The Row Houses on Maple Street

I started a story a year ago and then put it away to work on something else. The first twelve pages, which I have included here, are really more autobiographical and don’t get to the story plot I was playing with at the time.I don’t know if the story is worth rescuing. We’ll see, as Trump says. For now, I have posted these twelve pages because they evoke powerful memories of the late 50’s in the midwest that I wanted to share.

 

 

The the row houses on Maple Street where I grew up was a kids world where parents blended into the background and children ventured to the penny candy store many blocks away, played “War” on the hillside next to the Church at the end of the block, or just sat with a friend in the warm sun atop the big army-green mail box on the corner spitting and talking.

The ancient Maples for which our street was aptly named, ran the length of the block, their immense leafy canopies shading games of hopscotch and whiffle ball. There were friendly conversations on the porch stairs where families gathered and neighbor was knit to neighbor over early evening cocktails while their children collected lightening bugs in old mayonnaise jars. In stark contrast to the shady front, the backyards were sun drenched so the Hollyhocks, lilies of the valley, and blue bells effortlessly grew along the white picket fences that separated our back yards one from another. The gate along the back fence exited to a gravel alley mostly masked by the tall weeds that released milkweed fairies carried aloft on summer breezes.

The row houses, as everyone called them, were built at the end of the 19th century. They were large six bedroom affairs, three stories tall, with solid plaster walls more often than not covered with layer upon layer of wallpaper which like the rings of a tree bore witness to the house’s longevity.  Underneath the homes, accessible through both an external storm cellar door in the back yard and a staircase from the kitchen was the dreary basement with a behemoth converted coal furnace residing in the very center like some menacing fire-breathing beast guarding its lair. Swaddled in asbestos the duct work all rose from the the top of the furnace and spread across the basement ceiling like the tentacles of a giant squid, each reaching through the basement floor to the room it was assigned to warm. There were no radiators to gurgle and clank, no blowers to push heat through wall ducts. Instead the warm air simply rose through the elaborate network of pipes generated by the inferno behind the steel door in the belly of the beast. I had opened that steel door several times against the strict orders of my father to allow my friends to hear the roar of the flames and witness the striking orange glow that conjured images of steel mills. The ferocious activity taking place behind the steel door couldn’t help but suggest to the observer that this beast could hardly be considered safe. But perhaps that was part of the draw; encountering awesome power whenever I opened that door to the underworld yet not consumed by it. Up above, all went about their business oblivious to the mayhem below and enjoyed the warm air that gently wafted up through decorative iron registers embedded in the floors from the beast in the basement.

The row houses all had a third floor with a couple of rooms, which my family didn’t really use, mostly because there was no need for them. We pretty much lived comfortably on the first two floors. Curiously, this was also the case with our neighbors on either side of our home even where they may well have been needed. I supposed most of the families in the row houses did not use the third floor at all. It was quite isolated from the rest of the house.  The third floor staircase was very steep and segregated from the second floor by a door that was kept closed most of the time. Did I think it was scary up there? No. At least not during the daytime hours. My sister Louise once created a little classroom she used when she wanted to play school. She would gather a group of small children marching them up the three flights of stairs to her school where she read them books, had them color, sing a song or two, then closed school until stricken by the whim once again. But, for the most part, nobody in our family went up there.

Mrs. Evans, who lived next door, had some sort of “episode” that occurred on the third floor of their home. It was unclear exactly what was happening at the time. There was a good deal of shouting and even screaming, police cars and police officers who made their way to the third floor to retrieve Mrs. Evans whom they escorted from the house crying. She was whisked away to what Edward later learned was a hospital where she remained for a period of time until one day she was back as if nothing had happened. Nobody really thought too much about it. One day she’s taken away by the police in tears and then she’s back acting like Mrs. Evans again. I asked John then Leslie then Thomas, her kids and Edward’s friends, where she had gone but they didn’t seem to know exactly what happened or where she went. There were hints that the event was a psychiatric emergency of some sort, but frankly, this didn’t mean much to any of the kids living in the row houses. So, life just moved along.

Like all children, we were remarkably resilient, equipped with a talent for scrubbing clean or relocating to some hidden place most unpleasant or painful experiences. Indeed, we were masters of reframing adversity and unfortunate events as curiosities or even adventures. John’s trip to the emergency room after being attacked by a Bull Mastiff was to us an extraordinary adventure deserving to be recalled and told and retold. “How many stitches? 172?! Holy Mackerel!” Or when the pogo stick exploded into pieces while I was showing how high I could jump and knocked out my front teeth. That was a story. Or seeing our parents or friend’s parents drunk. It was all fodder for good storytelling.

 

Our family went to a big Church where chanting priests arrayed in medieval silks hovered like ghosts around a smoke shrouded altar in an elegantly choreographed dance. The very same priests were family friends and frequent visitors to our home, usually for cocktails and a big Sunday afternoon supper. The difference between the men at Church and the men in our home was striking although not at all disconcerting to me as a child. For me, they were simply two different beings. The men at Church were all mystery and magic but in our home, the removal of their clerical collars loosened their tongues transforming them into a gregarious lot who entertained us with jokes and stories, and music. After a few cocktails, Father Eldridge always sat down at the piano, his drink close by. He played flamboyantly, sprinkling his songs with showy glissandos. Between tunes he worked us like a showman before his audiences, telling jokes and taking requests. “Play, Nobody Likes Me”, we called out, and with exaggerated sadness he sang, “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms…”

The priests were very much a part of our family and when I was quite young, Father Eldridge took me to the hospital when I was very ill. We did not own a car. I don’t know where my father was. I recall it all only vaguely, only that I didn’t want to go and ran from my mother and the priest who attempted to entice me with money and Hostess Twinkies. I cannot remember what worked but soon I was in the front seat of Father Eldridge’s old Buick between my mother and Father Eldridge headed to the hospital where I remained for several months.

The three months in the hospital coupled with the nine months of confinement to a bed that followed, meant that I spent a good deal of time alone. The impact it had on me is hard to determine but I found myself moved by things most young boys are not, particularly color and music. A volunteer at the hospital curiously known as a Pink Lady introduced me to a color I had never seen before. She pulled a crayon from the box which she described as blue-green. To me there was something extraordinary and impossible to describe about a certain shade of blue-green. There were moments when I was able to see this color in the photographs of jungle trees in a National Geographic or in the way that light sometimes played on the icicles I could see from my bed on winter nights. This color has always remained beyond my capacity to describe it; but when I see it, it catches my breath for a moment suggesting to me something numinous, something extra ordinary.

I suppose it was this love of color and music that inspired my love of the Church we attended. Everyone attended Church when I was a child so it was always packed. Our family were high church Episcopalians who celebrated the rites of the Church with lavish rituals and took great pride in being more Catholic then the Catholics. The mass was a feast for the senses with great clouds of incense Sanctus bells, colorful vestments, chanting, a men’s and boys’ choir, and a pipe organ that shook the foundations of the earth when the low notes thundered, and conjured royal festivals when the fanfare trumpets under the rose window in the rear of the nave blasted triumphantly. And of course the priests at the altar doing something with wafers and wine with elaborate hand gestures and bows that surely was magic. I loved it all.

We attended the 11 am Mass and were instructed to fast before receiving communion. The consequence for me was that I often fainted during the service and was be carried out to the church kitchen where smelling salts jarred me alert and orange juice fortified me to make it through the second half. It wasn’t until the fifth or sixth time this happened that my parents sought permission from the priest to exempt me from the fasting rule by allowing me a glass of orange juice before the service.

The choir members all received a very small stipend for singing so when my friend and neighbor Thomas Evans planned to audition, I asked my parents if I could too. The idea of being paid to sing was fabulous. Both Thomas and I auditioned before Dr. Thompson, Organist and Choirmaster, singing “Me me mi mo moo” up and down the scales. We soon learned that we had passed the audition and were inducted into the choir. Rehearsals were one evening per week for several hours and required we show early on Sunday. We practiced in the choir rehearsal room which was set up in a small amphitheater arrangement. Dr. Thompson’s intense distaste for imperfection often erupted in agonized fits of keyboard pounding and shouts of “garbage, garbage!” when the tenors had failed to get the timing right, or the boys had not trilled their “R’s” correctly, or the word “prepared” was sung with two syllables instead of the musically correct three, or worst of all, sung off key. We rehearsed relentlessly so the anthems and hymns were committed to memory so choir members could keep their eyes fixed on his conducting from the organ bench through strategically placed mirrors. I loved the music, the harmonies, descants and singing, in general.  I sang them every night lying in bed keeping time with with my leg banging the mattress after my parents said goodnight.

All of this- ritual, music, holy men and magic was part of the ethos that created a willingness and even a desire to believe in more than God alone but the transcendent, in general. I was a believer. It was a diffuse belief shaped by the way sound reverberated off the cavernous walls of the huge Church nave, the way incense smelled and filled the Church shrouding our actions in a cloud of mystery, rather than dogma. It was this mix that cultivated an openness to the extraordinary, the other worldly, the spiritual, transcendence. For me, mystery was a given and the notion that there existed the seen and the unseen seemed perfectly sound.

My name, by the way, is Edward Cooney and I have this story I have wanted to tell for a long time. Yes, it’s about me as well as some of the kids I grew up with. But it is also about both the precious innocence that animates childhood and the losses sustained in the transition to adolescence. My story concerns how the confluence of people place, time, and circumstance provide a fertile playground in which children grow. That was how it was for me and for my friends who lived in the row houses on Maple Street.  Sometimes, I suppose these things come together in ways that offer us everything we could possibly desire from childhood. Yet, sometimes there are interruptions, hiccups, revelations, epiphanies… something that alters the delicate trajectory our pleasant lives and the unexpected washes over us like a giant wave threatening to drag us into a sea that is unknown and wholly mysterious.

And that is where this story begins- with me, Edward Cooney; with the row houses Maple Street where soon something unexpected and unpredictable opens a door to the new and wholly mysterious.

***

 

Every year the kids on Maple Street put on a variety show that involved singing, acting out vignettes from some TV shows or movies, and minor acrobatics. Refreshments of Kool Aid and popcorn were sold and a smattering of games were spread around the yard of the host home.  A stage was created with the assistance of some of the parents and an old sheet or bedspread strung across a clothes line acted as a curtain. The weather was perfect for this year’s show and the children kicked it off with a number performed by Ray, John and Edward singing while they marched in place.

“The women in the Army, they say they’re might fine,

you ask for Betty Grable, they give you Frankenstein.

Oh, I’ve had enough of Army life.

Gee, Ma, I want to go home.”

The audience laughed and clapped. The three boys dressed in army greens donned helmets loaned by the neighborhood fathers who served in the military which included most everyone. Ray, a round-faced chubby boy, wore his father’s steel army helmet which had a gash in the side from where a bullet grazed him in a battle with the Nazis. Most of the neighborhood boys had at one time or another held that helmet and fingered the hole in its side wondering about that close call. Ray wore the heavy helmet which nearly covered his eyes, with special pride that the neighbors seemed to share. Each of the boys carried a wooden replica of a rifle from the second world war over their shoulder and wore boots of whatever sort their parents could help them find even if they were buckled up galoshes.

“The shoes in the army, they say they’re mighty fine.

You ask for size 11, they give you 99.

Oh, I’ve had enough of army life….”

More laughter and applause. The overflow audience was comprised of performer’s parents, of course, children who for one reason or another did not want to be in the show, and families from the greater Maple Street neighborhood.

When the boys finished their number, they acknowledged the enthusiastic applause with a bow bowed and ducked backstage behind the sheet that served as our curtain while several of the girls pranced onto the stage with their hula hoops.

“Do you know who that man was that kept laughing so hard in the front row?”, Edward looked somewhat puzzled at John.

“I’ve never seen him before.” John removed the helmet he wore for the performance tossing it on the grass.

“Well, I guess he was happy, but kind of weird too. He laughed through the entire song. Kinda strange, I thought.” John didn’t respond. It didn’t bother him so it shouldn’t bother me, Edward reasoned. Edward was often described as cute, albeit short boy; the shortest in his class with a tousle of light brown hair and a somewhat ragged look he shared with most boys his age.  He considered once more the exaggerated responses of the man in the front row then shrugged his shoulders dismissively and found his partner with whom he would be singing, “Goober Peas”.

Several nights later Edward was watching TV with his sister Louise when they heard the sound of loud laughter coming from the kitchen.

“Who is that?” Edward’s sister asked, her expression looking as if she had just sniffed something bad.

Edward recognized the laughter as that belonging to the man who sat in the front row at the variety show. “I think I know” he said walking toward the kitchen.

The swinging door to the kitchen was shut so he slowly pushed it open peeking into the kitchen. Both his parents turned to look at him. Sitting at the kitchen table with his wallet open and the plastic sheath holding his various cards and photos unfurled like a long tongue across the table was the man who had sat up front at the Variety Show. A quick survey of the scene suggested to Edward he was sharing and discussing the contents of his wallet with his parents. Edward also had a suspicion that the man was drunk.

Noting the shift in Edward’s parent’s attention to the kitchen door, the man turned to look behind him at the boy standing in the doorway. “Well, hello there!” he said, apparently delighted to have a new audience member. Then as if he suddenly remembered something he said “Hey! Ah OK. The women in the army, they say they’re mighty fine, you ask for Lana Turner, they give you Frankenstein.” He burst into laughter looking at Edward expectantly with squinted eyes and a beet red face.

“Betty Grable” Edward corrected the stranger.

Oh! Oh yeah”, he said still chuckling a bit. “Hey, that was great.” He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose as loud as a trumpet in cartoon-like fashion. Edward stifled a laugh.

“Meet Mr. Runnels, Edward”. Edward’s father gestured toward Mr. Runnels as if the boy might be confused about which person in the kitchen he was being introduced to.

“Charlie, please! Call me Charlie”, he insisted his enthusiasm and excitement expressed not only in the volume of his voice but in the spray of spittle as he spoke. Edward determined that Charlie was older than his father. His hair was salt and pepper and cut in the style known as a flat top- short on the sides with the hair on top of the head pushed straight up and held fast by butch wax forming a “flat top”. He wore dark horned rim glasses and seemed very pleased indeed to welcome add another member to his audience. Charlie lit a cigarette even though he had one burning in the ashtray that sat before him on the table.

Just as Edward’s father appeared to be ready to object to calling any adult by their first name, Charlie, cigarette dangling from his lips, reached toward the center of the kitchen table picking up what appeared to be a baby’s rattle that was designed to look like a very large diamond ring; indeed, large enough to fit around his wrist. He smiled a broadly displaying a collection of tobacco stained teeth and held the ring up in front of my face. “I’m getting engaged!” he bellowed.

Amused, Edward laughed understanding the ring was not really a ring but a baby’s toy and that this was a joke.

Smiling broadly, Charlie leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and waited for Edward to respond.  Edward simply smiled, conscious of the whistling sound Charlie’s nose made each time he exhaled an unpleasant mixture of cigarettes and whiskey that filled the space between their two faces. Both of his parents remained still, obviously uneasy.  Then Charlie guffawed speaking between his own peals of laughter, “Oh… did I happen to mention… that my fiancé is an elephant?” Charlie loved his joke, slapping his knee and the table and laughing until he could barely catch his breath and started coughing. His face turned a sort of reddish purple until he finally caught his breath. “Oh…Oh god, that’s funny” he sighed as he sat back up in his chair. The truth is, Edward had laughed too although his parents did not. Edward was amused by this colorful character who he thought seemed to be a pretty good guy. But, his parents were making no secret of their impatience and shooed Edward and his sister from their respective places to their bedrooms upstairs. Edward was actually disappointed because it seemed Charlie would be a lot of fun to get to know. When Edward’s mother came in to instruct Edward to complete his evening tasks, Edward asked if Charlie was drunk. “Yes”, she said shaking her head. “But it’s more complicated than that.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Never mind”, she replied and hurriedly escorted him through the evening rituals of brushing teeth and prayers while Louise just closed her door apparently uninterested. Edward went to sleep quietly singing an anthem the boys and men’s choirs were working on in rehearsals, “The Lord is My Shephard”.  But intuitively he knew his parents were troubled by something else regarding Charlie and so he pondered what it might be before drifting off to sleep.

While Mrs. Cooney oversaw the bedtime routine, Mr. Cooney remained with Charlie in the kitchen.

“I want to show you this Alan” Charlie wrestled a card from one of the pockets in his wallet. He finally, liberated it and and slapped it down in front of him. “Bet you don’t have one of these”, he said with pride and what seemed a touch of anger. The card stated that Charlie Runnels was a Freemason.

“You’re right, Charlie. I don’t have one of those.” Getting up from his chair at the kitchen table, he continued, “And now it’s time to call it a night and for you to head on home.” Alan Cooney smiled, moving toward the back door.

“What for? Charlie complained.

“Because you have work tomorrow and you’re drunk Charlie”, Alan said smiling. “Time to go home.” Alan put his own wallet back in his pocket. Charlie pouted and impatiently pushed his chair back which tipped over creating a noisy clatter. Startled by the noise and unsteady on his feet, he attempted to unsuccessfully pick the chair up.

“Don’t worry Charlie. I have it.” Alan was now holding open the screen door to the back porch for Charlie to exit. He walked to the door and stood at the top of the stairs studying the path forward.

“Wait here.” Alan went back inside and shouted toward the stairs, “I’m walking Charlie home.” Mary Cooney answered with a sigh. “Alright”, she said exasperated shaking her head in a gesture of expressing empathy rather than contempt.

As Charlie started down the stairs, he suddenly stopped. “I forgot my ring,” he slurred.

“We’ll get that tomorrow, Charlie.”

“Nope! No, we won’t”, he said abruptly and walked back into the kitchen to fetch his ring from the table. He walked down the stairs confidently and said to Alan, “I’m fine. I’ll get myself home. You see to your family.” Suddenly, seeming to sober up, he walked surefooted across the yard, let himself out the backyard gate and strolled down the alley toward his apartment.

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