Flesh and Blood

BETWEEN THE WARS.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

When Angele Jurgelaityte knocked on her aunt’s door in late September 1941, Ona Kreivenas lived on a farm near Alvitas, where she taught school, and had on her hands a growing family. There were three children and an infant. Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and Gema, the new baby come into being a year earlier, were not any of them older than Angele. Even Mindaugas, the eldest, was three years younger than their thirteen-year-old cousin from Gizai.

Alvitas is a village on a lake of the same name. It is on the main road. There was a parish church built of stone, an elementary school, more than thirty houses, and almost four hundred inhabitants.

When Ona came to the front door, she was by herself. She had lost her husband a year earlier. She had since that day become a stern woman. “She was pretty, like a doll, but I was afraid of her. I broke a dish once and was scared to death of what she would say when she found out.” Her aunt bid hello to the teenaged girl, who she had been half-expecting, if not warmly, at least with a measure of relief.

Angele had spent the day walking to her aunt’s farmhouse from her family’s farm, where she decided she could no longer live with the stepmother her father had married the month before, six months after her mother’s death. She left three brothers and a sister behind.

“He was a police chief,” she about her uncle, Jonas Kreivenas. “The Russians deported him. He didn’t do anything bad. It didn’t matter, they just took him away.”

The Russians started planning mass arrests and deportations the year before, in 1940, after the Red Army occupied Lithuania and the adjacent Baltic nations. Jonas Kreivenas was one of the first arrested in 1940. They targeted government officials, nationalists, the well-to-do, Catholics, policemen, and anyone they decided was an “anti-Soviet element.”

If you were a party member, you were going to prosper, rather than get sent to Siberia.

“I had a friend not far from our farm whose father was a blacksmith, who didn’t read or write. When the Russians came, they threw out the mayor, in the town where they lived, and made him the mayor, because he was a Communist. Everyone high up, they threw out.”

The mass arrests began a year later the night of Friday June 13 as NKVD troops fanned out across the country, scooping up men and entire families, carrying them to Vilnius. Nearly twenty thousand Lithuanians were forcibly marched into the boxcars of seventeen trains on Thursday June 19 and railroaded to the far end of Russia. Three days later the German army invaded Lithuania, the Luftwaffe catching the Russian air force unaware on the ground and destroying it. By mid-week the new Wehrmacht had swept the old Soviet resistance aside.

The Russians were out. The Germans were in. “The Germans weren’t good, but life was better for us. At least they didn’t deport us. Most of us hated the Russians.”

An independent Lithuanian government was put in place, but it shortly became clear that the German military held all the power. Lithuanian Jews began to bear the brunt of the occupation. They were forced to wear yellow stars and their money and property was taken away.

That spring, before Jonas Kreivenas was taken away by the Russians, he had gotten everything he needed to build an upstairs indoor bathroom, lumber, tiles, fixtures, a sink, and a bathtub. It was going to be his summer project. When the war came back to Lithuania three summers later, in 1944, the second floor was still torn up, and the bathroom was still not a bathroom.

“The rooms were never finished upstairs.”

Jonas had started work on his bathroom, working in his spare time, walls and floors opened, but everything was still in boxes stacked up in corners. Every month Ona hoped against hope for her husband’s return. The house was brick, fitted with large front windows, four rooms on the ground floor, a kitchen and dining room, and two bedrooms. The second floor was a floor.

“They lived on a farm that wasn’t big, but a little bigger and much nicer than my father’s. It wasn’t primitive,” said Angele.

“Everyone had either a large farm or a small farm, although almost everyone had small farms. Mamyte had a larger farm. She sometimes had men come and do work, but I still ended up having to work much harder than I ever did at my family’s farm.”

There was a cellar where they kept canned food and apples for the winter. There were chickens, cows, two work horses, a horse for riding, and lots of pigs. “She had a herd of them. Mamyte had a pig killed when we needed one, and we ate them.”

She had to feed the pigs while they lived and fattened.

“We kept a big pot in the kitchen where I boiled potatoes for the pigs every day. I had to bring all the water in from the well, not just for the pigs, but for everything.”

Earlier in the summer, within days of the Red Army’s collapse, the Einsatzgruppen followed the German army into Lithuania, their mission to liquidate Jews. Synagogues were set on fire and thousands of Jews killed in the streets. The Germans claimed rioting was a menace to public order and rounded up the country’s Jews, isolating them in ghettos to “protect them.”

By the end of the next summer Angele was still working hard but tired of being a hired hand. “I was young, and I had a lot of energy. I didn’t get tired. I watched the kids. Carmen was my best friend. I loved Gema the most. Ramute cried too much. She bent her fingers backwards until they hurt, and then started crying, saying that her hand hurt. I had to work all the time.”

She worked from before sunup to sundown. “I was the cook and made soup every day. I made the beds and I had to work all around the farm.” She washed dishes and put them away. She washed clothes by hand and hung them on a line outside to dry. She washed the kids, keeping them clean.

“I was her sister’s daughter, but I was her house maid, too.”

She made the fire that had to be made for eating every day. Coal had to to be hauled inside and ice knocked off the stairs in wintertime. Mindaugas was a strong boy and helped as much as he could. Carmen helped, too. Ramute was too small to do much and Gema was too small for anything. Ona went to town to teach school every day. In the summer she worked in the fields. Everybody did what they could.

One day when she was on the second floor, Angele overheard through an open window her aunt talking to a man in the front yard about that spring’s seeding.

“I have a servant, but she’s still young, and only so good to me,” said Ona.

She realized her aunt was talking about her, about her being more a servant, less a niece. “I promised myself from that moment that when I grew up, I would never be anyone’s servant, that no one would ever say that about me again.”

She put feed and water out for the chickens. She gathered eggs early and often. She collected them twice a day, so they stayed clean. It kept the chickens from eating them, as well. She herded cows to their milking stalls. She wore knee-high boots when walking knee-deep in pig mire. She put pebbles in the manger with the oats so the horses wouldn’t eat too fast. She mended fences the best she could when the pigs and cows bumped into them.

Angele and her father were sitting together under a gathering summer dusk in Gizai one day. “My father always called me Aneluke.” He told her his plans for the future. “Aneluke, when I die, I am going to leave the farm to you.”

Her aunt talked to her about vocational classes at a nearby farm school, where she could learn animal husbandry, vegetable production, and seasonal planning.

But after working on her father’s farm, and then working on her aunt’s farm, she had made up her mind farming wasn’t in her blood. “I didn’t like animals, and I hated the ground, the earth. I was never going to grow up to be a farmer.”

She was fourteen years old. She didn’t say anything to her father, but she told her aunt no.

When Angele’s grandfather died, Ona and her children went to Gizai for the funeral, but Angele had to stay behind and watch both the baby and the farm. “I was so unhappy,” she said.

She thought about her future, even though she was on between the war going on all around them. She thought about meeting boys. She thought about changing her name.

“I never liked my name. That’s why my father called me Aneluke.”

Her youngest brother didn’t like his name, either. Even though he been christened Mindaugas, after the legendary king, he changed it. When he told everybody far and wide young and old his new name was Jozukas, everybody went along with him, and he became Jozukas from then on.

She made friends with a boy she met at a dinner at a neighboring farm. They sat next to each other and talked. “I liked him, but one day Mindaugas and I were going to Vilkaviskis in the buggy when I saw him on the road. He was on a bike and a girl was walking beside him, walking towards us. They were holding hands. After that, I didn’t like him at all.”

No matter that the farmhouse remained unfinished, her aunt decided to wire up the farm. Although electricity was available in the cities, voltage drops over distance often made rural electrification impossible, or simply too costly. When farmers had the chance to tap into a network, they often jumped at the chance.

Their fertile croplands paved the way out of the dark for the Kreivenas family.

Ona arranged for the work to be done, making plans through her relations. They found an electrician for her. “Mamyte sent me to Vilkaviskis, to pick him up, the electrician from Kaunas, who was coming on the train.”

Vilkaviskis, on the banks of the Seimina River, is almost fifty miles northwest of Alytus. After she hitched up one of the horses to their wagon, it took her and Mindaugas all day to get there. They skirted the ruins of the Jewish quarter. That night they slept in the wagon, and the next morning set off for home, taking the electrician with them.

“He was hard to understand,” she said about him. Lithuanians from different regions of the country have accents and often have their own way of saying things. “There was a man from Zemaitija once, we could hardly understand what he was saying. They drop the endings of their words.”

Until 1941 Vilkaviskis had a large Jewish community. That summer SS death squads, helped by Lithuanian collaborators, killed more than three thousand Jews. It was virtually every single one of them in the town. The SS tore down and destroyed their homes afterwards. In 1943 more Jewish ghettos were demolished, and the living transferred to concentration camps. When the war ended almost all of them weren’t alive anymore.

The genocide rate in Lithuania, where anti-Semitism had been endemic for generations, was more than 90%, one of the highest in Europe.

There was a severe shortage of sugar throughout Europe, disrupted by worldwide conflict and blockade. The German military needed it to support its armed forces and its war effort at home. Sugar beet planting in Poland and the Baltics was ramped up. In 1942 more than 20% of Lithuanian farmers, the most ever, cultivated sugar beets. Production was expected to increase by 25% in 1943. Potatoes were in high demand. Grain was in high demand. The Axis paid in Reichsmarks, better money in Europe than anybody else’s.

Ona Kreivenas invested her bounty in electrification.

“The electrician put in wires and lights. The black box was in the kitchen.” They were warned to never touch it. “We didn’t have to use oil lamps anymore. We were so happy.”

Carmen, Ramute, and Angele slept in the dining room, an improvised bedroom in the four-room house. To the left of the foyer was the kitchen and to the right was the dining room. Ona had the large bedroom and Mindaugas the small one. At the back of the house stairs led to a root cellar.

“We read books at night until mamyte told us lights out. She was a strict mother. We would always turn the light off right away. She knew when we did because she had a blinking light in her room which told her when the lights had been turned off. We pretended being quiet until we knew she was asleep, and then turned the light back on so we could read some more. After we got tired of reading, we turned the light off and talked until we finally fell asleep.”

In March 1943 the German authorities closed the Academy of Education and all Lithuanian schools of higher education. Ona taught grade school and wasn’t affected. She continued going to work. Everybody was uneasy. The war on the Eastern Front wasn’t going well for the Germans. The Wehrmachct was losing the ability to mount offensive operations.

“I couldn’t go to school because I had to work so much. I finished six grades, and I wanted to learn, so mamyte found a tutor for me. I went to her house for two years, studying high school.”

She wanted to be somebody other than a maid or farmhand.

Two months later in May the Gestapo outdated Lithuania’s local electorates. In September the last Jews in the ghetto of Vilnius were dragged out to the streets. Those who could work were sent to labor camps. The rest were shot.

When the New Year 1944 came, news was broadcast that Antanas Smetona, the first and last president of independent Lithuania, who fled his home and country in 1940, had died in a house fire in Cleveland, Ohio. His death closed the chapter on the interwar years, when Lithuania had been free and clear.

“We had a radio and listened to the news every day. We knew it was bad for the Germans. We knew the Russians were coming back.” Everybody was worried and scared about the return of the USSR. “We all knew something bad was going to happen.”

In early August 1944, the German army was driven out of most of Lithuania by Soviet forces and Russian hegemony was re-established. They were the same days of the war that marked the Battle of Normandy in the west, which soon led to French liberation and independence.

“When the Russians came, it all happened in one day. We got our wagon, the horses, the four children, and a cow. We needed the cow and left as fast as we could.”

They and hundreds of other families camped at a large farm only a few miles from the East Prussian border, biding their time. When the Red Army again pushed west in September, and what was left of the German army fled before them, the refugees crossed the frontier.

“We got across the border into East Prussia at night. It was a wet cold night. There wasn’t a single border guard. Nobody else in my family, none of my brothers and my sister, nobody, made it out before the border was closed by the Russians.”

She was free for the moment in German land, but her family kinsmen friends and the rest of the country were under the callused thumb of Moscow, now and for the next nearly fifty years.

Photograph by Antanas Sutkus

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.”

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Surprise House

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “She wasn’t older,” he said.

   He ran after mom, reaching for her hand.

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

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

   But Eva never did, even though Agnes asked again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   None of the riders was ever seen alive again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   She stepped into the hall and went up the stairs. They could hear them in their bedroom, screaming at each other in different languages. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Eva came running down the stairs out the front door and to Anna MacAulay’s house. Nick came downstairs after she was gone and told them everything was all right. He sat by the back window the rest of the night and stared into the ravine. He looked unhappy, like he had lost his golf clubs and fancy spiked shoes.

   When they went upstairs, they looked into their parent’s bedroom and saw a hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. They found out later Nick had thrown it at Eva but missed. It lay on the floor until the next day when Eva came home. She cleaned up the dinner table, did the dishes, and put the potato masher away. Agnes liked that about her mom, keeping the cleanest house anyone ever saw. She vacuumed twice a day and they could eat off the floor if they wanted to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commie Roadblock Blues

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By Ed Staskus

“Man, I had a dreadful flight, I’m back in the USSR, you don’t know how lucky you are, boy, back in the USSR.”  The Beatles

When Angele Staskus went to Lithuania in 1977 with her daughter, she had not been on native soil for thirty-three years. Her daughter, Rita, 17 years old, had never been there. They flew from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City to Moscow to Vilnius. It took two days of luggage lines airports to go the five thousand miles.

It was in 1944 that Angele Jurgelaiyte, then a 16-year-old farmer’s daughter, fled Alvitas near Marijampole in the south of the country, the German Army retreating pell-mell and the Red Army storming the front. She shared a wagon drawn by two horses with her aunt and her aunt’s four children. A milk cow was tied to the back of the wagon. She fled to East Prussia to Germany to Canada to America. Nobody else in her immediate family got out.

She got married to Vic Staskus, another Lithuanian refugee, in Sudbury, Ontario. They had three children and the family emigrated to the USA in the late 50s. They started at the bottom.

The first time Rita saw the Soviet airport, she wasn’t impressed.

“The Moscow airport was crappy, gray on gray, and there were birds and bats flying around inside the terminal. Everybody looked gray, like somebody had just died.”

“The color of truth is gray,” said the French writer Andre Gide. He was wrong. The Commies were wrong, too, and their favorite color was wrong. Us against them social culture political truth at any cost is more trouble than it’s worth, sparing no one. Not the 85 million who weren’t spared during the WW2 grab for naked power, for sure. It’s not black and white, either, no matter what the soapbox masterminds say. The color of truth is Crayola 64 Crayon Colors.

The Sheremetyevo airport served most of the international flights arriving and departing the capital city, Moskva, in the far western part of the country. The airport was originally built as a military airfield in the late 1950s with one runway. In the early 1970s a second runway was added. A single terminal still served both runways.

“We had to go through customs. The higher-ups, police, and soldiers all looked serious and grim. Everybody going to Lithuania was smuggling something. My mom kept telling me to flash a smile at the soldiers, most of whom were young, like me. We had gum and cigarettes in my suitcase, but they never went through it.”

A woman behind them wearing a baggy fur coat wasn’t so fortunate.

“She had all kinds of stuff sewn into the lining of her coat. They ripped the coat apart and took all of it.”

There were several eateries in the terminal, but neither mother nor daughter ate while waiting for their connection.

“The food looked horrible, and what was the point of bad food and bad service without a smile?” asked Rita.

They flew Aeroflot to Vilnius, less than a two-hour flight.

“They brought us food, butter and buns, but they were hard as rocks,” said Rita. “You couldn’t even bite into them.” She tossed them under her seat. “The stewardesses were all so surly, down at the mouth, that I started laughing about it.” The flight attendants did a slow burn.

When they landed in Vilnius, the stale exhausted buns rolling and bumping over and over to the front of the airplane, passenger loading stairs were rolled to the door. The terminal was built in 1954. “It was a gray rectangular building, like a warehouse, like in Moscow.” There were sculptures of soldiers and workers outside and wreaths, bay leaves and stars, and the Soviet hammer and sickle inside.

“It was even crappier than the Moscow airport.”

Inside the terminal was a tight-knit group of more than forty of their relatives and their children.

“They came running up to us. One of them asked, do you speak Lithuanian? When I said yes, everybody started talking at once.” Some of the people looked a little like her, while others looked a lot like her mother. They were her uncles, Justinas, Juozukas, Sigitas, and her aunt Irena. There were nieces and nephews. When the excitement died down, they drove to the Gintaras Hotel, near the railroad station.

The Gintaras was where foreigners stayed, all foreigners, who visited Lithuania.

“The kids were running up and down the hallway, while the adults were all in our room. It was crowded since it wasn’t a big room, at all.”

They had brought pens, gum, and cigarettes. “My uncle Justinas lost the pen I gave him, and when I offered him another one, he said, no, he wanted the pen I had given him before. Nobody could find it, so I pretended to find it, and gave him a new one.”

Everybody wanted the American cigarettes they had smuggled in. “Russian cigarettes were nasty. They smelled bad.” The Belomorkani cigarette didn’t come with a filter, but with a hollow cardboard tube attached to a thin paper tube filled with tobacco. The cardboard tube was like a disposable cigarette holder. They were popular in the Baltic’s because of their cheap price. They were notorious for being one of the strongest cigarettes in the world.

“Everybody was smoking in minutes, the men, the women, and the older kids. It was non-stop.” The Prima brand was produced in Bulgaria and used a better quality of tobacco, but since only the Belomorkani brand was available in most the hinterland, a low-lying ashy cloud soon hung down from the ceiling. Even though cigarette advertising wasn’t allowed in the USSR, almost everyone smoked. “After twenty minutes you couldn’t see across the room.”

Rita noticed one of her cousins was chain-smoking.

“I didn’t know you smoked.”

“I don’t,” he said.

“We brought Bubble Yum because that’s what they wrote us they wanted. All they had was crappy hard gum that would break your teeth when you started to chew it.” Introduced just two years earlier by Life Savers, Bubble Yum was the first soft bubble gum ever created. “They would chew the Bubble Yum for a half hour and then put it back in its wrapper, putting it away in their pockets or purses.”

One afternoon Rita was sitting in a nearby park talking with her uncle Sigitas. He took his wallet out of his back pocket. He filled his hand with a wad of cash.

“We have money, but there’s nothing to buy,” he said.

“We went to a butcher shop. There were only two kinds of meat and both of them were marbled with loads of white fat. My aunts were always cutting fat off. It was gross. Even the herring was bad. I mostly hated the food. It turned my stomach.”

There was a store near the hotel. It was called the Dovana Krautuve, or Gift Store. It was for Western tourists. Lithuanians weren’t allowed to shop there, or even go inside it. They went there one day on a tour bus. “They had amber, wooden dolls, artsy stuff there. They just wanted our American dollars. When we were leaving, they gave each of us a bottle of Coca-Cola.”

Back on the bus, Rita asked the driver if he liked Coke.

“Yes, I had some in 1955,” he said. “It was good,”

“That was twenty-two years ago.”

“Yes, I understand,” said the bus driver.

She gave him her bottle of the dark sugary soda.

“The Young Communists were always following us around, telling us their world was just as good as ours, that they had everything we had, and more. When I had to take my contacts out on the bus, one of them said, we have those, too. None of my relatives had contacts and none of them knew where to get any unless it was the black market.”

She finally told the Young Communists to cut it out.

“Your propaganda isn’t going to do anything for me,” she said.

While inside the hotel, nobody could talk about anything that might compromise them. “All the rooms were bugged. Everything was bugged.” Everybody was constantly watched, one way or another. Telephones were tapped. Mail was opened. Black government sedans followed people around.

Everything in the Soviet Union was a stumbling block.

Angele and Rita stayed at the Ginraras Hotel for ten days. Everybody knew somebody was listening. Nobody said anything. Their room wasn’t small, but it wasn’t large, and the bathroom was even smaller. The whole bathroom was a bathroom and a shower. There weren’t any sliding doors or shower curtains. “There was a drain in the middle of the floor, and whenever we showered the spray would get all over the tiled walls and sink and toilet. Everything got wet. The whole room became a shower.”

When they were refreshed, they visited with their relatives more than anything else.

“You never asked anybody, even your own flesh and blood, what they did. They would always say, ‘I have responsibilities.’ If you lived in Vilnius, you probably had a normal job, but not in Marijampole.” Many of their kinsfolk lived in the country and farmlands southwest of the town. They finagled and horse traded, going to Poland, doing things that weren’t altogether legal, or so the Communists said, so you just didn’t ask.

The goal was to be a pasikaustes, which means being somebody who has the smarts prowess right stuff to make it happen. It literally means putting a horseshoe on yourself. That’s why they were always wheeling and dealing.

They were waiting for the Commies to get the hell out of their country. They had earlier waited more than a hundred years. They could wait another hundred if they had to, although who wanted to do that? They were already bitter and alienated. Laikiu nesulaukiu means not being able to wait for something to happen. It means I wait but I can’t wait. It’s like being in prison for a crime you didn’t commit.

They made plans to go to Silute to see their paternal grandmother, who was in her 80s. Angele had never met her.  Rita had never seen her.

Silute is to the north and west of Marijampole, two-some hours away. The Nemunas River floods there almost every year, soaking the lowland pastures. Migrating birds call it home away from home because of the delta and all the water. A fifth of the area is forested and home to more than 300 villages.

Antonina was Angele’s husband’s mother. She was a Russian woman, had been a young schoolteacher in the middle of nowhere, and married Rita’s grandfather when he was an officer in the Imperial Army and stationed in the middle of nowhere. “She was taken away a few years after my grandfather was deported in 1941 and dragged to Siberia for more than ten years, for no good reason.”

Rita’s mother’s family, who lived in the south of the country, made plans to take them to Silute. They kept their plans close to the vest. The scheme was for there to be three brothers, three wives, three cars, Angele and Rita, and some of their cousins.

“My mother would be in one of the cars, I would be in another, and the third car would be a decoy, if it came to that.”

The secrecy was necessary because they weren’t allowed to go anywhere except within the city limits. When they asked about Silute, Siauliai, and Zarasai, the other points of the compass to Vilnius, they were told they were all out of bounds. Everywhere outside of Vilnius was off limits. The Intourist official, the Soviet tourism monopoly, at the front desk of the hotel leaned forward and told Angele and Rita it was because of missile installations.

“Are there missiles in every town in the whole country?” asked Angele.

The official scowled at her.

Their convoy didn’t get far the day of the familial excursion. They were stopped by a roadblock outside Vilnius. The police were waiting for them.

“They knew,” said Rita. “Somebody had overheard something. They waved us off the road.”

The police glanced at Justinas’s papers and waved at him to go back.

They went to the second car. Everyone had to show their papers. Angele was the best dressed of everyone in all three cars. “She was all decked out.” They asked her where she lived.

“The Gintaras Hotel.”

“Turn around, go back.”

They went to the third car.

Sigitas and and his wife Terese showed their papers. Rita was sitting in the back with three of her cousins. They showed their papers. When it was Rita’s turn, she said, “You’ve seen their papers. I live in the same place.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jurgelaitis, like them.”

He asked her something in Russian. She didn’t understand a word of it and glared at him.

“The next time your daughter is going to have to answer,” the policeman grumbled at Sigitas.

“Turn back.”

They turned around and the convoy drove back to Vilnius.

Undaunted, a few days later, before leaving the USSR, Sigitas picked Rita up before dawn before breakfast at the back of the hotel for an end run on empty stomachs to Silute. She skittered into the car and they sped off. The streets were deserted in the gloom.

“He was a crazy driver, always yelling out, ‘Somebody’s following us!’ He stayed off the highway, and the main roads, instead going up and down different streets. I thought the drive was going to take two hours, but it took longer.”

It took five hours.

They were stopped several times, but every time Sigitas was allowed to stay the course. The roadblock police didn’t explain why. They just waved him on. When they got to Silute they found the house where Antonina Staskevicius was living. After Josef Stalin’s death many labor camp prisoners in Siberia were let go. She was one of them. Her husband was long dead, dead of starvation in 1942, in another forest camp. She was sent back to Lithuania, but not back to Siauliai where the family farm didn’t exist anymore. She was told to go live in Silute.

She found a two-room apartment in a rectangular four-unit one-story building, almost like a log cabin. “It looked like it was built hundreds of years ago,” said Rita. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. The kitchen floor was packed earth. She was in her 80s. “She had gone through tough times, and it wasn’t much of a life in Silute, which was lousy, but she still had a lot of life in her.” She had seven grandchildren in the United States. Rita was the first one she ever saw. She gave her a big smile and a big hug, even though she was a small woman.

Antonina wasn’t the Man of Steel, the ringleader who squashed her under his thumb, but he was gone, a rusty memory, and she still had plenty of steel left in her, except when Rita told her about her son, more than thirty years gone to America. Tears ran down her face.

They had lunch, cold beet soup, potato dumplings, and mushroom cookies with strong hot tea. Rita didn’t throw anything under the table. It was an old hat old-school roots buffet for Sigitas.

“It was the best food I had in Lithuania,” said Rita.

How you start isn’t always how you finish.

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.

 

My Two Best Friends

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “It’s a dump,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   He made some new best friends.

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

Farm Girl

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The family fed itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

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

Toeing the Line

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother named her Sadie because it means princess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cafeteria gave us milk that was four years old.

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

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

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

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

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

Eighth grade is the hardest year, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science was my favorite subject.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Man on Vinegar Hill

By Ed Staskus

Egidijus and Rokas watched the ensigns, young men strutting between lieutenant and chief warrant officer, step into Connor’s Public House. The navy stood framed in the doorway, the long evening going slowly dark over their shoulders. They both wore white pants, a white shirt over a white t-shirt, a white belt, and a white cap with a black bill. They wore black shoes. There was a single gold bar on their shoulder boards.

“Hey, shut that door, you live in a barn,” someone yelled out.

In the next minute, their eyes spotting primetime, they took stools on both sides of a curvy redhead at the bar. They each gave her a smile. She looked them over sparingly scornfully.

“Drift,” she said to the one on her left.

“We just want to buy you a drink,” the one on the other side of her said.

“You, too,” she said.

“Butterbar boys,” said Egidijus. “Nieku nezino.”

“Yeah, they probably do the dishes in the guardhouse,” said Rokas.

“As close to water as they’re going to get,” Giles said.

Egidijus became Giles the minute he landed on Ellis Island.

Sam Ellis never meant his island to be a welcoming place, unless it was the last welcome. Before the first immigrant ever landed there, it was where criminals and pirates were hung. New Yorkers called it Gibbet island, for the wooden hanging post where the dead were left on display as a warning to others.

“She’s got a classy chassis, though,” said Rocky, eyeing the redhead. “Our man is not going to like us snatching him, ruining his night in more ways than one.”

Rokas had been in line behind Egidijus and became Rocky on the spot.

A longshoreman walked in, glanced at the sailors, and parked himself midway down the bar. The bartender poured a draft without asking. The longshoreman took a swig.

“Did you say something to that guy I just saw outside?” he asked the bartender.

“The guy with the feather in his hat?”

“Yeah, that one, who said this joint stinks.”

“That one comes in, wants a glass of water, and asks me what the quickest way is to Mount Kisco,” said the bartender. “I ask him if he’s walking, or does he have a car? He says, of course I have a car. So, I tell him, that would be the quickest way.”

“He was chunky about it, that’s sure. Hey, isn’t that Ratso’s girl?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t she tell them the gate is closed?”

“Yeah, but they didn’t give it any mind.”

“Oh boy, they don’t know from nothing.”

“Keep your head chicky,” said the bartender, tapping his temple with two fingers.

“You said it, brother.”

The Public House was on the corner of Pearl Street and Plymouth Street. The Manhattan Bridge over the East River was a stone’s throw away. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was a cannon shot away. The new Con Edison Hudson Avenue substation, north of John Street facing the river between Jay Street and the Navy Yard, was a light switch away.

“Did you see the game on TV Friday?” asked Giles.

“The TV’s were working, and I saw the problem in black and white,” said Rocky. “No matter that Mickey is going to win the Triple Crown, no matter how many runs they score, if they keep giving up a dozen, they is not going anywhere in October, no matter who they play.”

The Yankees had been in Boston for the weekend, for their last season series at Fenway Park. On Friday night Mickey Mantle hit a home run that tape measured more than five hundred feet. The Bronx Bombers, though, set a dubious club record by stranding twenty runners on base.

The Mick had three hits. Bill Skowron had five hits. The only time the Moose failed to reach base was when Ted Williams made an all-out running diving catch of a screaming line drive in left field.

“He was running like a bunny with his tail on fire,” said Red Barber, after the outfielder got up, checking all his parts.

Yogi Berra threw a man out at the plate. Mickey Mantle threw a man out at the plate. The Yankees crossed the plate plenty enough themselves. But the Red Sox still beat the Yankees, sending almost twice as many runners safely across the plate, 13-7 at the final count.

Mel Allen and Red Barber called the night game on WPIX, the station’s transmitter on top of the Empire State Building spreading the play-by-play out to the five boroughs. The next morning it would be Officer Joe’s turn. The year before weather forecaster Joe Bolton had put on a policeman’s uniform and started hosting shows based around the Little Rascals and Three Stooges. The kids loved Officer Joe’s taste in comedy.

“That ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne!” Mel Allen blared when Mickey Mantle hit his soaring blast. “It’s got to be one of the longest home runs I’ve ever seen! How about that!”

Rocky watched the game at the Public House, on Friday night two nights earlier, at the far end of the bar, where one of the bar’s two RCA Victor portable TV’s squinted down on him from high up on the wall.

“Did you say something?” one of the sailors said, turning to Giles and Rocky in the booth opposite them.

“Hello there everybody,” Mel Allen said to start the televised live baseball game broadcast.

“This is Red Barber speaking,” said Red Barber. “Let me say hello to you all. Mel and I are here in the catbird seats.”

“Three and two. What’ll he do?” Mel asked as the game neared its end and the last Yankee hitter squared up in the batter’s box.

“He took a good cut!” he exclaimed when the pinstriped slugger struck out to finish the game. “Tonight’s game was yet another reminder that baseball is dull only to dull minds,” said Red. “Signing off for WPIX, this is Red Barber and Mel Allen.”

“Hey, you, did you say something about washing dishes?” the sailor said again, standing up, his friend standing up, too, and Ratso Moretti in the meantime walking down the length of the bar from the men’s room towards them, having spotted the sailors buzzing his queen bee.

The redhead swung her stool around to the bar, crossed her legs, and played with the swivel stick lolling in her gin martini glass.

“Who the fuck are you two rags?” Ratso barked at the sailors, glaring up at them from under the brim of his black felt pork pie hat, baring his sharp front teeth. “Why are you sitting with my lady?”

Giles and Rocky leaned back on their seat cushions, their backs against the wall. Rocky stretched his legs out. Giles popped a toothpick into his mouth.

“What do you plan on doing about it, little man?” asked the bigger of the two sailors. Ratso was short. The sailors were both tall.

Ratso took one step back, reached down for his fly, unzipped it, and flashed the handle of a Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special revolver. It was the kind of gun carried by plainclothes and off-duty policemen. He kept his hand on the gun while looking straight at the two sailors.

“Hit the road, Clyde,” he said. “You, too, whatever your name is.”

The sailors backed down and backed out of the bar.  Nobody paid any attention, everybody focused on the back-out out of the corner of their eyes. When the white uniforms were gone, and he had zipped back up, Ratso sat down next to his squeeze and wrapped his arm around her waist.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” said Rocky.

“At least now we know where he hides it,” said Giles.

Bartek and Karol were at the far end of the bar. They didn’t want anything to happen just right now. They wanted Ratso Moretti to stay snug with his girl, drinking on an empty stomach, stretching the night out. There were four of them and only one of him, but he was a psycho crazy man. Karol knew it for sure, and told the others, and it was the number one thing, he said, they had to remember. There was no sense in letting it go down the drain.

“Did you find a plumber this morning?” Rocky asked Giles.

“No, because not only does God rest on Sundays, so do all the plumbers in Brooklyn.”

“What did you do?

“I fixed it myself.”

One of the toilets in the women’s bathroom in the parish hall next door to St. George’s Church on York Street sprang a leak after mass. The Lithuanian Roman Catholic congregation was around the corner from the Irish Roman Catholic St. Ann’s Church on the corner of Front and Gold Streets. Lithuanians made up more than half of everybody who now lived in Vinegar Hill, but they had never been embraced by the Irish and their church, so they built their own.

St. George’s had three arched doorways, three arched second-story window assemblages, and a stepped façade with a cross on top. It looked first-class when the sun was shining on it. It looked first-class at midnight in a thunderstorm.

“What was the problem?”

The parish priest dragooned Giles on his way out of the parish hall.

“Prasome, galite padeti?” asked the priest.

“The wax ring, that’s all it was.”

“Where did you find a wax ring on a Sunday?”

“My old man. He’s always loaded for bear.”

“Did you miss breakfast?”

“No, mom warmed it back up for me, fried some more eggs, fresh coffee, and a torte.”

When Ratso Moretti hopped off his bar stool, and his girl slid off hers, and they walked out the front door, Karol and Bartek went out the back door, Giles and Rocky following Ratso out the front.

“Goddamn it!” Ratso cursed turning the corner into the quiet side street next to the Public House where he had parked his new car. He looked down at the driver’s side front tire Karol had flattened with his switchblade before going inside.

“Motherfucker!”

“What’s the matter mister?” asked Giles.

“Flat tire,” said Ratso.

He recognized the young man and the other one from the bar.

“Need a hand?”

“I’ve got all the hands I need,” said Ratso.

“Suit yourself.”

Giles fired up a cigarette, watching and waiting. Rocky leaned against a lamp pole. Ratso opened the trunk of the car, looking over his shoulder at them, and hunched at the tire to loosen the lug nuts.

“This ain’t a show,” he said.

“It is to us.”

“Suit yourself.”

When Ratso struggled with the last stubborn lug nut, Giles flicked his still lit cigarette butt at the redhead, who was standing in space, bouncing it off her midriff. She squealed in outrage, Ratso twisted toward her, and Giles, Rocky, Karol, and Bartek rushed him, two from the front and two from the back.

As Ratso started to stand up, Karol kicked him as hard as he could in the groin, the holstered gun Ratso trying to reach adding insult to injury. He doubled over, grabbed his stomach, fell over, and lay on the ground in a fetal position. His eyes ran rainwater and he threw up.

Bartek threw a muslin cloth bag over Ratso’s head and tightened the drawstring. Karol tied his hands behind his back with clothesline. Bartek reached into Ratso’s pants and pulled out the holster with the small revolver. He went to the passenger side front door and tossed the holster and gun into the glove box of the Chevy.

While Giles and Rocky hauled Ratso to Karol’s hunk of junk behind the Public House, Bartek turned to the redhead.

“Vamoose,” he said sharply. “And keep your mouth shut, or we’ll take you next.”

She backed away, smoothed her skirt, gave him a smile, cute cunning snaky light on her feet, and walked back into the Public House.

“Durna mergaite,” Giles said.

“Yeah, but steamy,” Rocky said.

“Going to be a hell-wife.”

At the mouth of the intersection they heard a bullhorn, “Get your hot knishes, I got to send my wife to the Catskills, get your knishes.”

The truck was light blue dented and dirty. It was three-wheeled, a cab pulling a cart, with a Saint Bernard-sized pretzel on top. A sign on the side said, “Hot knishes & pretzels, 10 cents, 3 for $.25.”

“Hey, what kind of knishes do you have?

“I have kasha or potato.”

“I’ll take three potato.”

“Sorry, all I have is kasha.”

There was a tin saltshaker tied by a string to the cart. The pastry was hot with buckwheat groats inside. The brown bag the street vendor put them into instantly became saturated with enough oil to deep fry three more knishes. He poured in a handful of salt.

“You’re out of your neighborhood, working late,” Giles said.

“It’s my wife,” the Jew said.

Giles and Rocky both got bottles of cold Orange Crush.

“Thanks, boys, we’ll settle up tomorrow,” said Karol when Ratso was safe and sound in the trunk, his feet tied together and hogged to his bound wrists so that he lay like a sad sack of potatoes on his side, still groaning.

Giles touched his forefinger to his thumb and pointed the remaining three fingers of his right hand straight up.

Karol and Bartek drove to Sunset Park, turned onto 53rd Street at 3rd Avenue, and finally pulled into and parked behind a three-story abandoned brick building. On the side of the building a painted billboard advertising “R. Moses & Son, Men’s Clothes” was fading away. The storefront’s windows were boarded up and the other windows on every floor were dark.

They manhandled Ratso through a back door and into a small featureless room. A table lamp on the floor tried to make sense of the dark with a 40-watt bulb. Stan was standing in a corner in the shadows smoking a cigarette. They dropped Ratso on the floor. Bartek stood sentry at the door.

“Let him loose, except for his hands,” said Stan.

Karol untied Ratso’s feet, yanked the bag off his head, and moved back to stand next to Bartek. Stan stayed where he was, in the gloom. Ratso stayed where he was, too. He felt better, but he still felt horrible. He had a weird stomachache.

“Tell me about Jackson Pollack,” said Stan.

“I don’t know no Polacks,” said Ratso.

“You know us now,” Karol said under his breath.

“Not Polacks. I said Pollack, as in Jackson Pollack, the painter.”

“I don’t know no painters.”

“Why did you jump my associate the other night?”

“I don’t know no associates. Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

“I don’t know how your sack is feeling, but if it was me, I wouldn’t want it to happen again, especially not now, not so soon,” said Stan.

“What do you want?”

“What were you doing in the middle of the night outside the shrink’s office? Why did you jump my man? What does Jackson Pollack have to do with Big Paulie?”

“You’re a dead man when Luca finds out about this,” Ratso said, terse vehement.

Stan stepped forward, bent down, and framed an inch with his fingers in Ratso’s red face.

“You’re this close to being a dead man,” he said.

He aimed a kick at Ratso’s nuts. The little man rolled over in a flash. Stan kicked him in the side, aiming for his kidney. Ratso gasped in pain and rage. Stan stepped over him, bent down again, nose to nose with the convulsing thug.

“You’re going to tell me what I want to know,” he said.

It didn’t take long. After Ratso Moretti ratted out Big Paulie and Park Avenue and they had hog-tied him again, Stan Rittman stopped at a phone booth on his way home, the cab driver waiting at the curb, and called the desk sergeant at the 17th Precinct. He told him where to find Ratso, told him he wanted to confess to assaulting Ezra Aronson four nights earlier, and wanted to be held in custody for his own protection.

“Does he need medical attention?” asked the sergeant.

“No, he’ll be fine, just a few bumps and bruises.”

“What do I tell the captain? Is anybody going to be looking for Morelli, trying to spring him?”

“Nobody except his bad girl knows anything, but she was a good girl the last we saw her and promised to stay quiet. Ratso’s car is just outside the Public House in Vinegar Hill. His gun is in the glove box. It’s a Chiefs Special.”

“You don’t say.”

“You might want to have that gun run up, ballistics might find it matches something.”

“OK, we’ll have a car there in five minutes-or-so.”

Ten minutes later three policemen and a plainclothes officer spilling out of two cars flash-lighted their way into the back of the building, hauled the left in the lurch Ratso Moretti out the door, untied him then handcuffed him, tossed him face first into the back of one of the radio cars, and drove him to the 17th Precinct, forcing him into a basement cell at the end of a hallway, and forgetting about him for the rest of the next week.

Thirty minutes later Stan Rittman was home in Hell’s Kitchen, in one of his two orange wingback armchairs, a bottle of Blatz on the coffee table, while Mr. Moto licked his chops on the sofa on the other side of the table. Stan took a pull on his bottle of beer and watched the cat. He thought about getting another one to keep him company, but Mr. Moto didn’t seem to mind his solitary life.

He slept and ate and slept some more. He went out on the prowl. Sometimes he sat on the fire escape, seeming to be thinking.

Mr. Moto liked Puss ’N Boots best, fish followed by chicken followed by beef followed by any other meat. He wasn’t picky. He didn’t think it did any harm to ask Stan for what he wanted, since the story of cats was the story of freeloaders. Stan kept Mr. Moto carnivorous with his poker winnings.

“Puss ‘N Boots adds the Plus!”

He wasn’t a mixed-up cat. He lived day-to-day, every day a new day, taking what came his way. He liked fresh water and food in the morning, a long nap from late morning into the late afternoon, and a clean supply of Kitty Litter when he couldn’t get down to the flowerbeds.

“Ask Kitty. She Knows. It absorbs and deodorizes. Takes the place of sand.”

Stan had stopped at Manganaro’s Grosseria Italiana, on his way home, a sandwich shop, restaurant, and grocery on 9th Avenue, for a slice of Hero-Boy. The entire six-foot hero, if you wanted it, was 22-pounds and cost $16.50. The wait staff was surly, but the sandwiches were worth the wait. He took a bite, chewed, and washed it down with his beer.

Ezra was out of the hospital. He would stop and see him tomorrow morning, tell him they had snatched Ratso, who had spilled his guts, but it still wasn’t clear what was going on. It looked like Dr. Baird had engineered Jackson Pollack’s death somehow, but why? Where was the pay-off in it? Vicki said that since Jackson Pollack had died unexpectedly, had died young, and had simply died, there weren’t going to be any more paintings by him. Since he was well known, by collectors and museums, prices for his art were going to go up.

“He was in demand, now he’s in big demand, especially the drip paintings,” she said. “But nobody kills a painter to make a profit on his art, not even in New York. It’s a long-term investment, not like kidnapping somebody for the ransom.”

He would sort it out next week. Stan finished his sandwich, finished his bottle of beer, and went to bed. Mr. Moto followed him, curling up just inches from Stan’s face, and was asleep fast faster fastest. He had never been bothered by insomnia. In the middle of the night, in the middle of a dream, he pricked up his ears.

Mr. Moto could smell a rat when he had to. When he went to the bedroom window, though, it was just a ladybug on the sill. It was red with black spots. He stretched up on his hind legs and sniffed the bug, which opened its wings, flew in circles, and landed on his nose.

“Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly away home. Your house is on fire. Your children shall burn!”

Mr. Moto believed ladybugs were lucky. He believed when a ladybug landed on you your wishes would be granted. He also believed it was unlucky to harm them. He licked the bug off his nose and spat it out through the open window. He jumped on the ledge, crouched, and watched the bug fly out into the big city.

In his jail cell at the bottom of nowhere, Ratso Morelli tried to stare down the big brown rat staring at him. The rat wasn’t having any of it. Nobody was going to stare him down in the rat homeland.

Four hours later, near the end of the night, near the onset of dawn, while a dead on his feet policeman watched, now that it was all over and the car had been searched and dusted for fingerprints, a tow truck hooked the new Chevrolet with a flat tire and dragged it off Vinegar Hill to the NYPD Tow Pound..

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, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Dancing the Night Away

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was, like…” he stuttered.

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

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

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

“Jake, Jess kissed Bert,” I said.

“What? Are you kidding me?”

“No, dude, I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

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

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

“Yeah, gangster,” I thought out loud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NO WAY! BELIEVE ME!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Ropes

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By Ed Staskus

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

   All the guys rated girls, one way or another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “I met a boatload of lookers that way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “You’re not getting together with him?”   

   “No,” she said, “of course not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “What?”

   “The account is at zero,” the man said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Nick rubbed his face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “That’s up to you.”

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

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

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

   They glared at each other.

   “Quit it.” 

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

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

Six Oysters Ahoy

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right, but what about dinner?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s they?” asked Frank.

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

She wondered, how could you tell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kaela Barnett is our chef.”

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

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

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

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

“Me, too.”

“Are you oyster connoisseurs?” asked Kieran.

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

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

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

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

“What wine goes with oysters?” asked Vera.

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

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

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

“That’s what I’ll do,” said Vera.

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

“Oh, Frank, try one,” said Vera.

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

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

Kieran handed him a Lucky Lime.

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

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

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

Frank looked down at the liquid-filled half shell.

“From the wide end,” said Kieran.

He slurped the oyster into his mouth and swallowed it.

“Now you’re a pro,” said Vera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blackberry Point was very salty.”

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

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

“No, its like wine,” said Kieran.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want dessert?” asked Kieran.

“Do you have carrot cake?”

“It’s made here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where You Are.”

“I know where we are,” said Vera.

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

“Aha, I see,” said Vera.

“Hustle it up, we’re almost late.”

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

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

Photograph by Vanessa Staskus

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