An excerpt from
The Heebie-Jeebie Girl
Monday night, I went to the Mahoning Valley Restaurant. MVR is a popular place, a landmark really. It isn’t fancy, but my guess is it’s still too nice a place for guys who would rob an old lady and knock her down. Tuesday, I stopped in two different bars downtown, but those were pretty much filled with white collar types, folks who work nearby and aren’t petty thieves. At first, I kidded myself that I could somehow systematically check every bar in a five-mile radius. I even pulled out my street map, a pencil, and a compass and drew a bunch of concentric circles radiating from our house even though I knew those guys weren’t from our neighborhood. If any-thing, I’d lay even money that one or both of them had worked at the mill. Men will do stupid things when they’re out of work and need money. I erased the circles and drew a new set of concentric circles radiating from the Campbell Works. Most fellows like a bar that’s close to work because it’s convenient. If they’re married, it gives them a little time to sober up on the way home. Realistically, I knew I’d never be able to visit every single bar around the mill, but a man needs a hobby.
The Campbell Works used to have five thousand guys working there in three shifts. It’s too big to know everybody. People tend to mix with people they know, the ones they work with. For instance, the fellows in the rolling mill usually stuck together and didn’t mix much with fellows from the blast furnace. All I had to go on was a guy with a birthmark and a fellow who might have an accent. Ralph said he knew one guy with a birthmark on his face from his blast furnace days. You don’t need to be all that smart or to speak good English to shovel slag. That’s where a lot of immigrants start out. Could be that’s where the fellow with the accent worked. Ralph and one or two other guys from the neighborhood had worked in the blast furnace. The next step would be to find out what bars the blast furnace guys went to.I had other responsibilities too. I still visited Dolores every day, spending a couple hours with her to help her pass the time. We didn’t talk about the robbery. We didn’t talk about much of anything. Sometimes I’d just sit with her in her room while she read one of her potboiler mysteries and I did a crossword. The mental side of things didn’t seem to be improving. The people at the rehab center kept saying “Oh, that’s just how she is,” even though I tried to tell them that wasn’t how she is, that my sister wasn’t some loopy old lady. They must have gotten sick of me because finally one of the nurses took me aside and said that this might be who my sister was now. “We see this a lot,” she said. “After a big physical trauma and surgery, some older patients don’t fully recover their mental faculties.”
Maybe they saw this kind of thing every day and were used to it by now. But this was my kid sister, and I sure didn’t like the idea of her never being herself again. Neither did her children. We all just went on for a while pretending everything was okay.
That Thursday was Thanksgiving. Everybody used to come to our place for the holiday but, as Dolores has gotten older, it’s gotten harder for her to cook for that many people, plus the family has gotten bigger, so we need more room than the little house on Audubon has. Ruthie and Phil have hosted Thanksgiving for the past few years, even though Dolores usually brings half the food across town anyway. The rehab center said we could bring Thanksgiving to Dolores, so Ruthie still did the cooking, but then we had to cart everything over to Fairmeade. Ruthie is a competent cook. She knows how to cook a turkey. But she’s spent so many years relying on her mother for advice that sometimes it seems like she doesn’t trust herself. I like a family that sticks together, but too much togetherness can cripple you.I got to Fairmeade around ten o’clock, so Dolores wouldn’t be left alone all morning. I enjoy being with my sister. The only problem is, once I get there, after half an hour of talking, I’m itching to get up and fix something or walk somewhere or do something. When we’re at the house, there’s always something to do. Dolores and I share a house, but that’s about it. We have our separate lives, our separate interests. On Thanksgiving morning, she almost seemed like herself, asking about the house, the weather outside, whether I’d cleaned the gutters before the first snow (even though she had seen me do it), what time I thought Eddie and his kids would be coming (even though I told her three times one o’clock), if I thought Peggy and her whole family would come and visit or just herself. After a while, we just put on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the television in her room and watched that.
God only knows what time Ruthie started cooking that turkey, but she, Phil, and Hope showed up at one o’clock with a covered platter of turkey and stuffing and a covered dish of sweet potatoes. And God bless him, Eddie and his three young ones showed up fifteen minutes later with a dish of green beans and some cranberry sauce. The fact that he got all three kids, himself, and food to Fairmeade on time got a “Holy Jupiter!” from his mother, canned cranberry sauce be damned.
I wheeled Dolores down to the dining hall where a number of residents were celebrating Thanksgiving with their families. The rehab center was very nice about giving us real china plates and silverware and glasses. We commandeered two of the round tables and put the kids at one and the adults at the other. Of course, fifteen minutes later the kids were done eating and saying they were bored. Kids seem to get as bored with their parents as often they do with an old toy. I decided to give the parents a break. Out with the old, in with the new, here comes Great Uncle Joe to play.Hope had a Thanksgiving coloring book and some crayons, so I set all four of them to coloring, even though Eddie’s oldest, Edie, is twelve going on thirteen. Edie resembles her mother, much to my sister’s consternation. At first, I thought Edie was supposed to be named for her fa-ther, but Eddie’s former wife told me it was for some actress. Eddie’s former wife named all their kids — Edie, Lou and Nico. When they got tired of coloring, they drew outlines of each of their hands to draw a flock of turkeys, and Hope and Nico walked around the dining room saying, “Gobble gobble gobble” and annoying everybody. It seemed like time to take evasive measures.
“Come on,” I said. “We’re going exploring.” I figured Dolores wouldn’t want the whole crew messing around in her room, so we headed in the direction of the lounge area down the hall, where I knew there was a big television.
We walked down the hall past open doors. Most of the rooms were empty, but I heard a woman’s voice say, “It’s the Thanksgiving Day Parade!” as we walked by, so I made the kids stop. The woman was all alone. I guess she had a daughter somewhere who couldn’t make it back to Youngstown for the holiday, so the kids dragged her out to meet their parents and grandmother and they fixed her a big plate of food and everything was as it should be, with good cheer and kindness and all that.
After a bit, the good cheer and noise got to be a little more than I could stand, so I went back down the hallway and this time, I made it to the lounge. The only person in there was some fellow who probably wasn’t much older than I am but looked like he’d been through the wringer. I noticed a walker next to him. I nodded. He nodded back. He had the television tuned to Channel 43, the UHF station out of Cleveland. They show King Kong every Thanksgiving Day. The relationship between King Kong and Thanksgiving has never seemed very clear to me, but they show it anyway.
I still remember when the movie came out. I was twenty-four years old and working for a fellow named Ernie Davenport, who had a garage downtown. I took a young lady I was sweet on at the time to see it. The special effects weren’t like they have today with Star Wars and all that, but the first time I saw that gorilla, I was terrified, and my date was so scared that she held my hand the whole time. It was great. The movie was just starting, so I happily sat down on one of the three aqua blue loveseats that ringed the television on the far end of the lounge. The screen was bigger than the one in Dolores’s room or at our house. Plus it got pretty good reception. The other old fella and I watched for a few minutes when Hope wandered in. I guess she got bored out in the dining room.
“Hi, Uncle Joe. Whatcha doing?” she asked as she plopped herself down.
“Just watching a little TV with my buddy here.”
She gave a little wave to the guy with the walker on the opposite loveseat. “Hi. May I watch TV with you?”
“Absolutely, young lady,” the other fellow replied.
“Do you want some turkey?”
“Thank you, no. My family is coming to see me in a little bit.”
“Okay.” She settled in for a second and then asked, “What’s this?”
“King Kong,” I replied. “It’s an old movie.”
“Is the parade still on?” she asked.
“Nope, sorry. It’s over.”
“Next year can we go downtown and watch it?”
“I don’t think so. The parade is in New York City and we’re in Youngstown.”
“Why don’t we have a parade on Thanksgiving?”
“Because we aren’t a big city like New York. They have eight million people. We have maybe a hundred twenty-five thousand.”
“That’s still enough people for a parade,” she said, sounding as condescending as a seven-year-old girl can sound, which is pretty condescending. Fortunately for me and the fellow with the walker, she settled in and started watching the movie. I had a hunch Hope would like it and she did. Little kids always like King Kong for the same reason they like dinosaurs. When you’re that small, it’s nice to think there’s something bigger than your parents.
She made me tell her the name of every actor in the picture. At first all I could remember was Fay Wray — all that peroxide hair and all that screaming. But then I remembered Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot, character actors who I saw in plenty of films. They’re kind of like the guys you see every day walking into a factory or an office, the ones you never really notice until they’re gone. After we talked about the actors, Hope asked me if King Kong was real.
“It’s not like there’s really a gorilla that big, right?” she asked, and I could hear just a hair of worry in her voice, as though she thought a fifty-foot gorilla was going to make its way down Belmont Avenue that very afternoon. The guy with the walker chuckled a little bit at this.
I told her “No,” and explained how they used a model of King Kong that they moved a little tiny bit every frame and how long it takes to make a movie like that.
“What’s a frame?” she asked.
“It’s like a little picture. And there are hundreds of thousands of them in a motion picture.”
“I don’t get how King Kong moves if he’s just a doll. How come you don’t see their hands when they move King Kong?”
“Excuse me,” I said to the fellow with the walker. “Do you know if there’s a scratch pad and a pencil around here?"
“Don’t think so,” he replied. “Sorry.”
“I have a pad of paper and pencil in my bag with the coloring books!” Hope exclaimed. “Let me go get it.” She hopped up and ran out of the room. I apologized in advance to the fellow with the walker for the noise. As I suspected, Hope came back carrying a little canvas bookbag with flow-ers on it and with her cousins in tow.
“King Kong!” Lou exclaimed and jumped onto the one unoccupied loveseat. Nico, who’s only about two years older than Hope, piled in next to him.
“I’ve seen that movie,” Edie said, and wandered out of the lounge.
“Well, I’ll be seeing you,” the fellow with the walker said as he slowly stood up. “My family will be here soon.”
“Need a hand?” I asked.
“No, thanks. My knee needs to learn to work on its on again.” He managed to get himself upright and underway. He shuffled out of the room to a chorus of “Happy Thanksgivings” from the kids.
Hope pulled a little notepad and a pencil out of her bookbag and handed it to me. “This is the pad where Mommy always had me write down the lottery number for her and Grandma.”
My hand stopped in mid-air. “Can I use it?” I asked.
“Sure,” she replied. “I don’t need it anymore.”
I took the scratch pad and pencil and carefully started drawing a little stick figure on the first page. On the next page, I made the stick figure lift one leg, just a little bit. I went on and on like this until I had a little stick figure on each page. Hope kept looking over my shoulder, trying to see what I was drawing.
“Why do you keep drawing the same thing over and over?” she asked. “That’s boring.”
“It’s not the same thing. See? Every drawing is a little bit different. Now look.” I took the scratch pad and flipped through it, making the little stick figure look like it was running across the page.
Hope squealed so loud that Lou and Nico looked up from the movie. She held up the scratch pad, saying “Look! Look!” like it was the greatest thing she had ever seen. During the commercials, she made each of her cousins flip through the scratch pad and watch the little stick figure run across the page a few times, then she settled down.
Hope flipped through the scratch pad once in a while to watch the little stick man run while we watched the movie. I decided my babysitting stint would be over when the movie was over. A man has the right to do nothing but eat his fill and watch football on Thanksgiving, and I like exercising my rights.
Hope was leaning on me the way little kids sometimes use adults as La-Z-Boy recliners. I don’t mind too much. It’s a nice feeling when a little one leans on you like that; it’s like having a dog or a cat cuddle up next to you. It means you’re trusted. There was a time, long ago, when I thought I might marry a certain young lady and start a family with her, but it didn’t work out. Instead, I’ve been the stand-in father and granddad for my nieces and nephews, and that’s worked out just fine.
When King Kong started climbing the Empire State Building, Hope sat straight up. “Why are the airplanes attacking him?” she said.
“They think he’s dangerous.”
“They have to save the city,” Lou added as though Hope ought to know this.
“But he’s just trying to save the girl because he loves her. It’s like they’re both trying to do what they think is right.”
“Yeah, it’s tough, isn’t it?” I said.
“Is he going to be okay, Uncle Joe?” she asked.
Lou piped up “I know what happens!”
“Shh ... don’t spoil it!” Nico said.
Nico didn’t seem to be too upset by the whole thing, but she’s kind of a tough girl, and Lou had that little boy fascination with fights and airplanes. I kept an eye on Hope. When King Kong finally lost his grip and started to fall off the top of the Empire State Building, Hope gave little gasp and then the picture on the television changed to another channel, even though the remote was sitting way over on the empty loveseat where the guy with the walker had been. None of us were even close enough to touch the television, but the channel still changed. We didn’t get to see Kong lying on the ground or hear the last line about beauty being the one who killed the beast. Instead we were looking at some soap opera.
“Awww! What’d you do that for?” Lou asked.
"It was mean of them to take him away from his island,” Hope said.
“So? You don’t have to change the channel.”
Hope gave Lou a dirty look, and Nico hit him and said, “Shut up.”I tried to explain to the three of them that Hope couldn’t have changed the channel because none of us had touched the remote or the television.
“Then how did it happen?” Lou asked. All three of them looked at me like I was the village idiot about to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Like they knew something I didn’t. Frankly, I didn’t know how it happened. There wasn’t any earthly reason why the channel would just change all on its own.
“I’ll bet this does things like that all the time,” I said. “I’ll bet the remote in somebody’s room affects this TV.”
It wasn’t anything close to a reasonable explanation, but at least it was an explanation.
“Naw-uh. Sometimes Hope ... .”
“Shut up!” Nico and Hope said at the same time. I heard Nico whisper something about grown-ups to Lou. They all three looked guilty of something, I just wasn’t sure what of.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
All three of them said, “Nothing,” in a little chorus.
Then Nico said, “Poor King Kong” and jumped up and ran down the hall back to the dining room, with Hope and Lou close behind. I sat there for a minute, wondering how on earth the channel had changed all on its own. I took that as my cue to grab a plate of leftovers and go home so I could drink a beer and watch a football game or two in peace.
All through Thanksgiving weekend, I kept thinking about the guy with the birthmark who had stolen Dolores’s money and broken her hip and how he could be the same Bobby with the birthmark that Ralph Krasniak used to work with in the blast furnace and who might be the same guy Hope saw in McGuffey’s. Those were too many “coulds” and “mights” for my taste, but it’s all I had to go on.
I kept trying to look at the whole thing from a rational standpoint. When you’re trying to fix something, you need to take it step by step. You make your first hypothesis about what might be wrong and see if that’s what’s causing the problem. If that first try doesn’t fix it, then you think of what else it could be. If not A, then B. If not B, then C. And you keep fiddling with it until you fix it. That’s how I’ve always fixed things. Not just cars and engines but clocks and radios and furnaces and squeaky doors and you name it. When Dolores’s children were little, they used to think I could do magic because I was always fixing their bicycles or roller skates. When Ruthie was a little girl, she always said “Uncle Joe can fix anything.” I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t that I can fix anything, it’s that just about anything can be fixed. Every problem has a root cause. If you can figure out the root cause, you can fix anything.
There used to be a guy named Pete who lived on Emerald Avenue around the corner from us. He fancied himself a dog trainer and always said that you have to break a dog’s spirit in order to train it. I say that’s a load of hooey. Breaking somebody’s spirit — even a dog’s — is the worst thing you can do. It kills something inside that I don’t think you can ever really fix. Pete always had two or three dogs and the poor things always looked miserable and terrified. That’s no way to go through life, even a dog’s life. The doctors had fixed Dolores’s broken hip, but they couldn’t fix her spirit. The police had already given up on the robbery as a Gypsy scam and said there was nothing they could do. The only person looking for these guys was me. Me and the Heebie-Jeebie Girl.