Category Archives: Fiction

Down On Hog’s Back

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

It made for faster riding down Hog’s Back, too, which is the entryway off Riverside Drive into the Rocky River valley. Hog’s Back is a steep two-lane road more than a half-mile long. Hunched forward on my Specialized I usually topped 40 going downhill, unless I feathered the brakes.

I rode alone most of the summer because Skip was getting married. He said he didn’t have time to get on his bike anymore and go riding, anyway. “I don’t want him going down that crazy hill and falling,” said his fiancée, Tammy. She was down on Hog’s Back.

By July it was hot, in the high 80s and the weather was heavy and humid. I could have ridden the single tracks, since they had dried up, but it was overcast the last week of July, and I was still riding the all-purpose trail. On the Thursday that week, after getting home from work, I rode twelve miles out, almost all the way to Berea. It was on the way back that I passed a tall man on a blue hybrid bike.

Inside a few minutes he was behind me, drafting, and when I slowed for a car at the crossroad to the entrance of the Little Met golf course, he slipped ahead when the car paused to let us go by. The trail goes up a long hill there and I finally caught the blue bike at the top.

I tucked in behind him and we rode fast to where the trail zigzags through some curves, and to where he got sloppy. He tried to pass two young women on blades, except on an inside-out curve, and when a biker rode up on the other side he had to go wide on the grass. At the end of the curve a ditch stretches from the trail to the Valley Parkway and he had to backtrack. I waited for him. “Nice pace,” he said later when I peeled off to go back up Hogsback, while he kept going.

Going up Hog’s Back is a slog, which is what I did, slog up the long hill.

The next day Skip and I rode downtown. His bride-to-be was still good with him riding on city streets, but not farther on into the east side ghettos. “I don’t want him getting killed in Fairfax,” said Tammy. He said he had a haircut to go to at Planet 10, which was downtown, anyway. On the way from Lakewood we rode through Ohio City to Church Street. Skip showed me the old church whose rectory had been converted into a recording studio.

“That’s where we’re having our reception,” he said. Tammy was a sometime singer and actress. We spun our bikes south on West 25th Street, crossed the bridge to Jacobs Field, and rode to the Warehouse District.

Skip pushed his bike into Planet 10’s lobby and I pushed off. On my way back home, stopping at a narrow strip of grass at the base of the Bob Hope Bridge, I saw a fat, black woman easing herself down onto the ground in front of an RTA sign. She looked up at me and smiled. I looked at her and returned the smile.

I was standing outside our garage when Skip and Tammy pulled up in her baby blue Ford Tempo. “Jerry screwed up Skip’s appointment,” she said. “He’s so unprofessional.” She was mad. “That’s not how we do business at Artistiques.”

She was a nail technician at a hair salon when she wasn’t acting.

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

Vera and I drove out to Tammy’s bridal shower that weekend, at her friend’s house in Avon Lake, who was a broad-faced woman married to an Englishman who was a barge pilot. It was steamy even though it was just barely August. I was sprawled on a leather sofa in the air-conditioned family room when I noticed a small furry dog on the coffee table. I couldn’t tell if it was a stuffed toy or a dog sleeping soundly. When I reached for it the pushed-in face snapped at my fingers.

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

I went for a ride after we got home and dusk was turning to darkness by the time I got back. As I got off my bike Snapper, our orange Maine Coon, came running onto the driveway from our neighbor’s backyard. Just when I was ready to close the garage door, Skip pulled into the driveway. Snapper ran to the back of our backyard.

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

“Sure.”

Skip had Katie, Tammy’s four-year-old, with him. I picked her up, held her upside down, and spun her by her heels in tight circles around me. When we were done we talked about a nickname for her, finally settling on Skate. She waved goodbye through the window of the car as Skip pulled out.

By mid-August cumulus clouds dotted the sky and the weather was cooler than it had been. I rode my Schwinn down Hog’s Back and got off the all-purpose trail at Mastick Woods, swerving onto the dirt tracks there. I rode the track for three miles and then double-backed on the horse trail. As I did I noticed someone had come up behind me.

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

He banked to our right and rode into the trees toward the river and the single tracks on the bank. I followed him, bumping over ruts and logs and through thick underbrush, but soon lost sight of him. I got on the track, then the horse trail, and then the all-purpose trail. I pushed it up the hill running along Big Met, then down, and as I came into the clear the Trek jumped onto the trail ahead of me. He was riding fast. We sped through a copse, then out to the baseball field where he widened the gap between us by jumping a wood guardrail, something I couldn’t do like he did.

I thought I might catch him on the Detroit Road climb out of the valley, except he climbed so fast I lost more ground. I finally caught up to him when he stopped at a traffic light on Riverside. We talked while I gulped air. He had known I was behind him. “I wasn’t planning on doing much today, but it ended up being a fun ride,” he said.

A week before their wedding Skip called and said Jo was out as their maid of honor. She is Tammy’s ex-friend-to-be who arranged the blind date of Tammy and Skip and who wrangled a promise that she would be maid of honor if the date led to anything. She’s also a travel agent who they gave a check to for their Cancun honeymoon. But, the travel agency called and said they were getting anxious about the payment, since they hadn’t gotten it, yet.

When Skip telephoned Jo she said she hadn’t gotten the check from Tammy, but when Tammy heard that she got on the phone with Jo. There was a loud, long argument and Jo later somehow found the payment. The honeymoon is back on, but Tammy is searching for another maid of honor.

The next day Skip called again.

“You going riding?” he asked.

“I’m just out the door,” I said.

“I’ll be there in 5 minutes.”

I was stretching in the back yard when he rode up the driveway.

“Tammy’s sick,” he said.

“What’s wrong with her?”

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

“Let’s go,” I said.

The sky was overcast and gusts from the southwest pushed at us sideways as we rode on Riverside along the rim of the valley. We glided down Hog’s Back and rode single tracks. The dirt was dry and deep rutted and I rode fast. My back wheel went in dangerous directions a few times. Skip held back. He didn’t want to crash.

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

“Maybe a little,” I said.

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

“Getting married is risky business,” I said. “Look at you and Tammy. You were married once and it lasted for 56 days. Tammy’s been married twice and she’s got two kids by two different fathers. You might want to throw yourself down every downhill between now and the wedding day. It would make sense.”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

Coming out of the park on a smooth stretch Skip slowed down when I wasn’t looking, I got tangled in his rear tire, and went over. I skinned my knee and banged my helmet, but we were going too slow for much else to happen.

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

Skip’s wedding went off without a hitch, but during the reception, when Vera was congratulating him, he made the shape of a handgun with his fingers pressed to his temple.

The next day, while Vera made dinner, I drove to Skip’s house with the gift we had forgotten to take to the reception. Tammy was lounging in the living room in a thick, white bathrobe and Skate was in her pj’s. While Skip and I talked in the kitchen doorway, Tammy’s old Irish setter limped up to me and licked the scrape on my knee.

By the beginning of October the park was blond and brown and maple red. I rode the all-purpose trail every other day, One Sunday morning Vera and I had breakfast at the Borderline and went for a walk on the horse trails south of the Puritas stables. That night, while I was watching the Cleveland Indians play the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS, Skip called.

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

“Tammy?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It’s my shoulder.”

I had seen how he couldn’t lift his right arm above his shoulder without some difficulty.

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

“Oh, man!” I said.

The last Saturday of the month was the last day of the year I rode down Hog’s Back into the park. I was adjusting the strap on my helmet when a gang of neighborhood kids came walking up with rakes, brooms, and a wagon. They asked if they could rake our yard for $2.00. I said yes. They started pushing wet leaves into messy piles. The biggest of the girls walked up to me.

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

“Sure,” I said.

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

I rang the doorbell for Vera and she started laughing coming outside, saying she would take care of the boy and supervise the raking. “Go before it gets dark,” she said. The days had gotten short.

I rode away.

Where Hog’s Back intersects with the Valley Parkway I cut across a grassy field and jumped onto a single track. The path was littered with big brown leaves. I came around a quick bend and the branches of a fallen tree alongside the track jabbed at my face. I swerved to the right and pulled on the brakes. I jumped off the bike when the tree I was going to run into became the tree I ran into. I landed on my feet and the bike was all right when I lifted it up.

On the way home I rode on the Parkway, hugging the shoulder’s white line. A big man in a white van blew his horn behind me and when he went past almost shrugged me off the road. I cursed under my breath. At home I hosed the Schwinn off and hung it up in the garage. I checked the tires. They looked good, although I knew that hanging there for the next five months all the air would slowly seep out of them.

I knew I would have to pump them up again in April before going back down on Hog’s Back again.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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

 

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Esme, Beforehand Then Later

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

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

Is there anything new with you and Vera?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hehehehe…

Later!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It now seems like a way distant memory.

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

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

Later!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hehehehe…

The marshmallows were awesome. Later!

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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

 

When Esme Got Married

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

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

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

Later!

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

Hehehehe…

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

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

Don’t forget me.

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

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

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

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

Blah!

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

Later!

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

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

See you soon!

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

Is anything new going on? Keep in touch!

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

Hehehehe…

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

OK! I am finally employed!

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

I am so excited!

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

Yippee!

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

Sense the sarcasm!

So, think about adopting Brent.

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

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

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

Later!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hehehehe…

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully it will get me out of this hellish job.

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

I am getting pretty adjusted to my new little life.

Is there anything new with you?

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Rearview Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She hung up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one is born or dies here, either.

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

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

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

They lived here all their lives.

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

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

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

They sold it for four hundred and thirty thousand dollars.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yes, I only paid $430,000.000 for my house. The man next door might sell you his for God knows what…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a terrible idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want me to bubble wrap them?”

“No, I’ll just take them this way.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell, sure,” I said.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Surprise House

 

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Everything happened when I was 12-years-old, although most of it happened before that. Afterwards, we had ice cream and I made sure I ate all of mine while it was still cold on my plate.

Two years later on Christmas Eve, while Matty and I stood on the lip of the front walk, below the light in the window of pop’s upstairs bedroom, I remembered the night the Surprise House burned down, and how Matty and mom and I stood at the back window of the bedroom, looking over the tops of the trees sloping away to Euclid Avenue, watching the fire on the far lakeshore.

We didn’t know what was burning down, going up in oily clouds of orange-gray smoke, finding out only the next morning when mom showed us a front-page photograph about it in the Plain Dealer.

I snuck a peek at mom getting out of her car across the street where she had parked, walking flatfooted on the icy driveway, and knocking on Mrs. MacAulay’s side door. She glanced back over her shoulder, waving us towards the house with black shutters and red front door where I grew up. Mom wanted us to talk pop into giving her a divorce, even after he had said no more than a hundred times. She wanted to marry another man, the ex-army policeman from Rochester who was now our father, more-or-less.

“Come on, bub,” I said.

“Don’t call me bub,” he said, slouching behind me

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

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

“What does that mean?”

I felt bad when I thought of the Surprise House burning down, the signal flags on top of the roof on fire, and sick to my stomach when I remembered not knowing Euclid Beach Park hadn’t closed for the season when I was ten-years-old, but closed for good. I found out the next summer, the summer before the fire, when school let out and mom told us, and later said we would all go to Williamsburg for a family vacation, instead.

But, we didn’t go to Williamsburg, so we never saw all the reenactments I heard about from Sandy next door, who had gone three times, just like we never went back to Euclid Beach. We went to Fredericksburg, instead, where pop played golf at the country club and Matty and I dragged after mom sightseeing sunburned Civil War battlefields and staring up at the fancy plaster ceilings of the Kenmore Plantation.

When Matty complained for the last time that long four-day weekend that his head was hot and his neck hurt, mom pointed to the plank wood floor in a dusty corner of the plantation house beneath a high, narrow window.

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

When we got back from the foursquare garden behind the house he was curled up on his side asleep.

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

“She wasn’t older,” he said.

Matty ran after mom, reaching for her hand.

The winter before Matty was born my mom told me she was making a little friend for me to play with. By the time summer came I told her he wasn’t really what I wanted.

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

But, she never did.

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

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

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

Before we ever went to Euclid Beach and the Surprise House we went to Holiday Sands. It was the most fun I ever had in my life.

We went from the time I was small, right after Matty was potty-trained, and I was five-years-old. We car-pooled with the MacAulay’s, since they had a summer pass and a Vista Cruiser that fit all of us. Mrs. MacAulay and mom made most of the food for the day the night before and the rest of it in the morning. Mom baked Texas sheet cake with extra buttermilk in the chocolate batter and cream cheese frosting. Mrs. MacAulay brought puffed Cheez Doodles. Sometimes we’d have barbecue chicken and other times hamburgers on the grill, and grapes, watermelon, lemonade, and mom’s new drink, Diet Pepsi.

She kept cases of it in the pantry, even though it made pop mad.

“You’re flushing all my money down the toilet,” he said.

Mrs. MacAulay was mom’s best friend on the hill. They saw each other every day and talked on the telephone the rest of the time. We lived across the street from the MacAulay’s on Hillcrest Drive in the Euclid Villas.

Pop called our telephone the blower.

“All that talk is just blowing hot air through the wires,” he said.

In the morning when the coolers and picnic baskets were full and we were ready to go we raced to the car, begging Mrs. MacAulay and mom to hurry up. Holiday Sands was in Ravenna, a place mom called the armpit of Cleveland, even though it was where she got her blue and white china with snow scenes on it. It was a long drive and Marcia and I sometimes lost track of where we were because we sat in the rear-facing third seat playing category abc’s.

Mrs. MacAulay and mom sat in the front talking non-stop, mom’s arm stuck out the window, Mrs. MacAulay steering with one hand and smoking Pall Malls. Matty wriggled to get next to one of the windows in the back so he wouldn’t have to sit between Diane and Michelle, Marcia’s sisters, while Marcia and I watched everything going backwards. When we heard the gravel road crunching under the slowing-down car we knew we were finally there and twisted around in anticipation towards the wormy green wood walls, the signs saying, ‘Stop, Pay Ahead’ and ‘Positively No Cameras’, and the guardhouse leaning sideways.

Once we were there none of us could remember getting out of the car or into our bathing suits, only that the next thing we knew we were in front of the mirrors outside the bathhouse. We drank water at the frog fountain and ran down to the cement edge of the lake, walking around to the beach side and the sand playground, while Mrs. MacAulay and mom spread out blankets and folding chairs and a plastic tablecloth on a picnic table.

Our day camp was in a grove of sweet gum trees where we were always cleaning up the space bug seedpods that killed when you stepped on them barefoot. Black squirrels rummaged in the high grass, eating handouts and hiding out, jumpy and curious at the same time.

We ate lunch and dinner like whales at Holiday Sands and lay down afterwards in the shade, looking up at the sky or the giant slide. We were never allowed back in the lake for exactly sixty minutes; otherwise we might get cramps and drown. Sometimes we would take a nap on the shady side of a hill, but most of the time we never slept until the end of the day riding home on the dark road.

My best friend Marcia was the official barrel champion of Holiday Sands, mean as an old man on the rings, and daring and brave on the slide that scared the crap out of me.

She was a swashbuckler in a swimsuit on the barrels, taking on all comers until her feet blistered. The two barrels were striped red, white, and blue, and swiveled on rods attached to a laddered platform in the middle of the lake. They were even dangerous to try get on top of from the platform, wet and slimy, rotating in the water.

“Somebody’s going to get knocked out someday,” Mrs. MacAulay snarked.

“Then those lazy lifeguards are going to have to do some hard work.”

Nobody could logroll Marcia off the barrels once it was her turn, not the local runty boys with their fast feet nor the east side girls from the gymnastic classes. She was like a monkey.

Almost a year older than me, she was strong and fast, too, on the big rings that crossed the lake. She was famous for fights with anyone who tried crossing at the same time from the other side, kicking at them and wrapping her legs around them and shaking them off into the water.

“When am I going to catch up to Marcia, so we are the same?” I asked mom.

“You never will,” she said. “You’ll always be a year apart.”

“How can that be?”

The giant slide was on the grassy side of the lake. It was a hundred feet up a corkscrew staircase to a deck that swayed and creaked. Whenever I climbed up the twisting steps I grimly held on to the handrail, never looking down, and when it was my turn Marcia had to give me a shove, even though I knew I could never walk back down, anyway, because with every step I would have to stare through the slats to the deadly cement slab below. I always slipped down the ramp slower than anybody ever, chafing and burning my legs as I pressed them against the gunwales all the way to the pitch at the bottom, finally heaving myself into the flat water with a plop.

“If I wasn’t so scared on that slide I’d be scared to death,” Marcia told me secretly when everybody laughed about my lowdown ride.

Most kids started by sitting at the top and tilting over the brink, but Marcia liked to get air, shooting out over the slide at the top and landing on the drop side of the lip with momentum. Sometimes she landed with her legs splayed halfway off the slide, but throwing her head up and back she would straighten out and chute down like a snake.

Whenever she felt more excited than scared she would start on her stomach, belly-slam over the hump halfway down the slide, and flip in mid-air at the bottom finishing feet first. One windy day a boy drift-paddled to the base of the slide, and looking up saw Marcia suddenly double-flipping over his gaping face. Lots of kids got wedgies coming down on the hot slide, but not Marcia, who came down like a sunbeam.

Every hour a recording played on the staticky loudspeakers and everyone had to get out of the water for fifteen minutes.

“Water safety check, water safety check – please return to the shore.”

After the safety check the loudspeakers crackled again.

“Remember the buddy system, remember the buddy system – never swim alone.”

Only after the safety check were we allowed back on the barrels and slides and diving boards, except once when a boy wasn’t counted and everyone thought he had drowned. The lifeguards swam back and forth and we circled the lake, craning to see underwater, our mothers hovering over us. Finally the boy came walking down from the concession stand with a can of Welch’s Grape Juice. He had ridden to the park like the local boys from Kent did on the back of his older brother’s banana bike, so no one slapped him about causing so much commotion, but one of the lifeguards was peeved, and told them they both had to sit the next hour out.

“Let’s go stand in back of a window, “ the bigger boy said, smirking.

I played by the water’s bank and even took a dog paddle sometimes, but I liked the rides in the playground best, the springy mushrooms, lopsided pirate ship, and alligator swing. The round-headed mushrooms were on coiled springs, spotted with colored dots, greasy from baby oil and shed skid. They were like stinkhorns, they smelled horrible, and crossing them without falling on the twisting trail was almost impossible. A ramp led to the deck of the pirate ship where tree trunk cannons stuck out the side toward the lake. We flew down pipe slides jutting off the poop deck and rode the rope swings hanging from the spars. Red and purple Jolly Roger flags flew from the mast, gap-toothed skulls grinning in the bright light.

“Look at that one, see the white skeleton, and see that dart in his hand, blow the man down, he’s poking the bloody heart with it.”

“There’s an hour-glass in his other hand.”

“Ha, ha, ha, time’s running out, let’s go play.”

A yellow submarine made of drainage tiles lay in the ditch alongside the pirate ship, and the alligator swing was behind both of them, separated by low cypress hedges. We rode the swing at dusk in the lowering light. It had five toboggan style seats, and when whoever was pushing got it going, all scrunched together my friends and I arced it up, leaning into the forward and backward swings, taking it to the moon. Once a boy climbed out onto the nose of the gator and when it reached its highest point he jumped twenty feet up into the air and flew out over the sand like an upside-down crab. He broke his arm when he landed with a hard thud on the lawn.

“Oh, my God, damn, damn, damn, that really, really hurts,” he cried and cried, rolling off his broken arm and cradling it.

My favorite was the peanut butter maker. Some kids called it the mean green machine and other kids called it the wheel of death. My friends and I always called it the peanut butter maker, although I couldn’t say why. It was a carousel with horizontal rings made into a circular wheel attached to a maypole by chains stretching from the middle spokes to the top of the pole. The smallest kids would get on first and the rest of us turned the wheel, walking alongside it, the chains shortening and wrapping themselves up the pole, until we jumped on, and then the bigger kids kept winding the wheel as far as they could until only the tallest kid was left stretching up on his toes, finally jumping on and grabbing hold.

The wheel would start spinning back in the direction it had come, slowly then faster and faster, the chains grinding and clanging on the maypole. Some kids crouched inside the frame, while the rest dangled from the outside rails like octopi. Hanging onto the rattling peanut butter maker we were pulled parallel to the ground as it spun downwards, and then one by one lost our grips and were sprayed out in all directions onto the white sand, crying and screaming. We were small and the sand was soft and warm to fall on top of, but grown-ups walking by had to watch out for us hurling at them like rockets.

“Somebody ought to shut that thing down,” a man lying in the shade said, his lips like pink goo, watching us, smoking a dirty, dark cigar, his shirt open, ash floating like charred mercury on his belly.

At the end of the day we trudged up to the concession stand on the hill, worn-out and exhausted. We had ice cream cones and played our favorite songs on the Rock-Ola jukebox in the back, drowning out the bug zapper with the pile of dead bugs beneath it, dance shuffling together on the damp concrete.

“When I first met you girl you didn’t have no shoes, now you’re walking ‘round like you’re front page news, not your stepping stone, not your stepping stone…”

We bought rolls of pink wintergreen disc candy for the ride home and at sunset ran to the guardhouse to watch a lifeguard play taps on his bugle into a microphone that piped out to all the loudspeakers. As the park lights blinked on we cozyed down into the warm vinyl seats of Mrs. MacAulay’s station wagon, wrapped up in beach towels, sad that our day was over, but glad since we had been in the sunshine. Sometimes we were quiet or slept on the ride home, but other times we stayed up and sang songs.

Our songs were tunes from TV and the movies.

“Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can,” Matty shouted, thinking he could sing, and pretended to squirt webbing at us from his wrists through the haze of Mrs. MacAulay’s cigarette smoke.

We loved movies like Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and Dr. Doolittle. We sang Kissin’ Cousins and Talk to the Animals and all the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang songs since we had seen it a thousand times.

“You’re the answer to my wishes, Truly Scrumptious,” Michelle and Diane sang in the dark, drowning out Matty while Marcia and I finished the stanzas from the back.

“And I shan’t forget this lovely day, my heart beats so unruly, I also love you Truly, honest truly, I do.”

“Can’t you girls keep it down for even one single minute,” Mrs. MacAulay blared back at us.

Pop never went to Holiday Sands, except for the time mom got sun poisoning. The MacAulay’s Vista Cruiser had broken down so pop took us in his Buick Riviera, piling us in on top of one another, and leaving a beach carryall and food cooler behind because his golf bag needed room in the trunk. He dropped us off at the guardhouse with half rations and missing mom’s Coppertone, and drove away to the Sunny Hill Golf Course.

He was crazy about golf. He had heard all about the South 9 at Sunny Hill, that it was sparkling new and pockmarked with sand traps, and he just had to play it.

“It’s not fair,” I complained when pop picked us up after his golf game and we had to leave early, before sunset.

“I always ride the alligator, it’s my ride.”

“Pop had a bad game and he wants to go home and have dinner,” mom said in the car, her arms wrapped around me sitting on her lap.

She felt cold, even though she had been out in the sun all day. Pop drove fast that night and we got home in record time.

Mom had pale skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair she kept in a loose flip. At the park she always wore a wide brim hat in the sunshine and blobs of suntan lotion, but that day she only had her hat, shading her face. She got sun poisoning and had to lie in bed for two days. Her legs were swollen like sausages. We sliced up cucumbers and spread them out on her thighs, but she was nauseous and couldn’t lie still, and they just ended up littering the bed. We soaked towels in water and apple cider vinegar, chilled them in the fridge, and wrapped them around her legs until she got better.

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

He said they were different, our neighbors. I didn’t understand what he meant.

When he wasn’t working or at home eating, or reading or sleeping, he was playing golf. He loved it more than I loved Holiday Sands. Sometimes mom said he loved golf more than us.

“Golf is a thinking man’s game. It’s all up here,” he would say, tapping the space between his eyebrows.

“It’s simple, just a ball and a club, but it’s complicated, remember that. No two lies are ever the same, that’s when the ball is on the grass, but when it’s pitch and putt it’s the best thing in the world.”

Mom liked to tell everybody pop had great legs, and he did, too, because of all the links he walked up and down on.

“I don’t play cart golf,” he said.

He always had a tan, except in the dead of winter, and except for his left hand, which was his glove hand when he played. Pop wasn’t a big man, but he wasn’t small, either, standing trim and compact like a boxer. He still fit into the Korean War uniform he kept in the attic. He had fought in the Golden Gloves when he was young and even made it as far as the main event one time at the Cleveland Arena. There wasn’t anything mashed up or broken down left over from then, either. He had Chiclets teeth, green eyes, and brown wavy hair. When he finger-rolled Royal Crown into it and combed it back his hair got flat, slicker and darker, like a street man’s.

“How do you like your old man now?” he asked me, watching him in the bathroom mirror, his suspenders floppy and collar open.

Mom hardly ever called pop by his given name, which was Hal. She always called him pop, or sometimes Harold, when she was madder than mad. To us she always said he was our pop, and that was what I called him. When Matty was a baby he called him poppy, but after he started walking he called him pop just like we did. He nicknamed Matty, mom, and me the Three Musketeers because we did everything together, which we did since he worked all day and played golf the rest of the time, and he never was and never became the fourth Musketeer.

Mom and pop got married when mom was eighteen-years-old, the year after she was Miss Boat Show of 1955, and pop was twenty-nine. They met on the main stage of the Karamu House, auditioning for an amateur production of a play called The Glass Menagerie. They didn’t get the parts in the show, but got each other, instead. They had to elope and got married by a justice of the peace in Athens, Indiana. Mom didn’t see her parents for a long time afterwards because they disowned her about it.

They didn’t approve of pop because he was an older man and his family was from Romania. Mom said she had to get married to get away from everything. She meant her mom and dad and the old neighborhood, the gloomy church, and the community hall where she wasn’t welcome anymore. I hardly knew my grandparents, although I knew a little, about how grandma’s sense of humor was a secret, and grandpa was friendly because he worked nights for the New York Central. Pop’s parents weren’t alive anymore. They were buried in Woodland Cemetery where we left plastic flowers every spring.

We lived on the bluff above the factories on Euclid Avenue, on the western edge of the North Chagrin parkland. In the summer Matty, mom, and I went picnicking in the reservation at Squires Castle and in the fall we hiked through the forest to Strawberry Lane. The park butted up to our backyard so that it was almost a part of it. Ours was the end road in the neighborhood and there were deer, raccoons that snuck into our attic, and possums in the woods where we played the knocking game at night.

When I was a girl everyone said mom was the best-looking woman on the hill. Her hair was soft, not stiff, and she colored it champagne blond instead of the brassy yellow and bleached white that was popular. She was shapely with long legs, not skinny or fleshy, or too tall, but taller than pop. When she walked, even when she was doing her housework, she moved like a ballerina with hips.

Mom always had to be doing something. Whether she was dancing or not she moved like she had never heard there isn’t anything that isn’t music. At house parties all the husbands except pop wanted to be her partner.

“There’s no beginning or end to it,” he said.

Mom knew all the moves, like the rumba, her favorite, and even honky-tonk twisting. She was tireless and never had to catch her breath, although she wouldn’t dance with just everyone, only with some of the men.

“Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance,” she would say, winking and gliding away with whoever knew how to lead.

When they went to weddings she was on the ballroom floor all night, waltzing and fox trotting, but Mrs. MacAulay said she never got in the middle of anyone being married like other women because that’s not what she wanted. She wanted to talk and dance the room down and have a good time. Mom knew how to forget everything, even herself, too.

Mom did all the shopping and housework. Before she had a car she took buses to the grocery store. She made breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the three of us, and sometimes for pop, too. Pop didn’t work around the house or even go outside and do yard work. He hired kids to mow the lawn in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, and shovel snow in the winter. They were the only neighbors he knew or liked on our street, and they liked him because he always paid them on the spot with Lincolns.

Whenever anything had to be repaired he called Sears, and the next day a van would pull up in our driveway and the Sears man would ring the doorbell. Even though he had a Craftsman toolbox in the basement, the only thing I ever saw pop do tool-wise was change a light switch pull chain once, although he didn’t need a Craftsman to do it.

After Matty got the first of his two-wheelers and they started breaking apart because of all his Evel Knievel smash-ups he always lugged them to Mr. Newman for repairs. He had a big radish-looking nose and worked in a factory. He knew how to fix everything.

“What did you kids do today? And you better have done something,” Mr. Newman would say, waving and rubbing his hairy hands together, pulling open his garage door, flipping the bike upside down on a workbench and taking care of whatever was wrong with it. Pop couldn’t pump our tires when they were low because he didn’t know where the inflator was in the mystery that the garage was to him.

Pop wasn’t usually home for dinner, even on Sunday afternoons. But, he was always in his sofa for the Ed Sullivan Show at eight o’clock Sunday night, right after we finished watching the Wonderful World of Disney. He looked forward to the comedians like Charlie Callas, Senor Wences, and Jackie Mason, but not the singers, especially not the Supremes, or any of the other Negro groups. He would go to the kitchen or the bathroom whenever they were announced and only come back when he heard Ed Sullivan’s slow voice again.

Ed Sullivan was the unfunniest man I ever saw on television. He stood in the middle of the TV like a cigar-store Indian, arms folded across his gray suit lapels, and his no personality eyes sunk into their late night bags.

“And now introducing on the shoe…” he would say after the commercials were over, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, while pop relaxed back into the sofa.

Mom made dinner for us at 5:30 sharp every day, just as though pop was at the head of the table like the other fathers on the street. From the steps of our front porch I could see, if I wanted to, Mr. MacAulay, Mr. Holloway, and Mr. Newman coming home from work. Sometimes my friends would run gurgling out of their houses as their dads came up the walk from their garages. That almost never happened at our house.

Whenever we knew Pop was on his way home after working late or hitting a bucket of balls we would walk to the far end of Hillcrest and up to Grand Boulevard to the blue collection mailbox on the corner. We would lie out on the sloping lawn of the Robinson house and look for his car to come up the hill. Mom always said good things come to those who wait, but I always wanted him to come home so bad I couldn’t sit still, running back-and-forth to the road.

“Waiting wears out my patience,” I said when mom called me back to her, telling me to be patient.

“I just don’t have a lot of it and it runs out faster the more I have to wait.”

The special nights pop was at dinner, instead of spaghetti and meatballs or the Dutch Oven chicken we liked best, mom made beef brisket. She would bust the family food budget and take a taxi to Fazio’s, the big grocery store. Pop munched on crudités and dip before dinner and afterwards his favorite dessert was apple pie with cheddar cheese on it. Matty and I weren’t big fans, but we nibbled on hard-boiled eggs floating in mayonnaise, and mom made sure there was Neapolitan ice cream for us after dinner.

Celery was close to pop’s favorite food, which caused a commotion one summer. Mom wanted a new dress fabric she had seen in a McCall’s sewing pattern and started skimming from the grocery money pop gave her on paydays. He didn’t notice until the week she didn’t buy celery. Pop’s brother, by his second father, was living with us that summer, painting our house for more than two months, and sleeping on a foam mattress in the laundry room.

Uncle Willie and pop both made lists of what they liked to eat and gave the lists to mom so she would know what they wanted. Before Willie came mom had always made barbecue chicken for us on Friday nights in Kraft’s Original Sauce, but didn’t that summer after Willie told pop BBQ was out. Mom knew celery was pop’s special treat, but she thought he wouldn’t miss it for a week. What she didn’t know was that celery was Willie’s favorite, too, because she always threw his list away without looking at it.

“How could you forget the celery? What were you thinking?” was all she heard from pop day after day until Willie moved out on the Labor Day weekend before school started.

“I didn’t stop to think,” she told him, smiling and pretending, “and then I forgot.”

She didn’t tell pop about the dress fabric even after she sewed the dress and he never noticed how she looked in it.

Pop ate part of an ice cold Hershey bar every day. He kept it in our freezer box and he always knew how much was left. If he suspected any was missing his eyes misted up and he would complain to mom about it. We hardly ever ate any of it, anyway, because we knew he would be grumpy, and besides, we knew what it was like to come home looking forward to something that wasn’t there.

He loved coffee, too, but not the drinking kind. He kept gobs of coffee ice cream in the freezer, coffee yogurt in the fridge, and coffee nibs in the kitchen cupboard, and we weren’t supposed to touch any of those, either.

We usually had breakfast all together, not like our pop-less dinners. But, before we were allowed to eat pop passed out our piles of vitamins. We would push the pills into order and then sit looking at them while he drank apple cider vinegar from one glass and black strap molasses from another. The first down the gullet was vitamin A, then vitamin E, while the worst ones we saved for last.

I hated lecithin because it was a big horse pill. The yeast, kelp, and liver I swallowed fast, the narky flavors sliding over my tongue. Zinc and garlic were bad later in the day because I couldn’t help burping them up. The kelp, lecithin, brewers yeast, and desiccated liver were not the worst. The worst thing before pop let mom bring food to the table was the huge tablespoon of pale-yellow cod liver oil we had to swallow. Mom slipped drops of lemon into it so we wouldn’t throw up.

Mom had to get on pop’s bandwagon, too, but first she got a Wheateena Juicer. She told pop she couldn’t get the pills down, and made smoothies and vegetable potions, instead. She told us the machine digested everything ahead of time and all we had to do was drink it. She squeezed oranges, and added apples, beets, wheatgrass, and even ice cubes in the summer. Sometimes she would halve carrots on the long side and slide them down the chute into the auger, but then I drank the juice holding my nose because I hated carrots.

One of the last times I ever ate cooked carrots I had a mess of them in my mouth at dinner, but I wouldn’t swallow them. I had had enough. I felt like I was going to gag and choke. Mom got mad when she saw my mouth at a standstill and made me stand in the corner. I still wouldn’t swallow, until she finally let me spit the watery orange paste into my hands, and then clean up at the kitchen sink

“You should eat your vegetables,” she said. “They’re good for you, for your eyes.”

My eyes were going bad. They were going out of focus, like a bat in the blaze of day.

“They’re not vegetables, it’s a stupid root,” I said. “I don’t care about seeing in the dark, why should I care, it’s still dark, there’s nothing to see, and I just really, really hate them.”

Mom gave me the belt after that. Pop never hit us. It was always mom. She never said wait until your father gets home because we would have said, “Who?”

Pop was always selling so many ball bearings and hitting so many golf balls we only ever went on two family vacations. Before we went to Fredericksburg we went to Niagara Falls with Mr. Bliss, pop’s golf buddy whom we had never seen before, and his wife and their little girl. Mom asked pop to put us up on the Canadian side so we could walk in Queen Victoria Park and onto Table Rock Point on top of the waterfall. But, he wanted to play golf on the American side, so we stayed in New York at a roadside motel with a pool out front.

I had gotten a new bathing suit for the vacation, a blue cotton gingham pinafore with elasticized puffy bottoms. Friday morning after breakfast Mr. Bliss and pop went golfing and we went to the pool. When mom thought it was okay to go in without getting cramps she sat on the lip of the pool with her legs scissoring the water while I paddled back and forth.

The bottom of the pool was mercury blue and the sun felt like a fuzzy electric blanket. By the time I saw the shiny black bug floating on the water in front of me it was too late. I skimmed over it and felt it get under my bib and bite me on the stomach. It stung like crushed red peppers. Mom helped me out of the water and laid me down on the scratchy concrete and we watched a big red welt rise up on my stomach.

“I don’t like saying anything about sores,” the little Bliss girl said looking down at me.

Matty and I were dying to go to the arcades and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not across the bridge. We begged pop to take us to the odditorium. In the travel brochure it looked like a fallen over Empire State Building with King Kong on the side of it. But, Mr. Bliss and pop went golfing again the next day and we went bowling. I was only seven, but mom found little black bowling shoes for me, and a blue marbleized ball I could push at the pins. After a half hour I felt like my hand was going to fall off.

“One thing about bowling that’s better than golf is you never lose a bowling ball,” pop guffawed when he and Mr. Bliss picked us up. We had dinner that night at Michael’s Italian Restaurant.

Mom and pop had liver and onions and we ate all the American cheese and salami from the antipasto plate, and the chicken fingers, hot dogs, and French fries, except for the slices of them Matty tested for floatability in his glass of Sprite. I didn’t drink soda, but mom let him have his because he liked the lime flavor.

“Taste its tingling tartness,“ he said, slurping it up his straw.

“The bub is starting to tingle. Is there really no pick-me-up in that?” I asked mom.

The next morning mom put out a bread pan of congealed scrapple she had brought with her and sliced it into squares, frying it on the hot plate in our room. She made it from pork scraps, everything but the oink, she said, with cornmeal, and mixed in spices like thyme and black pepper.

Pop called mom’s scrapple pon haus.

It was like a salty meat cracker.

“Shoofly pie and apple pandowdy,” pop sang, standing beside mom as she mixed in scrambled eggs and ketchup.

“Makes your eyes light up, your tummy say howdy, makes the sun come out, when heavens are cloudy.”

Perched on the top deck of the Maid of the Mist later that afternoon we set sail for the Horseshoe Falls. We hung on the rail at the front of the boat, our faces wet in the swell and noise. I thought about Moe miming the Niagara Falls song in the Three Stooges movies Matty and I watched on Saturday mornings.

“Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch,” Moe purred, leaning away from Larry, looking sideways at Curly, his eyes slits of mischief and mayhem.

Everybody on the boat was wearing a blue rain poncho just like everybody else. Even though it was a sunny day we were being rained on. When the boat ricocheted turning in the turmoil at the edge of the falls I mixed up Mrs. Bliss and mom, grabbing the wrong hand, mom snatching at my other hand. I was pulled up on my toes between them.

Mom said she learned to swim when grandma took her out on Lake Erie and threw her off their rowboat. We didn’t have a boat so I didn’t know how to swim, only paddle like a dog. Mom never taught me how and pop was too busy to take me to the city pool.

Afterwards, pop picked us up at the dock, we stopped at HoJo’s for a dinner of beans and sweet brown bread, and later drove straight home, the sun sinking into the night straight ahead of us.

While Matty napped with his head rolling in my lap I looked at my leather moccasin change purse. The Shoshone Indians had sewed it. It was studded with green, red, and pink glass seed beads. Marcia always brought back souvenirs from her family vacations, the change purse from Yellowstone, a gold-trimmed Ghost Town cowboy hat from Lake George, and a Don’t Mess With Texas t-shirt from the Alamo.

Five years later coming home from Fredericksburg from our second family vacation I kept my eyes down while Matty blinked at his reflection in the back door window. Mom and pop cut and slashed each other up all the way home while Matty and I fidgeted in the back seat, for once in our lives both of us unwittingly quiet at the same time.

“I give you cash, so when I say don’t use the credit card, I mean don’t use the credit card,” pop insisted over and over again.

“But, you don’t give me enough cash,” mom told him.

“That’s what I give you the credit card for,” he told her.

“But, you’re telling me not to use the credit card, to wait until you give me cash, which you never do,” she said.

They argued and fought about money from Hagerstown to Youngstown, loud and mean, until they finally ran out of steam. Later, after nightfall and a gas station stop, pop started up again. He laid down his law and bossed her to never use the credit card. He said she was ruining us by spending all our family money, and our nest egg, too

“I’ll just charge it,” was one of mom’s favorite things to say as she slid her Diner’s Club card out of her purse.

“Doesn’t that sound weird to you?” Mom asked, twisting across the car seat towards me.

“He wants me to put food on the table, clothes on your back, and fill up the rainy day piggy with the money he never gives us. What do you think about that?”

Pop said people were putting things into mom’s head, and mom said her head would be an empty attic if it wasn’t for her friends and professors at school.

I didn’t understand everything they were talking about and looked down at the change purse I had filled with pebbles from the Fredericksburg battlefields. The closer we got to home the more they argued. He said he brought home the bacon. She said he had bacon for brains. Every once-in-a-while pop yelled that he was going to throw her out of the car.

“Get out of the car or I’ll throw you out” he shouted, mashing down on the gas pedal, even though we were already going faster than all the other cars.

But, he didn’t throw her out. When we got home he slept on the sofa downstairs for a week until he made up with mom, but they were never the same again

Mom started taking classes at the new college downtown when I was 8-years-old. It was the same September our rabbits were killed by somebody’s dog. They were named Eastee, because we got him on Easter, and First of July, because we got him later in the summer, but we called him Firstee.

Pop didn’t want mom going to Cleveland State University, and he didn’t want her going downtown, where the school was, even though he worked downtown.

“I don’t like you going downtown,” he said.

I don’t know why he said that, because we went downtown anyway every Tuesday and Thursday for my ballet lessons, and Wednesdays for white gloves and party manners classes at Higbee’s, the big department store. Sometimes we stopped at the Hippodrome, where there was a movie house, and said hello to Vince. He had an office next to the poolroom in the basement. Mom said he was the man in charge. He always wore a brown suit and always gave us something to drink, a Coca-Cola for me, and something like the same in a glass with ice cubes for mom.

Somehow my mom knew him. Afterwards we would stay and see a movie.

Mom started taking us to Euclid Beach Park only two summers before we found out it wasn’t going to open for the season anymore. It was the same summer the two neighborhood hippie boys parked their VW bus in our backyard the whole summer before leaving for California. By then she was working at the Firehouse, a new restaurant in the Park Center downtown, and she was taking more classes at her college when she wasn’t working.

“What are they putting into your head,” pop asked her, adding he didn’t like her working, either

“We don’t need the money,” he said.

Mom would drive us to Euclid Beach Park, drop us off, and tell us exactly when she was going to be back. We were supposed to wait for her just outside the main entrance gate arch, which looked like a gigantic letter H, so she could pick us up without having to drive in, and then u-turn back home.

The arch was underneath a wide, old pin oak tree. We knew it was an oak because there were bumpy acorns littering the grass, and we knew it was a pin oak because it had pointy leaves.

Then she would drive away in the Mercedes convertible pop had bought for her.

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

“A banana is the best snack,” she said, pushing them down into our pockets.

The first thing we did was walk to the Rocket Ships. From the parking lot we could see the tops of the cranes above the shade trees and hear the band organ that was beneath the second-floor platform.

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

The Rocket Ships were three shiny aluminum spaceships that flew fifty feet up in the air over Lake Erie as they whirled around a one hundred foot tower. Matty said it was a great view and cooled you off on hot days, but I wouldn’t ride them because I had heard one of them had broken its support chains once and been hurled out into the lake. None of the Rocket Ship riders was ever seen again.

After Matty was done space manning we rode the coasters together, starting with the Thriller. At first I was afraid of the coasters, of the sickening hills and valleys, until the VW boys went to Euclid Beach Park with us one afternoon.

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

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

It was hair-raising because it might crash anytime. Coming into the station once the train behind came in too soon and rear-ended the other, and bunches of people got banged up. But, the next day the platform was fixed and it looked like nothing had happened. I found out later they stored different shades of secret paint so that when they repaired the coasters and tracks they could paint them so they all looked worn the same way, and no one could tell that anything new was there.

The more I rode the coasters the more I liked riding them. They were like the peanut butter maker, but twisting in the sky longer and bigger. I loved the sound of the wheels on the track and the wood trestles groaning and heaving on the turns. Even though I thought the riding might take me somewhere, it never did.

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

The Flying Turns were the highest of the rides. The trains were freewheeling.

“It’s a coaster without tracks!” Matty liked to tell anyone who would listen, even though he was trying to sneak on, since he was smaller than the yardstick beside the gate.

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

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

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

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

We always avoided the Surprise House until the very end of the day, not because it was scary, which it was, but because of Laughing Sal, right outside the entrance, cackling her face off inside a glass case. Her head and hips gyrated like the Tea Cups and she never stopped her crazy talk laugh.

Laughing Sal had freaky red hair and shiny dead eyes in a head that jerked back-and-forth. We tried to never look at her bloated, painted face.

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

It was like he knew you weren’t ever getting out of the Surprise House.

Once we walked inside, through a fog cloud, right away around the corner was a screen door puzzle. Only one of all the doors was really a door and while we looked for it doors banged so loud all around us it hurt to think.

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

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

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

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

At the end of one passageway were three porky sailor boys with tin whistles in their mouths. When you stepped up to them they blew their whistles in your face. When we stopped at a big window to see a fireman with a hose, he whirled around and sprayed, except the spray hit the window first. At a wishing well when you looked down into the water you could see yourself as though you were looking at yourself from behind.

At the far end of the Surprise House was a distortion mirror maze we had to find our way through to get out. The curved mirrors stretched and squeezed us like taffy.

After all the weird moving floors and dark and noise it was always a shock to step through the exit on the quiet side of Laughing Sal and suddenly stand blinking in the sunlight with people strolling past not knowing anything about what we had just been through.

We were sad and excited at the same time, not sure what to do next.

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

We didn’t know the last time we stumbled out of the Surprise House and tossed banana peels at the skunks as we walked to the arch and mom’s waiting Mercedes that it was the last closing time at Euclid Beach Park. And, we didn’t know that mom was going to leave soon and not come back.

Mom and pop started arguing when she started going to college. When she got a job it got even worse. After that it never got better.

“Why do you need to work?” he would ask her. “We have enough money. You don’t need to work.”

But, she was sick of asking him for money all the time, not just for groceries, but also for everything, for her clothes, for us, and just everything. I think she got sick of him, too, of him always telling her what and what never to do.

They argued more and more that winter, even in the morning at breakfast and late at night when we were supposed to be asleep. One evening they had an argument at the dining room table because mom had stayed out the night before until four in the morning.

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

She meant Reuben Silver, who was the showman at Karamu House, where mom and pop had first met. He was a friendly man with a black beard and slicked-back, shiny black hair. His wife wore purple turtlenecks and always took my hand when I saw her backstage.

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

“Gamma Rays? What are you talking about?”

Pop went to the movies sometimes, but he didn’t go to theaters anymore. That was all over.

He thought something had happened. He didn’t say what, although we could tell from his face it must have been bad.

When mom went into the kitchen pop followed her. She stepped into the hall and then went up the stairs. We could hear them in their bedroom, screaming at each other. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Mom came running down the stairs and ran to Mrs. MacAulay’s house. Pop came downstairs after she was gone and told us everything was all right. He sat by the back window the rest of the night and stared down into the ravine. He looked unhappy, like someone had stolen his Hershey’s chocolate.

When we went upstairs to bed we looked into their bedroom and saw a big hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. We found out later he had thrown it at her, but missed. It lay on the floor until the next day when mom came home. She cleaned up the dinner table, did the dishes, and put the potato masher away.

Mom kept the cleanest house anyone ever saw. She vacuumed twice a day and you could eat off the floor.

Pop said he was going to call Sears about fixing their bedroom wall, but he never did. Maybe it was like their marriage by then, not worth fixing.

Mrs. MacAulay came over the next day when pop was at work. She always walked into our house without knocking, which made pop mad. She was loud, but she was mom’s best friend, and that made pop mad, too. Mom packed a suitcase and told us she would be gone for a few days. She took us into the kitchen and showed us all the food she had prepared in casserole dishes, and explained how to heat it up. I had a hollow leg in those days and could eat as much food as I wanted and never gain weight.

“I’ll be back Monday,” she said.

But, she didn’t come back Monday, or the rest of the next week.

She came back two weeks later, on a Tuesday, just after I had gotten home from school.

“Mom, we’re almost out of food,” I said.

We found out mom wasn’t coming back when she took us to Helen Hutchleys for ice cream. We sat in a booth in the back. I had strawberry cheesecake on a plate, Matt had tin roof in a cone, and mom had two scoops of butterscotch in a cup. She told us things weren’t going well at home, which we knew, and then she said she was leaving pop and moving downtown.

“How can you do that to pop?” I said, even though I didn’t know pop as much as I did my mom, who I loved more than anything. Matty put his cone of tin roof carefully down on a napkin and wrapped his short arms around her as much as he could.

“Whatever you want to do, mom, whatever you think is best,” he said.

But, I was mad, and started to cry.

“Finish your ice cream, pumpkin,” mom said, so I did, before it melted.

We lived with pop for a year-and-a-half after mom left, but afterwards we moved downtown with her. I never had to do anything at home when I was a kid. Mom did everything, so for me it was burden to even do something. I couldn’t keep up at school. Sometimes I would sit inside my closet in the middle of the day. Pop never helped me, either.

Looking up the sidewalk at pop’s house on Christmas Eve, I thought I had probably known all along that mom was going to leave pop, but back then surprises still upset me. Mom was going to marry the man from Rochester. There was no surprise about that anymore

“Come on, bub,” I said, taking Matty’s hand when he reached for mine, and carefully started up the icy walk.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Hunting Blind

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My father, Abe, first spied my mother, Olive, through his first floor window at the Majestic Hotel. She was waiting on the corner of East 55th Street and Central Avenue for the CTS streetcar. It was a sunny summer day. My mother did pantry work and was on her way home.

My father spotted her from behind his venetian blind.

“I had just gotten back from Woodland Cemetery, where I did walking tours whenever my sergeant thought there was something I had done he didn’t care for. She was a sight for sore eyes and sore feet. I put my Colt Positive away in the dresser drawer and stepped outside.”

During the winter the Majestic allowed my father, who was a policeman, to have a small room on the East 55th Street side of the hotel. His room door let out onto a secret door beside the drug store, in case he saw anything happening. After a few years he kept the room in the summer, too.

The Majestic was called the apartments, but it was always a hotel. My father started going there when he was in his early 20s and the jazz club off the lobby was called the Furnace Room.

“Meeting your mother was a lot like jazz, it was improvised. That was it, to go ahead and see what happened.”

The club had dancers and crooners, too, and bands that came through on tour. The restaurant that served food was Mammy Louise’s Barbeque Café. Their house specialty was braised beef short ribs in gravy. Their ribs were like soul music.

My father was from a small town in the Florida Panhandle and never thought twice about eating chicken fried steak, candied sweet potatoes, and cheesy grits.

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

The Furnace Room later became Elmer Waxman’s Ubangi Club, but when my father first took me there in the 1950s, when I was twelve-years-old, it was the Rose Room Cocktail Lounge. Before the Hough race riots and Glenville shoot-outs in the 1960s, even though it was already a colored neighborhood, the audiences were all races. Judges and politicians from downtown brought their wives to the Rose Room. It was the black and tan saloon scene.

But, by then no one danced to jazz anymore. That had already changed.

When my father applied to the Cleveland Police Department in the 1930s the merit system broke down, like it always did, because he was a man of color. They said he had poor eyesight, even though he didn’t start wearing glasses until he was in his 70s, almost fifty years after joining the force. He had to ask for help from his ward leader to have the rejection overruled.

He hunted moonshiners in the 1930s, which was dangerous work, before they gave him his own beat. He said you could always tell whether the moonshine was good if you set it on fire and blue flames came up.

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

There weren’t many men of color on the police force, and most of those who were had to get certification from outside doctors to overrule the official exam of the police doctor. Jim Crow was subtler in the North than it was in the South. They kept separate eligibility lists, so that when one died, resigned, or retired, his replacement was always a Negro patrolman.

Duke Jenkins and his group was the house band at the Majestic. They were the first jazz band I ever heard. On Tuesday nights they had Cha Cha Night and on Thursdays they had Mambo Night. But, the big attraction was the early morning Blue Monday Parties.

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

I stayed overnight with my father in his hotel room on Sundays, and went to the Blue Monday parties with him when they started, which was at five in the morning. Afterwards he drove me to school. If we stayed too late at the jam session he would sometimes call and ask for a squad car to take me, with its lights flashing and siren whooping.

There were only a handful of Cleveland hotels listed in the Negro Travelers’ Green Book. The Majestic was one of them. All the rooms had two beds and a radio in every room, although my father’s had only one bed. He had the other one removed so we would have a table to eat at on Sunday nights. I slept on a folding rollaway he kept in the closet.

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

“I’d like to do that,” I told my mother. I lived with her and my grandmother, and it was a surprise to both of them, although it shouldn’t have been. That’s just how things were.

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

I played the piano and organ because my grandmother wanted me to. She was the matriarch of our family and was conservative about most things. She didn’t believe in bell house music. She was strict about church music, too, so she had a man, who was the organist at the New Liberty Hill Baptist Church, come to our house and give me lessons. When I got a little older I played there myself.

Mr. Paul John was the man who came to our house. He worked in the steel mills, where he knew my grandfather, who sang in the male chorus in the mill that Mr. John led on a cheap five rank pipe organ.

“Mr. John could play Rachmaninoff, and all, but he was ahead of his time, so he gave lessons. That was the incentive for him when he came to your mother’s house and got you started.”

I played sacred music for the rest my life and jazz music for the rest of the other part of my life. The sacred music came from my mother and grandmother, and the jazz music came from my father, who took me to the Majestic and later to clubs uptown like the Tijuana Café Society.

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

Some days you could hear a single trumpet through an open window down the street from Doan Square, where all the action was, a jazz musician reading their lines in the afternoon. Hotels weren’t open to musicians of color, so they stayed in rooming houses.

You couldn’t even go to the Five and Dime store and have a quiet lunch. My grandmother went to buy a hat one Saturday and when she tried it on she had to buy it. She had put it on her head to see if it fit and when a sales clerk saw her she had to pay for it. My grandfather was a mulatto from Cuba. Whenever a white man approached our house, selling something, or on some errand, my grandfather was polite, but as soon as the white man left the porch and was out of earshot he would spit and call him a cracker.

We lived on Pierpont Avenue in Glenville, what we called the Gold Coast, before Glenville fell apart and the Gold Coast moved to Lakewood in the 1960s. My grandmother died in 1968 and my mother sold the house, moving to Lost Nation Road in the suburbs. But, by then I had finished my studies at the Boston Conservatory and was playing the big organ at the Christian Science Mother Church. In the summer I played at jazz clubs on Martha’s Vineyard and Provincetown.

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

There were little restaurants run by the Jews. There were no bad sandwich shops in Glenville, but my father always ate at Pirkle’s Deli. He said if he ever spied a Jewish woman from his room at the Majestic he was going to go after her so he could get up Sunday mornings and stroll out to the deli with her.

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

My father and mother were never together. There were two different families, his and ours. They had their room at the Majestic, but in later years she felt he betrayed her. My father wanted to marry my mother, and she thought he was going to divorce his wife, but he didn’t do that. Afterwards she had difficulty in seeing my father in the light of a soul mate, or the light of any kind of mate.

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

I lived with my mother and after she married another man she bore two more boys who were my brothers because we shared her. My father came to our house many a time, often in his police car, which was exciting. It wasn’t as if we were separated from him.

He was one of the first black farmers in Twinsburg, where he kept turkeys and pigs. Every Monday in November we got a turkey. He had a smokehouse, too, and when it came time to slaughter some of the fattening pigs he would do that himself. He castrated the male pigs a month beforehand. We would have bacon and ham all winter and into the spring.

My father often picked me up Friday and Saturday nights to help him forage for feed. We drove up and down Euclid Avenue, on the south side of Glenville, from E. 110th to E. 95th St, picking up refuse from the barrels and dumpsters behind the many clubs and restaurants on the strip. He would stick his hands into the slop and feel around the mash before filling up our barrels.

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

When our barrels were full we drove the pick-up to his farm. The pigs would hear the truck coming and know it was time to eat. They would start doing what pigs do, getting greedy and feisty. He would dump their food in the trough and they would go at it. That was why, knowing how they behaved, he picked through the slop, because they would have cut themselves, biting into anything.

I stopped gleaning slop when my mother told me I had to start being careful about hurting my hands.

I learned more sacred music and fewer blue notes after my mother put me in Empire High. Miss Bishop, my music teacher, had been there since the school opened. She had a nice hourglass figure and the only thing that gave her away was that she wore old lady comforters. But, she was spry and walked fast.

She was an old maid because she had become a teacher and couldn’t marry, and by the time that idea changed it was too late for her. One afternoon I found a dedicatory book for Empire, which was built in 1915. I took it to Miss Bishop’s office

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

She looked at me.

“Is this you?”

“Yes.”

“But, you’re old.”

I’m sure she wanted to pinch me.

But, Miss Bishop made sure I practiced my piano and later helped me get a scholarship to Ohio University, where I studied the organ. After that I never lived in Glenville again.

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

I saw little of my mother, who had moved to California to live with my brother, a minister, and my father only when I was passing through the Midwest on my way to Chicago or St. Louis. We visited and had lunch at one or another deli in Cleveland Heights, where all the Jews had moved. Pirkle’s Deli had burned down.

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

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

His apartment had one bedroom, one bathroom, and one closet. It looked like no one lived in it.

He was industrious, but he became a less tidy custodian of his properties over the years. He would patchwork instead of getting things done the best way, so they deteriorated. He wasn’t willing to pay the price to get things done the right way. When you have that mindset you end up losing more money than you spend.

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

He never recovered his eyesight, which was hard for him because he had always lived by his senses. The biggest problem, though, were the hallucinations he suffered, which were part of the side effects from medication he was taking. He would have them at night. He heard things and saw craziness and wasn’t able to sleep.

I never got my father and mother together, even at the end, when I was staying with him, playing old jazz records together. He listened to music all day towards the end. He stopped eating, drinking cold lemonade, instead. The last time my mother visited us my father was near death. I took her around to many of the places in Glenville that weren’t there anymore and tried to get her to go to the facility on Rockside Road where my father was. She fought me all the way and in the end wouldn’t go.

She just didn’t want anything to do with him.

My mother, Olive, and father, Abe, did what they had to do. I was just a cameo on that team of theirs. When my father died there was nothing left to do in Glenville and I moved back to Boston for good. In the summer I play jazz and popular tunes in clubs on Cape Cod. On Sunday mornings when the weather is good I brew a pot of strong coffee and toast a plate of spiced hot cross buns.

On my balcony sitting in the warmth and light of the rising sun I look for what is behind the brightness, on the other side of it, the blue note side of the Majestic my father peeked out of to spy on my mother.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Summer Camp

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I would trade any day in the real world for a minute at summer camp.

Those two weeks are what I wait for all year. It’s hard to believe, but my best friends and I and everyone who knows us best have been going to camp for half our lives, just after I turned seven. Since then I have gone every summer. The first day of camp is better than the rest of time.

I used to go to Camp Katahdin with my dad when he first started taking Katie and Sylvia. I went along to keep him company on the drive, because my mom wouldn’t go, and the girls were just girls. After dropping their duffels and backpacks off and getting them signed in, we would walk around the campground, to where it is fenced in along the lakeside, although most of the fence is now rusting and falling down.

My dad and his sister went to the camp in the 1960s, before there were real highways and it took forever. They rode in granddad’s Chevy Impala, a green woody wagon that was twice as big and long as the Hyundai dad drives to work. The third row seat faced backwards. That is where he and his sister sat, what they called the way-back seat, playing the license plate game and category abc’s.

They slept in Canadian Army tents at the camp in those days, not the A-frame cabins we sleep in now. They had bonfires and sing-a-longs every night and ate peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonder Bread. “Some days we had sandwiches three times a day if there wasn’t anything else,” my dad says.

“There was so much wood we had bonfires every night, as big as a house burning down. Not like now, when you have to drive to the convenience store and buy it,” he said, pushing the wrapped-up firewood packages with his foot. We only have bonfires on weekends and they are more the size of flashlights than three-alarm fires.

“One of our camp commanders back then had been in the French Foreign Legion. He wore a black beret and a small hand axe on his belt. He just picked wood up in the forest. We always had more than we wanted, the woodpile was so high.”

When it was late afternoon and the girls were finished at the orientation we would leave for the ride home, driving all night, listening to talk shows and baseball games on AM radio, twisting the knob on the dashboard back and forth as the game or the talk show faded in and out. My dad likes talk shows so he only listens to AM radio.

I knew I wanted to go to summer camp the first time I saw it. Since the girls were already going I knew I probably would, too. I just had to wait to be at least seven-years-old. Every summer they told me how much fun it was to be at camp and not at home. That was the big thing, they always said, to be away, to be somewhere else for two weeks.

Summer camp is a different life than being at home. There are fewer adults than anywhere else and no parents. The counselors are almost like you. Some of them let you run amok and hope no one dies. All of your friends are together and there are even more of them than you have at home. Nobody yells at you for two weeks. The counselors scream if you do something really dumb, but you don’t get yelled at for just doing something wrong by mistake. Even when you do it’s all over in a few minutes, not like at home, where it never ends.

You can’t always go wherever you want, roam around the camp, or just run around in the forest, but you can be who you want to be almost all the time. When you’re at camp it’s like waking up on the roof. The nights are dark and everything smells damp, like a bottle of milk in the refrigerator. Although everyone is supposed to be in after lights out, and there’s a night guard, he isn’t able to watch all the cabins all of the time. In the forest in the middle of the night when it’s quiet it’s scary quiet, and the quieter you are, just breathing, everything’s a strange echo.  Sometimes it’s so dark walking is like feeling your way with your hands, but you never lose your way.

The sky at summer camp is clean and windy, not stuffy and dead like at home. Some kids don’t shower when they’re there and that’s disgusting, but nobody cares too much about it. Once somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him in the car when they came to pick him up. ”No, go hose yourself off, and brush your teeth!” his mother yelled. The cabins are gnarly old, partly plywood and partly brown clapboard, and moldy in some spots. They never smell all good, even on sunny days. There is a beat-up screen and wood door in the front and a tilt window in the back, although most of the time the window won’t crank open.

But, it doesn’t matter. The camp is big and so are the lake, the dunes, and the woods. We hardly live in our cabins, anyway, only sleeping in them, unless it rains.

Camp Ketahdin is a long drive from Cleveland, to the northeast shore of Lake Michigan, on Little Traverse Bay. It’s past a town called Petoskey, which means ‘Where the light shines through the clouds’, hidden down a winding gravel lane from the main road. The boy’s cabins are on one side of the camp, the mess hall is in the middle, and on the backside of the drive-in and packed-dirt lot is the chapel. The girl’s cabins and nurse’s station are on the other side and the flagpoles and bonfire are down a sloped sandy hill from the hall. The lake is a one-mile walk from the sport’s field.

A year goes by and it’s like I never left. As soon as we get to camp we unload everything we’ve brought, our clothes, sleeping bags, and snacks. Everything we own has our initials on it written with a Sharpie. We find our cabins and claim our beds, and then your parents are gone before you know it. Sometimes I don’t even realize they’ve left. You see your friends again, your cabin mates and everyone you have ever camped with, and there are high-fives, knuckle-touches, and bro-hugs all around.

Everyone punches each other and laughs, “What’s up, dude.” We hang out, reunite with the girls, and get some overdue hugs from them. When everyone has gotten to the camp and all the parents are finally gone we have sandwiches in the dining hall. Father Elliott says a prayer for the kids and new campers, and afterwards the camp commander gives us a chalk talk about everything. He writes the rules in block letters on the blackboard.

Before nightfall we hike to the beach for our first look at it. We go to the lake every afternoon, unless the weather’s absolutely horrible. But, when the day’s cold and gusty it’s really the best time, because there are huge waves, the wind is blowing hard, and the surf is smashing you. When we come out for a break the counselors have a snack set up for us, and later we go back in the water a second time, or just lay around on our towels.

We have activities every night, like bonfires, mystery night, and sleep-outs under the stars. There are three dances, the big one on the last night of camp, which is the formal dance. Some nights we do things later than the kids, like the manhunt game, because they have to go to bed before us. They sleep in the long barracks, not the cabins like us, where they have their own sleep-in counselor.

The last couple of summers the kid’s barrack counselor has been an immigrant, who is tall and pretty, but has bad teeth, is very serious, and barely speaks English. She has twin girls who stay in her room. She sweeps the hallway with a broom for a long time after all the kids have gone to bed. Nobody ever thinks about sneaking out. Everybody knows what would happen, because she tells them all in her own way on the first day of camp.

As soon as we’re done with the night activities, but before going back to our cabins and staying up, or whatever we do, we gather in a circle and cross our arms with each other. A counselor says a prayer and everybody shouts good night. Then it’s a mad dash back to our cabins. We always flip our mattresses over to get the sand and wolf spiders out. The spiders aren’t poisonous, but they can be big as your hand, and they bite hard as if they had teeth.

One year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. We tried to kill them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood they left itchy clusters of bites on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. When the camp commander found out he hired a bedbug-sniffing dog. The next day everyone whose cabins had bugs put everything they had in plastic garbage bags and put them inside the cars at camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.

In our cabins we talk, jump into the middle of things, and beat each other up. We plan different ways to kill people, have wrestling matches, and see who can burp and fart the loudest.  Whenever anyone falls asleep they are fair game. My fourth-best friend Tomas is an open-mouth sleeper. One night we squirted minty toothpaste around his lips and watched bubbles form as he breathed. Another time we covered his face with lipstick and mascara. He didn’t like that, but later he thought it was funny. We don’t fight or talk the whole time, at least, not necessarily. We eat a boatload of candy, too.

The camp doesn’t let us bring our phones or tablets, or even video games, but everyone brings four or five pounds of candy. Some bring less, but some bring even more, which is ridiculous. One boy brought four cases of soda and a carton of family-size Lays Classic potato chips with him, and that was on top of the pickings at the camp store, where you get two treats every day. He is 14-years-old, like me, but built like a twig. He ate and drank everything he brought and didn’t share it with anybody.

We have a food-eating contest every summer after the Counselor Staff Show. The kids have to go to bed, but we stay up late to play the game. Whoever volunteers is blindfolded and has to eat whatever the counselors make. Everyone has to keep their hands behind their backs and lap it up with their mouth like a dog. Sometimes the other kids vomit, but I never throw up. Last year the counselors made bowls of Rice Krispies with ketchup, mustard, jelly, lots of salt, and it was mashed together like potatoes. It was horrible. Everyone cheers you on and you have to eat it all as fast as you can if you want to win.

Some nights if we have stayed up until dawn the night before we try to go to sleep a little earlier than usual, no later than two or three in the morning. We don’t keep track, but we have to get some sleep because the counselors wake us up at seven-thirty for calisthenics. They march us to the sports field and make us do jumping jacks, push-ups and crunches, and run the track. If they see you are tired and slacking they will make you do more.

We get up every morning to dance music, like Katy Perry or Duck Sauce, or whatever the counselors want, played loud on loudspeakers hidden in trees. Sometimes I don’t hear it because I’m sound asleep. The counselors carry water shooters. If they say you have twenty seconds to wake up, and you don’t jump right out of bed, they start squirting you. They shake your bed and jump on you, and scream “Wakey wakey campers!”

After exercise hour on the sport’s field we go back to our cabins, clean up, and then raise all the flags before breakfast. Sometimes we don’t clean up and instead fall back asleep in our cabins and then are late for the flag raising, which means humiliation. Whoever is late has to step out into the middle of everybody on the parade ground and do the chicken dance, or whatever dance they tell you to do.

All the boys on their side of the parade ground do the chop when that happens, swiveling their arms like tomahawks and chanting. Nobody knows what it means, but they all do it, and the girls stand there watching, and then they do their dumb dance, like cheerleaders, but they aren’t cheering for you. We have some pretty messed-up people at camp, but everybody gets their share.

Every cabin has to keep a diary for two weeks and we get graded on it every day. Whoever is the best writer wins Liberty Dollars. But, if you write something dumb, like “ugi, ugi, ugi” or anything that doesn’t make sense, you get a bad grade. The counselors tell us to be sincere. Matthew always makes up our diary because everyone else in our cabin is retarded. At the flag lowering one time, after Titus had written something stupid, we had to do the Rambo, running down the hill to the flagpoles with no shirts on and singing “cha, cha, cha” while everyone did the chop.

My friends and I are in cabin three, which is the smallest cabin of the nine boy’s cabins. There are eight of us and the only space we have to move around in is to walk back and forth to our beds. Matthew is my best friend and totally number one. He’s a little shorter than me, has dirty blond hair, and is stick slender. We like to relax, not get uptight, and soft chill at the end of the day. We have been rooming together for seven years and know each other best.

Logan is my second best friend. He is a tad taller, funny, and chunky.  He chews green frog gummies and spits them out on the cabin floor. He likes to play paintball. I don’t paintball, but I think I’d be better, considering I’ve never done it. He’s strong, too, but not loud and belligerent. Once he punched someone who stomped on his bad toe. He has in-grown toenails. Logan was, like, “Dude!” and he pushed him, and then got punched in the stomach. Logan punched him back in the face, but without being mean. It was the Night of the Super Starz in the dining hall, we were just sitting there watching the show, and the rude boy started crying. He had a reddish bruise and a black eye at the end of the day.

There was a midnight mass afterwards, but Logan had to go back early and alone to our cabin, although all that happened the next day was they made him sweep the hall. That’s somebody’s job, anyway, so he just helped, but not too much.

After the morning activities we eat breakfast, and then clean up our areas. You don’t have to do it, but there is a cabin judging at the end of camp. We didn’t win last summer, but we didn’t come in last, either, which is a good thing, because then you would have to do something bad. We go to classes, sometimes, or you can say you aren’t feeling good, and then we have lunch, and later go to the beach. After dinner we lower the flags, there’s an evening program, and then we go back to our cabins and get naked, at least some of us. I don’t know why we do that, exactly.

We talk about movies, television shows, and our favorites on YouTube. We talk about girls, some of them more than others, and we talk about video games, even though we don’t have any at camp. It’s never been allowed. The one of us in our cabin who doesn’t talk much is Titus. He just sits in his corner all secluded, but he does play some games, so I talk to him about that, sometimes.

I used to play WoW, but I got addicted to it and didn’t like that. Call of Duty is my game now, except I don’t play it on my Xbox anymore, only on my computer. I love it when they say, “In war there is no prize for the runner-up.” I’m not sure what games Titus plays.

Nobody knows what is wrong with Titus. We love Titus, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t do anything, which is the problem. At night when we’re sitting in our cabin talking, he’ll start crying. He’ll just cry on his bed, and when we ask him what’s wrong, he says, “I don’t know.” We don’t ignore him and we never do anything to him. We punch him every once in awhile, but not hard. Mostly when he’s looking, but sometimes when he isn’t looking. He gets pinkeye every year. We don’t make fun of him, though. But then he got double pinkeye

We were all, like, “God damn it, Titus.”

Everybody made fun of him as a joke, and then he cried, but not because of that, just because he’s Titus. Every year he sleeps in the corner by the door. That’s the problem, he doesn’t know. He is one sad, sad child.

We stage our wrestling matches in cabin two, which is the oldest boy’s cabin. It’s the coolest cabin, too, and the biggest. What we do is take our shirts off and duct tape a sleeping bag onto the wood floor. There is no punching allowed, no hammer blows, or anything like that, but you can kick and throw each other on the ground. We aren’t supposed to fight, because the camp commanders don’t like it, but everybody wrestles and gets bruised, and crap.

One night we had wrestle mania. The winner is the last man standing. Mason and Chase, two boys from cabin five where they’re younger, were locked together when Chase grabbed Mason’s head and flipped him over. Mason slammed hard into a bed and got knocked out. We let him lay there, but when he didn’t wake up for twenty seconds we threw dirt on him. He was fine after that. The next day we were walking to the beach and Mason jumped on Chase’s back for no reason and almost cracked it. But, they didn’t punch each other, or anything like that. They’re both hardcore kids, everybody knows that, but not haters. Besides, the counselors were watching, and that would have been trouble.

Liam sleeps in the other corner opposite Titus by the door. He’s a serious douche bag. He thinks he can play guitar, but all he does is play the same part of Stairway to Heaven over and over. Who needs that? We are always yelling “Shut up!” and then we broke his guitar, but it was a piece of junk, anyway.

We broke the brand new fan his parents got him, too. Logan was angry, his toes hurt that day, and he started hitting it with a comb. We took the fan behind our cabin and beat it with a bat. It was hanging on rags when we were done. The spiny part was smashed, giant chunks were missing, and we just kept beating it. We beat it with a hockey stick and threw bottles of water at it. I mean, we did everything to it.

He wasn’t too happy about it, but he deserved it.

When his parents came mid-week they asked him what happened. He told them we did it, but not surprising to us, they didn’t believe him. After that he tipped a Diet Coke over on my bed in spite, so I poured the rest of it on his bed, and he pushed me, and I punched him back, and then he punched me, and I finally punched him in the jaw, but not crazy hard, and he stopped.

He thinks he is swagged, but since he is Liam, there is no reason.

Boys are never allowed to be in the girl’s cabins, ever. But, once a day we go over, one or two of my friends and me. We usually sneak peek there from the boy’s side, through the woods, to right behind the girl’s cabins. We know which one we want and go in through the rear window. Sometimes we run to the front door, but it is better all around to go the back way. That’s why all the screens in the back windows are ripped out. The counselors staple them back on every year.

We hang out, talk about life, and chill. We dream up rages, but never in our cabins, always in their cabins. It’s awesome and the music pumps. We just go up and down the walls. Sometimes fifteen people crowd into the cabin, having fun and out of control. We rage every day, mostly during the day, but sometimes at night, too, at least whenever we can. It’s better in the dark when we can turn on the Christmas lights and crazy dance to Skrillex. The counselors hear the music, but they don’t care. There’s music playing all the time. The wrong counselor coming in for a random reason might catch you, so you have to watch out for that.

When people knock on the doors we jump in-between any crack or under the beds. The girls say, hold on, we’re changing, and we just wait, hiding under the beds, or in the cracks where they can’t see you. All the time you’re hiding and you’re quiet so they won’t find you. Most of the counselors just laugh and call you pathetic if they see you. But, they always let you stay.

After the rages we talk and chill again, eat all of the girl’s candy, and then sneak back to our cabins. We’re only there for two weeks, so we have as much fun as we can, playing music and dancing to the beats. It pumps hard every day. It’s not melodic, trust me on that, although one time Logan slowed it down and sang I Did It My Way, and everybody loved it. For the rest of camp whenever we chanted his name he had to jump on a picnic table and lead a sing-along of My Way.

I am the boss of dance moves at the camp dances. There isn’t anyone or anything that doesn’t make me the boss; a picture of the boss busting moves is worth ten thousand words. The girls dance with me because I’m not a douche. The ones who are exactly that think they’re cool, but then nobody really likes them, or only a select few who are just like them. You can’t be the boss and a douche, too.

At the dances everybody makes a circle and I squirt into the middle. I break moves, and I’m dead serious about it. I’m out there every dance rocking it. I do the party boy, popping, liquiding, and electric shuffling. One of the counselors is teaching me. He goes to things called raves, like rages, except they’re gigantic, where people get wasted. He says they’re awesome.

My favorite dances are slow dances, of course, because you get to dance in a curve, your arms wrapped around your girl, soft and flowing. Everything is good about that. I love shuffling and going crazy on the dance floor, but it’s a close second. I slow dance with just about everybody, except cabin seven, the youngest girls, who once asked me to dance with them. I said no to that.

It was two or three years ago when I started noticing the chiquita’s at summer camp. At first it was just curiosity. Then it was like standing on the rim of the Rocky River Valley and feeling how great it would be to jump. They were there and they were nice. Being around them felt like something good was going to happen.

Happy girls are the prettiest girls, but some of them, especially the ones who think they’re stars, are mean. When you try to talk to them, they act, like, “Oh, my God, I’m so cool, and you’re so dumb, leave me alone.” They will say, “Just because you know my name doesn’t mean you know me,” and walk the other way. It’s then you know they’re down and snobby. They never smile when no one else is around because they would have to really mean it.

Natalya is one of the mean girls. She isn’t hot, although maybe she is, partly. She’s shorter, not fat, but not like a twig, either. She has some knockers, nice and big, but she wears a butt-load of make-up, which is weird. She prances around, like she is acting it out, and dyes her hair all the time in different colors, black, and then blonde, and then something else. She brought her own little folding table to summer camp so she could put make-up on in private. She wears a ton of it.

If you wear make-up it doesn’t mean you are snotty, but that’s just a thing with her. Most people can only whine for so long, but she whines over stupid things all day. We’re in the same morning classes, after cabin clean up and the inspections, so I know. She’s in my group, and whenever we have to do anything, she whines about it, saying, “Oh, my God, I’m not doing that.” She just wants to sit around and be annoying.

She has a lot of friends, but she has a lot of enemies, too. Logan said she deserves her enemies, but I think she deserves her friends, too. Some of my friends, girls who are nice, hate her a lot. They won’t be in the same cabin with her, even though they are the same age. I know she hates being ignored. I try not to care about her, but I can’t, not always.

The other mean girls, Alexis, Samantha, and Hannah, are all in my morning group, too, which sucks. Alexis doesn’t constantly whine, only most of the time, and she wears shiny bracelets and rings, too. She just wants to sit around and be looked at. Samantha is all drama, way into herself, and I don’t like her at all. Everything she says she starts by saying “Frankly…” She looks awkward when she’s not talking. I don’t even know about Hannah, she’s just kind of weird, glammed up like a puppet.

The nice girls are fun to be around. That’s the big difference about them. They’re not immature about things like having to play sports all day on sport days. They even play the dizzy bat with us between games on the soccer field, at the end the sidelines strewn with us lying on the ground, grabbing for the grass to keep from falling off the edge of the earth. The mean girls sit in their cabin and flame about it, and stupid stuff, like how small their cabin is, even though there are only four of them. Ours has eight of us in it, it’s the smallest boy’s cabin, and we never complain about it, ever.

The mean girls always want to be with the boys who are ripped. All they want to do is talk to them and then talk about them the rest of the time. The nice girls don’t like the boys who are mean and their girls. They don’t get along. There really is a divide and it’s serious. Last year one of the mean girls, Kayla, started cursing out another girl and charged her, and got kicked out of camp. Her parents had to come and get her. That was bad.

The nice girls don’t try so hard to be something they aren’t, slapping on a smile or a smirk. They’re not expert liars. The mean girls always look like they’re waiting to be discovered behind their cover up. But the nice girls, even if they have bandy legs and a lopsided face, when they laugh it’s one of the best sounds in the world.

One of the nicest girls at camp is Lauren, who is tall, has wavy brown hair, kind of long, and is a little chunky, but not like fat. At least, not too fat. She lives on the other side of the lake where it’s the Upper Peninsula. Lauren doesn’t try to be anything. She’s pretty, but not beautiful, not like she’s impersonating somebody, trying to fool you. Instead, she’s really kindhearted and friendly. She stays up at night, like me, listening to music.

Jessica is my age, the very nicest girl of all. She is fourteen, just a month younger and a bit shorter than me, blonde hair, but not dirty blonde. We have known each other for five years. She appreciates everything about me, the whole nine yards. We see each other every day. We go to the secret swings and talk, but I don’t remember about what. You never know what girls are going to say. I just stare at her. I don’t know what she talks about, girl stuff, I think, and her clothes. Anything they wear is fine, really. I heard her say once she likes the Detroit Tigers, and another time she said something about her room. She says all kinds of stuff and I just listen. Sitting in the woods with her at night feels like hanging loose. I never want it to end.

Last summer Raymond, the night guard, who is the weirdest man, was in the bushes when I was walking to the crapper from the swings after a night with Jessica. He was standing in the dark watching me, and my friend Logan saw him and started screaming at him, “Get out of here, man, what do you want?” He also used some select words. It was the funniest thing, because most of the time no one can talk to Raymond like that.

Raymond is the night guard, not a counselor, or even one of the camp commanders. His hair is long and greasy, he always wears a baseball cap, and he smells terrible. He’s one of the older adults, for sure in his 50s, and he told us he’s an ex-Spetsnaz.  Titus was stung in the ear by a hornet once, and was crying, and Raymond told him to “tough it out.”

He sleeps during the day and patrols the camp at night, and will stand behind your cabin, just looking in at you for a long time, like a freak. He’s very patient. Nobody wants him chasing you when you have snuck out. You can’t break away from him, ever; he’s just a beast. He has a birch branch that he whips your feet out from under you when you’re running, and will seriously manhandle you when he catches you, which is every time.

The best night of camp is the night of the manhunt game we play with the counselors on the 4th of July. It’s called Nazis and Jews. The older campers are the Jews and the counselors are the Nazis. We call it that because the Jews run from the Nazis. The kids have to go to bed. They aren’t allowed to play. We start running as soon as it gets completely dark, so we have a chance, and then the counselors come after us. If they catch you they railroad you back to a jail where you have to sit and wait.

You can try to get away, but it’s hard because the counselors who catch you are the strong, fast ones, and the ones who don’t catch you are the slow ones, the ones who are mostly unfit. The strong ones don’t like it when anyone makes them look bad by busting out. You can try to break free when no one’s looking, but if they grab you then you have to stay longer. The longer you sit there the less chance you have to win Liberty Dollars for the auction after the game, which isn’t a good thing. It is intense. I am dead serious.

One summer during the manhunt Simon, who is from Maine, jumped out of a tree on me. Whenever he talks it’s with a slurry, toothless accent. He was ten feet up in a quiet, dark shadow where I couldn’t see him, and he jumped down and tackled me. I got up and ran, but he started chasing me. He was like a monster, coming to get me, and I ran into a branch. Everything just went SHING! I almost got knocked out because it hit me right in the face and tore my neck, which really hurt. There is still a scar on my Adam’s apple to this day.

On another game night Matilda, who plays for a college basketball team and is seriously fast, blind-sided me, decking me. At first I wasn’t sure what happened. I didn’t mean to, but when I got up I tripped her, and started running away. You try to run away whenever anyone catches you. When she caught me I fell on the ground like I was out cold. She was forced to drag me by my arms and legs. While she was dragging me, huffing and puffing, I noticed a large lump on her chest. When I asked her what it was she gave me a sly look and said, “It’s a tumor, I have cancer.” I couldn’t believe it. She seemed so healthy. I jumped to my feet so she wouldn’t have to drag me. While we were walking the tumor started to jerk back and forth. I didn’t know what to do, since it wasn’t anything we’d learned about in first-aid training. I thought she might collapse. Then, just as we walked up to the jail, her baby pet gerbil poked its head out of her bra.

Last summer the jail was inside the art house, where all the supplies and costumes are stored. It’s at the farthest end from the sand dunes. Makayla was the guard that night, and although she isn’t very big, she’s strong. There are two rooms, so she had to patrol both of them. We had to sit in chairs and be quiet. If you talked too much you had to sit there longer. If you got up from your chair for any reason you had to stay in there longer, too. You could try to escape, but it wasn’t easy. Makayla would hit you, not really hard, but hard enough, with a twine broom, usually with the soft end. She would push the broom down on you and yell the whole time.

You don’t want to try escaping too many times, either, because if you try a couple of times and they catch you each time, they might kick you out of the game for the night. It isn’t fair, but that’s what they do if they get annoyed about it. If you sat there quietly, or told Makayla you’d be good, sometimes she let you out before the others.

The game starts once it gets dark and everybody is assembled at the bonfire pit in the sand arena. The counselors change the game a little every year. One summer whoever was a Jew child had to go out to find passports for their family. That was the main prize. When they got caught, and they all got caught because there were traps everywhere, the rest of us, their family, had to break them out of jail somehow. It was like capture the flag, but trickier.

This summer the counselors took us to the dining hall, closed the doors, darkened the windows, turned off all the lights, and made us sit on the concrete floor. There were two people giving news broadcasts, but then a counselor warned us they were going to censor the station. It got quiet. You couldn’t hear anything.

When the counselors came back they were dressed in black, charcoal from the bonfire smeared on their faces, and screaming, acting like they were mad. They split us up into groups and gave us directions. We had to find books and save them from being burned. They gave us clues and we had to find them. They weren’t real books, just pieces of paper. The more we brought back the more Liberty Dollars we got for the auction. The more of us in our group, our family, that got caught the more of our Liberty Dollars were taken away.

The papers were scattered around the camp in the pockets of a couple of special counselors, who were hidden in the forest, and kept moving around. You had to find them and when you did they would give you the paper. But, sometimes you had to beg them. If the Nazis captured you they would take the paper away from you, rip it up right in front of you, and you would have to start all over. A lot of people hid them in their shoes, or their underwear, or different places no one would look.

It can be a dirty game. One time I was by myself, not far from the art house, but on the edge of the woods, and one of the counselors came walking past, and I dropped flat. I was lying in a bunch of crap, leaves, twigs, bugs, mud, and stuff, and he just walked right up to me, but didn’t see me. I was, like, “Oh, man.”

Everybody gets the same number of campers for their group, and they are your family. The mom and dad of the family are the two oldest from the girl and boy side, and the children are the trickles from the other cabins. You have to find the books, but you have to protect each other, too. If anyone in your family gets sent to jail you have to rescue them. But, it’s best to be careful, so that you don’t get caught yourself.

They called us out family-by-family and yelled at us if we didn’t listen. They were hitting the floor with brooms, yelling at us, dressed all in black. Most of us were dressed in black, too, or camouflage, because it gets intense. They gave the moms and dads a lit candle, lined us up, and marched us to the sports field. They were telling us the rules, when Gregory, who has an anger problem, and wasn’t even in my family, snuck up behind me and snapped at me because I was laughing, “Shut up!” and then slammed me. I slammed him back on the ground. I was, like, “What the hell?” The counselors were shouting, “Gregory, get over here!” and they started chewing him out, because I hadn’t done anything.

Gregory has crazy anger problems. He might not make it. His brother used to come to the camp, but he was kicked out one year for the same thing. They called his parents to pick him up and he has never been back. That’s the worst thing that can happen at camp.

The counselors were being all serious, spitting out commands, when out of nowhere, out of all directions, they just started screaming and sprinting at us, without even telling us that it was starting. We booked it in every direction. That’s how the game started. It was crazy.

I had already planned to go with my friends, because you don’t really want to stay with your group. It’s stupid then, since you’re just trying to have fun, anyway. We hustled to one of the boy’s cabins and hid there, and then started running around, dodging the counselors. Some of them are fast, and there are two girl counselors, too, who can catch you if you don’t see them coming and they are already sprinting towards you.

You can push the counselors away, out of your way, but not punch them, although you can punch them, just not all of them, only the ones who don’t care. Your friends can come help you, and if the counselors try to catch both of you, you have a good chance of getting away, because they can’t get both of you at the same time, no matter how big they are.

The counselors tackle you hard when they want to. They can be stealthy rockets and they don’t mess around. Sometimes they’ll use you as a distraction so they can catch someone else. If they’re your counselor they’ll cut you some slack. You act like you’re getting caught when one of your friends is walking by, and yell, “Help me!” and your counselor will throw you to the side and run to get them, and you can then dash free.

I had to help when Noah explained he needed me to go along with one of his plans. When I was little I would slip into his cabin and his friends would let me sit on their beds and give me candy. Besides, he had me pinned down. He pretended to capture me, but he really wanted to capture one of my friends. He had his own reasons. They are usually not going to let you go just to capture somebody else, because then you can run off. But, I did what he wanted, and I begged one of my friends, “Dude, come help me,” and Noah let me go and took him.

This summer the jail was on the sports field, which was a pressboard box used to store basketball backboards. It was small, the size of a dining room table, but tall and deep to the back. Last summer the jail cell was the boy’s bathroom. It was dark and clammy, the light bulb missing, with only one door, so it was hard to escape from. We had to sit in there with the daddy long-legs and rotten smells.

The pressboard box was even worse. It was out in the open with a pole lamp over it. The counselors squeezed eight people in there, around the edges, and then made more people stand in the middle like cattle. They nailed two-by-fours to the sides so we wouldn’t spill out. Everybody was packed tight inside it. You could try to crawl out, but they would have already gotten you by then.

We escaped when some counselors grabbed new runners and were bringing them in, but there wasn’t any room left because it was so crowded. Someone pushed us out. We had a couple of seconds of leeway. They can’t just grab you again that minute, so we ran into the forest to the Hill of Crosses.

The Hill of Crosses is on a small dirt hill in the woods. There are trees all around it, and nothing but crosses on the hill, hundreds of them, some bigger than life. Everybody’s parents know all about it. It has something to do with their past. It’s been there a long time, but no new crosses have been added so long as I can remember. There’s a white fence around the hill and a gate, but it’s never locked. We go there for fun sometimes, to talk, and chill, because almost no one ever goes there anymore, and it’s secluded.

We were cutting through the Hill of Crosses, talking out what we were going to do, when Lovett, who is very fast and really fit, jumped out of a sand dune right at us, waving a flashlight. We just flipped out, everybody started running, none of us going the same way.  Somebody smashed into Lovett, who singled out Mark for it, running after him.

A lanky kid named Norville, from another cabin but who was with us, sprinted to the border of the camp where there is a crappy old fence. He didn’t know it was there and when he jumped on it he got all tangled. He ended up stuck on it, his hands were gashed, his clothes ripped, and he couldn’t get off. He was bloody after that, not like gushing, but it was bad.

Later, when we all found each other, we saw Lovett with his big flashlight, looking for Mark. We lay down in the sand; we were so afraid, but he ran right past us. We stayed there behind the little hill where we hang our clothes after coming back from the lake, and then snuck back into our cabin. We were sitting on our beds, laughing, but Mark was freaking out. He was so afraid he got on his knees, put his hands together on his bunk bed, and started praying out loud. He was praying there, crying, saying, “I don’t feel good,” when Lovett walked in.

“What’s wrong with Mark?” he asked.

“I don’t feel good,” Mark said, and walked outside the cabin and threw up. He tried to throw up in the trashcans, at least it looked that way, but he didn’t get any in the trashcans, at all. The next morning we dogged Mark, because he’s an idiot, but all he said was he really didn’t feel good, anyway.

After Mark threw up we heard one of the counselors squawk on the loudspeakers that the game was over. That’s how it really ends. They broadcast all during the game, about how much time is left, and what we have to do, and then it just ends. I don’t know what time that is. I don’t wear a watch at camp. Everybody just has to report to the dining hall.

After the game is over we get a five-minute break to mess around, and then we all go to the hall, laugh with our friends, and tell them how crazy it was. We’re still getting our breath back when Father Elliott starts his talk. He always speaks after the game. This summer he told us about Siberia, how he went on a memorial train ride there, to commemorate our grandparents who were taken away by the Communists in the 1940s.

He talked about the train cars, how there were so many people in the freight cars that nobody had any space to move around in, and how they had to go to the bathroom in the train itself. He was very serious. It was kind of sad, actually, how serious it was, but I was glad he told us about it. He had pictures on his laptop, lots of them of the little broken-down villages where people had to live in the freezing cold. I remember one picture, there were wooden railroad tracks, old rusted bolts, and the snow was blazing white. The tracks were all nasty and messed up. I don’t know why I remember that one. He said we should be thankful we didn’t have to go through that, that we were lucky.

Father Elliott is our priest at the camp. He runs the religion classes, says mass, and organizes the Faith Nights. We build bonfires all around the camp for Faith Night, in the dunes, by the art house, and everyone goes to one of the bonfires with their morning group. Our two counselors have a list, they ask us questions, and we talk. I used to think it was stupid, but I like some things about religion now. Some people take it as a joke. They are smart-asses.

In my class at St. Mel’s I hate my religion teacher, but at summer camp I try to express myself. Some of the questions are dumb, but a lot of them are intriguing. How do you see God? What does God mean to you? How do you communicate with God? When I was a kid they taught us to go to church and pray, and everybody would be happy. But, is that truly enough, to pray once in awhile, and that will please God? I’m not sure.

Father Elliott goes to each group on Faith Night carrying chairs for confession. I don’t really like that. You’re sitting by your fire, talking about God and all, and he comes by with his two folding chairs. He doesn’t make you confess, but you basically have to. You have to sit face-to-face with him in the open. He stares straight into your soul while you’re giving confession. I don’t want the priest to know it’s me because you see him every day. You know he thinks of you differently afterwards, at least for a few days.

This summer we almost didn’t play Nazis and Jews. We heard rumors the camp commander wanted to stop it, or change it, but the counselors said you couldn’t just stop it. It’s a legend at camp. It’s the most fun night of the two weeks. It was probably somebody’s parents, the counselors said, complaining about calling the manhunt game Nazis and Jews, or something like that. Everybody was worried. At least we got the game back, and it was the same, although we might call it something else next summer.

They were playing it when I first started going to camp. I used to want to play it so bad then. When we were kids in the long barracks we would get together, go somewhere, and play our own manhunt game for hours. We stood in a circle and chanted “bit, burp, poop, you, are, not, it” until only one kid was left, and he was it and had to go and catch people. If you saw one of your friends you could try to tag him and he would be it.

One summer my third-best friend Adrian was it and he was mad because he had been it twice that day. “I‘m not playing anymore,” he said. We said, “Stop being a baby and just be it.” He started chasing Luke, who was still really small. He ran and Adrian tore after him, and then slammed him onto his back. Luke broke his arm and had to go to the hospital. He wore a cast for the rest of camp, which was bad. Adrian told everybody he was sorry. He was crying about it and explaining he hadn’t meant to do it.

Summer camp goes by fast. You wake up one morning and it’s over. Where did it go? We’re always wasting our time, but we never waste a minute. You’re hanging with your friends, everything is carefree, and then suddenly you have to go back to your normal life. It’s gone, it’s done, and you have to wait another year. You go see your girls and they’re all teary. You hang out with your bro’s and everybody is kind of sad.

After breakfast we raise the flags one last time. I know we won’t be the ones lowering them later that night and nobody feels good about that. We go back to our cabins, get all our stuff ready, and then everybody’s parents start arriving. We go to the bonfire pit and sing songs one more time, like The Cat Came Back the Very Next Day and Tin Tan Tin. I don’t know what the girls sing. It is something like “Tick a lick a lick, per diena zirgele, I am alone.“ But, the truth is, my friends and I don’t really sing anymore. When you’re a kid it’s fun, but now it sucks.

We always sing one last song. Everybody gets in a big circle at the end, the whole camp, after the awards are given out, and our arms all crossed together we sing I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane, and then say a prayer. It’s really sad, and then it’s over, and you say goodbye to everybody.

The next year when it’s time for summer camp again you are jonesing, it’s like getting the jitters. All the same people are there, all your girls and your cabin, and everything we do. It’s just a great experience. When I’m older, after my last year, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s for sure, at least until I finish college and have to get a real job.

I was the top dog at Nazis and Jews this summer. The next day I ran my stack of Liberty Dollars to the auction. The camp commander stands at a podium with a wood mallet. There is a chalkboard behind him with a list of all the things you can get and everyone starts bidding. There are t-shirts and baseball hats, breakfast in bed, and counselors cleaning your cabin. Sometimes it’s a mystery box, which can be good, like roasting marshmallows for two hours, or it can be not so good, like cleaning the urinals.

There’s stargazing with another cabin of your choice, which is always obviously a girl’s cabin, and that is a good thing. But, I put everything I had, all of my Liberty Dollars, on the first shower. Saturday was the night of the formal dance and I wanted to look my best for it. I made absolutely sure nobody outbid me because it was do-or-die for the hot water.

You get to shower first, all by yourself, for as long as you want to.  You’re in the shower and nobody can get you out. They post a counselor to stand guard at the door and they don’t let anyone in except you, and you can use as much hot water as you want. There is only so much of it at the camp, but you can take it all, and everybody else is left with the cold remains.

Oh, yeah, that is what you always do, because everybody else would do it to you.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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