This is part two of the short story I posted last Monday. It is based on an excerpt from The Runners, my first novel published in Romania in 1994. The conclusion will follow next week. I begin with the last several sentences from the previous installment (in italics).
The [ice cream truck] driver, who was fatter than Pani, wore blue coveralls over a sweatshirt. He wore a baseball cap with the words Chicago Bears inscribed in large letters on it. On his right arm, the man had a tattoo. Besides ice cream, sold in cones, boxes, or colored foil, the children also bought peppermints, chewing gum, crackers, candy cigarettes, confetti, lead soldiers, balloons, and baseball cards.
In the back alley, Thomas discovered the thrill of having money. Six cents bought him an ice cream, twelve cents a package of ten baseball cards. A card from last year, no longer to be found in the packages, was worth a full quarter. Waiting for the ice cream truck, some of the boys played pitch-and-toss. The coins struck against the brick walls and rolled on the asphalt. A coin disappeared into a sewage pit. It belonged to a boy called Stanislaw, whose father, Mr. Macievitschi, was a Polish immigrant. He worked by the hour and on Sundays he helped with chores in Pani’s restaurant. Stanislaw lay down, trying to recover his coin, while the boys closed in a circle around him. The deep pit had a rusty pig-iron grate like a foul smelling dragon’s mouth. Stanislaw’s hand slipped between the bars. Nearly six feet down, on a carpet of muck, the coin glittered like a drop of dew. Unable to retrieve it, Stanislaw rose, crossed over angrily to the boy who had thrown the coin and struck him hard across his face. The boy fell down, his nose and lips bloodied. Thomas shied away from the unexpected outburst of violence. At home, he asked his grandmother for money. “Let the boy enjoy himself,” she said handing him a few bills. “He’ll have plenty of time to slave later.”
Ronny objected. In his opinion, in life one should not expect something for nothing. “Kill individual initiative and you’ll see, we’re a bunch of jellyfish. Give the kid something for free and watch him get bad ideas. That’s exactly what’s happening in our urban ghettoes and in those communist countries.”
Thomas tried to understand his father’s comment. He had travelled by train to his father’s work. Before disappearing underground, the train crossed an area of dilapidated houses, some blackened by fires and others abandoned. The tracks ran over a concrete bridge that divided that neighborhood. From the height of the train car, one could look directly into people’s homes. The interiors were grim and bare. Windows were broken or boarded up. Half-naked black kids played in soot-covered yards between shriveled trees. Laundry hung on lines. The draft caused by the passing train swept newspapers, cigarette stubs, and leaves flying into the air. When Thomas travelled with Pani, she held his hand and kept very quiet. Thomas was learning fast. His best pal, Stanislaw, had little money. Pani had told him that didn’t matter. From the behavior of his friend, Thomas concluded the opposite.
Stanislaw’s aunt, Sarah, introduced Thomas to her neighbor, Mr. Wagner, an animal tamer and the owner of the one and only animal shelter in Wabash. Now and then, Stanislaw and his friends were allowed to visit the animals. It was there that Thomas saw, for the first time, a water snake and a baby alligator. People going on vacation left their pets with Mr. Wagner, who placed them in wire cages with double bottoms filled with sawdust. Each cage had a label with the name of the animal and its owner and the date and time of return. Just in case, payments were made in advance. The animal room was always warm and smelled of excrement. From there, one passed into the fish room, filled with moist air and the smell of standing water. The aquarium took up an entire wall. Mister Wagner had to use a ladder to reach the top to sprinkle food or fix the complicated filter and illumination devices. Thomas was fascinated by the lightness of objects immersed in water. Fish of all sizes moved in circles or stuck their open mouths to the glass, casting fleeting shadows. In a smaller aquarium near the door, there were fish for sale. The price list hung on the wall. The fish more familiar to Thomas were the guppies — they birthed living young and cost five cents a pair. Mister Wagner caught them with a net and put them into a jar that you had to bring from home. Children loved to visit Mister Wagner, especially for his German shepherd, Hector, who played ball, put out a paw, and tumbled. Each visit ended with a show Hector gave in his master’s office. Hector had gentle brown eyes, cocked ears, and short bristly fur like a brush. The kids fed him sugar cubes and he licked their faces as a token of gratitude.
“Hector’s so smart,” explained Stanislaw, “that sometimes the police ask for his cooperation.”
The year before the disappearance of the ice-cream van, the boys on Thomas’s alley declared war on those living in the alley closer to the avenue. With the money from Pani, Thomas bought firecrackers, which he shared with his battle companions. The boys turned the lids of garbage cans into shields. They cut up the flag stolen from the county library and made turbans in which they stuck long feathers. The turbans were red, white, and blue. They attacked the enemy yelling, “Down with communism!” The kids in the opposing army were more numerous, but lacked in originality and hollered the same battle cry. Ronny would have been elated by the political awareness of the combatants.
It was the fifties. In the U.S. Senate, Joe McCarthy had sponsored a law prohibiting the immigration of homosexuals and people suspected of pro-communist ideas. Walter Cronkite announced on television that the Soviet Union had launched an earth satellite with a passenger on board, a dog by the name of Laika. What he failed to mention was that the satellite would never return. Seeing the black and white TV images, Thomas was surprised by the resemblance between Laika and Hector.
“God, you look like Aunt Angela’s father, the hussar!” Pani exclaimed, seeing Thomas ready for battle, pieces of the cut up US flag wrapped around his head. That evening she told him the story of her maiden life in an amended version.
“Pani, how can I look like him if he’s not my grandfather?” asked Thomas.
“In your heart you do, angel. There is a little something in people who love each other that is passed on from generation to generation, no matter the blood relationship.”
“Pani,” said Thomas, “why did you come to America?”
“The day I left Europe, the war started. We had to get out. Who knows what our destiny would have been had we not boarded that ship.”
“Did the war begin because you left, Grandmother?”
“No. It started because of the Archduke.”
“Did Aunt Angela’s father die in that war? Why didn’t he come with you to America?”
“No, Thomas, he died in a different war, an earlier one.”
“What was that war called?”
“That war had no name, my angel.”
Grandmother’s story inflamed Thomas to a futile heroism, which culminated the next day in a black eye caused by a stone thrown erratically by the enemy. Thomas’s accident coincided with the arrival of the police in response to the library janitor’s complaint over the desecration of the US flag. The police car pulled into the alley on the spot usually taken by the ice-cream van. The turbans on the boys’ heads constituted proof enough of the offence. The culprits were sequestered indoors, the parents agreed to buy a new flag for the library, and the policemen withdrew.
To ponder the situation, Ronny asked Barbara to join him in the dining room.
Barbara lit her cigarette, found an ashtray and pulled out a chair opposite her husband.
“Many of my coworkers,” started Ronny, “live in the suburbs. The suburbs represent the future of America. There, a sensitive boy like Thomas could be safe from bad influences. Think about it, a house on a small piece of land, a two-car garage, and a TV set. What in God’s name do we have here?”
Barbara shrugged with indifference.
“Misery and confined spaces,” Ronny answered his own question. He was getting agitated. “What our child did could have gotten him in real trouble. Luckily, the policemen were decent fellows. Under different circumstances, such a stupid thing could have gotten blown out of proportion.”
Barbara puffed on her cigarette and nodded in agreement.
Her calm demeanor made Ronny even more nervous. She was sitting in front of him merely acknowledging he was right. That was not good enough. And why, in God’s name, wasn’t she blowing the cigarette smoke in the opposite direction? Couldn’t she see it was getting into his face? She’d taken to smoking all day long, like her mother, until one could no longer breathe in the house.
Ronny heard Thomas whimper in his room. He cut short his silent reproaches and ran upstairs.
When the ice-cream van disappeared, rumors started to circulate in the neighborhood. Stanislaw’s aunt had heard that the police found the van at night on Wabash Avenue. Obviously, it had been abandoned, its windshield broken and the back door was sticky from melted ice cream. The floor was tinted red, yet in the dark it was impossible to establish whether it was raspberry sauce or blood. Suspecting foul play, the police decided to get Hector, the dog. He instantly picked up a trail and followed it into an alley. And there, dear God — Aunt Sarah could hardly say it — there, wrapped in a tarp and stashed in two garbage cans, they found the body of the driver. Ripped by bullets and all cut up. Yes, cut up! The poor man’s arms and legs cut off so that he could fit in a can. The next day was a Tuesday, and the perpetrators must have known that the garbage truck would show up and all traces would disappear. Identification was simple because of the tattoo. What criminals, dear God, what animals! To butcher a man in broad daylight, and for what, for twenty or thirty dollars or whatever the poor, innocent bastard could have carried on him. They even found his baseball cap soaked in blood. The police didn’t have the slightest idea who the perpetrators were. Then Aunt Sarah added in a low voice that the van had been abandoned near the ghetto.
With the exception of her last remark, Aunt Sarah’s story was printed by all morning papers, with a photo of Hector sniffing the garbage cans splashed over the front page. The ice cream man’s picture, most likely copied from his driver’s license, was at the bottom of the page.
That same day, Ronald received a job offer from a military electronics firm in Fort Meade, Maryland. He was eager to move and felt the change would be good for his family. For Barbara, life outside the neighborhood in which she was born and raised, seemed scary and confusing. With her experience in moving from place to place, Pani would have encouraged Barbara, but her daughter did not tell her about the offer that day. Thomas spent his afternoon with his friends. Barbara and Ronald sat down at the dining room table to have a rational and earnest talk.
Barbara lit her cigarette.
“This is a step up in my career,” Ronald pleaded. “You must look at things from my point of view. I’ll help solve problems I’m interested in. My salary and my chances for promotion will improve. I’ll situate myself at the periphery of the cold war.”
“I don’t want you to be situated at any periphery,” Barbara said. “We are situated all right, right here.”
“All right, my foot!” exclaimed Ronny. “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you see what’s happening all around us? Don’t you read the newspapers?”
“Think of Thomas,” said Barbara. “He’s happy. He’s made friends here and he’s used to the school. Our life, my life is here.”
“Barbara, we’ll move to a Baltimore suburb, not the Soviet Union. He’ll make friends there, too. He’ll be happy, and he’ll get used to the new school.”
“What about my mother?” said Barbara and burst into tears. “I don’t know.”
Ronny did know. He packed a suitcase and took a cab to the airport to catch the eight o’clock flight to Baltimore. On Friday, he sent Barbara a telegram: “Down payment for Severna Park house, half acre, woods, garden, nice lawn. Four bedrooms upstairs. Dining room, living room, library downstairs. Two-car garage. River visible from second floor and deck. Arrive back tomorrow. Love. Ronny.”
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