dave’s Grocery and Stan’s Deli, to my rented rooms on East 34th St. I didn’t see another soul, although a couple of cars went by. My roommate was dead asleep. Mr. Moto my Siamese cat followed me into my bedroom and jumped on top of me when I fell into it. He fell asleep while I lay awake.

   I quit the next day. The only time I went back was to collect my paycheck. The boss looked at me sideways like I had something to do with the bombing. When I asked, he said the police had found a door forced at the back of the coffee shop, and believed that’s how the intruder got in, taping three sticks of dynamite to the underside of the bar counter. He said I was lucky the counter was oak.

   “One stick can blow a 12-inch-thick tree right out of the ground, do you know?” he said.

   I didn’t know and didn’t care. There were sheets of plywood hammered up everywhere. I asked for my paycheck again. 

   A month later I heard talk that the bar restaurant, which was leased like the coffee shop from the Versailles, had fallen behind paying the protection racket mobsters and the bombing was their way of settling accounts.

   The Mob was big in Cleveland in the 1970s. When John Scalish died after 30-odd years as the power broker in town, Jack “King of the Hill” Lucavoli took over. He lived in an unassuming house in Little Italy, up the hill towards Cleveland Heights.

   “Jack was the last of the old-school Cleveland mobsters,” said James Willis, a downtown lawyer. “Cleveland had the best burglars, thieves, and safe crackers in the country. I know, I represented a lot of them.”

   Jack White, another of his names, a play on his Sicilian complexion, got his start bootlegging in St. Louis. He came to Cleveland in 1938 and worked his way up. “A lot of the guys coming up were just out for themselves, not Jack. He looked out for the operation and he was so good at his job that I thought it would never end,” his downtown lawyer said.

   “No one thought it would be Licavoli taking over,” Rick Porello said. “He was an old miser. One time he was caught by store security for switching the price tag on a pair of trousers. When they found out who he was they dropped the charges.”

   “He was very secretive and not at all flamboyant,” James Willis said. “We would only ever talk in person.”

   I soon found work in the Communications department at CSU, on the 16th floor of Rhodes Tower, working for their new film studies professor. I was an English major, but it close enough. My job was picking up from the mail room whatever art house film he was showcasing, roll the 16 mm projector out of storage, screen the movie to his class, and send it on to the next place that wanted it. In return I got free tuition and a closet that passed for an office.

   I watched many French New Wave movies, Japanese samurai movies, and 1940s Warner Brothers crime movies during my work-study year, movies that the CSU library had tucked away. I projected them on my office wall at the end of the day. I didn’t have a TV at home, but they were better than anything on TV, anyway.

   Two years after I left the Versailles Motor Inn, John Nardi, who was secretary-treasurer of Vending Machine Service Employees Local 410 and high up in the mob’s chain gang of command, sauntered out of his office a couple of blocks away from where I had obsessed through countless film noirs, walked to his Oldsmobile 98, turned the key, and was blown to kingdom come. The bomb was packed with nuts and bolts, making sure it tore him apart. 

   Bomb City USA was alive and well.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories 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.”

Up in Smoke

By Ed Staskus

   Not everyone was too big at Time to Travel, but except for Ruta Zukauskas and Shlomit Bort, they were either chock-full or on the way there. Bernie was nuzzling up to the feedbag. Bruno had a hankering for the beefy. Sami and Simcha had fallen into the grease pit a long time ago and weren’t coming up for air.

   The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with, making it a tight fit. It was a squeeze coming and going to their desks. The staff of four had to wiggle sideways to make their way past the boss ladies.

   Bernie Katz and Shlomit, the office secretary, and Sami and Simcha were Jewish. Bruno Ricci was Italian, a gay man, and hated Sami and Simcha. Even so he was there before Ruta started working at the agency and he was still there when she quit after the gasoline truck flipped over and she had enough.

   Ruta was the blonde girl who was good for business.

   Before she went to work at Time to Travel, she worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A jug-eared Jewish man who lived down the street owned the business. He put her desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought she would attract Waspy people from the college.

   “Oh, look, they have a Christian girl there,” is what he hoped everyone would say.

   Sami and Simcha Fetterman were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like Shlomit, their cousin, who was sweet-natured, but ultra-Orthodox. Sami and Simcha were on the lighter side of Reformed. They didn’t take it seriously, although they could get serious in a second, if needed. They came to America when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in McMansions in Beachwood. They only ever talked about the homeland when one of their tour groups was going there.

   In the 1970s Sami was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. The Mad Hatter had a bubble machine, a strobed multi-colored dance floor, and sticky red-shag carpeting. She wore white go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 200 pounds later she showed Ruta a picture of herself, in a shimmering sleeveless fringe dress, doing the funky chicken.

   Ruta could hardly believe it and said so. Sami didn’t like her tone. She lit a Virginia Slim and puffed on it, vexed.

   Sami and Simcha’s world revolved around food. They loved to eat. Their favorite time of day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up. They were supposed to fast during the Jewish holidays, but because they were fat, they were diabetic and had to take medication. They had to take their pills with food, so they couldn’t fast. But they were sticklers about breaking the fast. Sami would rush home right away and make a big batch of potato latkes.

   Simcha had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was the head butcher. He brought kosher cows and sheep home. Sami had three daughters and her husband, a tall balding man with a nice smile, was a porno movie wholesaler. He sold them to video stores around the state. He made a good living selling glossy naked girls.

   All of Sami’s daughters were pudgy-cheeked, fat and fluffy. The youngest one was 22 years old and clocked in at close to three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. All three finally got gastric bypass surgery and lost weight when they started hunting for husbands.

   No one ever knew what got into her, but Simcha went to Weight Watchers for a month. She wrote in her journal about what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks. But she lied to her journal.

   “I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she said.

   “They’re not going to be checking up on you,” Ruta said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”

   Bruno didn’t believe she was going to lose weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” he said. Bernie chewed his cud about it. Shlomit encouraged her to keep it up, but Simcha didn’t lose any weight.

   Sami went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon every day. She brought it to the office in the morning. There was a microwave in the fax machine room. She tossed slices of bacon into the microwave every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like bacon for hours.

   “I don’t know about all that bacon,” Ruta said. “It can’t be good for you.”

   “I’m on the Adkins Diet,” Sami said. “I’m allowed to eat as much meat as I want.”

   “She’s double-crossing herself,” said Bruno. Shlomit looked the other way. Sami didn’t lose any weight, the same as Simcha.

   Whenever Sami had to go to the bathroom, she would hoist herself up from the desk. It took a minute. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped back down in her chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and moaning.

   Every year, two or three times a year, Sami and Simcha went on cruises. They loved cruises for two reasons, which were all the food you could eat, and gambling. They didn’t care what cruise line it was, as long as it was the cheapest. No matter how cut-rate it was, you could still eat all you wanted, and they all had casinos. The nightlife didn’t matter, either. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating buffet with one-armed bandits.

   Ruta went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was old but not yet rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sami and Simcha spent every waking minute eating and gambling. Ruta got sun poisoning the first day and couldn’t sit at the pool after that. The rest of the trip she had to sit on the shady side of the ship with the 70-year-olds.

   She was bitter about it every minute of the cruise.

   When gambling started coming to computers, Sami started gambling at work. She played winning and losing games at her desk on her computer and made Simcha do all the work. She bossed Simcha around most of the time, anyway. Sami was the older of the two, and Simcha was the harder worker, so Sami could throw everything at her without caring too much about it.

   They bought clothes from magazines because they couldn’t find their sizes at the department stores. Catalogs came to the office in the mail every day. Their clothes were XXL, but nice looking. They didn’t wear sack dresses. Most of the clothes were sets, coordinated stretchy pants and a top, like turquoise pants and a turquoise blouse.

   Sami and Simcha were both top-heavy, but both of them had skinny legs. Sami talked about her legs all the time. “Look how thin I am,” she said, pulling up her pants. “My legs are so thin.” But from the waist up she was huge. She never pulled her top up or down. It would have been indecent.

   It was when Simcha got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy processed food and not brushing and flossing enough. She was in pain for months because of the false teeth and barely ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy about it, but she lost weight for a while.

   She didn’t like having to buy new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet got skinnier and she needed them. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out, she would buy another pair the same as before. “I can’t live with sore feet,” she said.

   Sami wasn’t happy about the change in her sister. She didn’t like Simcha losing weight, especially whenever she sprang out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Simcha started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smell,” whenever Sami lit up, since she had stopped smoking. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, bickering about whoever did whatever it was they were doing better than the other.

   Everybody in the office smoked, except for Ruta and Shlomit. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. They were in a non-smoking building, but nobody cared. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the smoke, they had bought a couple of devices that supposedly sucked smoke out of the air. One was next to Ruta’s desk, although she was never sure it did any good.

   One day after work she met one of her friends for dinner. When they got to the restaurant her friend said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

   “Have you ever seen me smoke?” Ruta asked.

   “No,” she said.

   Mendel Arenberg, Ruta’s boyfriend, made her change her clothes the minute she stepped into the house after work. He didn’t smoke and didn’t like the smell. “I know they’re well off, but it smells like poverty,” he said.

   She always smelled like smoke, since she sat in the office all day, an office where someone was always lighting up. Bruno’s desk faced hers, which made it worse. She had a cloud of smoke over her head half the day. It wasn’t just them, either. Most of their clients had the same bad habit, as though the agency specialized in people who smoked cigarettes.

   If Sami wasn’t lighting up a Virginia Slims, Simcha was lighting one up. One or the other was always huffing and puffing.

   Sami’s wastebasket under her desk caught fire one afternoon. She flicked her butt into it absentmindedly instead of stubbing it out in the ashtray. They had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by the time he got it under control the fire burned the underside of the desk and all the wires to her computer.

   She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to anyone in the office. She never said anything about it. But she denied it to the insurance company. She didn’t want to pay for a new desk and a new computer. She didn’t start the fire purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement in the end.

   One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Boulevard, turning too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside the office building. The street slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the ruptured tanker ran down the road like smeary river water. None of them knew anything about it until a fireman with all his gear burst in.

   “Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”

   Bruno Bernie Shlomit and Ruta grabbed their coats.

   Sami leaned halfway up from her chair.

   “Nobody takes their car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start a car, you’re going to get arrested.”

   Simcha and Sami finally got to their feet.

   They all went into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping and waiting their turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sami pulled out her hard box pack of cigarettes, her BIC lighter, shook out a Luxury Light 120, flicked the lighter, and lit up.

   The fireman came running over to them.

   “Stop!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

   He pulled the cigarette out from Sami’s lips and crushed it between his gloved fingers. “Give me that lighter,” he said. Sami gave it to him. She was furious, but didn’t say anything. Ruta thought she was going to burst, but she gave the fireman the stink eye, instead. 

   He didn’t care. He threw the BIC lighter in the trash. He kept his eye on her.

   When they got outside everybody was walking up the road, up to the bridge over the highway, away from the gasoline. Sami and Simcha turned the other way. The office followed them. As they walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, Ruta realized why they were walking in the opposite direction from everybody else. Sami and Simcha couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. They were also going towards the stretch of fast-food restaurants where all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were blocking the road.

   They stopped at Burger King and had burgers and fries. Then firemen tramped in and evacuated them. They had to move on. They stopped at Taco Bell and had chicken tacos. The next thing they knew firemen were evacuating them again. They stopped at Wendy’s and everybody had a frosty.

   The gas smelled like more gasoline than Ruta had ever smelled in her life. She didn’t have an appetite, even though she had a frosty. Shlomit had one, too. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger, and scarfed it up.

   Sami called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s and he came and picked them up in his Dodge Caravan three seat family van. He deposited Sami and Simcha at home, drove Bruno to his apartment in University Heights, dropped Shlomit off at the synagogue where she was helping with a potluck, and then drove Bernie and Ruta to Cleveland Heights.

   After dropping Bernie off, while parked in front of Ruta’s rented Polish double, the engine running, he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty pictures?”

   He flashed her a warm smile.

   “No,” she said.

   “You could make a lot of money,” he said. “We’re always looking for sick minds in healthy bodies.”

   “No thanks,” she said.

   He looked down in the mouth for a minute.

   Walking up the sidewalk to her front door, as Sami’s husband drove away, she thought, I’m going to have to quit my job soon. Who needs a sex maniac, and all those stinky butts? That can’t be good for me.

   That’s what she did, finally, the week after New Year’s. “Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke blowing in my face,” she said to Mendel, peeved. “They don’t even give me danger pay.” 

   They never asked her, “Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” She was just the blonde girl to get the goys to cough up. They were topping off the tank, Virginia Slimming, smoke screening it, gasoline flood or no gasoline flood, rolling in the dough, while she and her boyfriend were saving every penny to buy a house.

   “I don’t care if they are spoiled rotten, or not,” she told Mendel after clearing her throat and breaking the news. “They don’t pay me enough to stay. I’m not bringing home the bacon we need. I’ve got to go.” 

   Mendel waved his hand, brushing away imaginary smoke. “Go change your clothes,” he said.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Nine Months of Hebrew

By Ed Staskus

   Ruta Kazlauskas thought Mendel Arenberg was going to help her learn Hebrew, but he didn’t, not even for a minute. He was from Jerusalem, had a boat load of friends who spoke Hebrew, and they yakked it up among themselves all the time. But he never helped her, even though they lived together, and she was the designated driver who drove him to synagogues. 

She met Mendel when he was with the Cleveland International Group. They were looking at the same dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and afterwards she gave him a ride home. Everybody in the immigrant group loved him. He asked her for her phone number. He was a cute guy, and she liked him, but found out later he had almost no patience, even though it is a Biblical virtue.

   He was from a Kurd family, was born in Haifa, and was an orthodox Jew. Ruta always thought there was something fishy about his Jewishness, though. He never talked about why he left Israel when everybody else said it was the homeland. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, but she always drove him. She dropped him off a block from whatever synagogue he was going to that day and he walked the rest of the way. 

   He didn’t want anyone to see him in a car.

   Ruta was working at Time to Travel in Beachwood when she started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood is an ethnic neighborhood on the east side and many of the people who came to the agency spoke Hebrew. She thought, maybe I should learn it. It would help me get ahead in my job. Mendel and I would have something in common, other than going out and making out. 

   Sami and Simcha Fetterman encouraged her. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted Ruta to guide tours to Israel. What could be better, they whispered to one another, hacking and spitting in their trash cans.

   They were sisters and both of them were fat. They were always at the head of the food line. Simcha worked hard, but Sami didn’t, since she had Simcha. Sami fell asleep at her desk every day, her head lolling on her triple chins. They both smoked cigarettes all day long, stinking up the office, like it was the most important thing to stick in the mouths, next to the chuck wagon. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back. They weren’t even planning on visiting.

   Although Ruta wasn’t Jewish and only knew a handful of Hebrew words, she spoke Lithuanian fluently and some German. I’m pretty good with languages, she thought. She used to be a schoolteacher and was sure she could learn. At least she thought so until she tried. “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she admitted. It was like having grown up speaking ghetto hillbilly and trying to learn Chinese and Hungarian both at once. 

    Simcha told her about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 10 minutes from where she and Mendel lived. Classes were at night, twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock. She made sure to get there early her first night, but everybody was already in the classroom.

   When the teacher walked in, Ruta could barely see her, she was so short, maybe five feet tall. She had dark hair and was from Yemen. The first thing she said was, “Yemenite Jews are the most Jewish of all Jews. Be glad I am your teacher.”

   Her name was Ayala Shabazi. She handed notebooks out with the Hebrew alphabet to everyone. She started speaking in Hebrew, too, right away, and never went back to English unless she absolutely had to. 

   She was all business.

   “Let’s go,” she said at the start of every class.  Everyone had to stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to business.

   Ruta’s biggest fear was Ayala calling on her. I would have to speak in front of everyone, she mumbled to herself. She tried to keep her nose buried in her notebook, scribbling notes. She tried to keep her head down.

   Everybody in the class was Jewish, except for her. Everybody had to tell everybody else their names the first day of class, Esther, Joshua, Miriam, Daniel, Alexander. One man’s name was Gilead, which Alaya explained means mound of testimony, although she never explained what mound of testimony meant. 

   All the class called him Gil, although one wise guy called him Mound of Gil, because he was heavyset.

   “Oh, my name’s Ruta,” she said hesitating when it was her turn. Right away somebody asked her, “What’s your Hebrew name?” She wanted to say, “What the hell, I’m not even Jewish,” but said, “My family calls me Ugne.” Ugnele was her middle name. It meant fire.

   Ayala asked questions in Hebrew, and when everyone around her answered in Hebrew, she realized they all knew at least some of the language, while she knew nothing. It was a beginner’s class, but she was as far back from the starting line as could be. When Ayala found out Ruta didn’t know anything, she devoted a little more time to her. 

   Ruta couldn’t make out the strange alphabet, and on top of that the writing was backwards. When the teacher spoke, it sounded like she was clearing her throat. She decided she wouldn’t be able to make those sounds. I’m not coming back, she decided. But two days later she was back. She told herself, I am taking the class for work’s sake. I want to travel overseas. I don’t want to admit to Mendel I am quitting after one night.

   She ended up taking the course from beginning to end, nine months of Hebrew. 

   Every symbol of the alphabet has to be memorized back to front and back. She tried, but it was her hoodoo for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the black board she wrote down in her notebook. She wrote sentences first in English and then in Hebrew. She wrote her middle name until she got it right. 

   She wrote, “We have three children in our family, two boys and one girl,” and then she wrote it in Hebrew, over and over.

  The Pilgrims, when they landed in America, for a few minutes thought of making Hebrew the national language. It didn’t matter that it was the New World, not the Old World. But, there’s no word in Hebrew for history, so Hebrew became history.

   The classroom across the hall was a conversion class. Everybody in the class was somebody converting to being Jewish. Ruta’s classmates craned their necks, a sour look on their faces, to see them going in the door. They didn’t like it, at all.

   “Oh, they’ll never be real Jews, those non-Jews trying to be Jewish.” they said.  

   “Take a look at that shiksa,” a skinny man sneered.

   Ruta thought everyone believed her mother was Jewish, although she didn’t know why. She had shoulder-length blonde hair. I don’t look Jewish, she thought, but if you say that in front of Jews, they’ll say, “What? There are plenty of blondes in Israel.” 

   Bruno Conte, who was the gay Italian travel agent in the office, and she were talking about the Jewish look one afternoon when someone walked in and she said, “Tell me he doesn’t look Jewish.”

   She said it too loud. Everybody heard her. Sami and Simcha put down their cigarettes. Shlomit the secretary looked up from her typewriter. It just came out. Most people who came to the agency were Jewish, so it wasn’t any surprise, but this man looked like Barbara Streisand.  

   Bruno and she were outsiders because almost everyone else in the office and building and neighborhood was Jewish. Sami and Simcha would sometimes say, “I don’t know why Christians don’t like Jews.” They made it sound like Christians were a crazy clan. They made it sound like being Jewish was God’s big plan.

   The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the heavyweight. Everybody in Ruta’s class was talking about it. One of them asked her, “What synagogue do you go to?”

   Most of the class lived on the east side, including her. She lived in Cleveland Heights just up the hill from Little Italy. Ruta thought, “Oh, Christ,” there are a lot of small ones, but they’re all ultra-orthodox. She didn’t want to look overly conservative. When she drove to work, she passed the big Sinai Synagogue, so she said, “SInai.” 

   It turned out it was ultra-orthodox.   

   Everybody was good with that, even though Ruta didn’t wear a wig or have a real Hebrew name. She decided she had to go to the Sinai Synagogue to see it. The men were all downstairs and the women upstairs, on a balcony, segregated. She took the stairs. It looked like most of the women were wearing wigs. She never went back.

   Her classmates knew she lived with Mendel. He would drop her off at school and pick her up afterwards. He was OK with her saying she was orthodox. Since everyone thought she was Jewish she had to start being crafty. She ran into them where she lived and worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the little plaza beside Time to Travel, where she went to lunch every day.

  An old woman with a scratchy voice, the mother of someone she sat next to in class, called her one evening. It was a week before Christmas. It was the day before the last day of Hanukkah.

   “What did you do today?” she asked.

   “I just finished all my shopping,” Ruta said. She almost said Christmas shopping, but caught herself. Her family celebrated Kucius, the Lithuanian Christmas Eve.

   “But it’s the last day of Hanukkah tomorrow,” she said.  

   “In my family that’s how we do it, we do everything the last minute,” Ruta explained. “I’m not breaking tradition. Oh, I bought some donuts, too.” Someone had told her to say donuts if she ever felt she was being called out.

   “Oh, I see,” the Jewish woman said.

   Ruta was never certain whether or not she was getting a good grasp on Hebrew. After every class she thought, I’m never going back. One night she finally didn’t go. She couldn’t bring herself to it. That night Alaya called her at 11 o’clock, just as she was going to bed. 

   “Why weren’t you in class?” she asked. 

   Ruta wanted to tell her, “You should be asking me why I go, not why I didn’t go this one time.” But she told her because of the holiday coming up, she had to clean her cupboards, getting rid of all the yeast invading the kitchen.

   If you’re ultra-orthodox you have to remove any yeast you have in the house, sweep away crumbs, look under cushions for moldy donuts, remove every trace. Most of the people in class were reformed Jews and didn’t take it too seriously, but because she had mistakenly made everyone believe she was more conservative than them, she was expected to be serious about ritual.

   “It never was my intention to say I was Jewish, but a good time to admit it never came up,” she explained to Mendel. What was worse, she was Catholic. That side of her didn’t like Jews. The Lithuanian side of her didn’t like Jews, either. She kept her peace of mind by doing yoga and breathing exercises.

   After Alaya called her, Ruta had to meet her teacher on Sunday morning, just the two of them, to make up the class. It was impossible to keep her head down with her teacher breathing down her neck. Alaya told her she was making progress. It made her glad.

   Mendel’s brother Baruch from Israel visited them for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to Ruta in Hebrew, helping her get the feel of it. It sounded something between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped her more in a few days than Mendel ever did.

   Since his brother was visiting, the two men went to services together on Fridays, dressed up in business casual. Mendel turned off all the lights in the apartment when they went, walking to the synagogue. He had never done that before. He even unscrewed the light bulb in the refrigerator. When they left, they left Ruta sitting alone in the half-gloom.

   At the end of the class Ruta got a B, even though she more-or-less staggered through it like wandering in the desert. Her reading and writing were sketchy, but by graduation time she spoke the language tolerably well. Even still, she was glad when it was all over.

  She started taking Time to Travel tours to Israel soon after. Sami and Simcha saw her off at Hopkins Airport. They waved goodbye with their Virginia Slims, their hands smoky, their flat feet achy.

   Ruta stayed with Mendel’s mother the first time she was in Jerusalem. Baruch still lived with his mother and he took her to a wedding. He told her how to dress for it. “Wear a black dress.” Ruta wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other. After the ceremony she sat at a table with women who passed around platters of food. 

   They were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of it too fast for her. All the men wore black hats and were having a great time, drinking, singing, and dancing, sweating up a storm, their hats bobbing up and down on the other side of the wall. 

  The groom wouldn’t say a word to her when she tried to talk to him. He and his bride didn’t dance together, at all. Ruta danced with some of the other women.

   The more often she went to Israel the better her Hebrew got. One day she was walking around Jerusalem by herself, sight-seeing the way she liked it. A young man with red hair wearing a yarmulke asked her something as he was passing by.

   “What?” she asked.

   “Do you know where Jaffa Road is?” he repeated.

   Her tour group was staying in a hotel on Ben Yehud Street exactly where it met Jaffa Road.

   She pointed over her shoulder.

   “It’s over there,” she said in spotless throat-clearing Hebrew.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Delicate Steve

By Ed Staskus

   It was wetter than dry the front end of summer and too muddy to ride the single tracks in the Rocky River valley. Instead, Frank rode his Specialized on the all-purpose trail and left his Schwinn hanging in the garage. The Schwinn was outfitted for dirt, with front shocks and a low stem. The Specialized was fitted with road tires, knobby on the outside and smooth rolling on the flat side and had a higher stem. It made for faster riding on asphalt.

   It made for even faster rolling down Hogsback Lane, which is the entryway off Riverside Dr. into the valley. Hogsback is built up a steep shale hill. It’s more than a half-mile long. When the shale slumps and slides, the two-lane surface crumbles, and it becomes smart to keep your eyes on the road.

   Hunched forward on his bike Frank could top 40 MPH going downhill, unless he feathered the brakes.

   He rode alone most of the summer because his friend Steve Petrauskas was getting married. He said he didn’t have time to get on his bike anymore, anyway. “I’ve got a lot going on,” he explained. When they were kids, everybody called him Delicate Steve. At least until he joined the Army, when he became Steve-o, even though his real name was Azuolas. He had gone to a public school and his name always landed him on the losing end, so he went by his middle name, Stephen. He wasn’t a mighty oak, anyway, which is what his name means.

   Frank had gone to a Catholic school in the old neighborhood, full of Serbs, Slovenes, and Poles. His name was never a problem, even though it was Pranciskus Kazukauskas. When his father got a promotion, it became Glass. His name meant ‘free,’ but it became Frank in grade school.

   They had been riding together on-and-off since Steve moved to the west side. They met again by accident. Their paths had diverged, but they still had enough in common to hit the Metropark single tracks and all-purpose trail together.

   “I don’t want him racing that crazy hill and falling,” said his fiancée, Tammy. She was down on Hogsback. She didn’t want a train wreck walking down the aisle at her side.

   “You be careful, too,” Vera said to Frank in their backyard. “I don’t want you wrecking either.”

   By July it was hot, in the high 80s and the air was humid and heavy. Frank could have ridden the single tracks, since they had dried up, but it was overcast the last week of July, and he stayed on the all-purpose trails. Towards the end of that week, after getting home from work, he rode twelve miles out, almost all the way to Berea. It was on the way back that he passed a tall man in a yellow helmet on a blue hybrid.

   Inside a few minutes yellow helmet was behind Frank, drafting, and when he slowed for a car at the crossroad to the entrance of Little Met, he slipped ahead when the car paused to let them go by. The trail goes up a long hill there and Frank finally caught up at the top.

   He tucked in behind him and they rode fast to where the trail zigzags through some curves, and to where yellow helmet got sloppy. He tried to pass two young women on blades, except on an inside-out curve, and when a biker rode up on the other side he had to go wide on the grass. At the end of the curve a ditch stretches away from the trail to the Valley Parkway, and he had to backtrack. Frank waited for him to catch up.

   “Nice pace,” he said when Frank peeled off to go back up Hogsback, while he kept going. Going up Hogsback is a long hard slog, which is what he did, slog up the long hill. By the time he got near the crest, he was on the verge of a standstill.

   The next day Steve and Frank rode downtown. Steve said he had an appointment for a haircut at Planet 10, on West 9th Street, and wanted a pedal. On the way from Lakewood, they rode through Ohio City to Church Street. Steve showed him the old church whose rectory had been converted into a recording studio. “That’s where we’re having our reception,” he said.

   Tammy was a sometime actress and singer.

   They were getting married at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church instead of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where Vera and Frank had gotten married. Steve was Lithuanian-American like him, but even though Tammy was an atheist, her mother was Episcopalian and wanted her to be married in a church. She didn’t like the Lithuanian church in North Collinwood, so it was St. Peter’s in Lakewood.

   They spun south on West 25th Street, crossed the bridge to Jacobs Field, and rode to the Warehouse District. The bride-to-be was still good with Steve riding on city streets, but not farther into the east side ghettos, like they used to do, to Cleveland Heights along Cedar Rd. She quashed that.

   “I don’t want him getting killed in Fairfax,” Tammy said.

   Steve pushed his bike into Planet 10’s lobby and Frank rambled away. After zigzagging around downtown, on his way home, stopping at a narrow strip of grass at the base of the Bob Hope Bridge, squeezing his water bottle, he watched a fat woman with shopping bags easing herself down to the ground in front of an RTA sign. She looked up at Frank and smiled, crooked brown teeth. She was going back to the near east side, maybe thinking of killing Steve if he rode his bike past her house.

   He was standing outside his garage when Steve and Tammy pulled up in her baby blue Ford Tempo. His bike was sticking out of the trunk, the trunk bungee corded. “Jerry screwed up Steve’s appointment,” she said. “He’s so unprofessional.”

   She was mad. “That’s not how we do business at Artistiques.” She was a sometime nail technician at a hair salon when she wasn’t acting.

   It was mid-week when Frank rode back into the park and got on the dirt trails that branch off from the stables at Puritas Road. They were dry where they were level, but they weren’t level much. There were patches and mud bogs all along the tracks. He had to ford a small stream where a big tree had fallen. He jumped some baby stumps, fell down once, and when he got home turned on the outdoor hose and sprayed cold water on his head.

   Vera and he drove to Tammy’s bridal shower that weekend, which was at her best friend’s house in Avon Lake. She was a big-faced woman married to a ruddy Englishman who was a barge pilot. It was steamy as hell even though it was just barely August. Frank was sprawled on a leather sofa in the air-conditioned family room when he noticed a small furry dog on the coffee table. He couldn’t tell if it was a dog dead asleep or a stuffed dog looking dead. When he reached for it the pushed-in face snapped at his fingers.

   “You better watch out,” big face said. “He’s blind, so he bites at everything.”

   He went for a ride after they got home. Twilight was turning to night by the time he got back. Snapper, their orange Maine Coon, came running onto the driveway from the neighbor’s backyard. Just when he was ready to close the garage door, Steve pulled into the driveway.

   “Can I borrow your lawn mower?” he asked.

   “All right, but don’t break it.”

   Steve was notorious for either busting or never returning borrowed tools. He had Katie, Tammy’s four-year-old, with him. Frank picked her up, held her upside down, and spun her by her heels in tight circles. When they were done, they talked about a nickname for her, finally settling on Skate.

   “It rhymes with Kate.”

   She waved goodbye through the window of the car as Steve pulled out with the lawn mower. If Katie hadn’t been with him, I wouldn’t have lent him the mower, Frank thought. That’s probably why he brought her along.

   By mid-August cumulus clouds were dotting the sky and the weather was cooler than it had been. He rode his Schwinn down Hogsback and got off the all-purpose trail at Mastick Woods, veering onto the dirt tracks there. He rode the track for three miles and then double-backed on the horse trail. As he did, he noticed somebody had come up behind him.

   When he went by, he saw the rider was wearing a baseball cap instead of a helmet and on a good-looking Trek. He was riding fast, and even though he followed him as best he could, he couldn’t catch him until he slowed suddenly. He saw why when he pulled up. Horses were coming around a bend.

   They waited while the horses cantered past.

   The Trek turned to the right and rode into the trees toward the river and the single tracks on the bank. Frank followed him, bumping over ruts and logs and through thick underbrush, but soon lost sight of him. He pushed up the hill running along Big Met, then down, and as he came into the clear baseball cap jumped onto the trail ahead of him. He had gone around and was riding faster. They sped through a copse, then out to the baseball field where baseball cap widened the gap by jumping a wood guardrail, something he couldn’t do, even if he tried as hard as he could.

   It would just end badly. He went around. It went well.

   He thought I might catch the Trek on the Detroit Rd. climb out of the valley, except he climbed so fast Frank lost more ground. He finally caught up to him where he was waiting at a red light on Riverside Dr. They talked while Frank gulped air.

   “I wasn’t planning on doing much today, but it ended up being a fun ride,” he said.

   “I know you,” Frank said.

   “Yeah, I work at the Latvian Credit Union, where you do your banking.”

   The Lithuanian Credit Union in North Collinwood had gone out of business after its president and several employees were arrested by the FBI for embezzling $12 million dollars, half of the bank’s assets. The state closed the bank. Vera and he got a check a few months later from the insurance corporation and they joined the Latvian Credit Union in Lakewood.

   “I saw the Vytis decal on your fender,” he said. There was a red decal of the White Knight on Frank’s rear X-Blade fender. “Not many people know what that is,” Frank said.

   A week before the wedding Steve called and said JoJo was out as their maid of honor.

   JoJo was Tammy’s ex-friend-to-be who arranged Tammy and Steve’s blind date when Tammy had been on the prowl after her latest divorce. She was promised she could be maid of honor if the date led to anything. JoJo was a travel agent. Tammy gave her a cash down payment for a Cancun honeymoon. But then the travel agency called and said they were getting anxious about the payment, since they hadn’t received it, yet.

   When Steve telephoned JoJo, she said she hadn’t gotten any cash, but when Tammy heard that she rushed to the phone. There was a loud long argument and JoJo somehow found the money. The honeymoon was back on, but Tammy had to last-minute find another maid of honor. She was an all the time improvisor.

   The next day Steve called again.

   “Are you going riding?” he asked.

   “I’m just going out the door,” Frank said.

   “I’ll be there in five minutes. I need some fresh air.”

    Frank was working out the kinks in his back when Steve rode up the driveway.

   “Tammy’s sick,” he said.

   “What’s wrong with her?”

   “Cramps. I think it’s nerves,” he said.

   “Let’s go,” Frank said.

   The sky was overcast and gusts from the southwest pushed them around as they rode Riverside Dr. along the rim of the valley. They glided down Hogsback and rode single tracks. The dirt was late summer dried out and the ruts were bad, but they rode fast. Frank’s back wheel went in dangerous directions a few times. Steve held back. He didn’t want to face plant.

   “A little out of control there,” Steve said when they crossed over to a horse path and relaxed.

   “Maybe a little,” Frank said.

   “I want to make it to the altar in one piece,” he said.

   “Getting married is risky business,” Frank said. “Just take a look at you and Tammy. You were married once, and it lasted for 78 days. Tammy’s been married twice, and she’s got a kid by one of the dads. You might want to throw yourself down every downhill between now and the wedding day.”

   “I don’t think so,” Steve said, giving him a flustered look. “Anyway, I intend to keep my eyes half shut after the wedding.”

   Coming out of the park on a smooth stretch Steve slowed down when Frank wasn’t looking, he got tangled in his rear tire, and went sideways over the handlebars. He skinned his knee and banged his helmet, but they were going too slow for much else to happen.

   “Crash test dummies!” a crow squawked.

   The morning of Steve’s wedding, while Vera went shopping for a gift, Frank rode Hogsback into the valley. He felt good, but a crosswind was blowing, and he got tired. The bike felt sloppy, too. Going home he pushed hard because he didn’t want to be late for the wedding. When he finally got home, he found out he had been riding on a nearly flat back tire.

   Steve’s wedding went off without a hitch, but during the reception, when Vera was congratulating him, Steve made the silhoutte of a gun with his hand with his finger pressed to his temple.

   The next day, while Vera made Sunday dinner, he drove to Steve’s house with the gift they had forgotten to take to the reception. Tammy was lounging in the living room in a thick, white bathrobe and Skate was in her pajama’s. While Steve and he talked in the kitchen doorway, Tammy’s old setter limped up to him and licked the scrape on his knee.

   By the beginning of October, the park was yellow and maple red. Frank rode the all-purpose trail every other day. One Sunday morning Vera and he had breakfast at the Borderline Café and went for a walk on the horse trails behind South Mastick. That night, while they were watching a movie on TV, Steve called.

   “I won’t be able to ride anymore,” he said.

   “Tammy?” Frank asked.

   “No,” he said. “It’s my shoulder.”

   Frank had seen how he couldn’t lift his right arm above his head without trying hard.

   “After any ride,” he said, “any ride at all, ruts roots or no roots, my shoulder’s in a lot of pain. I’ve been taking Celebrex, but my doctor told me it’s rubbing bone on bone. There’s almost no cartilage left. He said sometime in the next couple of years, depending on how fast the rest of it goes, I’ll need a replacement shoulder.”

   “Oh, man!” Frank exclaimed.

   The last Saturday of the month was the last day of the year he rode in the park. It was getting too wet and cold. He was adjusting the strap on his helmet when a gang of neighborhood kids came walking up with rakes, brooms, and a wagon. They asked if they could rake their yard for $5.00. He said sure. They started pushing wet leaves into piles. The biggest of the girls walked up to him.

   “Mister, can I ask you something?” she said.

   “Sure,” he said.

   “That small boy,” she said pointing to a small boy. “He’s having a potty emergency.”

   He rang the doorbell for Vera, and she came outside, saying she would take care of the boy and supervise the raking. “Go before it gets dark,” she said.

   Where Hogsback intersects with the Valley Parkway, Frank cut across a grassy field and rode onto a single track. The path was littered with slapdash leaves. A flock of geese went by overhead. He came around a quick bend and the branches of a fallen tree on the side the track jabbed at his face. He swerved to the left and pulled on the brakes, jumping off the bike when the tree he was going to run into became the tree he ran into. He landed on his feet and the bike was all right when he lifted it up.

   On the way home he rode on the road, instead of the all-purpose trail, hugging the shoulder’s white line. A beefy man in a shiny new white pick-up blew his horn behind him, and when he went past, tried to shrug him off the road, giving him the middle finger. Some people are assholes, Frank muttered. There’s no getting around it or doing anything about it. At home he hosed off the Schwinn and hung it up in the garage.

   He was sure by then it was the end of Steve-o. He wasn’t going to be that anymore. He was going to be Azuolas again, raising a family, like a mighty oak, probably having another child-or-two in no time while he still had time. He would be riding alone next year. He checked the tires. They looked good, although he knew that hanging upside down in the garage in the winter months all the air would slowly seep out of them.

   He was going to miss Steve, but when you ride with somebody else you always have to wait until they’re ready. When you ride by yourself you can go whenever your bike is spit polished and lubricated. The White Knight had been a metalhead for his liege, and even though his decal brought up Frank’s rear, going it alone is the real deal. Nobody wants to be alone, but sometimes you just need to be left alone.

   He did yoga alone at home that winter. He went to a couple of classes but couldn’t stand the pie in the sky talk. He rowed his Concept 2 and did band work. He didn’t have an indoor bike and didn’t pedal a stroke for five months. He would have to pump the tires up again the coming April, before going back down into the valley, staying beeline and keeping a peeled eye on the road down Hogsback Lane, never looking back, strips of daffodils blooming, turkey buzzards back in the warming air, the new springtime fine-spun after an icebox winter on Lake Erie.

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.”

Esme, Beforehand Then Later

woman-screaming

By Ed Staskus

There’s not much here. Nikki is up to her ears in after-wedding plans and I am all adjusted to my new little life. It is not so bad, except for my job, of course. There is something about dumb jobs and me.

Brent has taken an intern position for the summer in Milwaukee at the Miller Brewing Company. It is exciting for him. He will be in Marketing. I’ve heard Milwaukee is beautiful, so we shall see. It is five hours from here, so my guess is we will be spending many, many weekends in Chicago.

Is there anything new with you and Vera?

Irene filled me in on the brouhaha. Skip is a bastard! My God, stealing a $10 thousand dollar order, that is insane! I would go nuts on him, and Kenny, too. He’s supposed to step in. He is the Sales Manager, or is he that just because he’s Cathy’s brother? Let me see…

Doesn’t Skip have a conscience? Or did he skip out on that? I would rest easy knowing that Tammy is probably soaking him for that money as we speak! Soaking him so she can soak up the blended bourbon!

Poor Brian. He shouldn’t have done it because he’s not that smart, and it was all such crappy small change, anyway. Isn’t he Carol’s brother and Kenny’s brother-in-law? That is strange, since he was part of the clan. So much incest! But, he deserves to steal, as I see it. Cathy and Dave should be put behind bars for what they pay people. It is a crime. I totally bet if someone did an investigation on their efficiencies and pay scale it would be interesting, and you all would get raises, except for Maggie.

She shouldn’t be able to afford a freaky Lexus. I can’t afford anything!

After working for a big company it is easy to see how self-serving Cathy and Dave were. I am now in that situation again at a small company. It is funny how things go in a circle.

I am a Marketing Manager at Keter. We manufacture cabinets and shelves. I hate it here. My superiors are Israeli. They are in Israel and do not care what I recommend or ask for. I have no action. My boss hates me. That is funny. I do probably twice as much as I did at your place, but not a quarter as much as I did at Glidden.

Glidden has turned out to be the boyfriend that dumped me and the one that I can’t seem to get over. I wish I could go home. It’s too bad, really.

Brent and I are watching a movie tonight with Brie and grapes and wine. We are having some alone time. I had an interview yesterday for a job I know I won’t get and Brent is stressing about school and the National Guard. It makes both of us rather large assholes. So, tonight we have to be nice to each other.

I woke up the other day feeling something bad was going to happen. I had two flights to North Carolina and some cab rides, but my first flight was delayed which made me miss my other flight. Nothing went right that day.

Brent left last week for Milwaukee. So far he loves it, so that is promising. They seem to be schmoozing him by taking him to baseball games and fishing. We will see if this turns into a job offer. Milwaukee wouldn’t be so bad. I hear it is kind of cool there.

I am bored out of my mind. Brent is gone. At least I am in school and I have one friend. School is hard for me now, not like when I was in school before. It takes up a lot of time, probably because there’s a math class. I got an A last semester, so that is good.

I am working on managerial accounting. I wonder if I know more than Carol, yet?

Hehehehe…

Later!

I accidentally kicked a blind woman’s cane out of her hand. I was crossing a plaza going to a class at school. There were a bunch of smokers and one of them flicked his butt away. What a disgusting habit! I didn’t see the blind lady because I looked at the butt, but then there she was, crossing my path.

Before I knew it my leg hit her cane and it went flying. She stopped dead, but before I could do anything, one of the smokers rushed over to the cane and gave it back to the empty-handed blind woman. The smoker gave me a dirty look on top of everything. Sometimes things are so unfair.

I quit my job, which is a really bad idea financially, but a great idea mentally. My boss was a prick, and that is being kind and sweet about the situation.

He had me doing his Fed-xing and presentations. I wasn’t allowed to think on my own, just do his administrative work. Brent and I are both students now. I am halfway through my MBA and I think my time will be better spent finishing school than being some a-hole’s secretary.

We are going to leave here next summer. I will be done with school. It’s been good, but a little slow. All my knowledge is being called upon and the bits and pieces I forget are coming back to kick me in the butt. We will be in a great amount of debt when I’m done, but at least I will be done.

We are planning on going to Jamaica in a few weeks for a few weeks. I can’t wait.

We went to Jamaica! We stayed in a resort called Sans Souci, which means without cares. I got four free spa treatments and free manicures and free pedicures and it was all we could eat and drink. We did a ton of eating and drinking. Brent scuba’d and we went kayaking. We had a blast. I hadn’t a care.

It now seems like a way distant memory.

Brent got an offer letter from the Miller Brewing Company, which means we will officially not be living in my mother’s basement next year, as previously feared. I have a few recruiters that have told me all I have to do is tell them the location and they will find me a job. It will most likely be Milwaukee, since that is where Miller is, but hopefully Chicago, or even Columbus. We will know by January.

I have made a few of my recruiters look really good. I will have to call on some favors soon.

Later!

Yes, we’ll see you and Vera this weekend. Although that restaurant looks amazing, is there somewhere else, maybe a little more in our student price range that we could go to? I don’t think we can afford that. I am such a loser, I know. Maybe something more casual? Sorry for sounding like a cheap ass. It is really hard to be so poor. We are not good at it!

So Vera gave you shit about saying something about my hair. I don’t care. I love gossip. So much is going on here and none of it is good. I am going to tell you for the mere fact I hope it doesn’t come true.

Brent got orders to go back to Afghanistan two weeks after he was supposed to start at Millers. It’s OK financially because Millers supports this kind of stuff and he will have his job after twelve months of bullshit! Doesn’t that suck! Things always suck!

Anyway, on a lighter note, I only have ten more weeks of class. Brent was done yesterday and graduated with high honors. I am so irritated that I can’t stop telling everybody about our stupid situation. My professors think I’m nuts.

Things have been getting away from me. School is so boring and I have sunburn. I wish we were going to be in a house this fall, but probably not. I keep waiting for one of those days when I will have excellent news.

We did get a dog. He’s a boxer puppy and his name is George. He’s to keep me entertained while Brent is away.

We still don’t know when exactly he will be leaving for Stansville. In the meantime he is working at Millers. My trying to find a job is a total pain. I think I might have to open up my search soon, maybe around Chicago. It’s more land to possibly employ me.

As of next month Brent will officially belong AGAIN to the Army. He is being officially deployed to Afghanistan – AAARRGGHH – for one year after his seven weeks of training. This comes as a slight shock to us as he submitted his official paperwork to leave the National Guard in February. He is the victim of BAD paperwork!

We have done everything we can to get this changed, but are about 98% sure he is going, as the Guard does not seem at all concerned that his paperwork was submitted twelve weeks before his notice to be deployed. They do not have any type of precedence policy.

I am sad – read that as irate. This is not what we had envisioned for this year. However, my plan is the same. I am still going to move to Milwaukee, unless anyone knows of a contract position in Cleveland lasting one year – just checking. Our plan is to still get a house. I will work and volunteer, and most likely get certified to teach spinning classes, to keep me busy.

I will also be attending some sort of therapy weekly, meaning read trips to the spa, to keep me sane.

Brent’s been gone for months and I’m going to my mom’s for X-mess. I need yoga, bad, but my gym doesn’t offer it when I can make it. It’s really the way to go, cleanses the body of toxins, and keeps you sane. Maybe I will try to find a class, even though working out seems to be the one thing I keep pushing off to do other things, like spend time with my dog.

It’s unbelievable that it’s another New Year already. Thanks for dinner, seeing you and Vera was great, and thanks for the marshmallows and the pictures of the woman humping a dragon and then having little dragon babies. They are sure to be conversation pieces.

My mom and I were baffled for a minute. Mom thought I should cover up the nipples. I am too immature for these pictures, but I think you knew that.

Hehehehe…

The marshmallows were awesome. Later!.

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.”

When Esme Got Married

Stephanie and Joe's wedding at Casa Golondrinas in La Manzanilla, Mexico.

By Ed Staskus

Check this out. It’s just the New Year now and I lost my job.

They re-organized the place and I got let go. I am really bitter since I left there for here. The good news is a headhunter has to help me and I got three months pay to enjoy myself. I’ve gone to Hawaii. Yup, it’s January and I’m here for more than a month and Brent’s coming next week.

Later!

San Francisco is very fun, little bars and clubs, like the movies, even the ratty neighborhoods, like the Mission. I am not complaining until I run out of money. I have two months.

Hehehehe…

I have sent out some resumes and talked about a job in Milwaukee. It’s the same as I was doing, except it’s a start-up. I’ll be back home at the end of February and then I am moving out. I’ll move in with my mother for a while, at least until Brent is back.

I am finally moving! I will be leaving for Indianapolis on Sunday. This week is flying by! There is so much to do. No, I do not have a job. We will be living with Brent’s sister for a month until we are on our own. If you feel like visiting Hoosierville, I think they did well in basketball this year.

Don’t forget me.

Things are crazy here. Moving is a huge pain. Brent and I got a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment right on the highway, which is good since it looks like I might be working in Indianapolis, which is an hour away. Not having a job still blows. I am lucky I haven’t gotten fatter, or anything like that. I am definitely less high maintenance than I was before.

Things in the wedding area are about finished, only a few details to nail down. Are you guys planning on coming?

I miss you all very much. I know I have been crappy, but now that I am settled in Indianapolis I will be much better. If you get any calls, please say nice things about me. I have been interviewing, so hopefully something will break, more on that later. Please send gossip. I am dying out here. Must…have…gossip!

Brent is good, although he is missing both Hawaii and the Army, but not Afghanistan so much. He is not working either, yet, because he is in the National Guard and has to go away for two weeks next Saturday. I am sorry Bob and Jan aren’t happy. That place was too negative for me. Maggie and Cathy? Yikes! How do you stand it? I saw John at a bar and he was friendly. I always liked him the most out of that dysfunctional clan. Speaking of dysfunctional, how is Skip? Brent’s brother-in-law displays similar personality traits.

Blah!

Hey! What is going on? I haven’t seen you guys in sooo long! How has everything been? I still have no job. It totally freaks me out. There are some prospects, so hopefully not much longer for this crap. Brent might be called up for that homeland stuff. We really want him to because you get paid to guard an airport and he wouldn’t even have to do that! He would just organize the people. Then he could get state tuition for Indiana U. Wedding invitations are going out soon. Keep your eyes peeled!

Later!

Things are busy, although I am not sure how. I am sending out wedding invitations any day now. I hope you can come. I think it will be fun. If not, it is always free food.

All of our church requirements are done and we have registered for gifts. That sucks the fun out of shopping. The final fitting for my dress is next Friday. I will be in town then, but Brent’s mom will be here, too. Brent will be in Montana fishing, so I can’t really hang out. How are the mean people you work for? Bob said Cathy had another baby. Yuck. None for me, thanks!

See you soon!

What is going on? Did you get the wedding invitation? Are you planning on coming? I hope so. We’d love to see you guys there. Hopefully you can make it. I hope there aren’t any trade shows that weekend. I still have no job. I am a loser. Things are getting better, though, I think.

Is anything new going on? Keep in touch!

Hey! Didn’t you and Vera get the wedding invitation? You ARE coming, right? I am not going to be home much until the wedding, but I am definitely looking forward to seeing you there. Thanks for the massage salon gift. It works for me as long as Dick isn’t giving it!

Hehehehe…

I am evil, I know. Make sure you send back your response card soon! I am so excited to see you guys!

OK! I am finally employed!

I am going to be a marketing manager for a company called Keter Plastics. They make the same kind of things that Rubbermaid makes. They are in Costco, Walmart, and Lowes. Their latest venture is with Black and Decker and I will be working a lot with them. Yippee! I have no idea when I start and a limited idea of the money involved, but I do not think I care anymore. Yippee! It was my second choice job. My first choice was Delta Faucet, but their new department won’t begin until late October and I can’t wait that long! Now I can shop!

I am so excited!

Hey! My mom got your reply today! I am so glad you guys are coming. I am getting so excited. Make sure you come to the church. I think it will be nice. We are going to have a place for everyone to go for appetizers between the church and the reception. Medina is full of little coffee shops and pubs. It should be a fun day.

Yippee!

I am glad to see you and Vera are coming to the wedding. I think I am going to stop into your work on Thursday to say hi. I haven’t seen you in ages and I will be in the area picking up my dress from Coming Attractions in Lorain. OK, it is not exactly the area. Anyhow, do you guys want to adopt Brent? We decided his family sucks and he is looking for a new family. You don’t have any kids and he is potty-trained for the most part. He just needs a better family. OK, so all families suck, but his is really bad. His sister isn’t coming to the wedding because it might stress out her babies. She is the first woman to ever have a baby.

Sense the sarcasm!

So, think about adopting Brent.

Oh my! I am so busy. Blah! I am planning on stopping in to say hi sometime before the wedding. I need to know how everything is. Is Maggie still in the front office? Can you unlock the back door for me? I can’t believe it is July and two weeks away. I am dying! How fun!

Hey, would it be possible for me to stop in and say hello on Thursday at your work? I am coming home Wednesday night and would like to say hi to everyone before all the chaos of the wedding. Tell Bob and Jan, but don’t say anything to Cathy and Maggie.

I come in next Wednesday night, so basically Thursday morning. I have an appointment to get waxed, ouch, at 9 AM. At least I am hoping to have it then.

Later!

Whoever is in the mood to hang out at Friday’s in Strongsville on Thursday, let me know. I have a ton of wedding high maintenance girl stuff to do that day, like getting my ass waxed. Oh, wait, I mean my back. I will need a drink by the end of the night, and a smoke, and some fattening food. Let me know if you are interested so I can call ahead and get a table. If no one wants to go I will be embarrassed, but that is OK, too. You already have to see me this weekend!

Holy shit, you are busy. You are flying back from the Chicago trade show for my wedding? That is hilarious. I am sorry. You didn’t have to! That is so cool, though. I hope it is not too much of a pain for you to come back. At least it is a cheap flight. Cathy is probably so annoyed!

So, all the mean people have lots of babies. Maggie is driving a Lexus, oh, God! Where do I start the jokes? She is not the type. You can’t have a Lexus and look like you are from the 80s. I want to rip on Maggie so bad. Too easy, though… I don’t want to bring on that bad karma. When is Maggie having a brat of her own? Cathy and Dave suck. She is mean, he is oblivious, but at least he is nice. He made that place tolerable.

My life is nuts. We are going to Chicago next weekend for our “honeymoon.” We only have two days. We are staying at the Crowne Plaza, the same one we all stayed at for the trade show. Remember that place with the velvety drapes? You all got rooms with Jacuzzi’s, except me. I am so excited! I really appreciate you coming home to see us get married.

I can’t wait to see you guys. I really appreciate you ditching that fishy trade show to see me get hitched. That is so great! See you on Saturday. I am leaving work now.

My friends totally loved you. I hope you and Vera had a good time. I was so busy I didn’t get to talk to you more. It is sooo hard to do anything you actually want to do when there are a hundred people who want to be around you. Usually no one wants to be around me!

Hehehehe…

Thank you so much for coming. I hope it was worth the trip!

Did you and Vera have fun at the wedding? My friends thought you were hilarious. I wish someone would come to this cornfield. How is work? When are you leaving there? Is it any day now? Kristin told me she told you how miserable I was when I worked there. Nothing like airing dirty laundry! Sorry if you had to listen.

We went house shopping this weekend. Now I am sick. I don’t think the two are related. It’s wet and cold here. Houses are so fun to look at.

Not much is going on here. Brent is getting great grades at Indiana. He is in the top third of his class and getting recruited from companies like Proctor and Gamble, Miller Brewing, his favorite, and Kraft. He is happy.

Me, on the other hand, I am hating life. I am one of those people who let one thing get them down. I hate my job and do just about nothing all day, which gives me plenty of time to think about how much I hate my job. I have made a few friends, which makes things easier. My best friend is a lawyer and she hates her job, too, so we laugh a lot and make fun of Hoosierville. I am taking classes again, for my MBA, after a year hiatus, seeing as I had no income for most of the year.

Hopefully it will get me out of this hellish job.

Married life is fun. Brent and I do a lot of poor people things together. We have fun inventing things to do, although we are much better at it when we have money. Nikki, my old roommate and best friend, you met her a few times, is getting married right after the New Year, or maybe in the spring, That is the next thing I am looking forward to. I am excited to be the one not getting married.

I am getting pretty adjusted to my new little life.

Is there anything new with you? 

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.”

Rearview Mirror

Scene_in_the_rear_view_mirror_of_a_car

By Ed Staskus

It wasn’t until the movers took the legs off the dining room table and hauled it and the six chairs out that I realized the two town paintings in their glossy walnut frames were still on the wall. I stood in a pool of damp late October sunlight at the other end of the room. I hadn’t noticed Lucy had painted the wall a light green color until the room was empty.

A Stacey’s Moving and Storage truck was on the street. The trailer and cab were longer than the width of my house. One of the Montreuil’s and three other men were methodically tramping up and down a ramp into and out of the back of the truck. Sugar maple and white cedar leaves stuck to the soles of their boots.

Autumn was stripping the trees so that the neighborhood, concealed all summer, was becoming clear.

I turned away from the window and faced the paintings. I had seen them every day for years, but hadn’t looked at them for a long time.

The painting on the left was of the fishing docks on the Niagara River. Two men spin nets while a third slumps on the ground, his back against a two-story shingled building. He sits with his legs splayed out while a dog squats beside him. Fort Niagara is on top of the cliff face across the river, below a leaden gray and white streaked sky.

The other painting was of Art’s Coffee Shop on Main Street, or what is now called Queen Street. The pregnant woman wearing a red hat, leaning back as she walks, and carrying what would be twins is Betty White. Nineteen years later Lucy White and I got married.

The large purple dog trailing a small boy on a tricycle in the center of the painting is an Airedale, as are the other four dogs in the painting, including the one peeing on a lamppost. You probably couldn’t paint that from real life anymore. Niagara-on-the-Lake has by-laws about it.

One night my new neighbor reminded me it was against the law for a dog to bark more than twenty minutes after 8 PM.

“Your dog’s been barking for twenty two minutes,” she said over the phone.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was out and I haven’t had a chance to walk him, yet.”

She hung up.

“What the hell?” I thought, the dog’s lead in my hand.

I have a Jack Russell terrier. He misses me when I go out in the evening. The dog burns himself up whenever he spots a rat in Paradise Grove Park behind the Festival Theater. He always used to get what he was after, but he’s grown older and slower, and sometimes the rats get away.

The fisheries closed when Lake Ontario became polluted and there was too much DDT in the water. Algae blooms got so thick waves couldn’t break. It’s better now. There are even walleye to be had, although they don’t reproduce anymore. They have to be restocked year after year.

Lake sturgeon used to be the King of Fish. Then they were hunted down. They were even burned as fuel to power steamboats. No one’s allowed to try for lake sturgeon anymore, even if someone could miraculously find one.

Art’s Coffee Shop is gone, too, and it’s now called Cork’s Wine Bar and Eatery. They serve Hawaiian Meatballs and Beef Panini’s for lunch. A John MacDonald is what needs to be in your wallet for a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee.

My father got the paintings in trade from Bruce Rigg, the town doctor, the same year he got our dining room set. After he died and I inherited the house they stayed where they were on the wall where they’d always hung. We only ever took them down the year we tore off the wallpaper and whenever we repainted the room.

Bruce Rigg was our family doctor. My father was a mason and worked on Dr. Rigg’s office building on Davy Street whenever repairs were needed. It had been the high school gymnasium until after World War Two, when there weren’t any more children in town. Bruce Rigg and his brother Jackson bought the building and converted it into a medical office. They were the town doctors for the next forty-some years.

In 1957 another high school had to be built since there were suddenly so many soon-to-be teenagers in town. That one closed four years ago. I remember its mascot was a Trojan with a Jay Leno chin and a blue plumed helmet. When the Parliament Oak elementary school closes next year there won’t be any schools left in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

At the front of the Art’s Coffee Shop painting two boys wrestle like spitfires, a boy in a green shirt rides a tricycle, a girl in a red jumpsuit pushes a wheel and paddle on a stick, and a woman with a yellow stroller carrying a round-faced toddler stops to talk to Betty White.

Whenever there were sleet storms my sister and I would tie our shoes around our necks and skate down Main Street to school.

The trustees and the town debated for months about Parliament Oak. Everyone said the school was essential for the Old Town’s vitality. The Lord Mayor argued no one appreciated the growth anticipated for the town. One of the parents cried she was flabbergasted by the decision. But, there are barely any children left in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

No one’s setting their houses on fire at night.

By the time the movers took the dining room table out all the rooms were vacant. I had emptied the bookcases, packed my clothes, and taken everything off the walls, except the paintings, the day before. It was when everything else was gone that the paintings stood out, like a sudden, sharp image in a dream.

The summer before my sister was born my father drove the more than two hundred kilometers to Owen Sound and came back with our dining room set and a china cabinet. He drove a Chevy pick-up he had hired from Tommy May’s Livery Stable. The truck had a wood slat deck, so none of the furniture got scratched, although the Jack Russell’s we always had in the house left their mark.

My father lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake, went to school, and worked here his whole life, but he was born in Lancashire. He and my uncles and aunts were all born there. Whenever she was seven months along my grandmother went back to Britain to her mother to have the baby.

She took a train from Buffalo to New York City and sailed on the White Star ocean liner Cedric. She went back and forth five times in third class. She never got seasick and was on the Cedric when it collided with another ship in Morcombe Bay and sank it. The last time she sailed to Lancashire she died in childbirth and my grandfather had to take the boat to bring the baby back.

I was one of the first children delivered at the new Niagara-on-the-Lake Hospital on Wellington Street when it opened in 1953, replacing the old cottage hospital. Dr. Rigg was the attending doctor, although my father said he hardly did anything. My mother said she did all the hard work.

That’s all changed. No one works hard here anymore. The growth industry in Niagara-on-the-Lake is lawn care. Every time I look out my window some guy goes by in a pick-up with a lawn mower in the back. They cut the grass for people who are too lazy to cut their own.

No one is born or dies here, either.

They tore down the general hospital outside St. Catherine’s and built a mammoth, new one. Now all the small local hospitals are closing in its wake. Ours is turning off its lights at year’s end and children won’t be born in Niagara-on-the-Lake anymore.

They say it makes economic sense, but I don’t think it matters. Once you get involved with anything under the rule of no one, like the National Health Service, you’re not going to save even a dime. That’s a given.

When there were still docks in town Dr. Rigg painted the river and the fishermen on weekends. He and his artist colony friends had social parties at Bill Richardson’s, the local coal yard owner. Mary Jones wore a cape and Betty Lane, the bohemian of the group, played a fiddle.

They lived here all their lives.

Almost no one in Niagara-on-the-Lake now has been here long. They’re all from somewhere else. The sub-divisions are full of them. At first I noticed their high-end cars, like Audis and Mercedes. I thought it was the tourists. Everyone in town used to drive Chevy’s and Pontiacs.

But, they weren’t tourists. They were living here. And they’re all retired, getting a pension from somebody or other, most of the time the government. That’s why there are no children anymore and the schools are all closing.

Last year the veteran’s house on the corner, a story-and-a-half, like mine, was sold. They built a little porch around it, which was nice, but it was something anyone could have done on a weekend. Seven or eight years ago the house would have sold for a hundred grand.

They sold it for four hundred and thirty thousand dollars.

Nobody who actually lives here, and was in their right mind, would pay that kind of money for that house.

The out-of-towner who bought it was a single woman. She had a self-satisfied spinsterish look on her face when I met her. She was a retired schoolteacher from Toronto who had sold her house, that she bought for fifty thousand 35 years ago, for nine hundred thousand, and come to Niagara-on-the Lake.

She drove a metallic blue Audi A4 and had plenty of money left over.

A few years from now she’ll probably look like a seer.

“Oh, yes, I only paid $430,000.00 for my house. The man next door might sell you his for God knows what.”

When you live here, with one bathroom, in a small, funny house you can’t swing a cat in, and someone offers you a half million for it, you take it. Very few people are left in Niagara-on-the-Lake. They’ve all sold out and moved to St. Catherine’s, where they can get a real house for half the price.

Niagara-on-the-Lake has become, like Oakville, one of the beautiful places to live. It’s nostalgic, the houses have been tarted up, and it’s close to Toronto. Everybody used to know everybody. But, now nobody knows anybody. It’s a wealthy ghetto, although no one calls it a ghetto. They call it the good life.

People used to work here, but all the manufacturing jobs have left. General Motors is still in St. Catherine’s, but even GM is just a shadow of what it used to be.

The federal provincial government backstopped all the pensions when it went under. It’s a gravy train if you’re on the train.

The woman from St. Catherine’s who cleaned my house once a month is retired from General Motors. She was there for twenty-five years. She’s figured out carpal tunnel. She doesn’t have it, but she got a check for $30,000.00 for having it, and she gets a monthly check, to boot, for the rest of her life.

Her first, second, and third husbands all worked for GM. The one she’s getting rid of now worked for GM, too, and they double-dip everything from the drug store to eyeglasses.

We had our own government here, in the town, once, but then it was amalgamated, and the town lost control. The barbarians in the township took over. Everybody asked what was going on, but that was it. It was all down hill from there.

A town planner from Scarborough was sent to Niagara-on-the-Lake. He was a big man with cornflower blue eyes in a black suit. He stood on the corner of Mississauga and Queen Streets twenty years ago and said, “When you look left, that’s going to be residential. When you look right, that’s going to be commercial.“

That would have been news to lot of people in town.

Scarberia is what we called Scarborough. Niagara-on-the-Lake has the oldest, largest collection of Georgian architecture in Canada and the man from Toronto was taking over. No one with any sense believed it. But, what he had in mind is what it is today.

When the bureaucrats take over there will be problems. It’s hard making sense of anything. Everything gets very commercial. There used to be fine big trees on Queen Street, their branches almost touching over the street. They’ve slowly been cutting them all down so they can grow annuals in the sidewalk flowerbeds. They think the tourists like it.

It’s a terrible idea.

There were once a block-or-two of shops, but now the whole street is commercial, although not so you can buy baby food, drop your shoes off to be repaired, or get a haircut.

There were always a few bed and breakfasts in town. Widows and orphans ran them. They couldn’t afford the taxes on their houses, so they let a room, or two. Now it’s an industry. They’re all out-of-towners running the bed and breakfasts, retired teachers and bureaucrats from Toronto with time and money on their hands.

They walk around the town, strolling here and there with a dog on a leash because it makes it seem like they’re doing something, which is the same thing they were doing when they were working.

They watch television during the day and drink at night, and after a few years give up and someone else takes their place.

The next step was to turn houses into guest cottages. They aren’t widows and orphans and they don’t live there. They rent the house and live somewhere else. There are people in the house and no one’s got a clue who they are. I mow my lawn and every few weeks I notice I’ve got new neighbors.

The Chinese own the hotels. They had to get their money out of Hong Kong in the 1990s before the Communists got their hands on it, and so they brought some of it here. They own the Queen’s Landing, the Oban Inn, the Prince of Wales, and all the other big places.

When the Queen’s Royal Hotel was still open, before the bust, the Prince of Wales was a run-down dump. It was a weasely small thing on the corner. Now the town is booming and it’s got more than a hundred rooms at $300.00 a night.

You can’t smoke in any of the rooms, either, no matter what you pay. You can’t smoke anywhere indoors. Anyone can smoke in his own house, but you can’t smoke in your own car if there is a child in the car. Or, even if a child is going to be in the car.

My wife asked me to stop smoking seven-or-eight years. I promised her I would, and I did. I didn’t mind the gruesome pictures on the packages, but the price got to be too much. The hell with it; I wasn’t a big-time smoker, anyway. She never smoked, but she got cancer, somehow, and died two years ago.

She died in the same hospital on Wellington Street she was born in.

The stores that sell cigarettes don’t let you see them anymore. They’re behind a curtain, the way they used to hide alcohol. The liquor stores would give you a pencil and a piece of paper. You wrote down the number of what you wanted, brandy or whiskey, handed it to them, and the clerk went into the back room to get it for you.

Cigarettes used to be good and booze was bad. Now cigarettes are bad and booze is good. There are more than eighty wineries in Niagara. Drugs used to be bad, too, but lately greenhouses have gone up on the escarpment growing pot. They’re going to make it profitable and then they’re going to tax it.

Niagara-on-the-Lake isn’t really a town anymore. It’s a group of people who show up here once in a while. It looks pretty because there’s so much money floating around, but it’s more a show town than anything else.

The Shaw theaters could be anywhere. They just happen to be in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Most of the theater people live here part-time, and even those who have houses aren’t here for half the year. They go somewhere else to work. Old Town is a very quiet village in the winter. The actors and musicians and everybody used to rent in the town, but they can’t afford to anymore. It’s one of their big problems, finding accommodations for all the show people.

Trains used to bring summer visitors from Buffalo and Toronto up the tracks on King Street. They stayed for a few weeks or a month and the trains went back loaded with fruit. Now the summer people come for a few days, walk up and down Queen Street shopping, go to dinner, see a play, and tramp to the wineries.

“It’s such a cute little quaint town and everyone is so nice.”

Then they drive away down the parkway back to the USA or up Mississauga Street to the QEW, racing past one sub-division after the other.

“Are you taking those pictures?” Emil Montreuil asked, coming up behind me.

“You bet,” I said, taking them off the wall. “I can’t leave them here.”

“Do you want me to bubble wrap them?”

“No, I’ll just take them this way.”

I climbed up into the moving truck with Emil and laid the paintings side-by-side face up on the wide recessed dash. I lowered the passenger side window for my Jack Russell. The dog leaned on the armrest barking at our retired schoolteacher neighbor as she crossed the street. She looked away as she went up her walk.

The low watery sky, the tops of the thinning trees, and dark house rooftops reflected off the glass of the two paintings as we slowly rolled from one stop sign to the next stop sign on Mary Street. We turned away from the town on Mississauga Street. When it became Niagara Stone Road Emil picked up speed past the big wineries.

As we passed the Niagara District Airport he reached into his jacket pocket.

“Smoke?” he asked, gesturing with a pack of Export A’s.

In the painting of the fishermen spinning nets the man with his hands jammed into his pockets and sitting on the ground, leaning on a wall, his legs splayed out and his dog beside him, is smoking a pipe.

“What the hell, sure,” I said.

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.”

Rules of the Game

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By Ed Staskus

You never want to fall asleep in Mr. Hittbone’s second period math class, no matter what, because he will leave you full stop asleep until you eventually wake up, whenever that is. It’s one of the rules written on his personal rules board at the front of the class. NO WAKING SLEEPERS!

Classes will come and go and no one is ever allowed to wake up anybody sleeping.

If you fall asleep he just lets you sleep, no shaking you up, and you miss the next class, and even the class after that. You wake up and it’s, oh, MY GOD! You get major detentions for missing classes at St. Mel’s. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t your fault. Mr. Hittbone doesn’t care that maybe you had homework for six classes and had to do work around the house, too, and walk the dog.

Nobody cares when you’re explaining. They care even less when you’re complaining.

A guy once fell dead asleep for three straight periods. When he woke up Mr. Hittbone was at his podium lecturing, just like always, but after the guy blinked shook his head looked around, he saw there weren’t any familiar faces. There were all different guys in the class. He flash bolted out of the room. He hadn’t technically skipped any classes, but he got a butt load of detentions.

It’s not a school rule. It’s Mr. Hittbone’s rule.

I woke up halfway through his class one day after a long night at home. “Did you sleep good?” he asked. He smirked down at me.

“No, I made a few mistakes,” I said. He didn’t like that. I got a detention.

“You boys grow up without rules, without boundaries,” he told us the first class the first day of school. “You need discipline. You can be yourself, whatever you think that is, once you’ve learned the rules.”

Lots of rules and no mercy, that’s Mr. Hittbone, like he just stepped out of the Old Testament. Mr. Rote and the rest of the religion teachers teach the New Testament, but that news flash has never reached Mr. Hittbone.

It’s not ten thousand years ago, Mr. Hittbone! But, he doesn’t care about that, either.

Everyone says he’s been at the school since it opened, or maybe even before that. He was probably waiting for the big day to happen. He’s only ever taken two days off in all those years. He told us about them on the third day of school. “It wasn’t because I was sick,” he said. The Legend of the Bone says he’s never been sick. Someone else was sick on those two days.

Maybe he ever only feels like crap in private.

Mr. Hittbone’s a short man with a beach ball belly and big lips, like weiners. He pulls his pants up almost to his nipples. He doesn’t wear a sports acket. He only ever wears a dress shirt. He has grayish brown hair and eyes the color of an old telephone pole. He’s a grumpy dude. Everybody hates him, the upper classmen, and us, just everybody, really.

Some of the upper classmen add an S to the front of his name, but never out loud to his face. That would be a disaster if it slipped out. Mr. Hittbone is the MASTER OF DETENTIONS. It’s not even funny.

He’s married, but told us he can’t stand his wife because she never turns off the house lights and watches TV all the time. “She even shops in bed, thanks to television,” he said. We all thought, “So what?”

He has a son and daughter, but he never talks about his son. When he told us about his daughter he said he was mad angry about how in the first year of whatever job she got she was making more money than him.

He always says money is a “masterpiece in the eye of a masterpiece,” whatever that means.

“God wants us to prosper and have plenty of money,” he said. “Money is how you keep score. That’s why you don’t want to stop at simple math, because then you’ll only make simple money.”

Nobody ever knows what he’s talking about.

He smokes between classes, in front of the gold dome chapel, ripping the filters off his cigarettes. I’ve never seen another teacher smoke on campus, only him. He throws the butts on the ground, mashes them, and lights up another one.

Whenever anybody tells him cigarettes are bad for you, he scowls.

“When it looks like I’ll live longer than my next cigarette I’ll scrape it off the bottom of my shoe,” he says.

Whenever anybody tells him cigarettes are practically illegal, he gets mad about that, too.

“The government tells you smoking is bad for your health, but when you Ben Franklin it, the government has killed more people than cigarettes ever did, or ever will.”

One morning he told us he was in a gas station buying cigarettes down on Detroit Road, just down from the school, when somebody tried to rip off the attendant with some kind of money trick.

“I wanted to beat him with a bat,” said Mr. Hittbone, making fists, his hands shaking.

He said beat him WITH A BAT to beat the hell out of him. Every day the forecast for Mr. Hittbone is clouds, rain, and grump. We all laughed, though. He couldn’t beat himself out of a paper bag.

He teaches from a podium at the front of the class. He’s the only teacher in the school who has one. How does he rate? It’s because he’s an OLD DINOSAUR and gets his way. He puts his papers and things on the podium and hardly moves all period, unless he wants to tear up something that’s on your desk. That’s another one of his rules. MATH ONLY!

Even if you’re not doing anything with whatever is on your desk, like a science assignment from Mr. Strappas, if he sees it he’ll just stoop down on you and take it.

“I don’t think you’ll be needing this,” he says, and rips it up.

He’s constantly looking for things to rip up, even if it’s something for one of your other classes, not even his class, something you were just looking at. He’s always showing up all of a sudden and tearing your work into shreds.

He has a ton of rules on his board, more than fifty of them, a boat load of them. NO CHEWING GUM!

If you chew gum anywhere on campus, not just in his class, watch out for him spying you doing it. He scribbles your name in his little black spiral notebook and reports you. He gives you a full detention, which is forty-five minutes. He never gives out minor detentions. Mr. Hittbone told us chewing gum is rotten and should be banned from the school.

“If you can’t swallow it, don’t chew it.”

No one is allowed to touch anything in his classroom, either. NO TOUCHING!

If you pass by one of his special teacher books and you sort of graze it with your leg, you get a major detention. If you pick up a marker at the board without first asking his permission, you get a major detention. If you punch somebody’s arm, even though it’s none of his business, you get a major detention.

It’s nothing like my third period class, which is our science class. The teacher is Mr. Strappas, who’s one of the varsity football coaches. He’s young, has blond hair he combs back, and is super fit. He played football in college and he’s a nice cool man. He encourages us to touch things, do things, get into the projects, and the only rule he has is no talking when he’s talking.

I don’t know why some guys can’t get it right. It’s always the same guys who get it wrong, who do all the talking in class, breaking the rules. We sit a pair to a table and those two guys are somewhere in the middle of the room. They talk about video games, sports, and all their other dumb stuff. Mr. Strappas will say, no talking, and they will say, sorry, but they don’t stop. They don’t even get good grades on their quizzes and tests. They don’t turn their homework in on time and get bad marks for effort. They’re just stupids.

Mr. Strappas doesn’t stand at his lectern. He roams back-and-forth, to the sinks, the whiteboard, and all around the room. He’s always on the move. It’s my favorite class of the day. I actually like learning in it. It’s fun finding out about atoms and geology and everything he’s interested in.

Mr. Strappas expects us to be in our seats when his class starts, but he doesn’t sweat it if it doesn’t happen. But if you’re not in your seat when the bell rings at the instant Mr. Hittbone’s class starts, you get a full detention. Everybody should be in their seats when class starts, we all know that, but if you’re standing there for a second, just fixing your belt, he gives you a detention, anyway. It’s totally retarded, but that’s another one of his rules.

Because it’s Mr. Hittbone, you absolutely want to make sure you’re all good. You want to be perfect. LOOK PROPER! We wear ties, dress shirts, dress pants, a belt, undershirt, and black shoes. We have to make sure we’re all buttoned up for him. If any button is even half unbuttoned it means a full detention. He really hates it if the second button on your shirt is undone.

Even though Mr. Hittbone is a hundred years older than Mr. Rote, our first period religion teacher, who is young and thinks he’s all there, but is a doofus, it’s one for the button in first period and two for the button in second period.

He hates casual dress days, too. “It’s like a casual walk through the insane asylum,” he says.

If there is any piece of paper on the floor around or near your desk at any time of the class he’ll give you a detention, even if it’s not yours, and even if you didn’t see it in the first place. NO LITTER! If the paper has your name on it, it’s even worse, because he rips it up before giving you the detention.

Mr. Hittbohm is his own Bible of Rules.

DON’T LOOK THROUGH THE WINDOWS! We’re supposed to face front when we’re in class, but there are some guys who sit right by the windows and sometimes they can’t help shifting their faces to the glass.

FULL DETENTION!

If Mr. Hittbone and I looked out the same window, I don’t think we would see the same thing, no matter how you do the math.

Sometimes I think that since I didn’t have a hand in making his rules, the rules have nothing to do with me. If you say Cloud 9 is amazing, he’ll say, what’s wrong with Cloud 8? No matter what, you can’t fight Mr. Hittbone. He’s like a Godzilla. He swats you down with his horny tail.

At the end of class we can’t jump up and leave like in any of our other classes. His rule about the bell for ending class is that it isn’t the school bell, but his bell that matters. When the school bell goes off, we have to stay in our seats until he says we can go.

At the end of class I’ll say, “See you tomorrow Mr. Hittbone.” And he’ll say, “Thanks for the warning, Mr. Who It.”

My middle name is Wyatt, so he calls me Who It, as in Why It, Who It, and then he laughs.

Sometimes it seems like he wants you to lay down at his feet like a guinea pig and say, “Yes, sir, I’ll go dig up those apples, sir, whatever you say.” His rules have nothing to do with anything. He’s just a cranky old-fangled downpresser. He’s got us for fifty minutes, and that’s that.

I’m counting the days until my sophomore year and I’m none of Mr. Hittbone’s business anymore.

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.”