Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

The Long Walk

By Ed Stasku

   It is 11 miles as the crow flies from East 42nd St. in Newburgh Heights to East 125th St. and St. Clair Ave. in Cleveland. A streetcar in the 1950s would have made the trip in about 40 minutes and a car in about 20 minutes. Walking on a summer day would have taken about 3 hours. When Harold Scott left work at American Steel and Wire in Newburgh Heights for home on Friday November 24, 1950, in the middle of the Great Thanksgiving Blizzard, no streetcars were running, and he didn’t have a car. He started walking. He didn’t see a crow that day or the rest of the weekend.

   The storm started on the holiday when an arctic air mass barreled into town, and temperatures fell to below zero. The next day low pressure from Virginia moved into Ohio. When that happened a blizzard with high winds and heavy snow got rolling. By the end of the day two feet of snow had fallen and the airport was closed. Mayor Tom Burke declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard. Snow plowing was hampered by more than 10,000 abandoned cars. The mayor declared a state of emergency. Unnecessary travel was banned. Everything nonessential was forbidden from trying to get downtown. The car ban lasted for a week until the last Cleveland Transit System line was back on the line. By then the temperatures hit the 50s and all the snow melted. Rivers flooded far and wide.

   Harold Scott was born in 1903. He had a sister, Eleanor, and a brother, LeGrant. His brother made it as a professional baseball player nicknamed Babe, after Babe Ruth, although he never made it out of the minor leagues. Harold married a local girl, Jennie O’Connell, and they had six children. Jennie died of pneumonia twenty years later leaving Harold with six kids under the age of eighteen. A year-and-a half later he married his next-door neighbor and they had two more kids, Mike and Teen, or Harold Jr.

   Teen was killed when he was four years old. He was sitting on a curb on a sunny day waiting for his brother to get home from school when a delivery truck backing up ran over him. After the funeral, Hal’s hair turned white as a ghost.

   When Hal started walking home as the Great Thanksgiving Blizzard was raging, he walked up E. 49th St. zigzagging to Guy Ave. to Hamm Ave. to E. 55th St. to St. Clair Ave. From there, he only had seventy blocks to go. It was slog. The snow was deep and getting deeper. Nobody was shoveling any sidewalks. He walked in the street more than on any sidewalk. He stopped every so often to catch his breath. It was dark as a squid’s basement by 8 o’clock. He was wearing a heavy wool coat, gloves, a hat, and rubber buckle galoshes. He pulled his collar up. Hal was dressed for bear, but it was hard going.

   “Everything came to a standstill,” said Burt Wilfong. He got to his feet, bundled up, and went outside to shovel his walk and driveway. There was a problem, though. “The garage doors were the kind that opened out. There was about 5 feet of snow that drifted around in front of the garage, and the snow shovel was inside.”

   By the time he got to Orey Ave. and East 55th St. Hal was more than ready to sit down in the hole in the wall bar on the corner and warm up. He could use a bite and a drink, too, or two drinks. He sat down. A barfly two stools down had a bowl of black olives and a bottle of Blatz in front of him.

   “Hell of a night to be out,” the barfly said.

   “That’s the God’s truth,” Hal said.

   He ordered chicken soup in a pot with homemade noodles and hard-boiled sliced eggs. He thought about a draft beer but had a shot of rye whiskey instead. Halfway through his eggs he ordered another shot. He got a cottage cheese and pickle relish sandwich to go and stuck it in his coat pocket. He left $3.00 on the bar, buttoned up his coat, and started north up East 55th St. again. He felt much better, although the storm was getting worse.

   He took short steps shuffling now and then when the going got icy. He walked bent slightly forward as much as he could, with his center of gravity directly over his feet. The wind made it tricky. It was worse than the snow. He stayed prepared to fall as gusts slammed into him. The wind was at his back, slightly from the side, which was better, but not much better.

   “I was born during that storm,” Fred Rothhauser said. “My parents told me I was a miracle baby coming into the world the day hell froze over.”

   Every leafless branch of every tree was in motion. Twigs littered the snow. He stepped over branches that had cracked off. As the wind swept over roofs their tiles shook and flapped. When they ripped away, they went sailing past disappearing. Overhead electric and telephone wires whistled. The infrequent passing car looked like it was on the verge of sliding veering crazily off somewhere.

   Flo Ellis was two years old when she, her four brothers and sisters, and parents drove to Willoughby for Thanksgiving dinner. “We stayed overnight, the blizzard hit, and turned into almost a week. My grandma had to cut head holes and armholes in pillowcases to make nightgowns for us kids.”

   When he got to Fleet Ave. Hal saw two bars. One was on the opposite corner and the other one on his side of the street. He took the path of least resistance.  He might have gone to Krejci’s Tavern down the street but didn’t. It was “Where the Fishermen Meet” and where he met his pals for drinks. It would have been full of fishermen, anyway, talking tales about The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 that sank 30 freighters and killed more than 200 mariners.

   There was a three-story cupola over the front door he went through and lots of windows on the Feet Ave. side. A yellow sign said “Parking in the Rear” in red letters. There were two cars in the lot. How they got into and were planning on getting out of the lot was beyond Hal. The windows on the second and third stories were brightly lit. Whatever children and boarders the bartender and his wife the cook had were staying snug as bugs.

   The watering hole was full of people. The tables were all taken. He sat down at the bar alongside a group of six. When he asked the bartender, the man said, “It’s the local folks, they’ve been walking in all night, except for this group. They’re from Lakewood. I guess everybody has had their fill of turkey.”

   Gus and Eva Stanik were sitting closest to Hal.

   “We are going to Pennsylvania deer-hunting,” Eva said. “We got up in the morning, and there was a load of snow, and we decided that maybe we’d better not go.” Her younger brother, Gomer, disagreed and talked them into making the trip.

   “Oh, yeah, we can still do that,” he said in the afternoon. “It can’t keep snowing much longer.”

   Gus and Eva fired up their 1946 Buick Sedanet with her brother’s friend in the back seat. Gomer rode with his uncle Ivan and their friend Mack in Ivan’s 1941 Ford Super Deluxe. Their bags blankets gear and guns were in the trunks. They had coffee in thermoses.

   “We were young,” Eva said. “There were six of us all together in two different cars. So, we helped one another. But everywhere we went, my uncle got stuck.” They passed one deserted car stuck in a snow drift after another. “My husband was the only one that had chains on.”

   After the two cars went slip sliding out of the parking lot behind the bar, Ivan’s car got stuck. Hal helped push it out. When they drove off, they followed snowplows east. Hal waved goodbye as he set off on East 55th St. again. 

   “When we were going through Sharon in Pennsylvania, we came to a standstill,” Eva said. “Gomer got out of the car and went across the street to a place that sold peanuts in the shell. We ate peanuts the rest of the day.” They threw the shells out the windows. Their four-hour trip turned into a twelve-hour trip. They labored on to Coalport, found their motel, shoveled out parking spaces, and fell into bed.

   “Hell, yeah, I shot my deer the next day,” Gus said.

   Hal walked the rest of the night. The bars were all closed. The whole city was all closed. He stopped for shelter in doorways now and then, watching plows waste their time. No sooner were they gone than snow started piling up again. The sun came up at 7:30, what there was of it. When it did, he turned the corner on to St. Clair Ave. When he did, he saw Pershing tanks hauling broken down busses away.

   “Hundreds of motorists abandoned stalled autos,” the Lakewood Sun Post wrote in its morning edition. “Stuck streetcars were strung along main arteries for miles. Bus routes were littered with coaches blocked by enormous drifts. Most plants closed, and some employees who did manage to report in were marooned on their jobs. Trucks laden with food couldn’t deliver. Babies were without milk, and groceries able to open were rationing it as well as bread.”

   Lakewood is Cleveland’s closest western neighbor, just across the Cuyahoga River. The other side of Lakewood butts up to the Rocky River. No neighbors were visiting neighbors that weekend, even though they could have skated across the rivers. By the end of the day snow was wall-to-wall and drifts were 25 feet high. Some buildings collapsed under the weight of snowpack. More and more wires and trees were blown down. Bulldozers cleared roads so ambulances could reach those in need. The National Guard delivered food in their Jeeps to the out-of-the way. 

   Hal stopped at the first diner he saw for breakfast. He was hungry as a horse. The diner was the kind that never closed. He sat on a bar stool at the counter across from the galley kitchen. He had eggs sausages hash browns pancakes and two cups of coffee. When he was done, he folded his arms and lay his head down. A waitress woke him up when he started snoring.

   He trudged on as far as East 69th St, where he stopped again. His legs were heavy. He was more tired than a month of overtime. He walked into the Maple Lanes Tavern and Bowling Alley. Nobody was bowling but a handful of men were at the bar. One of them was a snowplow driver. He looked exhausted. Hal sat at the bar and had two shots of rye whiskey. When he felt warm again, he went out into the cold for the last long stretch home.

   The bone-chilling cold created a run on woolen clothing, long underwear, and flannel pajamas. A department store hosiery clerk took a call for fleece-lined women’s hose. “I don’t know that there is any such thing,” she told the caller. Funerals and burials were delayed because cemeteries were neck-deep in snow. Hearses were unable to navigate roads to churches for services. An undertaker watched a body being unloaded from a milk truck at his funeral parlor for embalming.

   After Hal got home late Saturday afternoon, 24 hours after leaving work, his wife bombarded him with questions, but he was too cold and too tired to talk. He spoke to his son Mike for a few minutes, telling him everything was all right, took a long hot bath, and stumbled into bed. His wife threw an extra quilt over him. He slept the rest of the day, all day Sunday, and called off work on Monday. The National Guard went home on Wednesday November 29th. Schools stayed closed all that week. When Hal got out of bed, he checked all his fingers and toes. He didn’t have a speck of frostbite on him.

   While he was winding up his long trek on Saturday, the Big Ten championship game in Columbus between Ohio State and Michigan went ahead as planned. A trip to the Rose Bowl was at stake. Fifty thousand fans, just more than half of the tickets sold, were in their seats for the kick-off. There was heavy snow, 40 MPH winds, and the temperature at game time was 5 degrees. Michigan won the Snow Bowl, even though they didn’t get a single first down and only gained a total of 27 yards. There were 45 punts between the two teams in the 60 minutes of playing time.

  “I was a teenager when the blizzard hit,” Irene DeBauche said. “It was something you never forget. We thought it was exciting and fun although our parents thought differently.”

   The Great Thanksgiving Blizzard impacted 22 states, killed 383 people, and caused almost $70 million in damage, equivalent to about $800,000,000 today. Insurance companies paid out more money to their policy holders for damage than for any previous storm of any kind up to that time. 

   When Hal’s wife Catherine died in 1964. he married another neighbor, Theresa, in 1969. After he went blind, he spent warm weather days on his porch. When his children and grandchildren visited, and the neighborhood kids ran over, everybody sat on the steps and porch. Hal always had a brown paper bag filled with candy bars. The younger kids snacked while the older kids counted the number of times he cursed. When they ran out of fingers to count on, they counted on their toes.

   Hal cursed up a storm whenever he recounted the Great Thanksgiving Blizzard of 1950, until the day he died in 1976. If he had lived a couple more years, he would have experienced the White Blizzard of 1978. When it was over everybody in Cleveland agreed it was the Storm of the Century. If he had made it that far, Hal would have had an outstanding opportunity to expand his hot-blooded stock of swear words.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Vanishing Act

By Ed Staskus

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

   All the guys rated gals, one way or another.

   He went to Florida every winter after he got back to Cleveland, before he got married. He came back from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, and after he got back on his feet, went right to work for Palmer Bearings. They put him in sales the minute they saw him. He was 22 years old, clean-cut, proportioned, and full of pep. He didn’t tell them about the bad hearing in one ear he came back with after a year as an artilleryman.

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

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

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

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

   They met at the Karamu Theater. Hal lived with his mother on the near east side, and Teresa took a bus from North Collinwood, where she lived with her three sisters and parents in a two-bedroom house. Hal liked auditioning for parts and acting in shows. It got him started with the girls. He looked like Paul Newman, which didn’t hurt his chances. He was always trying out for shows at the Chagrin Little Theater, too.

   “I met a boatload of lookers that way.”

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

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

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

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

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

   Her parents were set in stone in opposition to her wedding bell plans. “It won’t work,” they both insisted. He was Lutheran, ten years older than her, born in the United States, but Romanian-bred. They were Catholic and Lithuanian, from the old country. She was still a teenager. He had a better job than either of her parents, making more money than the two of them put together, but it didn’t matter. 

   Teresa and Hal had to elope, driving across the Ohio line to Indiana, where they found a justice-of-the-peace on the side of the road, and got married. They went to Florida for their honeymoon. “We drove straight there in a new car I had just gotten. We stayed in the same motel my buddies and I used to go to. Our suite had a small kitchen and there was a big pool we went swimming in.” They sat out in the sun. Their skin got a shade darker. They discovered each other in the dark.

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

   “I worked hard, saving my salary and commissions, and the next year we bought a two-story house in Indian Hills, up from Euclid Avenue, near the city park.” The house fronted a sloping wooded lot. Their daughter Vanessa was born the next year and their son Mathias four years after that. Their problems started three years later. They never stopped getting worse.

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

   He was making money hand over fist. “I made a lot of money for Palmer Bearings. Those heebs loved me, so long as the pipeline stayed full and flowing.” His bosses said, “Keep up the good work.” His neighbors envied his one after the other new car. His wife complained about him never being home. “What do you do all those hours at work?”

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

   Whenever he came home right after work, Teresa came running out the front door, grabbing him, giving him a hug and a kiss. He thought, this is embarrassing, the neighbors are watching, even though he barely knew any of their neighbors. “Cut it out,” he said. She gave him a queer look. He kissed the kids and read a book while Teresa set the table and served dinner.

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

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

   “That’s all it was,” she said.

   “You’re not getting together with him?”    

   “No,” she said, “of course not.”

   He didn’t believe her, not for a minute. He knew what women were about. But he didn’t know everything. He didn’t know he was on his way to splitsville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “What do you mean?”

   “The account is at zero,” the teller said.

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

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

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

   Between Teresa and them, he complained loud and long to his friends, they left him with only table scraps.

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

   “I could have levelled both the shysters in a minute flat. The bailiff, and a policeman, and the judge, had to restrain me. The judge gave me a hell of a talking to after everybody was back in their seats.” It was a loud knock-down drag-out commotion on the third floor of the Lakeside Courthouse, under a high ceiling of ornate plasterwork, quiet paneled walls, and leather-covered doors.

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

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

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

   He bought her a new Mercedes sports car, hoping it would make her happy. It had a red leather interior. She loved the car, although it didn’t make her any happier about him any more than she wasn’t already. When they separated, she reported the car stolen. She called Hal about the insurance money. He told her he would let her know. He didn’t tell her the car was in his name. 

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

   Teresa was a looker in her time, always worth a second look. Hal wasn’t sure how she looked when she got older, since after their last fight he never saw her again. He was certain her looks had gone south. “I’m sure she wasn’t the beauty she had been. I’m sure she looked like hell. That’s something I would bet money on.”

   She had beautiful handwriting but wrote Hal hate letters after their separation. 

   “Your kids don’t want to see you, you haven’t sent me enough money, all that kind of crap. I had to pay child support, even though I was used to a certain style of living for myself. I had to go on dates, looking for another woman, but it wasn’t easy. I couldn’t operate. I didn’t have much money. You’ve got to have money to do things. I was nearly broke. I had to take care of my kids. I didn’t want to be a deadbeat father.”

   Teresa met another man, a handsome Italian from Rochester, a Vietnam veteran. They moved in together, with her children. They didn’t pretend to be married, even though they lived like man and wife. They wanted to get married, but Hal wouldn’t give Teresa a divorce, no matter how many times she asked.

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

   Teresa’s restaurant became two restaurants. The new family moved up to the seventeenth floor of Park Centre, to a three-bedroom end suite facing Lake Erie. They watched the Cleveland National Air Show from the balcony. They opened a bar on the new Eat Street in the apartment complex.

   “The dago was always telling me, take it easy, like he was trying to be my friend. I wanted to tell him how mad I was about not being able to get my wife back, about never seeing my kids. I never said one bad thing about her, but the divorce hurt me bad. After the mess in court, after we split up, I thought, if that’s the way it’s going to be, I don’t want anything to do with her anymore. I don’t want to talk to her, and I don’t want to see her. And I never did, except once more.”

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

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

   “That’s up to you.”

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

   Push came to shove, and Teresa slapped Hal hard in the face when he finally had enough, nose to nose, shouting that he wasn’t going to sell the house, that they were through once and for all, and that was that. 

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

   They glared at each other.

   “Quit it. Go away,” he said.

   Teresa’s mouth went cold thin-lipped, she twisted around, reaching for her son, and stamped out. She didn’t look back. The front door slammed shut. He didn’t see her or the money he had lent her ever again.

   He was on the ropes. He knew the TKO was on its way, making its slow way to down and out. He had let his guard down and there was nothing he could do about it. He would have to take it like a man.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Furnace Room

By Ed Staskus

   Abner Vance first spied Odessa Ballard through a second-floor window at the Majestic Hotel. She was fiddling with her skirt standing waiting on the corner of Central Avenue and East 55th Street for the CTS streetcar. It was a sunny summer day. Odessa did pantry work and was on her way home. He spotted her from behind his venetian blinds.

   “I had just gotten back from Woodland Cemetery, where I sometimes did patrols on foot, which was whenever my sergeant thought there was some small thing I did he didn’t care for.” It was how Abner came to be known as Gravedigger Vance. “She was a sight for sore eyes and my sore feet. I put my Colt Positive away in the dresser drawer and stepped outside.”

   During the winter the Majestic let Abner, who was a policeman, have a small room on the 55th side of the hotel. Whenever it got below zero, he ducked into it for ten fifteen minutes to warm up. He helped the house man when help was needed. His room was a half-dozen steps from a secret door beside the drug store in case anything bad happened. After a few years he kept the room in the summer, too. The Majestic was called the apartments, but it was a hotel. Abner started going there when he was in his early 20s and the jazz club off the lobby was called the Furnace Room.

   “Meeting your mother was a lot like jazz, it was improvised,” he told his son Lavert. “That was it, go ahead and see what happens.” The club had dancers and crooners and bands that came through Cleveland on tour. The restaurant serving food, to the club and rooms, was Mammy Louise’s Barbeque Café. Their house specialty was braised beef short ribs in gravy. The ribs were like soul music in your mouth.

   Abner was from a small town in the Florida Panhandle and never thought twice about eating chicken fried steak, candied sweet potatoes, and cheesy grits. He ran it off when he was a boy. He walked it off when he was a cop.

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

   The Furnace Room became Elmer Waxman’s Ubangi Club, but when Abner first took Lavert there in the 1950s, when he was twelve years-old, it was the Rose Room Cocktail Lounge. Before the Hough riots and Glenville shoot-outs in the 1960s, even though it was already mostly a colored neighborhood, the audiences were every which way. Judges and politicians from downtown brought their wives to the Rose Room. It was the black and tan saloon scene. It was its own world in the nighttime. But by then no one danced to jazz anymore. That had already changed. It wasn’t that jazz changed, even though it had. There was a new music and new dancers in town.

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

   He hunted bootleggers in the 1930s, before they gave him his own beat. It was dangerous work. They carried more guns than the police. He had to prove himself. “You could always tell whether the moonshine was good if you set it on fire and blue flames were what you saw. That’s when you knew it wouldn’t make you go blind.”

   There weren’t many men of color on the police force, and most of those who made the department had to get certification from outside doctors to get past the official exam of the police doctor. Jim Crow was sneakier in the North than it was in the South. The department kept separate eligibility lists, so when one Negro died, resigned, or retired, his replacement might or might not be another Negro. When a white policeman died, his replacement was always another white man.

   Duke Jenkins and his group were the house band at the Majestic. They were the first jazz band Lavert ever heard. Every Tuesday night was Cha Cha Night and on Thursdays Mambo Night was the hot ticket. But the big attraction was the before dawn Blue Monday Party.

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

   Lavert stayed overnight with his father at the Majestic on Sundays and went to the Blue Monday parties with him when they got going, which was at five in the morning. Afterwards Abner drove his son to school. If they stayed too late at the jam session, soaking up the sounds, he would call and ask for a squad car to race Lavert to school, its lights flashing and siren whooping.

   “Eyes lit up like flashbulbs on a camera whenever that happened,” Lavert said.

   There were only a handful of Cleveland hotels listed in the Negro Green Book. The Majestic was one of them. All the rooms had two beds and a radio on every bedstand, although Abner only had one bed. He had the other one removed so Lavert and he could have a table to eat at on Sunday nights. Lavert slept on a folding rollaway his father kept in the closet.

   When he was a baby, his mother kept his playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. It was so she would know where he was. So long as she heard him picking out notes she knew he wasn’t getting into trouble. When he was in third grade, he found out they had music classes at his grade school. He was eight years old.

   “I’d like to do that,” he told his mother. He lived with her and his grandparents. It was a surprise to all of them. “That’s just what my place was,” he said. But he found out even the status quo can change.

   He put his name down for piano lessons at the Miles Standish School. He learned to play a Chopin waltz sitting beneath a painting of Miles Standish, after who the school was named. The portrait was of a soldier accompanying the Pilgrims when they came to the New World. In the painting he wore armor and carried a matchlock rifle. He didn’t look like he knew a piano from a peace pipe. 

   Lavert played the organ and piano because his grandmother wanted him to. She was the matriarch of the family and conservative about everything under the sun. She didn’t believe in bell house music. She was strict about church music, too, so she had a man, who was the organist at the New Liberty Hill Baptist Church, come to their house and give him lessons. Years later, when he was older, Lavert played there himself.

   Paul John was the man who came to their house. He worked in the steel mills in the Flats. He was a friend of Lavert’s’s grandfather, who sang in the male chorus in the mill that Paul John led on a Salvation Army five rank pipe organ. The chorus went to Detroit and Pittsburgh to perform on holidays.

   “Mr. John could play Rachmaninoff, and all, but he was ahead of his time, so he had to give lessons,” Abner told his son. “That was the incentive for him when he came to your mother’s house and got you started. You put food on his table.”

   Lavert played sacred music for most of his life and jazz music the rest of the time. The sacred music came from his mother and grandmother, and the jazz music came from his father, who took him to uptown clubs like the Tijuana Café Society.

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

   Most days anybody walking around the neighborhood could hear a horn through an open window down the street from Doan Square, where all the action was. It was a jazz musician reading his lines in the afternoon. Hotels weren’t open to musicians of color, so they stayed in rooming houses. They minded their own business.

   “You couldn’t even go to the Five and Dime store and have a quiet lunch,” Lavert said.

   His grandmother went to buy a hat one Saturday and when she tried it on, she had to buy it. She had put it on her head to see if it fit and when a salesclerk saw her, she had to pay for it. His grandfather was a mulatto from Cuba. Whenever a white man came to their house, selling something, or on some errand, his grandfather was polite, but as soon as the white man left and was out of earshot he would spit and call the man a cracker.

   They lived on Pierpont Avenue in Glenville, what everyone called the Gold Coast, before Glenville fell apart and the Gold Coast moved to Lakewood in the 1960s. His grandmother died in 1968 and his mother sold the house, moving to Lost Nation Road. His grandfather moved into a rented room. By then Lavert had finished studies at the Boston Conservatory and was playing the big organ at the Christian Science Mother Church. In the summer he played piano at jazz clubs in Provincetown and Martha’s Vineyard.

   When he was a boy Glenville was crowded with immigrants, Negroes, and Jews. There were orthodox Jews all over the place. He thought they were Santa Claus’s in black suits. There were churches for men of faith, like the Cory United Methodist Church, which had been the Park Synagogue, and the Abyssinia Baptist Church, which had also been a synagogue. There were clubs, movie houses, and department stores.

   There were mom and pop restaurants run by the Jews. There were no bad sandwich shops in Glenville, but Abner always ate at Pirkle’s Deli. He said if he ever stumbled on a good-looking Jewish woman from his window at the Majestic, he was going to track her down so he could get up Sunday mornings and stroll out to the deli with her.

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

    Lavert’s father and mother were never together as a family. “There were two different families, his and ours,” he said. Abner and Odessa had their room at the Majestic some nights, but in later years she stayed away. She felt he betrayed her. “My father said he wanted to marry my mother, and she thought he was going to divorce his wife, but he never did that.” Over time she had a hard time seeing Abner as a soul mate.

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

   Lavert lived with his mother and after she married another man, she bore two more boys who became his brothers, the boys sharing her. He became Lavert Stuart. Abner came to their house many times, often in his police car after he was promoted. He parked in the driveway for everybody to see. It wasn’t as if they were cut off from him.

   He was one of the first colored farmers in Twinsburg, where he kept fowl and pigs. Every November the family got a turkey for Thanksgiving. He had a smokehouse, too, and when time came to slaughter some of the fattening pigs, he would do it himself. He castrated the males a month beforehand. The family had bacon and ham all winter and into the spring.

   Abner picked Lavert up in his Ford pick-up on Friday and Saturday nights to help him forage for feed. The father and teenager drove up and down Euclid Avenue, on the south side of Glenville, from E. 110th to E. 95th Street, picking up refuse from barrels and dumpsters behind the clubs and restaurants on the strip. Abner stuck his gloved hands into the slop and nosed around for metal and glass before filling up his barrels.

   “Pigs will eat anything you give them. They can be stink and filth, even though their sausages smell great. I would rather cut myself than injure my animals.” The Hebrew meaning of Abner is “father of light.” He was a good father to his pigs.

   When their barrels were full, they drove to the farm. The pigs would hear the truck coming and know it was time to eat. “They started doing what pigs do, getting feisty and greedy. He dumped the food in the trough, let them loose, and they would go at it,” Lavert said. That was why Abner picked through the fruit vegetables scraps of meat greasy bits and pieces, because they would have cut themselves, biting into anything.

   Lavert Stuart stopped gleaning garbage when his mother told him he had to be careful about his hands. She didn’t want him hurting them, hurting his chances. Odessa wanted him to go places, better places than scrounging for leftovers behind eateries in the middle of the night.

   He learned more sacred music and less blue notes after his mother put him in Empire High. Eleanor Bishop, his music teacher, had been there since the school opened. She had a trim hourglass figure and the only thing that gave her away was that she wore old lady comforters. But she was spry and walked fast. She could catch bad boys anytime she wanted to.

   She was an old maid because she had become a teacher long ago and wasn’t supposed to marry, and by the time the times changed it was too late for her. One afternoon Lavert found a dedicatory book for Empire High, which was built in 1915. He leafed through it. He took it to her office.

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

   She looked at him.

   “Is this you?”

   “Yes.”

   “But you’re old, not like this.”

   “Everybody was once new,” she said, her face pinched. Lavert was sure she wanted to pinch him, hard, like she did when he hit a wrong note. But she didn’t put any concern to what he said. She made sure he practiced faithfully and later helped him get a scholarship to Ohio University, where he studied the organ. After he graduated, he never lived in Glenville again.

   He lived in Chicago, New York, and Boston. He learned to live alone, like Duke Ellington, who said music was a mistress. He lived in his own world, detached and determined, so he could practice. He had friends who kept him in tune to the here and now, but on weekend nights he didn’t go anywhere. He had to be ready for Sunday services. That kept him out of wrongdoing. He tried mischief a few times but decided it’s bad when you’re not feeling well in a church after a hard Saturday night. He decided he had to do it his way.

   He didn’t see much of his mother, who moved to California to live with one of his brothers, who had become a minister, and saw his father only when he was passing through the Midwest. They visited and had lunch at one or another deli in Cleveland Heights, where all the Jews had moved. Pirkle’s Deli had burned down. 

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

   “I don’t want to get too comfortable because I may not be here long,” he said. His apartment had one bedroom and one bathroom. It had one table with two chairs, one sofa, and one half-empty closet. It looked like no one lived there. He was becoming his own gravedigger.

   “He had been industrious but changed into a careless custodian of his properties. He got short stingy and mean. He patchworked instead of getting things done the best way, so everything slowly deteriorated. He wasn’t willing to pay the price to get things done the right way. When a man has that mindset, he ends up losing more money than he’s spent,” Lavert said.

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

   He never recovered his sight, which was hard on him because he had always lived by his senses. The biggest problem, though, were the visions and nightmares he suffered, which were part of the side effects from the medication he was taking. He had them at night when he went to bed. He heard things and saw craziness and wasn’t able to sleep.

   Lavert never got his father and mother together, even when Abner was dying, and Lavert was staying with him, playing old jazz records. His father listened to music all day long towards the end. He stopped sleeping and eating, drinking cold lemonade, instead. The last time his mother visited Cleveland Abner was near death. Lavert took her to places in Glenville, some that were still there and others that weren’t anymore, trying to get her to go to the facility on Rockside Road where his father was. 

   She fought him all the way, and in the end wouldn’t go. Odessa just didn’t want anything to do with Abner. “That’s all over, a long time ago,” she said, shaking her head.

   Abner and Odessa did what they had to do from beginning to end. “I was just a cameo in the business they had between themselves,” Lavert said. After his father died there was nothing left to do anymore about the torn seam in the family fabric. He said goodbye to his mother, who went back to California. Abner Vance left behind six children by his wife Amanda, 11 grandchildren, and 18 great grandchildren. The rest didn’t make the cut.

   When he moved back to Cleveland, Lavert Stuart played sacred organ music three seasons of the year. But in the summer, he played jazz and popular tunes in clubs on Cape Cod. On Sunday mornings when the weather was good, he brewed a pot of strong coffee and warmed up a plate of spiced buns. On his balcony sitting in the light and warmth of the rising sun, he looked for what was behind the blue brightness, on the blue note side of the sky.

A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist Magazine.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Behind Bulletproof Glass

By Ed Staskus

   I should have known better when I told the young woman on the other side of the Walgreen’s bulletproof drive-thru window that I needed the kind of coronavirus test that would get my wife and me into Canada and she breezily said, “For sure, this is it.” She was a trained pharmacy technician, but made up her harebrained reply, assuring me all was well even though she didn’t know what she was talking about. We found out three days later trying to cross the border at Houlton, Maine into Woodstock, New Brunswick.

   Getting a straight answer from the young can sometimes be like trying to give fish a bath. They often have a quippy answer for everything. Their answers are in earnest no matter what they’re asked and no matter their wealth or lack of knowledge. Whenever they are fazed by anything they say, “Oh, whatever.” 

   They say whatever they want when they are behind bulletproof glass.

   My wife and I were going to Prince Edward Island, where we didn’t go the summer before because of the 19 virus. Canada closed itself up tight as a clam in March of that year and didn’t reopen for Americans until early August of this year. Once we heard the opening was going ahead, we got in touch with the folks who operate Coastline Cottages in the town of North Rustico on PEI and let them know we were coming on August 21st and staying for three weeks.

   The cottages are on a hillside, on land that has been in the Doyle family going on two hundred years. A park road cut through their farm when it was built in the 1970s, but unlike other landowners they didn’t sell their remaining acreage to the state, so it sits snug inside the National Park. There are several homes on the bluff side of the eponymous Doyle’s Cove, some old and some brand new. In one way or another every one of them houses a homegrown north shore family, except for Kelly Doyle, who has lived on the cove the longest and lives alone.

   It takes two and half days to drive from Lakewood, Ohio to Prince Edward Island. At least it did every other year we had driven to the island. This year it took us six and half days.

   When we got to the Canadian border the black uniform in the booth asked for our passports. We forked them over to the tall trim guard, forearms tattooed, a Beretta 9mm on his hip. He was young and just old enough to be on this side of Gen Z. He looked our documents over and asked where we were from and where we were going.

   “Cleveland, Ohio,” I said. Although we live in Lakewood, an inner ring suburb, we always tell red tape we live in Cleveland. No one has heard of Lakewood. Everybody has heard of Cleveland, for good or bad. At least nobody calls it “The Mistake on the Lake” anymore. 

   I almost preferred the insult. “It keeps the riff raff rich away,” I explained to my wife. “There is no need for Cleveland to become the next new thing. They will just use up all the air and water and our real estate taxes will go ballistic. On top of that, we would end up knee deep in smarmy techies with their cheery solutions to all the world’s problems.”

   We handed our ArriveCAN documents over. We handed our virus inoculation cards over. We had both gotten Moderna shots. We handed our virus tests over, proving we had both tested negative.

   “You are cutting it close,” the border guard sniffed, shuffling everything in his hands like a deck of cards. I was hoping he wouldn’t turn a Joker up.

   The negative test had to be presented at the border within 72 hours of taking it. We were there with an hour to spare, although it would have been two hours if we hadn’t had to wait in line in our car for an hour. We had driven a thousand miles. It was tiresome but waiting in an idling car wasn’t any more skin off our noses.

   It started to smell bad when a second border guard stepped into the booth and the two guards put their heads together.

   “The antigen tests you took aren’t accepted in Canada,” the Joker said. “It has to be a molecular test. You can go ahead, since you’re from Canada, but your wife has to go back.”

   I was born in Sudbury, Ontario, and have dual citizenship, although I only carry an American passport. I couldn’t tell if he was being serious, so I asked him to repeat what he said. He repeated what he said and gave us a turn-around document to return to the USA when I told him I wasn’t ready to abandon my wife.

   We went back the way we had come, just like two of the six cars ahead of us, although we had to wait in line at the American crossing for an hour. Once we returned to Maine, we found out we could get the molecular test, but it would be a week-or more before we got the results. Nobody we talked to, not even the Gods of Google, was any help. A friendly truck driver mentioned New Hampshire was faster, only taking a day or two.

   The truck driver was stout, bowlegged, wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, a two-or-three-day growth of beard on his face, with a small shaggy dog to keep him company on the road. He wasn’t a Gen Z man. It was hard to tell what generation he belonged to, other than the changeless working-class generation.

   We drove six hours the wrong way to Campton, New Hampshire and checked into the Colonel Spencer Inn. It was Saturday night. We got on-line and made test appointments for noon at a CVS in Manchester, an hour away. We streamed “Castle of Sand” on our laptop. It was a 1970s Japanese crime thriller movie and kept us up past our bedtime.

   Over breakfast the next morning our innkeeper told us to go early since the traffic leaving New Hampshire for home on Sunday mornings was heavy. We gave ourselves an hour and a half to drive the 55 miles and barely made it. Luckily, we hadn’t made appointments for an hour later. We never would have made it. The traffic on I-93 going south was a snarl of stop and go by the time we started north back to Campton.

   We got our test tubes and swabs and stuck the swabs up our noses. I spilled some of the liquid in my tube and asked the Gen Z pharmacy technician behind the bulletproof glass if I should start over with a new kit.

   “You’re fine, it doesn’t matter,” she said, lazy as a bag of baloney. She couldn’t have been more wrong, which we discovered soon enough.

   Gen Z is self-centered and self-sacrificing both at the same time. “My goals are to travel the world and become the founder of an organization to help people.” They want to stand out. “Our generation is on the rise. We aren’t just Millennials.” They say they are the new dawn of a new age. “We are an unprecedented group of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

   Welcome to the future, just don’t take the future’s word for it.

   We spent the night at the Colonel Spencer. It was built in 1764, a year after the end of the French and Indian War. During the war the British, allied with American colonists, weaponized smallpox, trading infected blankets to Indians. The virus inflicts disfiguring scars, blindness, and death.

   “Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion, use every stratagem in our power to reduce them,” the British commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst wrote to his subordinates.

   The results were what the continent’s newest immigrants from the Old World expected.

   “They burned with the heat of the pox, and they died to feed the monster. And so, the village was deserted, and never again would the Indians live on that spot,” is how one of the natives described the deadly epidemic.

   We had dinner at Panorama Six82, not far from our inn. The hostess seated us outside on the patio which looked out over a valley and a series of cascading White Mountain hilltops. The sun went down behind one of them and we finished our dessert in the dark.

   Our server was a middle-aged man from Colombia wearing jeans, a Panorama Six82 signature shirt, and a Sonoma-style straw hat. He went back to the homeland every year to visit relatives.

    “They always want money, so I don’t bring too much of it,” Fernando said. “It’s not as dangerous as most Americans think it is. I avoid some neighborhoods, sure, and I avoid riding in cabs. The rebels are in the hills, not the cities, and besides, they don’t do much anymore. The Venezuelans are a problem, all of them leaving their god-forsaken country. But they do a lot of the dirty work for us these days.”

   We drove back to Houlton on I-95. The speed limit north of Bangor is 75 MPH. I set the cruise to 85 MPH and kept my eyes peeled for moose. The fleabags lumber onto the roadway, sometimes standing astride one lane or another. Hitting a moose is a bad idea. A full-grown bull moose stands six to seven feet tall and tips the scales at 1500 pounds. It isn’t certain that the collision will kill the beast, but it will kill your car, and maybe you. They do most of their roaming around after nightfall. We made sure we got to our motel before dusk.

   In the morning my wife was winding down a business meeting on Zoom when there was a knock on our door. It was the housekeeper. She wore a black uniform and black hair pulled back in a bun. She was young. She was part of the Z crowd.

   “We’ll be out in about a half-hour,” I said.

   “Can I replace the towels and empty the trash?”

   “Sure.”

   “Weren’t you here a few days ago?”

   “Yes,” I said, and told her about trying and failing to get across the border and our search for a fast 19 test.

   It turned out the explanation for the motel being sold-out was because of the same problem. Every other person lodging there had been turned around for one reason or another.

   “You should go to the Katahdin Valley Medical Center,” she said. “A friend of mine went there, they did the test, she got it back the next day, and went to Nova Scotia.”

   “Thanks,” I said. We packed and followed Apple Maps to the medical center. The receptionist didn’t know anything about a fast molecular test. She sent us to Jesse, the man upstairs, who was the man in charge.

   “We test on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,” he said. “It takes about a week to get the results back from the lab.” It was Tuesday. We were already three days late. I started looking over my shoulder for Chevy Chase.

   “Not the next day?”

   “No.”

   We left Houlton and drove to Presque Isle, had lunch, messed around, my wife went running on the town’s all-purpose trail, and we drove to the Caribou Inn in the next town north. While the receptionist checked her computer for our reservation, we heard a wolf whistle through the open door of the office behind the front desk. A minute later we heard it again.

   “That’s just Ducky,” the receptionist said. “She belongs to the manager.”

   “Does she do that often, whistle, I mean?” I asked.

   “Whenever she sees a pretty girl.”

   Another wolf whistle came my wife’s way.

   I must have looked cross, because the receptionist said, “Ducky is a parrot.”

   Ducky was a parrot in a tall white cage just inside the door of the office. Her plumage was green with some red and yellow mixed in. She was a saucy character.

   “She’s twenty years old,” the receptionist said.

   “How long has she been here?”

   “Twenty years.”

   Ducky was spending all her Gen Z years locked up at the Caribou Inn, where flocks came and went. The only lasting relationship she had was with Betty, the hotel’s manager, and the bird’s keeper.

   “I didn’t know parrots lived that long.”

   “They can live to be seventy, eighty years old,” Betty said.

   “Ducky wolf whistles women?”

    “And men. We thought she was a he until she started laying eggs not long ago.”

   The parrot was going to outlive most of us, the 19 or no 19. They sometimes play dead in response to threats. They can also look dead when they are asleep. But if a parrot is lying still and not breathing, looking lifeless, you can assume it is dead.

   We had a non-smoking room, although every hallway that led to our room was lined with smoking rooms. The hallways smelled sad and stale. We were settling in with a bottle of wine and a movie when we got a phone call. It was the lab in New Hampshire that was doing our 19 molecular tests. They had good news and bad news. My wife tested negative, but my test was discarded. 

   “There wasn’t enough liquid in the test vial to maintain the sample,” the lab technician said. “Did you happen to spill some of it?”

   I didn’t bother trying to explain. I got on-line and filled out another ArriveCAN form. When we got to the border my wife had no problem. The only problem I had wasn’t make or break, since they couldn’t deny me entry, test or no test. A health officer gave me a self-test kit and told me to make sure I performed it within four days. She was in her early 30s. I had no reason to be skeptical. She was just out of Gen Z range. I should have been leery since she was wrong. She wasn’t as far out of the field of friendly fire as I thought.

   Four days later, when I went on-line and followed the directions for the self-test, the Indian-looking Indian-sounding woman on the other side of screen was nonplussed when I apologized for waiting to the last minute.

   “I don’t understand.” she said. “You are four days early. You are supposed to test after eight days of self-quarantine.”

   When I started to spell out what had happened, she wasn’t in the mood, and said she would schedule Purolator to pick my test up the next day. Purolator sent me an e-mail saying they would pick up between nine and noon. The truck pulled up just before five. I was grilling dogs and corn on the front deck. The next day I got an e-mail informing me my test came back negative. I had been tested four times in ten days and was finally officially virus-free.

   No matter the generation, Prince Edward Island was the only place and people who got it right. When we arrived late Wednesday afternoon and crossed the nine-mile-long bridge to the province, we waited in one of the many lines edging towards checkpoints. It didn’t take long. A young woman took our vitals while an older man in a spacesuit swabbed our noses.

   “If we don’t call you within two hours you tested negative,” he said.

   We drove to the Coastline Cottages. “Welcome to Canada,” our hosts said. “You made it.” 

   No one from Health PEI called us. We unpacked, watching the day get dark over the Atlantic Ocean, and fell into bed. I drifted off thanking God somebody on our part of the planet knew what the 19 score was, not some mumbo jumbo they dreamed up because they neglected to check the scoreboard.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Ball and Chain

By Ed Staskus

   It was wetter than not the front end of summer and too muddy to ride the single tracks in the Rocky River Reservation. It had rained or thunder stormed nine days the first fourteen days of July. One day two inches of rain fell. Instead, I rode my Specialized on the all-purpose trail and left my Schwinn hanging in the garage. The Schwinn was outfitted for dirt, with front shocks and a low stem. The Specialized was outfitted with road tires, knobby on the outside and smooth rolling on the flat side and had a higher stem. It made for better riding on asphalt.

   It made for even faster riding down Hog’s Back Lane, which is the entryway off Riverside Dr. into the valley. Hog’s Back is laid out on a steep shale hill. It’s about a half-mile to the bottom. When the shale slumps and slides, the two-lane surface crumbles, and it becomes essential to keep your eyes fixed on the road.

   Hunched over the handlebars I could hit 40 MPH going downhill, no problem, unless I feathered the brakes, which I did, lessening the chances of flying over the handlebars at 40 MPH. That would have been a problem, if not the end of me.

   I rode alone most of the time and especially that summer because my brother Rick was getting married. He said he didn’t have time to get on his bike anymore. “I’ve got a lot going on,” he explained. He had been married once before, but it only lasted 57 days. He was determined to make his next marriage work out for the better.

   “I don’t want him racing that crazy hill and crashing,” said his fiancée, Amy Brotherton. She was down on Hog’s Back. She didn’t want a train wreck walking down the aisle at her side. She and Rick had met a few months earlier on a blind date. One thing led to another on the one-way street they were on.

   “You be careful, too,” my wife said watching me saddle up in the backyard. “I don’t want you wrecking, either.”

   The summer of 1995 was hot, in the high 80s when it wasn’t in the high 90s, and the air was humid and sluggish. I could have ridden the single tracks, since they had dried up, but I stayed on the all-purpose trails. Towards the end of one week, after getting home from work, I rode twelve miles out, almost all the way to Berea. It was on the way back that I passed a skinny man in a red helmet on a hybrid.

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

   He tucked in behind me and we rode fast to where the trail zigzags through some curves, and to where he got sloppy. He tried to pass two young women on roller blades, except on an inside-out curve, and when a biker rode up on the other side, he had to slalom wide on the grass. At the end of the curve a ditch stretches away from the trail to the Valley Parkway, and he backtracked. I waited for him to catch up.

   “That was a good pace,” he said before I peeled away to go back home, while he kept going his own way. Pedaling up Hog’s Back is a long hard slog, which is what I did, slog up the long hill. By the time I got close to the crest, I was on the verge of a standstill.

   The next day Rick and I rode downtown. He said he had an appointment for a haircut at Planet 10, on West 9th St., and wanted to ride there. On the way from Lakewood, we spun through Ohio City to Church Street. He pointed out an old church whose rectory had been converted into a recording studio. 

   “That’s where we’re having our reception,” he said. Amy was a sometime actress and singer. She had the looks and the voice. She made a living doing nails, since nailing roles in Cleveland wasn’t a paying proposition.

   They were getting married at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church instead of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where my wife and I had gotten married. Rick was Lithuanian stock, just like me, but even though Amy was an atheist, her grandmother wasn’t and wanted her to be married in a church. Amy didn’t like the Lithuanian church in North Collinwood, so it was going to be St. Pete’s in Lakewood.

   We went south on West 25th St., crossed the bridge to Jacobs Field, and rode to the Warehouse District. The bride-to-be was still OK with Rick riding on city streets, but not any farther through the near east side, like I often did, to Cleveland Heights along Cedar Rd. She quashed that, stamping her foot.

   “I don’t want him getting killed in Fairfax by any porch monkey,” she said.

   Rick pushed his bike into Planet 10’s lobby and I rode away, going my flaneur-like way. After zigzagging around downtown, on my way home, stopping at a narrow strip of grass beside the Hope Memorial Bridge, squeezing a drink from my water bottle, I watched a black woman with shopping bags easing herself down to the ground in front of an RTA sign. She looked up at me and smiled. She had crooked yellow teeth. She was probably going back to Fairfax, maybe thinking of killing Rick if he rode his bike past her house.

   I was standing outside my garage when Rick and Amy pulled up in her baby blue Ford Tempo. His bike was sticking out of the trunk, the trunk bungee corded. “Jerry screwed up Rick’s appointment,” she complained. “He’s so unprofessional.” She was mad. “That’s not how we do business at Artistiques.” It was her friend’s hair and nail salon.

   Planet Ten was owned and operated by a gay young man named Jerry who was a junkie. He lived near Gordon Square where he could score smack in the blink of an eye. He was up-and-down on any given day. He was good with clippers and shears, though.

   It was mid-week before I rode back into the park and got on the dirt trails that branch off from the horse stables at Puritas Rd. They were dry where they were level, but they weren’t level over much. I had to ford a stream where a tree had fallen. I jumped some baby stumps, went sideways once, and when I got home got the outdoor hose and sprayed cold water on myself. It was a hot day.

   My wife and I drove to Amy’s bridal shower that weekend, which was at her best friend’s house in Avon Lake. Wendy was a big-faced woman married to a ruddy-faced Englishman who was a barge pilot on the Mississippi River. It was steamy as hell even though it was just barely August. I was sprawled across a leather sofa in the air-conditioned family room when I noticed a small dog on the coffee table. I couldn’t tell if it was a dog dead asleep or a dead dog who had been stuffed. When I reached for whatever the thing was, it snapped at my fingers.

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

   I went for a ride after we got home. Twilight was turning to dusk by the time I got back. Snapper, our Maine Coon cat, came running out of the neighbor’s backyard. Just when I was ready to close the garage door, Rick pulled into the driveway.

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

   “All right, but don’t break it.”

   My brother was notorious for either busting or never returning borrowed tools. He had Katie, Amy’s three-year-old, with him. I picked her up, held her upside down, and spun her by her heels in tight circles. When we were done, we talked about a nickname for her, finally settling on Skate.

   “It rhymes with Kate,” I said.

   She waved goodbye through the window of the car as Rick pulled out with the lawn mower. If the child hadn’t been with him, I wouldn’t have lent him the mower. That was probably why he brought her along.

   By mid-August cumulus clouds were dotting the sky and the weather was surprisingly cooler than it had been. I rode my Schwinn down Hog’s Back and got off the all-purpose trail at Mastik Woods, veering onto the dirt track there. I rode the track for three miles and then double-backed on the horse trail. As I did, I noticed somebody was coming up.

   When he went by, I saw he was wearing a baseball cap instead of a helmet and was on a well-worn Trek. He was riding fast, and even though I followed him as best I could, I couldn’t catch him until he suddenly slowed down. I saw why when he pulled up. Horses were coming around a bend. We waited while the horses cantered past.

   The Trek turned to the right and rode into the trees toward the river and the single tracks on the bank. I followed him, bumping over ruts and logs and through thick underbrush, but soon lost sight of him. He pushed up the hill running along Big Met, then down, and as he came into the clear jumped onto the trail ahead of me. He had gone around and was riding faster than before. We sped through a thicket, then across a baseball field where he widened the gap by jumping a wood guardrail, something I couldn’t do, even if I tried as hard as I could. It would have ended badly. I went around. It went well enough.

   I thought I might catch the Trek on the Detroit Rd. climb out of the valley, except he climbed so fast I lost more ground. I finally caught up to him where he was waiting at a red light on Riverside Dr. We talked while I gulped air.

   “I wasn’t planning on doing much today, but it ended up being a fun ride,” he said. “I saw the Vytis decal on your fender,” he said. There was a red decal of the White Knight on my rear X-Blade fender. 

   “Not many people know what that is,” I said.

   “I know my Lithuanian heroes,” he said, waving goodbye.

   A week before the wedding my brother called and said JoJo was out as their maid of honor. She was Amy’s ex-friend-to-be who arranged the blind date with Rick when Amy had been on the prowl after her latest divorce. She was promised she could be maid of honor if the date led to anything. JoJo was a travel agent. Amy gave her a cash down payment for a Cancun honeymoon. But then the travel agency called and said they were getting anxious about the down payment, since they hadn’t received it, yet.

   When Rick telephoned JoJo, she said she hadn’t gotten any cash, but when Amy heard that she rushed to the phone. There was a long loud argument and JoJo somehow found the money. The honeymoon was back on, but Tammy had to at the last minute find another maid of honor. 

   The next day my brother called.

   “Are you going riding?” he asked.

   “I’m just going out the door,” I said.

   “I’ll be there in ten minutes. I need some fresh air.”

    I was working out the kinks in my lower back when Rick rode up the driveway.

   “Amy’s sick,” he said.

   “What’s wrong with her?”

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

   “Let’s go,” I said.

   The sky was overcast and gusts from the southwest pushed us around as we rode Riverside Dr. on the rim of the valley. We glided down and rode single tracks. The dirt was late summer dried out and the ruts were bad, but we rode fast enough. My back wheel went in sketchy directions a few times. Rick held back. He didn’t want to face plant.

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

   “Maybe a little,” I said.

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

   “Getting married can be risky business,” I said. “Take a look at you and Amy. You were married once, and it lasted for two months. Tammy’s been married twice. She’s got a kid by one of the husbands and a kid by somebody else. You might want to throw yourself down every downhill between now and the wedding day.”

   “I don’t think so,” he said, giving me an aggrieved look. 

   “Then the next best thing is to keep your eyes wide open before the wedding and half-shut afterwards.”

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

   “Crash test dummies!” a crow watching us from a tree branch squawked.

   I took me longer to put my derailleur chain, which had fallen off, back on than it did to get over my injuries. The chain was trapped against the frame. I had to loosen the rear wheel. I cleaned my greasy hands on some of last year’s fallen leaves.

   The morning of the big day, while my wife went shopping for a gift, I rode down into the valley. I felt good, but a strong crosswind was blowing, and I got tired. The bike felt sloppy, too. Going home I pushed hard because I didn’t want to be late for the show. When I finally got home, I found out I had been riding on a nearly flat back tire.

   Rick’s wedding went off without a hitch, but during the reception, when my wife was congratulating him, he made the shape of a handgun with his hand, with his index finger pressed to his temple.

   The next day I drove to Rick’s house with the gift we had forgotten to bring to the reception. Amy was lounging in the living room in a thick, white bathrobe, poring over Cancun brochures, and Skater Katie was in her pajama’s. While Rick and I talked in the kitchen doorway, Amy’s old dog limped up to me and licked the scrape on my knee.

   By the beginning of October, the park was yellow and maple red. I rode the all-purpose trail every other day. One Sunday morning my wife and I had breakfast at the Borderline Café down the street and went for a walk on the horse trails behind South Mastik. That night, while we were watching a movie on TV, Rick called.

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

   “Amy?” I asked.

   “No,” he said. “It’s my shoulder.”

   I had seen how he couldn’t lift his right arm above his head without trying hard.

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

   “Oh, man!” I exclaimed.

   The last Saturday of the month was the last day of the year I rode in the valley. It was getting too wet and cold. I was adjusting the strap on my helmet when a gang of neighborhood boys and girls came walking up with rakes, brooms, and a wagon. They asked if they could rake our yard for $5.00. I said sure. They started pushing wet leaves into piles. The biggest of the girls walked up to me.

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

   “Sure,” I said.

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

   I rang the doorbell for my wife, and she came outside, saying she would take care of the boy and supervise the raking. “Go before it gets dark,” she said. It was getting dark earlier and earlier.

   Where Hog’s Back intersects with the Valley Parkway, I cut across a field and rode onto a single track. The path was littered with twigs and slapdash. A flock of Canadian geese went by overhead. They honked down at me. I came around a quick bend and the branches of a fallen tree on the side of the track jabbed at my face. I swerved to the left and pulled on the brakes, jumping off the bike when the tree I was going to run into became the tree I ran into. I landed on my feet and the bike was all right when I picked it up.

   On the way home I rode on the road, instead of the all-purpose trail, hugging the shoulder’s white line. A man in a shiny new silver pick-up leaned on his horn behind me, and when he went past, tried to shrug me off the road, giving me his middle finger for good measure. Some people are sons of bitches. There’s no getting around it or doing anything about it. 

   At home I hosed off the Schwinn and hung it up in the garage. I checked the tires. They looked good, although I knew hanging upside down in the garage all winter long all the air would slowly seep out of them.

   I was going to miss riding with Rick, but when you ride with somebody else you’ve got to wait until they’re as ready as you. When you ride by yourself you can go whenever your bike is spit polish lubricated and the tires look good. The White Knight had been a metalhead for crown and country, and even though his decal brought up my rear, going it alone is the real deal. Nobody wants to be alone, but sometimes you just need to be left alone.

   I did yoga at home that winter to give my lower back a break. I went to classes sometimes even though I couldn’t stand the pie in the sky talk. I had an indoor bike and pedaled on it. I would have to pump up my road bike tires again the coming April, before going back into the valley. When I did, I would keep my eyes on the road ahead, not looking back, daffodils blooming and turkey buzzards circling, the springtime warm and fine after a long cold winter on Lake Erie.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

One Life of the Snapper

By Ed Staskus

   After we got married my wife and I bought a house in Lakewood four houses up from the Rocky River Metropark and set up housekeeping. It was the early 1990s. We tore all the lime green shag carpeting out, tore all the false ceilings out, and tore all the wallpaper off the walls, painting them white. We purged the original bathroom. The house was built in the late 1920s and the bathroom had to go. It was only the beginning, but at least it was a start.

   After a few years we thought we would get a cat. My wife wanted a dark long hair. I wanted an orange short hair. We got an orange Maine Coon. He was a half-breed, but well bred. The few times he misbehaved it was mostly because we hadn’t made it clear to him that some behavior, like scratching the furniture, was out of bounds. After we let him become an inside outside cat, all the scratching he did after that was outside. We never asked the local trees shrubs or fences whether they minded, or not.

   He stayed mostly indoors winters, except for when it was above freezing, as well as those times he was simply close to the side door and I tossed him outside, which I did whenever there was a snow mound just outside the door. If the snow was fluffy enough, he sank into it up to his eyeballs, looked helpless for a second, scrambled to get out of the snow, and gave me a dirty look coming back inside. Maine Coons have a reputation for enjoying snow. Our cat didn’t live up to the reputation. He was good with rain, tolerated snow showers, but not blizzards or northern Ohio mid-winter cold.

   We named him Snapper after I movie we had recently seen, “The Snapper,” which is about a big family in a small house in Dublin whose oldest daughter has gotten pregnant, but won’t tell anybody who the father is, because it happened after a wild night at a pub with a man who is her father’s friend, and her father’s age. She tells everybody it was a Spanish sailor passing through town. The family calls the baby in the belly the Snapper.

   I called our cat Bud. My wife called him Snaps, Snapper Doodle, Kinney, Lambkins, and Goose. He didn’t answer to anything unless he was hungry, wanted to go outside, or wanted to come back inside. He didn’t like to be bothered when he was sleeping, which was more often than not.

   Snapper never told us who his parents were. He never said a word about his brothers and sisters, or uncles and aunts. He didn’t tell us where he was from or how he had gotten to the Cleveland Arcade. He was vocal enough when it came to food and creature comforts, but didn’t say much about himself.

   It was Christmas time. I was downtown to pick something up from a store in the Cleveland Arcade. It was dolled up for the holiday. It used to be called the Crystal Palace. I parked near the Main Library and went in through the Superior Ave. doors. When I did, I noticed the Animal Protective League had taken a vacant storefront for the time being and was peddling dogs and cats. When I looked around, I spied Snapper in a cage at eye level in the middle of the store. I extended my index finger into his jail cell, he took it into his mouth, and bit me. He was a kitten less than 12 weeks old. He might have been able to puncture paper, but not me.

   “You’re for me, bud,” I told him.

   I told the man behind the sales counter I was going to my car to get money to pay for him. When I got back a young lady had him in her hands and was walking to the counter. I stepped up to her, tapped her on the shoulder, took Snapper away from her, and said, “He’s spoken for.”

   The Maine Coon is one of the oldest breeds in the United States. Nobody knows exactly where they came from, but many believe they are related to both Siberian and Norwegian Forest cats. They are the official state cat of Maine. Down Easters say the breed originated in their state.

   The origin story I like best is that when Marie Antoinette, the ill-fated Queen of France, was trying to beat feet out of the country, she enlisted the help of Captain Samuel Clough. She loaded his ship with all her favorite stuff, including six of her favorite cats, Siberians and Turkish Angoras. Her luck was bad, though. The Gendarmerie Nationale dragged her back to Paris before the ship could sail. When the ship shoved off the six cats shoved off with it. After they reached the town of Wiscasset, Maine they went ashore for shore leave, living it up with other cats and developing into the modern breed of the Maine Coon. 

   My mother-in-law was owning operating a deli takeout on the ground floor of the National City Bank building on East 9th St. My trip downtown had also meant picking up dinner. I parked on Short Vincent. I didn’t want to leave the cat in the car, so I snuggled him down into the pocket of my winter coat.

   “What’s that wiggling in your coat?” my mother-in-law asked handing me a bag full of food. 

   The cat stuck his head out of the top of my pocket sniffing at the bag.

   After oohing and awing at the furball she gave me a wicker basket for him to sleep in. He slept in the basket that night and for years afterwards. He never suffered from insomnia. Even when we bought a bigger better basket for him, he continued sleeping in the original until he couldn’t fit into it anymore. When he grew up, he had a ruff on his chest and a two-layered coat, a silky undercoat under longer guard hairs. He wasn’t as big as a purebred Maine Coon, but more than hunter savvy enough. He was more than sociable with us.

   At first, we thought we would keep him indoors, but he was as much dog as cat and had to go outside, no matter what. When spring came, we started letting him out and teaching him to stay away from the street. I let him wander, following with a squirt gun, and whenever he drifted down the driveway to the apron squirted him in the face. He didn’t like it and learned his lesson, at least until he got older, when all bets were off. Our backyard was fenced and raised above Crest Lane behind our house, and there were enough neighbors on both sides of us that it was as far as he ranged sideways. 

   I was watching him walk up the sidewalk one day when a full-grown cat came sauntering his way. They sniffed at each other. Snapper made a sudden movement and the other cat swatted him. When he went running the other cat followed him. He jumped and I gathered him up in my arms. The neighborhood bully sat at my feet watching while Snapper made faces at him, throwing caution to the wind, snarling, and showing his claws. He could be sassy.

   Cats fight all the time. Even when they are playing, they get scratched. That doesn’t keep kittens from happening. They are both wild and domestic at the same time.

   Over time he learned and remembered what our cars sounded like and hearing my wife or me pulling into the driveway ran out of the backyard to see us. I didn’t like him doing it and blared my horn to make him stop doing it, but he never did. He went his own way.

   We lost him one day long into the night when he got trapped inside a neighbor’s garage after the man unwittingly closed the door on him, but he was such a loudmouth that his cries alerted everyone to where he was. He could have been a civil defense siren. He knew to come inside at sunset, but sometimes forgot, sitting under our window in the middle of night meowing until we let him in the house. He slept on our bed with us, taking up a third of it. He liked his space.

   Snapper was a mouser, bringing half dead mice to the door for our approval. He messed with anything that moved. Since we lived on the edge of the Metropark, there were plenty of squirrels rabbits possums and racoons. He never caught a rabbit, but one day a racoon caught him. We were searching for him the next day when I found him curled up in the back of a closet. There were gobs of dried blood on his face and puncture wounds on one side of his mouth.

   “It looks like a racoon hooked him,” the vet said, sewing him up and shoving an antibiotic down his throat. “Give him one of these every day for a week.”

   He was a birder, too, although birds were usually too fast for him. One day a pair of blue jays were in our backyard bird feeder when he went after them. That was a mistake. One of the birds flew away but the other one circled back and started dive bombing him. Snapper had no answer for the loud jeers and attacks of the big bird and ducked under a hedge sulking. The rest of the summer he scanned the sky and made sure there were no blue jays in his neck of the woods before he went exploring.

   By the time his second summer rolled around he could jump to the top of any fence, climb any tree, and even make his way to the top of flat-roofed garages. He came down from trees backwards, but I usually had to get a step ladder to get him down from roofs. He often bit off more than he could chew. I kept him in shape by holding him upside down and tossing him up in the air. He twisted at the top of the arc, aligning himself head up feet down, landing on my open hands. He rarely misjudged it, nailing the landing. It stood him in good stead his long lifetime.

   Indoor cats live about 12 to 17 years. One way or another outdoor cats live about 2 to 5 years. Maine Coons live about 10 to 13 years. Snapper was half Maine Coon and half who knows what. He spent half his life indoors and half his life outdoors. The more time he spent in the great outdoors the more wary he became of the animal kingdom, especially people and their ways. He always had the same expression on his face, whether it was a June bug or an ax-murderer coming his way. He was able to snap to attention out of a deep sleep in a split second. Snapper never let anybody get near him unless we were nearby. He was smarter than he knew. He lived to be nearly 18 years old. 

   We fed him wet food in the morning and kibble the rest of the time. We started him off with top shelf wet food until he made it known that anything with gravy was his favorite. After that Purina One, Iams, and Science Diet were out. Cheap-ass Friskies were in. He might have lived on gravy alone if we let him. We didn’t let him, but we tried to keep him happy.

   “When my cats aren’t happy, I’m not happy. Not because I care about their mood but because I know they’re just sitting there thinking up ways to get even,” the writer Percy Shelly once said.

   As much time as he spent outside, he was a homeboy at heart. When we went on vacation, whether it was for a week or a month, the minute we got back he started complaining about our absence and stayed close to us for days afterwards. After that it was back to his gravy and his basket.

   He got slower towards the end of his life. When winter came, he slept near the furnace registers. His kidneys started going bad. We added a second litter box so he could pee the second he had to. 

   One summer day coming home from work I turned into our street behind another car. Snapper was across the street from our house, on the Anderson’s front porch. Hearing my car, he jumped up and started running across the street. He was still fast enough for his age, but not fast enough that day. The front tires missed him but when one of the back tires struck him, he went up into the air, landed with a thud, and rolled over. I watched the car not stop. I stopped in the middle of the street. He was still alive when I ran to him, but just barely.

   He was spasming and crying. He was broken. He was choking on blood, and I forced his mouth open so he could breathe. He sucked on my finger and died. He wasn’t the kind of cat who had nine lives. Snapper had one life and his life was over in the blink of an eye.

   I wrapped him up in that week’s issue of the Lakewood Observer and took him down Hogsback Lane to the Metropark, burying him on the banks of the Rocky River. He had never been to the park but lived on the edge of it. He saw it every day of his life from our second-floor porch.

   Two years later we got another mixed Maine Coon. He was a black classic style tabby. My wife named him Gladwyn but called him Baby Wodin, after the pagan god of the Anglo-Saxons. I called him Gaylord, after the crafty old Cleveland Indians pitcher Gaylord Perry. When spring came, he liked sitting on the cat perch on the porch and looking out on the park going buds and blossoms.

   Every spring I went to where I buried Snapper and sat by the river in the sun watching ducks take their young out on the greenish-brown warming water.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Hole in One

By Ed Staskus

   When Hal Schaser met him at the Kenwood Village Apartments, Wade Riddell had two bum knees, although they were the least of his problems. The burly man had been a Cleveland Police Department detective for fifteen years and a uniformed officer before that. He told Hal that in all that time he only drew his service handgun a handful of times and never once fired it. He lived with the same bullets on his belt all his life.

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

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

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

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

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

   It wasn’t his fault the Ford’s transmission blew out, stranding him in the middle of nowhere. His son-in-law picked him up, driving him home, but wouldn’t lend him the money to get it repaired.

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

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

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

   After that he had to walk to the Lakewood Library and McDonald’s, the grocery and the bus stop all that winter, the winter Wade blew his head off, and the next spring until Charlie Taylor died and left him a hundred thousand dollars. The trust sold the dead man’s house and old furniture and threw everything else out. They converted his bonds and insurance to cash. Hal was able to buy a new car, a two-door Suzuki that never ran out of gas.

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

   When he finally got the boot and moved out of Indian Hills, down the hill to the flatlands, he was in his late 50s. “I was hanging on, waiting to get to 62, so I could get my Social Security early. I needed the money bad. When I worked for Palmer Bearings, they gave me a new car every year, with an expense account no one ever questioned, and I was in line to be made a vice-president, up to the day the Shylocks closed the doors without a word of warning to me.”

   Hal had a chip on his shoulder about it. He was aggrieved and bitter. Sometimes he went for a walk to cool down. He didn’t hate Charlie Taylor, but he could do without Jews.

   “There were years when I almost always had a thousand dollars, or more, in my pockets every day. Those days were gone. I made the day for them. I made them rich. In the end they took it all away from me, just like my wife did. They broke me and my wife broke me down.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “He wasn’t any good, and complained about the walking, but we got along. I always went looking for the balls he shanked. That way there wouldn’t be any problems about where they lay.”

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

   After Hal didn’t have a car anymore, Wade always drove the two of them. He had gotten a new dark blue Mercury four-door sedan. “He loved that car and talked his lady friend into getting one, too. That was how I got her old Ford.”

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

   “It’s a dump,” he said. It wasn’t the apartment’s fault. Hal wasn’t a tidy man. He hoarded whatever came his way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   He bought new shirts and shoes and ate better. After squirreling the rest of Charlie’s money away he was in good shape. He stayed in his dog-eared apartment to keep costs down. He thought about buying birthday presents for his grandson and granddaughter, even though he hardly ever saw them, and when he did see them, hardly paid any attention to them. He didn’t work at much of anything and played golf all the next summer at new nicer courses. He carried the certificates for the two holes in one he had made over the years in his wallet. He went to both Wade and Charlie’s graves and paid his respects. He only went once, but it was enough.

   He made some new best friends, joining a coffee klatch at the new McDonald’s on Detroit Rd. across the street from the Lutheran church that was closing soon. They sat around shooting the bull and drinking free re-fills. “Don’t play too much golf,” he told them. “Two rounds a day are plenty.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Rolling With the Punches

By Ed Staskus

   I was surprised and dismayed the day my father told me that, other than Ausra, the two-week sun and sand Lithuanian camp in Wasaga Beach, and our one-week boy scout camp, I would be working at the newspaper Dirva the rest of the summer. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since my father believed in the work ethic and worked like a dog himself, but I was. He gave me a grave stern annoyed look when I blurted out it would screw up my time off from school. 

   He and I weren’t on the same page, so I kept my dismay to myself.

   It wouldn’t have helped, anyway. I knew once he told me, I would be working at Dirva from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Thank God it was only part-time. I would be home by three o’clock and didn’t have to work on Fridays. I was going to be getting three-day weekends before I even knew what three-day weekends were.

   Before the newspaper Dirva, which means field, was Dirva, it was Santaika, which means peace. Kazys Karpius was the editor, and stayed on the job for thirty years, from the end of World War One through the Great Depression to the end of World War Two, getting the weekly editions out without fail. The paper was anti-communist, pro-democracy, and true-blue the homeland.

   Kazys Karpius wrote poems, plays, and histories about Lithuania, especially about beating off the Vikings and Teutonic Knights back in the day. The Teutonic Knights were always tramping into the Baltics for plunder and conversion, not their own conversion, but that of the natives they regarded as pagans. The Lithuanians didn’t see eye to eye with the Germans about it, insisting it was none of their business. They fought with longswords, battles axes, crossbows, maces, picks and war hammers, knives, clubs, slings, and hand-to-hand.

   The first day I slouched into work was a brisk early summer morning. I was down on Dirva but resigned to my new job. I rode the CTS bus from St. Clair to East 105th Street over Liberty Boulevard down Superior Avenue. It was the same bus and same route I took going to school, to St. George’s, on East 67th and Superior.

   Lithuanian immigrants came to Cleveland, Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie, in two waves, the first one in the late 19th century. They were cheap labor for emerging industries. They needed their own newspaper and church. At the turn of the century Father Joe Jankus threw up a small wooden church near downtown. The next pastor bought the land St. George’s was going to stand on and after it was built Father Vincent Vilkutaitis ran the parish for forty years. His last year was my first year of five years there.

   The church was on the top floor of the 2½ story brick building, the grade school on the middle floor, and the community hall on the ground floor, which was partially below ground.  Since it was the Atomic Age, and the Cold War was in full swing, the hall doubled as a Nuclear Fallout Shelter. Every few months we had a Civil Defense drill and had to file out of our classes and down to the hall, where we shuffled around until the drill was over.

   If we had somehow survived the blast, even though we all brought our own sandwiches in Flintstones and Dudley Do-right and Jetson lunch boxes, we would have all slowly starved to death trying to live on crumbs and apple cores. Dudley wouldn’t have helped, snug in his bunker under the White House.

   Jonas Ciuberkis was our neighbor two houses down from where we lived at the corner of Bartfield and Coronado, in a Polish double my mom and dad had bought with my dad’s sister and her family, all of us getting started in the United States. He was the editor of Dirva, in a small office at the front. A quiet man, balding, careful in manner, he was married to a woman fifteen-some years his junior, a woman who had given him three children, and who was fleshy vivacious gregarious.

   Regina Ciuberkiene had an opinion about everything and could talk your ear off. It didn’t matter that we were just kids. We avoided her. My mother never called her Regina. She called her Ciuberkiene, even to her face. Many of his friends called Jonas Janis, which is Latvian for Jonas. He had studied law in Lithuania and worked in Latvia before the war. Their two daughters were either too old or too young, but their son, Arunas, was just right, and we played together.

   Dirva was in a one-story brick building on Superior, next to the haunted house that was next to St. George’s. The Lithuanian Hall Society was next door. It was where all the civic and cultural business was done. It was also where there were dances and heavy drinking. Jonas Ciuberkis wasn’t sure what to do with me, so the first few days I didn’t do anything. After that I started cleaning up the mess, starting with the bathroom. After that I helped with the press and folding and mailing.

   My job was to do this do that, whatever I was told to do.

   The printing press looked like it belonged in a museum. It worked, sort of, but it was my archenemy, always threatening my mitts. It was a hand-fed flat-bed cylinder press. There was metal type for headings and an intertype machine for news and features. When the paper was ready for print, I got the machine rolling, crossing my fingers, and hoping for the best. As the copies came off the belt, I changed hats, becoming the press-boy who checked for defects. If and when the press got everything done, I became the mail-boy, wrapping the papers in bundles. Then I became the push-boy, carting them to beside the back door for pick-up.

   I was always amazed that the week’s news always fit exactly into that week’s edition.

   By World War One there were almost ten thousand Lithuanians in Cleveland. St. George’s was their church. Dirva was their newspaper. It was put out by the Ohio Lithuanian Publishing Company, which was run by Apdonas Bartusevicius. In 1925 Kazys Karpius gained a controlling interest.

   He was involved in Lithuanian projects all his life, including the Unification of Lithuanians in America and the Lithuanian National League of America. He helped found the American Lithuanian Cultural Center. After World War Two boatloads of displaced Lithuanians made it to Cleveland. Dirva published local, national ,and international news, as well as keeping everybody informed about what was going on back in the land. We sent the paper to Detroit and Pittsburgh and other places wherever there was a church or a bendruomene.

   Our editor went out most days for lunch and sometimes came back smelling like whiskey. One day he was walking out the door, I was sitting on a crate doing nothing, when he waved at me and said, “Ateik.” I must have been daydreaming, because he had to say it again before I realized he wanted me to go with him.

   He usually wore a white shirt and brown pleated pants. His thin hair was gray brownish. He drove a brown car. The interior was tan, clean, and anonymous. No one would ever have suspected he had a wife and three kids. He turned right on Norwood Road, six blocks later turned right on St. Clair, past the Slovenian National Home, to the Maple Lanes Bowling Alley and Tavern. It took five minutes. He parked on the street, and we went in.

   Nothing was going on in the bowling alley, but he wasn’t going to the bowling alley, anyway. He walked into the bar, checking to see that I was trailing him, and took a stool at the bar.

   “Atsisesk,” he said, adding, “Don’t tell your mother.”

   I sat down next to him. The bartender stepped up. He was wearing a bow tie and looked like as big as a new mattress wearing a bow tie. I couldn’t see around him.

   Jonas Ciuberkis ordered a shot and a water back and asked me what I wanted. I wanted an ice-cold Coca-Cola. It was in the 90s and humid. There was a big glass jar of pickled eggs at his elbow. He took one out for himself and nodded at the jar, looking at me. I said aciu, but no thanks.

   Pickled eggs are eggs hard boiled, the shell removed, and submerged in a solution of vinegar, salt, spices, and seasonings. The eggs are left in the brine anywhere from one day to several months. They get rubbery the longer they are in the pickling solution.

   “They’re Pennsylvania Dutch,” my boss said. “Try a bite.”

   Pennsylvania Dutch style means whole beets, onions, vinegar, sugar, salt, cloves and a cinnamon stick are used as the brine. The eggs look pink purple from the beets and have a sweet and sour taste.

   I took a bite, gingerly. It wasn’t bad. It was actually good, far better than the koseliena, chopped meat in cold aspic, like headcheese, my mother was always trying to get us to eat. Some food from the old country should have been left in the old country, dead and buried.

   When the bartender moved to the side, I saw the painting. It was on the wall above the paneling and top shelf of liquor bottles. It was of a half-naked woman reclining on her side on a chaise, her head up, looking down on the drinkers, her long golden hair hanging loose. Her eyes were wide set and her lips pouty luscious red.

   It was Lili St. Cyr, a burlesque dancer forty-some years ago. She was a pioneer in the striptease trade, known for her cutting-edge performances. One of her most famous tricks was ‘the Flying G.’ While she was doing her burlesque striptease, the lights slowly going down, just at the instant when everything went completely dark, a man in the wings with a fishing pole would snag her G-string and pull it off. Even if you didn’t blink it looked like it had disappeared just like that.

   A man who had seen her perform many times painted the mural in 1954. Maple Lanes paid him off in beer. Above the burlesque queen’s legs in the painting was an English proverb, “A woman is an angel at ten, a saint at fifteen, a devil at forty, and a witch at fourscore.”

   Jonas Ciuberkis flicked his eyes at the painting ten twenty times, while I narrowed my St. George altar boy eyes. Some gals are like the highway from Akron to Cleveland, no curves. She wasn’t one of those gals. I was an altar boy at St. George’s on the side. The boss had another shot, this time with a beer chaser. My mother always told us an apple a day, not a bottle of pop, kept the doctor away, so, I turned down more Coca-Cola.

   He talked about the “Great Books,” one of his favorite subjects, so I didn’t tell him about my reading habits, and about Lithuania, his other favorite subject, its history, the commies, and how to restore its freedom. I didn’t tell him it was going in one ear and out the other. He talked in a gloomy milk and water way. It was hard to pay attention, so I gave up, and set my sights back on Lili St. Cyr.

   She started looking familiar. I finally realized, if she were wearing clothes, she looked just like Regina Ciuberkiene, wide set eyes and full mouth, buxom, calves of salami.  She wasn’t a spitting image but as close as spit got.

   I noticed the TV on the wall in a corner was re-run broadcasting a boxing match. The two men were jabbing hooking punching but not landing much of anything. When one threw a punch the other one rolled with it.

   My boss had to drag me away and never invited me to Maple Lanes again. Mondays through Thursdays the summer crawled by, while Fridays through Sundays flew by. I messed around with my friends, rode my bike, and played a boatload of pick-up sandlot baseball.

   By the time my employment was coming to an end, Labor Day fast approaching, I had come to an accommodation with my job. The printing press and I were on speaking terms. I was no longer down on Dirva. I almost enjoyed it. I asked about my paychecks. I hadn’t seen a single one of them.

   “I gave them to your father every two weeks,” Jonas Ciuberkis said.

   “Oh,” I said.

   I didn’t ask my father about the paychecks. My mother and he were fanatical savers, putting every spare penny in the bank. I knew what he was going to be doing with the money, which was clothes and tuition for school.

   By the next year we had moved past Five Points to the Lithuanian neighborhood on the farther east side. Everybody was moving there because, with urban renewal in full swing, black people were slowly steadily shifting east, moving into our neighborhood. “We like them less than the Americans,” my mother told me. “They’re lazy.” If you weren’t a workaholic my parents thought you were lazy.

   The first Lithuanians in Cleveland lived near downtown, but fifty years later were relocating to the Superior-St. Clair area around St. George’s. The new community emerged in the Collinwood-Nottingham neighborhood, near the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Neff Road off East 185th Street. Most Lithuanians are Roman Catholic, although some are Jews, and a few are Lutherans. A small group of Cleveland’s Lithuanians broke off to live among working-class Poles on the south side, even though there is no love lost between Poles and Lithuanians.

   I enrolled in St. Joseph’s High School where the main road, a couple of miles of every kind of shop and store, intersected Lakeshore Boulevard. It was an all-boy’s school. It was still summer, the next summer, but fall was coming up. I looked at Dirva now and then, but when classes started all I read were my schoolbooks and Doc Savage adventure books from the library. I read them on weekends. There were twenty-four of them in all. I read them all. My favorite was “The Secret of Satan’s Spine.”

   Jonas Ciuberkis was fired from his job and Vytautas Gedgaudas took over. I didn’t know him and nobody I knew ever told me anything about him. He expanded the publication schedule to three times a week, but it went back to its original weekly frequency soon enough. Working that much must have driven the printing press crazy, and driven whoever was operating it crazy, too.

   Maple Lanes Bowling Alley and Tavern was sold that same summer of 1964. Ann Abranovich and Josephine Reeves, sisters and working mothers, bought it so they could make more money and spend more time with their sprouting growing families. Josephine lived a few blocks from the bowling alley and walked to work. Ann moved her family into the apartment upstairs. The noise downstairs was money in the bank.

   When I heard the St. Joseph’s bowling team was going there for a tournament, I told them I knew all about the bowling alley and they let me tag along. Everybody asked me about the painting, which the new owners hadn’t messed with. I told them I knew everything about it.  I didn’t know bowling from polo, although I knew you rolled the ball trying to knock all the pins down, so I sat in the back and watched. The St. Joe’s and Padua and Ignatius teams rolled the worst scores of their lives.

   The kingpin kids from upstairs were the pinsetters. You had to be careful not to roll while they were still setting up. They screamed and sent pins flying at you if you did. The alleys weren’t even and smooth. They were wood, not laminate, old wood, and there were warps bumps gouges divots waves from one end to the other. It was hard if not impossible to tell what your ball was going to do. The talk was that no one had ever rolled a three hundred score perfect game at Maple Lanes, and that no one ever would, unless they made a deal with the devil.

   That was unlikely to happen, because everybody in that old neighborhood neck of the woods went to church on Sundays. There weren’t as many churches as bars, but it was close enough. There would have been talk, the news would have spread like wildfire, and there would have been hell to pay if you did roll a perfect game.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Altar Boy ABC’s

By Ed Staskus

   “Mom, can you write me a note for school tomorrow saying I can’t be an altar boy,” I asked my mother after we had finished watching every minute of “The Wide World of Disney” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She gave me a sharp frown. I gave her my best first-born smile.

   Every Sunday night my parents nibbled sliced-up smoked eel while my brother, sister, and I munched handfuls of popcorn from paper bags sitting in front of the Zenith TV console in the basement. It was a family ritual. We loved Walt Disney, but The Great Stone Face wasn’t a chip off the old block. The circus acts and comedians were fun, but the opera singers and dramatic monologues were dull as turned off. None of us understood what the Little Italian Mouse was up to, either.

   I asked my mom for the note after we were out of the tub, in pj’s, and book bags ready for Monday. I wanted it to be short and sweet, as though it were no big deal, routine, really. I thought something along the line of all my spare time was already being spent on my studies would be appropriate.

   I knew I was on shaky ground, though. My parents went to mass every Sunday, which meant we all went. “Everybody went to church back then,” my mother says. “There were two masses every Sunday. The church was full of people. We went early to get a pew.”

   My mother always went to church because she had always gone. “I grew up that way,” she said. My father was a true believer. He was an accountant and counted on getting to heaven. Even though he wasn’t a betting man, he put his money on Pascal’s wager. 

   The wager argues that a thinking person should live as though God exists and try to believe in him. If God doesn’t exist, there will only be a few finite losses, like good times with too much money and too many girlfriends. When you are dead and gone you won’t miss them. But if God does exist, there are infinite gains, like spending eternity in heaven, and no infinite losses, like spending eternity in hell. 

   After he told me about the parlay there was no arguing with him about whether I was going to faithfully serve out my altar boy time. “St. George is one of the Holy Helpers,” he said. I helped myself by biting my tongue. Everybody at school knew George was a stud, the Trophy Bearer.

   The most embarrassed I ever was as a child was when my parents made me go to Sunday mass dressed up in a Buster Brown sailor suit. Something criminal happened to the costume before the next service. It was never found alive again. I had to go to confession after telling my mom I had no idea what happened to it. 

   The fashion show took months to live down at school. I had to fight my way out of several mean-spirited jibes. There will be blood in grade school.

   The St. George church school and parish hall were all in a package, a rectangular two-and-a-half story brick building on Superior Avenue and East 67th Street. The church was on the top floor, the school on the middle floor, and the hall on the half-in-the-ground floor. The hall doubled as a civil defense shelter in case of nuclear war, even though it was unclear what we going to do down there after the atomic bomb had blown Cleveland, Ohio, to kingdom come.

   I was glad my mom didn’t down-press me about it, but wrote a note, sticking it in an envelope, sealing it, and finishing it off with my teacher’s name on the front. A small whitecap of uncertainty took shape in my mind at my mom’s readiness to do my bidding, but I put my doubts to rest and slept the sleep of the blessed.

  The next day I gave the envelope to my third-grade teacher, Sister Matilda, a gnarly disciplinarian who had press-ganged me and a half-dozen other boys the second week of school. I found out later it was an annual recruitment drive.

   She read the note, smiled, and said, “Very good, you start next Monday.”

   How could that be? What happened between last night and now? My own mother had betrayed me, I realized.

   The St. George edifice was the biggest Lithuanian building in Cleveland, built in 1921. It was at the center of the ethnic district and many parishioners had businesses and institutions, like the newspaper and some kind of historical outfit, nearby. The east side along Lake Erie was full of Poles, Serbs and Slovenians, and Lithuanians.

   The parish priest, Father Ivan, short for his civilian name Balys Ivanauskas, lived in a seven-bedroom Italianate-style rectory a stone’s throw from the church. It had been built for a big family in the 1880s. Our teachers, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God, lived together in a slightly smaller house on Superior Avenue two or three minutes away. There were eight of them, not including the Mother Superior. They could have used some of Father Ivan’s empty bedrooms.

   The sisters were a hard-boiled bunch. They were serious as could be about us taking our studies seriously and behaving in class. Those were rules number one and two. There were no other rules. They weren’t above hitting us with rulers riding crops rolled-up Catholic Universe Bulletins and their hands. Nobody’s parents ever complained about it, so none of us ever complained about it to them.

   What would have been the point? They would only have asked, “What did you do?”

   The nuns never sweated getting the job done. In fact, they never sweated at all. Wearing thick bulky habits, they should have been the first to perspire whenever it got hot, but they never did. Nobody knew how they did it, if it was part of their training or some kind of black magic.

   Even though I wasn’t baptized at St. George, I acted as a bump on a log at many baptismal fonts. One time a baby spit a stream of pea green apple sauce puke on my surplice and another time another one burped and farted and messed up Father Ivan. I had to run back to headquarters and get wet rags. I sprayed the boss with the new-fangled aerosol Lysol a busybody had donated.

   I received my First Communion there and was confirmed there. The First Communion happens when as a Catholic you attain the Age of Reason. I don’t know how any of us were ever given the host when we were, because I definitely had not attained the Age of Reason, nor had anyone in my class, unless they were faking it.

   My reason was affected by reading boy’s books in my spare time, adventures about running for your life full moons spies foreign lands secrets ray guns tommy guns spitfires hooded supervillains risky back alleys conspiracies and the bad guys foiled at the last minute by the good guys. The paperbacks seeded my dreams and I cooked up twisty exploits every night, waking up happy I had survived. 

   Once we were thrown to the lions, we got trained in the basics, how to dress, the call and response, and how to arrange the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the big Missal. We learned how to hold liturgical books for Father Ivan when he wasn’t at the altar, when he was proclaiming prayers with outstretched hands. We brought him thuribles, the lavabo water and towel, and the vessels to hold the consecrated bread.

   We helped with communion, presenting cruets of wine and water for him to pour into the chalice.  When he washed his hands standing at the side of the altar, we poured the water over them. If incense was used, we presented the thurible and incense to Father Ivan, who smoked the offerings, the cross and altar, after which we smoked the priest and people. It had one flavor, a sickly-sweet rotting pomegranate smell.

   The thurible was a two-piece metal chalice with a chain that we swung side to side. God forbid anybody got slap happy and swung it too high, hitting something with it, and spilling the hot coals, threatening to burn the church down. That was when Father Ivan became Ivan the Terrible.

   We rang a handbell before the consecration, when the priest extended his hands above the gifts. We rang the bell again when, after the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest showed the host and then the chalice. 

   “Ring dem’ bells” is what we liked doing best.

   I started low man on the totem pole which meant the 7 o’clock morning shift. Even though everybody went to church, nobody went to church first thing in the morning Monday through Friday. At least, almost nobody. The big man was always there and at least one of his altar boys. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, pour myself a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice, catch a CTS bus on the corner of St. Clair Avenue and East 127th Street, toss exact change into the fare box, stay away from the crazy people, run through the church to the sacristy, get into my uniform, and make sure I had my cheat sheet.

   The mass was performed in Latin, most of the time the priest’s back to the congregation, and we followed his lead. There were prescribed times we had to respond by voice to something Father Ivan recited. It was when we offered Holy Communion that I finally faced the nave and saw the only people in church were old older oldest unemployed worried about something or in the wrong place. 

   One benefit to hardly anybody being in the pews first thing in the morning was whenever I made a mistake, it usually stayed between me and my maker. That is, unless Ivan the Terrible, who had eyes in the back of his head and hearing better than a moth, saw and heard what I had done wrong.

   Moths have the best hearing in the world, next to priests, who are accustomed to listening to whispers in the confessional. I was waiting for my turn one afternoon after school when I heard Father Ivan bellow, “What did you say?” and the next thing I knew a red-faced boy burst out of the booth running followed by the dark-faced priest. 

   I quietly slipped away. There was no need to put myself in harm’s way for somebody else’s mortal sins.

   When I started Father Bartis was in charge, but the next year Father Ivan became the parish priest. He was a burly man. None of us knew where he came from or how old he was, although we guessed he was between 30 and 60. He ran the parish until 1980. He smoked, we could smell it on his breath when he got close to us, and sometimes we caught a whiff of spirits. We all knew what strong drink smelled like because almost everybody’s parents drank.

   He liked to take walks and mind his own business, unless he was minding ours. We were always under the gun. He was irascible to begin with and screwing around with his life’s work brought out the worst in him. Our school janitor said he never met anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible. Father Ivan was short-tempered, but his bark was worse than his bite. The nuns put him to shame when it came to crime and punishment.

   All of us carried cheat sheets. Latin was a foreign language, as well as a dead language. None of us were taking classes in it and none of us knew what we were saying. Our responses during mass were rote, except when something went wrong, when we improvised with mumbles. It wasn’t speaking in tongues, but Father Ivan warned us exorcism was imminent if we didn’t learn our lines.

   The Eucharist was the high point of mass. It got us off our knees and on our feet. We helped in the distribution by holding a communion plate under everybody’s chin when the priest gave them the wafer. There would have been hell to pay if there was an accident, the wafer falling out of somebody’s mouth, landing on the floor.

   It would have meant saying a million Hail Mary’s and a thousand turns around the Stations of the Cross.

   After acquiring seniority, I was promoted off the morning shift and started serving at Sunday masses, funerals, and weddings. Sunday mass was more of the same, only longer and more elaborate, but at least I got to sleep in and go to church in the family car instead of the city bus with strangers.

   Funerals seemed to always be scheduled on Mondays and Fridays. It happened so often I began to think weekends coming and going were a dangerous time. At one Friday funeral Father Ivan spoke glowingly of all the good works the deceased had done and how he was sure the man was going to heaven. “The way to the brightness is through good works,” he said. “The first thing we all have got to do is do good.”

   We were standing on either side of the dead man. The other altar boy leaned over the open casket and said to me, “What you got to do first is be dead.”

   The corpses didn’t bother us over much, but the mewling coffin sounds freaked us out.

   None of us especially enjoyed funerals, not because we were near at hand to the dead, but because they were sad dismal and mournful and on top of everything else we rarely were gifted with cash. It dismayed us to see the family light twenty thirty candles at a votive stand and push folded ones and fives into the offering box.

   Weddings were a different story. It was festive. Everybody was in a good mood. It was always a sunny day. The brides looked great in their white dresses with trains. Heaven help the altar boy who stepped on a moving train and yanked it off.

   The number one perk of serving at a wedding was we were always rewarded in hard cash. The best man was usually the man who slipped us an envelope and told us what a great job we had done, even though we never did anything special beyond kneeling and standing around most of the time, like we always did.

   Weddings in July and August were often hot and humid. Before one of them the groom himself paid us in advance in Morgan silver dollars, ten of them for each of us. It was a windfall. We stowed them away carefully. I wrapped mine up in a handkerchief. Everyone was sweating during the ceremony, and when it came time for communion, I reached into my pocket for the handkerchief to dry my hands. It would have been bad if I let the cruet slip. 

   When I did, the silver dollars fell out pell-mell from my handkerchief, rolled down the two steps in the gap between the altar rail, past the bride and groom, and down the center aisle of the nave. A man stuck his foot out and corralled them with his shoe. I was alarmed until I saw it was my uncle, who was an accountant like my father.

   Jon Krokey, a fellow traveler at Holy Family, dropped the Roman Missal, after which there was hell to pay. It is a large heavy book that includes all the words and prayers the priest uses during the mass, except for the readings. 

   “I was low man, so I got to get up in the middle of the night to serve at 5:30 mass,” he said. “While transporting the giant book I dropped it and it bounced down the stairs all the way to the communion rail. Father Andrel chewed me out in front of the congregation, which was ten elderly women in the front pews, all wearing babushkas. When he was done spewing, I quit. After that all the nuns at school mean mugged me like I was the Antichrist.”

   My tour of duty ended at the end of sixth grade, when my parents moved out of the neighborhood and I transferred to another Catholic school. They already had a full complement of altar boys, so my services weren’t needed there. I was happy enough to go back to being a spectator. I was glad to be flying kites in the park.

   When St. George closed in 2009 it was the oldest Lithuanian parish in North America. 

   At the last mass three priests presided and there was a host of altar boys and girls. Back in the day we would have welcomed girls to our ranks. They were better at cleaning than us and we knew we could boss them around, although they were also getting to be nice and sweet friendly to have as friends.

   The altar was given away to another church. The playground and parking lot were sold, and the grounds converted to greenhouses. The rectory was boarded up. The convent was long gone, since the school had closed long before. A chain link fence was set up all around the building, and that was that. There were no more dragons real or imagined for the soldier saint to slay. The day of the Trophy Bearer was done. George took a knee.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Stomping Grounds

By Ed Staskus

   “We’re going to have to get out of here or I’m going to kill him,” Maggie Campbell said.

   Steve De Luca her new husband didn’t say anything. What could he say? Fat Freddie was his older brother, and they were living in Fat Freddie’s house in Little Italy. The house was small and cramped. Freddie made it worse than it was.

   He wasn’t just their landlord. He was an annoying brother-in-law with coleslaw for brains. He stayed up late listening to heavy metal. He had sketchy friends. He stuck his used-up dirty food wrappers into Maggie’s make-up bag when she wasn’t looking because he thought it would be funny when she found them. It wasn’t funny. She told Steve there was going to be trouble. There was going to be blood. They started looking for a house of our own.

   They discussed argued prayed about the kind of house they wanted. Maggie prayed in English and Steve prayed in Italian.  He told his wife Italian was God’s native language and had the Big Man’s ear. “The USA is God’s country,” Maggie countered. “The Pope isn’t even Protestant, for Christ’s sake.”

   They wanted central air, three bedrooms, and a dry basement. They wanted a fenced-in backyard. They searched for a long time and finally their prayers were answered when they found a two-story house in West Park. They were one of the first people to see it, put a bid on it right away, and got it.

   They got everything they wanted, basically. The kitchen was large enough, the basement was waterproofed, and the back porch covered, although the backyard wasn’t dog friendly the way they wanted it, not at all. It needed a fence.

   The first two years of living in the house they had a backyard of mud. It was because they had up to 4 dogs at any one time, some theirs, some rescues. The lawn grass didn’t stand a chance. When the dogs came into the house a lot of mud would track in with them. Since Maggie was a clean freak, it freaked her out.

   “It’s a shame we can’t cement in the whole backyard,” she said to Steve.

   “I’ve got a guy for that,” Steve said. He had a guy for everything. Steve’s guy put up a fence and laid down stone stamps in the patio. They laid in river rocks, large ones around the small patio, and small ones in a big bed next to the garage where the dogs could go potty.

   That made it easy to clean up. Steve hosed down the patio, hosed down the river rock bed in the back, and picked up every day. He put it all in a garbage bag and tossed it in a garbage can. “What else am I going to do with it?” he asked their neighbor Dawn when she wrinkled her nose.

   Even though they liked their new house right away, which made their realtor happy, it was awful. It was decorated like an old man’s house. The outside clapboard was painted dingy yellow and brown. Inside the woodwork and walls were painted a vague gray. Maggie was not a gray person.

   They painted everything, the outside of the house, and all the inside, too. Maggie had lots of design ideas and a lot of ideas about new colors. They ripped the shag carpets out right away. Then they re-did the hardwood floors. Maggie swore to herself she would never have the house carpeted again. 

   Except the next two winters in Cleveland happened. Lake Erie froze over solid as a rock. “What happened to global warming?” Steve asked. It was winter for a long time for two straight long seasons. Getting up every morning, tramping on the cold hardwood floors first thing, one morning Maggie finally said, “We’re not doing this anymore. We’re getting carpeting for our bedroom.” There were two bedrooms. The other one was for junk and friends.

   Steve was against putting in new carpeting. He could be against anything, especially if he didn’t want to do it, but he never said a hard no way.

   “Do what you want,” he said, scowling.

   Maggie did what she wanted. “Of course, now he loves the carpet. He drags his big bare feet through it. Stop rubbing your gross feet in my new carpet I tell him, but he never listens.”

   The dogs were not allowed upstairs. They were not allowed beyond the kitchen. The rules were posted and stated they could be in the kitchen or in the basement. A gate was set up at the dining room doorway. Even so, just after they had the carpets laid down, Grayson their young Lab got through the Berlin Wall, went right upstairs, and peed on Maggie’s new carpet. 

   Maggie posted a sheet of paper at the base of the stairs. “No dogs upstairs, especially no Grayson.”

   They let their dogs into the living room sometimes. That’s why there were always hooked blankets stacked near their sectional. They let the dogs jump on the sofa so they could sit and snuggle with them. “Only Captain Hook, our Husky, is not a snuggler. He’ll cuddle for five minutes and then he’s done with you.”

   There was another living room in the basement. There was a television, bistro table, and another sectional. All the dog food and water bowls were in the basement, too. Captain Hook always slept in his dog bed, but the others lay out on the couch. It was completely chewed up. They pawed it and dug into it when they were settling in. “I don’t know what the digging thing is all about, but it’s their couch,” Steve said. “They can do what they want, destroy it if they want. Only, when it’s completely gone, it’s gone. They’re not getting another one from me.”

   The biggest troublemaker was Pebbles. They called her Steam Shovel. “She’s the one who truly wrecks the sofa,” Maggie said. “She is my digger. She’s the reason we used to have a nice living room in the basement until it all got destroyed.”

   Even though Steve and Maggie decided they weren’t getting any more sectionals, no more couches, or anything else new in the basement, Christmas was ridiculous at their house.

   “Steve and I buy our dogs lots of gifts,” Maggie said. “I start buying presents for them right after New Year’s when everything is discounted. Towards the end of summer, I start buying dog treats whenever I see them on sale. It’s not good if I buy them any earlier than September. Steve finds them and gives them to the dogs. So, I always start that later in the year.”

   The dogs got stockings full of toys on Christmas Day.  They ripped into their gifts in the morning. Then the mess started for real.

   The toys were in stockings stuffed with stuffing, just like pillows. The dogs took their stockings outside and tore them apart to get at the squeakers inside of them. By the end of the month the backyard was full of dull as dishwater white stuffing stuck in the ice.

   “It looks like a hillbilly backyard until I can finally get out there when winter is changing to spring and chip it out of the melting ice,” Steve said. “I don’t like it that it looks so bad all winter long, but what can you do?”

   “Thank God we have a privacy fence on all three sides of our backyard,” Maggie thought, waiting for springtime.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”