Category Archives: Fiction

Grinding the Night Away

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

The Crusaders slouched back to Cincinnati and afterwards we called them the Sad Taters. St. Mel’s takes no prisoners on the football field. No, SIR!

My dad worked the refreshment table at the dance. He’s a member of the Father’s Club. It was awesome for my friends and me. We had a boat load of free drinks, for sure.

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

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

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

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

Bert plays soccer, is taller than me, but he’s a toothpick. He’s sort of ugly, too.

He was really scared for a second.

“I was, like…” he stuttered.

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

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

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

“Jake, Jess kissed Bert,” I said.

“Are you kidding me?” he asked.

“No dude, I’m sorry, but it’s true.“

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

“I’m sorry, dude,” I said. He was sad and really down. Then he jumped her on the spot, surprising everybody.

“Yeah, gangster,” I thought out loud.

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

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

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

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

“Maybe I’ll just do LSD,” DB said, spinning his head in fast, tight circles.

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

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

HONEST to GOD!

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

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

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

Nobody’s brains are guaranteed in the pit. Everybody goes to the pit to have fun, that’s all. The girls like it. That works for me. We all get going get amped get excited in the pit. No one can help it. Grinding is the greatest when you’re rubbing up against some girl to Lady Gaga’s ‘Disco Stick’. You don’t even have to look them in the face since most of the time it’s from behind.

The parents don’t know the grinding that goes on. Girls put their butts on you and figure eight. It’s like doing it with your clothes on. Sometimes we form lines, forty or fifty of us in a line grinding on each other. Nobody’s parents want to know about that.

NO WAY! BELIEVE ME!

You can get in trouble for grinding. All the teachers are there and they watch out for it. They call it pelvic thrust dancing, or at least Mr. Rote does, who’s got a sharp eye for it. There’s a rule that you can get kicked out of the dance for doing it, but none of the teachers can ever get into the mosh pit, so hardly anybody ever gets caught.

They will mark your hand with a Sharpie if they do catch you, and if they catch you a second time, they kick you out of the dance. Guys go all crazy, all sweaty and flustered, trying to rub the indelible Sharpie mark off as fast as they can.

Not many guys got kicked out of theHomecoming dance, but Allan’s older brother did. It was funny to everybody, although he wasn’t laughing. Girls don’t get kicked out because it’s at our school. Just the guys get the boot. I saw a couple of them being dragged from the pit and kicked out of the gym. The Dean of Students had their cell phones and was looking through all their messages.

St. Mel’s is a private school. They aren’t funded by the state. They don’t have to stick to the state rules like the public schools. They can’t hit you, but they can, if they want to. If a teacher hit me I would be very, VERY upset, but they can do just about anything.

THEY CAN DO WHAT THEY WANT!

They can look through your phone and anything else of yours. They can drag you away. I don’t even know all the stuff they can do.

They can kick you out of school, for sure. If you do something bad it becomes Steck Time, the Dean of Students, who is a very mean man. He can say, “Don’t come back tomorrow.” When Mr. Steck-It-To-You says it he means it and he can make it stick. Because it’s a private school they can lock you out and you can’t ever go back. And then you’re out, that’s all. I’ve heard of some kids who got thrown out once-and-for-all for good.

You’ve got to be careful.

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

It wasn’t even close.

The girls at our dances sometimes come from some public schools, but mostly from St. Joe’s, Magnificat, and the other Catholic schools. Are good Catholic girls the same as good girls? Are you pooping on my face? God, no, they’re not good! That’s why we’re all grinding at the dances.

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

They’re thirsty and need to be quenched.

The Catholic girls aren’t even that hot, at least not usually. There are more hotter public school girls than Catholic girls. Some of the Catholic girls even think they are better than other peeps, which is rude, and mostly mistaken.

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

I have some good friends who go to Mag’s, but St. Joe’s, no. St. Joe’s girls are Catholic girls all out. They are ever not so nice.

If you are hanging out with public school girls, or Catholic girls, and the other side walks up, it tends to be that public school girls are nicer. They are like your friends right out of the box and they are nicer to you, too. The Catholic girls are kind of low and frank. The public school girls are nicer, asking what your name is, and being interested in you. Catholic girls are like, “Oh, hi, WHO are you? I have to GO.”

You can tell they don’t care.

The only time they CARE is when they’re GRINDING, but that’s a TOTALLY different kind of caring.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

 

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My Two Best Friends

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When I met Wayne Biddell, he had two bum knees, although they were the least of his problems. He had been a Cleveland Police Department detective for fifteen years, and a uniformed officer before that. He once told me in all that time he had only drawn his service handgun three times, and never fired it.

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

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

I met Wayne after my marriage fell apart and I lost my house, which was a lot like what happened to Wayne. We met on the grassy courtyard of the apartment complex on East 222nd Street in Euclid, where we both lived, when I saw him messing around with his golf clubs on a warm dry spring day. He was retired and lived alone.

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

We played golf together for the next three years. He was the best friend I ever had, even more than Mattie Haylor, even though Mattie ended up doing more for me later on. Wayne did many things I never even asked him to do. After I moved to Lakewood, he got me a car, convincing his lady friend to give me the old Ford she had been planning on trading in when she got her new car, and later mailing me a check for five hundred dollars, to live on, knowing I was broke.

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

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

I knew he was right, but I knew he didn’t want to lend me a cent, anyway.

I junked the Ford and got a hundred bucks for it.

I had to walk to the Lakewood Library and McDonald’s, the grocery and the bus stop that winter, the winter Wayne blew his head off, and all the next spring until Mattie died and left me a hundred thousand dollars, after all was said and done and the trust sold his house, and I was able to buy a new car.

When my wife Mary walked out on me, and took all the money out of our joint accounts, and cashed in our insurance policies, and swooped up the kids, and talked me into taking a second mortgage out on our house so she and her boyfriend could open a restaurant, which failed inside of two years, and Chamber Bearings went bankrupt, putting me out of the only work I had ever done since getting shipped home from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, was when I played more golf than I ever had played in my life, and waited to be thrown out of my house.

When I finally moved out of Indian Hills, down the hill to Euclid, I was in my late 50s. I was holding on, waiting to get to 62, so I could get on Social Security early. I needed the money. When I worked for Chamber Bearings, they gave me a new car every year, and I had an expense account no one ever questioned, and was in line to be made a vice-president, up to the day the family business closed their doors without a word of warning to me. There were years when I almost always had a thousand dollars, or more, in cash in my pockets every day.

Those days were gone.

When I moved to Euclid I moved into a free apartment, an apartment that Angelo, the maintenance man at the apartment complex, who I met through Stan, a Polack I often had breakfast with at the railroad car diner on Green Road, not far from the giant Fisher Body and TRW plants, got for me when I got hired to be his helper.

Stan and I talked all the time over cups of coffee. We got to be good friends. He was a hell of a bowler. He was so good he bowled in tournaments, and I went to a couple of them to watch him. It was a hop, skip, and a glide to the line. He was always pounding out strikes.

Angelo was a Korean War veteran, like me. He talked the Jewish guy who was the boss, who owned the apartment complex, into hiring me. Jews run the country. They run the money, which means they run everything else, too. They own most of the gold in the world. They marry inside the family, keeping it all together for themselves.

I shoveled snow, did some of the gardening, and vacuumed the hallways. I cleaned apartments when they went vacant, and got paid extra whenever I had to clean kitchens, scrubbing the stove and emptying out the fridge, throwing away rotten food. I made a few bucks here and there. I kept my head above water.

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

Wayne worked part-time at night, in a booth selling betting slips at the Thistledown horseracing track in North Randall. He was on his own during the day, which was how he and I were able to go golfing together whenever I was free. We even went to tournaments, to watch the professionals. Stan went with us once, but he wasn’t used to walking that much, and got tired.

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

When I moved to Lakewood, on the west side, to a small apartment across the street from St. Ed’s High School, Wayne visited me a few times, even though he didn’t like my apartment or the building. “It’s a dump,” he said. I took him to Joe’s Diner. I could tell he was suffering. He had prostate cancer and was hurting bad. It was just a matter of time.

I called him on Christmas Eve and wished him happy holidays. He didn’t sound good, but he didn’t sound bad, either. At least, that’s what I thought. I was dead wrong.

Wayne’s son was at Miami University. He had tried out for the football team as a walk-on and made the cut. He was a hell of an athlete and was their back-up quarterback. He drove up to Euclid to see his dad on Christmas. Wayne told him about his new car.

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

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

After the funeral I walked around Lakewood until summer, until Mattie, my golfing buddy for many years, who was in his 80s, got sick. He was taken to Fairview Hospital, and when there wasn’t anything more they could do, he was moved to the Welsh Home in Rocky River.

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

When Mattie passed away in his sleep, a month-or so after his funeral I got a letter from a lawyer saying I was included in his will. He had left me his house. It surprised me, but didn’t surprise me. I was the only person who ever listened to what he had to say, who stuck around when he got quiet, who waited to talk about something else he was bound to remember sooner or later. The house was sold and I got a check for a hundred grand.

I was always a good friend with different people, including Wayne and Mattie, who were my two best friends. It’s good to be best friends with your best friends. I bought a new car, paying cash for it. I paid off all my credit card debt, the credit cards I had been living on, and bought a new laptop computer, so I didn’t always have to go to the library to work on my schemes.

My ship is coming in one day. When it does, I’ll dump the Chevy in the blink of an eye and get an Audi convertible.  I’ll go to Florida every winter.

I bought some new shirts and shoes and ate better. After squirreling the rest of Mattie’s money away I was in good shape. I played golf all summer at some new courses. I went to both Wayne’s and Mattie’s graves once and paid my respects.

I made some new best friends.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

Chips on the Spaldeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sank all three.

“I should quit right there,” he laughed.

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

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

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

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

He was looking forward to it.

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

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

This was one of the best of them.

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

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

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

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

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

“OK, dad,” she said.

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

“Spaldeen!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve had it, pick it up,” he said.

“Having a little trouble?” asked Sam Morse.

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

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

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

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

“It’s a Hindoo,” he shouted.

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

“What do you know?”

“I know what I gotta know.”

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

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

“Ah, go play stoopball,” shouted Hal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Comeback stickball,” he whispered to himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ike looked for the fairway on the 18th  hole.

“Where do we aim here?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We sure did,” said Hal.

“What a game!” said Dottie.

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

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

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

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

Dottie was so glad her team had won.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Last Splatter

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“What in the hell am I doing?” Jackson Pollack asked himself, surveying the rise of the road, driving up too fast toward the top of it for what was on the other side. He couldn’t dope it out. He was driving like a crazy man, like what all the analysts he had ever gone to always told him he wasn’t.

Not crazy, not exactly.

One of them had said, “You’re just in search of a nervous breakdown.” He didn’t tell that one about 1938. It didn’t matter. He knew he was raw. That’s why the work worked. He wasn’t a nutcase because he saw psychiatrists. But, in the last five minutes he had twice caught himself steering the car at the soft shoulder.

He was the second best driver in Springs, next to Harry Cullum, who had told him he was second best on a late afternoon one day in mid-winter when the two of them were having beers at Jungle Pete’s. “You’ll have the last laugh, just wait and see, Jack,” he said, clapping him on the back.

“Maybe not on the road, but you’ll get ‘er done.”

Jackson Pollock’s convertible didn’t have seat belts, although Harry, the best driver in town, had outfitted his own family car with lap belts. He told everyone it was for his wife’s sake. “In stock car racing we never used seat belts if there wasn’t a roll bar, suicide if you do,” said Harry.

The girl in the middle of the front seat, between Ruth and him, was screaming. “Stop the car, let me out, let me out!” He wasn’t going to stop the car, he knew that, but he had a bad feeling. It was a clear, starry night, splashed dark, hot and muggy. The road felt spongy.

The car was an Olds 88, a big open air carriage.

He got his first convertible, a Cadillac, when his action paintings had started to get some action, after Life Magazine put him on the cover almost exactly seven years ago. It was his boast of success. They said he was the shining new phenomenon of American art. When 1950 got good and done, the next month Art News published a list of the best exhibitions of the year. The top three shows belonged to him. It wasn’t bad for somebody who never graduated from high school.

Even though he used to throw his car keys in bushes when he was getting drunk at parties, he had smashed the Caddy into a tree.

Action painting, he thought, and snorted, spraying spit on the steering wheel. What critics didn’t know wasn’t worth a pot to piss in.  “If people would just look at my paintings, I don’t think they would have any trouble enjoying them. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers, you don’t tear your hair out over what it means.” He had meant it when he said it. He’d say it again, too.

Who needs a critic to find out what is, or isn’t art. Most of them, if they saw him walking on water, crossing the Hudson River at Canal Street, would scribble something about him not being able to swim. The only time he met Man Ray, at the Cedar Tavern when the man was finally on his way back to Paris, he told Jackson, “All critics should be assassinated.”

Lee called his work all over painting because he got it all over the flat canvas nailed down on the floor, the hard floor, his boots and jeans and hands. Bugs and bits of litter and blackened shag from his cigarettes fell into the paint.

“Is Jackson Pollock the greatest living painter in the United States?” is what Life Magazine blew the balloon up with, headlining the story, and a picture of him, slouching against a wall with a smoke dangling from his mouth, and a couple of pictures of his paintings. He looked good, like he didn’t have a care in the world, didn’t give a damn, like he had the world by the balls. Now was different. He hadn’t made a painting in more than a year. He felt washed up.

He wasn’t sure he had anything to say anymore.

“She started to scream,” said Clement Greenberg. “He took it out on this pathetic girl by going even faster. Then he lost control on the curve. The screaming is what did the killing, finally.”

What was her name? He chewed it over in his mind, sliding a glance sideways at her. He couldn’t remember. They were on the Fireplace Road in East Hampton, not far from home. It couldn’t be more than a mile. Not much of a home anymore, anyway. Lee was in Paris with her friends. She had said she was coming back, but he wasn’t sure. He wanted her back, but it had all gone to hell.

Hell-bent in his Olds with two broads in the car and his wife in Europe wasn’t going to get it done, wasn’t going to get it back. He had to get back on track. Maybe the last analyst he’d seen was right, maybe there was something gumming up the works. He was going to try a new approach, he’d said, called hypnotherapy.

He was a new downtown brain doctor. “It’s not hypnosis, at least not how most people think of it,” said Dr. Sam Baird. “We’re not going to try to alter or correct your behavior. We’ll try to seed some ideas, sure, but we’ll talk those out before we go ahead.”

He told Lee he was going to get clear with Dr. Baird. “He isn’t full of old-time shit,” he said.

If any of his neighbors saw him staggering his car down the road they would laugh and say it was like his paintings. Most of them still thought he was nuts, even though they didn’t say so anymore to his face, now that he was in museums and galleries. When he was a nobody they looked down on him like he was a nobody.

“I could see right away he wasn’t from here,” said Frank Dayton. “I asked a fellow later who he was. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s just a crazy artist.’”

“To some goody-goody people he was a bum, just someone to laugh at,” said Sid Miller. “They didn’t think much of his work, didn’t think he was doing anything.”

“Folks said he painted with a broom,” said Ed Cook. “Near everybody made jokes about his paintings, never thought they’d amount to anything.”

“To hell with them,” he said to Ruth sitting close next to him. She was a looker, that’s for sure, the juice he needed to get him going again. He had gone dead inside. He knew he had. She was the kind of girl who could crank him up. What’s-her-name in the back seat kept screaming.

“What?” asked Ruth, loud, twisting towards him.

“To hell with them,” he muttered to himself. “What do they know?”

“Slow down a little bit, the car’s a little out of control, take it easy,” she said.

The joke was on them. When he was painting, standing over a canvas, it was when he was most in control. It was when he didn’t have any doubts about himself or what he was doing. He knew exactly what he was doing. He had told anybody interested in listening, I can control the flow of paint. There is no accident.

“He picked up can and paint brush and started to move around the canvas,” said Hans Namuth. “It was as if he suddenly realized the painting was not finished, His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dance like as he flung black, white and rust-colored paint onto the canvas. He completely forgot that Lee and I were there. Finally, he said, ‘This is it.’”

I work from the inside out. That’s when I’m in the painting, in the middle of life, but outside of it at the same time, when I can see the whole picture. Someone said my pictures don’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment. Only he didn’t know it.

He was good driving his Olds, too, even when he was as drunk as could be, which was what he was now. “He came in for his eye-opener, a double, about 10:30 before train time,” said Al Cavagnaro. “Start your day the way he did sometimes, you’d be in the same fix he was. If you said he was half bagged up, you’d be about right.”

Doc Klein had said it was OK for him to drink and drive. He said trees never hit cars except in self-defense. “Stay on the road,” said Doc Klein, a big man laughing a big laugh.

“Goddamn right, I always stay on the road,” said Jackson Pollack. “Except when I’m pulling into Al’s or Pete’s, then I get off the road. Besides, there’s no trees in those parking lots.”

“It was continual, almost nightly drunken large parties,” said Patsy Southgate. “Everyone was totally drunk all the time and driving around in cars.”

He wasn’t driving right, though. He was driving wrong. The screaming girl grabbing his right arm was right. He liked to drive. But, tonight, instead of fluid with the steering wheel, like he was with free-flowing paint out of a can, he was clumsy, crazy clumsy, as though he was at cross-purposes. Herky jerky. The quiet precise gestures he used to stream paint from a stick when he was working were usually the same when he drove his car. Tonight they were too big around, whiplash gestures, like they had a life of their own.

“He had to be moving fast, 85 to 90, anyway,” said Harry Cullum. “There was one hell of a crown where the town tar road begins at the beginning of the left curve. Jeez, I almost lost my car a couple of times there when I was a kid, but finally you smarten up and ride that crown, the one they fixed after Pollock got killed.”

“My version of Jackson’s death is he died of drink and the Town of East Hampton Highway Department,” said Wayne Barker.

It was three years ago, the first week of November, when he had come down the crown of the road like a stick of dynamite. He came back from the city on Friday, on the train. It snowed all morning and it was still snowing at the end of the day when he found his car in the lot, brushing a foot of snow off his windows with his hands, rubbing the cold out of them in front of the car’s dashboard heating vent. When he finally got on the road to Springs he was one of a handful of cars. The storm was blowing off the ocean. The car trembled whenever the road flattened out and he was sideways to the coastal wind.

“I crawled up there, could barely see, and stopped when I saw the pile of snow,” he told Lee that night at home, the windows in their sash frames rattling in the 75 MPH gusts. “There was a snowdrift, five feet, six feet high, down the other side blocking the way. I backed up a little, to where my rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road, and hit the gas as hard as I could. I went as fast as I could, hit the snow head on, everything went white, everything disappeared, no color, just white. By the time I came out the other side the Olds was barely moving.”

They laughed about it all night, over dinner, and later in bed again, curling close together under a mound of blankets.

The girl beside him was still screaming. How long could she keep it up? She was driving him nuts. He was driving wrong, all wrong. There was a reason. He knew it, but he also thought, how could there be a reason? What was it? Where was it? He knew it was right there, right at the edge of the front of his brain. It was like the images behind the abstractions in his paintings, right there. But when he tried hard to think of why he was driving wrong his brain hurt like a next morning’s hangover before getting his hands on some hair of the dog.

He had a hangover all the time now, more than five years worth, but it wasn’t from gin, it was from having rocketed to fame, putting everything he had into it, until he didn’t have anymore, and he quit pouring liquid paint cold turkey. It was all over. After that he couldn’t make a painting that anybody wanted.  When he did his black paintings on unprimed canvas, he couldn’t give them away. Even his fame couldn’t prime the pump. Nobody thought it was any good.

“An artist is a person who has invented an artist,” Rosie burst out one night near the tail end of a long night of poker and drinking.

Rosenberg always thought he was right, Jackson thought. He got it wrong on the train, though, the day we were riding into the city together. When I told him the canvas was an arena, I meant it like it was a living thing, not a dead thing, not slugging it out in the ring. He thought I somehow meant it literally, even though both of us were dead sober at the time, and the next thing I knew I was an action painter.

At least he got it right at the card game.

Not like Hans.

When Lee brought her teacher, Hans Hoffman, over to meet him, he saw the sour look on the great man’s face right away. Hans was a neat freak, everything in it’s place, clean and orderly. His own studio was a mess. There wasn’t a sign of a still life or a life model anywhere.

“You do not work from nature,” said Hans. “You work by heart, not from nature This is no good, you will repeat yourself.”

“I am nature,” said Jackson Pollack.

There wasn’t a drop of daylight left in the sky or anywhere on the other side of his windshield. It surprised the hell out of him when he got to the curve at the dip, where the concrete stopped and town’s blacktop started, and he suddenly veered off the road, aiming for the trees. The car skidded in the sand. He let it slide, its big front end dead set on the big oak tree to their left.

Skidding in the dirt off the road didn’t surprise him. Besides, he was going too fast. He was going fast, that’s all. The girl next to him stopped screaming. She slowed down. She was squeezing a small pillow in her hands with all her might. His hands felt dry and relaxed on the steering wheel. He didn’t squeeze the steering wheel even when he smashed into the tree head-on.

The car broke every bone in its chassis when it hit the tree. Jackson Pollack was catapulted over the windshield and into the woods. The mangled car flipped over, tossing Ruth to the side. When the Olds landed upside down, crushing the framework of the windshield, the girl with the pillow in her hands suddenly stopped gripping it. The car horn blared, stuck. Gasoline poured out of the punctured gas tank. The taillights blinked on and off and on and off.

“I’m going to be one of my paintings in a second,” thought Jackson Pollack in mid-air, halfway to the future, rocketing his way to forever. “I’m going to splatter all over. I’m going to be in nature, be nature, finally, once and for all.” He hit a tree. When he landed with a hard thud, however, he landed on soft ground, except for a just barely jutting out of the ground lump of granite rock. It was mottled with luminous moss. His neck hit the rock like a falling star.

Gravity had been the heaven-sent hand that gave life to the paint and flotsam that dripped splashed flowed down onto his canvasses. Gravity was now the hand that dealt him a death blow.

He lay there like a broken tree branch, shoeless, his arms and legs haphazard.

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The A-side of Mermaid Avenue

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After bacon and eggs and toast and coffee, Ike and Mamie Eisenhower walked out of the big two-story house on the long quiet street and shook hands with Joel Carlson and his wife. “Thanks for having us,” said Dwight Eisenhower. They had spent the night in the guest bedroom. At the end of the driveway a man waited with three ballerina dolls in his arms.

Ike lit a cigarette.

“John Krajicek, from Ames,” said a Secret Service man in a dark suit.

The man holding the three dolls gave them to Mamie Eisenhower.

“Thank you so much,” she said, squeezing his arm.

John Krajiceks’s face lit up.

“It is my pleasure,” he said.

The President and Mrs. Eisenhower were in Boone, Iowa, on Friday, September 21st. Today was the last day of summer. Tomorrow was the first day of fall. It was a clear crisp morning.

Once in their car they were driven to 718 Carroll Street, to the house Mamie had been born in sixty years earlier. Mrs. Beatrice Smiley, Mrs. Myrtle Douglas, and Mrs. Awilda Stranberg, all dressed up, all in a bundle, all waiting breathlessly, greeted them on the front porch. They presented Mamie with a photograph of the stone and memorial plaque that had recently been placed on the lawn of her birthplace.

Mamie was slightly unnerved by the God’s acre look of it.

Looking down at the plaque, after reading the inscription, Ike noticed a shiny penny in the freshly mowed grass.

“See a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck,” he thought.

He picked it up.

Adlai Stevenson was coming to nearby Newton tomorrow to give a speech about farm problems. “We’ve got the ‘Truth Squad’ ready,” Joel Carlson had said over breakfast. Ike rolled the penny between his fingers in his pocket.

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

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

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

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

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

Dottie felt light as lemonade.

They stopped at the Sodamat at West 15thStreet as they strolled on the Boardwalk.

“Good Drinks Served Right – Skee Ball 5 cents.”

There were prize games, hammer games, rifle ranges, freak shows, and fortune-tellers on Coney Island.

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

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

“I do, but later,” said Dottie.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you only play stickball?” asked Vicki.

“Oh, no, we play ringolevio and skelly, too, although some kids call it scummy top, even though I don’t know why. Skelly is fun, but all you’ve got are your chalk and the squares and your caps. Ringolevio is way more fun, we run all over, and there’s a jail, and jailbreaks, and everything. Chain chain, double chain, no break away!”

It was a few minutes before eleven when the Eisenhower’s arrived at the National Field Days and Plowing Matches near Colfax. In the past two days he had traveled hundreds of miles through central Iowa, made speeches, informal talks, shook hands, waved and flashed his smile to more than 300,00 people, half of them on Walnut Street in Des Moines, eight and nine deep, on both sides of the street.

Gangs of schoolchildren ran alongside his limousine and kids on bicycles rode behind his police motorcycle escorts.

“There’s never been anything like this here before,” said Governor Leo Hoegh, whistling through his teeth in awe and admiration.

Four years earlier, when Harry Truman had campaigned in Iowa, he got sick and tired of hearing “We Like Ike!” from hecklers. “Why don’t you shut up and you might learn something,” he retorted at one stop, veering from his prepared speech. Instead, he became the target of eggs and tomatoes.

As they drove up the dirt road off Highway 6 to the entrance of the Field Days, Dwight Eisenhower glanced at the cardboard signs at the side of the road. He wasn’t the challenger anymore. He was the incumbent. He was the man in office with a record to defend.

“10-cent corn  – the same as 1932.”

1932 was the year 24 years ago when Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in that year’s presidential race, more than three years into the Great Depression.

“Ike Promised 100 Per Cent Parity 1952. Didn’t Happen. What Promise – 1956?”

“Ike’s Peace Like Neville Chamberlain’s Peace.”

At the entrance a short round man held up a loosely lettered sign on the end of a broom.

“Adlai and Estes, The Bestest.”

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

“You had two of them,” said Vicki.

“She’s a growing girl,” said Bettina.

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

“Where to now?” asked Bettina.

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

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

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

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

“No, I never have heard of it.”

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

“That cinches it,” said Bettina.

“You and me both, sister,” said Vicki.

“Mr. President,” said Herb Plambeck. “I’d like to introduce our twenty seven Champion Plowmen and our one and only Champion Plow Woman, Mrs. Pauline Blankenship.”

Ike shook hands with them, taking Pauline Blankenship’s lightly in his. He shook hands with Frank Mendell, chairman of the National Contour Plowing Match, and Dale Hall, chairman of the National Level Land Plowing Match. In the Lunch Tent he met Kay Butler, Queen of the Furrow, and ate sitting between Mamie and Governor Hoegh.

Mrs. Jet Adams supervised the dozen ladies serving lunch. Mamie waved her over.

“You’re doing a wonderful job,” she said.

After lunch Senator B. B. Hickenlooper introduced President Eisenhower to the crowd after introducing himself at length.

“Most of you know me, and I’m sure have voted for me often,” he said.

There was a wave of good-natured laughter.

“For those of you who don’t know me, and aren’t sure how to pronounce my name, my friends just call me Hick.”

There was another wave of laughter, larger and louder.

“When I was child, my mother sent me to the drug store to get a nickel’s worth of asafetida for her asthma. The druggist just gave it me without writing it out, because he didn’t want to have to write out my full name, Bourke Blakemore Hickenlooper. “

“Just take this home to your mother, Hick,” said the druggist.

Bourke B. Hickenlooper had been a senator since 1944. He wore black frame glasses beneath a pinkish bald pate and was one of the most conservative and isolationist members in the United States Senate. He hadn’t lost an election since as lieutenant governor of Iowa almost twenty years ago he had made headlines by saving a Cedar Rapids woman from drowning in the Cedar River.

She later told her friends she hadn’t needed saving, but that her savior had insisted.

President Eisenhower’s speech was broadcast live on local TV and radio. He stayed local, steering away from anything contentious, the bland leading the bland. After the address he presented trophies and scrolls to the champion plowmen and champion plow woman.

Henry Steenhock, the owner of the land where the Field Days were held, didn’t think much of the speech.

“I like Ike, but I don’t think I’ll vote for him, even though I’ve been a Republican all my life,” he said. “Flexible price supports have got to go. We’re not looking for a handout, but we deserve price protection. Other businesses are subsidized. Ezra Benson? He’s got to go. Vice-President Nixon? I don’t like his attitude – period. Estes Kefauver, he’s like I am, straight-forward.”

Henry Steenbock always called corn a cash crop and a spade a spade.

“Why do they call it Coney Island?” asked Dottie.

“It’s because of the Dutch,” said Bettina. “When they were here, maybe 300 years ago, there were lots of rabbits in the dunes, so they called it Konijnen Eiland, which means Rabbit Island, which became Coney Island after the English took over.”

“How did they take over?”

“Somebody always takes over,” said Bettina.

“Why does somebody always take over?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thrills.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bettina laughed.

“Isn’t that crazy? One day he’s Yankee Doodle Dandy and the next day he’s a mama’s boy mad dog killer.”

The Wonder Wheel shuddered and started down again.

Dwight Eisenhower and his wife were at the Des Moines Municipal Airport by mid-afternoon for their flight back to Washington D. C. He greeted and answered questions from more than a hundred Iowa weekly newspaper editors, met with two- dozen Iowa Republican Party officials, and was escorted to the Columbine by sixteen Eagle Scouts formed as an Honor Guard.

Inside the plane an aide sat down opposite him.

“Mr. President we have a report that Anastasio Somoza, the president of Nicaragua, has been shot today.”

“Is it serious?”

“The report wasn’t entirely clear, but it said, yes, serious, shot in the chest, point-blank, it might be life-threatening.”

“Where have they taken him?”

“He’s been taken to the Panama Canal Zone hospital.”

“Good, best place for him. He may be a son of a bitch, but Tacho’s our son of a bitch, so tell them to do everything they can to save him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Who shot him?”

“A poet.”

“Are you serious? Well, goddamn it. A poet?”

“A poet, yes, sir, a local writer and musician, played violin in a band. He was shot dead, riddled, on the spot.”

“I’ll be damned, a poet with a pistol, mightier than the pen.”

The Columbine touched down at 9:35, taxied to the MATS Terminal, and the Eisenhower’s were in bed by 10:45. The next day Ike stayed in the Mansion all day while it steadily rained, only seeing the Secretary of State for a few minutes. Ike and Mamie attended the Sunday morning service at the National Presbyterian Church, and like the day before spent the rest of the day in the Mansion. Sunday night some of ‘The Gang’ came to dinner at the White House, over drinks planning their next stag trip to the Eisenhower Cabin at the Augusta National Golf Club.

When he was there, which was as often as possible, Ike worked mornings in the three-story seven-bedroom cabin, played golf with his friends in the afternoon, and bridge after dinner. His friends weren’t his friends at the card table, except his partner, and then not always even him.

“How was the Iowa trip?” one of them asked.

“The same as all the others, except it didn’t rain, and the food was better,” said Ike. “I shook a lot of hands, made speeches to the faithful, and got out the vote.”

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

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

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

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

“Why does he do that?”

“He can’t stand it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” said Dottie.

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

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

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

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

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

“Bye.”

“Bye to you, too.”

“That was sketchy,” said Vicki.

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

“Yes, you bet I did.”

“I’m hungry,” said Dottie.

“You’re always hungry,” said Bettina. “Doesn’t Stan feed you?

“So am I,” said Vicki.

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

“Yippee ki yay!” exclaimed Dottie.

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Nine Months of Hebrew

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Anybody with any sense would have thought Mendel was going to help me learn Hebrew, but he didn’t, not even for a minute. He was from Jerusalem, he had a boat load of friends who spoke Hebrew, and they yakked it up among themselves all the time. But, he never helped me, even though we lived together and I was the designated driver who drove him to synagogues.

I met Mendel when he was with the Cleveland International Group. We were looking at the same dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and afterwards I gave him a ride home. Everybody in that group loved him. He asked me for my phone number. He was a cute guy, but I found out he had no patience.

He was from a Kurd family, had been born in Haifa, and was an orthodox Jew. But, I always thought there was something fishy about him. He never said why he left Israel when everybody else was going to Israel. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, but I always drove him. I dropped him off a block from whatever synagogue he was going to that day and he would walk the rest of the way.

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

I was working at Time to Travel in Beachwood when I started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood was an ethnic neighborhood and many of the people who came to the agency spoke Hebrew. I thought, maybe I should learn it. It would help me get ahead in my job. Sami and Simcha encouraged me. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted me to guide tours to Israel.

They were sisters and both of them were fat, even obese. They were always at the head of the food line. Simcha worked hard, but Sami didn’t, since she had Simcha. She often fell asleep at her desk, her head lolling on her triple chins. They both smoked Virginia Slims like it was the most important thing in the world, next to the chuck wagon. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back.

Even though I wasn’t Jewish and only knew a handful of Hebrew words, I could speak Lithuanian fluently and some Spanish and German. I’m pretty good with languages. At least I thought so until I tried to learn Hebrew. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was like having grown up speaking hip-hop and trying to learn Old English.

Simcha told me about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 20 minutes from where I lived in Cleveland Heights. Classes were at night, twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock. I made sure to get there early my first night, but everybody was already in the classroom.

When the teacher walked in I could barely see her, she was so short, maybe five feet tall. She had dark hair and was from Yemen. Her name was Ayala. 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. We would stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to business.

My biggest fear every Tuesday and Thursday was she would call on me and I would have to speak in front of everyone. I tried to keep my nose buried in my notebook, writing, taking notes. I kept my whole head down.

Everybody in the class was Jewish, except for me. We had to tell everyone our 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 means. We all called him Gil.

“Oh, my name’s Kristina,” I said when it was my turn. Right away somebody asked me, “What’s your Hebrew name?” I wanted to say, “What the hell, I’m not even Jewish,“ but I didn’t. I said most people called me Tina.

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

I 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. I decided soon enough I wouldn’t be able to make those sounds. I’m not coming back. But two days later I was back. I told myself I was taking the class for work’s sake. I wanted to travel overseas. I didn’t want to admit to Mendel I was quitting after one night, either.

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

You have to remember every symbol of the alphabet. I tried, but it was my downfall for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the blackboard, I wrote down in my notebook. I wrote sentences first in English and then in Hebrew. I wrote my name. I wrote, “We have three children in our family, two boys and one girl,” and then I wrote it in Hebrew, over and over.

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

The classroom across the hall from us was a conversion class. Everyone in the class was someone converting to being Jewish. My classmates would crane their necks, a sour look on their faces, to see them going in the door. They didn’t like them.

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

“Take a look at that shiksa.”

I think they thought my mother was Jewish, although I don’t know why. I have shoulder-length blonde hair. I don’t look Jewish, but if you say that in front of Jews, they’ll say, “What? There are plenty of blondes in Israel.”

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

Everybody heard me. Sami and Simcha put down their cigarettes. Shlomit 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 I were outsiders because almost everyone else in the 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 plan.

The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the big one. Everybody in my class was talking about it. One of them asked me, “What synagogue do you go to?”

Most of the class lived on the east side, including me. I lived in Cleveland Heights, up the hill from Little Italy. I thought, “Oh, Jesus,” there are a lot of small ones, but they’re all ultra-orthodox. When I drove to work I passed the big Sinai Synagogue, so I said, “SInai.” It turned out it was ultra-orthodox.

Everybody was good with that, even though I didn’t wear a wig or have a Hebrew name. I decided I had to go to the Sinai Synagogue to see it. The men were all downstairs and the women upstairs, on a balcony, segregated. I took the stairs. It looked like most of the women were wearing wigs.

Everyone in class knew I lived with Mendel. He would drop me off at school and pick me up sometimes. He was OK with me saying I was orthodox. Since everyone thought I was Jewish I had to start being careful about my craftiness. I ran into them where I lived and where I worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the little plaza beside Time to Travel.

An old lady, the mother of someone I sat next to in class, called me one day. It was a week before Christmas.

“What did you do today?” she asked.

“I just finished all my shopping,” I said. I almost said Christmas shopping, but I caught myself. It was the day before the last day of Hanukkah.

“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,” I pretended. “I’m not breaking tradition. Oh, I bought some donuts, too.” Someone had told me to say donuts if I ever felt I was being called out.

“Oh, I see,” she said.

I don’t know if I ever got a good grasp on Hebrew. After every class I always thought, I’m never going back. One day I didn’t go. I just couldn’t. That night Alaya called me at 11 o’clock, just as I was going to bed.

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

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

If you’re 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 the class too seriously, but because I had somehow mistakenly made everyone believe I was more conservative than them, I was expected to be serious about it.

It had never been my intention to say I was Jewish, but a good time to admit I wasn’t never came up.

After Alaya called me I had to meet her on Sunday morning, just her and me, to make up the 2-hour class. It was impossible to keep my head down with her breathing down my neck. She said I was making progress.

Mendel’s brother from Israel visited us for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to me in Hebrew, helping me get the sound of it. It sounded somewhere between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped me more in a few minutes than Mendel ever did.

Since Mendel’s brother was visiting, they went to services together on Friday, dressed up in business casual. Mendel turned off all the lights in our 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 me sitting in the dark.

At the end of the class I got an A, even though I more-or-less staggered through it like I was wandering in the desert. My reading and writing were shaky, but by graduation time I spoke the language tolerably well. Even still, I was glad when it was over.

I started taking Time to Travel tours to Israel soon after.

I stayed with Mendel’s mother the first time we were in Jerusalem. His brother still lived with their mother and he took me to a wedding. He told me how to dress for it. I wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other. After the ceremony I sat at a table with women who passed around platters of food.

We were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of it too fast for me. 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 me. He and his bride didn’t dance together. I danced with the other women.

The more often I went to Israel the better my Hebrew got. One day I was walking around Jerusalem by myself. A young man with red hair wearing a yarmulke asked me something as he was passing by.

“What?” I asked him.

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

Our group was staying in a hotel on Ben Yehud Street exactly where it joined with Jaffa Road.

I pointed over my shoulder.

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

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Up in Smoke

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Not everyone was too big at Time to Travel, but except for me they either were or were on the way there. Bernadette and Shlomit were chunky. Bruno had a tendency toward the beefy side. Sami and Simcha had fallen into the grease pit a long time ago.

The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room and it was a squeeze coming and going to our desks.

Bernie and Shlomit, the office secretary, and Sami and Simcha were Jewish. Bruno was an Italian man, gay, and hated Sami and Simcha. Even still, he was there before I started working at the agency and he was still there when I quit after the gasoline truck flipped over.

I was the blonde girl who was good for business.

Before I went to work at Time to Travel I worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A small handsome Jewish man who lived down the street owned the business. He put my desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought I 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 were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like Shlomit, their cousin, who was sweet, but ultra-Orthodox. Sami and Simcha were on the light side of Reformed. They had come here when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in Beachwood.

In the 1970s Sami was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. She wore go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 250 pounds later she showed me a picture of herself, thin, in a tight bright mini-skirt, doing the funky chicken dance.

Sami and Simcha’s world revolved around food. They loved to eat. Their favorite time of the day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up!

They were supposed to fast during their 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 immediately go home and make a big batch of potato latkes.

Simcha had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was a butcher. He trucked food 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.

All of Sami’s daughters were obese. The youngest one was 22-years-old and more than three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. All three later had gastric bypass surgery and lost weight.

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

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

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

None of us believed she was going to lose weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” said Bruno. She didn’t lose any weight.

Sami went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon everyday. She brought it to the office in the morning. We had a microwave in the fax machine room. Sami was so excited about her diet. She piled her slices of bacon inside the microwave every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like bacon until lunch.

“I don’t know about all that bacon,” I said.

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

“She’s double-crossing herself,” said Bruno. She didn’t lose any weight, either, the same as Simcha.

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

Every year, two and 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. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating buffet with one-armed bandits.

I went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was old and rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sami and Simcha spent every waking minute eating and gambling. I got sun poisoning the first day and couldn’t sit out at the pool after that. The rest of the trip I had to sit on the shady side of the ship with all the 90-year-olds.

I was bitter about every minute of it.

When gambling started coming to computers, Sami started gambling at work. She played 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, but Simcha was the harder worker of the two, 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 was when Simcha got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy food and not enough brushing and flossing. She was in pain for months because of the false teeth and she barely ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy, but she lost weight for a while.

She didn’t like having to buy new clothes and new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet got skinnier. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out she would buy another pair just like it. She always had the same flat black shoes on.

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

Everybody in the office smoked, except for me. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. We were in a non-smoking building, but they didn’t care. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the smoke, they had bought a couple of those things that supposedly suck smoke out of the air. One was next to my desk, although I’m not sure it did much good.

One night right after work I met one of my friends for dinner. When we got to the restaurant she said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

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

“No,” she said.

I always smelled like smoke, since I sat in the office all day, an office where everybody else smoked. Bruno’s desk faced mine, which made it worse. I had a cloud of smoke over my head half the day. It wasn’t just all of them, either. It seemed like most of our clients had the same bad habit, as though we 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 absentmindedly flicked her butt into it instead of crushing it out in her ashtray. We had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by that time the fire burned the underside of her desk and all the wires to her computer.

She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to us. 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 do it purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement from the insurance agent in the end

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

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

I grabbed my coat.

Sami leaned halfway up from her chair.

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

Sami finally got to her feet.

We all went out into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping and waiting our turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sami took 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 us.

“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 wasn’t happy, but she didn’t say anything. I thought she going to say something to him, but she gave him the stink eye, instead. He didn’t care.

When we 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. We followed them.

As we walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, I realized why we were walking in the opposite direction from everyone else. Sami and Simcha couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. We 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.

We stopped at McDonald’s and everybody had burgers and fries. Then firemen tramped in and evacuated us. We had to move on. We stopped at Taco Bell and everybody had tacos. The next thing we knew firemen were evacuating us again. We stopped at Wendy’s and everybody had a frosty.

I never pulled my wallet out from the bottom of my purse. The gas smelled like more gas than I had ever smelled in my life. I didn’t have an appetite. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger.

Sami called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s and he finally came and picked us up in his Dodge Caravan minivan. He deposited Sami and Simcha at their house, drove Bruno to his apartment in University Heights, dropped Shlomit off at the synagogue where she was helping with a potluck, and then drove me home to Cleveland Heights.

In my driveway he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty movies?”

He flashed me a warm smile.

“No,” I said.

“You could make a lot of money,” he said.

“No thanks,” I said.

He looked sad for a minute.

Walking up the sidewalk to my front door, as Sami’s hubby drove away in their family van, I thought, I’m going to have to quit my job soon. All those butts burning down to the filter tips in the fingertips of Sami and Simcha can’t be good for me.

That’s what I did, finally, the week after Thanksgiving.

Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke in my face. They never asked me, ”Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” I was just the blonde girl in the window. They were living large, Virginia Slimming, lighting it up.

I didn’t care if they were living it up anymore, or not.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.