Mr. Moto Does His Thing

By Ed Staskus

   Even though Mr. Moto didn’t know how to think, he did a lot of thinking. There was no sense of getting on the wrong side of “I think, therefore I am.” It was a breezy sunny morning. He sat on the platform of the fire escape, looking out on Hell’s Kitchen and wondered, why is there something rather than nothing?

   There was a lot of everything in New York City, as far as he could see. It was true he slept more than not, sometimes sixteen hours a day, but between sitting around in windows on stoops on the roof and prowling the land, he saw enough. Where did it all come from? Where was it all going? What was it all about?

   “To be or not to be.” Where had he heard that? Was that what it was all about? Was it all just something and not nothing and never mind in between? It was the simplest explanation, and the one he liked the most, but there was something about it that nagged him. He never knew his dad, but he remembered his mom. That was where he came from. He came from her. Everything had to come from something, right?

   As far as he could tell, even though he couldn’t read, there were five No. 1 concepts that philosophy revolved around, language, knowledge, truth, being, and good. He couldn’t talk, so it got shot down to four in his world. The truth was always up for grabs, leaving three. There was no need wasting time arguing what was right and wrong. He knew good and evil when he saw it. 

   When it came to knowledge, he knew what he knew. “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” That left being, and being a cat, he was solid with that gospel truth. He was always being, no matter what he was doing. That’s what life was all about. Be true to yourself.

   It was about eating, too. He was a stickler for clean water in his bowl, refreshed every day. He got cross if it was stale. Stan gave him canned fish in the morning, he ate all of it every day, and the rest of the day nibbled on dry food. 

   Mr. Moto didn’t like “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates was full of bull. If what he said was true, most life of all kinds wasn’t worth living. Who had the time to look inward all the time? 

   He never examined his own life. He didn’t know a single other cat, nor had he ever heard of any, who did. He didn’t believe animals ever did. He didn’t think many people did, either, at least not in his neck of the woods. Who was Socrates to say their lives weren’t worth living? No wonder they poisoned him when they got the chance. He must have been a pain in the ass.

   Mr. Moto flopped down on the ground, stuck a hind leg up, and cleaned his butt.

   He didn’t like Kant, either. The man could never just come out and say what he meant. “A categorical imperative would be one which represented an action as objectively necessary in itself, without reference to any other purpose.” What did that even mean? If it meant what he though it meant, it was all hot air. One thing always led to another. He knew that for sure.

   He thought it might mean something like, it is never right to lie. Should that idea be universally applied? If everybody lied, trust would disappear, so lying is wrong in all cases. What a lot of more bull! Kant was worse than Socrates. Mr. Moto distrusted almost everybody, and it stood him in good stead. He was willing and able to lie to anybody he didn’t trust. Whatever works was his motto.

   His chief goal was survival. “We must all cultivate our own wisdom.” Voltaire was more like it, more to his liking.

   He was taking the air on the fire escape, the wrought iron stairs bolted to the front of the building. It was where he did his best thinking. It was also where he stayed abreast of the street’s comings and goings. The World Series, whatever that was, was on everybody’s lips. Everybody was saying it was the Subway Series. It was starting tomorrow. He heard Dottie saying she was going to be on the picture box, talking to one of the big men, although he was a small man, somebody by the name of Pee Wee Reese. Somebody sitting on the stoop next door was reading Sports Illustrated. Micky Mantle was on the cover.

   When he looked down at the sunlit pavement, watching Dottie come out the front door and start off to school, he didn’t like what he saw. A black 1955 Chevrolet panel truck was parked at the curb. Two men in dark suits, wearing fedoras pulled down over their eyes, were getting out of the truck. They weren’t in the trades, that was for sure. They were guinea gangsters.

   When they blocked Dottie’s way and reached for her, clamping a sweet-smelling wet handkerchief over her mouth, Mr. Moto ears pinned back sprang into action and raced down the steps of the fire escape. He whirled on the sidewalk and ran straight at the struggle. Dottie was kicking furiously at the men. Leaping from the second story he jumped over the back of the man holding her from behind, over Dottie’s head, and on to the face of the man facing him. The man screamed as Mr. Moto raked his face with his claws.

   “Hey, what’s going on?” Sports Illustrated on the stoop yelled, standing up.

   The hoodlum grabbed at the cat, got hold and flung him away. Blood gushed from his face and one eye. Mr. Moto pivoted and went at him again, coming up short landing on his chest, and grabbed with all his claws digging in at the man’s shirt. The goon flung him off again, bellowing. The cat landed on all fours and glared.

   Dottie went limp from the chloroform on the kerchief and the men dragged her to the back of the panel truck, tossing her inside, and slamming the doors shut. An empty bottle of Sneaky Pete rolled into the gutter. Mr. Moto went after them again but had to dodge bullets from the soon-to-be-Scarface, and dashed behind a trash can, more bullets ripping through the thin metal and ricocheting off concrete.

   The man on the stoop threw himself flat, cradling his head with his arms.

   When the truck started pulling away, heads appearing in windows, and shouts that it was gunfire, not backfire, he ran after it. When he jumped at one of the rear wheels, hoping to puncture it, all he got for his efforts was two ripped-out claws and bruised ribs when he was flung off the spinning steelbelt to the curb.

   He looked up at the disappearing truck and instantly memorized the license plate number. Back on the sidewalk he pulled a scrap of paper from the overturned trash can and wrote the letters and numbers on it in his own blood. Even though he didn’t know how to write, he could recreate symbols. He didn’t know what the symbols meant, but they had to mean something. Stan would know.

   He heard a whistle. A patrolman was running up the sidewalk. A woman yelled out her window, “They grabbed the Riddman girl!”

   “What happened?”

   “I don’t know, two guys were dragging her. She looked like she was knocked out. They threw her into their truck and raced away.”

   “Did you see their faces?”

   “No.”

   “How about the plates?”

   “No.”

   “Which way did they go?”

   “That way.”

   It wasn’t any better sledding with anybody else. Everybody had seen what happened, but nobody knew what the trail looked like. The patrolman wrote down what he heard and waited for the plainclothes car.

   On the sidewalk Mr. Moto felt bad. If he wanted to be honest with himself, he felt horrible. He had stanched the bleeding by licking his paw, but he was having a hard time breathing. His chest hurt like hell. When he tried to walk, he felt like he had strained a tendon or a ligament or some damned thing in his right back leg. He knew what he was made of. He was a mess. He limped when he got going. There wasn’t any way he was going to be able to scurry up the wood trim to the awning to the second-floor platform and back to the open window of the apartment. He waited at the front door until the woman in 1A came running out, slipped into the foyer, and through the quietly closing inner door.

   He dragged himself up to the fourth floor, to the hallway window, and gingerly hopped up on the sill. He went out to the fire escape and back into the apartment through the living room window. 

   The apartment was a living room dining room kitchen and two bedrooms. He went to his water bowl first, caught his breath, and lapped up enough to slake his dry mouth. He staggered to Dottie’s room, stopping inside the door to catch his breath again. His chest hurt bad. He clawed his way up onto the bed, let the scrap of paper fall from his mouth, and lay there until his wheezing tapered off.

   He fell into a dreamless one life gone sleep.

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

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

Brand New Plan

By Ed Staskus

   The year my class graduated from St Joseph’s High School was the high point of the Vietnam War. It was the low point of the American War, which was what the North Vietnamese called it. It was 1968, the year nearly 600,000 American troops were fighting Victor Charlie up and down the country and the year 80,000 Victor Charlies struck back during the Tet Offensive. They hoped to ignite a popular uprising. It didn’t happen. During the month-long battle for the city of Hue, the city was destroyed.

   In 1964, nine years after the start of the Cold War-era undeclared proxy war, it got roaring with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Just ten-some years since the end of the Korean War, the United States military began bleeding back into Asia in force. By the time the war ended in 1975, nearly 60,000 servicemen lost their lives, along with 250,000 South Vietnamese troops, as well as a million Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters, and more than two million civilians.

   There was no use trying to count the maimed fractured shrapnel-scarred napalmed and dismembered. Eight million tons of bombs, two-and-a-half times as much as was dropped on Europe from 1940 to 1945, was dropped by the US Air Force. Who knows who was down there?

   I didn’t know the Gulf of Tonkin from the man in the moon the summer before my freshman year. I barely knew anything about the Vietnam War. I had a vague idea where Vietnam was, which was somewhere near China. I had never heard of the domino theory or the idea of dying for it. Four years later I knew more, although sometimes it did me more harm than good. I knew enough to stay away from the dean’s office and the kind of trouble officialdom could bring to bear, which was at least something.

   Many of my friends at St. Joe’s, on the east side of Cleveland, were Lithuanian Americans. The neighborhood was crawling with us. We were all Roman Catholic and the school was Roman Catholic, within walking distance for most of us.

   We were taught math history religion science civics and English. There were vocational classes and there was an honors program. The football team was big and bad, playing for titles. We were taught to be good Catholics and good citizens, God and country.

   None of us worried about the Vietnam War as freshmen and sophomores. We had other things to worry about, like getting to the next class on time, homework, pep rallies and school assemblies, dances in the gym, our status and looks, part-time jobs, outside activities, and summer vacation. The greasers had cars and we could only look on enviously. The jocks had good looks and never mind getting a good look at their girlfriends. The smarty pants had brains and were looking towards the future.

   It changed fast our junior and senior years. President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union address in 1967 was bleak. It was bad no matter if you were the parent of a draft-age young man or if you were the young man.

   “I recommend to the Congress a surcharge of 6 percent on both corporate and individual income taxes, to last for 2 years or for so long as the unusual expenditures associated with our efforts in Vietnam continue. I wish I could report to you that the conflict is almost over. This I cannot do. We face more cost, more loss, and more agony,” he said.

   Nobody liked the cost part. He proposed a record-breaking $135 billion-dollar federal government budget. My father, an accountant, was shocked. I didn’t know how to count that high and kept quiet. I didn’t like the agony part.

   Our last two years in high school, nobody wanted to not be going to college. A student deferment wasn’t a sure thing, but it was better than nothing. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson ordered the country’s young men to get up stand up and fight. It didn’t matter that twenty-five years earlier LBJ had largely avoided WW2. What mattered was what he said now.

   Lewis Hershey, the head of the Selective Service, ordered draft boards to stop granting deferments so that more men would have to join up. College students found themselves being reclassified. When the Selective Service Qualifying Test came into play for everyone who wanted to keep their deferments, students took to the streets. The next year “Hershey’s Directives” ordered draft board to punish anyone who protested against the Vietnam War.

   After that the shit hit the fan until the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1973.

   The year after we graduated was the year the Selective Service started drawing lottery numbers determining who would or would not be drafted. The drawing was televised live. Everybody aged 19 to 26 stayed glued to the tube. If you were born on September 14th, your number was number one and you were going to be drafted the next day, or sooner. If you were born on March 14th, like me, your number was 354 and you weren’t going to be drafted and weren’t going anywhere more dangerous than your own backyard. No Victor Charlies were going to be firing 1,800 MPH lead-filled dominoes at you in dozing your hammock.

   I was dismayed when I found out the lottery in 1969 didn’t apply to me. I entered high school early and wasn’t quite 19 years old. I would have to wait a year. I was worried that lightning might not strike twice. Was it possible to replicate the luck of a number like 354 out of 365?

   Two of my friends, John Degutis and Algis Karsokas, were shipped to Vietnam as riflemen for tours of duty fighting Commies in God-forsaken jungles. They didn’t know what they were getting into until they got there. When they came back, they weren’t the same. Another one of my friends, John Skardis, a National Honor Society student, enrolled in Columbia University and joined Students for a Democratic Society, later splintering off into the radical Weathermen, and then the even more extremist bomb-throwing Weather Underground. If he ever came back from the anarchist trenches to Cleveland it was under lock and key. He thought he knew the plan for fighting the man, but he was wrong.

   When Mark Rudd, a national leader of the Weathermen, snuck into Cleveland for a February 1970 meeting with the local boys and girls, he said they were going underground for “strategic sabotage against all symbols of authority” according to an informer.

   He called for urban guerilla warfare.

   From 1965 to 1972, 150,000-and-more men of draft age lived in Cleveland and within surrounding Cuyahoga County. About 60,000 of them served in the military, many of whom enlisted, the others drafted. More than 90,000 never served in the armed forces. Nearly 4,000 of them were draft dodgers and the rest deferred, exempted, or disqualified from service. Of those who served 47,000 never went to Vietnam, 3,000 were stationed in Vietnam but saw no fighting, and some 10,000 experienced combat. 427 of them were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded.

   The odds weren’t bad, but who wants to roll snake eyes in the crap game of a meaningless war? 

   Kent State happened in May 1970. The spring quarter was coming to an end. Warm weather was busting out all over and everybody wanted to be out in the sun. Some three hundred students were protesting the war when Jim Rhodes, the four-term “Get It Done” governor, had enough and ordered the Ohio National Guard to put down the fanfare. When they had enough, they started shooting. Four students were killed and nine wounded. 

   Before the shooting the Tower of Rhodes said the squawkers were “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” After the shooting he said, “We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others.”

   The bloodshed turned the mess into a place on the map busting out across the country. Crosby Stills Nash & Young wrote a song about it.

   “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming,
   We’re finally on our own,
   This summer I hear the drumming,
   Four dead in Ohio.”

   Gerald Casale, who later became lead singer and bassist for the rock band Devo, was there. 

   “All I can tell you is that it completely changed my life. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeff Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. I was a hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles on two people I knew. We were all running our asses off from those motherfuckers. It was total, utter bullshit. Live ammunition, none of us knew, none of us could have imagined. They shot into a crowd that was running away from them. I stopped being a hippie and started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”

   The shootings ignited outrage on campuses around the country. More than 4 million students participated in walk outs at hundreds of high schools, colleges, and universities. It was the largest student strike in the history of the United States. Everything at Cleveland State University, where I was a student, stopped dead in its tracks. Kent State University was 30-some miles southeast of our downtown campus.

   We all thought it was a horrible thing. Everybody knew Kent State was a chill campus, and even though somebody had burned down the ROTC building the night before, the demonstration was restrained as far as riots go. Coarse words and billy clubs would have done the trick.

   I was shocked the next week when a Gallup Poll revealed that 58% of respondents blamed the students, 11% blamed the National Guard, and 31% expressed no opinion. I was surprised that one of three people didn’t know what to think about it. Many people confuse feeling with thinking. Didn’t they even feel bad about what happened?

   The tabloids sided with the soldiers, but the national press didn’t agree.

   “The National Guard insisted that their men fired as they were about to be overrun by the students. But if the troops were so closely surrounded, how was it that nobody closer than 75 feet away was hit? And if the rocks and bricks presented such overwhelming danger, how did the troops avoid even one injury serious enough to require hospital treatment?” wrote Newsweek magazine.

   The average distance from the soldiers to those killed and wounded was the length of a football field. It was a turkey shoot, especially since the students didn’t have two derringers to rub together. In the end, none of the triggermen took the dead undergraduates home for their roasting pans, turkey shoot or not.

   “It took 13 terrifying seconds last week to convert the traditionally conformist campus into a bloodstained symbol of the rising student rebellion against the Nixon Administration and the war in Southeast Asia. When National Guardsmen fired indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing four students, the bullets wounded the nation,” wrote Time magazine.

   Less than a week after the shootings, 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, D.C., protesting the war and the killing of unarmed if unruly students.

   “The city was an armed camp. Mobs were smashing windows, slashing tires, dragging parked cars into intersections, even throwing bedsprings off overpasses into the traffic down below. That was the student protest. That’s not student protest, that’s civil war,” said Ray Price, Richard Nixon’s chief speechwriter from 1969 to 1974.

   President Nixon was whisked away to Camp David for two days for his own protection.

   John Skardis went on the run after he and a gang of Weathermen rampaged through a new indoor mall in Cleveland Heights, smashing plate glass windows and terrorizing mid-day shoppers. He was arrested but after his parents made bail for him, fled the state. The FBI got involved, naming him a Federal fugitive charged with Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution. 

  “Attended Columbia University in 1968 and 1969 and was involved in student disorders. Joined the revolutionary Weatherman group and took part in several violent Weatherman demonstrations in Chicago and Ohio. Entered the Weather Underground in early 1970. He has used the alias Jonas Rytis Skardis,” said the dryly worded wanted man poster.

   In 1975 he was named by United States Senate investigators as one of 37 members of the Weather Underground who the FBI were still looking for after 19 politically motivated bombings since 1970. The year before the group had managed to plant a bomb in the State Department building in Washington. Although they avoided blowing people up, they scared the hell out of a lot of people in power suits.

   When John Skardis and a companion surrendered the following year, they had been traveling for many months in several European countries under U.S. passports issued in false names on false ID’s. After he was extradited, he disappeared down the rabbit hole. 

   Although I went to an anti-war demonstration on Public Square, I avoided the clouds of tear gas and confrontations with the Cleveland Police Department, especially the cops on horseback. I bided my time until next December and the next Selective Service drawing. When the time came, I found my hopes for another draft-defying lottery number were fool’s gold. My number came up 12. I was going to Vietnam to fight in a failing war that most people, whether they said so or not, didn’t believe in anymore. In 1965 about 80% of the American public supported the war. Six years later it was down to 40%. By the end of the war, it was 30%.

   I had to appear at my draft board for a physical, which went well, thanks to my having been a Boy Scout for many years. But I was determined to not go to Vietnam. “Hell No! We Won’t Go!” was the handwriting on the wall. I was willing to volunteer if the Viet Cong invaded the United States, but I wasn’t willing to put myself in harm’s way in anybody else’s civil war, especially not insurgents nine thousand miles away in Southeast Asia who had been fighting for self-determination since 1943. It didn’t seem like they were about to give up anytime soon.

   Young men were burning their draft cards coast to coast. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that. I didn’t even have a lighter.

   I had to pull out all the stops. First, I declared myself a conscientious objector. The draft board laughed it off. Then I told them I had been an altar boy and objected on religious grounds. They laughed that off, too. Finally, I told them I was just as likely to shoot an officer as I was to shoot a gook if I was shipped overseas. That was no laughing matter to them.

   They sent me to a Master Sergeant who chewed me out, who sent me to psychiatrist, who finally wrote me up as hopeless. He gave me a 4F deferment, meaning I was “physically, mentally, or morally unfit to serve.”

   I was OK with the snub.

   In the meantime, my father a God-fearing faithful Republican, and I got into several mean- spirited arguments and I moved out. I dropped out of Cleveland State University for half-a-year and discovered the bohemian beatnik hippie enclave on the city’s near east side. I had grown from one end of high school to the other, but I hadn’t grown up as much. Cooking and cleaning, making the rent, and meeting folks in my new haunts outside of my old world started me up that road.

   I hoped Johnny came marching home, but I got to thinking the lockstep mindset might not be the best and brightest way for me to go when catching a ride at the crossroad.

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

King of the Monsters

By Ed Staskus

“Dad, if Godzilla is King of the Monsters, does that mean nothing can beat him?” Oliver asked his father.

   “That’s right.”

   “Is the virus a monster?”

   “Some people would say so.”

   “Then how come nobody has asked Godzilla to beat down the virus? It’s been more than a year.”

   They were on the back patio on a fair mid-March Saturday afternoon. It was breezy and unseasonably warm in Perry, Ohio. Oliver’s father was grilling burgers and his mother was in the kitchen preparing wide-cut French fries and coleslaw. His older sister Emma was pulling a chocolate upside down cake out of the oven.

   “You just pour in the pecans, coconut, brown sugar, and presto-o change-o,” she said. “It’s fuss-free.”

   Oliver’s father was an electrical engineer. In his spare time, he was restoring a 1968 Chevy Camaro. It had pony car style and a muscle engine. He knew how to repair almost everything inside and outside the house. He knew his way around and didn’t like being backed into a corner by a six-year-old, whether he was his son and the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County, or not.

   “That’s a good question bud,” he said. “I don’t know the answer, but maybe it’s because he can’t get a handle on the virus since it’s invisible. All the monsters he ever defeated, Mothra, Ghidorah, and Destoroyah, were all right in front of his eyes. He could get a grip on them.”

Destoroyah was one of Godzilla’s most powerful rivals ever. In the end he didn’t stand a chance, though. When push came to shove, he got shoved aside.

   “You’re right, dad,” Oliver said. “Remember Garbara, that cat-faced wart-covered giant crocodile man? He showed him where to go in no time flat.”

   “Scientists with chemistry sets like yours are the ones beating the virus,” his dad said. “They have the tools to see the invisible.”

   The ground beef was done, and the fries were hot and crisp. Oliver ate with only some notice paid to his burger. He was thinking. Emma’s cake was delicious, and his mom made it even better when she added a scoop of ice cream. He forgot what he was thinking about while downing it, but later in his room he remembered. If he could somehow make the virus seeable Godzilla would be able to stamp it out in a second.

   He rummaged around in his closet until he found his Extreme Kids Chemistry Kit and National Geographic student microscope. All he needed now was a virus to examine. Where could he find one, he wondered? They were everywhere, which was why everybody had been wearing masks for so long, but he had never actually seen one.

   He smeared a glob of honey on a glass slide when his mother went to the grocery store. He trailed behind her with the slide in his hand, waving it in the air now and then when nobody was watching. He was sure he’d catch a bug.

   In his bedroom, the door closed, and the shades drawn, he slid the slide into the stage clips. He turned the illuminator on and looked down through the eyepiece tube. He didn’t see anything. Oliver turned on all the lights in his bedroom and threw the shades open. He still didn’t see anything. He needed more light. He ran out to find his sister.

   “Can you get your flashlight and come with me?” he asked.

   “Sure,” Emma said.

   Oliver looked in the eyepiece again while Emma fixed the beam of her flashlight on the slide. “Keep it steady,” he said. Emma squinted and concentrated.

   “Hey, get that light out of my eyes,” a squeaky voice floated up to them.

   “I didn’t know viruses could talk,” Emma said, surprised.

   “Of course, we can talk, young lady, whenever we have something to say,” the virus said.

   It was blobby, blue black and red, spiky tubers radiating from the outside edges of it. The blob wiggled, never staying still. Emma moved the flashlight slightly to the side. The blob stopped wiggling.

   “OK, since you can talk, why are you being so mean and hurting everybody?” Oliver asked.

   “What do you mean? I haven’t hurt anybody.”

   “Yes, you have. Millions and millions of people have gotten sick because of you and lots of them have died. School was cancelled and we are wearing masks all the time.”

   “There are lots of us, gazillions, all over the place,” the virus blob said. “Some of us inside you help guard your body against dangerous infections, and others of us help plants. Maybe you’re mistaking me for another virus.”

   “I don’t think so,” Oliver said. “You are a coronavirus 19, aren’t you?”

   “Yes, but what’s that got to do with anything? I just float around minding my own business until I can get into something and replicate myself.”

   “What does that mean?” Oliver asked.

   “Make a copy of myself.”

   “Why do you have to sneak inside of us to do that?”

   “We do it all the time. We don’t have the machinery to make copies of ourselves, so we have to get into you and trick your cells into becoming virus-making machines for us.”

   “I don’t like the sound of that,” Emma said.

   “We were here first,” the virus blob said. “If it wasn’t for us, you probably wouldn’t even be here.”

   “What do you mean?”

   “We came from the primordial genetic pool. Modern cells are, well, modern. We started out in a pre-cellular world as self-replicating units. Over time some of us changed, becoming more organized and more complex. Eventually, enzymes for the synthesis of membranes and cell walls evolved, resulting in the formation of cells, which is what you are made of. We existed before bacteria, archaea, or eukaryotes.”

   Oliver and Emma had no idea what the virus blob was talking about. Emma decided to sweat the truth out of him. She turned her flashlight on the slide again, as close as she could. Maybe he would confess in the heat of the moment.

   “Hey, are you trying to kill me?” the virus blob complained. “Too much heat could be the end of me.”

   “I don’t know archaea from rat finks,” Emma said. “But I know you’ve been bad. Are you going to stop making us sick, or not?”

   “I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to,” the virus blob admitted. “I only do one thing and that’s try to make copies of myself. I don’t go out of my way to do anything else. Whatever else happens is out of my control. I’m sorry if I’m making people sick. I don’t mean to but that’s life.”

“OK, we believe you,” Oliver said. Emma moved the flashlight away. The virus blob breathed a sigh of relief. That was a close shave, he realized.

   “Who are you, anyway?” he asked.

   “He’s the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County,” Emma said. “And I’m his right-hand man.”

   “We thought you were a monster,” Oliver said. ”But now we see you are one, sort of, but aren’t really one, which is lucky for you. Godzilla is King of the Monsters. He doesn’t like it when anybody tries to muscle in on him.”

   “Who’s Godzilla?”

   “Better you don’t ever find out,” Oliver warned. “He doesn’t live with his tail between his legs. He could take care of you with one sneeze of his atomic breath.”

   “Tell him to come and get me,” the virus sneered, even though he didn’t like the sound of atomic breath. Pulling himself out of the sticky honey holding him to the slide, he floated away. Oliver and Emma never saw where he went.

   “King of the Monsters my foot!” the virus blob sniffed as he drifted under the door, across the the living room, and through a tiny seam in the weather sealing around the front door. “We’ll see about that if he ever knocks on my door. He better wear a mask and have his vaccine shots before he messes with me.”

The Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County stories can be found at http://www.theunofficialmonsterhunteroflakecounty.com.

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

Champing at the Bit

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

    Dottie felt light as lemonade.

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

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

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

   “I do, but later,” said Dottie.

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

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

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

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

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

   “Do you only play stickball?” asked Vicki. 

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

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

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

    “You had two of them,” said Vicki.

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

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

   “Where to now?” asked Betty.

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

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

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

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

   “No, I never heard of it.”

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

   “That cinches it,” said Betty.

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

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

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

   “How did they take over?”

   “Somebody always takes over,” said Betty.

   “Why does somebody always take over?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Betty laughed.

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

   Dottie wondered, what are they talking about? 

   The Wonder Wheel shuddered and started down again.

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

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

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

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

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

   “Why does he do that?”

   “He can’t stand it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “No!” said Dottie.

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

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

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

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

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

   “Bye.”

   “Bye to you, too.”

   “That was sketchy,” said Vicki.

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

   “You bet I did.”

   “I’m hungry,” said Dottie.

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

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

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

   “Yippee ki yay!” exclaimed Dottie.

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

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

Up the Country

By Ed Staskus

   The morning Arunas Petkus and I left for California 2500-some miles from Cleveland, Ohio, the Summer of Love was over. It had been a social phenomenon in 1967 when as many as 100,000 people, mostly young, mostly hippies, converged on the neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, hanging around, listening to music, dropping out and chasing infinity, and getting as much free love as they could.

   We were both in high school at the time and stumbled into the 1970s having missed the hoopla. 

   The Mamas & the Papas released “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” that year and it got to number four on the Billboard Hot 100. It stayed there for a month, a golden oldie in the making, while the parade across Golden Gate Bridge went on and on. The vinyl single sold more than 7 million copies worldwide. 

   Arunas found a bucket of bolts, a 1958 VW Karmann Ghia, somehow got it going, brush painted it parakeet green, and was determined to hit the open road to see what all the excitement had been about. He also wanted to visit the spot at Twin Peaks where Chocolate George’s ashes had been scattered.

   George Hendricks was a Hells Angel who was hit by a car while swerving around a street cat on a quiet afternoon in 1967 as the Summer of Love was winding down, dying later that night from his injuries. He was known as Chocolate George because he was rarely seen without a quart of his favorite beverage, which was chocolate milk, usually spiked with whiskey. He was a favorite among the hippies because he was funny and friendly. His goatee was almost as long as his long hair, he wore a pot-shaped helmet when riding his Harley, and his denim vest was dotted with an assortment of round tinny pin badges.

   One of the badges said, “Go Easy on Kesey.”

   The writer Ken Kesey had been the de facto head of the Merry Pranksters. Much of the hippie aesthetic traced back to them and their Magic Bus. Arunas was an art student and liked the way the bus was decked out.

   The Karmann Ghia was a two-door four-speed manual with an air-cooled 36 horsepower engine in the back. The trunk was in the front. Unlike most cars it had curved glass all the way around and frameless one-piece door glass. My friend’s rust bucket barely ran, unlike most of the sporty Karmann Ghia’s on the road, but it ran. There was still some magic left in it.

   When Arunas asked me if I wanted to join him, I signed up on the spot. The two of us had gone to the same Catholic boy’s high school and were both at Cleveland State University. We threw our gear and backpacks in the front trunk of the car, sandwiches apples and pears in what passed for a rear seat, a bag of weed in the glove compartment, and waved goodbye to our friends at the Plaza.

   The Plaza was on Prospect Avenue, on the near east side, near CSU. It was an old but built to last four-story apartment building. Secretaries clerks college students bohemians bikers retirees and musicians lived there. Arunas was still living with his parents in the old neighborhood, while I was a part-time undergraduate part-time manual laborer trying to keep my head above water in a one-bedroom on the second floor.

   We got almost as far as the Indiana border before an Ohio State trooper stopped us.

   “Where do you think you’re going in that thing?” he asked us after Arunas showed him his driver’s license. He wrinkled his nose looking the car’s no-primer paint job up and down.

   “California.”

   “Do you know you’re burning oil, lots of it?”

   We knew full well. That was why we had a case-and-a half of Valvoline with us. We had worked out the loss of motor oil at about a quart every two hundred miles and thought our stockpile would get us there.

   “All right, either get this thing off the road or go back to Cleveland,” the trooper said, waving us away with his ticket book.

   On the way back home, we decided to go to Kelly’s Island, since we had sleeping bags and could more-or-less camp out, staying under a picnic table in case of rain. We took the Challenger ferry out of Sandusky, leaving the VW behind. We landed at East Harbor State Park and stayed here until the end of the week. There were a campground, beach, and trails at the park, all we needed. We bought bags of homemade granola and a couple of gallons of spring water at a small store and settled down on a patch of sunshine. We met a gaggle of high-class girls from Case Western Reserve University and played volleyball with them.

   When we got back to Cleveland everybody marveled at our quick turnaround from the west coast and attractive tans.

   “We didn’t actually make it to California,” we had to explain to one-and-all.  “We didn’t even make it out of Ohio.” We had to endure many snarky remarks. When Virginia Sustarsic, one of my neighbors at the Plaza, said she was going to San Francisco and abruptly invited me to try again, joining her, I jumped at the chance. My feet got tangled up coming down when she said she was hitchhiking there.

   “You’re going to thumb rides across the country?”

   “Yes,” she said, in her detached but friendly way. She was a writer photographer cottage craftsman. Virginia was a raconteur when she wanted to be one. She made a living dabbling in what interested her. She lived alone.

   “How about getting back?”

   She explained she had arranged a ride as far as Colorado Springs. She planned on going knockabout the rest of the way, stay for a week-or-so with friends on the bay, and hitchhike back. When I looked it up on a map, she was planning on hitchhiking four thousand-some miles. I didn’t know much about bumming my way on the highway. When I asked, she confessed to having never tried it.

   Our ride to Colorado Springs was a guy from Parma and his girlfriend in a nearly new VW T2 Microbus. Although it was unremarkable on the outside, the inside was vintage hippie music festival camper. It was comfortable and stocked. We stopped at a lake in Illinois and had lunch and went for a walk. I veered off the path and got lost, but spotted Virginia and our ride, and cut across a field to rejoin them. I tripped while running, fell flat on my face, but was unhurt.

   We got to Colorado Springs in two days. The next day I found out what I had fallen into in Illinois was poison ivy. An itchy rash was all over my calves, forearms, and face. I tried Calamine lotion, but all it accomplished was to give me a pink badge that said, ‘Look at me, I’m suffering.’” Virginia’s friends who lived in ‘The Springs’ let me use their motorcycle to go to a clinic. They prescribed prednisone, a steroid, and by the time we got to San Francisco I was cured.

   In the meantime, leaving the clinic, since it was a warm sunny summer day, I went for a ride on the bike, which was a 1969 Triumph Tiger. I rode to the Pikes Peak Highway, 15 miles west, and about half the way up, until the bike started to dog it. What I didn’t know was at higher altitudes there wasn’t enough air for the carburetor. By that time, anyway, I had gotten cold in my shorts and t-shirt. It felt like the temperature had dropped thirty degrees. I turned around and rode carefully down. There was a lot of grit and gravel on the road. I found out later that Colorado snowplows spread sand, not salt, in the winter. The last thing I wanted to happen was dumping the bike. 

   All the way back to town, as dusk approached, I saw walloping jumbo elk deer and antelope. Even the racoons were enormous. I stayed slow and watchful, not wanting to bang into one of the beasts.

   We stayed a few days and hit the open road when my rash was better. There was no sense in scaring anybody off with my pink goo face. We had a cardboard sign saying “SF” and finally hit the jackpot when a tractor trailer going to Oakland picked us up.

   The Rocky Mountains, left behind when the glaciers went back to where they came from, were zero cool to see, although I wouldn’t want to be a snowplow driver assigned to them. It was fair but cold with a high easterly wind the day we crossed them. Every switchback opened onto a panorama.

   Virginia’s friends in San Francisco lived in Dogpatch, east of the Mission District and adjacent to the bay. It was a working class partly industrial partly residential neighborhood. They lived in a late nineteenth century house they were restoring. They went to work every day while we went exploring.

   We stayed away from downtown where there was an overflow of strip clubs peep shows and sex shops. Skyscrapers were going up, there were restaurants offices department stores, but it looked like the smut capital of the United States. Elsewhere, rock-n-roll, jazz fusion, and bongo-drum players were in the air, especially the Castro District and Haight-Ashbury. Dive bars seemed to be everywhere.

   Virginia went to Golden Gate Park and took pictures of winos, later entering one in a show at Cleveland State University. She had a high-tech 35mm Canon. When her photograph was rejected with the comment that it was blurry, she said, “That was the point.” I went to Twin Peaks and took a picture of the spot where Chocolate George’s ashes had been strewn. When Arunas saw it, he said there wasn’t much to see.

   Twin Peaks is two peaks known as “Eureka” and “Noe.” They are both about a thousand feet high. They form a wall to the summer coastal fog pushed in from the ocean. The west-facing slopes get fog and strong winds while the east-facing slopes get more sun and warmth. The ground is thin and sandy. George was somewhere around.

  I showed Arunas some pictures from the summit facing northeast towards downtown and east towards the bay. “Those are nice,” he said, being polite. My camera was a Kodak Instamatic.

   We stayed for more than a week, riding Muni busses for 25 cents a ride. No matter where we went there seemed to be an anti-Vietnam War protest going on. We rode carousel horses at Playland-at-the-Beach and went to Monkey Island at the zoo. We ducked into Kerry’s Lounge and Restaurant to chow down on French fries. We stayed away from all the Doggie Diners. We listened to buskers singing for tips at Pier 45 on Fisherman’s Wharf. Jewelry makers were all over the place. Virginia was on Cloud 9, being an artisan herself.

   When we saw “The Human Jukebox” we went right over. Grimes Proznikoff kept himself out of sight in a cardboard refrigerator box until somebody gave him a donation and requested a song. Then he would pop out of the front flap and play the song on a trumpet. I asked him to play “Purple Haze,” but he played “Ain’t Misbehavin’” instead.

   “I don’t know nothin’ about Jimi Hendrix,” he said.

   Everywhere we looked almost everybody was wearing groovy clothes made of bright polyester, which looked to be the material of choice. Tie-dye was on the way to the retirement home. Virginia dressed classic hippie style while I dressed classic Cleveland-style, jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers. I didn’t feel out of place in San Francisco, but I didn’t feel like I belonged, either. There were no steel mills and too many causes to worry about.

   When we left, we started at the Bay Bridge and got a ride right away. By the time we got to the other end of the bridge the man at the wheel had already come on to my companion. We asked him to drop us off. When he stopped on the shoulder and I got out of the back seat, he pushed Virginia out the passenger door, grabbed her shoulder bag, and sped away. She didn’t keep her traveling money in it, but what did he know? We saw the bag go sailing out the car window before he disappeared from sight and retrieved it. We smelled a brewery on the breath of the next driver and turned him down. After that a pock-marked man asked us if we were born again, and when I said I had been raised a Catholic, he cursed and drove off.

   We liked talking to the people who gave us rides but avoided talking about race religion and politics. I carried a pocket jackknife but wasn’t sure what I would do with it if the occasion ever arose. We never hitchhiked once it got dark, because that was when creeps lowlifes imbeciles were most likely to come out.

   We went back the way we had come, to Nevada, through Utah Nebraska and Iowa to Chicago and returning in the middle of the day to the south shore of Lake Erie. We thumbed rides at entrances to highways, at pay toll gates, and especially at off-the-ramp gas stations whenever we could. Gas stations were good for approaching people and asking them face-to-face if they were going our way. 

   One of the best things about hitchhiking is you can take any exit that you happen to feel is the right one. One of the worst things is running into somebody who says, “I can tell you’re not from ‘round these parts.” We avoided big cities because getting out of them was time-consuming. We avoided small towns because we didn’t want to be the new counterculture niggers in town. We got lucky when a shabby gent in a big orange Dodge with a cooler full of food and drink in the back seat picked us up outside of Omaha on his way to Kalamazoo. He listened to a border blaster on the radio all the way. We ate the sandwiches he offered us.

   Our last ride was in an unmarked county sheriff’s car. He picked us up near Perrysburg on his way to Cleveland’s Central Police station to pick up a criminal. It was the same joint where Jane “Hanoi Jane” Fonda was put behind bars a couple of years earlier. She wasn’t a real criminal and didn’t stay long.

   “They said they were getting orders from the White House, that would be the Nixon White House,” she said. “I think they hoped the ‘scandal’ would cause my college speeches to be canceled and ruin my respectability. I was handcuffed and put in jail.” When she was arrested at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, she pushed Ed Matuszak, a special agent for the US Customs Bureau, and kicked Patrolman Pieper in a sensitive place.

   The city cop later sued her for $100,000 for the boot that made him “weak and sore.” The federal cop shrugged off the shove. The charges and suit were later dropped.

   The Wood County sheriff was a friendly middle-aged man who warned us about the dangers of hitchhiking and drove us all the way to our hometown. When we got out of the car, he gave us ten dollars. “Get yourselves a square meal,” he said. We walked the half dozen blocks to the Plaza, dropped off our stuff, and walked the block and half to Hatton’s Deli on East 36th St. and Euclid Ave. where Virginia worked part-time. 

   There was an eight-foot by eight-foot neon sign on the side of the three-story building. It said, “Corned Beef Best in Town.” We had waffles and scrambled eggs.

   Our waitress lingered pouring coffee, chatting it up while we dug into apple pie. We split a slice. The butter knife was dull, so I used my jackknife. She asked how our cross-country trip had gone. I gave her the highlights while Virginia went into details. When she asked why we hadn’t gone Greyhound, Virginia smiled like a cat, but I put my cards on the table.

   “I had an itch to go, no matter which way got me there.”

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

Circle the Wagons

By Ed Staskus

   Rytas Kleiza was born in the same neighborhood the same day as his dog, on a Monday, at the start of the week. The Lithuanian Village, the new community center in their North Collinwood neighborhood, was built the same year. He could have seen it from his crib on Chickasaw Avenue if he had been ahead of his time enough to look. He was able to stand at an early age, although he couldn’t make out what was what.

   Ugne was his best friend, more good-hearted friendly closer to him than anybody except his parents. Unlike many of his friends she only tried to bite him once. Dogs never bit him, only people.

   “Stop messing with her,” his mother yelled from the kitchen where she was making cepelinai, spilling her sentences into the dining room. But he wouldn’t stop messing with her, and suddenly she growled, bared her teeth, and jabbed at his arm.

   They were under the dining room table. Ugne had a deadly scissors bite, but she looked up at him with her round eyes when he squawked, and didn’t squeeze her teeth into his skin, after all.

   “You deserved it,” his mom declared, rolling up another whopping-sized potato and meat dumpling, not realizing the dog hadn’t bitten him.

   Ugne, which means fire in Lithuanian, was a cross breed between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle, parti-colored, black with a white patch on her chest. One of his friends told him Poodles were a weird religious cult, but Ugne wasn’t like that. She was on the level. She was on the small side, big ears and big feet, and a wavy tail.

   Rytas got Ugne eleven months after he was born. His dad got Bandit, who was more-or-less a Beagle, two years later. Rytas grew up with both dogs. Ugne slept on his bed and Bandit slept underneath the bed, except when it was winter, when they slept together curled up around and on top of him.

   His mother Gaile and father Andrius were from Lithuania, where almost everybody had dogs. They ran away from their Russian overlords in the mid-1970s, burning down their little farmhouse before leaving, setting their dogs free, knowing they would find a new home fast enough, giving the thumb to the Reds. They stole a small sailboat in Ventspils and made for Gotland, more than a hundred miles away. They made it there in record time. They made it to the United States soon enough.

   Ugne and Bandit were his best pals. They laughed with their tails. They laughed it up every day and he gave both of them a brisk goodbye rub on the head every day before school.

   His dad got Bandit because he wanted a hunting dog. But at the end of the day Bandit was gun-shy. They never found out why, no matter how many vets they took him to. They all ended up scratching their heads, saying they couldn’t explain it, since he was the only hunting dog any of them had seen who was scared that way.

   Andrius had to put his guns away and learn to hunt with a bow and arrow. “Rupuze,” he swore under his breath. At least he didn’t bust out with “Goddamnit!” which meant real trouble. Rytas knew full well what “Goddamnit!” meant.

   Ugne got stopped in her tracks in their driveway on Thanksgiving Day when they were both 14-years-old. She was still full of life, still kicking around, other than being blind and deaf. One minute she was standing in the driveway and the next minute she had a heart attack and dropped dead. By the time his brothers and he rushed to her, she was lying on her side, quiet and still. They buried her in the backyard before the ground froze.

   They had to put Bandit down when spring broke the next year. After Ugne died he started to slip away. They were like an old couple that had always been together. He went from being a healthy dog to being a decrepit dog. He gained weight, but then lost his appetite, lost weight, and started dragging his hind legs behind him like a cripple. When they took him to the vet’s office, he told them there was nothing wrong with him.

   Bandit was just giving up on life. They all knew that. The house got quiet and sad.

   When his dad carried him into the vet’s office to be put down, Bandit lifted his head and looked at his mom standing next to the exam table. He looked Gaile right in the eye. Everyone could see that a thought was going back-and-forth between them.

   “That was hard,” his mom said, and after they buried Bandit next to Ugne, she said they couldn’t have any more dogs.

   But two years later his younger brother told all of them he wanted a dog. “Everybody else has dogs. I want a dog, too,” he said. Their neighbor’s Lab down the street played footsies with a Shepherd that summer. In the fall there was a bushelful of black puppies. Everyone they knew took one, including his brother, which meant their mom got a new dog.

   His dad named him Buddy, after the baseball player Buddy Bell. Andrius had been a big fan back in the day when the third baseman played for the Cleveland Indians. He grew up to be like a full-sized Lab with a delicate face, small ears, and a spotted tongue. When he was a puppy Buddy liked digging holes in the backyard, sitting in them, and staring out at everybody.

   Sometimes he was The Shining. Other times he was a one-man Tasmanian Devil.

   Whenever they left their shoes in the open by mistake Buddy would chew them to pieces. He gnawed on electric cords in the house and telephone wires on the outside of the house. Their phone once went dead for a week. He ripped the aluminum siding off the house, but couldn’t chew it, and so gave it up. But the garage was still sided in clapboard. He tore one side of it off, as far up as he could reach, and chewed the wood to shreds.

   “Seriously, I was only outside for five minutes,” was the look he gave Andrius when he confronted him about it. His father had to contract for aluminum siding and get the garage done up. Buddy calmed down after three years, but not before being the most destructive dog anyone in their neighborhood ever heard of.

   On his second Kucios they left him in a cage for the night while they went to Midnight Mass at St. George’s in the old neighborhood. The church was going on eighty years, the first church ever for Roman Catholic Lithuanians in Cleveland. Before that they went to Polish churches, even though there was never a lot of love lost between them and Poles.

   They stayed overnight with relatives and the next morning after Christmas Day breakfast drove home. Coming up the driveway they noticed all the windows were open. They weren’t actually open, they just looked open because most of the curtains in the house were gone.

   Buddy was in the kitchen and beyond happy to see them when they walked in. The cage he had been locked up in was still locked. His dad rattled the door and inspected the sides. He couldn’t understand how the dog had escaped. Buddy Bell never said because dogs never talk about themselves.

   The curtains were torn down and lay on the floor. In the second-floor bedrooms their beds were set beneath windows and Buddy had jumped up on them so he could reach those curtains, too, and pull them down.

   “He tore the curtains down so he could see us coming,” his dad figured out when he realized Buddy hadn’t put the snatch on all the curtains, only those in the windows facing the front yard and the driveway.

   His father bought padlocks to secure the crate door so Buddy couldn’t ever escape again whenever they had to lock him up, but he did, over and over, like he was the Houdini Wonder Dog, no matter how many padlocks Andrius put on the latches. There was never a scratch on him, either. He wasn’t squeezing out. But by then he was finding his way in the world and his Christmas Eve rampage turned out to be a turning point.

   When Buddy came of age Andrius started taking him hunting. Labs are bred to be bird dogs, but Buddy wasn’t the best retriever of all time. He loved running around outdoors, and chasing anything that moved, but was terrified of water. Labs are water dogs, but even giving Buddy a bath was a titanic struggle. He whined and cowered when they rinsed him off with the hose.

   His father felt like he was cursed, like it was Bandit all over again.

   When they found out what happened, how the curse came about, they didn’t like it. Their next-door neighbor Emma Jean, whenever they were away the first summer they had Buddy, not liking his barking in his own backyard, sprayed him with their own garden hose until he stopped. Every time he barked, she snuck into their yard and sprayed him full in the face again

   After they found out Rytas and his brothers, the day Emma Jean flew to Las Vegas with her husband to eat drink and lose money, broke every window of her station wagon with baseball bats. They left her husband’s car alone, since he was innocent. It was in the garage, anyway.

   At home Buddy was their around-the-clock guard dog. He could wake up from a dead sleep in the blink of an eye, ready to go. He mistrusted all other dogs. They always knew when one was on the loose, thanks to him. He mistrusted all strangers, too. If a stranger came by their house, he watched them closely, and if they came up the driveway, he barked to let them know there was a dog in the house.

   One summer a dog living two doors down started barking all the time and wouldn’t stop. Somebody called the police and complained, saying it was their dog. They were sure it was Emma Jean, but by then the families weren’t talking. When the animal warden came up the drive, Buddy sat in the living room window watching him. He didn’t bark once. When the warden came to the front door and rang the bell, Buddy went to the door and waited. Gaile answered the door. Buddy looked up at the animal warden and the animal warden looked down at him.

   He told Gaile about the complaint. “But that can’t be right,” he said. “He didn’t bark when I walked up, or when I rang the bell, and he’s not barking now.”

   “That’s right,” Buddy said to himself, giving the warden a soft eyed loopy grin.

   None of them understood how Buddy knew to be quiet the day the authorities came to their house. But Emma Jean was off the hook. The three brothers put their baseball bats away.

   Buddy was wild crazy for doggie treats. Whenever they gave him one, he wanted another one right away. He wanted more for the next minutes hours days. When they let him out of the house after treat time he would run right back in, barging through the door, his doggo tongue slobbering for more.

   “Show some dignity,” they scolded him. “Do you want to be a fatso?” They never were able to break him of it. It was all just grist for the mill to him. He never got fat, either.

   After graduating from college, Rytas moved away from home, to the other side of Cleveland, to the west end of Lakewood, living alone most of the time, except for an occasional girlfriend and weekends when one of his brothers dropped Buddy off. He missed having a dog in the house. Her had a busy life, between work, jogging in the valley, getting together with friends for a Cleveland Browns game, but at a certain point he wanted something anything in the house day-to-day.

   Buddy was growing old. He was getting thin shaggy grayer by the month and having a hard time walking. Rytas knew he was dying and wouldn’t be seeing him much longer. He hoped the dog didn’t know, like Bandit had known. He decided to go to the SPCA shelter in Parma and find a puppy, sooner or later.

   Rytas grew up with mutts. No matter what breed they dressed them up to be, Ugne was a mutt, Bandit was a mutt, and Buddy was a mutt. His family didn’t pay for dogs. They found them for free. He knew that, but his brothers had forgotten. His younger brother Matas bought a Victorian Bulldog for a thousand dollars. Since then, he had spent thousands more on special kennels, training, and designer food, not to mention weekly canine whisperer sessions.

   His older brother Lukas and his wife bought a long-legged Jack Russell terrier. His name was Hank and he looked like Wishbone in the TV series. The real Wishbone read books and dressed up like Shakespeare, but Hank couldn’t read and had epilepsy. Whenever he had seizures he twitched and lost all his motor skills.

   Hank was high-strung and drove Buddy crazy whenever Lukas brought him along for a visit. Hank would go at him like a puppy even though Buddy was already of a certain age, and it pissed him off. He would bare his teeth and remind Hank that he had once chewed up and spit out garages. Hank would just get crazier, crossing the line, barking like a madman.

   “You’re in time out,” Rytas would say, pointing at him, shoving him down on his haunches. “Sit down there and don’t move.” He never really liked the dog but tried to hide it.

   Hank couldn’t be left alone because he might have a seizure any minute. Rytas baby-sat him while he was in college, which was how he paid for his over-priced textbooks. No matter that Lukas complained, it was cash on the barrelhead. He had to have it. His brothers had done better with pork barrels than him.

   Hank’s medication came with an eyedropper and Rytas had to be careful because a drop of it could and would burn human skin. He never understood why it didn’t burn going down Hank’s throat. The infernal pooch was inhuman.

   Rytas knew when Hank was having a seizure because he always got stuck behind the sofa. There was a wall at one end. Something would happen in his fido brain, he would walk behind the sofa, and then couldn’t move backwards. He froze until Rytas noticed. With all his medication, vet bills, and emergency room visits, his sister-in-law told him, when Hank died at five years, he cost more than their first child.

   He wanted to get a puppy at the start of summer, since he was a high school teacher, and had summers to himself. Knowing he probably wanted a Lab mutt, and knowing how Labs can be, he knew it would be best getting one when he was going to have free time. He wanted to be at home with the dog for three months. It would make the training easier.

   Rytas called the animal shelter at nine o’clock in the morning the day his vacation started. They told him they had twenty-some new puppies just in from Tennessee. When he got there at in the afternoon there were only three left. Everybody wants puppies and snatches them up like snapping your fingers. He got that. Everybody wants to start with a new dog.

   He had been to several shelters on his side of town, but all they had was full-grown Labs other people had given up on. He lived on the second floor of a Polish double and Labs start to have trouble walking when they get older. They get hip dysplasia. He couldn’t take a 60 or 70 pound already older dog to his second-floor rooms without taking on grief right off the bat. He had to be realistic.

   Going up and down aisles of stacked cages in an animal shelter is a down in the dumps experience. It smells like underarms and hot dog water. There are signs on all the cages. “My name is Kimmy. I am a 7-year-old Labrador. I love playing with children.” Wanting to take them all home is a cheerless dead-end. It’s like walking through a prison where everybody is on death row and you can only pardon one of them.

   The three dogs that were left at the shelter at the end of the day were two Boxers and a Lab mix. He didn’t know much about Boxers, and some other people were looking at both of them, anyway, so he turned his attention to the Lab.

   Shelters say to lay the puppy you are interested in on its back. If it looks at you and shows submission, that’s a good dog. If they don’t, they might be headstrong. He put the 8-week-old mutt on his back. He held him down even though the dog wasn’t trying to go anywhere. He looked everywhere except up at him.

   Rytas loved the white on his chest, and his one white paw, and that he was missing his tail. He thought it was a unique personality trait, even though he could tell that the no tail was a deformity.

   “I’ll take the Lab,” he told the attendant at the counter.

   “Are you sure?” he said. “He’s shifty-eyed, and did you see his tail?” That bothered Rytas. Because of the tail he didn’t have, he might not make it. That’s why he took him, finally, because of his missing tail.

   He named him Bronislovas, which means glorious protector, but called him Bron, after LeBron James, who was bringing championship glory back to Cleveland. When he went to work in the fall, he enrolled Bron at Pawsitive Influence, a cage-free doggie day care. It took more than a week, but he warmed up to it. After the first month he got excited every time they drove there, passing landmarks like the Speedway gas station and Merl Park. A friend of his worked there. He paid special attention to Bron, clipping his toenails, training him to sit and heel, and keeping Rytas up to date on his progress.

   Rytas never knew what got into him, but he started to think Bron needed a companion. He went back to the animal shelter. It was October, rainy and cold. He thought to himself, you know what, the puppies are all going to get adopted, so I’ll look at some of the slightly older ones. But most of them were either too old or too big for him, until he came to a row of cages full of puppies, all jumping up and down. In a cage by himself was a bigger black pup about the same age and size as Bron.

   “No one’s going to look at me, and that’s OK, la, la, la,” the dog was thinking, laying there, his paws crossed in front of him.

   “Can I walk him,” Rytas asked, and was given a leash.

   He didn’t just walk when he walked. He pranced when we got going, which surprised Rytas because he was a stray, although not a common stray. He had been trucked up to Ohio from the south somewhere, where there are lots of strays and kill shelters, but he was different. Even though things had gone wrong for him, he hadn’t gone wrong.

   “We think he came from a dog-fighting ring, a big one that got broken up. Even though he’s young, he still has a few scars, his front and back dewclaws are missing, and his tail’s been clipped,” a vet technician cleaning a nearby pen told him.

   Tails are a weak point because they can be grabbed. When dewclaws are ripped off, they get infected, so psycho dog fighters surgically remove them. It’s painful if the dog is older than even a few weeks because dewclaws are more like an extra toe than a toenail.

   The inside of his mouth was scarred, and there were lesions on his snout. He was a little less than a year old and a wide smile was pasted on his face as Rytas walked him around the perimeter of the cages.

   “I’ll take him,” he said.

   “He’s got a lot of Pit Bull in him.”

   “That’s OK, I’m good with mixes.”

   “What about his tail?”

   “It will grow back.” It was the tail of two pups. It grew back better.

   The new dog was timid around Bron for weeks, even though they were almost twins. Rytas named him Sabonis, after Arvydas Sabonis, the best Lithuanian basketball player of all time, so he and Bron would get along, and they did, finally. Sometimes he called him Bonehead, but only when he had to. He stopped taking Bron to the doggie day care since he and Sabonis had each other all day.

   He bought leashes for them and took them for walks in the Rocky River Metropark. Off the leash they ran across the meadows and right to the river, and all that fall had a ball. Whenever another dog came near him, though, Sabonis would get skittish and aggressive, barking and feinting at them, although Rytas could see he was shaking. He was careful at the Lakewood Dog Park, making sure there weren’t too many other dogs for him to worry about.

   He was walking them down Rockway Avenue one day, a nearby side street, when he overheard talk on a front porch, talk about his dogs. “I think they’re mini-Doberman Pinschers,” a thick-set man with eel-like lips hissed, as though they were supersized rats. “Dude, you should shut up, you don’t know dogs, at all,” he said. He knew how to talk down to teenagers when he had to. He knew how to talk down to nitwits, too.

   Rytas had a vet look at Sabonis, but they weren’t sure what breed he was. He could have had him genetically tested, but that wasn’t going to happen. He needed a new hard-working vacuum cleaner before he paid for anything like that.

   Sabonis was black and, like Bron, looked like a Lab Pit Bull cross. When he pinned his ears back his face went sleek. Rytas got nervous about it sometimes because so many people are anti-Pit. Bron was Mister Independent, but Boner wanted attention. He wasn’t a biter, although if he did, there would be trouble. His jaws were ripcord dangerous. When he had a branch in his jaws, the branch didn’t stand a chance.

   Both of them loved ice cream. Rytas was not the guy who said, “No more ice cream.” He always had it in the house. If the dogs learned how to break into his fridge, they would.

   Whenever he took them to the neighborhood DQ, they were ready to lick it, life and ice cream. They drove to the cone shack in his drop-top Chrysler 200. There was an Iron Wolf, the Gelzinus Vilkas, decal sticker on the back bumper. Anybody can be in a sour mood even on a sunny day, but not in a convertible. The dog days of summer are the wind in your face days. When they were ready to go, Bron and Sabonis vaulted into their seats like the Dukes of Hazard.

   They both liked to have people around them and got excited when his friends come over. They enjoyed company. They barked and warned him about strangers, but the people they knew, they get beyond excited.

   His brother had a cage for Hank. It was bigger and sturdier than the one their father had for Buddy, the escape artist who couldn’t be stopped. “God, why did you buy that big-ass cage for that little dog?” he asked Lukas one day after Hank was gone. It looked like it cost the heavy end of a week’s pay, at least his pay.

   “I don’t know,” he said. “I think I felt it had to be escape-proof.”

   Rytas’s mutts were his best friends. They were the living breathing things he loved and spoiled. If it wasn’t for them, he would have spent too much time alone. They got him out of the house twice a day. There were fringe benefits, besides fresh air and exercise. Young women were always coming up to them, asking if the dogs were friendly, and he always said yes with a bright smile.

   He knew his roommates were freeloaders. They didn’t pay rent and he had to feed them and clean up after them, too. He knew some people said they were just dogs. Why go to the trouble? He didn’t care what they said. He made sure to come home after work every day, so they weren’t by themselves. He walked them in the morning before work, after work, and sometimes before bedtime on summer nights. He could have read the collected works of Dickens Tolstoy Pynchon and become a literate smart man given the amount of time he spent walking his dogs.

   At least they hardly shed. There was no problem with hair all over the house. He gave them a vigorous brushing twice a month, keeping them shiny and smooth.

   He made sure to always be home for Bron and Sabonis and take them with him whenever he had to leave for more than a day-or-two. He never put them in a shelter or a kennel, even for a weekend, even if it was clean modern beyond words, because in a kennel they would be shut up in a cage for twelve hours a day. It would be like being traded to the Cleveland Cavs with the Chosen One gone.

   His dogs were free of the grip of crates. They couldn’t handle it, locked up instead of down at the foot of his bed. They knew there was no safety at the wrong end of the leash. East or west, home is best. Whenever there was a thunderstorm, or a big snowstorm, it was circle the wagons at his house, rustle up the chuck wagon, and surf the flat screen for the most exciting NBA game they could find.

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

Making the House

By Ed Staskus

   Dave Bloomquist ran the show at the Plaza Apartments, trying to make it work on the near east side, on the fringe of Cleveland State University. What we called the house was on Prospect Avenue, a $.25 fare on a creaky CTS bus ten minutes downtown to Public Square. The ghetto was uptown. The house was its own place.

   Dave was from Sandusky. “The town, which is sluggish and uninteresting, is something like an English watering-place out of season,” Charles Dickens wrote after visiting it. A hundred years later it was known for Cedar Point, a big amusement park on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie. After high school Dave moved to Cleveland to study visual and fine arts at CSU.

   “Art held a natural attraction for me, and it was something I wanted to pursue,” he said. “My dad was an electrician, and I helped him run wires and other simple tasks. I also worked during college, renovations, painting, things like that. After graduation, my business partner and I scraped together a down payment on the 48-unit Victorian-style Plaza. We decided to restore it ourselves.”

   Dave was always in in and around the building. Whenever anything went wrong, it didn’t take long to find the owner superintendent maintenance man. If he wasn’t nearby, his ex-wife-to- be, Annie, tall slim, her hair done up in braids, was right there cooking cleaning taking care of their baby boy. Built in 1901 for middle-class residents, something was always making trouble at the Plaza.

   “We learned to sweat pipe, patch the roof, and fix windows,” Dave said. “We had to operate with just rent money. We couldn’t afford to call on anyone for help.”

   Back in the day Upper Prospect was the second most prestigious place to live in Cleveland, next to Millionaire’s Row on Euclid Avenue. Prospect and Euclid were where to be, smoking rooms of the city’s economic and social elite. Most of the homes on Prospect were brick two-story single-family houses in the Italianate style. The street was lined with elm trees.

   By the time I moved into the Plaza, all the rich folks were long gone, and Dutch elm disease had killed most of the trees. It was killing most of the elms in all but two states east of the Missouri River. What hadn’t died was being sprayed with DDT or removed.

   The entry point for the bug was Northeast Ohio in 1929, on a train bringing in a shipment of elm veneer logs from France. The train stopped south of Cleveland to load up on coal and water. Not long afterwards elm trees along the railroad tracks started to die. The elm bark beetle doesn’t hurt the tree, but the fungus it carries is deadly.

   There were rowhouses scattered among the single-family homes, which included the Prospect Avenue Rowhouses, still there, that Dave was throwing his eye on. He had more than enough work on his hands, but he was a no slouch go-getter. Preservation and restoration efforts on Upper Prospect were just beginning to pick up steam.

   The Plaza was home to students secretaries hippies machinists artists bikers clerks musicians court reporters anarchists activists warehouse men and writers, some in full swing, some shaking and baking the wolf at the door, everybody coming and going.

   “We were urban pioneers before the term was coined,” said Scott Krauss, a drummer for the art-rock band Pere Ubu. “Like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had their band houses, we had the Plaza.”

   “There were scores of wonderful community dinners, insipid and treacherous burglars,” Dave Bloomquist said years later when it was all over. “Innocence was lost. There were raucousoutrageous parties. Families were formed and raised and there were tragic early deaths of close friends. But music, art and life were in joyful abundance all the time.”

   There was an abundance of old-fashioned seediness, too.

   “I remember coming home at four in the morning and there would still be people in the courtyard drinking beer and playing music,” said Larry Collins. “We would watch the hookers and their customers play hide-and-seek with the undercover vice cops.”

   One of the first friends I made was Virginia Sustarsic. I had seen her around Dixon Hall up the street before I moved to the Plaza. She was close to John McGraw, a trim bohemian who lived alone on the third floor, read obscure European poets, drank Jack Daniels from the bottle, and drove a 1950s windowless black Chevy panel truck.

   Virginia had interned at the Cleveland Press, worked on CSU’s student newspaper, and wrote for the school’s poetry magazine. Since she was settled in at the Plaza, was friendly, and worked for herself, she made friends easily, and I subsequently found friends by hanging around with her.

   She knew all about art. I didn’t know anything. When she showed me a picture of an American flag by Jasper Johns, I found a big used flag and thumbtacked it to the wall at the head of my bed. When she showed me a picture of a Jackson Pollack painting, I thought, what a mess.

   Virginia made candles, incense, and roach clips for a head shop on the near west side. The owner of the shop, Jamie, was a little older than us and square-jawed. He wore a red checked bandana and liked to go barefoot. He pulled up in a mid-60s VW T2 bus, Virginia delivered the goods, he would say he had a great idea for going someplace fun, as many people who could fit would pile into the Splittie, and he would drive to a park a beach or a grassy knoll overlooking a cemetery.  

   Jamie always played The Who’s “Magic Bus” at least once every trip, there and back. “Thank you, driver, for getting me here, too much, Magic Bus, now I’ve got my Magic Bus.” The speakers were tinny, but the volume made up for it.

   We went to see “Woodstock” the movie, since none of us had gone to the music festival, at a drive-in. Virginia’s roach clips came in handy. The Splittie’s back and middle seats could be pulled out. It was groovy at drive-ins, backing the bus in to face the screen, some of us in the seats on the ground, others in the open rear of the bus, and Jamie with his gal on top, an umbrella at the ready. 

   Nobody wanted to be sitting behind Mike Cassidy, who was skinny enough, but had a massive head of long fuzzy electrified red hair.

   Virginia was hooked on photography and showed me the ropes, letting me use her camera. When a photography contest was announced at Cleveland State University, she entered a picture she had taken in San Francisco and I entered a picture of Mr. Flood.

   Bob Flood lived on the second floor, like me. None of us knew what he did, exactly, although he wore a hat suggesting he was a locomotive engineer. Virginia thought he was a professor of some kind. Everybody called him Mr. Flood. Nobody knew why. He was a lean careful man, sported a shaggy looking beard, was divorced, but had visitation rights to his two kids, who came and played in his apartment weekends.

   My picture was a portrait and Virginia’s a full-scale shot of two homeless men in Golden Gate Park, passing a bottle of booze between them. The trees in the background disappeared into a triangle. After I won the blue ribbon, Virginia went to the art department and talked to one of the judges.

   She told him she had been trying to conjure the Pointillism of Georges Seurat.

   “Well,” he said. “The portrait and your picture were our top picks. But yours was kind of grainy.”

   “That was the whole point,” she said. 

   Virginia’s best friend at the Plaza was Diane Straub.

   Diane had a straight job. She was a secretary downtown. She got up every morning, got on the bus, went to work, and came back at night. Monday through Friday she took care of her apartment and her cats. But, on weekends she got psychedelic. She also got up as Bogie’s old lady.

   Bogie was Diane’s live-in boyfriend. He was rangy and always wore black, tip to toe. He had a Harley Davidson he kept in the back lot. Nobody ever tried to steal it, because everybody knew that would be a big mistake.

   He was one of the Animals, although he and the other Animals had been forced to go freelance. They used to have a clubhouse, its walls pockmarked with bullet holes, on Euclid Avenue in Willoughby, until the day the Willoughby police raided it.

   “The police couldn’t get anything on us, so they hot-wired the landlord to force us out,” one of the Animals, Gaby, told the Cleveland Press. “We never did anything worse than use the clubhouse walls for target practice.”

   Gaby knew there was more to the story. His biker clubmate Don Griswold had been arrested the day before for being involved in a shooting with members of Cleveland’s Hells Angels that left two dead.

   “The Angels were going to take care of me if the cops didn’t do it first,” he said. “Misery loves company.”

   The spring before my first full summer at the Plaza, Cleveland’s Breed and Violators got into it at a motorcycle show at the Polish Women’s Hall southeast of the Flats. The 10‐minute riot with fists clubs knives chains left 5 men dead 20 Injured and 84 arrested.

  The dead were buried, the hurt rushed to hospitals, and the arrested hauled away to the Central Police Station on Payne Avenue. The Black Panthers were always demonstrating outside the front doors, but they had to make way. Extra armed guards were posted in hallways and doorways as a precaution. When the injured bikers recovered, they were arrested.

   Art Zaccone, headman of the Chosen Few, said the fight broke out because of trouble between the two groups going back to a rumble in Philly two years earlier. The biker gangs didn’t ride on magic busses. They rode hogs. They made their own black magic. They had long memories and never forgotten forgiven grievances.

   After Bogie moved out, Diane took up with Igor, a math wizard. He was tall, had long dark wiry hair, and played air guitar. Even though he was egg-headed about numbers, he often looked like he was half there.

   “We all thought he was tripping a lot,” Virginia said.

   I lived in a back apartment on the second floor, Virginia lived in a side apartment on the same floor, and an older Italian couple Angeline and Charlie Beale lived in the front. They always had their apartment door open. Charlie was short and stocky, a retired mailman. He read newspapers and magazines all day long.  Angie was stout with wavy hair. She stayed in the kitchen all day long cooking in a black slip. 

   They had a parrot. Whenever Angie spied Virginia walking by, she called out, “Oh, honey, honey, come in, let me see if I can get him to talk to you.” She would coo and try to convince the parrot to talk. He never did, even when she poked him with a stick. When she did, he whistled and squawked. He sounded offended and tone-deaf.

   “How long have you had that parrot?” Virginia asked, thinking they were still training him.

   “Oh, we’ve had him for sixteen years, honey.”

   Angie and Charlie went shopping for foodstuffs a few times a week. They walked down Prospect Avenue to the Central Market. “They started out together, but ended up a block or more apart,” Dave said. They both carried handmade cotton shopping bags, one in each hand.

   The Central Market was on East 4th St., nearly two miles away by foot. The only people who went there were people who couldn’t get to the West Side Market. It was grimy, and the roof leaked. “Some panels are out, and when it rains, we have to put plastic tarp down. That looks like hell,” said produce stall owner Tony LoSchiavo.

    “She always walked twenty feet behind him,” Virginia said. “A couple of hours later, same thing, both of them their two bags full, he would be walking twenty feet ahead of her as they came back to the Plaza.”

   He waited at the front door, holding it open for her. She trudged up, he followed her, and the parrot every time said, “Welcome back!” when they stepped into their apartment. Angie returned with vegetables like asparagus and nuts like filberts for the thick billed brightly colored bird.

   Most of the tenants at the Plaza were on good terms with one another. Many of us were single and sought out company up and down the floors and down the hallways, especially in January and February when snow piled up. We visited one another and chewed the fat.

   “Friends would just drop in,” said Virginia.

   One Siberian Sunday Mr. Flood’s kids were visiting and went exploring in the basement. They found a red metal and wood Flexible Flyer. Their father bundled them up and carried the sled outside. When they got tired of pushing each other back and forth in the parking lot, they found a shovel and scooped snow onto the back stairs as far up as the first landing. They shoveled enough snow on the stairs to make a ramp and spent the rest of the day running across the landing, throwing themselves on the sled, racing down the ramp and zooming across the icy lot.

   Mr. Flood and I watched them from the second-floor landing.

   “They’re up to snow good,” he joked laconically when they hit bottom bumped up and got some air under their sled.

   “They’re on their own magic carpet ride,” I said.

   “It takes one to snow one,” the kids whooped back at us.

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

Hot Room Badass

brian-paquette-chair-pose-chagrin-yoga.jpg

By Ed Staskus

“I’ll have the whole grain pancakes and coffee,” said Barron Cannon.

“Cream and sugar?” asked Chris, the bartender, wearing a “Best Burgers” black sweatshirt.

“Black,” said Barron.

He was a vegan.

“And you?”

“Three eggs easy over, sausage links, whole wheat toast, cream for my coffee,” said Frank Glass.

He was not a vegan.

Barron and Frank were sitting at the bar at Herb’s Tavern in Rocky River for a late Saturday morning breakfast. “Add a lemon slice to the iced water, and no straw,” said Barron. “If you’re over three years old, or not disabled, you shouldn’t be drinking out of a straw. On top of that, whoever thought of disposable plastic straws should be horse whipped.”

“What got into you today?” Frank asked, changing the subject. Something was always getting into Barron. When it came to the environment and climate change, he wore blinders, always ready to get into it.

“I don’t know,” said Barron. “I was feeling good alert, just feeling it.”

They had come from Barron’s warm flow yoga class earlier that morning. Both of them, and probably everyone else in the class, had worked up an appetite. Barron owned and taught at a yoga studio on the east end of Lakewood, a ten-minute drive away.

“It reminded me of the way Kristen Zarzycki used to teach her Sunday afternoon five-dollar classes at Inner Bliss.”

“Is she still teaching?” asked Barron. “I thought she had gone into biotechnology sales.”

“I don’t know, but when she was teaching, she was a tiger by the tail.”

Frank Glass had gone to three yoga classes a week for three or four years, and then twice a week Bikram Yoga classes for two more years. He had a herniated disk in his lower back. Almost nothing helped. A hot water bottle helped, a daily NSAID helped, and yoga helped. He had attended a dozen-or-so workshops in his time. He practiced at home now, only going to Barron’s studio once or twice a month to stay in touch.

“That way you can stay in touch with me,” said his wife, Vera.

“There would be a eighty ninety people crammed into the class, you know how Inner Bliss is, some of them in trim, most of them trying as hard as they could to keep up, sucking air, it was a fast flow, and Kristen would be on her mat, doing all the poses, and doing the dialogue, cheerful and upbeat, while half the class was dying, just trying to make it to the end. In the summer, even with the windows open, it could get hot in there.”

“My classes are fun yet challenging, taught from a base of gratitude and commitment to taking care of your body so that students can shine in their space on the mat,” says Kristen. “On the mat, I have learned that as in life, each person has areas where they struggle and those where they shine, and that the collaboration of all of our gifts is what makes our world so amazing.”

When asked what was in the backpack she carried to and from class, she said, “Gum, lip gloss, and binkie.”

Whether she meant a baby’s pacifier, the high hop a rabbit performs when happy, or a stuffed animal, was unclear.

“Was she your toughest teacher?” asked Barron, a flapjack shard on his fork dripping maple syrup.

“No, Deanna Black was a boat load. She was freelance, thank God, so I only ran into her when she was subbing. She drove her classes at breakneck pace, and every few minutes we had to do ten push-ups, or twenty sit-ups, or some damn thing, and then it was back to the flow.”

“Push-ups are good for you,” said Barron.

“Never mind about your two cents’ worth,” said Frank. “The thing is, if you faltered, say you collapsed in a push-up, she would come over and do twenty push-ups right next to you, smiling like a wolf. She didn’t actually do the class, instead she prowled around, explaining cajoling threatening, but one look at her was all you needed to know she could it, all the physical stuff, and another class after that, with no problem. She was incredibly fit.”

“Climb every mountain, ford every stream,” Barron sang, lilting.

“She did that in the off-season.”

“The benefits are more than meet the eye,” says Deanna. “Your reactions to the challenges in your physical practice often reflect and carry over to those from the challenges of daily living.”

“OK, so she was lusty and tough as nails, good for her,” said Barron.

“But she wasn’t the toughest teacher I ever met,” said Frank. “That would be Brian Paquette.”

“Who is Brian Paquette.”

“He taught Bikram Yoga at Chagrin Yoga, although they didn’t call it that because they weren’t one of the Brainiac’s licensed studios.”

Bikram Yoga was masterminded by Bikram Choudhury, practiced in a carpeted room heated to 105 degrees with a humidity of 40%, like India even before climate change. The walls were covered in mirrors. Instructors were taught to be high-handed and to teach from a hands-off literal platform at the front of the class.

“That man was a nut,” said Barron.

“He was a nut, but if you wanted to climb the mountain of posture yoga, his 26 postures in the torture chamber was the mountain.”

Bikram Choudhury’s philosophy of yoga was making pupils work through pain. “I am a butcher and I try to kill you, but don’t worry, yoga is the best death,” he told his followers.

“You took classes in Chagrin Falls? That’s a forty-minute drive one way.”

“Twice a week for two years, until I had enough of the most unrelenting remorseless cramps I have ever had in my life. I couldn’t drink electrolytes fast enough to replenish. I got a vicious cramp driving home one night and had to pull off on the shoulder before I killed myself and everyone around me. That was the beginning of the end, although by then the economics of taking classes wasn’t making sense to me anymore.”

“Whoa, there, my friend,” said Barron. “You’re talking about my bread and butter.”

“It wasn’t just that, although bread and butter played a part. It dawned on me there wasn’t any magic, not that yoga teachers aren’t magic, most of them are, any magic in going to classes anymore. Sure, it was engaging to practice in a collective atmosphere, but I knew enough by then to stand on my own two feet. What I didn’t know, I knew I could just ask you over breakfast or lunch. Can you pass the butter?”

“What made him so tough?” asked Barron

“What made Brian tough was that he didn’t come across as tough, at all. He came across as a good-natured guy. And he was a good-natured guy, patient affable understanding. Most Bikram Yoga teachers, not if but when you had to stop, always wanted you to stay in the room.”

“Just sit down on the mat for a minute,” the apostle on the platform would say. “It’s cooler at floor level.”

“That sounds like Bugs Bunny physics,” Barron laughed.

“It was maybe one half of a degree cooler on the floor,” said Frank. “Brian let people leave the room. He told us, if you have to, you have to. Try to come back if you can. He encouraged us to drink as much water as possible. I had one teacher, she trotted out the harebrained idea that water weighed you down and we should only be taking a missionary-sized sip once in a while.”

“He sounds like a simpatico kind of guy. Is he from Ohio, from here?”

“I’m not sure, although I don’t think so. When I was taking classes in Chagrin Falls, he told me he lived nearby, maybe even within walking distance. One night, after class, we were standing around, he mentioned he had gone through some hard times. He had been a professional gambler, something like that, for a while, and had fallen into a downward spiral. He got connected to yoga, somehow scraped up enough cash for Bikram Yoga teacher training, and trained in Las Vegas, of all places.”

Bikram Yoga teacher training is learning the world-famous system and learning to teach it, according to Bikram HQ.  They are dedicated to teaching trainees the precise nature of yoga. Everyone is nurtured in a challenging, but safe environment, no kidding.

Trainees learn how to greet students professionally and jawbone intelligently about the mental and physical benefits of yoga. Everyone is encouraged to develop a dedicated hatha practice. They are taught how to speak clearly and how to teach the sequence confidently, correcting students appropriately and compassionately, no fooling.

They learn how to grow their own personal yoga practice, sans steam, since it impractical in most apartments condos homes anywhere. There’s no kidding about that.

The training takes about four weeks and costs between $12 and $15 thousand, depending on what paradise on earth the training is set. The total costs include tuition, hotel accommodation, transportation, lectures, classes, towels, and all the water you need to complete the training in one piece.

Even though Bikram Choudhury has recently fled the United States after losing a multi-million-dollar civil suit for sexual shenanigans, he continues to stage his tent show around the rest of the world.

“Brian taught hot yoga, but he was more engaged with Kriya Yoga, which was crazy at odds with the Bikram way of life, which was fancy cars and fancy girls and cash on the barrelhead. He didn’t ever say much about Bikram Choudhury, although he once said yoga had been around a long time and no one had a proprietary claim to it.”

“So, he was more a Kriya kind of guy than a fancy pants?”

“That’s right. You’d ask him what his favorite pose was, and he’d say, ‘Meditation posture, straight spine, because it brings peace.’ His favorite books were the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, Holy Science, and Autobiography of a Yogi. If you asked him what made him happy, he’d say, ‘Meditation, singing the names of God, and spending time with my family.’ His favorite quote was, ‘Read a little. Meditate more. Think of God all the time.’ I forgot to ask him who said that, but it was probably some old-school yogi.”

“My God, he sounds like a saint, not a badass,” said Barron. “I mean, one of my favorite quotes is, ‘You better take care of me Lord, because if you don’t, you’re gonna have me on your hands.’ What does that make me?”

“Who said that?”

“Hunter S. Thompson.”

“Fear and Loathing?”

“Right-o.”

“Brian wasn’t like that,” said Frank. “He wasn’t a saint, just a regular guy, really, although he did a hell of a lot of meditation. I mean, hours of it. What I mean about him being a badass is the way he went about his business in the hot room. He always came in last, wearing mid-thigh compression shorts, no shirt, and carrying a jug of water. He ran the class like a grade-school teacher. He wasn’t like a drill sergeant, which was a persona most Bikram teachers took on in some way shape or form.”

“Why did he need water?” asked Barron. “I thought Bikram Yoga teachers just shouted out the poses from their soapbox. Why did he need a jug?”

“He did just about the whole thing, which is why he needed it. That’s why he takes the gold medal of badass yoga teacher, in my eyes, at least. Every class there were plenty of people who had to take a break or leave the room. A lot of them were young and fit. Brian did it day after day, no sweat. Getting through ninety minutes of the torture chamber wasn’t any walk in the park, man, it was hard.”

“How hard can it be?”

“Believe me, beyond hard,” said Frank. “You don’t see me doing it anymore.”

“You finally accept an offer to go to a class thinking, easy, I can do this.” said Benny Johnson about his first Bikram class.

“I played real sports for a few years, so how hard can it be? You arrive at the class thinking, let’s do this! But then you walk into the class and the heat hits you. It is ninety-one thousand degrees. You set up your mat in an open space. Little do you realize the hell awaiting you. The poses are relatively easy but holding them is hard. And you actually really start needing water, but it does not help! By the final stretches, you’re just limping along. Then the torture ends, and you lay down in a haze and total defeat.”

“More iced water?” asked Chris, walking up to the bar.

“Yes, please,” Frank and Barron both said.

They drank their water, paid the bill of fare, and left Herb’s Tavern.

“How did Brian reconcile Kriya with Bikram,” Barron asked as they walked to the back of the parking lot. “The two seem mutually exclusive. Kriya is about selflessness and Bikram was only in it for himself.”

“I don’t know, we never talked about it, but his actions, how he did things, seem to say he did. He was both a badass and one of the more sincere people I ever met. He was a quiet sparkplug. If you asked him what inspired him, he would say, ‘My guru, my wife and my children.’ If you asked him who sees the real you in this sketchy world, he’d say God.”

“It sounds to me that the way he practiced in the studio was the test of his sincerity,” said Barron. “He was melding the two, but not selling out.”

“He’s a religious guy in a secular world, a spiritual guy teaching a totally incarnate practice,” said Frank. “He was always urging us to meditate, even though we were all there for the crazy boot camp workout because all of us needed it for our own almost always physical reasons. He was hard to make out.”

“The good of the body depends on the goodness of the spirit, and the other way around,” said Barron.

They got into Frank’s Hyundai Tucson and pulling up to Detroit Road, a black squirrel built like the tailback Barry Sanders, crazy quick and elusive as the all-Pro, vaulted over the brick wall surrounding the outdoor front terrace with a chuck of stale bagel in his mouth. Frank feathered the brakes, but there was no need. He wasn’t the kind of squirrel who ran in circles and got run over. He dashed to the bushy endzone at the back of Century Cycles and disappeared into the trees.

“Have you ever noticed squirrels never say things like, if I had my life to live over, I would do whatever?” asked Frank.

“I know what you mean,” said Barron, chewing on a fresh bagel he had squirreled away in his pocket before leaving. “They’re just rats in better clothes, but they’ve got it going, for sure. They’re not vegans, but what’s more free and right in the head than a squirrel?”

They might get run over by us, squashed flat like pancakes by car after car, but they never fall out of trees into a world not of their making. They are second to none at planting their own trees, too. They bury their acorns, but often forget where they put them. The forgotten acorns become oak trees.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

Fried Eggs on Toast

By Ed Staskus

   The first language Edvardas Staskevicius spoke was Lithuanian and until he started meeting Canadian children it was the only language he spoke. All his first friends in Sudbury, Ontario, were other small change in the same boat, visiting his parents with their parents. When spring broke early his second year of life, he started meeting other youngsters, boys and girls on the block of nine houses on their dead-end street. 

   They all spoke English and many of them spoke French. They stuck to English on the street, which was how he picked up enough of it to get by. French was for talking about cooking fashion politics and popular culture.

   His close friend and arch-enemy Regina Bagdonaite, who he called Lele, lived a block away. Eddie and Lele played together, burning up the pavement, except for those times that she spied him dragging his red fleece blanket behind him. When she tried to take it away and he resisted, starting a tug of war, she resorted to biting him on the arm. It was then the squabbling and pushing started in earnest.

   Lele didn’t begin learning English until the first day she went to school.

   “All my friends were Lithuanian during my childhood in Sudbury,” she said. “When I entered kindergarten, I didn’t speak a word of English. Many people over my lifetime had a chuckle when I told them I was born in Canada, but English is my second language.”

   Time is money is the watchword in the grown-up world, but time is candy is what works for many children. The young wife who lived next door to Eddie’s parents, Angele and Vytas, had a daughter and they visited together some afternoons. She always brought candy and while the women talked, Diana and Eddie sat at the kitchen table with a paper bag of candy between them. Whenever one of them was ready for another piece, they jiggled the table vigorously before making a grab for the bag.

   The immigrant couple bought a house as soon as they could, the same as every other Lithuanian who ended up in Sudbury. They had three children inside of five years. They didn’t have a TV, but they had a telephone and a radio, as well as a washing machine and a fridge. They knew their neighbors, but all their close friends were other post-war DP’s, most of them working in the nickel mines. Sudbury was a city, but it was a company town, too.

   By 1950 it had long been associated with mining, smelting, and a broken-down landscape. The environment was said to be comparable to that of the moon. Decades of mining and smokestacks had acidified more than 7,000 lakes inside a circle of 10,000 square miles. 

   “I didn’t like Sudbury,” said Angele. “All the trees were dried up and dead. It was god-forsaken.” 

   More than 50,000 acres of the hinterland were barren. Nothing grew there. Another 200,000 acres were semi-barren. There was substantial erosion everywhere. It wasn’t a wasteland, but it was a wasteland. All anyone had to do was walk up a rocky promontory and look around.

   As early as the 1920s “The Hub of the North” was open roasting more than twice as much rock ore as any other smelting location in North America. The result poisoned crops. The result made it one of the worst environments in Ontario. It blackened the native pink granite, turning the rose and white quartz black. 

   “Vytas worked two weeks during the day and two weeks during the night,” said Angele. “He walked to work, except when it was too cold, and whoever had a car would pick him and others up. In the morning he left at seven and got home at seven at night. When he worked nights, he got home at seven in the morning. The kids and I would wait by the window for him to get back.”

   Sudbury is in a basin. It is the third-largest impact crater on Earth. It was created about 200 million years ago when an enormous asteroid rocketed through the atmosphere and hit the ground with a blast. World-class deposits are found there and mined extensively.

   The city’s reputation as a rocky badlands was known far and wide by the time Angele and Vytas got married in 1949 and bought their house on Stanley Street a year later. Despite the industrial blight of the past half-century, there was a growing working-class population. They were a part of that population. The newlyweds were two of the displaced willing to take whatever work was offered in return for getting out of the Old World.

   “All our friends, the Zizai, Simkai, Bagdonai, all had children,” Angele said. “Since our living room was a little bigger than most, they often came over on Saturday nights. The men played bridge while we made dinner. The kids ran around, we drank, lots of it, smoked and danced. We put the kids away and talked all night.”

   Whoever had the opportunity to get married got married as fast as they could. There wasn’t an overabundance of single women in Sudbury. Henry and Maryte Zizys saw each other three times before they got hitched. The Simkai and Bagdonai stretched it out for a few months. The married men drank at home. The single men drank in bars, usually with other single men.

   The early Lithuanians who went to the New World weren’t Lithuanians, since the country didn’t exist at the time. It had once been its own empire but had since been taken over and was part of the Russian Empire. Many who fled to the United States were mistakenly documented as Polish, since there was a language ban in their homeland and scores of them spoke Polish as a second language.

   The first Lithuanians in Canada were men who fought in the British Army in the War of 1812 against the Americans. For the next 130 years most of those who left the Baltics and went to Canada did so for economic reasons. After World War Two they fled toil and trouble after the Soviet Union reincorporated Lithuania into its realm.

   “All of us hated the Russians for what they did” Angele said.

   The Russians deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to Siberian labor camps during and after the war. Sometimes they had their reasons. Other times the reason was slaphappy. The neighbors might have complained about you. The new Communist mayor might have taken a dislike to you. A cross-eyed apparatchik might have thought you were somebody else. It didn’t matter, because if you ended up in a boxcar going east, your future was over.

   The house Vytas and Angele moved into was on a newer extension of Stanley Street north of Poplar Street. It wasn’t in any of the city’s touted neighborhoods, but Donovan was nearby, and so was Little Britain. Downtown was less than two miles to the east. 

   Stanley Street started at Elm Street where there was a drug store, tobacconist, five-and-dime, fruit market, bakery and butcher shop, restaurants and a liquor store, and the Regent movie theater. The railcars were being replaced by busses and the tracks asphalted over. The other end dead-ended at a sheer rock face on top of which were railroad tracks. The Canadian Pacific ran day and night hauling ore. When the train wailed, the kids wailed right back.

   Angele shopped on Elm Street. When Eddie was still a toddler, he rode in a baby carriage. After his siblings were born, they rode in the carriage. He didn’t fit anymore, having become a third wheel.

   “He was unhappy about it,” Angele said. “I told him he was a big boy now and had to walk to help his brother and sister, but he still didn’t like it.”

   Vytas spread topsoil in the front yard of their new house and threw down grass seed. The backyard was forty feet deep but sandy and grass wouldn’t grow. He built a fence around it to discourage their kids from climbing the rocky rounded hill over which the railroad tracks curved west. 

   Even though children imitate their elders, they don’t always listen to them.

   “We always told the kids they weren’t allowed to climb the rock hills,” said Angele. “One day I couldn’t find Edvardas. He wasn’t in the house or in the yard or anywhere on our part of the street. I called and called for him. When he didn’t answer, all I could do was wait outside. When he finally came home, he had pebbles in his pockets. Where have you been? I asked him.”

   “I was looking for gold, mama,” he said, handing his mother pebbles that had a glint of shine. “I found some and brought them back for you.”

   Their house on Stanley Street was ten blocks from the vast open pits on the other side of Big Nickel Mine Drive. Logging and farming were what men worked at in the 19th century, but after 1885 big deposits of nickel, copper, and platinum were discovered in the basin. The impact over decades of roasting ore on open wood fires killed most of the trees, except poplar and birch, which dotted the city and their street.

   “We had two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a nice living room,” said Angele. “Upstairs was a half bath and two rooms We rented those rooms. We usually rented to women or a couple who were new to Sudbury. Where they took a bath, I don’t know. Vytas charged $11.00 a week for a room and he saved all the money we got. Right before we left for America, he was able to buy a used car.”

   When Bruno and Ingrid Hauck came to Sudbury from Germany, they rented a room for several years. “She watched the kids sometimes, so Vytas and I could go to the Regency to see a movie,” said Angele. They saw “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The kids saw “Lady and the Tramp.”

   They had a New Year’s party at their house, inviting their friends. A few minutes before the magic moment Angele cut her eye adjusting the elastic strap of a party hat under her chin while sliding it up over the front of her face.

   “I had to lay down and didn’t see New Year’s Day,” she said, disappointed.

   When she woke up her husband and Rimas Bagdonas, her dancing partner in the local Lithuanian folk dancing group, were washing the night’s dishes. Rimas worked in the mines, but wrote plays in his spare time, staging them in the hall of the nearby French Catholic church hall. They went to church there once a month when their visiting Lithuanian priest made his rounds. It cost ten cents to sit in a pew. The children sat for free. Piety was mandatory.

   “I was just in my twenties, but in one of Rimas’s plays I was the mother of a dying partisan,” Angele said. “I made myself cry by thinking about the time I cut my eye.”

   September through November are cold, December through February are freezing, and March into mid-May are cold in Sudbury. The first snow by and large falls in October, but it can show up as early as September. The season’s last snow comes and goes in April, although May sometimes sees a late snow shower. There are never any flurries in June, July, and August. 

   Vytas learned to ice skate and taught his children on a rink in the front yard. He hosed water out on the lawn on bitter cold days where it started freezing in minutes. When it was frozen hard as rock, he and the children laced up their skates and went skating. Whenever all the kids on the block joined in it got pell-mell fast. Eddie and his two friends across the street dazzled the girls with their figure 8s.

   In the 1950s in Sudbury sulfur dioxide formed a permanent, opaque, cloud-like formation across the horizon as seen from a distance. There was lead nickel arsenic and God knows what else in it. The ground-level pollution wasn’t as bad, a gray haze, but was worse on some days than others.

   When it was worse, Vytas built igloos for the kids to play in.

   It snows a hundred and more inches in Sudbury. After the streets and sidewalks are cleared there is plenty of building material. He formed blocks 2 feet long 12 inches high and 6 inches thick. When there were enough blocks to start, Vytas made a circle leaving space for a door. After he stacked them, he used loose snow like cement, packing it in. He put a board across the top of the igloo door and another at the top of the dome for support. Halfway up were small windows and around the top several air holes.

   As long as there was daylight there were daylong Eskimos in the igloo.

   The furnace in the basement ran on coal. It was delivered once a week by truck, the coal man filling up the bin in the basement down a chute. Every morning Vytas shoveled coal into it, lit the fire, and stoked the coal. At night either Angele or he banked the furnace, salvaging unburned coal and putting the ashes in bags. They saved some in a container on the front porch for the steps whenever they got iced over.

   Angele told the kids to never go in the basement. One day Eddie started down the stairs to see what his dad did exactly every morning, tripped over his own feet, and tumbled the rest of the way down. He was back on his feet in a second, ran up the stairs and into the kitchen, and started to bawl, even though he was unhurt.

   The furnace heated a boiler that created steam delivered by pipes to radiators throughout the house. The kids were forbidden to stand on the pipes or scale the radiators.

   “I didn’t have to worry about Richardas and Rita, they were too small, but Edvardas was always trying to climb up on the radiator in the living room. I told him he was going to fall off and one Sunday night, while I was cooking, he fell off and broke his collarbone, although he didn’t cry when it happened. He seemed more surprised than anything else.”

   For the rest of the next week, his arm in a sling, Angele fed him his favorite food every morning, fried eggs on toast. He was the envy of his sidekicks, the two Canadian boys from whom he had learned most of his English. After finishing their pancakes or porridge, they ran to his back porch and watched him through the window go one-handed at his sunny side up breakfast.

   He saluted his pals with half a piece of gooey toast.

Photograph by Rimas Bagdonas.

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

Law of the Land

By Ed Staskus

   When I moved to Carpenter, Ohio the post office had been gone more than ten years. The Baptist church was still there, but the minister didn’t live in town. He drove in on Sundays, performed his mission, and drove away after shaking a few hands. I went to the service one morning, but the minister looked like a talent scout for a graveyard, and it was the last time I went. The general store had closed even before the post office, which was good for Virginia Sustarsic and me, because that is what we moved into, staying the spring summer and into the early fall.

   The post office was opened in 1883 and stayed there until 1963. Nobody knew who the town was named for, although three men who had been natives of the place took credit. There was Amos Carpenter, an old geezer who talked too much, Jesse Carpenter, a farmer who hardly ever talked, and State Senator J. L. Carpenter, who only talked when it counted. He brought tracks and a railroad station to the town. Those were long gone, too.

   It wasn’t my idea to go live local yokel on the banks of Leading Creek, but Virginia argued living in the country was the way to go. She was a hippie and wore its ethos of going back to the roots on her sleeve. I countered that the hippies happened in coastal cities like San Francisco and New York, flowered in college towns like Austin and Ann Arbor, and were trucking along in cities like Omaha, Atlanta, and Cleveland. We were both from Cleveland, born of immigrant stock, she Slovenian and me Lithuanian.

   My reasoning fell on deaf ears.

   A friend of ours with a van drove us and our stuff to Carpenter, dropped us off, and waved goodbye. I had never been there before. Virginia had been there twice, having a friend who lived in that neck of the woods. It took less than ten seconds to look the town over. There wasn’t much to see. We stashed everything away in the sturdy but dilapidated 19th century-era store and walked up Carpenter Hill Rd. to Five Mile Run, detouring down what passed for a driveway to a small house where Virginia’s friend and his bloodhound lived.

   He was somewhere between not young and middle-aged, lean and scraggly, literate and friendly. He was the kind of man who was a hippie long before there were hippies. He read lots of books and smoked lots of weed. There was a Colt cap and ball pistol on his coffee table, laying there as relaxed as could be. It was a Walker .44. It was big, old as dirt, spic-n-span workable. 

   “That’s an imposing handgun,” I said.

   “They call it the Peacemaker,” he said. “Even though it can get you into a load of trouble the same as not.”

   He shot rabbits with it for his stew pot. The large percussion revolver could have taken deer in season. He let me shoot it at a tree later that summer. It was heavy when I lifted it. I shot it stiff-armed expecting more recoil, which turned out to be modest. What I didn’t expect was the “BOOM!” at the end of my arm. I was glad I missed the tree. Even though it was a full-grown maple the ball hitting it might have put it on the woodpile.

   We spent a week sweeping dusting cleaning arranging the ground floor front room of the general store. There were two storerooms in the back and an upstairs we didn’t mess with. Two long broad oak tables served as platforms for working and preparing food. We ate in rocking chairs we set up at one of the windows. We found a braided round rug in a closet, beat the hell out of it, and rolled it out in the middle of the floor.

   After laying in a garden, we stuck Grace Slick on a stick to guard the plot. The scarecrow, however, fell down on the job. Birds shat on her and rabbits ran riot. We ended up hunting and gathering.

   A kitten walked in out of the blue one morning, worn out and hungry as a horse. He was white with a black blob on his chest and a masked face. Virginia gave it a bowl of water, but we didn’t have cat food. “We should go into town, get some, and some food for us, too,” I said.

   Virginia was a genius at living off the land, but we still needed some store-bought stuff, salt pepper coffee pasta peanut butter and pancake mix, as well as toilet paper. The outhouse was bad enough without the comfort of Charmin.

   There were two municipalities within driving distance, Athens, which was 15 miles northeast of us, and Pomeroy, which was 17 miles southeast. Ohio University was in Athens, had several grocery stores, and plenty of citizens our own age. Pomeroy was on the Ohio River, was notorious for being repeatedly destroyed, and there was nobody our age there. We never went to Pomeroy except once to look around.

   The town was consumed by fire in 1851, 1856, 1884, and 1927. The floods of 1884, 1913, and 1937 were even more disastrous. 1884 was an especially bad year, what with fire and flood both. Why the residents kept rebuilding the place was beyond us, although we speculated they must have been plain stubborn.

   We stopped at the courthouse to lay eyes on the excitement. We had read in “Ripley’s Believe or Not!” that there is a ground floor entrance to each of its three stories, the only one of its kind in the world The sight of the phenomenon wasn’t all that exciting. A plaque explaining that the courthouse served as a jail for more than 200 of Morgan’s Raiders after their capture in the Battle of Buffington Island during the Civil War caught our attention. It was exciting to learn that Ohio boys had gotten the better of Johnny Reb when they ventured north.

   The county seat of Meigs County is mentioned in Ripley’s a second time for not having any cross streets. We took a stroll and didn’t see any. It didn’t seem deserving of mention in Ripley’s, but what did we know?

   Once he had a steady supply of food, out kitten got better and bigger. He spent his days outside and after sunset inside. He learned fast there were plenty of hungry owls, racoons, and coyotes in the dark. At first, when he was a tyke, he slept on top of my head at night. As he grew, I had to move him to the side. It was like wearing a Davey Crocket racoon hat to bed. 

   Meigs County, in which Carpenter lay, is 433 square miles with a population of around 20,000, or 54 people per square mile. Where we came from, Cuyahoga County, it was more like 3,000 people per square mile. At night in the middle of Meigs County it often seemed like 2 people per square mile, Virginia and me.

   There wasn’t much crime in the county, thank goodness, because the law enforcement amounted to one sheriff, one lieutenant, one sergeant, and six deputies. We had been in town a week-or-so when the sheriff stopped by to say hello. He was a pot-bellied man with fly belly blue eyes. He made sure we had the cop and fire department phone numbers even though we didn’t have a phone. He warned us not to mess around with the marijuana market. Virginia made roach clips for sale in head shops, but didn’t smoke much, and said so. 

   “No, I don’t mean that girlie,” he said. “I don’t care what you do on your own time. What I mean is, don’t mess with the growers. They’ve got it tucked in all around here. Some of them have been to Vietnam and back, and they learned a thing or two from Charlie. Even the DEA is careful when they chopper around these hills spraying their crop.”

   He pronounced Vietnam like scram.

   Meigs County is on the Allegheny Plateau. It is especially hilly where we were. The soil isn’t the greatest. The top crop by far is forage, followed by soybeans and corn. Layers and cattle are the top livestock. The marijuana growers hid their fruitage in corn fields, where it was hard to spot.

   Moonshine was made from the first day Meigs County was settled, for themselves and for whenever a farmer needed hard cash in a hurry, as long as they were near water and could haul a barrel of yeast and a hundred feet of copper line to the still. The yeast is stirred with sugar and cracked corn until it ripens. When the mash is ready it’s poured into an airtight still and heated. When it vaporizes it spirals through copper pipes, is shocked by cold water, returns to its original liquid form, and drips into a collection barrel.

   After that it is ready to go and all anyone needed was a fast Dodge to get it to market.

   The marijuana growers were young, a loose-knit group known as the Meigs County Varmits, which was also the name of their championship softball team. They drove Chevy and Ford pick-ups. They stopped by and said hello, just like the sheriff. One of them told us to keep our heads down the middle of October.

   “What’s that all about?” I asked.

   “That’s when we harvest our green and that’s when the state cops and Feds get busy. You’ll see their cars and spotter planes. They ask you any questions, play dumb. You hear any noise, ignore it.”

   Meigs County Gold was high quality highly sought weed. It was the strain of choice for the Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson when they toured Ohio and West Virginia. Meigs County folk learned to not lock their cars and to keep their windows partly rolled down when they went to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus or Kings Island near Cincinnati.

   When I asked why, a man said, “Because people see the Meigs County tag and it’s almost for sure you’ll have busted windows if you don’t. They will be looking for your pot.”

   Our pots and pans were always filled with grub Virginia gleaned in the forest lands where she found nuts greens fruits and tubers. She collected walnuts chestnuts papaws raspberries blueberries and strawberries. She dressed up salads with dandelions fiddleheads and cattails. In the late summer she hunted for ginseng, selling it to a health food store in Athens.

   She kept two goats in a shed. I fed them and cleaned up after them. They were more trouble than they were worth, especially after one of them head butted the minister who walked over late one Sunday morning inquiring about my spiritual frame of mind. The goat lowered his head and got him from behind, in the butt, knocking him down. He scuffed up his hands breaking his fall and got mad as the devil. He told the sheriff about it and the sheriff had to stop by and warn us to keep our goats civil.

   “Yes, sir,” I said.

   Carpenter was the kind of place where tomorrow wasn’t any different than a week ago. But it had its moments. A week-or-so after the sheriff paid us his official visit, we watched him drive slowly past our grocery store summer home on State Route 143 dragging an upright piano on rollers behind him, chained to his rear bumper. A deputy was walking beside the piano trying to keep it from falling over. It looked like a bad idea on the way to going wrong. We waved but didn’t ask any questions.

   Our nearest neighbor was Jack, his two brothers, and their mother, on the other side of Leading Creek, a quarter mile down the state route. Velma looked like she could have been their grandmother, but Jack Jerome and Jesse called her mam. It was a one-story house with a front porch. They had running water and a bathroom, but no cooking stove or furnace. Velma did the cooking in the fireplace and they heated the house with the fireplace and a cast-iron potbelly stove. It was more than we had, which was just the potbelly thing.

   “Food cooked in a fireplace tastes better than food cooked any other way, including charcoal grills,” Velma said. It was big talk, but she backed it up. She might not have been able to whip up a cake or a souffle, but she made just about everything else. We never turned down an invitation to dinner.

   There were always half-dozen-or-more barely alive cars and trucks in their backyard, which was more like a field. There was a chicken house and a pen for pigs. They slaughtered and smoked their own pork. There was a big deep pond near enough to the house and they let us go floating and swimming in it whenever we wanted. They had an arsenal of rifles and shotguns, even though they didn’t mess around with marijuana. Moonshine might have been a different matter. 

   “How come you’ve got all those guns?” I asked Jack.

   “That’s how our daddy raised us,” he said.

   They were born and bred right there. The folks in the ranch-style houses up Carpenter Hill Rd. avoided them. Sometimes when we went swimming the sheriff’s car was there. I had the impression he wasn’t there on lawman business, but rather visiting.

   By the end of summer, we realized we couldn’t stay. The Velma family already had enough cords of dried wood beside their house to keep themselves warm if winter went Siberian in Ohio. We didn’t even have a pile of twigs. We could have ordered coal, which was plentiful, but neither of us had ever started and stoked a coal furnace. We didn’t know anything about air vents. All we knew was dial-up thermostats for natural gas furnaces.

   Our friend returned with his van and helped us move back to Cleveland. We said goodbye to Virginia’s hippie friend and his bloodhound, and to Jack up the hill. Jerome and Jesse had gone hunting waterfowl, the first day for it. Velma gave us an apple pie for the drive home.

   The cat, who was left-handed and so named Lefty, decided to stay. He wasn’t a city boy. He wouldn’t have been able to make sense of the Cuyahoga River catching fire. Lefty had made friends with all the cats and dogs a half-mile in every direction, knew how to sneak into the grocery store closed doors or no doors, and had grown up enough to take care of himself. We slit open the 20-pound cat food bag and opened it like a book. We left it on the floor so he and his friends could have a party.

   When we drove away, he was sitting on his haunches on the gravel in front of the store’s double front doors. I watched him in the rearview mirror and Virginia waved goodbye through the open passenger window. The last I saw of him he was sauntering into the high yellow grass.

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