They told me that shortly after my father returned from the war Grandma got very sick with a disease with a funny name, and a week or two later I, too, got sick and almost died. We both were taken, separately, to St. Elizabeth’s. I have only disconnected fragments of memories of it.
I’m in a strange, dimly lit room, in the middle of the night. Aunt Jane is gently rubbing my back, humming a lulaby. I turn over, and I see an odd look on her face. She’s worried, sad, fearful. I drift off. I think I’m dreaming.
I hear a man say, “The kid isn’t going to make it. He’s dying.” I wonder who is dying. And what does dying mean?
Days or weeks later I’m in one of the second floor bedrooms of the rectory of St. Casimir Church. Monsignor Kasmirski, in his shiny black cassock with the scarlet band around his middle, comes into the room and goes, saying nothing. I’m in a pleasant dreamy state, hot with fever. From the window comes a bright golden shaft of sunshine, which illuminates the medicine bottle on the end table near my bed.
Earlier Helen, the silent, industrious housekeeper, had poured that thick, glowing, ruby red sweetness into an impossibly big gleaming spoon and told me to open wide. Mmmmm, it was delicious and brought a warm glow in my center, which then spread out to my arms and legs. Very nice, very comfortable. I loved that feeling. I licked the spoon clean, and asked Helen for more. She shook her head, no, not now, maybe later.
I’m looking at that medicine bottle when suddenly there’s a loud POP, and its black bakelite cap flies upward, then falls down to the hardwood floor. It skitters, rolls, and stops. Did I imagine it? No, I saw the cap fly up after the pop. Now it’s on the floor.
A mystery. A puzzle. I hadn’t ever seen anything like that before.
Helen comes in with her broom and dust pan and begins sweeping. She comes across the cap, bends over, picks it up, and rolls it in her fingers. She looks around the room, spots the cap-less medicine bottle. Ah. She replaces the cap and finishes her cleaning.
The sunshine coming in from the window must have heated up that syrup, and the cap popped from built up pressure, just like how the pressure of boiling hot coffee grounds push up the lid of the pot on the stove when Uncle Alec comes in drunk and forgets he’s turned it on.
When I’m better, I’m on the rectory’s small porch facing the St. Casimir school rooms. Helen gives me a thin book with a shiny cover. She says maybe I would like to look at the pictures. There are lots of other children’s books in that box over there in the pantry, take as many as you want.
There are short, simple words in short sentences, only three or four on each page. Colorful drawings of little boys and little girls, surrounded by green grass and trees and lots of flowers. Cute animals like rabbits and squirrels and foxes and cats and dogs. They all know how to talk. The children and animals talk together.
Three billy goats are grazing beside a stream. The grass is good. But they see the grass on the other side is thicker, greener, much more tasty. Uh-oh! A troll captures the first two goats as they try to cross over on a bridge. But they tell the troll they’re too small to eat, but listen: the third goat is much bigger and will be a much more tastier meal! The troll lets them go, and attacks the third goat. But being larger the goat easily butts the troll into the water. A happy ending! All three goats graze to their heart’s content.
I remember grandma telling me an old, old Polish story about a troll in a remote village in Galicia who steals a child, and replaces him with a changeling. You can always tell one because they are much, much smarter than all the other children.
"Like you, Yashew!"
More and more books. I like to read them silently, but then I also like to read them aloud because I can pretend there is someone beside me who wants to hear the stories. Helen peeks into the room. I see her staring at me. But I continue reading. She disappears.
Weeks, months later. My father awakens me, wraps me in a blanket. Carries me to the car. It’s dark at night, bitter cold, the snow is blowing, and stings my face. He drives, while on the radio a woman sings:
When they begin the beguine
It brings back the sound of music so tender,
It brings back a night of tropical splendor,
It brings back a memory ever green.
I'm with you once more under the stars,
And down by the shore an orchestra's playing
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine.
What, I wonder, does beguine mean? I listen to the words of the song. They may give me a clue. But no, they don’t.
That word beguine annoys me! It’s the very first one I don’t like. Why? Because its meaning hides from me. It’s something the adults know, but won’t tell me. It’s their secret word.
I am dizzy. Hot. Yet it is freezing in the car. I hear the humming of the heater’s fan, but I don’t feel the warmth there in the back seat, and I shiver violently. I pull the blanket tighter around me. Bright lights blur in the window. The car stops. My father has a strange look on his face. He turns and says he will be right back. Just wait, OK? My sudden fit of coughing annoys him. He slams the door, the car rocks.
I dream about the beguine. It is…what? I don’t know. I drift off.
In the darkness I hear a harsh tapping on the window. I look up. Another man. A stranger.
Then murmuring voices. Someone opens the door, picks me up, takes me to another car.
At the hospital I’m on a hard table under a blinding light, and a man in a white mask puts a rounded thing like grandma’s sieve over my nose and mouth, then pours something from a dark brown bottle.
“Count backward from ten, Johnny! Count backward from ten!”
The fumes of ether fill my nasal cavity and floods my brain. A dizzying tingling spreads, and I'm paralyzed. I can no longer count backward, and I don’t care. I disappear into the blackness.
Days later I’m again in the back seat, being jostled as the tires rumble on the rough pavement, and the car turns around a corner. Someone jokes that little Johnny should be happy, really happy now, because when they take out your tonsils, the doctor says you gotta eat a lot of ice cream.
What and where are tonsils and why did they have to take mine out? Ice cream is good, but how can it help heal the place where my tonsils used to be?
“What the fuck is wrong with you, Chet? You were knocking back the shots like there was no tomorrow, while your son almost DIED out there in the parking lot!”
I can imagine Chet replying, “So how many times will that kid almost die? Huh?”
Loud footsteps in the kitchen, the scraping of chairs, a babble of shouts. In the tumult I sense fear, indecision. It’s spooky when adults run around like that, VERY unreal. More shouting, mostly from my grandma. Uncle Alec—or is it Uncle Stanley?—springs to action. He gets the shovel from the basement’s coal bin. He runs from one room to the next. Bang, bang, bang. BANG!
“He got it! He got it!” someone yells.
It is a fat dark brown rat with a disgusting long hairless gray tail. Blood dribbles out of it’s open mouth, and little red drops appear on the floor.
“Hey, Johnny! Look!” Uncle Stanley says, grinning. “Rats eat your eyelashes, did you know that? They crawl up into your bed while you’re asleep and chew off your little wee-wee.”
“Stanley, you STOP that right now,” grandma shouts.
* * *
Marty Rodginski showed up during recess at St. Casimir's one day. He had a brand new Daisy b-b rifle. Billy asked him where he got it. None of your fuckin’ business, Marty replied. Now it’s time to break it in.
He saw me, and grinned. “YOU.”
“Want me to shoot you up close?”
I ran in a zig-zag pattern, hoping he’d miss. They all stood around laughing their asses off. But immediately I felt the sharp stings in my back. Once, twice, three times. Marty was a good shot. Caroline, the next door neighbor lady, used tweezers to pull the b-bs out of the flesh of my back. She said somebody ought to teach that Marty a lesson. He’ll get his one of these days, she said.
Another time Marty and his cousins put on heavy jackets and work gloves and got two cats and tied their tails together with duct tape. It was Marty’s bright idea to throw those tail-joined cats onto a clothes line. Now that was something. You shoulda seen the spittin’ and howlin’. Ha-ha-ha-ha.
They caught another stray and shoved a big firecracker up its ass, and lit the fuse. They dropped the cat, and it went like crazy up the street. Pow! Ha-ha-ha-ha.
One day Marty said, hey, watch this. He put his fist to his mouth. Then he put it down at his crotch and made rapid pumping motions. Ah, yeah! He suddenly flicked his thumb, and the spit flew out. Ha-ha-ha-ha.
Big wedding party in St. Casimir’s basement auditorium. Red and white strips of Crepe paper were draped over the light fixtures, balloons bounced around on the floor, a local Polka band provided the music. A skinny guy in a powder blue tuxedo with wide lapels and a big blue bow tie blared the lyrics into his mike.
Oh, I don't want her, you can have her
She's too fat for me
She's too fat for me
She's too fat for me
Marty sat next to me at one of the long, white-paper-covered tables. There were small white cardboard boxes that had contained a junk present, one at each setting. Marty took two boxes and held them together. He scribbled wildly with a pencil. This is a hairy pussy, he said, but it looked nothing like a cat. In the crack between the boxes he inserted a knife and slid it rapidly it back and forth. He threw back his head and groaned. Then he got up and wandered off
I wasn’t quite sure what the point of this demonstration was, but Harry Koslowski, a Bessemer Converter laborer at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, loomed above, holding a glass of vodka. “You sick, twisted little shit,” he slurred. He put his drink down, and grabbed me by the back of my shirt, and bum-rushed me out of the auditorium.
“I didn’t do it!” I yelled. “I didn’t do it!”
But dim-witted drunk Koslowski figured I had to be behind it because Marty was a doofus retard who didn’t have the imagination to come up with something like that on his own. Everyone knew what a smart ass I was, using all those big words, always thinking I was better than any of them, so this was right up that skinny little punk’s alley, right?
“Quit lyin’ you fuckin’ little pervert.”
When we got to the parking lot, Koslowski gave me a shove, and I stumbled forward, almost fell down.
“I should kick your skinny little ass right now,” he said, “Now get the fuck outta here.”
Tears stung my eyes and I gritted my teeth as I ran down the hill toward my house. I wanted to hurl a brick through the Dairy Queen window, or slash tires, or whatever. God DAMN that big fat ignorant pig Koslowski, and God DAMN that stupid shithead Marty. I wished I had the build of a heavyweight boxer, so I could beat them both to death.
My distrust and contempt for adults deepened. And the stupider they were, the more I hated them. I vowed to never find myself in a similar situation. From then on, I’d keep my eyes open.
Flash-forward: On leave from the Air Force seven years later I went into Tiny’s Bar on Division Street. Tiny weighed about 300 pounds, and he always seemed out of breath. “Hey, Johnny, you look good in that uniform,” he said as he brought me a beer. He asked me if I’d seen any of our old St. Casimir crowd. I said I’d run into Billy and a few of the others.
“But what about Marty?” I asked. “Is he still around?”
Tiny wheezed. “Yeah, he’s still around. Take a look back there.”
Marty Rodgnski, my tormentor at St. Casimir’s, was now motionless, unconscious in a chair near the door of the men’s room. His head was tilted back against the wall, his mouth open, his front teeth missing. His shirt was filthy, unbuttoned. He stank. On the table was an almost empty bottle of Gallo Port. An empty glass.
“He’s totally fucked up,” Tiny said. “Wet brain. He don’t recognize nobody no more.”