Sunday, December 4, 2016

IN THE HEART OF CLEVELAND


The Cleveland skyline
Before my parents and younger brother (almost collectively) died between 2003 and 2005, the City of Cleveland was “where my sister lived.” Darla, my sister, settled there right out of college in the late nineteen-sixties and never left. Whether in the city or in the suburbs, she always lived in or around that city. It made sense. She was a talented sociologist, and Cleveland was a city that had a demand for her talents.
Tom, her ex-husband—and the father of her two sons, Jon and Andrew—was from Cleveland originally. Or better said, from Berea, a West Side suburb. The city had need of his talents as well. Very soon after he graduated from Miami University (Ohio)—also Darla’s alma mater—he became a probation officer, a job from which he eventually retired after decades of keeping ex-cons on the straight and narrow and of putting them back in the slammer whenever they jumped their parole.
The city glistens by night
But my knowledge of the place—such as it was—always tended to be scant at best, and usually had to do with driving up with or without my parents for a couple of days whenever I was “back home” for a visit, following careful instructions as to how to get to my sister’s house without getting lost, enjoying a brief get-together at her place, and returning to our hometown of Wapakoneta, three hours southwest. Often when she could make it down to Wapak (as locals abbreviate the name of our town), there was no trip to Cleveland at all for the rest of us. Back then, we were all very busy people and visits were short if sweet.
My late brother Dennis lived there briefly as well, when he was an area manager for an Ohio-based chain of record stores, living in the area of Greater Cleveland known as Olmstead Falls. But that was at a time when I spent several years outside of the United States before getting back for a visit, and by the time I made it back, he was on his way to a knew destination and I only visited him in Cleveland for a single weekend.
After our parents both passed away in 2003, Dennis decided to sell his place in Lima, Ohio, and move into the Florida condo Mom and Dad had bought a decade and a half earlier as a winter home. It was an unlikely move on his part, but by then, he was doing a lot of unlikely things, trying to change something...change everything. Our family home of forty-two years in Wapakoneta we sold. And suddenly, I felt cut adrift. That place had been my anchor to the US and my official American address since I had moved to South America thirty years earlier. Now, suddenly, it was gone. So for the two years that my brother was alive after that, my also unlikely US address became Ocala, Florida, as well, and Dennis and I even shared a post office box there.
Following our brother’s untimely death, however, my sister and I decided to sell the condo. She wouldn’t be using it, she said, and with no further family ties there, I certainly wouldn’t be either. God knew Florida was low on my list of places to get to know back then— unless it were with my folks, who had chosen to live there.
Cleveland's Hope Memorial Bridge with its
massive Guardians 
Again, then, I was “homeless” in the US. At the time, Darla was living with someone—Ron, a widower—and they had set up housekeeping at his place. He was an ex-Airborne Ranger with whom I shared Army veteran status and memories of crawling around in the course red dust of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, if practically nothing else in the way of politics or beliefs. But he generously let me borrow his address in the Highland Heights area of Cleveland and gave me the run of the house and his liquor cabinet whenever I was in town. “You can drink the Scotch,” he would say. “I don’t mind.” And since that was back in the days when, left to my own devices, I tended to drink as much Scotch as I could hold, that was a truly tempting offer.
Eventually, however, Darla decided to take a whole new step, moved out, and bought herself a condo in Rocky River, just a few blocks away from the Cleveland Metro Parks. From then on, for her, it was mi casa tu casa with me. And this was at about the time that I started getting back to the US for a visit about once a year. Suddenly, Cleveland was no longer “where my sister lived” but my home away from home when I was in the States as well.
Oddly enough, Cleveland, way up north and way over by Pennsylvania from our central western Ohio home town, is connected to our history and geography. For one thing, the great Auglaize River which rises to the surface up by Harrod, Ohio, in the territory of the old Hog Creek Reservation that the Shawnee nation once occupied, meanders more or less south to Wapakoneta, then turns sharply west and runs, like a ribbon of liquid highway, right through our town before looping north and flowing over a hundred miles to its confluence with the Maumee that feeds Lake Erie, on the shores of which Cleveland was founded. The Auglaize was home to the Indians before it became the territory of the white man and is rich with the tragic history of the Shawnee, Mingo and other tribes that happily populated the area until a couple of decades into the nineteenth century when they were displaced and sent on a death march to Kansas after the government broke its treaty (and its word) with them.
My sister Darla can always be counted on for fascinating 
cultural outings, like this  exhibition of gardens painted by 
artists from Monet to Matisse at Cleveland's stunning Museum
of Fine Arts. 
But there’s an even stronger connection than the muddy waters of the Auglaize, mixed with the tears of the Shawnee nation. Cleveland, named (minus the “a”) for expeditionary General Moses Cleaveland who explored the area, laid out plans for the founding of a village and then left, never to return, wasn’t incorporated as such until 1814. But from the 1820s on, its growth was exponential, thanks to completion of the Miami-Erie Canal, a man-made waterway that was an early brainstorm of President George Washington but that didn’t become a reality until a quarter-century after his death. An incredible project for its time, the canal ran the south-north length of the state, from the Ohio River to Lake Erie, providing a major commercial and industrial link for the transport of resources from the new Ohio Territory to the Great Lakes and from the Great Lakes to the great ports of the American East Coast.
Beer-drinkers never go thirsty in Cleveland
The canal was a major building block in Cleveland’s growth as an important Midwestern lake port and thus too in its development as a great industrial power in the days before it went from being the capital of the steel belt to being a victim of the rust belt following the Vietnam War. And that same canal runs smack through our county—Auglaize County, of which our home town is the county seat. Grand Lake Saint Marys, Ohio’s largest man-made lake, a few miles from Wapak, fed that canal with water that carried barges north from the river to the lake, pulled by horses and mules along towpaths that stretched from Cincinnati to Cleveland along the narrow scar of waterway that was nicknamed “Deepcut”.
In the years since Cleveland agonized through the rustbelt era, the city has almost naturally reinvented itself—minus a big chunk of population that left when industrial job sources dried up—developing from being a once grimy, smoky mill town to being a more streamlined, glistening, cultural and business center, a city with, among other things, glass-sheathed skyscrapers, stunning natural parklands, one of the world’s finest art museums, upscale shops and galleries, and one of the most celebrated symphony orchestras in the United States. Of late, it has also gained a growing reputation for fine and varied cuisine,  and as a platform for the micro-brewing industry: Beer-drinkers never go thirsty in Cleveland and the city has served as the cradle for some of the finest craft brews imaginable.
The Cleveland church where the wedding scene from "The Deer Hunter" 
was filmed
Nor is old Cleveland forgotten. The city has given birth and praise to artists who document it, from film-makers and photographers to the likes of the late graphic novelist, Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame. Among other movie projects, it famously provided some of the exteriors and interiors seen in the now classic 1978 Michael Cimino feature film, The Deer Hunter, starring Robert De Niro, John Savage, Christopher Walken and John Cazale, despite the fact that the story was set in Pennsylvania (and Vietnam). There was an early role for Meryl Streep as well in The Deer Hunter, that of the “stock, vague girlfriend, Linda”. Cleveland figured most prominently in the scene in which the characters all go to the wedding of Steven and Angela (played by the John Savage and Rutanya Alda) filmed at the St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Catholic Church in the City’s Tremont neighborhood, and in scenes in the mill where the male characters work, which were shot in US Steel’s Cleveland plant.  

It is to this City of Cleveland that I have come late in life as an adoptive son—making it official by voting in the last two presidential elections as a Cuyahoga County resident—and getting to know it through the eyes of my sister and my nephews, who swell with pride at their unique city. Doing so has made me defensive about the “hick-town” jokes of which Cleveland is often the brunt in movies as well as conversation with New Yorkers, LA residents and others from America’s better-known metropolises.
My guides are just the right balance of street and high-brow culture. Darla often plans outings for me that include museums and other points of cultural interest, and the city’s extraordinary Museum of Fine Arts is always a favorite—like last year when she and I visited a fascinating exhibition of gardens seen through the eyes of some of the greatest impressionist and expressionist painters of all time.
My nephews, Jon and Andy, meanwhile, can always be counted on to submerse me in the very fabric of popular Cleveland culture with every visit of mine including multiple tours of their favorite pubs, breweries, pool halls, neighborhood bars and restaurants—ranging from mid-twentieth-century retro diners and delis to high-end dinner clubs—as well as outings to points of interest in the downtown area. And spending a Christmas and a couple of Thanksgivings there has endeared the city to me all the more, since when I’m far away in my Patagonia home, I can imagine the days and the surroundings of my Cleveland family whenever I choose.
Cleveland, then, has become another bright brushstroke in the rich tapestry that I call “my dual life”, time shared between my native Ohio and my adoptive home in South America, a far-flung two-part world that allows me to refer to myself as “a southern Yankee”.


Monday, November 28, 2016

SORRY ABOUT MISSING MY DEADLINE...


...but I'm traveling right now. As soon as I get to where I can find a place to sit for a while and write, I'll tell you some stories about Cleveland. Not Grover...the city. Thanks for you patience!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

WHERE THE WARMTH IS


Miami skyline
Years ago, when I first started flying back for visits to the United States from Argentina, where I long ago decided to reside, I avoided Miami like the plague. I’ve always hated tropical climates. My body is decidedly Nordic. Anything above, say, 68°F and I start to sweat. I can handle dry, desert heat pretty well, but the combination of high humidity and high temperatures I find unbearable. In fact, I’ve never understood how anyone could gladly and voluntarily live in that sort of climate. But then again, those people probably wonder how I could be overjoyed to get up in the morning and see frost on the ground.
Considering what I just said, anyone familiar with Buenos Aires might think that it was an odd choice of a home for me for twenty years. But then again, Buenos Aires is considered a “temperate” climate, even if, in summer, you’d swear you were in Havana, judging from the sticky, breathless heat. But it’s definitely a city with four seasons, even if the changes are way, way more subtle than in my native Ohio. And besides, it’s the city where my wife was born, so the choice was more sentimental than strategic, and, indeed, I fell in love with that chaotic metropolis and love it still, even after another twenty years of living a thousand miles away in the chilly climes of the Patagonian Andes.
Still, during the entire two decades that I lived in Buenos Aires, one of the things that I would, from time to time, grow most homesick for was the climate of my home state—where, the old saying goes, in Ohio there are four seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter and construction—although, admittedly, global warming is changing that somewhat. But comparatively, at least half the year in west central Ohio tends to be cool to downright frigid, while at least half the year in Buenos Aires tends to be insufferably hot and humid.
I remember once, when I was working for a business magazine, I was doing a story on corruption and collusion between a major worldwide multinational and certain IT officials in the Argentine government. I’d been talking to a lot of the rivals and enemies of those involved but now, after pulling a number of strings, I’d managed to land an interview with the CEO of the multinational in question. I’d read up on the guy, knew him by reputation, had even met him briefly once at a cocktail party at the American Club in downtown Buenos Aires. So I had an idea of what he was like and was planning my strategy accordingly. The best way to describe him would be as “a Trump-type” executive, a man who talked about “annihilating the competition”, and who wasn’t averse to bellowing, “You’re fired!” when one of his subordinates failed to meet his every expectation.
I figured if I could remain cool, phrase my questions to “punch his buttons”, field his answers, turn them into new questions and turn them back around on him while stroking his ego, I could get him to say a lot more than he intended to about the company’s government contracting operations. I could, that is, if I could just remain cool.
Of course, Murphy’s Law dictated that the day of the interview was a sultry, partly cloudy one, with thunder rolling in the distance, with mosquitoes thick in the air and with the mercury hovering and 85°F. I was late from another interview and had almost jogged the last few blocks from the subway station to the towering office building near the port, facing the sprawling River Plate estuary, where the company had its South American headquarters. Admittedly, I was nervous enough, running my strategy over and over in my head, without also being late, but once in the elevator on the way to the top floor of the building, I breathed deeply, closed my eyes, and briefly meditated to get my “cool” together.
By the time the doors slid open on the twenty-eighth floor, I was feeling—mentally at least—cool as an Eskimo’s nose. I was wearing my dark blue suit, my red and blue stripped tie and a starchily pressed white shirt and felt altogether presentable as I stepped boldly up to the reception desk and announced that I had a meeting scheduled with the CEO. It was then that I noticed how the receptionist looked at me a little strangely, then turned toward the window as if to gaze out over the vastness of the River Plate, and then back at me with a quizzical expression on her face. I smiled. She smiled back. And then she said, “Has it started to rain out, sir?”
“No, not yet,” I said, and should have left it at that, but instead embarrassed myself by saying, “Why do you ask?” Only to look immediately down at myself to see how the sweat had run off of my head and face and dripped all over my shoulders and lapels, how my now wilted white shirt was soaked through, and how big, dark rings had formed under the arms of my once impeccable blue suit.
In the end, my interview went well enough. I needled things out of the CEO that he’d never said before in public, and I was proud of what I was able to accomplish and the cover story to which it would lead. But, thanks to the climate, any illusion of playing “Mr. Cool” that I may have entertained evaporated—or perhaps condensed would be a better word—before I ever walked in the door.
Freedom Tower, Miami, monument
to Cuban refugees
But I digress (as usual)... Miami: As I say, I’d always avoided it. Early on, I would fly into New York’s JFK and—back before the decision of major airlines to fly their passengers through ridiculously far-flung hubs before allowing them to arrive at their destinations—I’d take a direct flight to Dayton, just an hour away from Wapakoneta, my home town. Later on, the newspaper I worked for in Buenos Aires had an advertising exchange deal with Canadian Pacific, and I could fly direct from Buenos Aires to Toronto and then “across the puddle” to Cleveland, where my sister lives, or to Detroit, near where my brother lived back then. For a while, that became my route home and I found that Toronto was a town I liked a lot and my wife and I would spend a few days there together before forging on to Ohio.
But then the CP-Air deal dried up and Aerolíneas Argentinas quit flying to New York and since it usually had the best rates and I was  now no longer a newspaper executive but a free-lancer, I took the cheapest route possible. And that meant landing in Miami.
The Urbano - home away from home
At first, Miami was just that—an airport and a place to rent a car cheaply. I didn’t even rest a day before making the journey north to Ohio. I would land at Miami International Airport at 6 a.m. after a fitful, restless night aboard a cramped aircraft, grab my bag in Customs, walk out onto the car rental bus island, hail the bus bearing the name of the company I was renting from, go get my car, get hopelessly lost a couple of times trying to get out of the veritable maze of backstreets where the car rental companies have their offices and lots in the swampy back-and-beyond behind the airport, and eventually find my way to the I-75 exit. From there, it was a straight shot east to west along Alligator Alley on a four-lane path wrested from the Everglades, before the highway turned sharply north on a two-day ride through four states to Ohio.
Saúl and his shiny black van
But then, a few years back, I started working for a client who had offices in both Buenos Aires and Miami and that meant I sometimes had business to do in Florida’s biggest city before heading home to Ohio to visit friends and family. I found the Hotel Urbano on Brickell Avenue by chance through a travel agency that got me a special price. But it turned out to be a place where I made friends fast. The staff was amiable, overwhelmingly Hispanic, and seemed to get a real kick out of this old gringo who spoke fluent Spanish with an Argentine accent. As my concierge friend described it, with a laugh, the second time I made a reservation there, “Oh, I know exactly who you are. You’re that guy who looks really white but speaks really good Spanish.”
A day-manager named Nestor, who was from Colombia and kidded me constantly about my Argentine-isms, was the one who told me, on my second trip, not to take a cab from the airport, that he’d send me a trusted driver friend of his, also from Colombia, who worked with the hotel. His name was Saúl and he’d be there waiting for me. When Saúl held the back door of his polished black van open for me, I said, “How ‘bout if I sit up front where we can talk,” and that was—as the line from Casablanca goes—the start of a beautiful friendship.
Touring Miami
I figured since I had to spend two or three days each way in hot, sultry, tropical Miami every time I flew into and out of the United States, I might as well have a look around. So Saúl and I struck a deal. Every time he found himself unoccupied, he’d give me a call, pick me up and take me to see a part of the city I’d never been to. It wasn’t long before Saúl went from being my driver to being my friend and over the last four years or so, he’s taken me on personalized tours of Brickell, Downtown, Bayside, Coral Gables, Wynwood, Little Havana, Biscayne Bay, Hialeah, Coconut Grove, the Port of Miami, Doral, Edgewater, etc., etc. We’ve shared lunches and dinner, museum tours and art exhibits and, everywhere, he’s introduced me to the city where he makes his home and to some of the friends he talks to everyday. We’ve forged a lasting friendship.
Saúl and Dan at Key Biscayne
Most importantly, Miami has become something other than a landing spot that I’m only too happy to high-tailed it out of. Thanks to Saúl, I’ve gotten past it’s hot, oppressive, tropical climate and learned to see it as the extraordinary place that it is, a melting pot, a part of the US where knowing Spanish is a major advantage, a US territory in name only, a sort of immigrant country of its own, a place where people have come following a dream and where many of them are actually making it come true, for their families if not for themselves. It’s a place whose streets and people I now know, where I feel comfortable and accepted, where I know and like folks and they know and like me.
Once, the quicker I could get out of Miami, the better, while today, I love to linger there for a while, rub elbows with its people, browse its streets and buildings... And sometimes when I’m far, far away, I’ll remember some corner of that city that I’ve learned to see through Saúl’s eye, and I’ll imagine the people there, doing what they do, speaking what they speak, and being who there are. And in the end, what that proves to me is that, whether I like the weather in a place or not, the only climate that matters when it comes to how I feel toward one destination or another is the human climate and whether I manage to get to know and empathize with those who live a different life from my own but with whom, given half a chance, I’m sure to find, I have almost everything in common.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A LITTLE FLASH FICTION

I've been experimenting a little with "flash fiction"...or as "flash" as my fiction gets. I hope you like it...or at least don't hate it! Tell me what you think. 


HERE TODAY: A LIFE STORY IN ONE SENTENCE
“Smart as a whip, Jack was,”  Banyan was saying, and once Banyan started you might as well just sit back and listen, because there was no getting a word in edgewise, “and rose to the top of the heap so fast it’d make your damn head spin—business-class travel, BMWs, fifteen-hundred-dollar suits (twenty of ‘em, Jack had!), Italian shoes, Egyptian cotton shirts, silk ties, best of everything—on top of the world he was, but then, BANG, one day she just up and left him, blink of an eye sorta thing, needed ‘her own space’ she said, and after that, none of it seemed to make any sense to him anymore, or at least not as much as Jack Daniels did, and pretty soon, it all just kinda went south, if you know what I mean, or at least it did until he just kinda got up one morning, after like a year or so, and decided he hadn’t needed any of that, ever, or even her, for that matter, and he just plain started over, working construction, wearing jeans and boots, denim jackets and a sweaty ol’ Yankees cap, drinking Bud with the boys after work, enjoying life again, and then even dating again too, a waitress, she was, name o’ Jean, who was pretty in a plain sorta way, quiet and kind, she was, and a good listener, but, from what he said, ‘with such a deep passion’—that was how he described it—that he said sometimes it made him think, in the midst of it, if you get my drift, it might just kinda ‘engulf  him’—that was how he put it, ‘engulf him’—and hold him there forever, and actually, that was exactly what was happening, to the point that they were seriously thinking they might just spend the rest of their lives together, or that was the plan, at least, right up until that heart attack hit him and, bang, just like that, man, ol’ Jack was gone!”

FAREWELL DRIVE
Her son, who lived abroad, was driving and talking. She gazed out at dead winter fields, wishing he would just shut up.

“Sure you’ll miss him! So will I. But you’re alive, Mom! Travel! See the world. You have the time and the means.
I know! When I go back, come with me. Stay a while!”
“Stop the car,” she said.
“Huh?”
“Stop!”
He did. He turned to look at her. She turned to him, clutched his shoulders, looked him hard in the face.
That’s not going to happen! she said.  Sixty years it’s been! I’ve been with your dad—been him—so long, I can’t find me anymore!
In a few days, her son would have to go back.
Now he could see it in her eyes.
She was saying goodbye
This visit would be their last.
But he pretended it wasn’t so.

LATER
December nine, my kid brother called to say happy birthday. Himself, he’d turned fifty-one in November: five years and 6,000 miles apart. But ever close, all the same.
He’d hit rock bottom—divorced twice, downsized executive, new job as a school bus driver. But for a while, he’d seemed happy that way, like the stress was off and he was cool.
Now his girlfriend “couldn’t be with a school bus driver.” She’d left.
He was devastated. Couldn’t seem to pick himself back up.  
I said, “Weren’t you coming down?”
“I am, Bro, honest, in June. Got my new passport right here.”
“To hell with June! Come now! Stay as long as you want. Hell, stay forever!
“Thanks, buddy. Really! But I can’t, new job and all. Like I say, in June...when I have more time.”
When a neighbor called, and the cops found his corpse, his spotless passport was still by the phone.





Thursday, October 13, 2016

ALBERTA: A SHORT STORY


The year I fell for Alberta was the last one we would live on Blue Cedar Street. It was only a little street, narrow, no sidewalks, about a half-mile long. It dead-ended on an open field about a mile long and a quarter-mile wide that was an easement of some kind between the town limits and the railroad. My grandfather, who had once worked for the B&O Railway, referred to it as 'the right o' way'. So that's what we always called it in my family.
Blue Cedar wasn't a busy street at all. It had no cross streets, since the backyards of the opposite side to ours bordered on the Lincoln Consolidated Elementary School playground and on a big empty meadow. The ones on our side of the street bordered on some fields, scrub forest and swamp, all owned by a man called Botkist, who had sold my father our place and who planned eventually to drain the low areas and turn the whole thing into a cheap-housing development. But for now, our street was sort of residual, a little, perpendicular, upstart appendage to the long-established neighborhoods on the southern edge of town. It was a generally safe neighborhood for kids and once our parents considered us old enough, we all pretty much had the run of the whole street, taking each other's backyards as a kind of continuous playground that ran from one end of the street to the other on both sides. At our house "old enough" was eight, and that's how old I was that summer.
The only places strictly forbidden to us 'older kids' by our mothers were the swamp and the right o' way—the swamp because, as we were always reminded, "you can drown in six inches of water" (and also because there were snakes and quicksand and hornets' nests, among other dangers in that strange and eerie place that lived in a kind of permanent twilight), and the right o' way because it was a hangout for the rail bums who still hitchhiked on the B&O back then. So, of course, those were the places we reserved for our greatest adventures of all. Once a few of us even built a really great tree house in an old pinoak on the right o' way, but promptly abandoned it once we discovered unsavory evidence that a hobo had been sleeping in it.
We had moved there when I was five, but one late fall morning when the bathroom window swelled shut for the umpteenth time, unable to open it for his morning ablutions, Dad simply called up local realtor Harley Koenig and told him to put the house on the market. Dad had always hated the place and the neighborhood and couldn't, for the life of him, figure out what had possessed him to buy it in the first place. Possibly, however, the same kind of spur-of-the-moment impulse that led him to sell it—and to change jobs four times in six years.
But that summer, we still had no idea that we would be moving, and I fell in love—painfully, desperately—with Alberta. As I say, I was eight that summer. Alberta was thirty-one.
I loved Alberta from the first moment I saw her. I was fascinated by her willowy frame, her naturally curly, jet-black hair that already had a few dazzling strands of silver in it, her statue-like pallor and bright crimson bow of a mouth that contrasted so attractively with the quick, sharp black of her eyes. I was bewitched by her thin, strong hands with their slim restless fingers that ended in sculpted red nails that she regularly touched up and buffed to perfect crescent tips while she sat sipping a cool drink on her front porch. I was mesmerized by the large gold-loop earrings that dangled from the tender, pierced lobes of her ears, by the gold and pearl crucifix that she wore around her slender, tense neck, on a delicate thread of gold chain just long enough so that the cross lay lightly in the hollow of her throat, where, if I concentrated hard, I could see her heartbeat. I was hypnotized too by the almost wire-thin wedding band that hung so loose on her gaunt finger that I wondered why it didn't just slip right off. Sometimes she played with that little ring while we talked, slipping it up and down over her knuckle in between puffs on her ever-present cigarette. I loved to watch her smoke, a hand-to-mouth gesture, so elegant yet so anxious, almost starved she seemed for whatever it was that the smoke fed her. I was amazed at how the yellowed fingers, the hacking, mucousy cough and the nicotine stink of old Judge Kimble who lived across the alley from us could be so completely nauseating, while Alberta's clean and gentle pulls on her white-filtered Salems were utterly captivating. I thrilled to see how the smoke wafted from her nostrils and mouth whenever I climbed up onto her porch and she said, "Well, hi honey! How ya doin'? How's your mom?" Or how it burst from her tight-stretched lips in short, impatient blasts whenever she and her husband Cyrus were arguing about something.
Needless to say, I didn't like Cy much. He seemed to always be upsetting Alberta—whenever he was around, that is, which wasn't very often. He was the head bartender at the Nag's Head Bar & Grill. My father said Cy was more than a bartender, a kind of junior partner to the owner, Harmon Weiss, he said.  Harmon was also Chairman of the Town Council and spent more time on his civic duties than at the bar. What that meant was that Cy worked some long hours. And when he wasn't working, he spent a lot of time with his pals from the Nag's Head, out squirrel, pheasant and rabbit-hunting in the fall, spin-fishing in the summer, ice-fishing in the winter and playing Merchant's League baseball in between.
Despite the fact that I always kind of hoped that Cy wouldn't come home ever, his absence seemed to make Alberta sad and upset and I hated to see her looking blue. I always knew what was bothering her, because she would say things like, "I was expecting Cy home two hours ago. I swear we'd both have been better off if he'd married Harmon Weiss." Imagining Cy and the paunchy, mustachioed Mr. Weiss as a married couple would send me into fits of giggling. And when I got tickled like that, Alberta would start laughing too, and I liked that a lot because her face was so beautiful when she laughed, like black-eyed sunshine, sort of.
Whenever my mother mentioned Alberta, like when she and her younger sister, my Aunt Janet, would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee together, it was always, “poor Alberta”. From what I was able to gather, Alberta had been "the life of the party" when she was younger, and "the boys were always hot on her trail" back then. And Aunt Janet, who could always be counted on for a snide comment, would say, "From what I heard, she was never all that hard to catch.”
I didn't know exactly what they were talking about, but it always sounded derogatory and made me feel contempt for my aunt.
I once overhead my mother say that Alberta had married Cy when she was very young. "Couldn't have been more than seventeen," Mom said, "and Cy must have been a good twenty-nine or thirty."
Alberta had had a baby right away, a little boy, but he had died of polio when he was only seven. That had been years before, during the big polio epidemic, when I was just a baby myself. My mother said it was probably "a blessing in disguise, judging from the shape most of the surviving polio victims were in".
I wondered about that little boy. Wondered what Alberta would think if she’d overheard my mother say that. Wondered why kids died. Worried I might get sick and die. That should be something your parents could keep from happening, shouldn't it? I wondered how Alberta felt, not having been able to keep her little boy from dying.
Still, I could never quite imagine Alberta as somebody's mother. She was too slim and glamorous and gorgeous, too movie-star perfect to be worrying about diapers, or Gerber's baby food, or Carnation formula, or skinned knees and Merthiolate, or any of the other multiple, boring inanities of motherhood. I would have been content just to sit nearby and watch her all day. Just to see her pulse beating beneath that elegant crucifix, the delicate turn of her ankle beneath the strap of her sandal, the thin blue veins in the backs of her hands, the damp little curls that formed at the nape of her neck when she swept her hair up into a French roll on particularly hot, sultry days.
The flirtation began when I would ride my bike by her house on my way down Blue Cedar to my friend Kevin's. I would wave and holler, "Hi Alberta!" if she was out on the porch, which she often was in summer, like as if she got to feeling claustrophobic inside.
She would wave back and say, "Hi honey! Where ya rushin' off to?"
Sometimes I would see her again on my way back and when I waved, she would say, "You better get your little butt home, honey. Your mom must be worried about you."
Then one day when I was going by with nothing in particular to do, she said, "Hi honey. I just made some fresh lemonade. Want some?" And I went up and sat on her porch, just the two of us, she in a pretty cane chair that could have stood a coat of varnish, and I in the porch swing, where I rocked a little as I self-consciously sipped cold, sweet lemonade from a translucent-green plastic glass. Alberta seemed relaxed if a little sad. She drank her lemonade from a sweaty glass tumbler with a lot of ice and a bright green spearmint leaf in it. Her drink was a darker, tawnier hue than mine.
"What are you drinking?" I asked.
"A highball," she said.
"What's that?"
"Something little boys can't have."
I flushed and must have scowled because she immediately changed gears and started asking me all of the usual questions: "How's your Mom? Your Dad still over at Superior Blade? Hey, how's that Aunt Janet of yours? Haven't seen her in ages. Real pretty Janet. You'll be in fourth grade next year, won't you honey? You're getting to be a big boy, aren't you?"
And I answered everything as politely and concisely as possible, a little shy in the actual presence of this beautiful woman that I had long admired from afar, or from behind my mother's skirt on the rare occasions when Alberta had come over for coffee and cake. So when she ran out of questions and I ran out of answers, we just sat there for a while in silence, with only the gentle squeak of the porch swing chain and the drone of a neighbor's lawn mower to break the silence.
"I'm gonna have some more!" she said suddenly and rather emphatically as she stood up. "How 'bout you, little man?" But I got the idea she really kind of wanted me to go and was just being polite. So I said, "No thanks. I better be going home." And after climbing down from the porch swing and handing her my empty glass, I said good-bye and left.
After that, however, I started dropping by every time I saw Alberta out on the porch, which was just about every day that summer, it seemed. And she would offer me lemonade or milk and Oreos and we would talk about whatever came up: how hot it had been, what new neighbor had moved in, when the county fair was going to begin, how my grandpa was a euchre partner of her father's, what pie was our favorite.
It eventually got so that if I told my mother that I was going to Alberta's, she would say, "Oh no you're not! You leave poor Alberta alone. You must be driving her nuts. Don't make a nuisance out of yourself." But Alberta always said I was welcome anytime. So sometimes I would tell Mom I was going to play at Kevin's, and I would even tell myself that I was, so I wouldn't feel like I was lying to my mother. But then I would sort of just naturally gravitate to Alberta's front porch.
Once when Alberta telephoned our house for some reason, I overheard my mother telling her not to encourage me because I was going to become a real pest. At that particular second I hated my mother for belittling me and making me sound like a bratty little kid. Alberta must have said that I was no trouble, because I heard Mom say, "Well maybe he isn't right now, but you'll play heck getting rid of him when he does get to be a pest, honey." Then my face burned with shame when I heard her add, "I think he's got a real crush on you."
For a couple of days after that, I avoided going by Alberta's house. How could I face her? But then Kevin called up and asked if I wanted to see the new Erector Set he had gotten for his birthday and on my way past Alberta's, I heard her sing out, "Hi honey! Just opened a package of Oreos. Want some?" So I knew right then that she didn't hate me for having a crush on her and I stopped for a while on her porch for a chat with Oreos and milk, while she sipped her usual lemonade highball.
"Hope I'm not being a pest," I said to my Redball Jet sneaker laces at the last second before I climbed down her steps to leave. In answer, Alberta sprang from her chair and rushed over to give me a hug and a kiss on the forehead. She said, "Oh honey, you could never be a pest. We're pals, okay? You're always welcome!"
But it was to be a long time before I stopped by again. For the next few days, I went by Alberta's house three or four times a day, hoping to see her out on the porch. But no such luck. Then, one day I heard Mom and Aunt Janet when they were having their mid-morning coffee at our kitchen table, saying, "…cut her wrists with a straight razor…" and "…just in time or she would have bled to death for sure…" and "…still in the psycho ward up at Saint Elizabeth's…" and "…poor Cy says it's emotional blackmail and he isn't putting up with any more of it—they haven't gotten along for years, you know."
"Poor Alberta," my mother sighed.
"Poor Alberta?" Aunt Janet snapped, "Poor Cy, the crap he's had to put up with from that bitch!"
"Janet, dear, aren't you getting awfully chummy with Cy?"
"Well, if it's any of your business, Sis, yes, I am. He deserves it, poor Cy. He deserves a break, deserves to have somebody listen to him for a change."
"Poor Cy nothing," I thought. "I hate him. I hate his guts! Alberta deserves better. She deserves somebody that'll really love her. She deserves me!"
It wasn't long after Cy moved into a room over the Nag's Head that Aunt Janet started going out with him regularly and publicly. He was estranged from his wife, she reasoned, and she was a divorcee, so what was the harm? Mom was a little upset about it at first. "What will poor Alberta think of you? And of me! Geez, Janet, try not to make a damned spectacle out of yourself, will you?" But eventually she lived with the idea. Cy and my Aunt Janet were an item. I loathed them both for it. But Mom said I could either be civil to my aunt or be grounded. It was up to me.
Summer was almost over, well into August, when Alberta finally came home. It embarrassed me that my aunt was gallivanting around in Cy's car with him while Alberta was still in the psychiatric ward at Saint Elizabeth's, but I was glad he was out of her life. I saw the ambulance go by our house and stop at hers the day she got back. I wanted to leave home, go live there, tell Alberta not to worry, that I would stay with her for as long as she needed, stay with her forever. As I ran a monolog over in my head, I saw myself as Glenn Ford or Gary Cooper, someone she would find credible and whose presence would make her feel safe and loved. But when I looked down at my skinned, grit-stained knees and worn Redball tennis shoes, I knew the truth—that I was just a little boy—and I longed to grow up overnight, or for Alberta to mark time and wait for me to catch up. I loved her almost more than I could stand.
So I did all I could do: pedaled Blue Cedar Street from end to end, over and over, in hopes of seeing her out on her front porch, trying but failing to work up the courage to march up there and ring her bell.
She didn't come out on the first day. Nor did she come out on the second. It wasn't until evening of the third day—a particularly muggy, sultry day—that she finally appeared. I had been patrolling the street on my bike all day long and had a feeling that today might be the day. When my mother called me in for supper, I shoveled down my food as quickly as possible and immediately asked to be excused.
"Where are you off to again so soon?" my mother asked, with a hint of suspicion in her voice.
“Kevin’s,” I said quickly.  
"Okay, but just don't stay out until it's too dark," my mother called after me. "Night's coming earlier now and the cars can't see you in the twilight. Besides, it feels like a storm’s coming."
Mosquitoes were thick in the early evening air and not a leaf was stirring. There was a livid tint to the falling sun as columns of nimbus clouds crept swiftly up on the horizon and billowed there. Thunder rolled somewhere to the south, so distant that you had to be very still and listen closely to identify the sound. But a neighbor's dog knew it was coming and barked at the thunder and then howled, a sad, frightened howl that filled me with something like sorrow.
Alberta looked so gaunt and inconsistent and immobile sitting there in her cane chair on the porch the first time I coasted by on my bike that I wasn't even sure that I had actually seen her, almost as if she might have been a figment of my imagination. But when I did a roundabout at the right o' way and headed back, cruising slow, I saw that it was indeed Alberta. From the street, in the fading light of a stormy evening, I couldn't tell whether her eyes were open or closed. But I braked my bike at the edge of her lawn and stood astride the crossbar looking her way, until she finally righted her head and weakly raised a hand in greeting.
She was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, a flannel one, despite the heat, but I still caught a glimpse of the immaculate white cuff of bandage around her wrist. Her voice was weak and froggy, hard to hear at this range, when she said, "Hiya honey. Long time no see."
It was enough invitation for my eager heart. I leaned my bike against the old sugar maple in her front yard and made my way up the concrete steps to her front porch. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot, her mouth slack and pale, her skin as white as erasable bond. Even her usually exquisite curly black hair seemed to droop sadly.
"Come give us a hug, honey," she said in a hoarse whisper. "I sure need one."
I couldn't think of a thing I would rather do. I breathed in the smoke-and-soapy fragrance of her as I put my arms around her neck and pressed my cheek to hers.
"Still buddies?" she whispered, and I nodded my head, nestled against her face, without breaking our hug. In fact, I hugged her tighter still in response.
Then I released her and when I glanced at her from where I stood, rather woodenly, beside her chair, I saw her brush tears from her cheeks with the backs of her hands, and once again I saw too the white cuffs of her bandages.
For the longest time, I just stood there beside and a little to the rear of her chair, with one hand straight down to my side, but with the other gently stroking her dark, curly hair, the way one might stroke a beloved cat—calmly, unhurriedly, repeatedly in a soothing, tranquil fashion. She just closed her eyes and sat there, still as could be, sniffling occasionally and brushing her cheeks with the backs of her hands.
We went on like that, the two of us, for the longest time, a magic moment, an interval of great intimacy between two people, age no longer an issue.
Then I said, "Don't worry, Alberta. It'll be okay."
She reached up, took my hand and held it with both of hers against her heart.
"I know it will, honey," she said, and then added, "as long as I've got you around, anyway."
We stayed like that for a while, she sitting, I standing, listening to the approaching thunder, knowing the storm was coming but not caring.
She said, "Honey, won't your Mom be worried about you?"
And just then, in the distance, over the gathering storm, we could hear my mother calling my name.  "You're a real sweetie, honey," Alberta said, "but you'd better scoot. I don't want you to get into trouble."
On an impulse, I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead, a peck, a child's kiss. But then too, a kiss like one a father might place on his little daughter's fevered brow.
"I'll be back tomorrow," I promised, the kiss burning on my lips.
"I know you will." She patted my hand and let it go.
The wind was kicking up dust devils and the sky was turning black fast. Up the street my mother was still shouting my name, straining hard to be heard above the wind and thunder.
"Coooomiiiiing!" I shouted back.
A big cold drop of rain splatted on top of my head. Another one thumped me on the chest, narrowly missing my yearning heart. I turned toward the porch, where Alberta was still sitting in her cane chair—but sitting forward now, on the edge, as if she were contemplating getting up, going in, moving on.
I ran over to my bike and put up the kickstand. A sheet of rain was sweeping the fields over by the elementary school and heading our way fast.
On a whim I shouted over the wind, “Alberta!”
“Yes, honey?”
"Wait for me!"
"What?" she asked, cupping her ear.
"I said, wait for me!" I cried at the top of my lungs.
Alberta smiled from the porch and brushed her cheeks with the back of one hand. With the other, she waved as I rode off toward home and I heard her call, "I will, honey! I'll try!"