Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

Monkey Business

By Ed Staskus

   The first time Oliver the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County saw the Aitvaras it was walking through their kitchen. When it got to the sliding door leading to the patio it walked right through the door without opening it. Once on the patio it transformed into a black dragon and flew away, its tail like a comet.

   Oliver poured himself a glass of apple juice and went upstairs, walking into his dad’s home office. His father was an electrical engineer. Ever since the 19 pandemic he had split his time working in his Beachwood office and working remotely. He was home today, blinking at his laptop and taking notes.

   “Dad, did you and mom invite a rooster over?”

   “No, we didn’t bud,” his dad said. “Why do you ask?”

   “I was just in the kitchen when a rooster with blue legs and a fiery red tail walked in. It went out on the patio, changed into a dragon, and flew away.”

   “Was it smoking a pipe?”

   “I think so,” Oliver said.

   “That’s an Aitvaras. They’re from Lithuania. If you see it again don’t let it in the house. If you see it in the house, kick it out. If you’re outside and it has shapeshifted into a dragon, be careful. He will roast you with his bad breath at the drop of a hat.”

   “OK,” Oliver said going back to the kitchen to put his glass away.

   His mom was the German side of the family, and his dad was the Lithuanian side of the family. Oliver and Emma were 100% birds of a feather. The Aitvaras was 100% Baltic pagan. What he was up to was a mixed bag.

   That night Oliver crept into Emma’s room and shook her awake. She was a heavy sleeper. Oliver, on the other hand, always slept with one eye open. He knew full well too many monsters knew where he lived.

   “Do you hear that?” he asked. There was a scratching noise downstairs.

   “What is it?” Emma, his older sister and right-hand man, asked.

   “I think it’s the rooster.”

   They snuck downstairs, Oliver leading the way with his flashlight and Emma gripping her jackknife. It was a special operations operation. They skipped the step near the bottom that creaked.

   The most secretive Lithuanian Special Operations Force units are squadrons that go by the codename Aitvaras. Nobody knows who they are. Sometimes even they don’t know who they are. They carry out top-secret classified missions.

   There wasn’t anything downstairs except an extra toaster on the kitchen counter. They didn’t know Aitvarai can shapeshift to resemble household objects. A line of crumble feed on the floor led from the kitchen past the bathroom down a hallway and into the garage. When they turned the garage light on, they were taken by surprise by the sight of it filled with stolen goods. There was Tommy One Shoe’s bike, Jimmy the Jet’s best skateboard, their next-door neighbor’s Cooper, and somebody’s new Sabre gas grill.

   Back in the kitchen they decided not to tell their parents until morning. It started raining. Suddenly the extra toaster morphed back into the Aitvaras. It went through the closed window above the sink and turned into a serpentine-bodied dragon. It opened its mouth and started drinking the rain. Soon all the rain for miles around was veering their way and going down the gullet of the dragon.

   “That thing could cause a drought if it stays that thirsty,” Emma said.

   There were more than a dozen nurseries and fruit farms around their town of Perry, Ohio. If the Aitvaras drank all the rain, all the showers and thunderstorms, they would end up in big trouble. Besides that, Oliver and Emma would be out of fresh fruit.

   In the morning their mom called the Perry police department while their dad made a list of the hot stuff and took pictures of everything.

   “Aitvarai can turn themselves into black crows and black cats,” their dad told them. “But if that happens Sly will take care of it.” Sly and the Family Stone was the family’s guard dog cat. “This one is probably living in the forest and wants to be our family guardian. That’s how they trick you. We can’t let that happen. We would become his slaves. Sneaking in is one thing, but once we invite him in it will be almost impossible to get rid of him. They are beasts that bring good fortune by ill means.”

   “It was a toaster last night,” Oliver said.

   “They like to lay low behind stoves,” his dad said. “We’ll leave him an omelet every morning, so he doesn’t get his dander up in the meantime. If we mess with him too much when he’s in the house, he will infest all of us with lice.”

   Emma started scratching herself in spite of herself. Oliver chewed on his thumb. He was trying to come up with a plan.

   The next morning, after their dad had gone to work in Beachwood, and their mom was at the grocery store, Emma whipped up a special omelet in an eight by two cake pan loaded with Valerian root. She would be nine years old in a month, but she cooked like an old pro. She covered the cake pan with aluminum foil to keep it warm. Jimmy the Jet put on oven mitts. He was going to carry it into the forest and tempt the Aitvaras out of the woods.

   “Don’t forget, stay ahead of him and don’t let him catch you until you’re back here in our backyard,” Oliver said. “I want him on the stone patio.”

   “I brought my longboard instead of my skateboard,” Jimmy said. “He won’t catch me.”

   Longboards go faster than skateboards. It’s because they have larger and softer wheels than skateboards so they can go over gravel and twigs easier. Their bearings are higher quality, too, allowing for faster speeds.

   “Why do you want him on the patio?”

   “Because they can heal themselves by digging their spurs into earth, but not stone. Besides, I want you to leave the cake pan on the picnic table there.”

   Ten minutes later Jimmy the Jet burst out of the forest like a bat out of hell with the dragon from hell hard on his heels. Jimmy zig zagged to keep the beast away from him. When he got to the patio, he threw the cake pan down and raced away for his life. The dragon skidded to a stop and sunk his snout into the omelet.

   Valerian root is an herb but it’s a drug, too. Once it gets into your brain it makes you sleepy. There was enough Valerian root in the omelet to make all of Perry, Ohio, go to sleep all at once. The dragon was out like a light before it even took a last bite. It plopped down on the sandstone patio pavers and was soon gurgling like a baby.

   Oliver had run a wire from a lightning rod he stuck in the middle of the field behind their house to the patio. He wrapped his end of it around the dragon’s gnarly toes.

   Aitvarai are born from falling meteorites. They come to life as sparks when the meteorite burns up in the atmosphere. It started to rain. A thunderstorm was rolling in off Lake Erie. Oliver and Emma slipped inside. The sky got dark. Lightning bolts boomed and flashed over the roof. When one hit the lightning rod the Aitvaras lit up like the 4th of July and exploded. All that was left of him was a spark like a firefly.

   Oliver ran outside as the storm blew away and nudged the spark into one of his mom’s Ball jars. He screwed the top down tight and wound electrical tape around it. The jar was as bright as a searchlight.

   “What are you going to do with it?” Emma asked.

   “Maybe I’ll ask dad to mail it to the Devil’s Museum in Kaunas,” Oliver said.

   That’s what he did and where his dad sent the Aitvaras, back to the homeland, where he was the star of the show.

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

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

Surprise House

By Ed Staskus

   Everything happened when Eva and Nick got out of whack and the adventure rides burned down, although most of it happened before that. It started when Eva Giedraityte, who grew up one of four Lithuanian girls in the family in a two-bedroom house, married Nicolae Goga, a handsome Romanian man. She turned 18 the day of the wedding. He was 28. 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, Eva and Sammy and Agnes walked to Euclid Avenue and flagged down a three-wheel bicycle peddling Louie Kaleal’s Checker Bar ice cream. When the skinny black man opened the box on the back of the bike white smoke from dry ice poured out. Agnes made sure she ate all of her ice cream while it was still cold in the sugar cone.

   Two years later on Christmas Eve, while Sammy and she stood on the lip of the front walk, below the light in the window of the upstairs front bedroom, she remembered the night when the Surprise House burned down, and how Sammy and Eva and she looked over the tops of the trees, watching the fire on the far lakeshore. 

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

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

   Eva’s grandparents from the old country didn’t approve of Nicolae from the beginning, even though he got medals for shooting Commie’s in Korea. That’s why Eva and Nick 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, about the hardships they faced. They stayed stone-faced about it.

   When they were growing up, Agnes and Sammy didn’t see their grandparents for a long time. They had disowned Eva. Even when they were finally allowed, they hardly ever saw them because they still didn’t want to see their faithless daughter. It didn’t look like their new man was in the running either, even though he was Catholic instead of Lutheran.

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

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

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

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

   “What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

   When Agnes and she 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?” Agnes said as they walked to the car.

   “She wasn’t older,” he said. 

   He ran after mom, reaching for her hand.

   The winter before Sammy was born her mother told Agnes she was making a little friend for her to play with. By the time summer came she was ready to tell her mother he wasn’t what she really wanted.

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

   But Eva never did, even though Agnes asked again.

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

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

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

   Eva was born in Noorkoping, south of Stockholm, after her parents 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. Their grandfather was an import export up-and-comer and had a car. Their grandmother was a high school teacher. They left everything behind, drove to Estonia in the middle of the retreating Red Army, 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.

   Nick worked for Palmer Bearings, downtown on Prospect Avenue, on the backside of the angle before E. 46th St. He was vice-president of sales, which meant he went to all the steel factories in the Flats and to lunch most days 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 their neighbors.  

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

   By then Eva’s first-born sister was getting to be a big wig around town, but she never invited them over for picnics or holidays. She had grandpa and grandma blood in her. They had four children, all around Agnes and Sammy’s age. They hardly ever saw them. One day Eva went to their house to pick something up and she took Sammy and Agnes with her in their Mercedes convertible. It was a fun ride, the ragtop down. Their aunt made them wait in the garage, shuffling in the half-light, while she found whatever she was looking for. It turned out to be a Lithuanian relic she wanted Eva to deliver to an old lady who lived near them.

   When Agnes saw her at the door, Eva handing her the box, she thought, “She’s like a relic herself, why does she need more old stuff?”

   Eva got married on the first day she could, the year after she was Miss Boat Show of 1959. She and Nick 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 in the kitchen, because her mother was always telling her what to do, and because she was a free spirit. She had to get away from it all. She meant away from her stiff-necked mom and dad and her no bedroom and the old neighborhood, the church, and the community hall where she wasn’t happy anymore. 

   Sammy and Agnes hardly knew their grandparents, although they 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. 

   Eva loved Nick the minute they met, and only waited until the day she was one minute older than she had to be to get married. She wanted her own bed in her own room. She wanted her own family.

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

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

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

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

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

   “A banana is the best snack,” she said, pushing them down into their pockets with quarters dimes nickels.

   The first thing they did was run through the park to the Rocket Ships. Moving fast through the arch, they could see the tops of the cranes above the shade trees and hear the band organ that was beneath 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,” Sammy 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. Sammy said it was a great view and cooled you off on hot days, but Agnes wouldn’t ride the silver ships because she 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 Sammy was finished flying around and cooling himself off, they rode the coasters together, starting with the Thriller. At first, Agnes was afraid of them, of the sickening hills and valleys, until the VW bus neighborhood hippie boys took them to the amusement park one afternoon.

   “It’s not what you think, it’s 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. They could see the tiny roofs of the cars on the road from the top of the first rise, just before they tipped plunging and screaming. The last hill was so steep they couldn’t help not standing up as they careened down, pressing against the lap bar.

   It was hair-raising because it might crash anytime. Everybody knew so. Coming into the station once the train behind came in too soon 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. Sammy and Agnes 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 bad had ever happened.  

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

   The Flying Turns were the highest of the rides. They were scary loose nerve-wracking. The trains were freewheeling. “It’s a coaster without tracks!” Sammy 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 rode in any one car, one directly in front of the other, white-knuckling the snap-of-the-whip turns.

   On “Nickel Days” they 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 always missed by a sliver. Getting into a teacup one day Sammy found a plastic baggie tucked into the bench seat. A man with a ponytail came back before the ride started and asked if they had found anything.

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

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

   They steered clear of the Surprise House until the end of the day, not because it was 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. They 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-like in the sun. The sign above the arch framing the doors was yellow with black letters. They 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 they walked in, 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 they searched for it, all the doors banged open and shut so loud all around them it was baffling.

   When they found the right one, they 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 they struggled to not fall down, much less walk. 

   At the far end of the floor was a giant Grandfather Clock. When they got to it a spotted snake sprang at them from cuckoo doors beneath the clock face. Jumping away sideways from the ugly thing they 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 all-in-all 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 them in the face coming around corners, and they never knew when a wind gust would blow up their shorts from the floor.

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

   At the far end was a distortion mirror maze they had to find their way through to get out of the Surprise House. The curved mirrors stretched and squeezed them 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 they had just been through. Sammy and Agnes 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 their heels, eating the litter and discarded goodies. They threw banana peels at them and watched the skunks drag the peels away. They meowed like cats with sore throats.

   They didn’t know the last time they stumbled out of the Surprise House and tossed their leftovers away as they walked to the arch and Eva’s convertible that it was the last closing time at Euclid Beach Park. They didn’t know Eva was going to leave soon and not come back, either

   She and Nick 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, for Christ’s sake.” 

   But Eva 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. 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 over dinner and late at night when the Sammy and Agnes were supposed to be asleep. One night they had an argument in the living room because Eva 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 Nick and Eva had first met. He was a friendly man with a black beard and slicked-back thinning black hair. His wife wore purple turtlenecks and always took Agnes’s hand when she saw her backstage.

   “Nothing went on,” Eva 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?” Nick went to the movies sometimes, but he didn’t go to theaters anymore. That was all over. 

   He thought Eva had done something behind his back. He didn’t say what, although Sammy and Agnes could tell from his face it must have been wrong. When Eva went into the kitchen Nick followed her. 

   She stepped into the hall and went up the stairs. They could hear them in their bedroom, screaming at each other in different languages. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Eva came running down the stairs out the front door and to Anna MacAulay’s house. Nick came downstairs after she was gone and told them 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 spiked shoes.

   When they went upstairs, they looked into their parent’s bedroom and saw a hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. They found out later Nick had thrown it at Eva but missed. It lay on the floor until the next day when Eva came home. She cleaned up the dinner table, did the dishes, and put the potato masher away. Agnes liked that about her mom, keeping the cleanest house anyone ever saw. She vacuumed twice a day and they could eat off the floor if they wanted to.

   Their father said he was going to call Sears about fixing the bedroom wall, but he never did. He just left the hole to fester. Maybe it was like their marriage by then, not worth fixing. 

   Anna MacAulay came over the next day when Nick was at work. She always just walked into the house. Nick hated that. She and Eva talked for a long time. When they were done talking Eva packed her bags.

   Looking up across the sidewalk at their house on Christmas Eve, Agnes thought she had probably known all along that her mother was going to leave her father, but back then surprises still upset her. Eva was going to marry the new man from Rochester, one way or another. There was no surprise about that. Agnes was going to do her best to help out.

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

   “You can stay summers with your grandfather’s sister in Diepholz,” her aunt Banga, Eva’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.”

   She could go to summer camp the talk of the town, not a nobody, not like the first time, when they told her to leave. Agnes knew she would keep her word. She was her favorite aunt. She was her mother’s favorite sister. Banga means “Little Wave,” washing over you but not knocking you down. 

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

   “Come on, bub,” she said, taking Sammy’s hand when he reached for hers, and they started up the icy chancy sidewalk.

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

Welcome to Sudbury

By Ed Staskus

   When Angele Jurgelaityte first saw Vytautas Staskevicius at the Nuremberg Army Hospital in Germany, he was 23 years old and out cold on his back on a surgical table underneath a white sheet. She was 19 and wearing a cotton nurse’s dress with a button-on apron. It was 1947.

   The military hospital had been built in 1937 and personally dedicated by Adolf Hitler. Just like 90 percent of Nuremberg, the city that was Hitler’s favorite and the ideological capital of the National Socialists, it had been hit hard by strategic bombing. One night more than 500 British Lancasters carpet bombed the city and the six-story central section of the hospital was severely damaged.

   By the time Angele and Vytas met it had been taken over and re-built by the United States Army.

   He was living in a refugee camp near Hanau, 200 kilometers north of Nuremberg, and Angele was a nurse trainee at the Army Hospital. She shared a single room with a bath down the hall in an adjoining building with three other young women. They were officially known as displaced persons, displaced from Lithuania, which had first been annexed by the Russians in 1940, then invaded by the Germans in 1941, and finally re-occupied by the Russians during the Baltic Offensive of 1944.

   They both fled Lithuania like jumping out of a window. He was jump started by a truck-full of Wehrmacht soldiers, stationed at a Russian prisoner-of-war camp nearby, who stopped at his farm and told him he had five minutes to decide whether or not to come with them as they retreated from the rapidly advancing Red Army.

   “I was born in Siauliai. My father was the Director of the Department of Citizen Protection there. He was in charge of the police, and the police chief,” he said. “We had a farm, too, in Dainai. It was a model farm. We had all the newest tools, cutting and sowing implements. Excursions would come to our farm from all over the country.”

   Angele woke up the same morning while babysitting her aunt’s kids to find the family hitching their horse to a cart, tossing in rucksacks, clothes, a small trunk of valuables, tying the family cow to the back of it, and hurriedly jumping in. They trudged away, one grown-up and five children.

   “I was from Suvalkija, in the southwest, from the farm of Gizai, five kilometers from Marijampole. My family was all still there, but I couldn’t go back, so I went with my aunt. There wasn’t anything else I could do. On the way we had to sell the cow and jump into ditches when planes bombed us.”

   She never saw her parents again and only re-united with any of her family more than forty years later.

   Vytas lost his parents to political persecution as the Nazis and Communists traded ideological blows, and Angele lost her parents to the vagaries of a world war, and both were then cut off from what remained of their families and homes by what was fast becoming the Iron Curtain.

   “The Communists took my father in 1940 because he was a government official,” Vytas said. “They took him in the summer just as he was, with only the shirt on his back and wearing sandals. Later the mass deportations started, and my mother was arrested. She spent fifteen years in Siberia and when she was released after Stalin’s death she wasn’t allowed to return to Siauliai. My father was sent to Krasnojarsk and starved to death in a labor camp there in 1942.”

   Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of short stories in history, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia.

   Three years after fleeing Lithuania they were both in central Bavaria, biding time, like almost 10 million other Eastern Europeans who had decamped to Germany in 1944 and 1945.

   Vytas severely injured his right hand in a hay mower accident in 1942, when he was 18 years-old and had to take over the operation of the family farm. He was at the Nuremberg hospital for a series of what would be mostly successful operations to restore the use of the hand to him.

   “In 1940 in Siauliai the mood was very bad,” he said. “We felt that something terrible was going to happen. When my parents were sent to Siberia, I had to maintain the family farm. I was on a horse drawn mower cutting hay when I saw that rain was coming, so I jumped down and walked with the horses so they would pull the mower faster. As we went, I tripped and fell down right on the blades.”

   The horses stopped. It started raining. Blood gushed from his arm.

   “My hand was almost cut off. The farmhand who was helping me ran over, and seeing my injured hand, passed out.”

   One of Angele’s roommates told her there was a new arrival, teasing her that he was a young and good-looking man from Lithuania, but it wasn’t until she was transferred to the bone section of the hospital that she met him. When she finally saw him, he was in an operating theater, having a small part of a bone taken from his leg and put into his hand.

   She saw him every day for the next three months on her rounds as he recovered, now fully conscious, and more than ever conscious of her. “She took care of me,” he said, while she remembers that, “It felt so right to be with that guy.” As winter gave way to spring, they began to take walks on the hospital grounds, and in the nearby wooded parks, and then into Nuremberg to the zoo and downtown to watch American movies.

   He was eventually discharged and went back to Hanau, where he gave up black-marketing cigarettes and chocolate he was liberating from troops in the American Zone and found work as a bookkeeper for the International Refugee Organization. They stayed in touch. In the middle of the year, he returned to Nuremberg for more surgery, staying two months as he recovered, as well as romancing Angele with long walks and talks. When he went back to Hanau, they continued to write one another, dating by mail, like people had done in an earlier age.

   By 1948 Europe’s refugee camps were rapidly emptying as people left for Canada, Australia, the United States, or anywhere they could get a visa and a fresh start. “No one knew where they would end up,” Angele said. “You couldn’t go home and there was no future in Germany. We had nothing and there were no opportunities.”

   She chose to go to Canada, sponsored by a French-Canadian family in Sudbury, Ontario, to be an au pair for their expansive brood. She sailed in December 1948, and after landing wrote Vytas about where she was.

   He already had papers allowing him to enter the United States, papers that had been hard to get. He had an uncle and friends there and was tempted by the prospect. His best friend wanted to emigrate to Australia and suggested they go together. He debated with himself about what to do. Angele won the debate. In January 1949 he wrote her a letter and proposed he come to Canada, they get married, start a family, and try the hands at a chicken farm, since they had both grown up on farms. She knew how to get dinner started by breaking their necks, since that had been one of her chores.

   Two months later he got her return letter and started searching for a way to get to Canada, rather than the United States. Almost 4000 miles away in Sudbury, but on almost the same latitude as Hanau, Angele was sure she had made the right decision.

   “He wasn’t a lady killer and I liked that,” she said. “He was a steady man. And he was interesting. I didn’t want a boring man. He was the right guy for me.”

   Once Vytas secured permission to go to Canada, he took a train to Bremen in northwestern Germany, but couldn’t get a boat, passing the time in a boarding house in the Altstadt. After several more dead ends he found himself traveling back through Bavaria, across the Alps, and south of Rome to Naples. He waited for three weeks, living on espressos and cheap Neapolitan pizzas, and finally managed to secure a berth on a boat going to Nova Scotia.

   “There were millions of us trying to get out of Europe,” he said.

   He arrived in Sudbury after a two-day train ride from Halifax early on the morning of September 7, 1949, with the clothes on his back, five dollars in American money in his wallet, and a small suitcase more empty than full. When no one met him at the train station he asked a policeman for directions to Angele’s address on Pine Street. He walked the three miles from the Canada Pacific terminal to her doorstep.

   He found the house, stepped up to the door, and knocked. “What are you doing here,” she asked opening the door, wiping her wet hands on a kitchen towel, surprised to see him. She hadn’t been expecting him until the next day, September 8th.

   Standing on the steps, looking up at her, nonplussed, he said, “I came to marry you.”

   The next day he moved into a nearby one-room apartment, sharing it with another man for the next two weeks. There was only one bed, but he worked during the day and slept at night, while the other man worked at night and slept during the day.

   His first job in Sudbury was making cement cinder blocks for the LaPalme Cement Works, owned and operated by the large family for whom Angele was the domestic. The day after his initiation into cement-making he appeared again at her door and told her he ached from tip-to-toe and was going back to Germany. “Save your breath to cool your soup,” she said. She gave him a back rub and sent him back to the cement factory.

   They were married two weeks later, on a Saturday, on a sunny day in what was usually an overcast month, in a ceremony presided over by two Catholic priests, one French-speaking and the other Lithuanian-speaking. The following afternoon they went on a picnic and took a room at the Coulson Hotel for their honeymoon. The hotel was John D’Arcy Coulson’s, a Sudbury native who played one year in the NHL for the Philadelphia Quakers, scoring no goals but ranking third in the league in penalty minutes.

   Neither Vytas nor Angele spent a minute in the penalty box that night.

   Monday morning both of them went back to work. Within a year they bought a house on Stanley Street and started a family, but set aside their plans for a chicken farm, since Sudbury’s landscape was more suited to rock collecting than farming. Vytas went to work in the city’s vast network of mines, judging the work easier than cement making. It wasn’t, at first, but he eventually rose in the ranks, driving underground loaders and ore trains.

   “I worked in the nickel mines for seven years, 3300 hundred feet underground,” he said. “There were many Lithuanians working in Canada. Some cut down forests, which was very hard, and some worked in the mines, which was dangerous. I started by laying track for the trains that carried the rocks, but later I got an easier job driving the tractors.”

   Angele became her own au pair within a couple of years, at the end of the day raising three children. In 1957 they left Sudbury behind and went to the United States, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where they lived together for the next fifty years.

   “Most of the Lithuanians we knew in Sudbury started looking for better work.” There was only so far up they could go in the company town. “Many of us left for Montreal, Toronto, and south of the border. We all started to go our separate ways. As soon as our turn came up to go to the United States, Angele and I started getting ready.”

   He earned a degree in accounting from Case Western Reserve University. They bought their first home. He got a good job with TRW and helped found Cleveland’s Lithuanian Credit Union in the early 1980s.

   In 1979, after almost four decades, he saw his mother again.

   “It was the first time I went to Lithuania. She was living in Silute, and we tried to travel there secretly, but were caught in Ukmerge and told to return to Vilnius. The next day I got permission to go for one day and I was able to get a car. I visited my mother and we spent three hours together.”

   Angele and Vytas went back to Sudbury several times to visit their sponsors.  They went to Lithuania after the country’s declaration of independence in 1990, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never again to the Army Hospital in Nuremberg, which had survived the war but was closed and torn down in 1994, there being no further need for it. The grounds were used to build apartments and homes for the burgeoning city. A new generation had come of age.

   “We never forgot where we met, all we had to do was close our eyes and go there’” Vytas said. “But, where we came from and where we were going, our family, home, and community, was always more important to us. Everything else was in the past. We had our own place now.”

   Home is where you hang your hayseed hat miner’s helmet accountant’s visor and foul weather gear.

A version of this story appeared in Bridges Magazine.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Bad Man on Vinegar Hill

By Ed Staskus

Egidijus and Rokas watched the ensigns, young men strutting between lieutenant and chief warrant officer, step into Connor’s Public House. The navy stood framed in the doorway, the long evening going slowly dark over their shoulders. They both wore white pants, a white shirt over a white t-shirt, a white belt, and a white cap with a black bill. They wore black shoes. There was a single gold bar on their shoulder boards.

“Hey, shut that door, you live in a barn,” someone shouted.

In the next minute, their eyes spotting primetime, they took stools on both sides of a curvy redhead at the bar. They each gave her a smile. She looked them over sparingly scornfully.

“Drift,” she said to the one on her left.

“We just want to buy you a drink,” the one on the other side of her said.

“You, too,” she said.

“Butterbar boys,” said Egidijus. “Nieku nezino.”

“Yeah, they probably do the dishes in the guardhouse,” said Rokas.

“As close to water as they’re going to get,” Giles said.

Egidijus became Giles the minute he landed on Ellis Island.

Sam Ellis never meant his island to be a welcoming place, unless it was the last welcome. Before the first immigrant ever landed there, it was where criminals and pirates were hung. New Yorkers called it Gibbet island, for the wooden hanging post where the dead were left on display as a warning to others.

“She’s got a classy chassis, though,” said Rocky, eyeing the redhead. “Our man is not going to like us snatching him, ruining his night in more ways than one.”

Rokas had been in line behind Egidijus and became Rocky on the spot.

A longshoreman walked in, glanced at the sailors, and parked himself midway down the bar. The bartender poured a draft without asking. The longshoreman took a swig.

“Did you say something to that guy I just saw outside?” he asked the bartender.

“The guy with the feather in his hat?”

“Yeah, that one, who said this joint stinks.”

“That one comes in, wants a glass of water, and asks me what the quickest way is to Mount Kisco,” said the bartender. “I ask him if he’s walking, or does he have a car? He says, of course I have a car. So, I tell him, that would be the quickest way.”

“He was chunky about it, that’s sure. Hey, isn’t that Ratso’s girl?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t she tell them the gate is closed?”

“Yeah, but they didn’t give it any mind.”

“Oh boy, they don’t know from nothing.”

“Keep your head chicky,” said the bartender, tapping his temple with two fingers.

“You said it, brother.”

The Public House was on the corner of Pearl Street and Plymouth Street. The Manhattan Bridge over the East River was a stone’s throw away. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was a cannon shot away. The new Con Edison Hudson Avenue substation, north of John Street facing the river between Jay Street and the Navy Yard, was a light switch away.

“Did you see the game on TV Friday?” asked Giles.

“The TV’s were working, and I saw the problem in black and white,” said Rocky. “No matter that Mickey is going to win the Triple Crown, no matter how many runs they score, if they keep giving up a dozen, they is not going anywhere in October, no matter who they play.”

The Yankees had been in Boston for the weekend, for their last season series at Fenway Park. On Friday night Mickey Mantle hit a home run that tape measured more than five hundred feet. The Bronx Bombers, though, set a dubious club record by stranding twenty runners on base.

The Mick had three hits. Bill Skowron had five hits. The only time the Moose failed to reach base was when Ted Williams made an all-out running diving catch of a screaming line drive in left field.

“He was running like a bunny with his tail on fire,” said Red Barber, after the outfielder got up, checking all his parts.

Yogi Berra threw a man out at the plate. Mickey Mantle threw a man out at the plate. The Yankees crossed the plate plenty enough themselves. But the Red Sox still beat the Yankees, sending almost twice as many runners safely across the plate, 13-7 at the final count.

Mel Allen and Red Barber called the night game on WPIX, the station’s transmitter on top of the Empire State Building spreading the play-by-play out to the five boroughs. The next morning it would be Officer Joe’s turn. The year before weather forecaster Joe Bolton had put on a policeman’s uniform and started hosting shows based around the Little Rascals and Three Stooges. The kids loved Officer Joe’s taste in comedy.

“That ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne!” Mel Allen blared when Mickey Mantle hit his soaring blast. “It’s got to be one of the longest home runs I’ve ever seen! How about that!”

Rocky watched the game at the Public House, on Friday night two nights earlier, at the far end of the bar, where one of the bar’s two RCA Victor portable TV’s squinted down on him from high up on the wall.

“Did you say something?” one of the sailors said, turning to Giles and Rocky in the booth opposite them.

“Hello there everybody,” Mel Allen said to start the televised live baseball game broadcast.

“This is Red Barber speaking,” said Red Barber. “Let me say hello to you all. Mel and I are here in the catbird seats.”

“Three and two. What’ll he do?” Mel asked as the game neared its end and the last Yankee hitter squared up in the batter’s box.

“He took a good cut!” he exclaimed when the pinstriped slugger struck out to finish the game. “Tonight’s game was yet another reminder that baseball is dull only to dull minds,” said Red. “Signing off for WPIX, this is Red Barber and Mel Allen.”

“Hey, you, did you say something about washing dishes?” the sailor said again, standing up, his friend standing up, too, and Ratso Moretti in the meantime walking down the length of the bar from the men’s room towards them, having spotted the sailors buzzing his queen bee.

The redhead swung her stool around to the bar, crossed her legs, and played with the swivel stick lolling in her gin martini glass.

“Who the fuck are you two rags?” Ratso barked at the sailors, glaring up at them from under the brim of his black felt pork pie hat, baring his sharp front teeth. “Why are you sitting with my lady?”

Giles and Rocky leaned back on their seat cushions, their backs against the wall. Rocky stretched his legs out. Giles popped a toothpick into his mouth.

“What do you plan on doing about it, little man?” asked the bigger of the two sailors. Ratso was short. The sailors were both tall.

Ratso took one step back, reached down for his fly, unzipped it, and flashed the handle of a Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special revolver. It was the kind of gun carried by plainclothes and off-duty policemen. He kept his hand on the gun while looking straight at the two sailors.

“Hit the road, Clyde,” he said. “You, too, whatever your name is.”

The sailors backed down and backed out of the bar.  Nobody paid any attention, everybody focused on the back-out out of the corner of their eyes. When the white uniforms were gone, and he had zipped back up, Ratso sat down next to his squeeze and wrapped his arm around her waist.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” said Rocky.

“At least now we know where he hides it,” said Giles.

Bartek and Karol were at the far end of the bar. They didn’t want anything to happen just right now. They wanted Ratso Moretti to stay snug with his girl, drinking on an empty stomach, stretching the night out. There were four of them and only one of him, but he was a psycho crazy man. Karol knew it for sure, and told the others, and it was the number one thing, he said, they had to remember. There was no sense in letting it go down the drain.

“Did you find a plumber this morning?” Rocky asked Giles.

“No, because not only does God rest on Sundays, so do all the plumbers in Brooklyn.”

“What did you do?

“I fixed it myself.”

One of the toilets in the women’s bathroom in the parish hall next door to St. George’s Church on York Street sprang a leak after mass. The Lithuanian Roman Catholic congregation was around the corner from the Irish Roman Catholic St. Ann’s Church on the corner of Front and Gold Streets. Lithuanians made up more than half of everybody who now lived in Vinegar Hill, but they had never been embraced by the Irish and their church, so they built their own.

St. George’s had three arched doorways, three arched second-story window assemblages, and a stepped façade with a cross on top. It looked first-class when the sun was shining on it. It looked first-class at midnight in a thunderstorm.

“What was the problem?”

The parish priest dragooned Giles on his way out of the parish hall.

“Prasome, galite padeti?” asked the priest.

“The wax ring, that’s all it was.”

“Where did you find a wax ring on a Sunday?”

“My old man. He’s always loaded for bear.”

“Did you miss breakfast?”

“No, mom warmed it back up for me, fried some more eggs, fresh coffee, and a torte.”

When Ratso Moretti hopped off his bar stool, and his girl slid off hers, and they walked out the front door, Karol and Bartek went out the back door, Giles and Rocky following Ratso out the front.

“Goddamn it!” Ratso cursed turning the corner into the quiet side street next to the Public House where he had parked his new car. He looked down at the driver’s side front tire Karol had flattened with his switchblade before going inside.

“Motherfucker!”

“What’s the matter mister?” asked Giles.

“Flat tire,” said Ratso.

He recognized the young man and the other one from the bar.

“Need a hand?”

“I’ve got all the hands I need,” said Ratso.

“Suit yourself.”

Giles fired up a cigarette, watching and waiting. Rocky leaned against a lamp pole. Ratso opened the trunk of the car, looking over his shoulder at them, and hunched at the tire to loosen the lug nuts.

“This ain’t a show,” he said.

“It is to us.”

“Suit yourself.”

When Ratso struggled with the last stubborn lug nut, Giles flicked his still lit cigarette butt at the redhead, who was standing in space, bouncing it off her midriff. She squealed in outrage, Ratso twisted toward her, and Giles, Rocky, Karol, and Bartek rushed him, two from the front and two from the back.

As Ratso started to stand up, Karol kicked him as hard as he could in the groin, the holstered gun Ratso trying to reach adding insult to injury. He doubled over, grabbed his stomach, fell over, and lay on the ground in a fetal position. His eyes ran rainwater and he threw up.

Bartek threw a muslin cloth bag over Ratso’s head and tightened the drawstring. Karol tied his hands behind his back with clothesline. Bartek reached into Ratso’s pants and pulled out the holster with the small revolver. He went to the passenger side front door and tossed the holster and gun into the glove box of the Chevy.

While Giles and Rocky hauled Ratso to Karol’s hunk of junk behind the Public House, Bartek turned to the redhead.

“Vamoose,” he said sharply. “And keep your mouth shut, or we’ll take you next.”

She backed away, smoothed her skirt, gave him a smile, cute cunning snaky light on her feet, and walked back into the Public House.

“Durna mergaite,” Giles said.

“Yeah, but steamy,” Rocky said.

“Going to be a hell-wife.”

At the mouth of the intersection they heard a bullhorn, “Get your hot knishes, I got to send my wife to the Catskills, get your knishes.”

The truck was light blue dented and dirty. It was three-wheeled, a cab pulling a cart, with a Saint Bernard-sized pretzel on top. A sign on the side said, “Hot knishes & pretzels, 10 cents, 3 for $.25.”

“Hey, what kind of knishes do you have?

“I have kasha or potato.”

“I’ll take three potato.”

“Sorry, all I have is kasha.”

There was a tin saltshaker tied by a string to the cart. The pastry was hot with buckwheat groats inside. The brown bag the street vendor put them into instantly became saturated with enough oil to deep fry three more knishes. He poured in a handful of salt.

“You’re out of your neighborhood, working late,” Giles said.

“It’s my wife,” the Jew said.

Giles and Rocky both got bottles of cold Orange Crush.

“Thanks, boys, we’ll settle up tomorrow,” said Karol when Ratso was safe and sound in the trunk, his feet tied together and hogged to his bound wrists so that he lay like a sad sack of potatoes on his side, still groaning.

Giles touched his forefinger to his thumb and pointed the remaining three fingers of his right hand straight up.

Karol and Bartek drove to Sunset Park, turned onto 53rd Street at 3rd Avenue, and finally pulled into and parked behind a three-story abandoned brick building. On the side of the building a painted billboard advertising “R. Moses & Son, Men’s Clothes” was fading away. The storefront’s windows were boarded up and the other windows on every floor were dark.

They manhandled Ratso through a back door and into a small featureless room. A table lamp on the floor tried to make sense of the dark with a 40-watt bulb. Stan was standing in a corner in the shadows smoking a cigarette. They dropped Ratso on the floor. Bartek stood sentry at the door.

“Let him loose, except for his hands,” said Stan.

Karol untied Ratso’s feet, yanked the bag off his head, and moved back to stand next to Bartek. Stan stayed where he was, in the gloom. Ratso stayed where he was, too. He felt better, but he still felt horrible. He had a weird stomachache.

“Tell me about Jackson Pollack,” said Stan.

“I don’t know no Polacks,” said Ratso.

“You know us now,” Karol said under his breath.

“Not Polacks. I said Pollack, as in Jackson Pollack, the painter.”

“I don’t know no painters.”

“Why did you jump my associate the other night?”

“I don’t know no associates. Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

“I don’t know how your sack is feeling, but if it was me, I wouldn’t want it to happen again, especially not now, not so soon,” said Stan.

“What do you want?”

“What were you doing in the middle of the night outside the shrink’s office? Why did you jump my man? What does Jackson Pollack have to do with Big Paulie?”

“You’re a dead man when Luca finds out about this,” Ratso said, terse vehement.

Stan stepped forward, bent down, and framed an inch with his fingers in Ratso’s red face.

“You’re this close to being a dead man,” he said.

He aimed a kick at Ratso’s nuts. The little man rolled over in a flash. Stan kicked him in the side, aiming for his kidney. Ratso gasped in pain and rage. Stan stepped over him, bent down again, nose to nose with the convulsing thug.

“You’re going to tell me what I want to know,” he said.

It didn’t take long. After Ratso Moretti ratted out Big Paulie and Park Avenue and they had hog-tied him again, Stan Rittman stopped at a phone booth on his way home, the cab driver waiting at the curb, and called the desk sergeant at the 17th Precinct. He told him where to find Ratso, told him he wanted to confess to assaulting Ezra Aronson four nights earlier, and wanted to be held in custody for his own protection.

“Does he need medical attention?” asked the sergeant.

“No, he’ll be fine, just a few bumps and bruises.”

“What do I tell the captain? Is anybody going to be looking for Morelli, trying to spring him?”

“Nobody except his bad girl knows anything, but she was a good girl the last we saw her and promised to stay quiet. Ratso’s car is just outside the Public House in Vinegar Hill. His gun is in the glove box. It’s a Chiefs Special.”

“You don’t say.”

“You might want to have that gun run up, ballistics might find it matches something.”

“OK, we’ll have a car there in five minutes-or-so.”

Ten minutes later three policemen and a plainclothes officer spilling out of two cars flash-lighted their way into the back of the building, hauled the left in the lurch Ratso Moretti out the door, untied him then handcuffed him, tossed him face first into the back of one of the radio cars, and drove him to the 17th Precinct, forcing him into a basement cell at the end of a hallway, and forgetting about him for the rest of the next week.

Thirty minutes later Stan Rittman was home in Hell’s Kitchen, in one of his two orange wingback armchairs, a bottle of Blatz on the coffee table, while Mr. Moto licked his chops on the sofa on the other side of the table. Stan took a pull on his bottle of beer and watched the cat. He thought about getting another one to keep him company, but Mr. Moto didn’t seem to mind his solitary life.

He slept and ate and slept some more. He went out on the prowl. Sometimes he sat on the fire escape, seeming to be thinking.

Mr. Moto liked Puss ’N Boots best, fish followed by chicken followed by beef followed by any other meat. He wasn’t picky. He didn’t think it did any harm to ask Stan for what he wanted, since the story of cats was the story of freeloaders. Stan kept Mr. Moto carnivorous with his poker winnings.

“Puss ‘N Boots adds the Plus!”

He wasn’t a mixed-up cat. He lived day-to-day, every day a new day, taking what came his way. He liked fresh water and food in the morning, a long nap from late morning into the late afternoon, and a clean supply of Kitty Litter when he couldn’t get down to the flowerbeds.

“Ask Kitty. She Knows. It absorbs and deodorizes. Takes the place of sand.”

Stan had stopped at Manganaro’s Grosseria Italiana, on his way home, a sandwich shop, restaurant, and grocery on 9th Avenue, for a slice of Hero-Boy. The entire six-foot hero, if you wanted it, was 22-pounds and cost $16.50. The wait staff was surly, but the sandwiches were worth the wait. He took a bite, chewed, and washed it down with his beer.

Ezra was out of the hospital. He would stop and see him tomorrow morning, tell him they had snatched Ratso, who had spilled his guts, but it still wasn’t clear what was going on. It looked like Dr. Baird had engineered Jackson Pollack’s death somehow, but why? Where was the pay-off in it? Vicki said that since Jackson Pollack had died unexpectedly, had died young, and had simply died, there weren’t going to be any more paintings by him. Since he was well known, by collectors and museums, prices for his art were going to go up.

“He was in demand, now he’s in big demand, especially the drip paintings,” she said. “But nobody kills a painter to make a profit on his art, not even in New York. It’s a long-term investment, not like kidnapping somebody for the ransom.”

He would sort it out next week. Stan finished his sandwich, finished his bottle of beer, and went to bed. Mr. Moto followed him, curling up just inches from Stan’s face, and was asleep fast faster fastest. He had never been bothered by insomnia. In the middle of the night, in the middle of a dream, he pricked up his ears.

Mr. Moto could smell a rat when he had to. When he went to the bedroom window, though, it was just a ladybug on the sill. It was red with black spots. He stretched up on his hind legs and sniffed the bug, which opened its wings, flew in circles, and landed on his nose.

“Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly away home. Your house is on fire. Your children shall burn!”

Mr. Moto believed ladybugs were lucky. He believed when a ladybug landed on you your wishes would be granted. He also believed it was unlucky to harm them. He licked the bug off his nose and spat it out through the open window. He jumped on the ledge, crouched, and watched the bug fly out into the big city.

In his jail cell at the bottom of nowhere, Ratso Morelli tried to stare down the big brown rat staring at him. The rat wasn’t having any of it. Nobody was going to stare him down in the rat homeland.

Four hours later, near the end of the night, near the onset of dawn, while a dead on his feet policeman watched, now that it was all over and the car had been searched and dusted for fingerprints, a tow truck hooked the new Chevrolet with a flat tire and dragged it off Vinegar Hill to the NYPD Tow Pound.

Photograph by Vivian Maier.

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

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and 147 Stanley Street at http://www.147stanleystreet.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Nine Months of Hebrew

By Ed Staskus

   Ruta Kazlauskas thought Mendel Arenberg was going to help her learn Hebrew, but he didn’t, not even for a minute. He was from Jerusalem, had a boat load of friends who spoke Hebrew, and they yakked it up among themselves all the time. But he never helped her, even though they lived together, and she was the designated driver who drove him to synagogues. 

   She met Mendel when he was with the Cleveland International Group. They were looking at the same dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and afterwards she gave him a ride home. Everybody in the immigrant group loved him. He asked her for her phone number. He was a cute guy, and she liked him, but found out later he had almost no patience, even though it is a Biblical virtue.

   He was from a Kurd family, was born in Haifa, and was an orthodox Jew. Ruta always thought there was something fishy about his Jewishness, though. He never talked about why he left Israel when everybody else said it was the homeland. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, but she always drove him. She dropped him off a block from whatever synagogue he was going to that day and he walked the rest of the way. 

   He didn’t want anyone to see him in a car.

   Ruta was working at Time to Travel in Beachwood when she started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood is an ethnic neighborhood on the east side and many of the people who came to the agency spoke Hebrew. She thought, maybe I should learn it. It would help me get ahead in my job. Mendel and I would have something in common, other than going out and making out. 

   Sami and Simcha Fetterman encouraged her. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted Ruta to guide tours to Israel. What could be better, they whispered to one another, hacking and spitting in their trash cans.

   They were sisters and both of them were fat. They were always at the head of the food line. Simcha worked hard, but Sami didn’t, since she had Simcha. Sami fell asleep at her desk every day, her head lolling on her triple chins. They both smoked cigarettes all day long, stinking up the office, like it was the most important thing to stick in the mouths, next to the chuck wagon. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back. They weren’t even planning on visiting.

   Although Ruta wasn’t Jewish and only knew a handful of Hebrew words, she spoke Lithuanian fluently and some German. I’m pretty good with languages, she thought. She used to be a schoolteacher and was sure she could learn. At least she thought so until she tried. “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she admitted. It was like having grown up speaking ghetto hillbilly and trying to learn Chinese and Hungarian both at once. 

    Simcha told her about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 10 minutes from where she and Mendel lived. Classes were at night, twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock. She made sure to get there early her first night, but everybody was already in the classroom.

   When the teacher walked in, Ruta could barely see her, she was so short, maybe five feet tall. She had dark hair and was from Yemen. The first thing she said was, “Yemenite Jews are the most Jewish of all Jews. Be glad I am your teacher.”

   Her name was Ayala Shabazi. She handed notebooks out with the Hebrew alphabet to everyone. She started speaking in Hebrew, too, right away, and never went back to English unless she absolutely had to. 

   She was all business.

   “Let’s go,” she said at the start of every class.  Everyone had to stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to business.

   Ruta’s biggest fear was Ayala calling on her. I would have to speak in front of everyone, she mumbled to herself. She tried to keep her nose buried in her notebook, scribbling notes. She tried to keep her head down.

   Everybody in the class was Jewish, except for her. Everybody had to tell everybody else their names the first day of class, Esther, Joshua, Miriam, Daniel, Alexander. One man’s name was Gilead, which Alaya explained means mound of testimony, although she never explained what mound of testimony meant. 

   All the class called him Gil, although one wise guy called him Mound of Gil, because he was heavyset.

   “Oh, my name’s Ruta,” she said hesitating when it was her turn. Right away somebody asked her, “What’s your Hebrew name?” She wanted to say, “What the hell, I’m not even Jewish,” but said, “My family calls me Ugne.” Ugnele was her middle name. It meant fire.

   Ayala asked questions in Hebrew, and when everyone around her answered in Hebrew, she realized they all knew at least some of the language, while she knew nothing. It was a beginner’s class, but she was as far back from the starting line as could be. When Ayala found out Ruta didn’t know anything, she devoted a little more time to her. 

   Ruta couldn’t make out the strange alphabet, and on top of that the writing was backwards. When the teacher spoke, it sounded like she was clearing her throat. She decided she wouldn’t be able to make those sounds. I’m not coming back, she decided. But two days later she was back. She told herself, I am taking the class for work’s sake. I want to travel overseas. I don’t want to admit to Mendel I am quitting after one night.

   She ended up taking the course from beginning to end, nine months of Hebrew. 

   Every symbol of the alphabet has to be memorized back to front and back. She tried, but it was her hoodoo for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the black board she wrote down in her notebook. She wrote sentences first in English and then in Hebrew. She wrote her middle name until she got it right. 

   She wrote, “We have three children in our family, two boys and one girl,” and then she wrote it in Hebrew, over and over.

  The Pilgrims, when they landed in America, for a few minutes thought of making Hebrew the national language. It didn’t matter that it was the New World, not the Old World. But, there’s no word in Hebrew for history, so Hebrew became history.

   The classroom across the hall was a conversion class. Everybody in the class was somebody converting to being Jewish. Ruta’s classmates craned their necks, a sour look on their faces, to see them going in the door. They didn’t like it, at all.

   “Oh, they’ll never be real Jews, those non-Jews trying to be Jewish.” they said.  

   “Take a look at that shiksa,” a skinny man sneered.

   Ruta thought everyone believed her mother was Jewish, although she didn’t know why. She had shoulder-length blonde hair. I don’t look Jewish, she thought, but if you say that in front of Jews, they’ll say, “What? There are plenty of blondes in Israel.” 

   Bruno Conte, who was the gay Italian travel agent in the office, and she were talking about the Jewish look one afternoon when someone walked in and she said, “Tell me he doesn’t look Jewish.”

   She said it too loud. Everybody heard her. Sami and Simcha put down their cigarettes. Shlomit the secretary looked up from her typewriter. It just came out. Most people who came to the agency were Jewish, so it wasn’t any surprise, but this man looked like Barbara Streisand.  

   Bruno and she were outsiders because almost everyone else in the office and building and neighborhood was Jewish. Sami and Simcha would sometimes say, “I don’t know why Christians don’t like Jews.” They made it sound like Christians were a crazy clan. They made it sound like being Jewish was God’s big plan.

   The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the heavyweight. Everybody in Ruta’s class was talking about it. One of them asked her, “What synagogue do you go to?”

   Most of the class lived on the east side, including her. She lived in Cleveland Heights just up the hill from Little Italy. Ruta thought, “Oh, Christ,” there are a lot of small ones, but they’re all ultra-orthodox. She didn’t want to look overly conservative. When she drove to work, she passed the big Sinai Synagogue, so she said, “SInai.” 

   It turned out it was ultra-orthodox.   

   Everybody was good with that, even though Ruta didn’t wear a wig or have a real Hebrew name. She decided she had to go to the Sinai Synagogue to see it. The men were all downstairs and the women upstairs, on a balcony, segregated. She took the stairs. It looked like most of the women were wearing wigs. She never went back.

   Her classmates knew she lived with Mendel. He would drop her off at school and pick her up afterwards. He was OK with her saying she was orthodox. Since everyone thought she was Jewish she had to start being crafty. She ran into them where she lived and worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the little plaza beside Time to Travel, where she went to lunch every day.

  An old woman with a scratchy voice, the mother of someone she sat next to in class, called her one evening. It was a week before Christmas. It was the day before the last day of Hanukkah.

   “What did you do today?” she asked.

   “I just finished all my shopping,” Ruta said. She almost said Christmas shopping, but caught herself. Her family celebrated Kucius, the Lithuanian Christmas Eve.

   “But it’s the last day of Hanukkah tomorrow,” she said.  

   “In my family that’s how we do it, we do everything the last minute,” Ruta explained. “I’m not breaking tradition. Oh, I bought some donuts, too.” Someone had told her to say donuts if she ever felt she was being called out.

   “Oh, I see,” the Jewish woman said.

   Ruta was never certain whether or not she was getting a good grasp on Hebrew. After every class she thought, I’m never going back. One night she finally didn’t go. She couldn’t bring herself to it. That night Alaya called her at 11 o’clock, just as she was going to bed. 

   “Why weren’t you in class?” she asked. 

   Ruta wanted to tell her, “You should be asking me why I go, not why I didn’t go this one time.” But she told her because of the holiday coming up, she had to clean her cupboards, getting rid of all the yeast invading the kitchen.

   If you’re ultra-orthodox you have to remove any yeast you have in the house, sweep away crumbs, look under cushions for moldy donuts, remove every trace. Most of the people in class were reformed Jews and didn’t take it too seriously, but because she had mistakenly made everyone believe she was more conservative than them, she was expected to be serious about ritual.

   “It never was my intention to say I was Jewish, but a good time to admit it never came up,” she explained to Mendel. What was worse, she was Catholic. That side of her didn’t like Jews. The Lithuanian side of her didn’t like Jews, either. She kept her peace of mind by doing yoga and breathing exercises.

   After Alaya called her, Ruta had to meet her teacher on Sunday morning, just the two of them, to make up the class. It was impossible to keep her head down with her teacher breathing down her neck. Alaya told her she was making progress. It made her glad.

   Mendel’s brother Baruch from Israel visited them for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to Ruta in Hebrew, helping her get the feel of it. It sounded something between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped her more in a few days than Mendel ever did.

   Since his brother was visiting, the two men went to services together on Fridays, dressed up in business casual. Mendel turned off all the lights in the apartment when they went, walking to the synagogue. He had never done that before. He even unscrewed the light bulb in the refrigerator. When they left, they left Ruta sitting alone in the half-gloom.

   At the end of the class Ruta got a B, even though she more-or-less staggered through it like wandering in the desert. Her reading and writing were sketchy, but by graduation time she spoke the language tolerably well. Even still, she was glad when it was all over.

  She started taking Time to Travel tours to Israel soon after. Sami and Simcha saw her off at Hopkins Airport. They waved goodbye with their Virginia Slims, their hands smoky, their flat feet achy.

   Ruta stayed with Mendel’s mother the first time she was in Jerusalem. Baruch still lived with his mother and he took her to a wedding. He told her how to dress for it. “Wear a black dress.” Ruta wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other. After the ceremony she sat at a table with women who passed around platters of food. 

   They were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of it too fast for her. All the men wore black hats and were having a great time, drinking, singing, and dancing, sweating up a storm, their hats bobbing up and down on the other side of the wall. 

  The groom wouldn’t say a word to her when she tried to talk to him. He and his bride didn’t dance together, at all. Ruta danced with some of the other women.

   The more often she went to Israel the better her Hebrew got. One day she was walking around Jerusalem by herself, sight-seeing the way she liked it. A young man with red hair wearing a yarmulke asked her something as he was passing by.

   “What?” she asked.

   “Do you know where Jaffa Road is?” he repeated.

   Her tour group was staying in a hotel on Ben Yehud Street exactly where it met Jaffa Road.

   She pointed over her shoulder.

   “It’s over there,” she said in spotless throat-clearing Hebrew.

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

Circle the Wagons

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “I’ll take him,” he said.

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

   “That’s OK, I’m good with mixes.”

   “What about his tail?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the Waves

ShipToFreedom-800x611.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

Even if it is a 500-foot long 12-thousand-ton carrier like the S.S. Marine Flasher, sailing the North Sea in late November is sailing that sea at the wrong time of the year. Daytime temperatures average less than 50 degrees and it is water-logged gloomy foggy. If it’s not raining, it will start raining soon. Sometimes it is so foggy that ships have to slow to less than 5 knots with horns blaring.

It is hurricane season through November. There are about seven hours of daylight. Windy skies and strong sea swells make plowing through the cold water like trying to break through waves of lumpy mashed potatoes.

“I was on the boat for nine days and I was sick for nine days,” said Angele Jurgelaityte about her crossing from Hamburg, Germany, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the Marine Flasher, converted from a troop ship to hauling DP’s. Not only were big waves breaking over the sides of the ship, in the aftermath of the war, hundreds of thousands of tons of chemical weapons had been disposed of by being dumped in the North Sea.

“The ocean didn’t leave a good impression on me. Whenever we threw up, we called it Going to Riga.”

What they meant was that the water flows north, so when they threw up over the side, the vomit was swept north up the Baltic Sea past Poland and Lithuania to the mouth of the Daugava River, where Riga, Latvia is.

The Marine Flasher was built at the Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, Washington. She was launched for the United States Maritime Commission in May 1945. The ship sailed to San Francisco, Okinawa, Korea and returned to Seattle. The next year the Marine Flasher sailed to New York City and from there to Bremen. For the next three years she ferried refugees from Europe to North America, by way of Canada and New York City, and then went back to Germany.

Angele shoved off German European Old World land for good on November 17, 1948. The next day ration scales for IRO refugees became uniform in the British, French, and American zones. It didn’t matter to her anymore. She ate better on the boat, no matter the seasickness, than she had in a long time.

“There was a canteen on board, and we all got two dollars a day,” she said. “The food was very good. We ate well.”

There were widespread food shortages in Germany immediately following the end of the war. The supply of food was impacted by the prolonged warfare, including the destruction of farmland, silos and barns, livestock, and machinery. Many Germans were forced to live on less than 1,500 calories a day. The average adult calorie intake in the United States at the time was more than 3,000 and in the overseas U.S. Army more than 4,000.

The civilian population suffered hard times during the severe winter of 1946 – 47, exacerbated by shortages of fuel for heating. Displaced persons got more generous rations, supplied by the Army, the UN, and relief agencies, but even they averaged less than 2,000 calories a day.

There were 535 refugees bound for Canada on board the Marine Flasher. There were almost 3,000 more bound for the United States, men women children baby carriages. They steamed into Halifax the afternoon of November 26 and spent the night on the boat, tied up at Pier 21. Angele hadn’t been able to get into the United States, but she had been able to get to the next best place, Canada.

She wasn’t stuck behind the Iron Curtain, she wasn’t stuck in Nuremberg, and a two days later she boarded a train for Montreal. It took all day and all night and part of the next day to get there, but she wasn’t stuck on it going nowhere.

“It was almost 30 hours, but the train was comfortable, with beds,” she said.

When they arrived, everyone designated as a nanny or a domestic were segregated.

“Those who already had sponsors left. The rest of us, about a hundred of us, boarded busses and they took us to a camp.” They were housed two to a room and interviewed. “They wanted to know what we had been doing in Germany.”

They had to fill out one form after another.

One of her roommates at the Army Hospital in Nuremberg had emigrated to Canada a few months earlier. She was working and living in London, Ontario. It is in southwestern Ontario, just north of Lake Erie. The city is a hub for education and healthcare. There are parks and greenways where it lays along the Thames River.

It was a military center during the first and second wars, but the wars were finally over.

“Ele wrote me that I should ask to go to London, or second best, Toronto,” Angele said. “I started thinking I would join her in London. When I filled out the forms that they gave me I wrote down where she was and that I wanted to go there.”

Three days later she was presented with a Canadian visitor visa and found out where she was going. She knew she was on the list for the Lapalme family. She hoped she wasn’t going there. An official gave her their address in Sudbury, Ontario. They were Florence and J. A. Lapalme, a prominent family in the mining town. They were known as “The Largest Family in Sudbury.” Their children numbered fourteen, although Angele would only be responsible for five of them. Since she had worked in the Children’s Ward at the Army Hospital in Nuremberg, she was seen as the kind of nanny capable of caring for multiple boys and girls.

“They were so young,” she said. “The youngest was nine months and the oldest was only 7 years old.” Francois was the youngest, Aline the oldest, Gilles Muriel and Marcel in the middle.

The domestic who cleaned and helped in the kitchen was Lucille Pharand. She worked in several big houses. Lucille was well known as a hard worker, built like a fireplug, and for her blueberry pies.

In the spring 1949 she and her husband Leo built a home in in the new town of Minnow Lake, three miles from Sudbury. The first few years there was no indoor water and there were no sewer lines to the house. Leo drove to the nearby lake every day with a neighbor, carrying a tub and pails, where they collected water for dishes, laundry, and bathing. They got their drinking water from a well a couple of houses away.

In time Leo and Lucille gave the Lapalme’s a run for their money, making a large family for themselves of ten children.

“I asked again to go to London, but again they said no,” Angele said. “They said nobody was going there.” She wasn’t sure if it was true or if they were just telling her that. In the end not a single refugee went to London or Toronto.

“But I couldn’t complain.”

There wasn’t anybody to explain and complain to, nobody who was going to change the destination that had been determined for her. If you were a European refugee, you were going somewhere where there was work. Men punched a clock digging out ore, cutting down trees, and laying roads. Women knuckled down cleaning cooking and caring.

Angele had struck up a friendship on the Marine Flasher with two other young Lithuanian women, Inga and Laime.  Laime in Lithuanian means happy. They had their hearts set on going to Alberta. They told her there were many rich men there.

When the train reached Sudbury, Angele and six other women, all Russians, and a man, another Russian, got off the train. Everybody else, including Inga and Laime, went on to Alberta and British Columbia. Angele was the only Lithuanian on the train platform, more than four thousand miles and several languages from her home in Lithuania.

“There was no one to understand how unhappy I was.”

The end of World War Two saw the movement of people all over the world from one place to another. Between January 1946 and December 1953 over 750,000 immigrants came to Canada. In June 1947 the federal government had authorized the entry of 5,000 non-sponsored DP’s. Two years later the number had risen to 45,000. Ottawa established five mobile immigration teams composed of immigration, security, medical, and labor officials. They were sent to Austria and Germany to select refugees deemed acceptable for emigration to Canada.

Displaced people from the Baltic countries were ranked high on the list of the immigration teams. They had been in UN-run camps after their countries, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania were caught in the middle of the Russian and German battle zones. Their small countries had become independent after World War One, then occupied by the Russians in 1940, then invaded by Germany in 1941, and in 1944 overwhelmed by the Russians.

In the space of 25 years they had gone from enslaved by tyrants to enslaved by new tyrants.

“When we got off the train there were two men waiting for us,” Angele said. They helped the eight refugees sort themselves out and get to where they were going. One of them told her she was lucky to be going where she was going.

The Lapalme’s introduced themselves and their children, arranged her living quarters, and quieted her fears about there being no other Lithuanians in Sudbury They explained there were, and the next day Dr. Valaitis, a Lithuanian doctor and friend of the family, drove to the Laplame home and sat down with her, telling her there were many other Lithuanians in Sudbury.

“Some of them have been here more than two years,” he said. “They make a good living working in the mines.” He gave her the names and phone numbers of several nearby, told her about the Polish church they shared for services, and the local hall where they staged dances and folk performances.

“The kids I had to care for were so small,” Angele said. She was just 20 years old. “They spoke French among themselves and English to me.” She spoke to them more in gestures and pantomime than not at first. Angele spoke Lithuanian, German, some Russian, but less English.

“When Vytas and I were together in Nuremberg he encouraged me to learn English, but I didn’t want to. Whenever I saw him coming with his grammar book I ran away.”

Vytas Staskevicius was a young Lithuanian from Siauliai she had left behind in Nuremberg, but who she was waiting for, waiting for him to come to Canada and join her. He had fled the Baltics in 1944, like her, and been displaced in Germany, like her, for more than four years.

She started taking English classes in Sudbury right away. She wrote Vytas often, at night, pages and pages in cursive, in their native language.

“The Lapalme’s have been good to me They are Catholics and go to church every day, seven days a week. They have a food warehouse, which is their business. We eat very well, so it’s not bad in that respect.”

Florence was J. A. Laplame’s second wife. He placed ads in newspapers and hired her, a young out-of-town woman, to watch and care for his children after his first wife died. He had seven children, some of them teenagers, some not. It wasn’t long before one thing led to another and he proposed to her. He was nearly thirty years her elder, but she accepted, and over the next decade-and-some gave birth to seven children, bringing the family up to record-breaking speed in Sudbury.

“Florence does the cooking,” Angele wrote. “She has a part-time woman come and help with the cleaning and cooking, but Florence does the main cooking. There are usually eleven or twelve of us at the dinner table. She is in the basement every night doing laundry, too. I don’t clean or cook. My job is to watch the children.”

Whenever Florence was ready to deliver another baby, since her husband had several business interests and was often out of town, Florence drove herself to St. Joseph’s Hospital. “If it was close, she called a taxi,” said Angele.

Roger Lapalme, grown-up and the only one of the family who had gone farther than high school, sat next to Angele at the dinner table whenever he was at home. “Roger liked me, but Vytas was the one for me.” He was barking up the wrong tree. “He was handsome and a lawyer, but I told him I already had a boyfriend,” Angele said.

He took her motor-boating on Lake Ramsey until the day he got too enthusiastic at the helm and she fell off the boat. She told him it was enough of that.

One of the LaPalme sisters had suffered a nervous breakdown. When her boyfriend, who she expected to marry, killed someone in a car crash, she broke down. She told her father her life was over and went to work in the nickel mines. She was rarely at the house.

Vytas Staskevicius had a sponsor in the United States, an uncle in Boston, but delayed sailing there. He also stalled going to Australia with a friend of his who thought they could make passage there. He became determined to get to Canada. J. A Lapalme had already promised Angele he would give Vytas a helping hand.

“The year is ending soon,” she wrote him. “I have been here more than three weeks. When can you come?” She knew the sailing season wasn’t going to be for several more months. Her man had to break the waves. She knew it wasn’t going to be soon enough.

“Be good and write me often,” she wrote at the start of the new year.

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

The Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County

By Ed Staskus

   When Emma looked at her brother Oliver, she saw a towheaded boy about four feet tall and not even fifty pounds. He wore his hair short, ran up and down the stairs, was a slow eater, could be shy but always spoke up, and was learning how to play the piano, although he wasn’t nearly as good as she was. He was an all-American boy, half German and half Lithuanian, like her. He was also the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County. How did a first grader become that? She was in third grade, taller, bigger, and smarter. She had mastered division and multiplication. Oliver was just learning how to read and write, for goodness’ sake.

   Sometimes she thought she should be the monster hunter, not her brother’s right-hand man. She was even more unofficial than him. She wasn’t sure she liked that, although she had to live with it.

   She had to admit, though, that Oliver had nerves of steel, while she still got spooked by some of the monsters he went head-to-head with. He had taken care of Goo Goo Godzilla in less than five minutes when he was threatening the nuclear power plant in North Perry, not far from where they lived. He did it as easily as brushing a bug away.

   He got started in kindergarten chasing shadows, noises in the night, and wrestling with nightmares. Phantoms learned to beware of his reach, though. He flattened them like pancakes and tossed them out of the house like frisbees. He made his reputation the summer before first grade. There was a troll in the woods behind their house. Not behaving himself was the last mistake he made in Lake County.

   Trolls came to the USA from Scandinavia in the 18th century on sailing ships. They can be big or small, ugly and slow-witted or sneaky charming, harmless or menacing, fast-talking liars or almost like the folks next door. They live apart from others, even other trolls, preferring their own company. They are ungodly, kidnapping cats and dogs. When crossed they can be dangerous. They are afraid of lightning and church bells. Sunlight turns them to stone.

   When the neighbor’s terrier disappeared, Oliver knew he had to step up. He saw the dog every day, fed him doggie treats, and treated him like a friend. A good neighbor is somebody who can play the bagpipes but doesn’t. The troll wasn’t being a good neighbor. Oliver didn’t like it when anything messed with his friends.

   He set his clock for an hour before dawn. It was cloudy and dark when he woke up. He threw his old camera and some bungee cords in his backpack and snuck out of the house, but not before Emma spotted him, threw on sweatpants and a pullover, and joined him. Their parents were still asleep, his father softly snoring.

   Oliver’s father had bought an old Polaroid and a dozen boxes of film for peanuts at a flea market in Grand River. He already had a fancy Minolta digital camera, so he gave the Polaroid to Oliver, who took pictures of spiders and praying mantises with it.

   “Are you going to try to get Chester back from that awful troll?”

   “Yes.”

   “What are you going to do?” Emma asked ready for action, but with no idea how her brother was going to deal with the varmint. She had never seen a real troll before. She had only ever seen the garden variety kind.

   “We are going to find him and keep him from crawling under a rock until the sun comes up. We can use the camera’s flashbulb to herd him. If we can get him to step into sunlight he’ll turn to stone, and we can save Chester.”

   “I brought my flashlight and pocketknife,” Emma said.

   “Good,” Oliver said, nodding grimly.

   They walked into the forest, Emma leading the way with her flashlight. They saw the troll’s campfire and smelled him at the same time. He smelled like an old rat. He was a pint-sized Tusseladd troll with three heads and three noses as long as carrots. He had a round stomach and short stubby arms and legs. He was boiling water to make porridge. Chester was tied up next to the fire. It looked like the troll meant to eat him with his porridge.

   “We’re in luck,” Oliver said. “That kind of troll is usually gigantic. I think we can handle this runt.”

   When they stepped out of the dark into the light of the campfire the troll jumped up and his three mouths started jibber-jabberring. Chester whined and kicked his legs. Oliver held up his hands, palms out and made a peace sign. He pointed to his stomach and said he and his sister had come a long way and were hungry.

   The troll calmed down and started dreaming scheming right away. Maybe he could grab and cook these two children, too. He would have more grub than he knew what to do with. He showed Oliver and Emma where to sit and went back to his pot. When the water started boiling, he started making his porridge.

   “Are you a betting man?” Oliver asked him.

   “Of course,” the troll said.

   “I bet I can eat more porridge than you.”

   The troll laughed a mean-spirited laugh like he was the living soul of a funeral. That was fool’s gold. Nobody could eat more porridge than a troll. 

   “If you can eat more porridge than me then I won’t eat you,” the troll said.

   “I’m on for that,” Oliver said.

   I don’t know about this, Emma thought. She started thinking of all the things that could go wrong. There were too many to count.

   They tended the fire while the troll went to get more water to make even more porridge. Once it was ready, they both ate as much as they could. What the troll didn’t know was that Oliver had shoved his backpack under his shirt and was filling it with the porridge, without the troll noticing. When the troll was full and couldn’t eat anymore, looking like he was on the losing end of the bet, Oliver suggested he cut a hole in his stomach so he could have as much as he wanted. He did and stuffed handfuls of porridge inside of himself. By the time he got to the bottom of the pot he was so heavy with the pasty goo he fell over groaning.

   Oliver and Emma rushed him, bound him up with their bungee cords, and dragged him by his feet to a small clearing. His three heads bounced on the ground all the way there. The sun was already up and when its light washed over the troll he turned to stone instantly. They stood him up and took Polaroid snapshots of him. Chester was barking up a storm, so they ran back to the campfire, untied him, threw dirt on the fire and went home.

   The troll who turned to stone became a landmark. 

   “If you want to go to the valley, take a left at the troll. If you want to go to the pond, take a right,” everybody said.

   When show and tell day was announced at school, Oliver took his Polaroid pictures. Emma took the muffins she baked all by herself. They would have been a hit any other day, but on that day the spotlight belonged to Oliver. He had matched wits with a troll, ridding the neighborhood of a vile nuisance, and lived to tell the tale. From that day on he was known as the Monster Hunter.

   On the Perry Local School District bus going home Emma pulled two muffins nobody had been interested in out of her book bag. She offered one to Oliver. They sat side by side eating them.

   “These are delicious,” Oliver said.

   “Better than the porridge?”

   “Better than anything that rotten troll could ever have made,” Oliver said.

   When they got home, Chester dashed up to them, working up an appetite. They gave him a muffin and he forgot all about them. They walked into the house.

   “How was school?” their mother asked.

   “I learned that nobody knows what a Polaroid camera is,” Oliver said.

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

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

Pennies From Heaven

By Ed Staskus

   Zenius Kazlauskas would have traded any day in the real world, reheated meatballs with his folks the drumbeat of his freshman year at St. Ed’s hanging with the boys doing nothing at Crocker Park Mall, for five minutes of summer camp. After the next two summers were come and gone, after his last year in Cabin 6, when he couldn’t be a camper anymore, he was determined to go back as a counselor. 

   “That’s a sure thing,” Zen said. “I’ll be on my way to being a senior by then and I’ll know a thing-or-two. I’ll be older and wiser. I’ll know how to handle the boys on track and off track, no wool over my eyes.”

   Camp is different than being at home. There are fewer grown-ups, which is a good thing, and nobody’s parents are there, even better. The teenage counselors are almost like their vassals. They let them run amok and hope no one dies. Everybody’s friends are together again and there are more of them than anywhere else ever. Nobody yells at you for two weeks. The counselors scream if somebody does something stupid, but nobody gets yelled at for doing something wrong just by mistake.

   “Even when it happens, it’s all over in a minute, not like back home, where it never ends,” Zen said, looking glum. “No sir, it never ends, it just goes on and on. You’re on the bottom and you’ve got to keep your trap shut.”

   The summer sky at camp is big and fresh and windy. It’s a bird in the hand. There are swallows, thrushes, woodcocks, and buffleheads. It’s way up in Canada, on the Georgian Bay, at Wasaga Beach, the world’s longest freshwater beach.  It takes all day to drive there from Lakewood, Ohio, across the border, through Toronto, up to Barrie, where you take a sharp left at Lake Simcoe.

   It’s not totally spic and span, not like the Dainava summer camp in Michigan where the righteous gather on their runty pond, but clean enough. Some boys don’t shower when they’re at camp and that’s disgusting, although nobody cares too much about it. One time somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him in the car when his two weeks were over, and he hadn’t showered even once.

   “No, go back, go hose yourself off, and brush your teeth!” his mother barked through her nose. “What is wrong with you?”

   Last year Cabin 6 had bedbugs. The boys caught them with scotch tape and flicked them into a glass jar. Zen tried to kill some of them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood, they left itchy clusters on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. They shrugged it off. When the camp commander found out about it, he hired a sniffing dog.

   It was a Beagle, just a little bigger than Rufus, Zen’s Beagle at home. The scent hound was lean, with floppy ears and a loopy smile. He knew what was up, stepping into the cabin all-business glowing in his eyes.

   He was a scent dog, not like Rufus, who was a hearing dog. Rufus heard all, searching out BS wherever it was, like up in Jack’s room. Jack was Zen’s older half-brother who thought he knew everything and talked down to him. Rufus hair-balled it and growled. The family lived on a better-off street in Lakewood, wide tree lawns and a concrete roadway, but Rufus still stayed on his haunches on the front lawn looking both ways, ready to bark. He knew the future might not be what it used to be. He sat tight in the right now.

   The search-and-destroy flea bag was so good he sniffed out a bedbug hiding behind the plastic cover of an electric outlet. The next day everybody piled their stuff into big black garbage bags and threw them inside the cars at camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. 

   All the bugs died.

   Zen and his friends were in the smallest of the nine boy’s cabins. The only free floor space they had was just enough to slide back and forth to their beds. Matias Petrauskas was number one with Zen. He was shorter shiny blue eyes like buttons and stick slender. They liked to run around, not get too uptight, and soft chill at the end of the day. They had roomed together in the same cabin for seven years and knew each other best.

   Lukas Nasvytis was Zen’s second-best friend. He was a little taller, all funny smiles and chunky. He chewed green frog gummies and spit them out on the cabin floor where they got squashed flat like pancakes. By the end of camp, the floorboards were dried goo. He was strong as a bull, but not loud or belligerent. He suffered from in-grown toenails. 

   “Don’t step on them, or else!” Zen said. “It can be big trouble. One night he punched somebody who accidentally stepped on his bad toe.”

   Lukas stood up and pushed the boy. “Watch out, dude!” He got punched in the stomach for it. Logan punched him back in the face, although without being mean about it. They were at the “Night of the Super Starz” in the mess hall. They were sitting there watching the show when the misstep started it, and the kid goat suddenly started bleating when Lukas did him. He had a bruise on his cheek and a black eye.

   There was a midnight mass after the show, but Lukas wasn’t allowed to stay. He had to go back to the cabin, although all that happened the next day was the counselors made him sweep the mess hall. The camp commander noticed Lukas waving a broom and thought he had volunteered. He came back with serious points pinned to his chest.

   Lukas liked being hip hop rundown. He was from Toronto and lived uptown, although Zen didn’t know where that was. He said he lived in a neighborhood of chinksters. He smoked weed sometimes, even though he wasn’t good at it. He and one of his friends went to a creek on the far end of camp one night and smoked some. He got funky and dreamed up disasters.

   “I thought I was going to die,” he said.

   Story time with Lukas at the head of the cabin his back to the door was always grins hilarity gut-busting. When he spit out a gummy, ready to go, it was a high old time. He knew a lot of dirty jokes, too.

   At night they talked about movies, TV shows, and their favorites on YouTube. They talked about girls, some of them more than others. They talked about video games a lot, even though they didn’t have any at camp. They weren’t allowed. The one boy in their cabin who didn’t talk much was Titus Lutkus, who they called Tits. 

   “He just sits in his corner all secluded,” Zen said. “He does play a video game, so I talk to him about that, sometimes, but not much. More than anybody else.”

   Nobody knew what was wrong with Titus. “We love Tits, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t do anything, which is the problem. At night when we’re all laying around in our cabin he’ll start crying. His eyes get soggy and his hair tuft goes limp. He will just sit teary-eyed on his bed, looking at the floor. When we ask him what’s wrong, he says, ‘I don’t know. My head hurts.’”

   They didn’t ignore him all the time, and they never did much of anything to him. “We punch him every once in a while, but not hard, just on the arms. Mostly when he’s looking, but sometimes when he’s not looking.”

   He got pinkeye every summer. They didn’t make fun of him, though. But then he got double pink eye. That was too much for everybody. They were all, “Damn it, Tits!” Everybody made fun of him as a joke, and he cried and got mad. but not because of that, just because he’s Titus.

   The girl cabins are on the other side of the flagpoles, up an opposite sandy hill. Amelia, who was part of Natalie’s tootsie tunes, but who can be nice and pretty, had a reddish birthmark on her face, the shape of a dog. Zen thought she was self-conscious about it because she always turned to her left whenever anybody took her picture, away from the birthmark.

   They never said anything about it to her. They dabbled about the birthmark in their own cabin, but nothing bad, although sometimes somebody said, “What’s that thing crawling on her face?” One night, Titus was laid out on his bunk in the corner while everybody was talking home stories when out of nowhere, he said, “Did somebody have their period and rub it on Amelia’s face?”

   Everybody stopped dead quiet for a minute. Who says that? Matias looked embarrassed. Then he got mad. “Shut up!” he yelled. Zen knew his best friend had the hots for Amelia. It was a brutal thing to say, especially coming from Tits. Everybody called him that because he had them. He had always been flabby and lately he was getting heavier. 

   “He doesn’t play any sports, at all, that’s his problem. He’s going to grow up a fatso.”

   Kajus Klukas slept in the corner opposite Titus. He thought he could play guitar, but all he did was play the same part of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ over and over. Who needs that? Everybody except Titus was always yelling at him to stop. Zen and Lukas finally took matters into their own hands and broke his guitar, but the cabin blew it off. They all knew it was a piece of junk, anyway.

   They broke the new fan his parents got him, too. Lukas was frustrated, and angry, his toes hurt, and he started taking it out on the fan. They took it out behind the cabin and beat it with a hockey stick. It was hanging on rags when they were done. The spiny part was smashed, chunks were missing, but they just kept beating it. They threw bottles of water at it, finally.

   Kajus wasn’t happy when he found out. He scowled and gave them the sour look. He pushed the busted fan under his bed.

   When his parents came mid-week from Toronto, they asked him what happened to it. He told them Zen and Lukas did it, but they didn’t believe him. When they left, he tipped a Mountain Dew over on Zen’s bunk. Zen grabbed it and poured the rest on Kajus’s bed, pushing and shoving started, Kajus elbowed Zen, he elbowed him back harder but not crazy hard, and Kajus stopped.

   There was a food-eating contest every summer after the “Counselor Staff Show.” The tots had to go to bed, but the boys and girls stayed up late to play the game. Whoever volunteers are blindfolded and has to eat whatever is on the plate. Everybody has to keep their hands behind their backs and lap it up like a dog. Sometimes the others puked, but Zen never threw up.

   There were bowls of moldy Rice Krispies with ketchup mustard strawberry jelly lots of salt and all mashed together like potatoes. It was horrible. It was like eating last place on one of his stepmom’s cooking shows on TV. Everybody cheered the belly brave and they had to eat as fast as they could if they wanted to win.

   The counselors woke the camp up every morning at seven-thirty for calisthenics. They marched everybody to the sports field and made them do a butt load of jumping jacks, push-ups and crunches, and the boys and girls had to run the track, even though the sun was barely breaking the tops of the trees. The tots got to do their own thing, whatever that was.

   If the counselors saw you were tired and slacking, they made you do more. Everybody jumped on the used tire jungle gym and messed around whenever they could, having fun. The counselors made whoever overstayed their welcome do pull-ups on it, but it was a small price to pay.

   “We get up every morning to music,” Zen said. “It’s always Katy Perry or Duck Sauce, or whatever the big cheeses want, played from loudspeakers hidden in the trees. Sometimes I don’t hear it because I’m fast asleep. The counselors carry water shooters. If they say you have twenty seconds to wake up, and you don’t jump right out of bed, they start squirting you. They shake your bed and jump on you, and scream, but they’re always going to the next bed, so it doesn’t last long.”

   After they were done exercising, they went back to their cabins, cleaned up, and raised the flags before breakfast. There are three flags, American, Canadian, and Lithuanian. 

   “But sometimes we’re too tired to clean up and instead fall right back asleep in our cabins and are late for the flag-raising. When that happens it’s time to swallow the pill. Whoever is late has to step out into the middle of everybody on the parade ground and do the chicken dance. All the boys on their side of the parade ground do the chop, swiveling their arms like tomahawks and chanting. Nobody knows what it means, but they all do it, and the girls stand there watching. Then they do their own dance, like cheerleaders, except they aren’t cheering for you.”

   Everybody got their fair share.

   All the cabins had to keep a diary for the two weeks of camp. Everybody got graded on it every day. If anybody wrote something stupid, like “Ugi Ugi Ugi” or anything that didn’t make sense, they got a bad grade. The counselors told them to “Be yourselves, be sincere.”

   “What does that mean?” Lukas asked, but they just laughed.

   Matias always wrote their diary because everybody else agreed they were all retards. Titus wrote something dumb once, even though he said it was sincere, and at the flag lowering that night they all had to do the Rambo, running down the slope to the flagpoles with no shirts on and singing “Cha Cha Cha” while everyone did the chop.

   That night, in the middle of the night, they rolled Titus down the slope wrapped up in a scratchy old blanket.

   They wrestled in the oldest boy’s cabin. It was the biggest cabin, too, so it had space for fighting. They moved the beds and duct taped a sleeping bag to the wood floor. There was no punching allowed, no hammer blows, but kicking and throwing each other on the ground was fair game.

   They weren’t supposed to fight, because the camp commander didn’t like it, but everybody wrestled and got poked bruised blooded.

   One night at their Wrestlemania World Tour, Donatas and Arunas were locked up when Donny grabbed Arnie’s head and flipped him over. Arnie slammed hard into a bedpost and got knocked out. They let him lay there, but when he didn’t wake up, even though they screamed in his face, they threw dirt on him. He jumped up and was fine after that.

   The next day they were walking to New Wasaga Beach, which is where the whole camp went every afternoon for a swim, and Arnie jumped on Donny’s back and almost cracked it. But they didn’t punch each other. It was just a couple of seconds of retaliation. They weren’t haters. Besides, the counselors were watching, and that would have been trouble. They always said “Only we can get physical.”

   The grown-up vadovai stood near and far in the water and made sure nobody drowned. The boys and girls and tots never noticed. They were busy splashing swimming splurging on the sunshine.

   Every year another year went by and when Zenius was back at summer camp it was like he had never left. As soon as he got there, he unloaded everything he’d brought, his clothes flip flops sleeping bag. All his stuff had his initials written on it with a Sharpie. Everybody found their cabins and claimed their beds, and then all the parents were gone before anybody knew it. 

   They saw their friends again, everybody in their cabin, and everybody they had ever camped with. “What’s up dude!” There were high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. They fake punched each other and laughed it up.

   They reunited with the girls and get overdue hugs from them. When all the moms and dads that nobody in his right mind thought about from that moment on were gone, they had sandwiches in the mess hall. The priest said a prayer and the camp commander made a speech. He wrote the camp rules in big block letters on a chalkboard.

   He was big on shaming the boys but not the girls when his rules were broken. There is a bonfire most nights, they acted out skits, sang songs, whooped it up, but if you were on his list, he called you out in front of everybody and you had to try to explain why you did what you did when you did it. Most of the time the explanations were lame as diarrhea. Zen believed in never explain, never complain, although it was hard to do.

   The best night of summer camp is every night, but the best night was the night they played their manhunt game. Sometimes it was called Fugitive or Stealing Sticks or Capture the Flag. It’s always the same, although it was always different. Lukas told everybody he saw a movie about Jews fighting against the Nazis, chases in the dark and shoot-outs, but nobody could understand what he was talking about. Nobody else had seen the movie. 

   He said, “Let’s play it that way.” 

   Everybody said, “OK, that’s what it is.” They were the good guys, and the counselors were the bad guys. Some of the counselors thought it.was sketchy but didn’t disagree. It was as much fun as ever. It was like Bunnytrack with no holds barred. 

   Titus never played, and he didn’t play Nazis and Jews, either. He said it was wrong and started explaining about Lithuania, where all of their parents and grandparents were from, and how terrible things had happened there. He said it was a holocaust, not a stupid camp run around, but they told him to shut up, and he got sulky. Nobody knows what’s wrong with Titus. Zen knew what was wrong with him. 

   “Titus knows he’s low man on the totem pole and nobody cares what he says.”

   The game started when the counselors led them to the mess hall. They turned the lights off and made everybody sit on the damp concrete floor. After they left it got super quiet. It was eerie.

   When the counselors came back, they were dressed in black, charcoal from the cold bonfire rubbed on their faces. They split everybody into groups and spit out the rules. They had to find books and save them from being burned. They weren’t real books, just pieces of paper. The more papers they dug up the more Liberty Dollars they got for the next day’s auction. The more of them in their group who got caught the more their Liberty Dollars were taken away.

   The papers were scattered around the camp in the hands of three counselors, who were hidden in the woods, and who kept moving around. They had to find them and when they did, they were supposed to hand over the prize. But sometimes the runners had to beg them for it. Other times they had to fight tooth and nail for the paper.

   If the counselors who were the hunters caught anyone, they took the paper away, ripped it up, and it was back to square one. Many of the boys and girls hid them in their shoes, or their underwear, or different places no one would look.

   “It gets dirty, in more ways than one,” Zen said. “The dirtiest I got was when I was by myself, not far from the sports field, but on the edge of the woods. One of the counselors came walking past and I dropped flat fast. I lay in a bunch of crap, leaves, twigs, mud, bugs, worms, and moldy stuff. Oh, man, but he just walked right past me.”

   Anybody can try to get away when the counselors catch somebody, but it’s hard to do because the ones who catch you are the strong ones, while the other ones can’t catch a breath. The strong ones don’t like it when anybody makes them look bad by breaking away. It doesn’t matter what the other ones think. The bold quick can try to break free when no one’s looking, but if they snatch you then you have to stay longer in the lock-up. The longer you sit the less chance you have to win Liberty Dollars.

   Matilda Varnaite, who plays for a college basketball team, decked Zen, blind-siding him out of the blue, just when he thought he was home free. At first, he wasn’t sure what happened. When he got up, he tripped her, and started running away. When she caught him, he fell on the ground like he was wiped out. She was forced to drag him by arms and legs. While she was dragging him, he noticed a large lump on her chest. When he asked her what it was, she gave him a sharp look.

   “It’s a tumor. I have cancer,” she said.

   “I couldn’t believe it. She seemed so healthy. I jumped to my feet so she wouldn’t have to drag me. While we were walking the tumor started to jerk back and forth. I didn’t know what to do. Was she going to fall down and die? Then, just as we walked up to the lock-up, her baby gerbil poked its head out of her bra.”

   One summer the lock-up was inside the art house, where supplies and costumes are stored. It’s at the farthest end from the sand dunes. Makayla Katiliute was the guard, and although she wasn’t musclebound, she was strong and determined.

   There were two rooms. She had to patrol both of them by herself.  She carried a broom, pacing back and forth, her head swiveling this way and that. Everybody had to sit in straight chairs and be quiet. If you talked too much you had to sit there longer. If you got up from your chair you had to stay longer. If you messed with her in any way you had to stay longer.

   You could try to escape, but it wasn’t easy. Makayla would hit you, not really hard, but hard enough. She hit everybody with her broom, but usually with the soft twine end. But when anybody got nervy, she jabbed the broom down on them and yelled, “Shut the hell up!”

   It was not a good idea to try escaping too many times, because if anybody tried a couple of times and they caught you both times, they would kick you out of the game. It wasn’t fair, but that’s what they did if they got annoyed about it. If you sat there quietly and sweet-talked Makayla, “I’ll be good,” she would smile and let you out before the others. That’s what Zen did.

   “I was good. I play it smart. It’s the only way.”

   Zen broke off from his group right away. He had planned to run with his Cabin 6 friends, anyway. They made it to one of the storage sheds and hid there, catching their breath, and then started running around. They searched for the counselors with the scraps of paper and dodged all the others.

   “The counselors are fast,” Zen said. “Make no mistake about it. They aren’t sludges and even the sludges have some fast up their sleeves if they need it. The girl counselors can catch you if you don’t see them right away and they are already sprinting straight at you. You can push counselors away, but not punch them, although you can punch them, just not all of them, only the ones who don’t care. Your friends can help you, and if the counselor is alone, you have a good chance of getting away. He can’t catch both of you at the same time, no matter how big and fast he is.”

   The counselors tackle hard when they want to. They can be bottle rockets and they don’t mess around. If somebody is your cabin’s counselor, they’ll cut you some slack. They’ll use you as a distraction. The trick is to act like you’re getting caught when someone else is walking by, yelling, “Help me!” Then your counselor will throw you to the side and get them, instead.

   Another summer the lock-up was the boy’s bathroom. They took out the light bulbs. It was dark dank clammy soggy. There was only one door, so it was hard to escape. They had to sit in there with the bad smells and daddy long-legs crawling all over them. Titus stayed snug in the cabin with a package of Oreos.

   The summer they played Nazis and Jews the lock-up was on the edge of the sports field under a pole lamp. It was a pressboard box used to store basketball backboards. The box wasn’t big, the size of a dining room table, but high and deep going backwards.

   The counselors squeezed them in, around the edges, and then made more of them stand in the middle like cattle. They nailed two-by-fours to the sides so they wouldn’t spill out. Everybody was packed tight like rats. Somebody could try to crawl out, but they would have already gotten you by then, dragging you back.

   Cabin 6 escaped when counselors nabbed a pack of new runners and were bringing them in, but there wasn’t any room because it was so crowded. They got pushed sideways to make room. They had a couple of seconds of daylight. There weren’t enough counselors to grab everybody again that same instant, so they ran into the woods to the Hill of Crosses.

   It is on a small sandy hill. There isn’t anything there but crosses, dozens of them, some bigger than the boys. Everybody’s parents knew all about it. It had something to do with their past, the old country, back in Lithuania, where there are tens of thousands of them on a big hill somewhere. There is a white fence around the Hill of Crosses at camp and a gate, but it’s never locked. They went there for horseplay sometimes, because almost no one ever went there anymore. It’s secluded and private. Everything has its good points, Zen thought.

   They were cutting through, talking about what they were going to do next, when Loose Goose Lovett, who was pale fit and fast, jumped out of a sand dune. He was waving a big flashlight like a crazy man. Somebody smashed into him. He singled out Nojus Silenas for it, running after him. Everybody flipped, scattering, none of them going the same way.

   Dovydas Bielskus sprinted to the border of the camp where there was an old crappy barbed wire fence. It was his first year at camp and he didn’t know it was there. When he tried to jump it, he got tangled up. He ended up stuck, his t-shirt ripped, and his hands were scratched. He couldn’t get off the sharp wire.

   Later, when they found each other, they saw Lovett again with his flashlight. He was still looking for Nojus. Everybody lay down in the sand, nervous, but quiet like moles, and he ran right past them. They stayed behind a little hill where they hung their clothes after coming back from the beach, and later snuck back into Cabin 6. All of them were sitting on their beds, laughing it up in the dark, when Nojus started freaking out.

   “See what happens,” Titus said.

   Nojus was so worked up he got down on his knees, put his hands together in front of his bunk bed, and started praying. He was praying out loud, crying, and saying “I don’t feel good” when Lovett walked in with the flashlight stuck in his back pocket.

   “What’s wrong with him?” he asked.

   “I don’t feel good,” Nojus said, walking outside the cabin and throwing up.

   He tried to throw up in the trashcan, but his aim was way off. The next morning, everybody heckled him about it, but all he wanted to say was he just didn’t feel good during the manhunt and didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

   Zen almost broke his neck playing that night. It happened when Big Algimantas started chasing him. He was ripped out of his mind and jacked up. He climbed trees and survived out on the tundra. Zen had been jogging lazily away from Ned, who is lard and slow, when Big Al jumped him. Zen screamed and went into adrenaline mode. When he saw Big Al’s bigger girlfriend waiting at the fork in the path, he sprinted the other way into the woods.

   He got away clean, but it was when he lost Big Al that Gintaras Mockus came out of nowhere and found him. He was wearing a bandana and waving a basketball in his hands. Zen knew he was going to throw it straight at his shins, because that’s what he was doing to a lot of boys. It was a basketball Ginty had inflated crazy hard. He could sling it a blue streak. It smashed boys on the legs. Runners were face planting and giving up.

   Zen was running all out and jumped when Ginty threw the ball. He jumped right into the low-lying branch of a pine tree. It smashed him, the branch raking across his neck. It felt like his artery was going to pop.

   “That really hurt!” Zen cried out.

   “I kept running, but I was suddenly scared, so I stopped. My neck was all scraped up gashed and bleeding, but not gushing blood, thank God. When Ginty found me, he took his bandana off and wrapped it around my neck.”

   “You’ll be fine,” Ginty said.

   “Then he grabbed me and tried to drag me to the lock-up. You can always trust a counselor to be a sly dog. But I got away. I kept the bandana wrapped around my neck so he couldn’t track me down by any drops of blood. I made sure the rolled-up paper scraps I had collected were still in my pocket. I slept with them curled up in my fist and my fist tucked under my pillow.”

   The next morning, he ran to the front row of the manhunt auction. The camp commander stood at a podium with a wooden mallet. There was a pegboard behind him full of a boat load of the things you could get, and everybody started bidding. There were t-shirts and baseball hats, breakfast in bed, and true blue counselors having to clean your cabin.

   There’s stargazing with another cabin of your choice.  But Zen put everything he had, every one of his Liberty Dollars on the first shower of the night. It was the big night of the end of camp dance in the mess hall and he wanted to look his best for it. He made absolutely sure nobody outbid him because it was do-or-die for the hot water.

   You got to shower first, all by yourself, for as long as you wanted. The camp commander posted a counselor to stand guard at the door and they didn’t let anyone in except you. It was only you and a bar of soap and you could stream as much of the hot water as there was. There was only so much of it at camp, the tanks weren’t the best, and you could take it all. Everybody else was left with the cold leftovers.

   “Oh, yeah, that’s what you always do, because everybody else would do it to you.”

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

One Step at a Time

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By Ed Staskus

His mother was a Russian, a schoolteacher in Saransk, when his father met her before the start of World War One. The town and garrison were in the Penza, four hundred miles southeast of Moscow. Antanas Staskevicius, a Lithuanian, was an officer in the Russian Imperial Army.

Saransk later became the capital city of the Republic of Soviet Monrovia, but long before that happened Antanas Staskevicius had returned to Lithuania.

The place was founded as a fortress, on the left bank of the river Isar, at the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before the First World War its commercial life revolved around leather, meat, and honey. After the war its factories were closed for more than ten years when there weren’t any available fuels or raw materials.

“My father was trained as an officer and sent to serve there in the Czar’s army with an infantry regiment,” said Vytas Staskevicius. “It was a hard post for him, because back then they used to say drinkers go to the navy and dimwits to the infantry.”

The Imperial Russian Army had more than a million men, most of them conscripted, most of them peasants. There were a quarter million Cossacks, too. Only the Cossacks knew what they were doing.

“He courted my mother, Antonina, and they got married. They had my older sister, Eugenia, in 1917. We always called her by the name of Genute. My sister Gaile was born the next year.”

Vytas was born six years later, in 1924, in Siauliai. “My father named me after King Vytautas the Great.” His mother called him Vytas. His sisters called him many things, including the little prince, and the rotten prince on other days.

Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, a hill where there had once been a fort less than ten miles from the town. It is covered with tens of thousands of crosses, crucifixes, and statues. It was after Czarist forces crushed the November Uprising of 1831 when the first of them appeared.

By 1918 Lithuania had been missing from the map for more than one hundred years, having been disappeared after the Partition of Poland. Since that time, it had been under the thumb of the Russian Empire. In late 1919, when Russia was being consumed by its Bolshevik revolution, Antanas Staskevicius went home to a newly independent Lithuania.

“Lithuania didn’t have many officers when they formed their own army,” said Vytas Staskevicius. “Most of them were men who had been conscripted into the Imperial Army before the war. My father fought in the post-war battles around Klaipeda and after that he served in the secret service in Kaunas, which was the capital.”

Lithuania declared independence in February 1918 and for almost three years fought Soviets, West Russians, and Poles for their land. Finally, in 1920 they formed their own government, although they later lost Vilnius to the Poles, with whom they remained officially at war with little warfare until the start of World War Two.

“After the fighting my father got some land for serving his country, near Siauliai. We lived on a farm.”

During World War One most of Siauliai’s buildings were destroyed and the city center was obliterated. Since its founding in the 13th century Siauliai had burned down seven times, had been struck by plague seven times, and World War Two was the seventh conflict that wrecked the town.

“We lived in Siauliai for several years, but then my father became the governor of the Panevezys district, and we moved to the city there.”

Panevezys, a royal town founded in the early 16th century, is on the plain of the Nevezis River, about fifty miles east of Siauliai. During the interwar years Lithuania was divided into 24 districts and each district had its own governor.

“My father was the governor of Panevezys until 1938.”

Vytas went to grade school and high school in Panevezys, but then his father was transferred to Zerasai, a place that was a summer resort. In 1834 Zerasai had burned down and been rebuilt. Two years later it was renamed Novoalexandrovsk, in honor of Czar Alexander’s son, but after the Great War the name was expunged.

“When my father became the governor of Zerasai, my mother didn’t want to move there, since it was more than seventy-five miles east of where we lived, so I stayed with her. But I didn’t get along with the students at the high school there. It was a strict school and everyone had to dress nice. On my first day of classes I was dressed up too nice, like I was going to a party, with a tie and everything, and everybody laughed at me. Where are you from, they all said. I didn’t make any friends there.”

He told everyone, “I’m going to Zerasai.” He moved there in 1939 and lived with his father.

“We always studied a second language in school, and since my mother was Russian, studying it was easy for me. But when I got to Zerasai I found out they only had English as a second language, no Russian. My father had to hire a tutor to help me.”

All during the 1930s the world had been changing fast. In 1940 the Lithuanian world completely changed. Father and son moved back to Siauliai.

“The Soviets came in 1940. All the high officials were let go and the Russians selected new people who they wanted to run the country. They always said they didn’t run the country themselves, we Lithuanians did, but it was the Lithuanian Communists who were in charge, so it was actually the Russians.”

The Staskevicius family went to their farm, while renting a house in Siauliai, dividing their time between town and country.

“It was only a few miles from our farmhouse to town. I used to walk or bicycle to Siauliai. But the mood was bad. Everybody thought something terrible was going to happen.”

The Russian annexation of Lithuania was completed by the late summer of 1940. Businesses were nationalized and collectivization of land began. As the Russian presence expanded the family discussed leaving the Baltics.

“Why don’t we go to Germany?” asked his mother Antonina.

“We had a chance to leave the country then and go somewhere else. My mother wanted to go. We talked about it often, about going to Germany.”

But his father didn’t want to leave Lithuania.

“I have never done anything wrong that they would put me in jail,” he told his family. “I have always been good to the people. They aren’t going to put me in jail.”

In the fall of 1940, a passing troop of Soviet infantry commandeered their farm for several days.

“They didn’t do anything bad, or mistreat us, but they hadn’t washed in months. They stunk bad. and they rolled their cheap tobacco in newspaper. They smoked all the time. It took a week to air out the house.”

The family stayed on their farm through the winter. Then, as the mass arrests and deportations of almost 20,000 Lithuanian policemen and politicians, dissidents, and Catholics began in June 1941, Antanas Staskevicius was picked up by NKVD plainclothesmen.

“He was gardening in our yard, wearing a shirt, old pants, and slippers when they drove up, a carload of Russians, and stopped, saying there was something wrong with their engine. I’ll help you out, my father said. He walked over to the car with them and never came back. They shoved him into their car and drove him to jail.”

Vytas was in school in Siauliai taking his final exams that morning.

“My mother called the school and told me my father had been taken. I ran out of class and went home right away on my bike.” His mother packed clothes, socks and shoes, and soap for her husband. She went to see him the next day.

“The man who was running the jail was a Jewish fellow. He had grown up with us and was a friend of our family, but when my mother asked him to help us, he said the times have changed.”

There was a new order.

“He was a Communist and had been in and out of jail because of his political activities. He was always in trouble. My father usually let him go after a few days, telling him to not get involved in politics anymore. Just be a nice boy, he would tell him, but then the next thing we knew he would be in jail again. He wouldn’t help my father when he was arrested. Everything’s different now, he said. Times have changed. Everybody is looking out for themselves, only themselves.”

The man who had once commanded the local police stayed in his jail cell.

“They didn’t let my mother talk to my father. We went to the jail several times, but they never let us see him. We never saw him again.”

Antanas Staskevicius was taken to Naujoji Vilnia and loaded onto a boxcar. The train left Lithuania on June 19, 1941. Four days later, between June 23 and 27, at the Battle of Raseiniai, the 4th Panzer Group, part of the first phase of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, finished the almost complete destruction of Russian armored forces in Lithuania.

Within a week Nazi Germany seized Lithuania.

His father was transported to Russia’s far east to a labor camp near Krasnojarsk in Siberia. He worked logging in the thick forests and starved to death in the winter of 1942. Anton Chekhov, a noted Russian short story writer, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia.

“The morning after my father was arrested, I drove our horse and wagon to school to finish my exams. I had to deliver milk to my teacher’s family, too. But when I stopped at his house, he ran out with his family and said, help take us to the railroad station. I said OK and they all got into my wagon, he and his wife and their two children. I took them to the station. After that day I never saw them again or ever found out what happened to them.

“The next day one of our neighbors told me the Russians had come to the teacher’s house that same afternoon looking for him. Teachers, lawyers, anybody from an educated family, they were worried about all of them. They were afraid high-class people were against them. “

When Russian NKVD men began mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized their property, and there was widespread looting by Lithuanians among themselves. It was every man for himself, unless you were a Red.

“If you were a Communist then you were all right. The father of one of my friends was a metal worker. He didn’t even know how to read, but the Russians made him the mayor of Siauliai because he was a Communist.”

His mother, sister Genute, and Vytas stayed on the farm after his father’s arrest. His sister Gaile was then living in Vilnius. When the mass arrests intensified, they became alarmed.

“We were determined on leaving the farm. It was dangerous. We went into the forest. But then my mother told me to go to Vilnius and tell Gaile our father had been arrested. She wanted Gaile to know to be very careful. I took a train to Vilnius, but as soon as I got there, I got a phone call saying my mother had been arrested.

“When I got back to Siauliai, I was told she was being deported. Somebody probably complained and informed on her. We had land, 160 acres, so we were considered capitalists. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. There was no real reason that I ever found out about for why they took her. I went to the train station but didn’t see her anywhere. She was sent to a prison camp.”

His mother was released from the Gulag in 1956, after Stalin’s death, but not allowed to return to her home in Siauliai.

“My God, you’ve gotten older,” was the first thing Antonina said when she saw her son Vytas again in 1979, thirty-eight years after being transported to Siberia.

After his mother’s arrest and exile Vytas, not yet 17-years-old, left Siauliai and moved to Vilnius, staying with his sister Gaile and her husband. At the time almost everyone living in Vilnius was either Polish or Jewish. Lithuanians in the former capital city of Vilnius were strangers in their own land.

“The day the Russians left and before the Germans came, everybody rushed to the food warehouses and broke into them. It wasn’t that we were robbing them, but everybody was doing it, since there was no food. Gaile and I went, too. We filled up our bags with bread and pork, all kinds of food, and took everything home. When the Germans arrived, they put a stop to it.”

He stayed in Vilnius for several months, but then decided to go home before the end of summer. The family farm had to be cared for, but, first, he had to get a travel permit.

“I couldn’t get in to see a single German to apply for a permit, but finally I talked to someone who had known my father and got an appointment. The officer told me they weren’t issuing any for the time being and to come back, but after we talked about my father a little, he said all right, and wrote one out for me.”

He took a train back to Siauliai and walked home, but when he got there, he discovered a company of Wehrmacht had taken over the farm.

“They were there about three weeks, more than seventy of them. I couldn’t even get into our house since the officers had taken it over. But those Germans were good men. They didn’t do our farm any harm. They had their own quarters and their own mess. I made friends with some of them. We drank wine together at night.”

His father’s business practice had been to have a foreman run the farm. The foreman hired three men and three women every spring. Although the farm had chickens and pigs, and horses to do the heavy work, it was mostly a dairy farm with more than twenty cows.

“It was a model farm,” said Vytas. “Every summer students from the agricultural academy would tour our farm. When I came back, my sister Genute was there, but she wasn’t interested, so she didn’t do any work.

“I started taking care of things, even though I didn’t know anything, nothing. I knew the cows had to be milked and the milk had to go to the dairy. But about growing crops, and the fields, I didn’t know anything.

“But I did everything as though I knew what I was doing.”

That fall he sent his farmhands out to till the ground in a nearby field. When his nearest neighbor saw them working, he ran across the road to him.

“What in the hell are you doing?” he yelled.

“I told him we were preparing the ground for next year. He said, you’re ruining this year’s seed and you won’t have any grass next year. We stopped right away. I learned what to do.”

A year later he was on a horse-drawn mower cutting hay when he saw storm clouds gathering. He thought he would be better served walking the horses, so they could pull the mower faster, and jumped down from his seat.

“As I hopped down, I stumbled and fell right on the blades of the mower. The horses stopped dead. My hand was almost cut off. The boy who was helping me ran over. When he saw what happened, and saw my injured hand, he passed out.”

While the war dragged on across Europe, he had problems keeping the farm going. He had only partial use of his injured hand and farmhands everywhere were deserting the land.

“I went to the prisoner-of-war camp where I knew they used to give Russians out. They gave me five of them. They were nice guys, worked hard, and sang at night. One morning after a month I woke up and there wasn’t one of them left. They were all gone.

“I had to go back to the Germans and ask for five more. My God, how they yelled about it. One officer shouted that I hadn’t looked after them, shouted that I needed to lock them up at night, and shouted that they weren’t going to give me anymore. In the end I said, I need five more, so they gave me five more. I kept them locked up after that and they were still there when the Russians came back.”

In 1944 the Red Army stormed into Lithuania. Vytas escaped with a mechanized company of Germans, whisked up by them as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. They told him he had two or three minutes to decide whether or not he was coming with them as they retreated.

“They told me the Russians were on the other side of the Hill of Crosses. They were in a big hurry. I only had time to fill a bag with a few clothes, a little money, and photographs of my parents.”

His sister Genute, not at the farm that day, fled separately. She got across the border into East Prussia, and later into Germany. His other sister, Gaile, wasn’t able to escape Lithuania in time.

“She had a problem at the border and didn’t make it. The Soviets had taken that area, so Gaile was forced to stop in a little town there. She had her daughter and her husband’s mother with her.” In the end the three of them were compelled to stay there.

“She finished a trade school, became a nurse, and never told anyone where she was from. The Russians never found out anything about her.”

In July the Red Army captured Panevezys. Later that month they took Siauliai, inflicting heavy damage on the city. Two months later the counterattacking German 3rd Panzer Army was destroyed and for the next nearly fifty years Lithuania became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

“I was glad to get out of Siauliai in 1944,” said Vytas  “I was very glad to get out in time.”

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