These pieces are first drafts that will be added to my novel in progress, "Families," which is set in Olney in 1968. The main characters are Steven Winthorp, age 10, and his mother, Kate Muir. Other important characters are Steven's friends, Tony Marino, Nancy Edwards, Ted Schwartz, and Jack Doyle. His closest friends are Jimmy, Doug, and Jeanie Harper. Steven spends a great deal of time at the Harper's and Mr. and Mrs. Harper, Frank and Alice, are his second set of parents. Agnes McGill, is Kate and Steven's landlord and she lives in the apartment upstairs. Helen Loetz, a graduate student at Penn, is Agnes' niece and lives with her.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Cat Whisperer and Kumquats from Tangiers

         You have to understand, my wife and I have a lot of cats. The number varies, but rarely drops below ten. These cats have a very complicated social arrangement and when one goes and another arrives, it takes awhile for the new arrangement to work itself out. 
         Right now, we’re at the stage where blood-curling screams wake us in the middle of the night and several cats will chase each other around the house for a while. I want an uninterrupted night's sleep so badly that I poked around on the web and came across some information on Cat Whispering. 
        So I tried it. I’ve lived with cats all my life, and until yesterday I didn’t know cats can flip you off. I knew that they can look at you like you’re a worthless speck of filth, but they actually flipped me off. 
      Their disgust with my whispering attempts ended when they got hungry. Then it was the “nice kitty, rub your ankles” act. They can’t whisper, but the know all about conditioning.  They send the two cutest ones to do the figure eights around my ankles and in five minutes the food is being dished up.
      Of course, if they could open the cans, I would be out on my ass. They haven’t figured that one out yet, although I’m pretty certain those polydactyl cats are a cat research project to breed offspring that are able to open cans.
       Bags? Bags are no problem. Once I got distracted and left an unopened twenty pound bag of cat food on the floor leaning against a kitchen cabinet while I went to pick up my wife at work. I was gone about twenty minutes. When we got home, the bag was lying on the floor. There were claw marks on the bottom corners of the bag. Two cats must have gabbed the corners and dragged the bag onto the floor. In the exact center of bag at the top, a neat slash had torn the bag open right down the center. Two parallel cuts across the top and bottom had opened the bag like a chest in an autopsy. The flaps were folded back and the cats had spread food over the floor and were munching away.
       So we switched to cans. And we swore to never take in a polydactyl cat. 
       This worked for a while, but then four cats developed food allergies. They began losing fur on their bellies, thighs, and tails. So we did the only reasonable thing. We conducted a six-month food trial to determine what they were allergic to. They were all allergic to different things. When we isolated what we could feed safely feed all of them we were left with Kumquats and Quiona, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because it turns out that Purina makes Kumquat and Quinoa cat food.
      So I go to the pet store, park next to the owner’s Jaguar my monthly cat food and treats bill is paying for, and I ask about Purina Kumquat and Quiona cat food. He says he’s got some in the back. A few minutes later he comes out with a 20 pound bag of Purina Cat Chow. Written in red marker is   “Kumquat and Quinoa.”
       “How many do you need?” he asks.
          I tell him I need three, but that’s not the issue right now. “Why is Kumquat and Quiona written in red on a regular Purina Cat Chow bag?”
       “What’d you mean?” he says.
        I said,”Look at it. Somebody wrote ‘Kumquat and Quiona’ on that Purina Cat Chow bag.”
       So he looked at the bag and said, “Well, sure. At the plant. It’s somebody’s job. This is a special order mix.They use regular bags and write ‘Kumquat and Quiona’ on the bag. It’s a special order. From Tangiers. Best Kumquats in the world are from Tangiers. What? You need three?”
         Now I’m intrigued. “What about the Quiona?” I ask.
       “I’ll be honest with you,” he says. “It’s only so-so. But the Kumquats make up for it. Best Kumquats in the world are from Tangiers.”
       Then I notice that the price of $29.75 is crossed out and $43.50 in written in red marker. “Whoa. Hold on there,” I said. “Why is this stuff so expensive?” 
      “Well, you know, it’s a special order. Kumquat and Quiona. Kumquat’s from Tangiers. Best in the world.”
      “I guess,” I said, “but it still seems kinda high.”
       “Well, I mean, Tangiers is way, um, way over, ahh, you know, there.” He waved two fingers in a direction I think was NorthWest. 
        “But the price printed on the bag is crossed out and the higher price is written over in red marker.”
        “Like I said, it’s a special order. That’s the Purina special order pricing system.”
        “A red marker?”
         “Or blue sometimes, yeah. I’m almost positive these bags are hand-labelled in Tangiers by Tangerines. Very rare these bags. You can sell the empty bags on eBay to Purina collectors.”
          So what could I do? The cats had allergies and this was the food they needed. While the owner went to get two more bags, I used my phone to transfer some money into my checking account from my mom’s nursing home account. Then I made a note to transfer her to a cheaper place. I'm sure they've fixed up that one that was on the news last year.

         I loaded up the food, tossed in a dozen catnip stuffed toy mice and nine batteries for the laser pointer. Mom will understand. She had three cats in a one bedroom apartment when she had me.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Birthday (in chapter 8, "Families")

      In the back yard, Tony, Jimmy, Doug, and Mr. Harper were gathered around a flat, brightly colored, square box. Eamon was leading Helen around the yard, stopping to pick up whatever caught his eye and handing it to her. As they walked, Helen would hold on to the gifts until her hands got too full, then she discretely emptied them behind her back. Eamon didn’t seem to mind, he was happy handing her things.
       Jimmy saw Steven coming and yelled, “It’s a Slip and Slide! Dad bought a Slip and Slide!”
       “Happy Birthday, Steven,” called Mr. Harper. 
        The boys shouted “Happy Birthday!” in a ragged chorus. 
        Helen scooped up Eamon and headed toward the house. “Hello, Steven. Happy Birthday! Are Aunt Agnes and your mom inside?”
        He told her they were and she disappeared inside carrying Eamon, who was playing with her hair.
        The Slip and Slide was easy to set up, but the ground preparation took a while. Mr. Harper supervised the boys who crawled in the grass, shoulder to shoulder, “policing the grounds.” Mr. Harper had served in Korea and Steven thought that he was enjoying this. Earlier that summer Mr. Harper has removed a peach tree from the center of the yard and the Slip and Slide’s path ran directly over the disturbed ground. Steven found two pieces of green glass in the disturbed soil, the edges rounded and worn smooth. He ran to the house and placed the pieces of glass by a railing post so he would see them when he was leaving and remember to take them home.
        The boys were quiet, focused on their task. When they found a stone or piece of debris, they would flip it toward the low, chainlink fence. There was a steady series of pings as stones hit the fence and the occasional click of a stone that cleared the fence and bounced across the concrete alley. 
       When the boys finished, two tasks remained. Mr. Harper had noticed that the ground where the peach tree had stood had subsided. He sent  Jimmy to get the shovel and toss a few shovelfuls of soil from the flower beds on the low spot. Doug was sent to get a rake and make a final pass over the path. Tony and Steven were held in reserve to stamp down the loose soil filling the low spot. When these tasks were completed and the tools put away, Mr. Harper reviewed the grounds and pronounced them satisfactory.
        Jimmy tore open the box and pulled out the instructions. He held them in his hand and looked at his father, uncertain what to do with them. “Toss ‘em,” said Mr. Harper. “It’s a roll of plastic, for God’s sake.”
        “Instructions?” muttered Steven to himself. “We don’t need no instructions.”
          Jimmy joyously wadded up the instructions and ran to the trash can to toss them away. Helen was watching the scene through the screen door. She called over her shoulder to the women in the kitchen, “You’re right, Alice. They threw them away.”
          Doug pulled the folded plastic sheet from the box. He held one end and Jimmy unrolled the heavy yellow plastic. Mr. Harper attached the hose and all that remained was to position the Slip and Slide. This took more debating than might appear necessary. It was finally decided that they all agreed it would point toward the house. The Harper’s yard, like most Olney yards, was narrow. The long, thin strip of plastic followed the length of the yard.
            The difficult question was how close to the basketball court to place the slide. The boys wanted the longest possible room for the run up to gain maximum speed before hurling themselves onto the Slip and Slide. Mr. Harper argued for maximum room to stop before sliding onto the concrete basketball court. They compromised and placed the Slip and Slide equidistant from the back of the Williams garage that marked the end of the Harper’s property and the court. Now the boys were ready to go. 
           Steven was wearing Jimmy’s bathing suit from last year which was a little loose, but good enough. Tony had run home to change while the set up debate raged. Jimmy and Doug had changed within five minutes of their dad arriving home with the Slip and Slide under his arm. Mr. Harper went to turn on the water so the sliding could begin. Jimmy was carrying the box to the trash, when a slip of paper slid out. The women had finished carrying the food to the picnic table set up on the court. The paper drifted toward Mrs. Harper who picked it up, gave it a quick glance, and called to her husband to wait. 
      “OK, everybody gather round,” she called to the boys. The four boys, joined by Jeannie who had changed into her suit last and had just come running down the back steps, walked over to the Mrs. Harper.  They burned their bare feet as they hurried across the hot concrete to the shaded area where food was laid out.  TV trays and lawn chairs were scattered about. “First we eat,” she said, in voice that although friendly, made it clear that the decision was made.
             Jimmy’s eagerness to try out the Slip and Slide overrode his common sense. “But mom, we can’t use the slide until an hour after we eat.”
            “That’s swimming. It’s a piece of wet plastic, not a pool. Eat before you get wet and bones start breaking.”

             Helen was watching the exchange closely. The unspoken messages between mother and son fascinated her. “And after we eat, politely, without wolfing down your food, we’ll have a look at this.” She held up the sheet of paper Jimmy had dropped. In three-inch bold print, it read “SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS.” Jimmy knew he was beaten and found a chair. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Visit from Sergeant Frank Helstab (in Chapter 8, "Families")

       “I’ll be ready to as soon as Steven gets back with the mustard, ketchup, and onions,” said Agnes as she walked into Kate’s apartment.
        “I will never be able to thank you enough for the air conditoner, Agnes,” said Kate. The shades where drawn and the cool air flowing from the bedroom was beginning to cool the small apartment. “This day has been so hot, but now we’ll be able to sleep. That reminds me. I better get a light blanket out for Steven.” Kate went to closet and dug out a blanket that had slipped behind the towels. “An air conditioner. I’m getting spoiled. Next thing you know I’ll a TV and a car.”
        “And a house,” added Agnes. “With a yard and a dog for Steven. It’s not much to expect you know.”
         “I know, but when ...” 
          The doorbell interrupted Kate, who looked around for a place to put the armful of towels she was holding.
          “I’ll get it,” said Agnes, and she stepped out into the entranceway to open the outside door.
Kate placed the towels on the bed and returned to the living room to see Agnes leading a tall, well built man in a brown suit into the room. He looked a little wilted, he must have spent more time in heat that was good for him. “Kate, have you met Sergeant Frank Helstab? He lives down on Rubicam. He and his wife, Ella, have lived there for years. I know his wife’s mother. Frank, this is Kate Muir.”
Kate shook the Sergeant’s hand and offered him a seat.
        “No, that’s fine,” said Sgt. Helstab. “I was just coming by to see how Mrs. McGill was doing. I just heard at the station that she’d been in the hospital.”
       “That’s very nice of you Frank. I’m doing fine. This morning the heat was getting to me, but I splurged and had Ray Lucas get these air conditioners for us. I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.”
        “That’s good to hear,” said Sgt. Helstab. “I’ll be sure to let Ella know. She’s been watching her sister’s kids for the the past week or I’m sure she’d have come by herself.”
        “Tell her thanks for thinking of me and she’s welcome anytime,” said Agnes. 
        “I’ll do that,” he said, and then turned slightly toward Kate. “Mrs. Muir I’m glad I caught you at home. I’d like to have a word about your son.”
        “It’s alright, Mrs. Muir,” said Sgt. Helstab quickly, stepping past Agnes and holding up his palms to reassure Kate. She been listening to the policeman and Agnes’ talk with a polite smile that fled when he said he wanted to talk about Steven.
          “Is he... Is something wrong?” Kate asked. Her hand’s flew to her mouth, the right grasping her fisted left hand and covering her mouth.
         “Everything’s fine,” said Sgt. Helstab in a quiet, reassuring voice. “I just wanted to introduce myself and have a brief word with you, if I could.”
          Kate realized that was holding her breath and drew in air in a shuddering gulp. “Please sit down, officer,” she said. “I sorry, you just startled me, that’s all.”
          “Would you like a glass of ice water, Frank,” said Agnes.
           Kate popped up from her chair. “Of course. I’ll get us some.”
           “No, no. I’ll get it,” said Agnes. “You just have a seat and talk with Frank.”
           “Mrs. Muir,” said Sgt. Helstab, “is Steven here?”
          “No, he’s at the store. He’ll be home soon.”
          “Well Mrs. Muir, I ran into your son this morning,” Sgt. Helstab said and then he told Kate about seeing Steven outside the bar. “I wanted to make sure we didn’t scare him. I also wanted you to know that he was wandering around pretty early.”
           “Here you are,” said Agnes, handing glasses of ice water to Kate and Sgt. Helstab. Kate’s grip slipped on the slick glass and she nearly spilled the water.  “I’m going upstairs to change for the birthday party. Call me if you need me, Kate.”
          They said goodbye to Agnes and waited for her to leave the room to return to their conversation.
“Just so I can rest easy,” said Kate. “So I remove all the mother panic that’s flared up. Steven didn’t do anything wrong, right?”
           “Right. Nothing at all,” said Sgt. Helstab. “I would just be careful about his wandering around so early. This is a safe neighborhood, but no place is absolutely safe for kids.”
          “I’ve already talked to him about that, Sergeant,” said Kate. “He won’t do it again. He was up early because of the heat and he got it in his head to see what was going on in the neighborhood early in the morning. Curiosity just got the better of him. It’s also his birthday and he’s a bit preoccupied with the usual kid birthday greediness.” Kate shrugged and shook her head slowly.
            Frank smiled and said as he stood to leave, “I don’t want to keep you. I just wanted to meet you and introduce myself. Steven goes to Morrison, doesn’t he?”
            Kate looked startled. “Yes, he does. How do you know that?”
           “Don’t worry,” said Frank smiling broadly. “We don’t have a file on him. Here’s my card. I’ve written my home address and phone number on the back. I live right behind Morrison on Rubicam. My wife and I keep an eye on things around the school. I’ve seen him in the school yard. We police get good at remembering faces.”
             “If there’s anything Ella or I can do to help with Steven, or with anything really, give us a call. Tell Steven I stopped by if you would. Sorry I missed him. I need to introduce him to my nephew, Barrett. He’s another smart kid. They’d probably get along great.”
             “It was nice to meet you, Kate. Now I will be going so you can make it to Steven’s party on time. Tell him Happy Birthday from me, won’t you.”
          They shook hands and Kate walked Sergeant Helstab to the door. As he drove away, Kate stood in the apartment door looking at the card in her hand and thought, “His tenth birthday and the police come to talk to me about my boy. Every mother’s idea of a good time. ‘Just wanted to see what was happening in the morning.’ That boy.” Shaking her head she closed the door and slipped the card in her pocket.
          Kate said on the sofa in the cool apartment and waited for Steven to come home. Kate mind’s drifted among memories of the ten years of Steven’s life. She realized she thought of the past decade as Steven’s life, not hers. Or rather, she couldn’t think of the past ten years of her life without thinking of him with her. On July 1st ten years ago, her life became Kate and Steven together, linked more closely than she had never imagined that day ten years ago.
         When Steven walked in carrying a small bag of groceries, Kate didn’t even give him time to put down the bag. She didn’t respect his often expressed desire to be treated like a big kid. Kate hugged him so tight he gasped, then kissed his forehead and both his cheeks. Steven struggled out of his mother’s embrace. He looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “Why’d you do that?” he asked.

         “Because I don't have to get bail money on your birthday.”

Thursday, February 20, 2014

July 1, 1968 (from chapter 8 of "Families")

    The first of July was a Monday and so the people of Olney started the workweek. At the breakfast table, what talk there was turned to the heat that was already overwhelming the window fans in the kitchen. On Sunday night, the weather reports warned that highs would be in the upper nineties. By 7:00 a.m., warm air had already muscled aside the lingering coolness of the night. People going to work planned ways to escape the heat as best they could throughout the work day. Women who stayed at home, decided to put off the laundry and vacuuming until tomorrow. The kids wondered if anyone would turn on the fire hydrants.
     Usually, Steven stayed up late and slept through the morning, but the heat wouldn’t allow him to sleep and by 7:00 a.m. he was on front step, breakfast eaten, ready to go. The sun in the cloudless sky beat down on the cars lining 4th Street. Many had been washed and waxed over the weekend and they gleamed in the angled rays of the swiftly rising sun. Kate was upstairs eating breakfast with Agnes and Helen, but she’d  worked all night and would soon be sleeping. Steven hoped the fan in her bedroom would cool the room down enough to let her sleep. 
         Steven rarely left the house before nine or ten, by which time Olney was quiet. Most men and more women than people realized had already gone to work. He decided to take a walk and see what Olney at seven in the morning was like. As he wandered through the familiar streets, he noticed that men had replaced the usual crowd of women and children. They walked purposefully out of their doors often glancing at their watches to see if they were on time or if they had to rush through the heat that seemed to build by the minute.  Steven felt his arms tingle, a warning that Summer’s first sun burn was beginning. Steven saw people he knew and people he only recognized. As he walked, some greeted him by name and asked after his mother or Mrs. McGill. A few ran a quick hand over his crew cut and made a little joke. Others walked by with a nod in his direction or, preoccupied with thoughts of work, without any sign that they were they shared the sidewalk with a young boy who should be home at this hour. Steven bobbed along aimlessly, a random element in the regular pattern of people tracing their daily path to work.
      On 3rd Street, the Henkel’s walked to the train station for the short ride to Reading Terminal and from there the brief walks to their downtown office towers. Mr. Schmidt loaded the last case of samples of safety equipment into his station wagon and drove off to his first sales call. Mr. Levin, a teacher at Morrison elementary, woke up at the usual time, and, enjoying his summer vacation, sat on the porch with a cup of coffee and a novel. Over on 2nd, Mr. Harper dropped his wife at the bank, then drove to the truck terminal to pick up his steel hauler. By 8:30 a.m. he’d be at a mill picking up a load of steel beams to haul to a building site in Jersey.
       The men who worked in factories dreaded these hot days. The few fans on the  plant floor did little more than push around the hot air. By afternoon the smell of oil and sweat would pervade the factory floor. Men would be trapped between the heat from the line and heat from the open skylights. Knowing this, knowing this day would bring would bring eight hours of sweaty, exhausting labor, the men went to work, because it was Monday and on Monday you went to work. Mr. Marino rode the bus to the Westinghouse factory across from the Silver Rocket diner. Mr. Doyle left before sunrise in his Rambler to drive to Bucks County and the Wheeling Steel plant. Everyday was a day of fire and heat for him. Mr. Schneider drove to a machine shop in Germantown. He’d work with doors and windows open, a small fan mounted on his die press. The Lewis brothers met at the 26 bus stop to go to the Bulletin’s printing presses. The heat in the press rooms would be horrible. Jack Mitchell was already loading his delivery van at Whiting Paper. He’d broken a sweat and it wasn’t even 8:00 a.m. yet. John Kinney walked to a friend’s, who drove him Philadelphia Gear, where they both worked. They decided to go to the air conditioned diner across the street for lunch. Mr. Ruch was on his way to Western Electric. He hoped the new exhaust system he’d help install would cool the plant at least a little. Mr. Bryant waited outside the gates of French’s to get a last breath of fresh air before entering the factory, while Mr. Modesta finished his last cigarette before walking through the gates at Crow Cork and Seal Co. Eugene McGovern checked his pockets for his notebook where he’d sketched an improvement he want want to try out on a new valve his team was working on, then he headed to the Boulevard for the slow drive to Combination Pump and Valve shops. Mr. Coyle was in for a long hot day on the Budd line and was dreading it, as was Mr. Bremme over at Heintz. They were both wondering what it would like to slip away and spend the afternoon watching movies at the air conditioned Fern Rock theater. Bob Poderis worked at Penn Reels. Around 11:00 a.m., he’d pick a reel, spin the handle, listen to the spool smoothly clicking, test the bail and the drag knob, then close his eyes and imagine he was in the cool Poconos on the bank of a lake, dozing under a tree, his fishing line drifting in the cool, clear water.  Steven knew many of these men by sight, but few of their names. To them, he was just another kid they passed on their to work. Steven would be surprised how many of their wives knew his name.
The dimly lit, high-ceiling, open spaces of the sanctuary were cool on this hot Monday morning, as Mr. Renier crossed the street from his house to start custodial work at Olney Pres. Definitely a good day to clean and polish the altar furniture, he thought. Other men who built and repaired the   city, painters, builders, plumbers, handy men, roofers, and electricians unlocked their garages and checked their notes for their first job of the day. They’d restock their trucks, made of list of the materials they needed to buy, then pulled out and headed to their jobs.
         Mr. Pahlke had a plastering job across town in a library. He was pretty sure it was air-conditioned. Mr. Fletcher had a big job at a building site in Jenkintown. He was pouring the concrete for a grocery store foundation. He wanted to get the job done before the worst heat set in. Mr. Minnick repaired boilers and spent his days in heat and grime that would wilt most people. He was finishing up a job left over from last week, and, as it was summer, the boiler room would be warm, but not stifling. He was so accustomed to the heat, he wouldn’t have complained no matter the temperature. Mr. Brady was building a deck in Mayfair, but if it got as hot as he’d heard it going to get, he’d knock off early. The deck was in the full sun all day long and the last thing he needed was sunstroke.
        Steven walked past the post office on 4th and Olney. He walked up 4th, automatically following the shade of the overhanging trees,  past Mr. McMenamin, George Codrick, and Mr. McKinley who were taking a break. They’d been working since 5:00 a.m., and were talking about how hot it was already in the sorting room. Mr. Liss maneuvered his bag around the men, gave them a wave, and started on his route. He wore shorts, a short sleeve shirt, and a pith helmet, but by the time he’d walked a block, his shirt was stained with sweat were the heavy bag rested on his back and shoulder.
       Walking past Taylor’s bar, Steven was surprised to see the door standing open and men sitting around the large, round center table. The only light came from dim bulbs that lit the bottles on the shelves behind the bar and through the small windows high in the front wall. Steven didn’t know that Ed O’Brien, a retired cop who tended bar, opened the doors at 7:00 a.m. for the Monday morning group. Friends since high school at Oleny High, Sergeant FJ Helstab, Lt. Marters, Patrolman Sprigg, and Firefighter Neal drank coffee and ate donuts O’Brien picked up on 5th Street on his way in to work.  
         “It’s going to be near a hundred out there today. You remember last summer? Every time it got hot the crazies were on the streets smashing windows and starting fires,” said Lt. Marters. “You watch yourself out there, Sprigg.”
          “If it’s bad enough, I’ll see you there with me,” said Sprigg.
           “It would have to me real bad,” said Lt. Marters. “FJ and I have murders to clear up. The street is for you blues. Although if FJ keeps clearing cases on his own, he’ll get me sent to streets with you.”
“You suits won’t even break a sweat today,” replied Sprigg, playing his part in the familiar back and forth between patrolmen and detectives. “First air-conditioned apartment you guys come to, you’ll spend all day questioning the poor sap who lives there.”
           “And you be careful, Neal,” said Segeant Frank Helstab. “They shot at firemen last year, as I’m sure I don’t have to remind you. I’m worried what we might get this summer.”
          “You don’t need to remind me,” said Neal, pouring himself a second cup of coffee. “Least summer a bullet just missed me. Punched a nice neat hole right through the door of the engine.”
            “Keep ducking,” said Helstab, as he and Marters rose to leave. “I don’t want to have to track down some idiot that put a hole in you. We’ve got enough work with the gang boys killing each other faster than we can count ‘em. And Sprigg, you tell the guys to go easy with the people. Stupid stuff on days like this can blow up real fast.”
             “I know that,” said Sprigg. “I’m out there everyday.”
              “Easy, Ed,” said Helstab. “I’m not talking about you. You know your job. I reminding me to help out the guys who think with their fists.”
              “It’s a crazy world, that’s for sure,” said O’Brien, carrying the empty pot to the sink. “You’d think a hot day like this, people would get out of the sun, have a cold drink, and take it easy, but these days people start running around smashing and grabbing and shooting. Crazy, crazy world. Didn’t used to be like that.” 
              Returning to the table with a fresh mug of coffee, O’Brien noticed Steven watching them through the open doorway. “This kid belong to anybody?” asked O’Brian jerking his thumb toward Steven. “It’s a little early for your wives to be sending your kids to fetch you guys.”
            “Go home, son,” said FJ. “You’re too young to be hanging out at bars. Go on.”
             Steven was transfixed by the men sitting in the shadowy bar. It was like watching a movie or a TV show, but the men on the screen had noticed him and spoken to him. He was caught off guard and didn’t know how to respond.  He recognized the man who told him to go home, but he wasn’t sure where he’d seen him. Detective Helstab snapped his fingers, startling Steven from his reverie and he began running down Tabor toward 5th Street. Lt. Marters and Sgt. Helstab stepped out into the light and walked over to the department car parked in the shade of a large maple. 
         “You know the kid?” asked Marters.
         “Yeah, he lives a few blocks up the street on 4th with his mom,” said Helstab. “Dad’s dead. The guys at the station on 4th look out for her at night. She works nights and rides the bus to work. She’s all right.”
          “What’s the boy doing out do early?” asked Marters.
          “Don’t know. He’s a smart kid, one of those watchers who’s always thinking. Doesn’t miss a thing, from what Al tell’s me. He was probably just curious, wondering why the bar door was open in the morning.  I’ll drop by and talk to his Mom tonight on my way home.”
           Steven slowed to a walk when he realized that there was no reason to run. He was embarrassed that he’d been caught spying on the men, but the scene in the bar had caught. Steven was only beginning to realize that with so much of his life spent among women, scenes like the men in bar were an attractive view into another world. As he walked, the men in suits drove past him. The car didn’t slow, but the man in the passenger seat, the man who’d snapped his fingers, turned to look at Steven. The man and the boy held each other’s glance, then the man gave Steven a slight nod and turned away.
Steven followed the car down Tabor toward 5th. The made a right and Steven lost sight of it. Along the way he passed corner stores and barber shops open for business, the owner’s wives upstairs getting the children ready for the day. On 5th street, newsstands and pretzel sellers had already set up shop on the sidewalks. At Ferracco’s Edward Burke had propped the front and rear doors open to try and draw a breeze through the shop. He was at the work bench carefully sharpening Mrs. Umkauf’s favorite pair of pruning shears, the ones she used on her roses. Delis and restaurants were open. Shopkeepers were checking their wall clocks while they prepared their stores for the nine o’clock opening.
At Walker’s deli, Mr. Blitchford, who owned a used car lot on Frankford Ave., was watching Steven walk past his dark green Olds 88. He sat in the window so he could watch his car. He didn’t trust kids near his car since someone had keyed the driver side of his ’63 Lincoln Continental. He was having breakfast like he did every Monday with some of the guys from his softball team. Mike McKee, a union rep for the Painters and Allied trades, wasn’t very talkative today. He was preoccupied with a grievance he was filing that afternoon. Tom Gold had a city job in South Philly, and always had to leave first to catch the trolley down 5th. Ralph Kleinworth was worrying about his wife’s illness. Her mother was looking after her and the kids. He was a guard at the Franklin Arsenal. He planned to get a air conditioner at Sears on the way home so his wife would be as comfortable as possible.  Blitchford was trying to sell a Chevy convertible to McKee. “Come on, Mike. I know how it works in the Union. There’s always money laying around for a guy with his eyes open.”
           “And his hand out,” muttered Tom Gold, whose salary from the city wasn’t keeping up with the expenses of his growing family.
             In mid morning old, flatbed trucks and the occasional horse drawn cart would slowly roll through Olney, the driver calling “Strawberries, Blue Berries.” Housewives would flag him down to buy fruit and produce. Most of the drivers were Italians from South Philly carrying on the family business of their fathers and grandfathers in Palermo, Napoli, or Sicily. 
            In the homes, women would clear away their husbands’ dishes, feed the children, then begin the chores that would occupy them until it was time to prepare dinner. Most women had a schedule for the week and often their schedules intersected with their neighbors’ and friends’ so they might go grocery shopping together or visit over the fence while hanging their laundry to dry. 
           In a few houses the families didn’t move in the regular rhythm. Sometimes dad was out too late at the bar and couldn’t go to work. Maybe he missed too much work and had lost his job. Sometimes mom would drink once she was alone and the chores would go undone and the kids would scrounge their own meals and the family would crumble. These houses always had the blinds drawn and the doors closed. By the early afternoon, the heat and the booze would have put the drinkers to sleep. The kids would play quietly, careful not to wake their unpredictable mom or dad.
           On American Street near Clarkson, a repair crew was tearing up the street. The men were covered in sweat and stopped every few minutes to mop their faces with sodden handkerchiefs. From the stench rising from the trench, Steven thought they might be working on the sewer. He wondered if all the men he’d seen going to work today would be as hot as these guys. He didn’t know that some of the men in the Olney never worried about the heat. 
            Mr. Lockett and Mr. Cunningham worked with computer systems. There only concern about the weather was a black out that would knock out the cooling systems protecting the valuable machines. Ray Johnson was a butcher at the A&P warehouse. The cutting room was kept in the 40’s year round. Mr. Luczejko worked for Kraft Dairies making ice cream. Heat was no problem at the ice cream factory.
            The men of Ma Bell had other concerns. They’d been told that it looked like a record breaking day. It might hit 100ยบ. Mr. Schwemmer,  Mr. Bowie, and Mr. Hunter read the note about the heat on the bulletin board, then drove to their designated switching stations to watch for overheating circuits. Mr. Bowie called his friend, Mr. Speaker, at Philadelphia Electric to try and get a head’s up about any anticipated power problems.
             Steven glanced at the bank clock and decided to go home. He was thirsty and a little tired. He might be able to sleep for a while on the sofa before the living room heated up. By then, the Harper’s should be done with their chores and he could go to their house and see what was going on. Mr. and Mrs. Harper had offered their yard for his birthday party. Steven was curious to she if it had been fixed up special for him. He didn’t expect it would be, but it might.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Weird Rain (From Chapter 1, "Families".)

     It was raining on the first day of summer vacation in 1968. A boy sat on the  steps of a small apartment building, considering his possibilities. He was tossing a pimple ball in the air with one hand and catching in with the other. He caught it most of the time, but when he missed, the ball would hit the steps and bounce off in one direction or the other, and the boy would throw himself after the ball, trying to catch it before it hit a parked car or bounced into the street. A clean catch was worth a point. If he missed the ball, and it hit a car, he lost two points. If the ball made it to the street, he lost three. If he caught the ball on one or two bounces, he lost only one point. If he caught the ball with his left hand, he added five points. (He was trying to get better using his left hand.) He’d been playing since 9:30 and his score was 119. He decided to play until he reached 150. He had to do something until after lunch, because his friends, Jimmy and Doug Harper, had to do chores in the morning and weren’t allowed out to play until after lunch. 
        The boy felt strange playing step ball on a rainy day, but this storm was strange. He had never seen rain like this. The boy liked thunderstorms and wild, windy downpours. If a storm was coming from the east, it would slam against the rear of the apartment and he could sit, his legs pulled up against his chest, under the small aluminum awning that protected a little rectangle of concrete in front of  the west facing front door. From this dry spot, he could feel the wind swirling around him and look north up the hill toward Olney Avenue, through the tunnel of interlaced branches created by the huge sycamores and maples that lined the street. He liked the way the sycamore leaves would be tossed about by the wind, their wet, silvery backs shimmering in the shadows cast by the storm clouds.
      This storm wasn’t really a storm at all. There was no wind, not even a zephyr (a word he had learned recently from a book on Greek mythology he’d found in the library.) The gentle rain fell straight down, like a curtain on a still evening, to the west as far as he could see, bouncing off the cars in the bank parking lot across the street and soaking the houses on Lawrence Street. The gentle rain stopped in the middle of 4th Street. He sat on completely dry steps, the sun warm on his thin, pale white legs that had only been given the freedom of shorts that morning. He’d seen sun showers, but this was different. Across the street, it was dark and wet, like you’d expect during a rainstorm. He could see edges of the clouds that ran to the north and south up and down 4th Street. He shoved the ball in his pocket when he reached 150 points, and turned his full attention to the rain. 
     The boy decided the weird storm must mean something. He had learned the word “omen” from a book of Celtic folktales and legends his fourth grade teacher had given him on the last day of school. That had been on Friday. He had devoured the book over the weekend, reading it late into the night, as there was no need to get up early the next morning. Mrs. McGill didn’t mind, as long as he was reading “good books,” which meant he had to wait until she fell asleep before slipping the comic books and Mad magazines from their hiding place under the sofa. For these two days, the magazines lay untouched, as Steven was lost in Niall of the Nine Hostages, Finn MacCool, Cuchulainn, and Sweeney, the madman. These stories were filled with omens, so this strange rain, he decided, must be an omen that foretold the events of this summer, the summer of 1968. If nothing else, he would turn ten in two weeks, on July 1st, and while that wasn’t strange, it that would make this summer special.
      He wondered if there was magic behind the rain, but a quick look up and down 4th Street and a consideration of the people that lived in the apartments, row homes and duplexes didn’t suggest anyone magical lived nearby. There was the old house around the corner on Third, the one that all the kids knew as “The Witch’s House,” but he knew that the bent and gray lady who lived there wasn’t a witch. She was just Mrs. Umkauf, an old lady who was too weak and sick to go out or to keep her small front garden neat and tidy. He knew this because when his Mom had found out that he was shooting dried peas at her windows through straws with some other kids, she had taken him to the house, introduced him to Mrs. Umkauf, and arranged for him to clean up her yard for her and to go back every other week to keep it clean. His mother refused to let Mrs. Umkauf pay him, although she offered a dollar a week. The other kids still thought she was a witch, but it’s hard to convince yourself of that when you sit in her kitchen every other Saturday morning, eat a piece of cake or two with a cold glass of milk, while the witch told you stories about her long dead husband and her boys killed in WWII. 
       No, Olney was not a magical place, no matter how hard the boy tried to make it so. But then, what about the weird rain? The boy finally decided that rain had to stop somewhere. He knew that it could not be raining everywhere at once. You could tell that from the weather maps on the news. He’d been on buses and in cars as they drove in and out of rainstorms. He decided that this time he just happened to be at the right spot to see the edge of the storm. Could that be the omen? This being in the right spot?  This seemed the only reasonable solution. He didn’t want to give up on the idea of an omen appearing to him because of the great stories in the Celtic book. He decided the rain was an omen, but he had no idea what it meant.
      He wasn’t ready to give up on the possibility of magic, but he couldn’t just ignore the answers that made sense. It was like when he was younger and trying to sleep in Mrs. McGill’s living room. He’d lie awake staring at weird shadows on the walls and ceiling. He’d be frightened, until he could find what had made the shadow, perhaps the street light shining through the waving lace curtains, and then the monster would be gone, and he couldn’t see it again. Once he realized the monster was the shadow of a Hummel, he could only see the Hummel’s shadow, never again the monster. The loss of the monster left him feeling safer, and a little sad.
     1968 could use some magic. It had started with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and every night Steven would watch Walter Cronkite grimly report the casualties, the reporters’s face growing more lined and drawn each bloody day. In April, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and riots erupted all over the country. Steven and his mother didn’t own a TV, but they watched the coverage on Mrs. McGill’s color cabinet model in the upstairs apartment. Steven’s guts were tied in knots as watched the anger exploding in flames, overturned cars, shattered windows. He kept glancing out the window, expecting to see rioters running down 4th street. Mrs. McGill saw Steven’s distress and said, “Don’t worry, son. Rizzo knows how to handle rioters.” Steven remembered the picture in the papers of Frank Rizzo, the Police Chief, leaving  a formal dinner of some kind, his tuxedo jacket unbuttoned over his solid belly and thick chest, a nightstick jammed in his cumberbund, fury darkening his pocked face, striding forth to do battle in the streets. Steven knew Mrs. McGill’s remark was meant to calm him, but that picture, that explosive anger heading out onto the streets, upset him as much as the pictures of rioters on TV. 
      Early that June, Robert F. Kennedy was killed in the kitchen of a hotel in California where he was speaking. Steven saw the murder on TV. The next day, his teacher suddenly broke into tears and walked out of the room. The children, even the trouble makers, sat quietly and waited for her to return. She was gone about ten minutes, and when she returned her eyes were red rimmed. She spoke haltingly to the class about the Kennedy family for a few minutes, then had everyone put away their things. For the last hour and half of the day, she read to the class from Treasure Island. For years afterward, whenever a TV show was interrupted for a news update, Steven’s guts would twist and his jaw would clench.

      “There you are.” The soft whisper barely reached the boy’s ears and he twisted his neck to follow the voice to the open window of the apartment above his.
      “Come on up, Steven. I need to see you.”

       “OK, Mrs. McGill,” called Steven, his voice matching her whispered tone. Jumping to his feet, he gently opened the aluminum screen door, holding it carefully to keep it from banging while he pushed the heavy front door.  He closed them with a learned delicacy at odds with his natural inclination to slam doors, to do all things at full speed, heedless of what he was doing at the moment, his mind driving his body to speed up, speed up, to get to the next thing.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Juke Box (from "Families")

        They stopped at a diner called the Silver Rocket on the way home. The walls were covered with pictures from NASA, and model spaceships filled a rack that ran the length of one wall. The strip of linoleum that ran down the center aisle was a pattern of moon and stars. They slid into the booth and Steven passed out the plastic covered menus. Before ordering, Steven instantly began flipping the shiny silver levers attached to the cards with the song titles inside the little juke box on the end of the table. Whenever they came here, Steven made sure they had nickels to play songs. Today he’d forgotten, but between the three of them they came up with seven nickels. Steven suggested that they take turns picking songs. It was agreed that Steven would go first.
      Before Steven picked his first song, he calculated that whoever went first would get three choices, the others only two. He kept this fact to himself. After all, he hadn’t asked to go first. He had almost decided on his first song, when the waitress arrived and he ordered what he always ordered, an open faced roast beef sandwich with gravy on the mashed potatoes, and mixed vegetables. He returned to his musical consideration while his mother and Helen ordered their meals.
      He dropped in the first nickel, turned the handle, and said, “C7, ‘Born to be Wild.”
      “There’s a surprise,” said Kate, as the opening chords crunched the air. “Remember, Steven, the rules are you can’t play any song more than once.” She turned to Helen and said, “Once he played this song four times in row. When it began for the fourth time, the manager unplugged it and dropped a nickel on Steven’s plate.  A few people cheered.”
     They laughed, even Steven laughed, and Kate was pleased to see that he had calmed down. It was Helen’s turn next. She spun through the songlist and asked Steven to select A4, “Jumping Jack Flash.” “I saw the Stones in London a few years ago. They were great.”
      Kate took her turn and selected E7, “What a Wonderful World.”  When it came on, Steven shook his head, and said to Helen, “She always tries to embarrass me.”
      Helen rose to Kate’s defense. “That’s Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest musicians alive.” She could see that he wasn’t impressed. “She could have picked E9.”
      Steven flipped the cards and found E9. “Yuck,” said Steven. “‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.’ That song is so stupid. My friend, Doug loves that song and it is so stupid.”
      “Your turn, Steven,” said Kate. “Let’s keep going before he attacks my songs again.”
      Steven again took his time. “‘Revolution’?” No. “‘I Heard It Thought the Grapevine’?” Maybe next time. “C5 ‘Mony, Mony’.”
       Helen was drinking water and almost choked. “‘Mony, Mony’?” said Helen through her laughter. “‘Jump down, turn around, Mony, Mony’. I don’t think Einstein wrote that one, Steven.”
        Steven looked confused. “It’s Tommy James,” said Steven. “The guy who sings ‘Crimson and Clover.’”
       “What I meant was that ‘Mony, Mony’ is a pretty silly song,” explained Helen. 
        Steven looked surprised.  “No it isn’t,” he said.
       “Tell you what,” said Helen. “When you get home, I want you to write down the lyrics, the words, to ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy’ and ‘Mony, Mony’ then look at them real closely and find a reason why they aren’t both stupid.”
       Steven looked puzzled, uncertain how to take Helen. “Steven, I’m playing with you,” Helen said. “If you’re going to dish it out, you have to learn to take it.”
       Before he could speak, she said, “A4, ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’ Cream. Three guys and whole lot of sound. That’ll blow away any tinny, little Mony echoes.”
      Kate was ready with her selection. “B10 ‘Honey.’ I cried the first time I heard it.”
      “I still do, until I can change the station,” said Helen.
       Steven smiled, his hand hand hovering over the buttons. “Last chance to pick a good song, Mom. Want another chance?”
       “No, it’s fine,” said Kate.
        Steven groaned as he pressed B10. He looked at the last nickel on the table and a surprising idea fired through his brain. He considered it and decided that he might as well. “Go ahead, Helen,” he said. “Take the last pick.”
        Kate shot her eyebrows in surprise. “We have a gentleman here,” said Helen. “I tell you what. I’ll pick a song, but if either of you don’t like it, just say so, and I’ll pick something else.”
        Their food arrived and Kate and Steven began to eat while Bobby Goldsboro  suffered and Helen made the final selection. “C3 ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.’ A little soul for our supper.” Neither Kate nor Steven was familiar with the song, but Helen assured them that they would like it. They’d finished their meal before the song played, but Helen insisted they order dessert so that they’d hear it. They were finishing their ice cream as Otis Redding was whistling his lost and lonely way to the end of the song. “Wow,” said Kate softly. Steven asked if he could break his only dime so they could play it again.

       After the second time through ‘Dock of the Bay,’ they rode the trolley home down 5th Street. Steven convinced Helen and Kate to get off one stop early, so they could stop at Getlin’s records. Helen had insisted on buying the single for Kate and Steven. On the way home, they whistled the coda, Helen coaching them when they drifted. “Otis died in a plane crash last December,” said Helen. “He was only twenty-four or twenty-five. So sad.” The whistling stopped.

Driving Lesson (from "Families")

         When Kate entered her apartment and called to Steven, he didn’t answer.  He was sitting by the front window, watching uninterestedly as a father from up the street was teaching his son to drive in the nearly empty bank parking lot. The car must have had a stick, because it jerked and hopped across the lot, as the kid struggled with the clutch. Kate ran her hand over Steven’s bristles and he pulled his head away. 
        Kate wasn’t sure if he was ready to hear about her losing her job. She decided to begin slowly and see how he responded. “Steven,” Kate said, “I know it was a bad ride home.”
       Steven must have heard her, but he kept staring out the window.
      “I’m glad you finally got some sleep,” said Kate. “I’ve been very worried about how little sleep you’ve gotten lately.” He kept watching the unsuccessful driving lesson. “Steven, can you look at me, please,” she asked softly.
      Steven waited, then slowly turned around. Kate expected him to look angry or anxious, but he looked hurt. Kate realized that, in her distress, she may missed something, so she asked, “Steven, what’s the matter?”
     Steven glanced back at the bucking car. The father now had his left arm extended and jammed against the dash. The window was rolled down so his right arm could be wedged between the door panel and roofline. Kate waited for Steven to speak, frustrated that she couldn’t seem to do anything right. 
     “Jimmy and Doug are going over to Somerville Avenue today. All the kids over there are riding their bikes to Burlholme Park,” he said in a soft voice barely above a whisper. “I called Jimmy because I felt good this morning and wanted to do something, but now I can’t.”
     Kate winced. Steven didn’t have a bike. She’d knew he wanted one, and she’d saved to buy him one, but something always came up, the money always had to go somewhere else. To be honest, things had been so tight for so long, that when she had enough money to buy a bike, she hesitated, holding on to the money for the emergency that she knew was always right around the corner. There was no way to explain all these things to Steven. Maybe someday, but not now, when he was feeling left out and lonely. Money was her problem, not his, and she tried to protect him from it. “I’m sorry you can’t go with your friends, Steven. I wish there was a way.” 
      Helen came downstairs and stood on the open doorway. “I’ve got an hour until I have to get ready. I thought I’d see what you and Steven were up to.”
      “Come in,” said Kate, relieved to have escaped the awkward discussion. She hoped that Helen would cheer Steven up. 
      Helen saw Steven looking out the window. “What’s going on, Stevie?” she asked.
      “Look out for the wall!” yelled Steven. He glanced at Helen and said, “Some guy’s trying to teach his kid to drive.” 
       Helen leaned over and rested her elbows on the window sill. “Ouch! Mixed up the clutch and brake,” she said. “That can throw you clear through the windshield.”
       When a sharp turn snapped the father’s head and his Phillies cap flew out of the window, all three of the observers nearly collapsed in laughter. The harried dad wildly waved his son to a stop, threw the door open, retrieved his hat, then marched purposely to the driver’s side and ordered his son to move over.
       “That’s the end of what I hope was the first lesson,” said Helen. 
        The father started the car, but was so flustered, he popped the clutch and killed it. Furious swearing faintly reached the open window of the apartment, as the starter ground and the father roared past the apartment.
        The show over, Helen and Kate sat down. Helen sprawled on the sofa, her legs stretched out. Steven hopped over her ankles on the way to the kitchen to get some lemonade. “I wonder what Edward wants,” said Helen to no one in particular.  
       “Do you have any idea?” asked Kate.
        “No, not for sure, but I get the feeling that I’m wearing out my welcome at Edward’s,” said Helen. “It must be that. I had no idea it would me take this long to find a place. I keep being distracted by things at Penn. And then Aunt Agnes went in the hospital. I think I’ll stay here a while, if Aunt Agnes doesn’t mind. It’ll be easier to visit her. Then I’ll have to go home to Norristown and drive into Philly a couple of times a week, until I can find a place to rent near Penn. It’ll only be for the summer. I have to be settled by the time classes start.”
        “How long are you planning to stay in Agnes’ apartment?” asked Kate.
        “As long as she’s in the hospital, at least,” replied Helen. “I can get around easily by bus and train from here. My car is the garage in Norristown. I’ll leave it there until I need it.”
        “What kind of car is it?” asked Stevie.
        “A ’67 Mustang,” said Helen.
         “Nice car,” said Stevie.
          “Thanks,” said Helen. “I splurged a bit. It’s fun to drive.”

          They talked a while about cars, the Phillies, and school, Penn and Morrison, Steven’s school. After about an hour, Helen excused herself to get ready for lunch.