Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

Rolling Up the Carpet

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By Ed Staskus

“If you are a lighthouse, you cannot hide yourself. If you hide yourself, you cannot be a lighthouse.”  Mehmet Murat ildan

When Mary Smith picks up a fiddle, she’s got about 20 years of life with it behind her. When she picks up a guitar, she’s got about 70 years behind her. When she plays the mandolin, organ, or piano, it’s anybody’s guess.

“We always had music at home,” she said. “My dad played mouth organ and step danced. When I was growing up there was no TV, so the thing to do was have house parties.”

Home was the North Rustico lighthouse on the north-central shore of Prince Edward Island, and later a house her father, George Pineau, built up the road on Harbourview Drive. George and his wife Ruby rolled up the oilcloth on weekends. The kids were sent to bed.

“They would have three or four couples come over, cook up a big feed of salt fish and potatoes, and play music,” said Mary. Her father would jig for dancing and play ‘George’s Tune’ on his harmonica.

“We used to sneak down the stairs. I always wanted to be a part of it. I thought, if I can get a guitar, and learn to play it, I could stay up and play for them. My dad wanted me to play a fiddle, but I wouldn’t bother with it. I kept asking for a guitar, and eventually he ordered one.”

It came from Sears, Roebuck & Co. It was a Gene Autry Round-up guitar. Gene Autry was a rodeo performer and crooner. He was “The Singing Cowboy” in the movies. His name was inscribed on the guitar. A cowboy riding herd swinging a lariat above his head was stencil-painted on the front. She still has it, although it’s not part of her gear on the road nowadays.

“I learned how to play a few chords.”

Square dancing was popular in her neck of the woods, and even so there were several good fiddlers, there were no guitar players. As she became more accomplished on her Round-up, she began accompanying fiddlers at local dances.

The North Rustico lighthouse was her home when she was a child. Although not many children are born at home, it was where she was born. She didn’t go far that first day, but was tired by the move, and slept the rest of the day.

Only about 1% of babies today are delivered outside of a hospital. Until the 20thcentury most women gave birth at home. When someone was ready to go, her friends and relatives and a midwife would help. As late as 1900 about half of all babies were still brought into the world by midwives. By the 1930s, however, after the advent of anesthesia, only one of ten were delivered by them.

Not many were delivered by a neighbor, either.

“There was nobody else around,” said Mary Smith. “If you stayed home to have a baby, somebody had to help out.”

The lighthouse was built in 1876 on the North Rustico beach, a pyramidal white wooden tower and attached living space. Eight years later it was moved to the entrance of the harbor. George Pineau was the keeper of the lighthouse from 1925 until 1960, when the beam was automated.

“My grandfather was lighthouse keeper for many years, and my father was the keeper for 34 years. I lived in the lighthouse until I was 8-years-old.”

Mary grew up on the harbor road, where she has moved back to and lives to this day, as a kid running the mile-or-so up and down the street from one end to the other with her kid brother and sister. Fish factories canned lobster and salt fish, shipping it to the United States and West Indies. Fish peddlers loaded horse-drawn wagons and small trucks, selling cod, herring, and mackerel door-to-door.

A three-story hotel stood on the rise across the street from the present-day Blue Mussel Café.

“My Aunt Angie bought it, tore it down, and built a house with the lumber. My dad was laid back, but his twin sister was a fiery person.” Her father was a fisherman, working hard, but enough of a go-with-the-flow man to be able to live to 103 before he was laid to rest.

In the summer Mary fished for smelt and sold them for a penny a dozen to tourists. When she had a pocketful of pennies she ran to the grocery store on Route 6.

“You could buy a lot of candy for three or four cents.”

There were two schools serving the community, one Protestant and one Catholic. “In them days the Protestant and Catholic relationship wasn’t great,” she said. When the Stella Maris school in North Rustico burned down in the early 50s, classes were organized in the church until the school was rebuilt.

“I was in grade 10 when I quit,” said Mary. “You can’t quit now, but we went to work early back then.”

Many secondary students dropped out of school. There were plenty of entry-level jobs in agriculture and the fisheries. As late as 1990 the dropout rate on Prince Edward Island was 20%. Today, it is 6%.

She moved to Ontario, worked, came back to PEI, met her husband-to-be, Al Smith, a Nova Scotian who was seasonal fishing out of the town harbor, and they got married when she was 18-years-old.

When they had a son and made their home, at the far end of the harbor mouth, it was in North Rustico. “We had a deep-sea fishing business.” Fishing, along with farming and tourism, drive the economy on the island. Shellfish like mussels and lobsters are the mainstay. Mary kept house, raised their son, and lent a hand with the gear. She mended nets, repaired pots, crafted trap muzzles. She mixed their own cement runners for weights to sink the pots.

“The twine in the traps, what we called the hedge, we used to knit all those by hand. Nowadays they buy all the stuff.”

She stayed on shore more often than not. She was prone to seasickness, a disturbance of the inner ear. It especially wreaks havoc with balance. Christopher Columbus and Lord Nelson both suffered from it.

One day, just as that year’s fishing season was about to start, Al Smith’s hired man told him he was moving west in search of better prospects. He would have to look for another helpmate right away. “Well, Mary would never go because she gets seasick,” said one of their neighbors. That evening she told her husband, “I guess I’m going fishing in the spring.”

“Oh, God, it’ll be too hard for you,” said Al.

“There’s no women fishing in Rustico, and they say I can’t do it, so I’m going to go,” said Mary. She shortly became the fishing fleet’s first girl Friday.

There are several ways of battling motion sickness. Cast off well-rested, well-nourished, and sober. Insert an ear plug in one ear. Keep your eyes on the horizon. Riding it out is sometimes, unfortunately, the only remedy.

Al and Mary Smith fished together for four years. They fished for lobster, mackerel, cod, and tuna. “It took me four years to get over being seasick,” she said. A sure cure is sitting down under your own roof on dry land four years later.

“I couldn’t physically lift the traps, they were too heavy, but I could slide them,” she said. “My husband would haul them up and push the trap to me. I would take the lobster out and rebait the trap, slide it down the washboard to the back with the movement of the boat, and kick it off. There was rope all over, so you had to watch where your feet were, because there’s fathoms of rope and it’s going over fast.

“On a nice morning, going out to work, the sun coming up, we would look back and see the green and red of Prince Edward Island. It was beautiful. It was good work.”

When the work was done, she cast about for another kind of work.

“I always loved to draw,” she said. “So, when I wasn’t fishing anymore, and our son was grown up, I talked to my husband about it.”

“Why don’t you take a course?” said Al.

“Someday I’ll do that,” said Mary.

Someday came sooner than later and she enrolled in a two-year commercial design course at Holland College in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. The community college is named after British Army surveyor Captain Samuel Holland, offers more than 150 degree pathways, and more than 90% of its graduates find employment.

Two years later, art degree in hand, she decided she wanted to teach art. She thought, I’ll go to the University of Prince Edward Island and get a teacher’s license. She went to see the Dean of Education at UPEI.

“What education do you have?” asked Roy Campbell, the dean.

“I only have grade 10,” she said.

“Well,” he said.

She had brought a long list of courses she was interested in taking. He looked at the list. “Well,” he said, “you should be realistic. I suggest you not take more than three courses at any one time.”

“That was kind of insulting,” said Mary.

She thought, he thinks I probably can’t even do three. I’ll show him. I’ll take six.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “That was a mistake. It was a hectic time.”

It got more hectic her second year, when she entered the world of 400 level courses.

“I took a course on Dante, which was really crazy,” she said. “I’m never going to make it through this. I thought about it for a while and thought the only way I’m going to be able to pass this course is if I draw it. So that’s what I did.”

She put her all into drawing the Circles of Hell. Her professor had never gotten a paper like that. “He was thrilled with it.” She got an A in the course.

“I got my teacher’s license. I proved that I could do it.”

She taught at a private art school in Summerside and lent a hand aprt-time at Rainbow Valley in nearby Cavendish during the summer season until, in 1990, her husband of 34 years unexpectedly and suddenly died.

“He was great guy,” she said.

“I decided to do a 3-dimensional sculpture of Al as he was, as a fisherman.”

At first, her plan was to make the commemorative sculpture in cement. “But then I thought, we had just gotten a new fiberglass boat, so I could do it in fiberglass.” It was an idea that would remake reinvent regenerate her from then until now.

The boat was a Provincial, built by Provincial Boat and Marine Limited in Kensington, less than 20 miles west on the north coast. “Earl Davison had a fiberglass plant in Kensington and was producing great fiberglass boats.” They are known for their speed and durability. They are sometimes called “lifetime boats.”

Mary went to Kensington to see Earl, who also owned and operated Rainbow Valley.

“I went to see him, and I said, I’ve got something that I’d like to do in fiberglass, so he said, I’ll come down to look at it. He came down to the house this one day and looked at my plan. I got a call a few days later. He offered me a full-time job instead.”

“I need an artist,” said Earl.

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” she said.

The sculpture of Al Smith got made and Mary went to work full-time at Rainbow Valley in Cavendish, a hop skip jump away from her home.

She never left. She worked 7 days a week May through September until the water safari adventure amusement park was purchased by Parks Canada in 2005. It has since been christened Cavendish Grove and become conserved land with a network of walking trails.

Rainbow Valley, named after Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1919 book “Rainbow Valley,” was 36 years of waterslides, animatronics, swan boats, a sea monster, a monorail, roller coaster, and a paratrooper, castles and suspension bridges, and a flying saucer gift shop. “We tried to add something new every year,” said Earl. “That was a rule.” The other rule-of-thumb was families with smiles plastered all over their faces.

“The most important thing you could do for somebody was to have them all together as a family and help make memories,” said John Davison, Earl’s son who grew up running around the park and as a grown man worked there. “Some of the memories you hear are from people whose parents aren’t with them anymore. But they remember their visits to Rainbow Valley with their parents and those experiences last a lifetime.”

Earl Davison had envisioned the park in 1965, buying and clearing an abandoned apple orchard and filling in a swamp, turning it into ponds. “We borrowed $7,500.00,” he said. “It seemed like an awful lot of money at the time.” When they opened in 1969 admission was 50 cents. Children under 5 got in free. In 1979 he bought his partners out and eventually expanded the park to 16 hectares. Most of the attractions were designed and fabricated by him and his crew.

“Rainbow Valley was a unique place to work, because Earl was so creative,” said Mary.

“Mary had a talent,” said Earl. “She could see things, create things, draw, and she seemed to always be able to draw what I told her about.”

He told her about rum running on the island, when there had been a total ban on alcohol from 1901 until 1948. Smugglers laid low off Cavendish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, avoiding Coast Guard cutters, hiding kegs of hard liquor in the sand dunes and woods at night. When the kegs were empty fishermen often used them to salt mackerel in, the smells of rum and salt fish mixing it up.

She sketched out what became an animated simulated dark ride about booze and bootleggers.

“Mary designed it,” said Earl. “She did all the faces for the characters and helped dress them, too.”

At the end, an animatronic man coming home with a keg of rum in a handcart tells his protesting wife it’s molasses. “Don’t you lie to me,” she says. He takes a step between his wife and his handcart. “I would never lie to you, my smuckins, and if this here’s rum, may lightning strike me right here where I stand.”

Every day, morning noon and night, a thunderous crack of lightning struck him where he stood.

In the early 90s Mary approached Earl about mounting a music show. It became Fiddlers and Followers, which became the North Rustico Country Music Festival, which is still going strong. The music festival, staged over the course of a weekend every August at the town’s North Star Arena, concerts as well as workshops and jam sessions, brings together some of Atlantic Canada’s best-known down-home old-time country bluegrass island-fiddling folk-inspired music makers.

“We’ve never missed a year. We’re getting older, but I still get really pumped up about it,” said Mary.

Earl and the Rainbow Valley construction crew built a barn and a stage for Fiddlers and Followers, local talent was secured, and they fabricated a 24-foot fiddle to be a beacon at the front of the building.

“Earl provided the opportunity for it to start. I designed the big fiddle,” said Mary.

“It was a giant fiddle,” said Earl. In the event, it might have been even more gigantic, given the chance. “We coulda gone higher. It was Mary’s fault. She drew it to be 24 feet, so that’s what we did.”

In 2017 the giant fiddle was moved to the New Brunswick front lawn of fiddle champions Ivan and Vivian Hicks.

“Burns MacDonald and I did shows every day,” said Mary.

When she began playing with Burns MacDonald it was the first time in more than thirty years she played anywhere outside of home or at a house party.

He was the piano player. “I would be in the shop painting, doing artwork, and somebody would say, you’ve got to go for the show.” She would drop everything, grab a guitar, and run to the stage. “I never got tired.” Pete Doiron was their fiddler at the evening shows. “He was one of the best on PEI.” They played together three times a day for twenty-minute stretches.

The first time she heard Burns playing the piano she was working with her boss one floor down.

“I have to go see who that is,” she told Earl.

“I run upstairs, and it was this Burns MacDonald. I went over, stood by him and we started talking. He never stopped playing while he was talking.”

When she went back downstairs, she said to Earl, “You’ve got to hear this guy. He’s unreal.”

Burns MacDonald got hired on the spot and started playing during intermission of the Roaring 20s show then on stage. The next year he came from his home in Nova Scotia for the whole season, living in a trailer in the park. “He was there 14 years steady,” said Mary. “Everybody was just blown away by him.”

Shortly before his death Al Smith had gotten his wife a fiddle.

“We were at a show in Charlottetown and the entertainer was a fiddler. I thought, gee. someday I’m going to learn how to play a fiddle.” Her husband thought it was a good idea and bought her one. But when her husband passed away, Mary put the fiddle back in its case and put it away.

She took it out of its case after a bus tour she had organized to Cape Breton. Burns was the entertainer on the tour. “I said something about fiddles, and he said, you’ll never learn how to play the fiddle.” He might as well have thrown down the gauntlet as made a passing remark.

“That wasn’t the thing to say to me,” said Mary.

Since dusting off the fiddle she had quietly put away in the closet, and learning how to play it, she’s done well enough to receive the Tera Lynne Touesnard Memorial Award at the 2017 Maritime Fiddle Contest. “It was a humbling experience and one I really don’t deserve,” she said. “It’s a great honor, however, and one I’ll always cherish.”

She has also been made a lifetime member of the PEI Fiddle Association.

Mary came to the piano by misadventure.

She had agreed to be a co-host during an on-air fundraiser for Make-A-Wish. After finishing her stint at the station, she went home, but kept track of the auction. She noticed a keyboard valued at more than a thousand dollars wasn’t attracting many bids. She decided to prime the pump.

“I started bidding, figuring when it’s high enough, I’ll stop.” However, she got carried away. “I kept bidding. I thought, I can’t let them outbid me. Just as I put my last bid in, time ran out, and I ended up with the keyboard.”

It cost her $800.00.

“I couldn’t afford it, but it was a for a good cause,” she said. “When I got it home, I took my guitar, and since I knew the chords on it, I just figured them out on the piano. I have my own style.”

Being self-made means doing things your own way, no matter how much teamwork is involved.

When Mary Smith takes the stage at the North Star Arena, whether as one of the key organizers of the North Rustico Music Festival, or with guitar fiddle keyboards in hand, she is within sight of the lighthouse she was born in. There are 63 lighthouses on Prince Edward Island. About 35 of them are still active. The North Rustico harbor light is one of the operational ones, sending out five seconds of light every ten seconds.

Lighthouses, like music makers, aren’t narrow-minded about who sees their light. “When you play, never mind who listens to you,” said the pianist Robert Schumann. They shine for all to see. Without a guidepost, steaming into a dark harbor would be a mistake. Without music to brighten the day, getting up in the morning might be a mistake.

Music is in Mary’s bones. She plays with several groups, including Mary Smith and Friends, Touch of Country, and the Country Gentlemen. The North Rustico Choral Group, which performs for seniors, was her brainchild ten years ago.

“Music has been a big part of my life,” she said. “I’ve met so many great people, some really great friendships.” She plays in living rooms, at outdoor venues, and on motor coach day tours. She often plays at community centers.

“I see Mary’s performances at Sunday Night Shenanigans,” said Simona Neufeld, a local music buff and fun fan.

“Life would be pretty dull if you just sat at home and watched TV,” said Mary.

“I guess being born in a lighthouse, I have to be brighter. You have to keep going.”

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.

 

 

Katya in Asia Town

By Ed Staskus

   The Chinese started settling in the United States in the 18th century. Wherever whenever there were enough of them, they lived close to hand, building their own neighborhoods, appropriately called Chinatowns. There are more than 50 of them across the United States, including at least 16 in California alone.

   There are several of the towns within cities in New York City, the most famous one being in Manhattan. It’s the largest Chinatown in the country, spread out over 40 blocks and home to more than 150,000 Chinese-speaking residents.

   Cleveland, Ohio used to have a Chinatown, a colony at Rockwell Ave. near downtown. Immigrants settled in the area starting in the 1920s. After the Communist takeover of the mainland and into the 1960s more than 2,000 lived in the neighborhood. There was a row of Chinese restaurants, among them the Three Sisters, Golden Coin, and Shanghai, as well as two grocery stores between East 21st and East 24th. Storehouses in the district supplied native eateries one end of the city to the other. There was a temple and a meeting hall.

   Chinatown went into sharp decline in the early 1970s and a few years later, when I moved into what was becoming Asia Town, there wasn’t much left. Most of the residents moved to the suburbs and by the 1980s there were only two half-empty restaurants holding on, catering mostly to business folk and occasional tourists looking for the city’s historic Chinese quarter.

   Asia Town is roughly from East 18th St. to East 40th St. and from St. Clair Ave. to Perkins Ave. It has the highest percentage of Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese in Ohio. When I lived on East 34th St. between Payne Avenue and Superior Ave. in the mid to late 70s, there weren’t as many yellow faces yet but they were everywhere. There were dirt poor whites, dirt poor blacks, and a recent influx of college students. It wasn’t as present-day as it would become after the 1990s when Asia Plaza was built at East 30th St. and Payne Ave., when it became a business as well as a residential community.

   My roommate Carl Poston was tall, walked with a lanky slouch, and wore a mop of twisty black hair. Everybody called him Erby. He never said why, and I never asked. He liked to read, tearing through the Plain Dealer newspaper every morning, and liked to play chess, like me, but was better than me. He had a bad-ass motorcycle and several bad-ass friends with motorcycles. He worked downtown for the city helping crunch numbers and delivering bad news as Cleveland went under.

   In 1978 the city became the first one in the United States to go bust since the Great Depression. After the bankruptcy it became known as the Mistake on the Lake, a nickname nobody in the hometown liked. When Mayor George Voinovich showed up at a Cleveland Indians game against the New York Yankees in the 1980s wearing a t-shirt under his sports coat, the t-shirt said, “New York’s the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.” Only the Asians liked the plum thing, since plums represent purity and perseverance to them. Nicknames come and go but when Cleveland later became ‘The Land,’ nobody shook their heads in despair. It was far better than the mistake and the plum.

   Our house on East 34th St. was behind another house. There was no backyard or garage. Almost all the houses on the west side of the street were that way. The houses across the street had backyards and most of the houses in the neighborhood had backyards. But there were some houses so tucked away one had to be looking right at them to see them. Our rent was more than reasonable, and my half was even better. The landlord lived in Strongsville. His grandmother lived in Asia Town, like me. In return for checking up on her at the beginning of the week and taking her to Dave’s Grocery at the end of the week, I lived almost rent-free.

   Her name was Katya, and she was hundreds of years old. She was five foot four something short and hunchbacked on top of that. She was always in her kitchen when I knocked on the side door, she always croaked “Come in, honey,” and when I went in, she always asked me what I wanted.

   She had three cats who I never saw. She kept a pan of water next to the door for them but no food bowls or litter. They were freeloaders, running down grub in the wild. She had a stack of old newspapers in a corner and the linoleum kitchen floor was usually covered with them. It was sketchy walking inside. The unfolded papers piled haphazardly on top of each other slid every which way. I had to walk like a duck to stay upright.

   “I keep my kitchen floor clean that way.” she said, peeling back the corner of a newspaper and showing me.

   She bought her clothes from third hand stores but bought her shoes new. She was crazy frugal, but she wasn’t crazy. She was built to last, and her feet had to lead the way.

   Katya was from Slovenia, from sometime back in the 19th century. Her parents were peasants from a village nobody ever heard of southeast of Ljublijana. They came to Cleveland to work in the steel mills in the 1890s. At first, they lived in Newburgh, but when a community started forming along East 30th St., from Lake Erie south to Superior Ave., they moved, finally landing on East 38th St. She still lived in the small house her parents bequeathed her.

   By 1910 there were so many Slovenes in Cleveland that it would have been the third-largest Slovenian city in the world if it was in Slovenia. The immigrants opened enough taverns to drown their New World blues and enough churches to repent their drinking. St Vitus was established in 1893, St. Lawrence in 1901, and St. Mary in 1906. Each had its own school. They published their own newspapers in their mother tongue and formed debating drama and singing clubs.

   The singing clubs were stamping grounds, as well. The Lira Singing Society, located in the St. Clair neighborhood, and adamantly Catholic, was opposed by the Zaria Singing Society, sponsored by atheists and socialists. Everybody knew what the arguments were about.

   Katya was married long enough to have two sons before her husband was shot by mistake by a policeman outside a Collinwood bank during a botched robbery. He bled to death before an ambulance could reach him. She buried him in Woodlawn Cemetery, never married again, raising her sons by herself. She took in sewing days and worked nights during World War Two. Her oldest son moved to Seattle and she never saw him again. Her younger son moved to the west side and had a family, but they didn’t want to visit her.

   “We aren’t going to your crazy grandmother’s house in that terrible neighborhood, and that’s final,” his wife said. What the woman didn’t know was that Katya kept a loaded Colt Pocket Hammerless in her kitchen table drawer. It was a single action blowback .32 caliber handgun.

   “Nobody going to shoot me by accident,” she said.

   Her eldest grandson loved her and made sure she had what she needed to stay afloat. She had a small pension and some social security, too. She told me she had silver dollars buried in the backyard, but quickly shot me a wily look.

   “Forget I say that.”

   When Katya’s husband Janez was buried in Woodlawn, it was the oldest cemetery in Cleveland, the first man being inhumed there in 1853. It was the worst cemetery in Cleveland, too. The Depression wrecked its finances. There were sunken graves, toppled headstones, grass never mowed, piles of rotting leaves, and broken tree branches all over the place. That was before the city found out Louise Dewald, who worked in the finance office, had stolen almost half a million in today’s dollars from the coffers as the Depression picked up steam.

   After that it got worse.

   The cemetery chapel roof and the rest of it collapsed in 1951 and was hauled away. The next year City Council thought about digging up and moving all the bodies somewhere else, but the public outcry was too great. Katya never stopped visiting Janez, no matter what, no matter what it took to get there. 

   One Friday walking her home from Dave’s Grocery she asked me if I could take her to the Slovenian National Home the next afternoon for a luncheon. 

   “I don’t have a car anymore, Katya, sorry.” My 1962 Rambler Custom Six, that I had gotten for free, was no more. When I got it, the car was already on its last legs. It was now rusting peacefully away in a junk lot somewhere up on Carnegie Ave.

   “Oh,” she said. “Maybe you walk with me there?”

   “It’s pretty far,” I said. I didn’t mention taking a bus. She distrusted the metropolitan buses getting to where they were going, ever since the city’s rail tracks had been torn up and the electric cars replaced with diesel transport. She believed half the drivers were addled from the fumes.

   The Home was almost thirty blocks away on East 64th St. and St. Clair Ave. At the rate she walked we would have to start as we spoke. After the luncheon we would have to walk the whole night to get back.

   “Oh, that too bad. Janez and I dance there all the time before he die.”

   “Let me see what I can do.”

   I asked my roommate Carl, in return for my washing the dishes, cleaning the house, and mowing our grave-sized plot of grass, if he would take her there and back.

   “It’s a deal,” he said.

   The next day he schlepped her to the Slovenian Home on his Harley, waiting outside smoking cigarettes and shooting the bull with passersby. She was a big hit with her cronies when they spilled outside after the gabbing and feedbag and saw her climb on the back of the hog, wrap her stumpy arms around Carl’s waist, and glide away.

   The Slovenian Home was where my Baltic kinsmen booked their big wedding receptions and celebrations. The Lithuanian Hall on Superior Ave. was too small in the 1960s and the new Community Center in North Collinwood wasn’t built yet. The Home opened in 1924, with two auditoriums, a stage, bar restaurant kitchen, meeting rooms, a gym, and a Slovenian National Library.

   The main auditorium was plenty big enough for any get together and the stage was plenty big enough for any band. The bar was big enough for even Lithuanians. Europeans drink more alcohol than anybody else in the world and Lithuanians are number one in Europe. Whenever I accompanied my parents to the Slovenian Home for a reception or gala, it was always a long night. There was a big dinner at big round tables, speeches, chatting it up, dancing, drinking, and as the drinking went on, singing. My father and his friends would booze it up well into one and two in the morning, singing “In the Sea of Palanga” and “The Old Roofs of Vilnius” and “Oh, Don’t Cry, Beloved Mother.”

   By then I was snoozing sprawled out in the balcony.

   Unlike our no backyard house Katya had a backyard where she grew Brussels sprouts cauliflower broccoli onions potatoes and anything else she could squeeze in. She liked prosciutto and bread for lunch. Sundays she made loads of yota with turnips beans cabbage and potatoes and a slab of meat loaf with hardboiled eggs in the middle. She kept it in the fridge all week, dinner at her beck and call.

   That fall I had to tell Katya that once the school quarter at Cleveland State University was over, I was going to have to take the next quarter off. I had found a job with an electrostatic painting outfit that was going to send me on the road, expenses like food and motels paid, for a couple of months. We were going to start in Chicago, swing out to the west coast, end up in Texas, and be back in time for the spring quarter at CSU. It was chance for me to earn good money and save almost all of it.

   “I going to miss you,” she said.

   We traveled in three-man crews and worked nights, from about 5:30 to about 1 in the morning. We worked in offices, painting office furniture like metal filing cabinets, desks, bookcases, and storage cabinets. The paint was loaded with a low voltage positive charge and the metal items magnetized negative. The finish was like new, no runs, no brush or roller marks, and there was almost no overspray.

   When I got back from my two-and-a-half months on the road, I picked up my cat Mr. Moto from my parents, did my laundry, and registered for classes for the spring quarter at CSU. I went to visit Katya that evening, but she wasn’t there anymore. The house was vacant. A “For Sale” sign was posted. I asked one of the neighbors, but he said he didn’t know much, just that a moving truck pulled up one morning and by the end of the day she was gone.

   I peeked through the windows. The ground floor rooms were all empty. The only thing left was a stack of old newspapers in a corner of the kitchen.

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

Mr. Moto Thinks Fast

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “What happened?”

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

   “Did you see their faces?”

   “No.”

   “How about the plates?”

   “No.”

   “Which way did they go?”

   “That way.”

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

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

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

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

   He fell into a dreamless one life gone sleep.

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

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

Brand New Plan

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   He called for urban guerilla warfare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   I was OK with the snub.

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

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

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

King of the Monsters

By Ed Staskus

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

   “That’s right.”

   “Is the virus a monster?”

   “Some people would say so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Sure,” Emma said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “What does that mean?” Oliver asked.

   “Make a copy of myself.”

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

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

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

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

   “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Who are you, anyway?” he asked.

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

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

   “Who’s Godzilla?”

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

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

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

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

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

Dead End

By Ed Staskus

   The week started by raining for two days, harder the second day than the first. The wind picked up, gusting hard by nightfall of the first day. Bernard Doiron had breakfast and lunch and took a nap. He did the same thing the next day. Wednesday morning it was in the low teens at sunrise. There were only scraps of cloud left in the new sky. He had ham and eggs and coffee and fired up Conor Murphy’s Ford 3000 tractor. It was blue and more than twenty years old. Conor took care of it personally, since his father bought it new and paid almost ten grand for it, and it ran like a baby buggy.

   A good two-horse team could plow two acres a day back in the day. Bernie plowed with a five bottom in the fall and a 490 disc in the spring and could do 60 acres from one end of the day to the other end of it. He was going to start across the street from the white house, Sandy’s Surfside Inn, and work his way to the right, Cavendish way. He would have his lunch at noon, since he was getting an early start.  

   The spring planting was running late because of rain and cold. Setting day for lobster fishermen was running late, too, because of the cold, rain, and high winds. They were anxious to get out on the ocean. Lobsters were on the move in the warming water. Farmers were anxious to get out on the land. Seeds were getting ready to sprout.

   He steered the tractor down the slope to the road on the edge of the ocean and back up at a steady 15 KPH. It was nearing eleven o’clock when he saw the red fox. It was forty or fifty meters ahead of him, sniffing and digging at something. He slowed the tractor and stopped where the fox was, who retreated, stretched, showed his teeth, and sprang into the nearby trees.

   Bernie had plowed the field in the fall, straight furrows that stayed straight through November rainstorms and snow that swamped the island from mid-December to mid-April. It wasn’t usually that snowy, but it had been one of those winters. He stayed snug in his small house on the far side of Anglo Rustico, opposite the North Rustico Harbour. The house was more than a hundred years old, built with island cut lumber and island made shingles. Birch bark was the insulation between the outer wall and the shingles. It cut the wind on an island where it was always windy. He had an oil furnace and a fireplace in the living room and the house kept itself snug at room temperature without even trying.

   There was some ground mist. Crows he couldn’t see cawed from nearby trees. He could see a briefcase on the ground on the other side of his front wheels. It was open and was attached to something. He hopped off the tractor and walked around to it. The hard-sided briefcase was empty. The inside lining was torn. There was mud and dried red goo all over it.

   It was attached to a bony wrist by a pair of handcuffs. The wrist was wearing a watch and was attached to a bony arm that was half-buried in the ground. The bracelet was a gold-colored stainless steel.

   “Ce que ca?” Bernie whispered to himself.

   He knew the arm was attached to a dead man, or a woman. He looked at the watch dangling loosely on the wrist again. The face of it was cracked. It read three-ten. He suspected he was done plowing for the day. He started walking back the way he had come, to the green house, a stone’s throw from the white house. He stopped and walked back. He looked at the arm and the briefcase again. The fox had ripped into what flesh was left on the arm. He hadn’t imagined seeing it, not that he thought he had.

   Sandy had a phone, but could be deaf mornings, not answering the door no matter what. Conor didn’t have a phone yet, but he always answered the door when he was at home, and he had a fast car to get to a phone fast. It was a 1987 Buick GNX, two years old. It wasn’t sleek or refined, but next to the twin-turbo Chevy Corvette it was the fastest car in North America. 

   Looking for sophistication? Don’t get the GNX. After max boost? Buy the GNX, was the way Conor looked at it. Looking for a pool table ride? Go with the Corvette. Doesn’t matter whether your car bounces on back roads like nuts and bolts in a blender? Buy the Buick GNX. There were two of them on the lot at the first Chevy Buick dealership he saw in Burlington, Vermont the day he went shopping for a new car. One of them was silver and one of them was black.

   “Do you have any other colors, like red?” he asked the salesman.

   “You can have any color you want as long as it’s silver or black,” the salesman said.

   Conor drove to Shearer Chevy Buick down the street. and found out they had the same colors on the lot, which were silver and black. 

   “How about red?” he asked.

   “Sorry, sir, it doesn’t come in red. GM has only built 500 of them. When they’re gone, they’re gone for good. If you can’t decide, I can tell you the only one we have on the lot is silver and black both.” 

   “How long have you been in business?”

   “Since 1929, sir.”

   He bought it, trading in his 1977 Chevy Impala, which was wheezing on its last legs. When he reached an empty stretch of I-87 south of Champlain, he took the car up to 175 KPH. The GNX was fitted with a turbocharged V6 engine with horsepower to spare on top of a boatload of torque. It was an automatic but could do 0 to 95 KPH in less than five seconds. When he saw a car a kilometer-or-so ahead he backed off his solitary drag race.

   Bernie Doiron was wearing almost new insulated rubber boots. By the time he crossed the Gulf Shore Parkway they didn’t look almost new anymore, even though they still were. Standing on the shoulder of the road he stamped most of the mud off. The road didn’t look new anymore, either, but Bernie doubted the National Park was going to be doing anything about it anytime soon. When summer came tourists would be parking on the shoulders, leaving their cars behind to gape at the cliffs and walk along the undulating coastline. In the meantime, the natives would be slowing down, keeping an eye out for loose kids and happy-go-lucky dogs.

   They never should have laid it down with shoulders in the first place, he thought.

   The National Park on Prince Edward Island went back more than fifty years, an in the flesh watercolor landscape of green over soft sandstone and shale. There were sand dunes and sandy beaches. There were salt marshes and barrier islands farther east. There were white spruce along exposed coastal spots. The Gulf Shore Parkway supplanted an older red dirt road along the coastline and cut through Murphy land, but the Murphy’s hadn’t sold any of the rest of their nearly four hundred acres to the National Park. The Ottawa men could appropriate land for the road, but they couldn’t take the rest of it with the wave of a pen. They were going to have to wait the Murphy’s out and try to buy it from a generation-or-two of them down the road. 

   That was their plan, at least.

   Bernie banged on the back door of the house and waited.

   “What’s up?” Conor asked. “Did you run out of gas?”

   “No, nothing like that. Put some boots on and I’ll show you.”

   He was the only one living in what had been the Murphy family home. His parents were newly deceased, his mother dead by heart attack the day before Christmas soon followed by his father. After burying their mother, Conor, his sister and brothers, watched their father giving up day after day until he finally gave up the ghost.

  Conor had been living in Montreal the past ten years, but after the funerals moved back to Prince Edward Island. He moved into the green house, even though it was too big for him and needed work. He was the youngest of the five Murphy’s and didn’t know he had missed his birthplace until he returned to it. 

   Bernie and Conor walked across the road and up the slope. When they got to the tractor the red fox was back. The animal snuck away. They stepped up to the briefcase and arm. It was nearly noon and warmer, breaking into the 20’s. What clouds were left had scattered, and the sky was a robin egg blue.

   “Jesus Christ,” Conor said. “How did this happen? I haven’t been up here since I came back. Would you have known if it was in the field then, when you did the fall plowing?”

   “I think so, but it’s hard to tell,” Bernie said.

   “It’s not anybody from around here, is it?”

   “We would know if it was.”

   “You stay here, watch nothing gets at it, and I’ll go phone the RCMP.”  

   “Should we dig it out?”

   “No, just stay here, and keep that fox away. I’ll drive over to Lorne’s.”

   He took his time driving to Rollings Pond, up then down Church Hill Road, past the graveyard and Stella Maris Catholic Church, to Lorne’s Snack Shop. He reckoned there was no need to hurry. He parked the GNX as far away from the nearest car as he could.

“Whatta ya at?” one of the chunky Newfoundlanders behind the counter asked when he stepped inside Lorne’s. They ruled the roost spring summer and fall when they went home to Gros Morne. Lorne worked the shop winters. They made breakfasts and lunches in the small kitchen behind the counter, stocked and sold the candy bars and cigarettes, rented out the VCR movies in the back room, and cleaned whenever there was an urgent need for cleaning.

   “We’re finally getting some springtime.”

   “I know, I been rotten with the weather.”

   “I’ve got to use your phone”

   “You know where it is.”

   Conor dialed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They were federal police, but the provincial police, too, the past 50-odd years. They policed all the communities on the island except Summerside, Kensington, and Charlottetown. They patrolled most of the island’s land mass and served most of the population.

   “I’ve got a dead man on my property,” he told 911.

   “Do you need an ambulance?”

   “No, not unless he comes back to life, which isn’t likely.”

   “Are you there?”

   “I will be in five minutes.”

   “Where is there?”

   He told the dispatcher and hung up. The younger of the two red-cheeked Newfoundlanders threw him an inquiring look.

   “I was some stunned when I overheard what ya said on the phone.”

   “Yeah,” Conor said. “I’ll be back, tell you all about it then.”

   Back at the house he parked the Buick in the barn, walked across the street and up the slope, joining Bernie. A flock of cormorants passed by overhead.

   “Do you have a smoke?” Conor asked.

   “I thought you gave it up.”

   “I did.”

   Bernie shook two smokes out of his pack of Player’s, lit his, and passed the matches to Conor.

   “You’re better off not smoking,” he said. “These things are getting crazy expensive. Ten years ago a 25-pack cost a Loonie. Now they cost six dollars. And I took another look at that watch, on the wrist, and I think it might be woman down there in the dirt.”

“It’s no good, whoever it is,” Conor said.

   They stood leaning against the tractor, smoking in silence, waiting for the gravel road cops.

Excerpted from the upcoming crime thriller “Red Road.”

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

Up the Country

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “California.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “How about getting back?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circling the Wagons

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “I’ll take him,” he said.

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

   “That’s OK, I’m good with mixes.”

   “What about his tail?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the House

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “That was the whole point,” she said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Friends would just drop in,” said Virginia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing Frank

By Ed Staskus

   The day Frankenstein walked into Barron Cannon’s yoga studio in Lakewood, Ohio, Barron could tell he wasn’t a happy monster. He walked as though he had never gotten over the rigor mortis of what should have been his one and only death before being resurrected by Victor Frankenstein. He was dirty as all get out and wet. His boots were caked with muck and mire. He needed a haircut and a shave. He looked like he could use ten or twelve square meals all at once.

   “You look like hell,” Barron said. 

   “I feel like hell,” Frankenstein said.

   “I thought you were dead and gone, and only left alive in the movies,” Barron said. “The story is you killed yourself up on the North Pole after Victor died. That would have been a couple hundred years ago.”

   After being chased and pelted with rocks, flaming stave torches shoved into his face, shot at and thrown into chains, Frankenstein had sworn revenge against all mankind. They hated him so he would hate them. He had hated himself, as well, for a long time.

   “I was going to end it all when I floated off on an ice floe, but I froze solid, and it wasn’t until twenty summers ago that I defrosted.”

   An unexpected consequence of global warming, Barron thought to himself.

   “After defrosting I lost track of time,” the creature said. “It’s either all day or all night almost all the time. I built an igloo and learned to hunt seals. I caught and beat their brains out with my bare hands. I meant to go back to Geneva. But after living on the ice safe and sound, I changed my mind. There wasn’t anybody anywhere trying to kill me, which was a blessing. But then I got lonely.”

   “How did you get here?” Barron asked.

   “I walked.”

   “It’s got to be three, four thousand miles from the pole to here. How long did it take you?”

   “I meant to go back to Europe, but I took a wrong turn at the top of the world. Canada looked like Russia until I got to Toronto. By then I didn’t want to turn around. I had been at it for five months. I kept walking until I reached Perry, on Lake Erie. I met a boy and girl there. They were riding pedal go-karts on the bluffs. The girl said her brother was the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County. It was hard to believe. He is a small skinny shrimp. When I asked him whether he thought I was a monster, he said I looked monstrous, but was sure I wasn’t a monster.”

   Frankenstein had seen his reflection in water. He was aware of what he looked like. He didn’t like it any more than passersby did throwing him wary nervous glances and scuttling away. 

   “Was his name Oliver?”

   “Yes.”

   “You didn’t throw him and his sister down a well, or anything like that, did you?”

   “No, and I’m glad I didn’t. They helped me. They gave me some of their homemade granola bars.”

   “Don’t underestimate the boy. He’s taken on banshees and trolls, the 19 virus, Bigfoot, Goo Goo Godzilla, and the King of the Monsters himself. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s no ordinary child to mess with.”

   “He told me to come here and talk to you, that you were a yoga teacher and could unstraighten me. I’m stiff as a board all the time.”

   “I can see that,” Barron said.

   “I want to be able to touch my toes. I want to be a better person.”

   “I can help you with that,” Barron said. “Except the better person part. That’s up to you.”

   “I was benevolent and good once,” Frankenstein said. “Misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

   “I’ll do my best.”

   For once, Frankenstein had the feeling he had found a true friend.

   After Barron got back from the Goodwill store with XXL shorts and muscle t’s, pants and shirts, and threw away Frankenstein’s clothes, which hadn’t been washed in centuries, they got started on the yoga mat. Barron told him to get barefoot. When he did the smell was bad. Barron turned on the studio’s fans and opened both the front and back doors. He took the creature’s boots outside and tossed them in the dumpster. The dumpster burped and spit the boots back out. They landed in the parking lot with a clomp. Barron doused them with gasoline and burned them.

   “We’ll start with the twelve must-know poses for beginners,” Barron said.

   Frankenstein had no problem doing the mountain and plank poses, but that was the beginning and end of what he could do. He couldn’t do down dog or a lunge to save his life. Triangle, dancer’s pose, and half pigeon pose might as well have been rocket science. When he tried seated forward fold, he folded forward an inch or two, and farted.

   “More roughage in those granola bars than you’re used to?”

   “I lived on seal blubber for a long time,” Frankenstein said.

   He could do some of the hardest poses easily, like headstand. He balanced on his flat head like nobody’s business. He chanted like a champ, his deep baritone rich and heart felt. He did dead man’s pose like he was born to it. 

   When the lesson was over, however, he wasn’t able to get up out of laydown. His muscles were in knots. Barron pulled out his Theragun and went to work. It took all the percussion device’s battery power to get Frankenstein on his feet and into the storeroom, where Barron prepared a bedroll.

   “It doesn’t look like you’re in any condition to go anywhere, but make sure you stay here. I have three classes back-to-back-to-back. I don’t want you barging through the door and causing any heart attacks.”

   Frankenstein groaned and rolled over. He slept the rest of the day, that night, and part of the next day. Barron took him to the barber shop next door. Frankenstein had never gotten a haircut. His hair was halfway down his back and his beard down to his belly button. The barber gave him a taper fade crew cut and a shave. He trimmed his eyebrows and the tufts of hair growing out of his ears. He unscrewed the electrodes in the creature’s neck.

   The incisions around his neck, wrists, and ankles had long since healed. Barron found a pair of size 34 sneakers and second-hand bifocals for him. Frankenstein was out of practice, but he enjoyed reading. Barron bought two dozen thrillers biographies histories at the Friends of the Library sale.

   Monday morning dawned snug and bright. Barron and Frankenstein walked to Lakewood Park, where they could unroll their mats outdoors on the shore of Lake Erie. Barron had sewn two mats together for the big guy. Barron’s one goal was to make the creature more flexible. His unhappiness with the human race would have to wait. He wasn’t killing anybody anymore, at least. Frankenstein’s problem wasn’t a desk job and never exercising. He wasn’t rigid with chronic tension. He had been on an all-blubber diet for decades but enjoyed the plant-based diet Barron was converting him to. They started having breakfast at Cleveland Vegan. 

   He had never stretched in his life, which contributed to his stiffness and pain. His poor muscles were as short as could be. On top of everything else he was close to three hundred years old, counting his own lifetime and the lifetimes of the men he was made of. His synovial fluid was thick as mud.

   Barron and Frankenstein worked on standing forward bend hour after hour day after day. At first the creature could only bend slightly, placing his hands on his thighs. He did it a thousand times. He huffed and puffed. When he was able to touch his knees, he did it two thousand times. He broke out into a sweat. One day Barron brought blocks, setting them up on the high level. Frankenstein folded and got his fingertips to the blocks. The day came when Barron flipped them to their lower level.

   “Don’t be a Raggedy Ann doll, just flopping over,” Barron told him. “Do it right.”

   The gold star moment finally arrived when Frankenstein folded forward without blocks. His upper back wasn’t rounded, his chest was open, his legs were straight, and his spine was long. He was engaged but relaxed. He took several steady breaths as the space between his ribs and pelvis grew.

   “Great job, Frank,” Barron said, encouraging him.

   Frankenstein did the pose three thousand times. He was looking lean and not so mean. His skin was losing its yellow luster. He was getting a tan in the sunshine at the park.

   According to B.K.S. Iyengar, Uttanasana slows down the heartbeat, tones the liver spleen kidneys, and rejuvenates the spinal nerves. He explained that after practicing it “one feels calm and cool, the eyes start to glow, and the mind feels at peace.”

   They walked to Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream in Rocky River. Barron had a scoop. Frankenstein had eight scoops. Children gathered around him asking a million questions, asking for his autograph, and asking for selfies with him in the picture. He was a ham with glowing eyes and never said no.

   From standing forward bend it was on to more beginner poses, then intermediate poses. By the end of the month Frankenstein wasn’t a yogi, yet, but he was more human than he had ever been. He joined Barron’s regularly scheduled classes. He was two and three feet bigger than anybody else. Barron put him in a back corner by himself where he wouldn’t accidentally clobber anybody while doing sun salutations.

   When the time came for Frankenstein to move out of Barron’s storeroom into his own apartment, Barron made him a gift of B.K.S. Iyengar’s book “Light on Yoga.”

   “This is the book that will make you a better person, Frank. I’ve read it twice.”

   “I’ll read it a hundred times,” Frankenstein said.

   “What do you plan on doing?” Barron asked.

   Frankenstein thought about becoming a barber like the man who tended to him but bending over the tops of heads all day long would lead to lower back pain sooner or later. He knew full well he had arthritis. He threw that idea away. He thought about becoming a house painter. He could reach more areas compared to a shorter man. He could cut in walls and ceilings without using a ladder. That would save hours over the course of a job. The downside was having to paint low, like skirting boards. Stooping would do a number on his back. He threw that idea out the window, too.

   When he finally decided what to do, he was surprised he hadn’t thought of it earlier. It was a natural. It was how he had been granted a second life. He would be an electrician.

   An electrician is a tradesman who repairs, inspects, and installs wires, fixtures, and equipment. Much of the job involves installing fans and lights into ceilings. Being tall would free him from the need to go up and down a ladder for every install. It turns the work from a two-man job into a one-very-tall-man job.

   Homeowners in Lakewood were always restoring and upgrading their houses. He would advertise himself as “Call Frank – He Knows the Power of Electricity and Will Save You Money.”

   If he ever made a mistake, he knew he could absorb the bust-up of voltage. He had already been hit with more of the hot stuff than any mortal man and lived to tell the tale. He would look for another Bride of Frankenstein, too, a nice girl with a slam-bam bolt of lightning in her hair.

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