Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

Blood Lines Chapter 4

By Ed Staskus

   JT Markunas was stationed in Charlottetown with the Queens RCMP detachment. He was a grade above constable, but still pulled service in a police pursuit vehicle. He didn’t mind the car he had drawn today. He could have done without the blue velour interior. It was plenty fast enough, though. It was a Ford Mustang.

   He rented a two-bedroom farmhouse in Milton. It was small but the appliances had been updated and it sported a new roof. He planted a root garden. His parents were pleased when they saw the photograph of beets, turnips, and carrots that he mailed them. JT was from Sudbury, Ontario and Prince Edward Island was his third assignment since joining the force. His first assignment had been at Fort Resolution in the Northwest Territories. He missed Sudbury but didn’t miss Fort Resolution.

   When he was growing up, the Canadian Pacific hauled ore on tracks behind their house. When the trains wailed, he wailed right back. When he was a boy, astronauts from the USA trained for their moon landings in the hinterland, where the landscape resembled the moon. After he grew up, he trained for the RCMP at a boot camp in Regina. He was surprised to see women at the camp, the first ones ever allowed on the force. They kissed the Bible and signed their names, like all the recruits, and wore the traditional red serge when on parade, but they wore skirts and high heels and carried a hand clutch, too. 

   He was sitting in his blue and white Mustang Interceptor. Even though Ford had built more than 10,000 of them since 1982, the RCMP had only gotten 32 of the cars. He had one of the two on the island. There were lights on the roof, front grille, and rear parcel shelf. He was in Cavendish, on the other side of Rainbow Valley. He was watching for speeders, of whom he hadn’t seen any that morning. He was thinking of stopping somebody for whatever reason if only to justify the pursuit car. He was also thinking about his second cup of coffee but waiting until he started yawning. He thought it was going to happen soon. When it did, he would 10-99 the radio room and take a break from doing nothing.

   Cavendish was Anne’s Land. It was where the book “Anne of Green Gables” was set. He had never read the book, but doubted it had anything to do with what he could see in all directions. The amusement park across the street was named after Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1919 book “Rainbow Valley.” It was waterslides, swan boats, a sea monster, monorail, roller coasters, animatronics, castles and suspension bridges, and a flying saucer gift shop. The paratrooper ride might have been everyone’s favorite, at least if they were children who didn’t know what fear meant.

   Earl Davison, the man behind Rainbow Valley, was looking for a roller coaster when he found the paratrooper ride. He was in Pennsylvania searching for a bargain at a park that had gone bust. The coaster seemed to fit the bill at first sight.

   “It’s a terrific ride, but you’ll need to have a good maintenance team to keep ’er running,” the Pennsylvania man said with unexpected candor.

   When Earl hemmed and hawed, the man suggested his paratrooper ride instead. “It’s the best piece of equipment I have. I will sell you that for $25,000 and we’ll load it for you.” By the end of the next day Earl had written a check and the ride was ready to go for the long drive back to Prince Edward Island. He flipped a coin about it fitting on the ferry. It came up heads.

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

   “We add something new every year,” Earl said. “That’s a rule.” The other rule-of-thumb was smiles plastered all over the faces of children. “Some of the memories you hear twenty years later are from people whose parents aren’t with them anymore. But they remember their visits to Rainbow Valley and that lasts a lifetime.”

   When his two-way radio came to life, instructing him to go to Murphy’s Cove to check on the report of a suspicious death, JT hesitated, thinking he should get a coffee first, but quickly decided against it. Suspicious deaths were far and few between in the province. Homicides happened on Prince Edward Island once in a blue moon. This might be his only chance to work on one. When he drove off it was fast with flashing lights but no siren. He reported that the address was less than ten minutes away. 

   Conor Murphy saw the patrol car pull off the road onto the shoulder and tramped down the slope to it. Some people called the RCMP Scarlet Guardians. Most people in Conor’s neck of the woods called them Gravel Road Cops, after the GRC on their car doors, the French acronym for Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Conor didn’t call them anything. He had been on the force once and didn’t mess with what they might or might not be. 

  JT put his cap on and joining Conor walked up to where Bernie Doiron was waiting beside the tractor. When he saw the arm handcuffed to the briefcase, he told Conor and Bernie to not touch anything and walked back to his pursuit car. He wasn’t sure what code to call in, so he requested an ambulance, and asked for the commander on duty. He described what he had seen and was ordered to sit tight.

   “Yes sir,” he said.

   It wouldn’t be long before an ambulance and more cars showed up. They couldn’t miss his Mustang, but he turned the lights on top of it back on just in case and backtracked to the tractor.

   “Who found this?” he asked, pointing at the arm. 

   “I did,” said Bernie.

   “Is it the same as you found it?” JT asked. “Did you move or disturb anything?”

   “No, we left it alone,” Bernie said. 

   “And you are?” JT asked Conor.

   “I’m across the street in the green house,” Conor said. “These are my fields. Bernie came down and got me when he found this. A fox has been at the arm.”

   “I see that,” JT said, even though he didn’t know what had happened to the arm. He rarely jumped to conclusions. It was flayed and gruesome, whatever had happened. He wasn’t repulsed by it. He was patient and objective. The quality that made him a good policeman was that he was patient. He waited with Conor and Bernie for reinforcements to show up. None of the three men said a word.

   JT looked at the ground around him ready for the growing season. There was no growing season where he grew up. His father worked the nickel mines in Sudbury his whole working life, never missing a day. He had been an explosives man and made it through his last year last week last day unscathed. The long-time miner had always known there was no one to tap him on the shoulder if he made a mistake.

   His mother raised four children. She dealt with powder burns every day. Her brood were firecrackers. They were among the few post-war Lithuanians still left in Sudbury. The rest of them had worked like dogs and scrimped and saved, leaving for greener pastures the first chance they got. His parents put their scrimping and saving into a house on the shores of Lake Ramsey and stayed to see Sudbury transition from open pits and wood roasting to methods less ruinous to the land they lived on.

   An ambulance from a funeral home in Kensington was the first to arrive, followed within minutes by two more RCMP cars. A pumper from the North Rustico Fire Department rolled to a stop, but there wasn’t anything for the volunteer firemen to do. They thought about helping direct traffic, but there was hardly any traffic to speak of. The summer season was still a month away. They waited, suspecting they were going to be the ones asked to unearth the remains. They brought shovels up from their truck and leaned on them.

   A doctor showed up, and bided his time, waiting for a commissioned officer to show up. When he did there were two of them, one an inspector and the other one a superintendent. They talked to JT briefly, and then to the fire department. The firemen measured out a ten-foot by ten-foot square with the arm in the center, pounded stakes into the ground, demarcated the space with police tape, and slowly began to dig, opening a pit.

   They had not gotten far when the arm fell over. It had been chopped off above the elbow. One of the firemen carried the arm and briefcase to a gray tarp and covered it with a sheet of thick translucent plastic.

   “Has anybody got a dog nearby?” the inspector asked.

   Most of the firemen farmed in one way or another. Most of them had dogs. One of them who lived less than two miles away on Route 6 had a Bassett Hound. When he came back with the dog, he led him to the pit. The hound sniffed around the perimeter and then jumped into it, digging with his short legs, barking, and looking up at his master. The fireman clapped his hands and the dog jumped out of the pit.

   “There’s something more there,” he said. “Probably the rest of him.”

   They started digging again carefully and methodically. When they found the rest of the man twenty minutes later and three feet under, he was a woman. She was wearing acid wash jeans and an oversized tangerine sweatshirt. She was covered in dirt and blood. One of her shoes had come off. What they could see of her face was ruined by burrowing insects. She was decomposing inside her rotting clothes.

   The doctor stepped up to the edge of the pit with the two men who had come in the ambulance. “Be careful, she’s going to want to fall apart as soon as you start shifting her weight,” he said. 

   The two men were joined by two of the firemen. When all four were astride the dead woman they slowly moved her into a mortuary bag, zipped it up, and using the handles on the bag lifted it up to two RCMP constables and two more of the firemen. They carried the bag slowly down the hill, the dog following them, placing it on a gurney and inside the ambulance.

   The constables went back up the hill to join the rest of the RCMP team, who were getting ready to sift through the pit looking for evidence. They would scour the ground in all directions, to the tree line and the road. JT had gotten his Minolta out of the trunk and took photographs. When he was done, he joined them. They spread out and with heads bowed started looking for anything and everything.

   The ambulance was ready to go when Conor came down to the shoulder of the park road. He stopped beside it and tapped on the driver’s side window. When it rolled down, he pointed up the slope.

   “Don’t forget the arm,” he said.

Excerpted from Blood Lines at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Ten Thousand Dollar Door

By Ed Staskus

   It was supposed to be a ten-thousand-dollar door, but I got lucky, and got in and out for two hundred fifty dollars. I never went back. One shake down is more than enough. There weren’t that many apples on my apple tree that I could afford to give bushels of them away for nothing in return.

   When I first started going to Toronto by myself in my late teens it was by Greyhound. I rode the bus to Buffalo and walked across the Peace Bridge. When I got to the Canadian side, the border police asked me where I was from and for identification. I showed them my driver’s license. They waved me through. When I went home I did the same thing. The American border police waved me through.

   After I got married my wife and I often went to Canada, to Wasaga Beach, to Penetanguishene, to Nova Scotia, and finally to Prince Edward Island, which we liked and made a habit of returning to. We did, at least, until a band of towelheads went nuts and flew jetliners into the Twin Towers. We had just gotten back from PEI a few days earlier. After that, crossing borders slowly but surely became more officious. We found out soon enough we would need passports to get into Canada and back into the USA.

   My wife applied for and got her passport in five weeks. I didn’t apply at first because I wasn’t sure of my citizenship status. I had never been sure, no matter how sure I sounded at the border, asserting I was an American citizen. My parents grew up in Lithuania, fled the Red Army to Germany in 1944, emigrated to Canada after the war, and finally settled in the United States in the late 1950s. They were naturalized in the mid-1960s. I knew my brother and sister were citizens, but I wasn’t certain where I stood because of my age when my parents became citizens.

   We spent a few summers vacationing on the Eastern Seaboard, but when we decided Prince Edward Island was the place to be, I resolved to settle my body politic issue. Push came to shove, and I asked one of our ethnic community’s poohbahs if she knew anybody she could recommend to help me out. She gave me a tip about a friend of hers who was a lawyer. The lawyer had been in the import export business for more than 30 years and was herself an immigrant. 

   I made an appointment and went to her office. The lobby was sizable and almost full, full of colored people sitting and waiting their turn. Most of them looked like they were from Asia or the Indian sub-continent. The citizenship business seemed to be booming. When my number was called I was shown into the boss lawyer’s office. That was my first surprise. I had not thought I would be talking to the main man, even though he was a woman. 

   She was round with a round face. Her lips were dolled up. She looked at the paperwork and documentation I had brought with me and said, “I will be your helping hand.” She shot me a cherry bomb smile. “All right,” I said. I thought she would be working on my behalf going forward. I found out she was working me over.

   She told me I had a problem with my citizenship and might be deported at any time. She said she wanted to get started right away. She explained the initial consultation fee was going to be $250.00 and the balance to resolve my problem was going to be $9,750.00.

   “This is going to cost me ten thousand dollars?” I asked, incredulous. It was my second surprise. It was an unwelcome bombshell.

   “Yes,” she said and ushered me out. I had been in her office for five minutes. It took me fifteen minutes to drive home, where I mulled over the problem of finding ten thousand dollars. It was winter and we weren’t planning on going back to Canada until the next summer, so there was no rush on that account. But what she had said about being deported was worrying. I had fond memories of my hometown of Sudbury, Ontario, but being uprooted was not what I wanted to happen. We had bought a house which we were renovating, and I had both full-time and part-time jobs. We had a mortgage and friends and family in town. We had a Maine Coon who would miss roaming the backyards of our neighborhood.

   I went back to the law office the next month. I was introduced to an associate and escorted to a small room in the back. A table and two chairs were in the room. I sat in one of the chairs and the young associate sat in the other chair. He handed me a contract for the work they were going to be doing. I handed him the same paperwork and documentation I had shown the top dog. I started to peruse the contract. After a few minutes he looked up, cleared his throat, and said, “I don’t exactly know why you’re here. According to what I am looking at, you already are a citizen.” It was my third surprise.

   “Are you sure?” I asked.

   “I think so, but I better doublecheck with my boss,” he said, backtracking, but the cat was out of the bag.

   “All right,” I said, and as soon as I said it I wanted to be gone.

   “I can’t stay,” I said white lying and standing up. “I’ve got to get to work. Let me know what you find out and in the meantime I will read this contract.” We shook hands, I gave him a cold smile, got into my car, and drove away.

   The next day I drove to a post office where I knew they processed passport applications. When the line in front of me thinned out and I found myself at the counter, I said I wanted to apply for a passport. A middle-aged woman in a drab uniform walked up from the back and motioned me towards a chair and a camera. She handed me an application and told me how much applying for a passport was going to cost. It was ninety-seven dollars.

   “All right, but would you look at my birth certificate and this other paper work first. I was born in Canada and I’m not sure I am actually an American citizen.” She spread everything out on the counter and looked it over. It didn’t take her long. Five minutes into it she said, “Sure, honey, you’re a citizen, no doubt about it.”

   I filled out the application, got my picture taken, paid the fee, and thanked the woman for her help. I got my passport in the mail about a month and a half later. The passport had my stone-faced picture in it and was good for ten years. I could go anywhere in the world with it.

   A few weeks later the associate called. He wanted to know if I had read the contract and was ready to go ahead with it. “No, I am going to pass on that.” I had thrown the contract away long since.

   “That could mean a lot of problems for you,” he cautioned. “The State Department is cracking down, what with all this terrorism.”

   “I don’t think so,” I said, and hung up when he kept it up.

   Somebody else from the firm called me the following week. I told her goodbye the minute she started into her song and dance. After that the phone calls stopped. We went to Prince Edward Island for two weeks the following June. Except for the long lines at the border crossings, everything went off without a hitch. The Canadian border police said, “Welcome to Canada.” The American border police said, “Welcome back to the United States.”

   My wife and I bumped into the poohbah at a get together a few years later. I mentioned the immigration attorney. My wife tugged on my sleeve. I told my tipster how her legal beagle had tried to pull the wool over my eyes. I told her about getting my passport with no run around. I told her ten grand was hard cash and how fortunate it was I hadn’t lost more than the consultation fee, never mind the dodge that made me cross. Most of the time the only way to beat a lawyer is to die with nothing.

   “I know her well, she’s a friend, and she would never do anything like that,” the woman explained and complained. She might as well have called me a liar. “She’s nationally known for helping immigrants. She’s helped thousands of people and is one of our city’s leading citizens. Don’t say bad things about her.”

   She wasn’t somebody who listened to anything I ever said, so I didn’t argue. What would have been the point? It was in one ear and out the other. It was her way of letting you know you didn’t matter much. After that, though, I never took anything she said at face value, just how I learned to never take what any lawyer ever says at face value.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Blood Lines Chapter 3

By Ed Staskus

   Seen from outer space Prince Edward Island can hardly be seen. The solar system is a speck in the galaxy. The earth is a speck in the solar system. Prince Edward Island is a speck on the earth. When the sky is clear and the sun is shining, it is a red and green pastoral speck surrounded by blue, except when it is cloudy and stormy. Everything then goes hazy and gray.

   The land formed hundreds of millions of years ago. Creeks and rivers deposited gravel, sand, and silt into what is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Before the last ice age, Prince Edward Island was part of the mainland. After the glaciers melted it wasn’t a part of it anymore. It went its own way. The Northumberland Strait became what separates it from the rest of Canada.

   It’s one of the country’s Maritime provinces, the others being New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Newfoundland and Labrador were on their own, the way they wanted it. It is 225 kilometers from one end of the island to the other. It is 3 kilometers at its most narrow and 65 kilometers at its most wide. It is almost twice as far from the island to Walt Disney World in Florida as it is to the Arctic Circle. Walt Disney World is for pretend. The Arctic Circle is for real.

  There are farms from stem to stern. There are so many of them the province is called the “Million-Acre Farm.” When the French ruled the roost it was called Île Saint-Jean. Jacques Cartier discovered it in 1534 and Samuel Champlain claimed it for France in 1603. The Micmac’s tried to explain they had been there for more than 10,000 years, but all they accomplished was to make themselves hoarse. They switched gears and tried singing some of their Top 10 songs. They sang ‘The Eagle Song’ and ‘The Honor Song’ and ‘The Gathering Song.’ Samuel Champlain finally said, “Try singing ‘The Giveaway Song.’ You know the words.” 

   The Micmac glowered. The French reached for their swords. They were more savage than the savages and were hell bent to prove it.

   When the British took over they changed the name to St. John’s, then changed it to New Ireland, and again on the eve of the 19th century to Prince Edward Island. It was named after Prince Edward who later became the father of Queen Victoria. He visited the island five times, even though it took eight to ten weeks to sail one way.

   It became a separate colony in 1769 and the seventh province of Canada in 1873. The capital is Charlottetown, named after the wife of King George III. Charlotte barely spoke English and never visited the capital city. She stayed home in Buckingham House and played her harpsichord. She stuck to chartbusters like Bach’s ‘Concerto in the Italian Style in F Major’ and Handel’s ‘Keyboard Suite No. 5.’

   “She ain’t no beauty, but she is amiable,” George said about his wife.

   The slender crescent of sandstone is the smallest and most densely populated Canadian province, although outside of Charlottetown and Summerside where half of everybody lives it is spread out far and wide. It is more secluded than it is crowded. Forest once covered all the island. By 1989 trees still covered half of it. The red oak is the official tree. There are pine, maple, beech, and spruce. There are no deer, moose, or black bears. There are many skunks, weasels, muskrats, and plenty of foxes. The red fox is the official animal. In early summer pink and purple lupins, weeds that are an invasive species, line fields and ditches. The Lady Slipper, an out-of-the-way orchid that grows in damp shady woodlands, is the official flower.

   Farming is the number one way of life, followed by fishing, and some tourism. There are cows everywhere in sight, their snouts in the turf. There are a boatload of herring, tuna, clams, mackerel, lobsters, scallops, mussels, and oysters to be had. Tourism was growing and Flynn Murphy and his Japanese girlfriend were building cottages on family land to get in on the summer trade. They stayed at Sandy’s Surfside Inn most of the time. Flynn was one of William Murphy’s descendants, 130 years after the triggerman from the Old World landed on the island, his Beaumont-Adams revolver tucked into a sailor’s bag. 

   In 1989 the pickings were good for the Liberals, and they swept the elections. Andrew, the Duke of York, and Sarah, his once wildly popular duchess, visited, flying in on a Canadian Armed Forces Boeing 707. George Proud, one of the new Liberal members of Parliament, stood on a bench for a better view of the royals as they were driven up University Ave. “We’re the commoners, and they’re royalty, and I think people in a strange way must secretly like that,” he said. “It’s a great day,” declared John Ready, the mayor of Charlottetown. A woman in the crowd groused, “I was talking to a friend this morning who said, ‘I don’t know why we should have to curtsy to a person who a few years ago was living with a race-car driver.’”

   The duchess climbed over a rope barrier to talk to a group of senior citizens. “What are these ropes for?” she asked. “I can’t believe you’re penned in.”  

   Scouts Canada held their annual jamboree on the island that year, honing their outdoor skills and running riot in the woods. They had a rousing early summer week. The TV series “Road to Avonlea” went into production. The last train on Prince Edward Island made its last run, coming to a dead stop in living time. The tip-to-tip railway had been operating for one hundred years. One minute later it was done for good.

   “Look Away” by Chicago was the top song of the year with Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” hard on its heels. Malcolm “Monk” Kennedy was the thorn on the island that year, but nobody knew it until the Boy Scouts had all gone home. They were always prepared, it being the scouting motto, but nobody was prepared for Monk, or Jules and Louise, the Montreal killers who came to the island looking hunting for him.

   Jules and Louise didn’t know they were going to end up paddling upstream. Monk Kennedy didn’t know two million dollars was going to wrap him up. They didn’t like it when they found out, but by then they had picked their poison. The Crick was going to flow into the ocean, no matter what. They were going to have to find that out for themselves. They weren’t prisoners of fate. They were prisoners of their own minds. Monk couldn’t change fate because he couldn’t change his mind. Jules and Louise wouldn’t change their minds, no matter what.

   Hunkered down on a rock shelf at the bottom of the ocean not far from shore, Louie the Large sized the three of them  up. Monk was scrawny. He was off the dinner table unless there was a famine. Jules looked better. He had some meat on his bones. Louise looked the best. He wouldn’t mind getting his claws into her, not at all. They shared a name. He liked that. He would like it even better if they shared some flesh and blood for real.

   Louie loved the ocean, deep and blue, the tides rising and falling, where life came from. He had a high regard for it. And the fear of it, too.

Excerpted from Blood Lines at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Getting a Groove On

By Ed Staskus

   Not everyone was too big at Born to Travel, but except for Sally Steiger, the office secretary, and my sister, they were either full to the brim or getting close to it. Sharon Karen and Vivian were in love with the feedbag. Gino had a strong hankering for the beefy. Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker had fallen into the trough a long time ago and weren’t coming up for air.

   The travel agency was in Beachwood, a far east side suburb of Cleveland. The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with, making it a tight fit. It was a squeeze coming and going to their desks. The staff of six had to wiggle sideways to make their way past the two boss ladies.

   Everybody except Rita and Gino were Jewish. Gino was Italian, a gay man, and hated Sandy and Sima. Even so he was there before Rita started working at the agency and he was still there when she quit after the gasoline tanker truck flipped over and she had had enough.

   Rita was the immigrant blonde girl who was good for business.

   Before she went to work at Born to Travel, she worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A jug-eared man who lived down the street owned the business. He put her desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought she would attract whitish waspy people from the college.

   “Oh, look, they have a Christian girl there,” is what he hoped everyone would say.

   Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like their cousin, who was sweet-natured, but ultra-Orthodox. Sandy and Sima were on the lighter side of Reformed. They didn’t take it seriously, although they could get serious in a second, if need be. They came to the United States when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in McMansions in Beachwood. They only ever talked about the homeland when one of their tour groups was going there.

   In the 1970s Sandy was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. The Mad Hatter had a bubble machine, a strobed multi-colored dance floor, and sticky red-shag carpeting. She wore white go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 200 pounds later she showed Rita a picture of herself, in a shimmering sleeveless fringe dress, doing the funky chicken.

   Rita could hardly believe it and said so. Sandy didn’t like her tone. She lit a Virginia Slim cigarette and puffed on it, vexed.

   Sandy and Sima’s world revolved around food. They loved the buffet. Their favorite time of day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up now. They were supposed to fast during the Jewish holidays, but because they were fat, they were diabetic and had to take medication. They had to take their pills with food, so they couldn’t fast. But they were sticklers about breaking the fast. Sandy would rush home right away and make a batch of potato latkes.

   Sima had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was the head butcher. He brought kosher cows and sheep home. Sandy had three daughters and her husband, a tall balding man with a nice smile, was a porno movie wholesaler. He sold them to video stores around the state. He made a good living selling glossy naked girls.

   All of Sandy’s daughters were pudgy-cheeked fat and fluffy. The youngest one was 22 years old and clocked in at close to three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. When they started hunting for husbands all three got gastric bypass surgery and lost weight by the boat load.

   No one ever knew what got into her, but Sima went to Weight Watchers for a month. She kept a journal and wrote down what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks. But she lied to her journal.

   “I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she explained.

   “They’re not going to be checking up on you,” Rita said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”

   Gino didn’t believe she was going to lose any weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” he said. He chewed his cud about it. Rita encouraged her to keep it up, but Sima didn’t lose any weight.

   Sandy went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon every day. She brought it to the office in the morning. There was a microwave in the fax machine room. She tossed slices of bacon into it every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like fried meat for hours.

   “I don’t know about all that bacon,” Rita said. “It can’t be good for you.”

   “I’m on the Adkins Diet,” Sandy said. “I’m allowed to eat as much of it as I want.”

   “She’s double-crossing herself,” said Gino. Everybody looked the other way. Sandy didn’t lose any weight, the same as Sima.

   Whenever Sandy had to go to the bathroom, she would hoist herself up from the desk. It took a minute. She could have used a crane. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped down in her chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and groaning.

   Every year, two or three times a year, Sandy and Sima went on cruises. They loved cruises for two reasons, which were all the food you could eat, and gambling. They didn’t care what cruise line it was, so long as it was the cheapest. No matter how cut-rate it was, you could still eat all you wanted, and they all had casinos. The nightlife didn’t matter, either. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating chuck wagon with one-armed bandits.

   Rita went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was creaky old but not yet rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sandy and Sima spent every waking minute eating and betting. Rita got sun poisoning at the pool the first day and couldn’t sit there after that. The rest of the trip she had to stay on the shady side of the ship with the 70-year-olds.

   She was bitter about it every minute of the cruise.

   When gambling started showing up on computers, Sandy started gambling at work. She played winning and losing games at her desk and made Sima do all the work. She bossed Sima around most of the time, anyway. Sandy was the older of the two, although Sima was the harder worker, so Sandy could throw everything at her without caring too much about it.

   They bought clothes from magazines because they couldn’t find their sizes at department stores. Catalogs came in the mail to the office every day. Their clothes were XXL, but nice looking. They didn’t wear sack dresses. Most of the clothes were sets, coordinated stretchy pants and a top, like turquoise pants and a turquoise blouse.

   Sandy and Sima were both top-heavy, even though both had skinny legs. Sandy talked about her legs all the time. “Look how thin I am,” she said, pulling up her pants. “My legs are so thin.” But from the waist up she was huge. She never pulled her top up or down. It would have been indecent.

   It was when Sima got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy processed food and not brushing and flossing nearly enough. She was in pain for months because of the new teeth and hardly ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy about it, but she lost weight for a while.

   She didn’t like having to buy new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet had gotten skinnier, and she needed them. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out, she would buy another pair the same as before. “I can’t live with sore feet,” she said.

   Sandy wasn’t happy about the change in her sister. She didn’t like Sima losing weight, especially whenever she sprang out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Sima started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smell,” whenever Sandy lit up, since she had stopped smoking. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, arguing about whoever did whatever it was they were doing better than the other.

   Everybody in the office smoked, except for Rita. Sima went back to blazing. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. They were in a non-smoking building, but nobody cared. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the office, they bought devices that supposedly sucked smoke out of the air. One was next to Rita’s desk, although she was never sure it did any good.

   One day after work she met one of her friends for dinner. When they got to the restaurant her friend said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

   “Have you ever seen me smoke?” Rita asked.

   “No,” she said.

   “OK then.”

   Gadi Galilli, Rita’s boyfriend, made her change her clothes the minute she stepped into the house after work. He didn’t smoke and didn’t like the smell. “I know they are well off, but it smells like poverty,” he said.

   She always smelled like smoke, since she sat in the office all day, an office where someone was always lighting up. Gino’s desk faced hers, which made it worse. She had a cloud of smoke over her head most of the day. It wasn’t just them, either. Most of their clients had the same bad habit, as though the agency specialized in people who smoked cigarettes.

   If Sandy wasn’t lighting up a Virginia Slims, Sima was lighting one up. One or the other was always huffing and puffing. They were a pair of choo-choo’s.

   Sandy’s wastebasket under her desk caught fire one afternoon. She absentmindedly flicked a butt into it instead of stubbing it out in the ashtray. They had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by the time he got it under control the fire burned the underside of the desk and all the wires to her computer.

   She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to anyone in the office. She never said anything about it. But she denied it to the insurance company. She didn’t want to pay for a new desk and a new computer. She didn’t start the fire purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement in the end.

   One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Blvd., turning too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside the office building. The street slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the ruptured tanker ran down the road like smeary water. None of them knew anything about it until a fireman with all his gear burst in.

   “Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”

   Gino Sally and Rita grabbed their coats.

   Sandy leaned halfway up from her chair.

   “Nobody takes their car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start a car, you’re going to get arrested.”

   Sandy and Sima wrestled themselves up to their feet.

   They all went into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping, and waiting their turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sandy pulled out her hard box pack of cigarettes, her BIC lighter, shook out a Virginia Slims Luxury Light 120, flicked the lighter, and lit up.

   The fireman came running over to them.

   “Stop!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

   He pulled the cigarette out from Sandy’s lips and crushed it between his gloved fingers. “Give me that lighter,” he said. Sandy gave it to him. She was furious but didn’t say anything. Rita thought she was going to burst, but she gave the fireman the stink eye, instead. 

   He didn’t care. He threw the BIC lighter in the trash. He kept his eye on her.

   When they got outside everybody was walking up the road, up to the bridge over the highway, away from the gasoline. Sandy and Sima turned the other way. The office followed them. As they walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, Rita realized why they were walking in the opposite direction from everybody else. Sandy and Sima couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. They were also going towards the stretch of fast-food restaurants where all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were blocking the road.

   They stopped at Burger King and had burgers and fries. Firemen tramped in and evacuated them. They had to move on. They stopped at Taco Bell and had chicken tacos. The next thing they knew firemen were evacuating them again. They stopped at Wendy’s, and everybody had a frosty.

   The gas smelled like more gasoline than Rita had ever smelled in her life. She didn’t have an appetite, although she had a strawberry frosty. Sally had one, too. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger, and scarfed the menu up.

   Sandy called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s, and he came and picked them up in his family van. He deposited Sandy and Sima at home, drove Gino to his apartment, and dropped Rita off in Cleveland Heights.

   While parked in front of Rita’s up and down double, the engine running, he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty pictures?”

   He flashed her a warm smile.

   “No,” she said.

   “You could make a lot of money,” he said. “We’re always looking for sick minds in healthy bodies.”

   “No thanks,” she said.

   He looked down in the mouth for a minute but took it like a man.

   Walking up the sidewalk to her front door, as Sandy’s husband drove away, she thought, “I’m going to have to quit my job soon. Who needs a sex maniac, and all those stinky butts? That can’t be good for me.”

   That’s what she did, finally, the week after New Year’s. “Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke blowing in my face,” she said to Gadi, peeved. “They don’t even pay me hazard pay.” 

   They never asked her, “Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” She was just the blonde girl to get the goys to cough up. They were topping off the tank, Virginia Slimming, smoke screening it, gasoline flood or no gasoline flood, rolling in the dough, while she was saving every spare penny to get ahead.

“I don’t care if they are spoiled rotten, or not,” she told Gadi after clearing her throat and breaking the news. “They don’t pay me enough to stay. I’m not bringing home the bacon I need. These boots are made for walkin’. I’ve got to go.” 

   Gadi waved his hand, brushing away imaginary smoke. “Go change your clothes,” he said.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Stalking the Ukraine

By Ed Stasku

   Even though Ukraine wasn’t Ukraine in the 14th century lots of folks called it that so that is what it was. The word itself means borderland. The Lithuanians visited every summer. They did it for their health, if not for the health of the natives. When they did they had good times marauding and looting and drinking too much whenever the devil got the better of them. They didn’t control the land so much as take advantage of it. The less governance the better is the way they saw it. “We do not change old traditions and do not introduce new ones,” they said.

   They were freebooters who became empire builders. The boyars rode fast horses, big and fit, were outfitted in chain mail, wore conical metal helmets, were armed with lances, swords, and knives, and carried a black shield emblazoned with the red emblem of the Columns of Gediminas. They weren’t draftees or recruits. Those who were, walked and died where they stood. The boyars were tough men who could be dangerous in the blink of an eye. The Golden Horde warned would-be enemies of them, “Beware the Lithuanians.” That was all they ever said.

   They had to be rough and tough. When they went to war they didn’t launch cruise missiles and kill their enemies at great distance, checking the body count with drones. They hacked their enemies to pieces with long swords face to face and watched them bleed to death in the mud at their feet.

   By the end of the 14th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the biggest country in Europe. Today it is one of the smallest countries in Europe. When they were growing fast and furious they didn’t do it by being soul brothers or good trading partners. They did it by getting on their horses and taking what they wanted. They didn’t bother explaining.

   The Grand Duchy got started in the early 13th century when Prince Mindaugas united his Baltic forest clans, swamp tribes, and fiefdoms into a feudal state. They were desperate times. The Teutonic Knights were on a rampage. They wanted to incorporate all of Lithuania into the Teutonic Order. They never stopped trying. Between 1305 and 1409 they launched 300-some military campaigns. They slaughtered more peasants than anything else. The Lithuanians beat them back time and again. Finally, in 1410, at the Battle of Grunwald the Lithuanians and Poles destroyed the Teutonic Knights. Most of the order’s leadership was killed or taken prisoner. The Grand Master ran away. They never recovered their former power. When the carnage was over, the Lithuanian-Polish alliance became the dominant political and military force in the region.

   When I was a kid almost everybody called the Ukrainians Russians. We didn’t call them that because we knew what was up with the Reds. They had done the same thing to Lithuania, enslaving the country, and reaping something anything everything for nothing. Both of my parents came from there after WW2, so we knew what was up. We didn’t have to read between the lines of whatever Washington and Moscow were forever saying.

   Even though Ukraine didn’t become a nation-state until 1991, after getting their feet wet for a few years after WW1, it was extant in the 14th century, and well before that. We all knew about the Ukrainians when I was growing up, The first Ukes came to Cleveland, Ohio in the 1880s. They settled in the Tremont neighborhood. Their idea was work hard in the factories of the industrial valley, get rich, go back home, buy some land, and live happily ever after. Between the world wars lots of former freedom fighters came. They were goners if they had stayed. Stalin was itching to get his hands on them. Most of them settled in Parma, a southwest suburb, where they built churches, schools, and started their own aid associations and credit unions.

   We didn’t live in Parma, but on the east side along the lake. Nevertheless, among the Poles, Hungarians, Croatians and Slovenians, and anybody else who could sneak into the country when the Statue of Liberty wasn’t looking, there were some Ukrainian families in our neck of the woods. One of them operated a gas station on St. Clair Ave. not far from where we lived. One of their handful of sons who was our age messed around with us summers, when we had three no-school months to mess around in. His name was Lyaksandra. It sounded like a girl’s name, so we called him Alex.

   We played pick-up baseball at Gordon Park, from where we could see Lake Erie. We once asked him, taking a break in the action, what he thought about the Russians. He growled, made an obscene gesture, spit sideways, and said, “There are lots of Russki’s in Ukraine. They are liars about everything. They aren’t all bad, but they all hate themselves. We hate them, too.”

   Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe. It is bordered by Russia and Belarus, as well as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, among others. It has coastlines along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It has its own language. Most people speak Russian, as well. The Muscovites are always trying to convince them to drop the Uke talk and speak only Russian.

   “We don’t talk that Russki talk anymore,” Alex said. “Not here, no way.”

   In the Middle Ages Ukraine, which is about the size of Texas, was the epicenter of East Slavic culture. It was, at least, until the Kievan Rus was destroyed by Mongol invasions in the 13th century. Somebody is always trying to beat up on Ukraine. From then to the 20th century Ukraine was variously ruled by the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and the Tsars of Russia. Everybody wanted to be the boss of the Ukes. It’s a miracle they have prevailed and are still prevailing, facing the long odds of going against the vaunted Red Army.

   The Russians are finding out what it is like to go toe to toe with somebody who is not afraid of them and has the up-to-date American rockets and artillery to back up their bravado. The Ukrainians are fighting an existential battle. Their backs are against the wall. They have nowhere to fall. The Red Army is fighting to save its skin and make it home alive for Defenders of the Fatherland Day. The soldiers throw their uniforms into the nearest sewer when they desert.

   When I was a boy I played with toy soldiers. There wasn’t any such thing as a Lithuanian mounted  boyar toy soldier, so I pretended that anybody on a horse was a Lithuanian knight. They were always the good guys. They won every fight battle and war. They were my heroes. I didn’t know what sons of bitches they must have been. They weren’t any different than anybody else in power back then. They were all sons of bitches, including the Holy Roman Church, whose popes ruled by the sword whenever the pen wasn’t convincing enough. 

   In the early 16th century Pope Julius I, the Fearsome Pope, imported Swiss Guards to be his personal bodyguards. He strapped on armor and led the Papal State armies against the Venetians, the French, and the Spanish. His armor plating covered every inch of him just in case the grace of God didn’t get it done, including a helmet made to look like a miter. Everybody on his side was allowed to join the Holy League. Everybody else was badmouthed and excommunicated.

  After Pope Julius died a rumor had it that if he was denied entrance at the Pearly Gates, there would be hell to pay. He would storm them, St. Peter or no St. Peter, and never mind his set of silver and gold keys. It was every man for himself and God against all.

   Until the end of the 14th century Lithuanians didn’t give a damn what the Vatican did. They were pagans. They were the last pagans in Europe. The word “Lithuania” is first mentioned in 1009, in an account of the murder of Saint Bruno by “pagans on the border of Lithuania and Rus.” He was trying to convert them. That was a mistake. Their headman, whose name was Dievas, ruled the universe from his kingdom in the sky. He didn’t like anybody popping up with new ideas about Heaven and Hell. Perkunas, the god of thunder and lightning, was his right-hand man and enforcer. The holy fires were guarded by Vaidilutès, the Lithuanian equivalent of Vestal Virgins. They buried their dead with food and household goods. The last pagan grand duke was buried with his hounds, horses, and falcons.

   When they finally joined the God-fearing club it was a political move. They were doing a dynastic union with Poland, and one of the conditions the Poles laid down was that the Lithuanians had to convert to church-going and dump their veneration of the forces of nature. It didn’t change their business plan in Ukraine, other than to make them more organized. They transitioned from frat parties to fancy dress balls.

   The Grand Duchy of Lithuania had controlled Belarus for some time and when they went after Ukraine they got it, extending their control to the open steppe and eventually to the Black Sea. The Ukes learned to “Beware the Lithuanians.” When they started to get what they wanted they left their freebooting days behind and started building castles to keep their loot secure. It was  a ten-day ride from Vilnius to Kiev. Why not ditch the seasonal exploitation and make the most of the four seasons?

   It wasn’t their land, but it is finders keepers. They meant to keep what they had subjugated. The Ukrainians didn’t have a say in the matter. They told the Ukes, “We may not be perfect but we’re Lithuanians so it’s almost the same.” The Ukes said, “We promise not to laugh when your oven is on fire.” The Lithuanians weren’t offended. They just said, “Show us the goats.”

   They built the Lutsk Castle, which later became a museum. They built the Olyka Palace, which later became an insane asylum. They built the Kremenets Castle, which later fell into ruins after the Cossacks sacked the city at the bottom of the hill. In the meantime, the boyars lived the high life. They started with red borscht, green borscht, and cold borscht. They feasted on holubtsi, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat, rice, and stewed in tomato sauce. They ate slabs of kholodets, a cold jellied meat broth. They drank vodka between courses. Ukrainians to this day drink more vodka than beer. When they were done with dinner they went to bed, snoring and cabbage farting in their sleep.

   Even though the Lithuanians always said the Ukrainians welcomed them with open arms, they built their castle-fortresses on high hills with steep inclines, the rockier the better, fitted with one main gate and plenty of towers, arrow slits, battlements, and dungeons. They kept big rocks and hot oil handy to toss down on door-to-door salesmen. If you ended up in the dungeon you found out soon enough they weren’t playing Dungeons and Dragons.

   Imperialism is never cozy and consensual. It’s more like assault and battery. The movers and shakers of power politics don’t get thrown in jail until long after they are dead. My friend Alex had never heard of Lithuanians living it up in Ukraine. He was surprised to hear they had once been a super power. He was chagrined to find out there were more invaders of his homeland than he had realized.

   “How come the Lithuanians push us around back then?” he asked. Most of us playing ball at Gordon Park were second generation Lithuanian Americans. We weren’t even teenagers, yet. None of us had a good answer, much less a sensible answer of any kind.

   “Somebody always wants to be the top dog,” Kesty said.

   “No, that wasn’t it,” Arunas said. “They just wanted to have somebody else do all the work, like make dinner and clean the toilets.”

   “It was the Ukrainian girls,” Romas said. “Ukrainian girls are hot.”

   Romas was over-sexed, and everybody knew it. Nobody had any other ideas. We went back to playing ball in the summer sun. When we got overheated we walked to the shore and sat on the edge of a cliff in the breeze. Lake Erie was in front of us, the water rippling, the tips of the waves white.

   “Can we see Ukraine from here?” Alex asked.

   “No, it’s that way,” Arunas said pointing over his right shoulder. When we looked all we could see was Bratenahl, where rich people lived in mansions. They made the rules, for what they were worth. Our grade school class practiced duck and cover once a month, just in case the Russki’s dropped an atomic bomb on Cleveland. We brought our own lunches every day but wondered where our next lunch was going to come from if all the food stores got blown up. Many of the Bratenahl bluebloods had their own fallout shelters. They didn’t worry overmuch about starving.

   All good things must come to an end. The Lithuanians were strong in Ukraine for several centuries, but the deal they made with Poland reaped a better harvest for their next-door neighbors than my ancestors. The Poles say, “A good appetite needs no sauce.” By the mid-16th century Lithuanians were sauce. Their goose was cooked. The dynastic link was changed to a constitutional one by the Union of Lublin in 1569. Ukraine was set free of the Lithuanians but was annexed by Poland the next day.

   The more things change the more they stay the same, until they don’t. The new would-be colonialists calling the shots in the Kremlin are finding that out, to their discomfiture. They make a wasteland and call it New Russia. They have been looking grim lately. Meanwhile, Lithuania has joined NATO and gone out of the plunder and pillage business. The boyars are rolling over in their graves.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Blood Lines Chapter 1

By Ed Staskus

   The week started by raining Monday and Tuesday, harder the second day than the first day. The wind picked up, gusting by nightfall on Monday. The rain turned into a thunderstorm and lightning crisscrossed the sky. Bernard Doiron had breakfast and lunch and took a nap. He did the same thing the next day. Wednesday morning it was in the low teens at sunrise. There were only scraps of cloud left in the sky. He had ham and eggs and coffee and fired up Conor Murphy’s Massey Ferguson tractor. It was more than twenty years old and clean. Conor took care of it personally, since his father bought it new and paid almost ten grand for it. 

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

   The spring planting was running late because of rain and cold. Setting day for lobster was running late, too, because of the rain and cold. Fishermen were anxious to get out on the ocean. Lobsters were on the move. Farmers were anxious to get out on the land. Seeds were ready to sprout.

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

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

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

   It was attached to a bony wrist grasping the handle. The wrist was wearing a watch and was attached to an arm that was half-buried in the ground. The watch band was gold-colored stainless steel.

   “Ce que ca?” Bernie whispered to himself.

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

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

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

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

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

   Bernie drove a 1965 VV Beetle. It was red accented with reddish rust spots. It didn’t look like much and ran full speed ahead on forty aluminum-magnesium horses. It sounded like a lawnmower. It ran like a charm. Chubby’s wanted it, but they weren’t going to get it.

   Conor drove to Shearer Chevy Buick down the street and found out they had the same colors on the lot, which were silver and black. “How about red?” he asked.

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

   “How long have you been in business?”

   “Since 1929, sir.”

   He bought it, trading in his 1977 Chevy Impala, which was losing oil and wheezing. When he reached an empty stretch of I-87 south of Champlain, he took the car up to 175 KPH. It was outfitted with a turbocharged V6 engine with horsepower to spare on top of a boatload of torque. It was an automatic but could get to 95 KPH in less than five seconds. When he saw a car a kilometer-or-so ahead he backed off his one-man drag race.

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Conor was the only one living in what had been the Murphy family home. His parents were newly deceased, his mother dead by heart attack the day before Christmas followed by his father. After burying their mother, he and his sister and brothers watched their father give up day after day until he gave up the ghost. Conor gave his father’s clothes away and stored the rest of his belongings.

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

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

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

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

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

   “We would know if it was.”

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

   “Should we dig it out?”

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

   He didn’t waste time driving to Rollings Pond, up then down Church Hill Road, past the graveyard and Stella Maris Catholic Church, to Lorne’s Snack Shop. He didn’t burn rubber, though. He reckoned there was no need to hurry. What was done was done. He parked the GNX as far away from the nearest car as he could.

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

   “We’re finally getting some springtime.”

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

   “I’ve got to use your phone”

   “You know where it is.”

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

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

   “Do you need an ambulance?”

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

   “Are you there?”

   “I will be back there in five minutes.”

   “Where is there?”

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

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

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

   Back at the house he parked his car in the barn, walked across the street and up the slope, joining Bernie. A flock of long necked cormorants passed by overhead. They didn’t look down at the two men.

   “Do you have a smoke?” Conor asked.

   “I thought you gave it up.”

   “I did.”

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

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

   “It’s not good, whoever it is,” Conor said.

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

Excerpted from Blood Lines at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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Island Hopping

By Ed Staskus

   It is roughly 700 miles from Montreal, Quebec, an island at the confluence of the Ottawa and Saint Lawrence rivers, to Prince Edward Island, on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The way most people get off Montreal is by bridge or tunnel. There are twenty-five bridges and three tunnels. The longest passage is slightly more than a mile.

   Most transit gets to Prince Edward Island by way of the Confederation Bridge, the only bridge that connects the island to the rest of Canada. Until the span was built coming and going was largely by boat or ferry. When the Northumberland Strait froze solid you might strap chains onto your tires and drive across it. After four years of construction the bridge opened in 1997.

   It is the longest overpass in the world traversing ice-covered water. The concrete arc is 8 miles long. It is illegal to stop on the bridge and there is a curve to it whose only purpose is to keep motorist’s alert.

   “It’s weird, it’s long, you’re on it for 5 minutes, at least.” said Tanner Patterson.

   “It’s more of a 12-minute trip,” Amanda Patterson pointed out, fine-tuning.

   “I did a project on it at school, actually, although I didn’t have any choice,” she said. “My teacher told me you’re doing the Confederation Bridge. There was a referendum about building it. It was really close because lots of people wanted the island to stay secluded.”

   There were even some who preferred the concept of a moat.

   “Local workers built it and it’s super sturdy. It’s probably never going to fall down,” said Amanda, putting the moat idea to rest.

   More than a million-and-a-quarter people travel to PEI for a week-or-two in the summer, almost nine times as many people as live on the red island. Some of them cross by ferry, some of them fly into Charlottetown, but most of them drive over on the bridge.

   “It’s very impressive,” said Cathy Patterson.

   “Crossing it is anti-climactic, though, because of the concrete parapet. You can’t see anything,” said Mark Patterson, Tanner’s uncle, Amanda’s father, and Cathy’s husband. “But there’s a church you can pull into after you cross, up the approach towards Victoria, and from the parking lot you can see the bridge going all the way back into New Brunswick. It’s an incredible view.”

   The Patterson’s live in the West Island, on the west side of Montreal, a laidback community-oriented green space small town feel in the big city kind of neighborhood. One of Montreal’s last large remaining spots of wilderness is in West Island. The region was a summer retreat well into the 20th century.

   Cathy Patterson first visited Prince Edward Island with a group of fellow potters in 2014. “We did the circuit of the pottery studios,” she said. Throwing, firing, and glazing mud and clay is a cottage industry on the island. “Several teachers showed us their methods.”

   The small troop of ceramic artists stayed in the town of North Rustico, at the Coastline Cottages, on the seashore. “Kelly Doyle opened a cabin for us. It was very nice, but it was brisk.” By the end of March 2014 more snow had fallen that winter than had in more than 40 years. Blizzards swept the island. “The landscape was stunning, but it was cold. We all had three layers on.”

   “I was here when I was a kid, thirty-five years ago,” said Mark. “We went to Nova Scotia, did the Cabot Trail, and came here. I saw “Anne of Green Gables” at the Confederation Centre. My mom told me we stayed near North Rustico.”

   One afternoon when his nephew, daughter, and wife had gone deep-sea fishing, he went for a drive, exploring the north central coast. At the intersection of Route 6 and South Rustico he spotted an old-school style roadhouse. He pulled the car over.

   “It was the original motel with green paint,” he said. “That’s where we stayed.”

   The Patterson’s piled into their car on a Saturday at 6 o’clock in the morning in late June and left West Island for the eastern seaboard. The drive is circuitous, north to Quebec City, south to Fredericton, east to Monkton, and finally across the bridge. It takes close to 15 hours.

   “We played the letter game in the car,” said Cathy.

   The alphabet game is played on long car rides. The players try to find the letters of the alphabet on license plates, road signs, and nearby buildings, in order, starting with “A.” If any player spots a graveyard on the side of the road and declares it, the other players have to go back to the beginning. There is a shout out for the winner after they have reached “Z” if they can remember all the different things for each letter of the alphabet.

   When he wasn’t playing the letter game, Tanner was downloading podcasts on his phone. “They saved my life,” he said. “’Our Fake History’ and ‘Night Vale’ are good ones.” ‘Night Vale’ is about a small desert town, mysterious lights in the night sky, and dark hooded figures with dark unknowable powers.

   “I like to sleep,” said Amanda. “When I get bored, I start rambling, talking nonsense.”

   “It’s annoying,” Tanner groused about Amanda bunking in the back seat, who didn’t lose any sleep over it. “I can’t sleep in cars. She’s out for at least half the trip.”

   “I drive,” said Mark. “I’m no good being a passenger.”

   “I can drive all day long or I can sleep,” said Cathy. “Put me in the passenger seat and I’m out like a light.”

   Three years after Cathy had gone to Prince Edward Island, bundled up against the cold, they were on the way there in the summertime. They were in shorts and t-shirts because Sue Cameron, a fellow potter, had booked two weeks at Coastline Cottages earlier in the year. Cathy got wind of the vacation while at lunch with her friend one day.

   “Is there another cabin?” asked Cathy.

   “I don’t know, we can find out,” said Sue.

   “I called Kelly, he had an open cottage, I said fine, and booked it on the spot,” said Cathy.

   “Our first week we went to beaches five days in a row,” said Mark.

   There are almost hundreds of miles of PEI coastline, cliffs, sand dunes, and long sandy beaches. There are about 90 of them. Most of them are located in provincial or national parks. The beaches on the north coast are white sand while those on the south coast are red sand. The sand at Basin Head is called singing sand because it squeaks when you walk on it.

   “I was so excited for the beaches,” said Tanner. “We went all over, to Cavendish, Brackley, Thunder Cove.”

   “He just sits there listening to music,” said Amanda.

   “Or I listen to podcasts,” said Tanner. “Then I go in the water.”

   “Thunder Cove is a secret beach,” said Amanda.

   “The kids took a walk to the Teacup,” said Cathy.

   “The way the rock there has eroded you can walk underneath it,” explained Mark.

   “It’s a cliff, so you can be on the beach and behind you the water flows into the cliff, and you can go inside it,” said Tanner.

   “It was cool,” said Amanda. “But there were little crabs that bit your feet, especially this one part where they kept snapping at you.”

   The day Mark went solo exploring was the same day the rest of the family boarded Papa’s Gem, one of two 45-foot Aiden’s Deep Sea Fishing boats sailing out of the North Rustico harbor. The fishing charter supplies rods, tackle, and bait, cleans the cod and mackerel you’ve caught, and you get to take it all with you.

   Aiden Doiron started fishing when he was 15 years old, started his own deep-sea fishing excursions in 1957, and started up Doiron’s Fish Market on the near side of the harbor. His family still operates the charter and the fishery.

   “I caught one cod and two mackerel,” said Tanner.

   “I caught two cod and mom got sick,” said Amanda.

    “This guy on board was smoking a cigarette,” said Cathy.

   “You’re not supposed to smoke,” said Amanda. “The captain got mad when he found out.”

   “It was the way the wind came up and the smoke hit me full throttle. I had to sit down, but when the engines started up and we started moving, going back, it was too much. The next minute I was feeding the fish. It was quite embarrassing.”

   Mark fired up the grill at Coastline Cottages the next day.

   “I had never had mackerel,” he said. “We didn’t have any spices, no nothing, maybe a little parsley, but Tanner and I pan-fried the fish, and it might have been our best meal on the island.”

   “No, dad, it was ice cream at Cows,” said Amanda.

   By all accounts dinner at the New Glasgow Lobster Suppers was a big hit.

   “It was a high point for me,” said Tanner.

   The restaurant, on the Hunter River, not far from North Rustico, got its start in 1957 when the New Glasgow and District Junior Farmers Organization, looking for a permanent meeting place, bought and moved a canteen to the eatery’s current location. The first lobster supper, priced at $1.50, was served on improvised plank tables as a fundraiser in 1958. The dinner was followed by a dance.

   Today the all-you-can-eat feast starts with fresh rolls seafood chowder coleslaw salad and Island Blue mussels. The main course is lobster. Dessert is buffet-style. The restaurant is still owned by the Nicholson’s and MacRae’s, two of the original founding families. It was showcased on TV’s Food Network in 2012, on a program called “You Gotta Eat Here”.

   “You sit at a long picnic-style table. It’s like clockwork, so well run,” said Cathy.

   “Tanner and I ate a whole bucket of mussels,” said Mark.

   “You can have one, two, three buckets, all you want,” said Cathy.

   “I ate them all,” said Tanner proudly, his pink sweatshirt swelling.

   “I never had fresh mussels like that,” said Mark.

   PEI mussels, sweet and tender, are widely available at seafood counters in many countries, and are often considered the best in the world. Some gourmands say the best mussels are harvested on lonely rocky outcrops along cold-water tidal inlets, but since few people haul themselves, their rubber boots and gloves, and 5-gallon plastic pails to isolated shorelines, the island’s rope-grown mussels are the next best. They are super tasty nutritious sustainable and even help purify water by clearing nitrogen.

   Nothing beats sitting down to PEI mussels on PEI.

   “Amanda tried a mussel, but she wasn’t crazy about it,” said Tanner.

   “Hey, I ate a lot of them!” she protested.

   After a week of lolling on beaches the Patterson’s got into their car and went touring. The Tip-to-Tip Tour is about driving the length of the province on the rolling coastal roads. It’s a way to see the meeting of the tides at one end of the island at East Point and North America’s longest natural rock reef at the other end at North Cape.

   “You go to one side, they give you a ribbon, and when you get to the other side, and show them the ribbon, they give you a certificate,” said Mark. “It’s a long drive. We were all tired by the time we got to North Cape.”

   When they pulled into Tignish, a small town on the far northwestern tip of the island, they were ready for their daily bread. When they asked, someone recommended the Very Best Restaurant, which turned out to be part of the Tignish Co-op. A small sit-down, it has a big name for its Acadian meat pies.

   “At first I thought they were bragging,” said Mark. “But it’s got to be good if they say that. When we got there, there were all kinds of different tables and chairs.”

   “It looked pretty sketchy,” said Amanda.

“After we sat down, we could tell it was going to be good because all the local farmers and fishermen were there, in work clothes and Chevy caps,” said Mark. “We fed the whole family for thirty-five dollars.”

   “It’s like a PEI secret place,” said Tanner.

   “The name comes from living in the north,” said Amanda. “If you ask anybody how their day has been, they always say, the very best day.”

   Closer to home, one day Cathy told the 12-year-old Tanner and the 13-year-old Amanda that the next day would be their day. They could pick whatever activity they wanted to do.

   “We got one day, no, one morning, out of two weeks,” said Tanner.

   “No, we went to all those beaches,” said Cathy.

   “Oh, yeah,” said Tanner.

   The next morning, they went to Cavendish.

   The resort town is the next town over from North Rustico, known for its numerous cottages and campgrounds, Green Gables attractions, golf courses, boardwalk, and amusement parks. The first place they went to was the Route 6 Motel, a haunted house nestled in a spruce grove, crawling, walking, and running through the winding corridors where disturbing obstacles lurk.

   “It was great, but I couldn’t. I was fine, but I don’t like getting squished,” said Amanda. “When they yelled to get ready for the airbags, I hate that. I told them I needed to check out and they opened a side door for me.”

   Tanner had already checked out.

   “I’m good at scary movies,” he said. “I can predict everything. I just use my brain, but haunted houses, I don’t like it when it’s super dark and super loud.”

   Cathy was waiting outside, catching some fresh air, reading a paperback. A young mother walked out of the haunted house with a 7-year-old in hand. The boy was crying.

   “Is he OK?” asked Cathy.

   “The haunted house did him in,” said the woman.

   “I’m waiting for my kids,” said Cathy.

   “Is one of them wearing a pink sweatshirt?”

   “Yes.”

   “They’re out already.”

   Cathy found Big Pink and PJ at the side of the Route 6 Motel.

   “Sure enough, neither of them finished the haunted house,” she said.

   Tanner was known as Big Pink, since he was a large boy and wore his favorite pink sweatshirt whenever he could, and Amanda was known as PJ for wearing her pajamas over her bathing suit going to and from the Coastline Cottage’s kidney-shaped saltwater pool overlooking the ocean.

   Their next stop was the Hangar, a black-lit, fog-filled, state-of-the-art laser tag arena. Strapped into special vests, Tanner and Amanda were released into the 3000-square-foot space, firing infrared beams with Uzi-style ray guns.

   “When we went one-on-one, I totally destroyed her,” said Tanner.

   “Sure, but when we played that other family, I dominated,” said Amanda.

   “She was super good at sneaking around, getting behind you, and shooting, shooting, shooting,” said Tanner. “She would just surprise run up and shoot you in the back the whole time.”

   After two weeks on the island, going home to Montreal wasn’t easy, except for leaving the pillows behind. “The beds are comfortable in the cottage, but the pillows aren’t,” said Amanda.

  “Bring your own pillow next time,” said Cathy.

   “We all went to see “Anne of Green Gables” in Charlottetown. When Matthew dies at the end, I was, oh, crap, I had forgotten that part. That got me,” said Mark.

   “The island is beautiful,” he added. “I liked that I wasn’t working for two weeks.” Island hopping is being able to do nothing much and having all day to do it before you have to go back to whatever made you go on vacation in the first place.

   “I liked getting up in the morning, taking my cup of tea down to the ocean, sitting on my log down there,” said Cathy.

   “The beaches,” said Big Pink. His favorite place was anyplace by the ocean. “Eating mussels and Canada Day were awesome, too.”

   When he heard there was pole climbing rubber boot throwing lobster eating contests and a cow bingo, guessing where the cow will do its business at the end of the afternoon, every year at the Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival, he said, “We’re coming back!”

   “I’m not chasing pigs!” said Amanda.

   When the Patterson’s piled into their car for the return trip to Montreal, they drove from North Rustico to New Glasgow to Hunter River to Kelly’s Cross to Crapaud onto Highway 1 to Borden-Carleton and onto the Confederation Bridge.

   By a twist of the turnstile, there’s no cost to cross the bridge for a summer vacation on the red island, no ticket takers. But, when you pull up to the tollbooth to go home, it costs $47.00 to leave. It’s like the candles costing more than the cake. That’s when you might as well make plans to go back, since the 12-minute way off the mainland over the wide coastal water to Prince Edward Island is always for the asking.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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Hammer the Sickle Blues

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

   Angele got married to Vic Staskevicius, another Lithuanian refugee, in Sudbury, Ontario. They had three children and the family emigrated to the USA in the late 1950s. After they got there they became Mr. and Mrs. Staskus. They started at the bottom. Everything looked like up to them.

   The first time Rita saw her first Russian  airport, she wasn’t impressed. “The Moscow airport was crappy, gray on gray, and there were birds and bats flying around inside the terminal. Everybody looked sick, like stomach flu was going around.”

   “The color of truth is gray,” said the French writer Andre Gide. He was wrong. The Commies were wrong, too, and their favorite color was wrong. Social material political truth at any cost is more trouble than it’s worth, sparing no one, not during the countless bloodthirsty 20th century grabs for glory and power, for sure. It’s not black and white either, no matter what the insincere masterminds say. The color of truth is more like Sgt. Pepper’s Crayola 64 Colors. 

   The Sheremetyevo airport served most of the international flights arriving and departing the capital city. The airport was originally built as a military airfield in the late 1950s with one runway. In the early 1970s a second runway was added. A single terminal still served both runways. Half the people waiting for their flights looked like they might commit suicide any second.

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

   A woman behind them wearing an oversized fur coat wasn’t so lucky. “She had all kinds of stuff sewn into the lining of her coat. They ripped the lining apart and took all of it.” The police put her stuff in their pockets.

   There were several eateries in the terminal, but neither mother nor daughter ate while waiting for their connection. “The food looked horrible, and what was the point of bad food and bad service without a smile?” asked Rita.

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

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

   “It was even crappier than the Moscow airport.”

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

   The Gintaras was where foreigners stayed, all foreigners from anywhere, who visited Lithuania. It was a hard and fast rule. Signs warned against making a commotion. “The kids were running up and down the hallway, while the adults were all in our room. It was crowded since it wasn’t a big room, at all.”

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

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

   “Everybody was smoking in minutes, the men, the women, and the older kids. It was non-stop.” 

   The Prima brand was imported from Bulgaria. It was a better quality of tobacco. But since the Belomorkani was the only available fag in most of the hinterland, that is what everybody smoked. A low-lying ashy cloud soon hung down from the ceiling. Even though cigarette advertising wasn’t allowed in the USSR, almost everybody smoked. 

   “After twenty minutes you couldn’t see across the room.” Rita noticed one of her cousins was chain-smoking. “I didn’t know you smoked.”

   “I don’t,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “That was twenty-two years ago,” she said. 

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

   She gave him her bottle of the sweet soda.

   “The Young Communists were always following us around, telling us their world was just as good as ours, that they had everything we had, and more. When I had to take my contacts out on the bus, one of them said, we have those, too. That was wacky because none of my relatives had contacts and none of them knew where to get any unless it was the black market.” She finally told the Young Communists to cut it out. “Your BS isn’t doing anything for me,” she said.

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

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

   After they towel dried the room and themselves off, they visited with their relatives. It was what they did more than anything else. There weren’t many sights to see in Vilnius, even if you could go there.

   “You never asked anybody, even your own flesh and blood, what they did. They would always say, ‘I have responsibilities.’ If you lived in Vilnius, you probably had a normal job, but not in Marijampole.” Most of her kinfolk lived in the country and farmlands southwest of the rural town. They finagled and horse traded, going to Poland, smuggling whatever they could, doing things that weren’t altogether legal, or so the Russians said, so it wasn’t prudent to ask them too much

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

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

   They made plans to go to Silute to see Rita’s paternal grandmother, who was in her 80s. Angele had never met her. Rita couldn’t imagine her.

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

   Antonina was Angele’s husband’s mother. She was a Russian woman, had been a young schoolteacher in the middle of nowhere, and married Rita’s grandfather when he was an officer in the Imperial Army, stationed in the middle of nowhere. “She was taken a few years after my grandfather was deported in 1941 and dragged away to Siberia for more than ten years.”

   Rita’s mother’s family, who lived in the south of the country, made plans to take them to Silute. They kept their plans close to the vest. The scheme was for there to be three brothers, three wives, three cars, Angele and Rita, and some of their cousins. “My mother would be in one of the cars, I would be in another, and the third car would be a decoy, if it came to that.”

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

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

   “I know sarcasm from naïve American when I listen to it,” the official scowled.

   Their convoy didn’t get far the day of the familial excursion. They were stopped by a roadblock on the outskirts of Vilnius. The police were waiting for them. “They knew,” Rita said. “Somebody had overheard something. Somebody talked. They waved us off the road.”

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

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

   “The Gintaras Hotel.”

   “Turn around, fancy lady, go back to the Gintaras.”

   They went to the third car.

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

   “What’s your name?”

   “Jurgelaitis, just like them.”

   He asked her something in Russian. She didn’t understand a word and glared at him. The stare-down between cop and girl took a long minute.

   “The next time I see this one she is going to have to answer,” the policeman warned Rita’s uncle.

   “Turn back,” he said, shooting everybody a dirty look. They turned around and the convoy went back to Vilnius.

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

   “He was a crazy driver, always yelling, ‘Somebody’s following us!’ He stayed off the highway, and the main roads, instead going up and down different streets. I thought the drive was going to take two hours, but it took much longer.” It took five hours on empty stomachs. It was worse than the Aeroflot flight.

   They were stopped several times, but every time her uncle was allowed to stay the course. The roadblock police didn’t explain why. They just waved him on. When they got to Silute they asked around and found the house where Antonina Staskevicius was living. 

   After Josef Stalin’s death many political prisoners in Siberia were set free. She was one of them. Her chain gang days were over. Her husband was long dead, dead of starvation in 1942, in a forest labor camp. She was sent back to Lithuania, but not back to Siauliai where the family farm didn’t exist anymore. She still wanted to go there but was told to go live in Silute. The Russians shrugged her off when she asked why.

   “She lived in a two-room apartment, in a rectangular four-unit building, almost like a log cabin, that looked like it was built a thousand years ago,” said Rita. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. The floors were dirt. The windows needed caulking. The roof was several generations overdue.

   “She was in her 80s. She had gone through tough times, but still had a lot of life in her.” She had seven grandchildren in the United States. Rita was the first one she ever saw. She gave her granddaughter a big smile and a big hug, even though she was a small woman and had to reach up.

   She wasn’t made of steel, like the Muscovite ringleader who squashed her and the Baltics under his thumb, but he was gone, a tinhorn memory, and she still had plenty of what it takes. How you start isn’t always how you finish.

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

   “How did you like it?” her uncle asked on their way back to Vilnius.

   “It was the best food I’ve had since I left home,” Rita said.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.

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Monkey Business

By Ed Staskus

   Kevin Rourke was a winsome young man with a big handsome face, big handsome hair that fell waving across his forehead, and a handsome man’s love for all girls, great and small. He was charming and devious. He was slowly going to paunch but still young enough that nobody noticed it except us, his roommates, who saw him flip flopping to and from bedroom and bathroom every morning with a towel wrapped around his spreading mid-section.  

   He was in his late-20s, but his belly was going on late-30s. He didn’t drink, but he didn’t work out either. He liked food as much as he liked girls. He was always eating and plucking daisies. The only time he wasn’t was when he went to Florida, which he did for a week twice a year. When he did he took only a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, two pairs of clean underwear, and a wad of cash with him.

   “What do you do there?” we finally asked him.

   “I don’t do anything,” he said. “I hardly leave my room. I sit on the balcony sometimes at night.”

   “How about getting some sun?”

   “No,” he said. “I keep the outside where it belongs, which is outside.”

   “What do you mean? There’s a beach right there.” He always stayed in the same hotel, the Pier 66 Hotel, on the Atlantic Ocean. “What do you do in your room?”

   “I sleep,” he said.

   “What about food?”

   “It’s my diet week.”

   “You can’t sleep all day every day for a week.”

   “I’ll take that bet,” he said.

   His Lebanese fiancée took the bet and lost. When she did she wouldn’t take his calls for two weeks, but he wormed his way back into her good graces after he got back to Cleveland from Fort Lauderdale and their wedding was back on, except when it wasn’t. They had been engaged for more than a year. Day after day they were unable to set a firm date. In the meantime, Kevin kept sowing his wild oats, continuing to hedge his bets.

   He took more showers than anybody we knew. He showered every morning, and often enough again in the early evening after work. He even showered those nights he wasn’t going out but staying in. He wrapped his dampness up in a bathrobe those nights and watched TV. Neither Matt Lavikka, our other roommate, nor I minded. We didn’t watch much on the boob tube, anyway, except in the fall when the Cleveland Browns were losing to somebody every Sunday after Sunday.

   When he was spic and span, Kevin worked for ABF Freight Systems, which was a national less-than-truckload motor carrier based in Arkansas. We called it All Broken Freight. After calling it that to his face a few times and seeing frown lines break out on his puss, we eased off and stopped with the buzz talk.  

   He was an orphan, or at least said he was an orphan, and had thrown in with ABF like it was a second family. He had a desk in an office in Brook Park, although he hardly ever went there. His paycheck grew, being largely commissioned, only when he was on the road. He never missed a day of work. Most of the time he worked overtime, pressing the flesh day and night. Some nights he slept in his car in his suit when the drive back to Cleveland was going to take too long. When he showed up in the morning he took a shower, changed his clothes, and went back to work.

   Even though we knew he was making a boatload of money, he didn’t seem to own anything except half a dozen expensive suits, a row of long-sleeved starched white shirts, a trove of status symbol ties, comfortable Italian leather shoes, and a 1980 Mercury Marquis. The car was still nearly new and was reddish purple with a leather-and-velour interior and split-bench seats. The driver’s seat reclined. We called it the land yacht. He kept it even cleaner than he kept himself. If there was anything he loved, it was that car.

   I was taken aback the first time I saw Leyla, Kevin’s Lebanese girlfriend and treasure chest. She was dark-skinned like she had just crossed the River Jordan, with black hair and a pocket-sized hook nose. There isn’t much that is more problematic than marrying somebody with a big nose. She was swank, with some sort of fur wrapped around the top of her. Her dress was cream-colored and designer. She wasn’t half as good-looking as Kevin, and I pegged her at about ten years older.

   Her groom-to-be lived by the mantra that when he found a woman with millions of dollars, who would sign over most of it to him, and promised to be dead within a couple of years at the most, that was the woman he was going to marry. “It’s just as easy marrying a rich woman as it is marrying a poor one,” he explained. Leyla didn’t look like she was going to drop dead any time soon, although she looked like she had the dollars, for sure. We found out her father was a big time import exporter.

   Kevin knew that married couples become in the eyes of the law one person, and that one person was going to be him. Even though it is true enough that one shouldn’t marry for money, since it is cheaper to simply borrow it, he had a one-track mind.

   I was dating a queen bee by the name of Dana Price. Her family lived in a new house in a new development in Solon, a bedroom suburb about twenty minutes southeast of Cleveland. She worked for IBM as a saleswoman, selling hardware systems to banks, and lived in an apartment twice as large as she needed at the top of Cedar Rd. in Cleveland Heights. Her father ran Mrs. Weiss’ Noodles.

   The family company had been another family’s business for more than forty years. They were Hungarian, churning out Ha-Lush-Ka noodles for casseroles and dumpling-style Kluski egg noodles at their Woodland Ave. plant. When it burned down in 1961 they built a new plant in Solon. By 1968, after they merged with American Mushroom, they were a multi-million-dollar company and still growing. After the Hungarians were dead and gone, Jim Price became president in 1978.

   I called him Big Jim because he was a big man with a big mouth. He knew everything about everything. There was no mistaking where you stood with him. He told me so himself when he told me to stay away from his daughter. He didn’t want her marrying an immigrant son with nothing in the bank and anarchist leanings. But she was as stubborn and determined as her father and ignored him.

   We talked about her father’s concerns. She wasn’t planning on marrying anybody to reform them. “That’s what reform schools are for,” she said. Dana was like the highway between Akron and Cleveland, no curves, but I liked her for sticking up for me.

   Kevin hated Dana. She had swagger to spare, and he knew it. She wasn’t curvier than his steady but was better-looking by far. He resented her faux Boston accent. He resented her family, her family’s wealth, and their lifestyle. The family house in Solon had four bedrooms and a hot tub decking out the back deck. Big Jim drove a Caddy. It seemed like it was always a new car. Kevin hated all Big Jim’s Caddy’s.

   Dana had gone to college in Boston and flew there every two months-or-so to get her hair done by her favorite stylist. That winter, when I was thinking of breaking up with her, she asked me if I wanted to go to Aspen for some skiing. Before I could say anything she stuck an airline ticket in my hand and said she would meet me at the airport. She was going a few days in advance. She was more like her father than she knew. 

   “I’ve only skied a few times,” I told her. “I mostly cross-country ski on the golf courses, which are mostly flat.”

   “You’ll get the hang of it,” she said.

   I felt like I was being hung out to dry with a broken leg in the making. Aspen Mountain is almost 12,000 feet up and has a vertical drop of more than 3,000 feet. The ticket was like an albatross around my neck. I went for a walk around the block to work it out.

   “Why don’t you give the ticket to Matt?” Kevin suggested. “He’s always skiing. He would love to go to Aspen.” Matt’s parents were from Finland, where skiing is second nature. They always said, “One cannot ski so softly that the tracks cannot be seen.” It was some sort of Finnish proverb.

   That’s what I did. I gave the ticket to my roommate. I didn’t say a word to Dana. After he got back from Aspen, Matt told me Dana was thrown off balance when he arrived in my place, his gear in tow. After she got her feet back under her, she swore up a storm and swore it was over between us. She was true to her word.

   “How was the skiing?” I asked.

   “It was great,” Matt said. “You should try it.”

   The on-again off-again wedding of Kevin and Leyla was back on when spring started to bust out all over. They planned to get hitched in June. I had majored in English and minored in Unemployment at Cleveland State University, and so had time to spare for errands and lending a helping hand. I addressed all the invitations, sealed, and stamped them. I mailed them out. The replies started coming back the beginning of May. It was shaping up to be a sizable wedding followed by a chock-full reception. Kevin was opting out of hot wet love and into cold hard cash.

   I thought all his talk about marrying for money was just talk since a lot of what he said was all talk. I found out otherwise. He was going to marry for money. He was inviting anybody and everybody, no matter how distantly related by blood or friendship, adding up what their envelopes stuffed with fifties and hundreds might amount to.

   Kevin had sparred with too many people in his day. There was nothing any girl could say to him that he didn’t have a better retort for. That was his number one problem. What girl was willing put up with a smart-ass day in and day out, much less for the rest of her life? The second problem was he never dated anybody who was better looking than him. When that became clear to whoever was princess for the day, she chopped his head off with words and moved on. Leyla was willing to put up with both problems. She wanted Kevin so she could make him into what she wanted him to be. Kevin was still wrestling with that a week before the wedding. 

   When he went down for the count he called it off. He was giving up the job of loving his girl. Leyla was going to find out soon enough she was being made a monkey of.

   Matt and I were watching the Kardiac Kids on TV a week before the ceremony. It was going to be at St. Marion’s, which was a downtown Maronite church. The congregation had been around since before WW1.  It was the center of Lebanese culture in Cleveland, both religious and ethnic. The Kardiac Kids were the exciting new version of the Cleveland Browns. They snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat most every Sunday. Kevin walked in on the broadcast and tried to break his news flash to us. Brian Sipe was lofting a Hail Mary Pass. We motioned for Kevin to wait. When the Dawg Pound erupted, their prayers answered, we turned to him.

   “What’s that you were saying?” we asked, high fiving each other.

   “The wedding is off,” he said.

   “It’s off?” we asked, flummoxed.

   “Finito,” he said in an Italian accent phony as a bag of baloney, making a slashing motion across his throat. “You’re going to have to let everybody know.”

   “Hey, that’s all right,” I said turning back to the football game, making sure Don Cockcroft had kicked the extra point. “No man should get married until he’s studied some anatomy and dissected one or two women, so you know exactly what you’re going up against.”

   Matt and I were at his parent’s house the next Sunday. They had gotten a new Philips color TV and we were watching the adventures of the Kardiac Kids. The game hung by a thread. In the middle of the drama a slew of commercials interrupted the action. We told them all about Kevin’s misadventure.

   “Life is not a waiting game for better times,” Matt’s dad said when the commercials were wrapping up, the game was coming back on, and we were done with our account of the no wedding.

   “What does that mean?” I wondered. I thought it had to be another Finnish proverb. What about all good things come to those who wait?

   “Even in Helsinki they don’t keep a maid on the dresser too long,” Matt’s mom said as though she had read my mind. I didn’t have to parse that. I went back to watching Brian Sipe side-stepping the bull rush and pitching flying colors right and left.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.

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Show and Tell

By Ed Staskus

   “It’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, cat, go.” Elvis Presley

   Some folks turn on the living room and porch lights Halloween night and wait for the doorbell to ring, others sit on their front steps or stoop, while others plop themselves down on lawn chairs at the base of the driveway. Those who don’t want to bother make sure all their lights are off. They sit sulking or watching whatever on their phones and tablets. They think Halloween is just for kids and that grown-ups have better things to do.

   When I was a kid and went trick or treating with my sister, brother, and our friends it was, next to Christmas, the biggest show of the year. It didn’t matter what exciting show was on TV or what show and tell we had going on the next day at school. What mattered was making sure we stuck to our battle plan. We planned our route days beforehand, which was left out of our house on Bartfield Ave., left on E. 128th St., left on Locke Ave., left on E. 127th St., down Coronado Ave. to Lancelot Ave. and back home. We knew we had about two hours and if we banged on a door every minute we would have gotten to more than a hundred houses and hit the jackpot. When we did we ran home to survey what we had gotten.

   My sister and I hid our loot from our brother. We had to. He had a non-stop sweet tooth. He believed in sharing, like us, but Sharing Street to him was a one-way street.

   All of us hated dark blank houses. Time is candy, we reckoned, and wasting time evaluating a dark house was time lost. We imagined mean old men and women lived there, better left unseen, although we also thought they could have shown their faces at least once a year. Halloween was the one day of the year when we were OK with seeing their wizened selves.

   We weren’t scared about anything anybody threw into our pillow cases, except when it was pennies and apples. The day of crazy people putting razor blades and poison into candy hadn’t arrived yet. We didn’t want money and we got more than enough apples at home. Our mother fed one to us every day to keep the doctor away. When we got sick she gave us cold Ginger Ale and hot slices of liver and onions. The soda was refreshing. The liver and onions were sickening.

   A neighbor high school boy told us there hadn’t always been any such thing as Halloween. We were aghast. How could that be? We ignored him. We found out later he was right, although by that time we weren’t trick or treating anymore, so it didn’t matter.

   In Romania the holiday is Dracula Day. In China it is the Hungry Ghost Festival. In Mexico it is the Day of the Dead. In the Middle Ages in England ‘soulers’ went around begging for round cakes or ‘souls’ during All Hallows Eve to remember the dead. It was the soul kitchen.

   My parents didn’t know a thing about Halloween until we got to the USA. It’s not a traditional celebration in Lithuania, where both came from after WW2. It was only introduced there after the country kicked the Russians out in 1990. It wasn’t much of anything in Sudbury, Canada, where I was born and bred, either. There was usually snow on the ground by the end of October in northern Ontario and nobody went out dressed as a skeleton in zero weather sponging for sweets. 

   Before there was Halloween there was nothing, just the end of the month and the beginning of the next month. Then the Irish Potato Famine happened, and millions of Irishmen came to the USA. They didn’t have any food, but they had culture. They brought Samhein with them. The Irish New Year started on November 1st and Samhein was the day before that. It was when the spirits of the dead returned to the world of the living for one night. Paddy lads and lassies dressed up in costumes and went door to door begging for food and money. Their parents carved ghoulish faces on turnips to ward off evil. They put candles inside the turnips to let kids know they could bang on their door for treats.

   Many youngsters without a drop of Celtic blood in them got into the spirit of it but the powers that be didn’t like it. They blanched at the complaints of vandalism, houses splattered with eggs and toilet paper littering shrubs and trees. Enough is enough, they said, and put a stop to it wherever whenever they could. They didn’t care that some parents wrapped their kids up in toilet paper to look like mummies. After the post-WW2 baby boom there were too many families making too many  demands to make the holiday official, and they were forced to bow to the popular will. Halloween broke out all over.

   It busted loose just in time for the candy companies and us. Old timers used to parcel out nuts, fruits, and trinkets. They thought we would have fun bobbing for apples. They were wrong, just like everybody who gave us candy corn was wrong. Candy corn was originally sold in the 1880s. It was like chicken feed with rooster images on the boxes. Nobody ever ate it unless they wanted a jelly belly. It didn’t matter that the last pyramid-shaped penny candy had been slurried together during the Roaring Twenties. Every year it was repackaged and redistributed. By the mid-50s real candy became the treat of choice. We were all in on the new tradition. We didn’t know it would grow into the second-largest commercial holiday in the country, raking in more than $6 billion dollars.

   It doesn’t do it in on the shoulders of kids going door to door anymore. These days only a third of people hand out candy. Another third leave candy out in a bowl, while the rest keep their lights off. One year my wife and I were going out to dinner with friends. We left a big plastic bowl full of goodies on the front porch with a sign saying, “TAKE ONE.” We were pleased to see it empty when we got home, until we ran into one of our neighbors the next day.

   “Two boys just ten minutes after you left wiped you out. They turned the bowl over and poured everything into their bags. When I went up to them to say something they ran away.”

   We loved getting Clark Bars, which were peanut butter and spun taffy, Zag Nuts, which were peanut butter and toasted coconut, and Mary Janes, which were peanut butter and taffy molasses. We had a soft spot for peanut butter. Treacle was a close second. We hated Necco Wafers. They were tasteless except when they tasted bad. We liked candy cigarettes, which we could pretend to smoke and eat at the same time.

   Many more than less of everybody stays home nowadays and watches a scary movie instead of trick or treating. “Hocus Pocus” is the number one Halloween movie followed by “Friday the 13th” and “It’s a Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.” In the late 1950s and early 1960s nobody stayed home watching any stinking movie. Everybody beat feet the second it got dark enough for the starting gun to go off. When it did we raced outside and took a left.

   A decade later, when my trick or treating days were behind me, I lived in Asia Town. The old school Cleveland neighborhood had plenty of Chinamen, Eastern Europeans, Puerto Ricans, the working class, trailer trash, beatniks and hippies, and college students. I fit in somewhere between beatnik and college student. I joined the working class whenever I ran out of money. It was an affordable place to live with all of life’s necessities within walking distance, which worked for me because most of the time I didn’t have a car. The rest of the time I had a car that didn’t work most of the time.

   Joe Dwyer was one of my friends who lived one block over. We had gone to high school together and were both some-time students at Cleveland State University. We were dodging the draft as much as we were reading “Paradise Lost.” At least I was reading it for one of my English classes. I was majoring in English with a minor in Unemployment. Joe was an art student and didn’t read anything unless it was necessary. He painted houses whenever the need arose.

   His house was on East 33rd St. between Payne Ave. and Superior Ave. It was narrow as a one-lane road and as cluttered as the Animal House. He smoked reefer like nobody’s business. He made sure it was nobody’s business. In those days cops were always throwing young adults into jail for toking on the weed. Dying in Vietnam was OK. Smoking pot was not OK. He had two white cats with mismatched blue and green eyes. There was a disheveled garden in his postage-stamp sized yard. He collected and decorated gourds.

   One day in mid-October, passing by his house, I heard hammering. When I took a look-see I saw he was hammering a coffin together in his backyard.

   “Who died?” I asked. I didn’t put it past him. He was crafty in more ways than one.

   “Nobody died, not yet, at least,” he said. “This is for Halloween.”

   He was making the coffin so it would stand on its hind legs. He painted the outside a glossy black and the inside a glossy fire engine red. He was going to park it in his front door on the big day. When kids came up his stairs they would have to approach the vertical lid of the coffin in the doorway. When they did, spotting them through a peephole, he opened the lid, dressed as a vampire, and handed out treats.

   Nobody in that neighborhood at that time took a pass on Halloween, especially not that year. The holiday was on a Friday and that made it Halloweekend. It didn’t matter if the children were from China or West Virginia. Every child who could walk hit the mean streets of the near east side running. Every teenager did the same thing. Even some elderly Slovenian women dressed up as themselves went out, their babushkas tied tight under their chins. I sat on a front porch next door to Joe’s house with some college friends. We had a family-size bag of Lay’s potato chips and a 12-pack of Stroh’s beer for ourselves and tossed Home Run gumballs into everybody’s bags, but not before getting our two cents in about the costumes we were seeing. We tried to be nice. The gumballs were right up our alley, costing us close to nothing..

   Joe had somehow rigged up a mirrored stardust ballroom light. It strobed, throwing shards of colored light on the ceiling, walls, and deck of the front porch. Once the trick or treaters were on the porch there was no missing the coffin, especially since a purple floodlight was making it look creepier than coffins usually do.

   At first, everybody was cautious about approaching the coffin. Some kids didn’t even try. They took one look at it and left for greener pastures. Some kids recoiled when Joe slowly swung the lid open, the hinges creaking, extending Nips in assorted flavors. Nips were pint-sized Coke bottles made of food-grade paraffin filled with colored syrup. 

   Some kids fell backwards in surprise when Joe’s hand floated forward reaching for them, landing on their behinds, and scuttling away. A few screamed and ran for their lives. Joe’s vampire get-up featured pancake make-up, fangs, and fake fingers a foot long. His lips were  and eye sockets were blackened. He was dressed in a stitched together tuxedo a starched white shirt, and a black bow tie. There were few parents accompanying their children so there were few irate parents to give Joe a piece of their minds.

   Not that it mattered. When word got out, Joe’s house became the place to go to for fun and fear in Asia Town. At first the line was down the walk. Then it was down the sidewalk. Then it was around the block. Everybody had to see the coffin for themselves. When Joe ran out of Nips I ran to Stan’s Deli on the corner and got more of anything he had.

   Stan was a Polack who ran a combo meat counter and beverage store on Payne Ave. He was short and heavy-set and always wore a white apron. It never had drops of gore or blood on it, which was surprising since he so seldom washed it. It was plain dirty all the time. He sold a grab bag of wares besides ground beef and beer. He had a box of old flavored wax lips he said I could have at a big discount. I bought those. He had bags of old cotton candy. He slashed the price. I bought those, too. He had wads of World War Two-era Orbit chewing gum. I bought those and rushed back to Joe’s house.

   He was still there, standing outside his coffin, telling monster stories in lieu of handing out treats. We dished out what I had brought back until it was all gone and then called it a day. “Hey mister, you got any candy corn to go with that gum?” a pint-sized Long John Silver asked. The next morning Joe told me he was so tired at the end of the night that he threw himself down on his sofa still clad in his Bela Lugosi outfit and fell right asleep. “I slept like the dead last night,” he said.

   At the end of the first “Halloween” movie, after Dr. Sam Loomis pumps six bullets into Michael Myers, he catches his breath on the balcony and looks down at the sidewalk. He doesn’t see the boogeyman lying there. He’s gone! When that happened, everybody knew there was going to be a sequel, just like everybody knows after the big night that the next Halloween is exactly one year away.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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