Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

In Hot Water

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My uncle Justinas Jurgelaitis was a short man with a long face and a bald dome fringed with tufts of gray. He lived in Marijampole, in southern Lithuania, and after I met him for the first time, every time I went back to Lithuania, I stayed at his house, even though they didn’t have any indoor plumbing or running water.

He was always in hot water, though. Everybody loved Justinas. That was the problem. At least, that was the way his wife saw it.

“He’s constantly coming home with bobby pins in his hair,” Janina complained.

Plenty of women liked him. Even Rasa Jurgelaityte, his niece, dolled herself up when she visited, in a bluish-purple shag rug kind of sweater, drinking strong tea with him. There wasn’t anything sinister in it. He had an Andy Kaufman meets Roger Moore vibe about him, niece or no niece.

When Justinas moved to Marijampole fewer than 20,000 people lived there. It was a small town. More than forty years later about 40,000 people lived there. It was still a small town.

He routinely wore a sports coat or a suit jacket. Whenever the weather was bad, he wore a herringbone newsboy cap. He was good with his hands, deft and quick on the uptake. His face was wrinkled, he could look gnomish, but he was always smiling. On the inside Justinas was cheerful and more on the kinder side than not.

Nobody ever told him how young he looked, so he never heard how old he was. He was born a year after World War One ended, on a family farm near the border with East Prussia, one of eleven children, six of whom survived infancy. He was a cavalryman in the Lithuanian army when World War Two broke out. The war only lasted a few days, though, after the Red Army sent nearly a half million men and mechanized regiments into the Baltic states.

He had trained as a tailor when he was a teenager. He went back to it, and after the war, and all during the Soviet occupation, the forty-five years of it, practiced his trade. He got married and fathered four children.

He could be flat out funny. He played the accordion like it was time for a good time. Justinas belted out songs, too. He was the life of the party. He wasn’t planning on going to the grave with any music left inside him. He was in a good mood most of the time, which was surprising. Until 1990, ten years after I first went there, when the Soviets finally got the boot, Lithuania was a gray concrete country, unhappy Commies and unhappy Lithuanians in the grip of the Commies.

There were busts and statues of Lenin everywhere. Vladimir didn’t look remotely happy or even cheery in a single one of them. Justinas was tickled pink to be alive, happy even in the dark behind the Iron Curtain.

He was one of the nicest men I ever knew, although if you messed with his pigeons or his private Idaho museum, you would probably get yours. When a neighbor’s cat mauled one of his favorite pigeons, Justinas got his shotgun, and hunted the cat down. He killed it in the street where he found it. The neighbor never said anything about it, either to him or the police.

Their house was small, two-story, and green. It backed up to railroad tracks. They had an electric stove, but no basement or furnace or propane. They heated the house with a fireplace and a Franklin-style stove. They burned coal, although Justinas said the stove could burn anything with hardly any smell or even much smoke. The driveway and road in front of the house were made of packed dirt. The road was slightly higher than the terrain but there were no side ditches for rainwater to flow to. Whenever it stormed the pathway turned into a quagmire. When it was sunny and dry, except for an occasional gigantic pothole, it was like driving on asphalt.

Justinas owned a black four-door late-70s Lada, manufactured by Fiat in collaboration with the Soviets. It was built like a tank. It had heavy steel body panels and man of steel components to make it more reliable on the bumpy roads and hard winters. It was a manual four-speed with slightly elevated ground clearance. The Lada was made to be worked on by its owners, which is what Justinas did. He changed the oil and the muffler and replaced the drum brakes when he had to. He had installed a rack on the top and kept the car body reasonably clean, although the inside was usually a dump. It wasn’t filthy dirty, just trashed.

They got gasoline from half-size pumps set on cinder blocks with ten-foot long snaky hoses because the concrete island at their neighborhood gas station was so wide.

Lithuanians celebrate wolves, bears, and moose. According to legend, Grand Duke Gediminas dreamt an iron wolf told him to create Vilnius and make the city his capital. The bear is a symbol of Samogitia, one of the country’s regions, and is part of the coat of arms of Siauliai, another region. The Lazdijai region features a moose.

Birds don’t take a back seat, though. Everybody likes the cuckoo because its call is said to sweep away the last bits and parts of winter. The pigeon – balandis – gets its own month, which is April – balanzio menuo.

There was a barn-like garage behind the house. Justinas kept his old sewing machines and tailoring goods on the ground floor. Upstairs, up a ladder, he kept a coop of rock pigeons. Even though they can find their way back home, even when released blindfolded far away, navigating by the earth’s magnetic fields, and even though they had carried messages across battlefields for the United States Army Signal Corps during both world wars, Justinas never let his pigeons go anywhere without him. They weren’t prisoners, exactly, but they were there to stay.

He loved his pigeons and they loved him. He fed them as well as he fed himself. He and his friends traded and bred them. There had been thefts of prized birds, so he kept a padlock fixed to the garage door. He kept a dog chained up to a doghouse in front of the garage, just in case.

He barked at me every time I went to the outhouse, like it was the very first time he had ever seen me. I tried to be nice to the dog, but that was a mistake. “Shut up already!” I finally shouted one day, and that took care of it. Our relationship after that was one of sullen civility.

Behind the garage was a chicken wire enclosure full of white rabbits. They raised them for the dinner table. When the time came Justinas would catch and pin one of the rabbits to the ground, put a stick across its neck, step on one side of the stick, quickly step on the other side of it, and then pull the rabbit upward by its hind legs, breaking its neck. After cutting off the rabbit’s head he would hang it upside down to clean it.

His wife seasoned and cooked the bunnies, frying and braising them and making stews.

There was a one-room museum on the second floor of their house. Nobody had ever stolen anything from it, but God pity the fool who tried. Justinas would probably have been compelled to commit murder. It was never locked, but you had to be invited. He never gave anything in his museum away, either, not even to his own children, although he traded with his friends, just like he traded his birds.

There was a glass case filled with gold and silver coins, military medals, and men’s pocket watches. There were framed pictures of Catholic saints, Lithuanian kings and politicians, and luxury steamships on all the walls. He had carved figures, including a big eagle, talons flexed, wings outstretched, its head thrust forward. He had a mint Victrola with a new needle, new springs, new crank and motor, and a burnt orange sound horn.

A dozen clocks, his prized possessions, hung on the walls. They were grandfather wood wall clocks with pendulums and chimes. Every one of them was set to a different random time. They all worked whenever he wanted them to work.

Two smaller rooms adjoined the museum on the second floor. They were bedrooms where his four children had grown up. Both of the rooms had pint-sized windows.

Justinas and his wife Janina were always accusing each other of having extra-marital affairs. She made great-tasting pancakes every morning. One morning while we were eating in the living room, since there wasn’t a dining room, she told her husband to go outside for a minute.

“Oh, my God, he’s such a womanizer, always chasing women,” she said out of the blue. I didn’t know what to say. She was in her late 60s and he was in his early 70s. He never talked about her, but she talked about him constantly. Somebody said she was the one having all the affairs. I never knew what to believe.

When he walked back in, he was smiling. He wasn’t planning on living a century and giving up all the things that make you want to live that long. “What were you talking about?” he asked innocently. He was the kind of man who believed it was best to die in the prime of life at a ripe old age.

I could have stayed at my other uncle’s house, Juozukas, who was younger by twenty years and lived nearby. They had running water and an indoor toilet. But I didn’t. Not that it wasn’t a pain in the butt. Justinas still used an old-school well wheel pulley. They had a beat-up red plastic bucket to get water and bring it into the house. Whenever I wanted to brush my teeth or wash my face, somebody brought me water in a glass bowl. The outhouse was beside the garage. They kept a pile of old newspapers and scraps of paper on a ledge inside the side door of the house. The first night I was there Janina gave me a bucket, in case I needed to go in the middle of the night and didn’t want to go outside.

I said no thanks and made sure to not drink anything too late into the evening.

They didn’t have a tub, either. The family went to a nearby public bath to take showers once a week. When I balked at that, telling him the outhouse was enough, Justinas told me he had a lady friend who had a bathtub. When we got there, it was full of potatoes. She took them all out, but when I ran the water it never warmed up above tepid. I took a bath anyway, since it was better than nothing.

Justinas was retired, but he was always out doing something, up to something.

”I have responsibilities,” he would say.

My uncle Sigitas and his wife had a big pig farm near Gizai, near where our entire mother’s side of the family had originally come from. Nobody knew what my uncle Juozukas did. He had a truck and could fix anything, including furnaces. He never got up in the morning at the same time and never went to work to the same place. Somebody said he worked for the government, but somebody else said that was crazy.

He had patched together a kiosk attached to the side of his house. The hand-painted sign said “Odds and Ends.” He and his wife sold soft drinks, chocolate bars, gum, and cigarettes. Every month he had to pay off the local Lithuanian Mafia. They got a cut of everything, including gum.

It was like Spanky and Our Gang.

Everybody complained about everything and they especially complained about money. I learned to never ask anybody what they did. “This and that,” is what almost everybody said. They were always going to Poland and across the Baltic Sea, bringing back clothes, food products, prescription drugs, as well as cigarettes and more cigarettes. They took contraband goods across borders without declaring anything or traversed woods and crossed rivers on the sly.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the empowerment of Lithuania, we collected donations from our family members and delivered enough cash on the barrel to Justinas so he and his family could get a proper bathroom built and running water installed. The lady of the house absolutely wanted a toilet and sinks with faucets.

When he came into the house from the garage, he said thanks, but no thanks. He said he had grown up and lived his whole life without it. He told me he wasn’t going to change anything more than he had to after all his years in this world. “I was coming down the ladder from the coop just now carrying a drink and a pigeon in the other hand,” he said. “Don’t try that when you get to be my age.”

I didn’t argue with him about the indoor plumbing. He asked if he could have the money, anyway. Since he was swimming upstream with Janina about the plumbing, I gave it to him, and we kept it between ourselves.

Juozukas Jurgelaitis, Justinas Jurgelaitis, and Rasa Jurgelaityte, 1994. Photograph by Rita Staskus.

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Farm Girl

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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 in the north. The area‘s identity was molded in the 19th century when it was a part of Congress Poland. Suvalkija was an agricultural region, 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. Their croplands were mainly devoted to sugar beets, a cash crop, harvested in the 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.

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Crackerjack in the Mess Hall

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“I see you’ve made it back,” said Michelle, sporting neato retro eyeglasses and handcrafted rings on nearly every finger of every hand. Waiting tables, delivering three four five plates at a time, is two-fisted three-fisted work.

“I have to try the pad Thai, after seeing the folks next to us digging into it the week before last,” said Vera.

‘That’s one of Emily’s best, definitely. Would you like to start with a drink?” she asked, one of the three grown-up servers on the floor the early September weekend evening.

“What is a good mixed drink?” asked Vera, running her eyes up and down the menu.

“Everything, but Kim can mix up anything if we don’t make it.”

“What is Straight Shine?”

“Shine.”

“Like moonshine?”

“It’s our island-made moonshine.”

“Like Ole Smoky in a mason jar?” asked Frank.

“Not the same, it’s served more like a margarita,” said Michelle.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” said Frank.

“My God, I might moonshine,” said Vera. “My grandfather used to make vodka at home. All his friends from Lithuania, who escaped during the war, would come over on Sunday afternoons after church, drinking the rest of the day, reminiscing, yakking it up, and singing their old country songs. OK, I’ll try it.”

“I’ll have a pint, something IPA,” said Frank.

Frank and Vera Glass were at The Mill, a restaurant on a high bank overlooking the River Clyde in New Glasgow, on Prince Edward Island, up the eastern Canadian coast. The eatery is in a two-story Dutch Colonial-like blue building built in 1896. It served as a community center and courthouse, among its many later incarnations. It was converted to a restaurant in the 1990s by the Larkin’s, nearby poultry farmers who are the largest turkey growers in the province.

“We used to have a guy in shipping, in the warehouse, from West Virginia, who brought back moonshine every time he went home for a visit,” said Frank, as Vera sipped her Straight Shine. “He always said you could tell it was good if you put a match to it and the flame burned blue. That meant it was good to go and wouldn’t make you go blind.”

Michelle walked up and lit the tea candle on their table.

“How is it,” she asked

“It looks good to me,” said Vera. “What I mean is, it tastes good.”

When the Larkin’s transitioned out of the dining room business twenty years later, The Mill stayed down home when PEI chef Emily Wells took over, putting her fusion-style stamp on the dining room.

Vera ordered the stir-fried garlic ginger cilantro lemon juice rice noodle fettucine pad Thai with lobster and Frank ordered the special, curry sweet potato soup, baby back ribs with mac and cheese, and dessert. It was East meets West meets Italy. Fusion cooking is the art of mixing ingredients and preparation styles from different cultures into a distinctive dish of tastiness.

The window Frank and Vera were sitting at had gone dark by the time they finished their dinners, although Vera was still on the last lap. She was a slow eater and her plate had been stacked. A quarter-moon in a cloudless sky reflected a milky light in the river. Frank leaned back in his chair as Vera lifted a final forkful to her mouth.

“Since we both ordered something new, why don’t we try something new for dessert, too?” Frank asked Vera.

They had eaten at The Mill several times the past three years and usually ordered coffee and carrot cake after dinner, since the carrot cake was about the best they had eaten anywhere.

“It’s better than my mom’s, and she’s a pro,” said Vera.

Vera’s mother was a freelance pastry chef in Cleveland, Ohio, who during the holiday season mixed in making website-ordered Russian Napoleon cakes, shipping them frozen solid all around the country by Fed-Ex next-day air.

“How about the chocolate cake that couple from Miami told us about?”  asked Vera.

“We move around the island a lot,” said the husband from Florida. “We’ve eaten at a lot of restaurants but overall this is our absolute favorite.”

“What’s so great?” said the lady of the house. “The unique combination of flavors and menu options, and there’s not a deep fryer in the kitchen! They’re dedicated to local food sourcing, which means super fresh food and vegetables. Make sure to try the chocolate cake even if you’re full. It’s made in-house and melts in your mouth.

“And the portions are large, too,” she added.

Unlike more than one restaurant with a swell reputation on Prince Edward Island, in the meantime serving prison camp portions at penthouse prices, The Mill gets it done with a square deal, even though it has as much, if not more, in the culinary arts to crow about.

“Do you bake this here?” asked Vera.

“Our baker does,” said Michelle.

“It’s totally delicious, the dark chocolate, if you want to let the baker know.”

A few minutes later a strapping young woman with disheveled hair walked up to their table.

“Did you make this?” asked Frank, pointing to the half-eaten slice of zuccotto he was sharing with his wife.

“Yeah,” said Anna, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Do you make the carrot cake, too?

“Yeah.”

“It’s our favorite carrot cake anywhere,” said Vera. “Your chocolate dessert is what chocolate dessert should taste like, up-to-the-minute. They can be boring, doing the same thing over and over again. This is definitely bomb cake, in more ways than one.”

“You seem awfully young to be making cake this good,” said Frank

“Yeah,” said Anna with a big smile.

“How old are you?”

“I’m 17-years-old,” said Anna. “I was 15 when I first started cooking here. I came in to work one day, I was bussing tables, and my boss said, you’re scaring everyone out there. You have to go into the kitchen. From that point on I’ve worked in the kitchen.”

“Scaring everyone?” asked Frank.

“Yeah, they said my personality was too big.”

“Too big?” said Vera.

“I was fourteen. How scary could I be?” asked Anna. “I guess I can be scary sometimes. Nothing’s really changed.”

“I told her when she worked out front that she was scaring the customers with her huge personality,” said Kim, the mixologist. “Now that she’s in the kitchen, she’s come up with pet names for all of us. We won’t talk about that, though. It can get gross.”

“What did you guys eat?” asked Anna.

“She had the Thai and I had the special. Last week we both had the big seafood chowder bowl,” said Frank.

“Ahhh,” said Anna.

“I’ve heard you have a name for it in the kitchen.”

“We have a pet name for it, yeah.”

“I tasted orange in the soup,” said Vera.

“Yup, there are orange peels, marinated, and bay leaves, that we take out right before service. We make our own fish broth, and our own vegetable broth, too.”

The new Mill, brainchild of Emily Wells, who was named one of the north’s top chefs by the Matador Network in 2016, serves fresh local food made with global flair. She works in a classic vein, adapting her recipes to what’s in place and on time. “You’re buying local lettuce, local tomatoes,” she said. “A huge chunk of it, it’s seafood season on PEI.” A graduate of the first class at the Culinary Institute of Canada, she cut her teeth in kitchens in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, and made a name for herself at The Dunes in Brackley Beach.

“I’ve been at it for thirty-five years,” she said.

“Oh, I’ve got mussels on the stove, back in a minute,” said Anna, striding out of the dining room.

“I thought Emily was making the desserts, or they were buying them from some high-end bakery,” said Vera.

“If that teenager is the pastry chef, all I can say is, she’s totally up to speed,” said Frank.

“Do you make all the desserts,” asked Vera, when Anna came back to their table.

“Yeah, I’m a line cook and the baker.”

“My mother is a pastry chef,” said Vera. “You’re very good.”

“How did you learn to bake so well?” asked Frank.

“Emily taught me. I‘m a quick learner. I learned a lot from my grandmother. I used to spend all my time with her when I was a kid. She taught me to pickle and bake.”

Not everyone is good with pastry, not by any means.

“I make no bones about it,” says Michael Symon, chef, author, and restaurateur. “I have no understanding of pastry.”

“Honestly, I hate to say this,” said Anna, “but my aunt makes an even better carrot cake than I do.”

“You’re early to be nearly as good as your aunt,” said Frank.

“Most of our staff is young,” said Anna. “Everyone in the kitchen is under 20, except Andrea and Emily. We have a 19-year-old, another 17-year-old, and a 13-year-old, who is my sister. Luke, our other prep, has three younger brothers who work here.”

“It’s like a family line on the line,” said Frank.

If you are under 16 in the province and want to work, you must have permission from your parents, only work between 7 AM and 11 PM, and not work in an environment that is harmful to your health, safety, moral or physical development, among other things. If you are over 16, those limits don’t apply.

“I’ll tell you about PEI and Atlantic Canada, it’s a culture of honest, hard work,” says Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Sometimes known as the “Million-Acre Farm,” farming is king on the island. Farming for a living is hard work. You won’t ever need a gym membership. There are some advantages. You are your own boss, you can go to work in boots and a dirty t-shirt, and you eat like a king.

“I started as a dishwasher,” said Anna.

Working the dish pit means long hours on your feet, getting wet a lot, and ending the day smelling like food and dirt. It’s not markedly different than farming.

“The kids are great,” said Kim. “Ours is a teaching kitchen, so they get an education, and get paid. They all have a great work ethic. The little hostess, she’s fifteen, a crackerjack like Anna. It’s great to see that they want to work. I’ve worked in other places, and it’s like pulling teeth, all standing around. Here, they’re eager to learn and do.”

“A lot of people, their idea of baking is buying a ready-made mix and throwing in an egg,” said Vera. “I make carrot cake at home, but it’s just carrots and stuff. One of our cats likes a piece now and then. Yours is both more subtle and more complex.”

“The main spices we use are ginger, cloves, and cinnamon, and a bit of all-spice, and that’s about it.”

“The cake isn’t heavy, which is what I like,” said Frank.

“There’s pineapple in it.”

“The frosting is terrific,” said Vera.

“I couldn’t come to work yesterday,” said Anna. “I decided my cat died.”

“Oh, my gosh, that’s too bad!” said Vera. “What happened?”

“She was an outdoor cat. I had her since I was six, I came home one day and asked, where’s my cat, but nobody had seen her for days. It’s been a month. I sat outside in my lawn chair until it got dark, but she never came back. I’m pretty sure she got eaten by a coyote.”

After paying the bill, Frank and Vera lingered at the rail on the front deck. The band that had been playing in the loft was in the parking lot, still hooting it up. The night air was damp but brisk. The moon hovered in the inky sky. Across the street, lights glowed over the bay doors of the New Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department.

“That girl might be one of the best 17-year-old pastry chefs no one has ever heard of, not anywhere, except for right here,” said Frank.

“Besides the known and the unknown, what else is there?” said Vera.

“That moonshine seems to have gone to your head,” said Frank.

“Ha, ha. Anyway, she’s got a big smile, big energy, and some scary cake talent. Somebody will hear about her, sooner or later.

There’s always a “Surprise Inside” every box of Cracker Jack.

They walked to the end of the deck leading to the side lot. Fluorescent lights blazed the windowpanes. Dishes clattered through the open windows, the kitchen staff having a gab fest as they cleaned up. They heard a rowdy high-spirited laugh, which followed them down the steps and stretch of gravel to their car.

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

 

Cabin Fever

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Most people practice most yoga indoors, the weather being what it is in North America. Yoga studios are almost always inside buildings, anyway. That is a good thing if it’s the middle of winter in Vermont or the armpit of summer in Mississippi, or fall winter spring on Prince Edward Island on the south side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Almost 120 inches of snow falls during the long winter season on PEI. Skiers going to Vermont are happy if 80 inches have fallen during the season. The wind off the ocean makes everything feel colder than it is on the island. Sometimes harbors are still frozen well into May.

Practicing indoors means being able to practice in the middle of a blizzard or a thunderstorm, or even a light sprinkle. It means practicing in a space set aside for exercise and breathwork, or just meditation, without interruption. It means being able to be consistent in one’s practice, a habit thought to be fundamental to gaining ground.

No rain checks are ever needed when unrolling a mat at your local studio or your basement recreation room. They are private spaces, spaces in which the environment is controlled. Lightning might strike, but it won’t be literal lightning.

Some practices, like Bikram Yoga, are performed indoors only, in sealed-up steam-filled rooms,, like heat-ravaged parts of the world in the grip of a post-modern climate change event, when you might as well be outside. Even then it probably doesn’t measure up to what Bikram Choudhury, the mastermind of hot yoga, calls his “torture chambers.”

Pattabhi Jois, the man who inspired and developed Ashtanga Yoga, on which most yoga exercise of the last half-century is based, recommended that it be practiced indoors.

“Outside don’t take,” he said. “First floor is a good place. Don’t go upstairs, don’t go downstairs.”

When asked about renegade yogis in India practicing in the forest, he simply said, “That is very bad.”

Although there are problems associated with practicing outdoors – including that it will inevitably defy the weather forecast and rain the one day you try it – people do it all the time, especially in places like southern California, where there are many classes like ‘Beach Yoga with Brad’.

“Ditch the confines of the indoors!” recommended CBS-TV Los Angeles, reporting from the great outdoors.

“If you’re doing yoga indoors then you’re cheating yourself,” said Sarah Stevenson, a Certified Yoga Instructor in Orange County. “The sun’s rays and fresh air provide not only improved physical health, but also spiritual and emotional wellbeing.”

It isn’t just sunny climes, either, that roll out the mat regardless of rocks and roots and biting bugs. From Missoula to Minneapolis, any place where the winters are long and dark, the sun-starved come out in droves in the summer.

Some don’t wait for the solstice.

Members of ‘Y-8’ routinely practice their Alsteryoga on the thick ice of the frozen-over Lake Alster outside the northern German town of Hamburg. They make sure to pull the hoods of their insulated sweatshirts over their heads when in headstand.

Whether it’s ice or sand or grass, the instability of ground outdoors makes for a challenging experience. Some people practice on paddleboards when the hard water of rivers and lakes has gone defrosted. “When you’re not on a solid wood floor surface, you end up using different parts of your body,” said Jennifer Walker, an instructor in Maine. “Outside, you end up engaging your core much more to stabilize your whole body.”

Although I oftentimes get out into our backyard in the summer, I still roll out my mat indoors because I’ve carved out a space I like at home, and because the weather in Lakewood, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, is unpredictable, while the midges and mosquitoes that fly up out of the Rocky River valley are predictable.

Sometimes, though, I jump the traces.

The three mostly sunny weeks my wife and I spent in North Rustico, on the north coast of Prince Edward Island, at the Coastline Cottages on the National Park road, I moved my mat and me outside. Sometimes in the morning, but more often in the afternoon, when the crab apple tree at the back of our cottage cast a convenient shadow, I unspooled on the grass and set about doing yoga exercises, warming up with sun salutations.

“When I practice outdoors, there is this amazing energy,” said Angela Jackson, an instructor in Oakville, Ontario. “I feel more connected to the earth, the birds, the animals, the sky, and to myself.”

I practiced almost every day, because we were on vacation with plenty of time, and because the days were warm and it was fair and breezy where we were on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. I was bitten every one of those days, sometimes more than less, by flying bugs, as well occasionally by black flies from the scrubby conifer woods beside the fifty acres of soybeans behind the cottages.

Prince Edward Island is predominately a farming and fishing province. There are croplands and cattle and fishing boats everywhere. A few years earlier we had stayed in a cottage next to a field and a barn full of cows. Every room in the cottage came equipped with a fly swatter. We made sure all the screens were safe and sound and in place.

The reason we feel more connected to the earth when we practice outdoors is because we are standing directly on the earth, on the soil and grass of it. PEI is made of soft sandstone and its soil is an iron oxide red. The contrast of bright green grass to the red land beneath a high blue sky on a summer day is often striking.

I saw lots of sky doing things on my back on my mat behind our cottage. Creeping crawling insects took shortcuts under me, the long way over me, or just bumped into me and zigzagged away. Seaside birds flew overhead. Most of them were cormorants, an easy to spot coastal bird with short wings and a long neck. There were plenty of wood warblers and a couple of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, darting in and out of the crab apple tree.

One afternoon behind our cottage a week-and-a-half into our early summer stay on the island, a grown-up red fox hunkered down and watched me for a long time. The fox surprised me, even though I knew they were all over the north shore. We had seen plenty of them, on the shoulders of roads, or the edge of woods, always looking for handouts.

From 1900 until the 1930s black silver fox farming – the silver fox is a mutation of the island’s ubiquitous red fox – was a cash crop on Prince Edward farms. Fox pelts were in high style, but cost an arm and a leg because they could only be got from trappers. No one knew how to raise them until in the 1890s two men, a PEI druggist and a farmer, perfected a way to domesticate and breed them.

It made many of the natives rich. The price for a bred fox pelt, never mind a trapped pelt, in 1910 was a jaw-dropping $1200.00. To put that into perspective, farm laborers on the island in 1910 averaged a dollar a day in pay for ten and twelve hour days.

The Great Depression and changing fashion crippled the market and by the 1950s fox farming was finished on Prince Edward Island. Most farmers simply let their animals loose. The foxes were probably glad to go, glad to be back on their own, glad to not have to be a fashion statement anymore.

“My grandfather raised horses, and kept foxes for their pelts,” said Kelly Doyle, a North Rustico lobsterman whose Coastline Cottages we were staying at. “But, then they weren’t cool anymore, so he let all the foxes out, and my father who couldn’t make a living at that became a farmer.”

Rubbing eyes with a fox in woods or fields used to be out of the ordinary, but sightings nowadays are commonplace.

“Whereas foxes once avoided human contact, they now venture up to parked cars, presumably looking for food,” said Ryan O’Connor, who grew up on PEI and is a historian of Canada’s environmental movement.

Although some of the issues with sun salutations in the great outdoors are bugs and bad weather or sometimes too much sunshine, rarely is the issue a wild animal. The foxes are wild, but not so wild, too. They live in woodlots and sand dunes, are intelligent and adaptable, and have no trouble living in close association with human beings.

One moonless night, sitting on the deck of our cottage overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, we heard a god awful noise somewhere out on the long dark sloping lawn. The next morning Kelly Doyle had to clean up the remains of a dismembered rabbit. Every fox hunts every night for mice voles rabbits.

I don’t know when the red fox slipped behind the adjacent cottage to ours. I saw him midway through my yoga series for the day, when I lengthened into plank from down dog and transitioned into up dog, and there he was, about fifty feet away from me.

There is a rule at the Coastline Cottages. “Don’t Feed the Animals.” The rule is to discourage foxes from loitering, looking for food for their kits. I hadn’t seen anyone breaking the rule, because who wants a fox at their door cadging for a handout? But there was the red fox, plain as day, behind the cottage next to ours, giving me the once over.

“They won’t bother you, or bite you,” Kelly had told us.

I had no reason to doubt him, so I continued what I was doing, sneaking a peek at the animal now and then. The fox wasn’t overly large, maybe 20 or 25 pounds, with a reddish-brown coat, white under belly, and a black-tipped nose. One of his eyes was cloudy, as though the animal had a cataract or been hurt.

He lounged and moved more like a cat than a dog, although foxes are a part of the dog family. His ears were triangular. When he cocked his head and his ears went up erect he resembled a Maine Coon cat with his muzzle in mousing position.

All during the rest of my yoga practice that afternoon the fox never made a sound, and even seemed to doze off for a few minutes. He stretched and yawned. When he left, moving away into the soybean field, he walked on his toes, heels off the ground, agile canny swift. No amount of yoga I ever did was ever going to get me to be able to move like that.

I didn’t see him again the rest of our stay.

Living north of the Mason-Dixon Line I am by necessity forced to do yoga indoors most of the time. But, moving one’s mat outdoors isn’t necessarily for the birds, if only because that’s where the energy is. The fountainhead is under the arching sky in the wide blue yonder.

In the world of yoga the word prana means energy or life force and pranayama means breathwork, or breathing exercises. To practice outdoors is to be immersed in the source of prana, whether you mean it as the source of life or simply as the air we breathe.

Bringing a breath of out in the country air into your body mind spirit is refreshing. Great wafts of it are even better. It’s no holds barred refreshing breathing in the old-school air of the island. There’s more air in the air on the edge of the ocean than there is in most other places.

There was more than enough of it for both the red fox and me the sunny day we shared it, both of us dwarfed by a sweeping horizon and puffy white clouds blowing out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, behind a small cottage next to a soybean field.

“How was it?” my wife asked when I stepped back into the cottage.

“It was a breath of fresh air in my brain,” I said.

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

 

Dancing the Night Away

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I went to our Homecoming dance at St. Mel’s with a girl friend. She wasn’t a girlfriend, just someone who happened to be a girl. Nobody is allowed to go by himself or even with another guy, no matter what kind of friends you are. You have to have a date to go to Homecoming. The dance was 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. St. Mel’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.

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

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

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

“I was, like…” he stuttered.

Allan was angry about it and I wasn’t happy, either, 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, and blonde. She’s 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 sad and really down. Then he jumped her on the spot, surprising everybody.

“Yeah, gangster,” I thought out loud.

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

“We’re done,” he said, flashing his thumb and finger and walking away. He dumped her on the spot. Her jaw dropped. She was left standing there. Jake wasn’t blue 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 totally 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 sweet contract for himself to drug test us, so now it’s drinking instead of drugs. At least it is during the school year. It doesn’t even do any good to shave your head, because they 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 adults get involved. They’re so crazy they make everybody crazy.

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

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

It’s mostly about being rebellious. 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. Honestly, they just wouldn’t, 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 cigs 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 rowdydowdy. It’s sweaty and the tang is bad, like 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 in together and the teachers are stuck and dumbstruck on the outside.

Not everyone crams into the mosh pit, but a large crowd does, for sure. There’s a stage at the front of the gym and everybody swirls it, surging in tight, and facing whichever which way 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 shirt and tie. The girls look sweet. 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 me. 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. There’s a strict rule that you will get kicked out of the dance for doing it, but none of the teachers can ever get into the mosh pit, so hardly anybody ever gets caught.

They will mark your hand with a Sharpie if they do catch you, which Mr. Rote does all the time, and 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. It was funny to all of us although he wasn’t laughing. 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 had their cell phones and was looking through all their messages.

St. Mel’s is a private school. They aren’t funded by the state. They don’t have to stick to the state rules like the public schools. They can’t hit you, but they can, if they want to. If a teacher hit me I would be very, VERY upset, but they can do just about anything. THEY CAN DO WHAT THEY WANT! 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 look at you and there’s nothing you can say. They can drag you away. I don’t even know all the stuff they can do.

They can kick you out of school, for sure. If you do something bad it is suddenly Steck Time. He is the Dean of Students, who is a very 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.

Nobody ever believes you and they even resent your explanations. I’ve heard of some kids who got thrown out once-and-for-all for good. 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, 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 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 all around. 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 Catholic girls can be even worse than regular bad girls. They can go to extremes, like wanting a guy more than regular girls do. They just want to have boyfriends. They want to have somebody, anybody, they can say is their boyfriend, someone to be on their hip side. They are thirsty for guys, like bright-feather 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 more 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.

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

I have some good friends who go to Mag’s, but St. Joe’s, no. St. Joe’s girls are Catholic girls all out. They are ever not so nice. I will run 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 tends to be that the public school girls are the nicer girls. They can be like your friends right out of the box and they are sincere 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.

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

 

 

 

My Two Best Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those days were gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I made some new best friends.

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

Six Oysters Ahoy

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“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

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