Surprise House

By Ed Staskus

Everything happened when mom and dad went out of whack and our adventure rides burned down, although most of it happened before that. It started when mom, who grew up one of four Lithuanian girls in the family in a two-bedroom house, married a handsome Romanian man. She made up her own mind about it. They had to elope, crossing the state line, finding a justice of the peace in a used-up Indiana town.     

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

   Two years later on Christmas Eve, while Matis and I stood on the lip of the front walk, below the light in the window of dad’s upstairs bedroom, I remembered the night when the Surprise House burned down, and how mom and me and my brother looked over the tops of the trees, watching the fire on the far lakeshore. 

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

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

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

   When we were kids, we weren’t allowed to see them for a long time. Even when we were finally allowed, we hardly saw them because they still didn’t want to see us. It didn’t look like our new man was in the running, either.

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

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

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

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

   “What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “She wasn’t older,” he said. 

   He ran after mom, reaching for her hand.

   The winter before Matis was born my mom told me she was making a little friend for me to play with. By the time summer came I told her he wasn’t really what I wanted.

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

   But she never did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   By then mom’s first-born sister was getting to be a big wig around town, but she never invited us over, either. She had grandpa and grandma blood in her and even some of dad’s. They had four kids, all around our own age. We hardly ever saw them. One day mom went to their house to pick something up and she took Matis and me with her in our Mercedes convertible. It was a fun ride. My aunt made us wait in the garage, standing in the half-light, while she found whatever she was looking for. It turned out to be some kind of Lithuanian relic she wanted mom to deliver to an old lady who lived near us.

   When I saw her at the door, my mom giving her the box, I thought, “She’s like a relic herself, why does she need more old stuff?”

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

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

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

   Mom said she loved dad the minute they met, and only waited until the day she was one day older than she had to be to get married, and that she loved sleeping in her own bed in her own room.

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

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

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

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

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

   “A banana is the best snack,” she said, pushing them down into our pockets with one-dollar bills and quarters.

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

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

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

   None of the riders was ever seen alive again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   We didn’t know the last time we stumbled out of the Surprise House and tossed our remains away as we walked to the arch and mom’s waiting convertible that it was the last closing time at Euclid Beach Park. We didn’t know that mom was going to leave soon and not come back, either

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

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

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

   They argued more and more that winter, even in the morning at breakfast and late at night when we were supposed to be asleep. One night they had an argument at the dining room table because mom had stayed out the day before until four in the morning.

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

   She meant Reuben Silver, who was the showman at Karamu House, where mom and dad had first met. He was a friendly man with a black beard and slicked-back shiny thinning black hair. His wife wore purple turtlenecks and always took my hand when I saw her backstage.

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

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

   He thought mom had done something bad. He didn’t say what, although we could tell from his face it must have been very bad. When mom went into the kitchen dad followed her. 

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

   When we went upstairs, we looked into their bedroom and saw a big hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. We found out later he had thrown it at her but missed. It lay on the floor until the next day when mom came home. She cleaned up the dinner table, did the dishes, and put the potato masher away. Mom kept the cleanest house anyone ever saw. She vacuumed twice a day and you could eat off the floor.

   Dad said he was going to call Sears about fixing the bedroom wall, but he never did. Maybe it was like their marriage by then, not worth fixing. 

   Anna MacAulay came over the next day when dad was at work. She always just walked into our house. He hated that. She and mom talked for a long time.

   Looking up over the sidewalk at our house on Christmas Eve, I thought I had probably known all along that mom was going to leave him, but back then surprises still upset me. She was going to marry the new man from Rochester. There was no surprise about that. I was going to do my best to help out.

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

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

   I could go back to summer camp the talk of the town on my lips. I knew she would keep her word. She was my favorite aunt. Banga means “Little Wave,” like washing over you but not knocking you down. 

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

   “Come on, bub,” I said, taking Matis’s hand when he reached for mine, and we started up the icy chancy sidewalk.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island Paperback Yoga 147 Stanley Street and Lithuanian Journal To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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