Tag Archives: Kretinga Summer Camp

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.”