Monday, April 29, 2013

The Bell's of Saint Joseph's

When we were kids we used to climb a top Clear Mountain and marvel at the broad landscape below. I could see the top of Grandma Rosa’s two-story farm house and smoke sifting through a partially collapsed brick chimney. Further down the valley Uncle Jim’s bird dogs howl at a full moon so grand and expansive only the mountain hinders it from owning the night sky. I could be a shepherd watching over a flock or a warlord, master of an entire kingdom. Some days I just prefer being alone, far away from brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins, which was entirely possible from this vantage point. Everyone took to calling me Alfred, short for Alfredo, the silent boy - brother of the precocious twins. I never paid them much mind since there was rarely a quite moment around my relatives. It was easier to listen. This is my story.

Clear Mountain really wasn’t a mountain at all, but a fair size hill separating Grandmother Rosa Bella's property from elder sister Natalie. Both arrived in Wilkesburg during the early 1920’s with spouses and bought adjacent properties, primed for farming. The land was ripe with sweet corn, raspberries, yams and potatoes, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, just about any kind of grain and a small vineyard. The property from Grandma Rosa’s garden to the Moretti’s was thick with vegetation. There was wild turkey, small foxes, pheasant, raccoons, grouse, quail, deer, and skunk outside the back door. Those were just a few of the most visible wild animals. All the domestic ones like pigs, cows and chickens didn’t share the same aura but kept us all fed and clothed.

 It seemed like nearly everyone in the community had Italian roots. After the first wave of immigrants, word spread quickly of this private enclave which shared similar land and weather conditions with central Italy. It was a dream world where English was a second language mostly spoken when showing a prized sow at the Medina State Fair or negotiating a loan with a local bank manager.

At best, farming was a difficult all consuming occupation. Most males held second jobs to feed families and pay off farm loans. Through the first sixty years the farm was the main source of food and stability. As brothers and sisters married some would relocate in nearby communities, others moved as far away as California. It seemed with every wedding another artery connecting the community was severed. The only constant was St. Joseph’s Church - which was erected twenty years before our ancestors arrive.

I could see the bell tower from the west end of Clear Mountain. The chimes beat a dependable rhythm, although predictable, the splendid tones announced various time intervals of the day, commanding attention miles beyond the township boundaries.

There weren’t many things happen out of the ordinary, mostly the birth of a calf or dramatic weather change. There was the occasional automobile crack-up and draft notice, leaving a cousin or two momentarily disabled or absent a long stretch of time. The infirmed and dying received traditional Catholic care at St. Jude’s Hospital where everyone was on a first name basis with nurses and Catholic Sisters. Uncle Nico spent the better part of the fifties out-patient after accepting sniper fire to the abdomen along the de-militarized zone in South Korea, leaving his stomach in constant turmoil. There was also the near riot in 1955 at the Rialto movie house during a matinee showing of Blackboard Jungle when boys from neighboring Allensburg came looking to mix it up with three sophomore members of the high school football squad. The guys had hair buffed like Vic Morrow and attitude to spare as if they stepped out of monochromatic North Manual High School. The fight never materialized after the invaders discovered the three linemen had brothers all playing for Notre Dame, chatting up girls in the lobby. I guess the most eventful occurrence came two decades later when the twins spot what appeared to be a pre-historic being rummaging through the apple orchard near Coggin’s pass the north Ridge of Clear Mountain.

The land around Coggin’s used to attract archeologist from Rankin College who’d patiently excavate what was believed a scared Indian burial site. A nearby artesian well spilled water through the pass down the hill forming a tributary curving its way through town past the pulp mill before coagulating into a chemical bath. The murky stream was known as the Juanita River.

It was a warm afternoon like so many the summer 0f ‘63 when the twins made their usual trek in search of arrowheads.

Ten year old Juliette had a small birthmark back of her neck, the only distinguishing characteristic between her and Sister Anna. The two were inseparable as they explored nearly every square foot of terrain unearthing fragments of small animal skulls, lost pendants, charred glass, and their cherished prized arrowheads. While digging a hundred feet or so from the summit of Clear Mountain, Anna spots a naked figure streak past a cluster of briar and recently planted maple trees. Her scream momentarily reigns over the valley when suddenly she grabs Juliette and begins pulling her away from the secluded dig, retreating quickly down the north ridge to a grassy plateau below. Uncle Jim was tilling the garden when he spots the two running towards rows of recently planted sweet peas.

 “Girls, girls don’t cut through the garden, you’ll stomp all over my peas.”

“Uncle Jim, we saw it,” yells Anna as she traces the outer rim of the plot.

“You saw what? We saw a caveman up there running naked through the woods.”

“You saw a caveman huh? And just what did this caveman look like?”

“Uncle Jim, you’ve got to believe us. He was all hairy and white.”

“Juliette, what’s your sister up to? Two weeks ago she saw the ghost of a Geronimo.”

“She’s right Uncle Jim, there’s a caveman running around up there.”

“A caveman huh…. tell me exactly what he looks like!” Juliette pauses then drops her head. “I didn’t see it.”

“You didn’t see it…..but I thought the both of you were together.”

“I was too scared to look back, besides we had to get away.”

 Jim laughs and sends the girls in for lunch where the whole family gathers; six brothers, cousins and farm hands who’d just returned from the fields.

Rosa would always prepare a large noon day spread when the boys, cousins and farm hands arrive after tending to milking cows, repairing machinery and planting the vast corn fields. Everyday the young men preferred the same diet of ravioli, spaghetti, smoked ham, a few greens and baked bread and non pasteurized milk.

Two picnic tables combined to seat fourteen. The wives and sisters would bide time until the back porch basement cleared before eating in private. Children fixed their plates and mostly ate outdoors during summer months while the toddlers kicked away in high chairs.

“Fellows, Anna has an announcement to make,” says Uncle Jim in a serious tone. “Anna, come over here and show us that forest of dirt under your nails,’ says cousin Deniel.

 Anna moves forward with her pointy chin tucked near the summit of her rib cage, then mumbles, “I saw naked caveman on the mountain.”

 A general quiet subdues the men until Bobby Resa, a short term farm hand asks, “What was he wearing?”

 Suddenly, the table erupts in laughter leaving the small girl embarrassed. “He wasn’t wearing anything,” she yells before turning about-face and marching from the room. “Come back here little one, he was just kidding you,” begs Jim.

 The episode slipped from consciousness until her brother Dan Moretti speaks up. “You know,” little big eyes’ may have seen more than an illusion up there. Janet and her mother saw someone running around up there last week that didn’t belong. Even though it wasn’t naked at the time, it may have done a little sun bathing or grazing. We better keep our eyes open.”

Juliette and Anna were forbidden to prowl the woods without supervision. The restriction would be more than family members could endure with two precocious twelve year olds who could easily talk their way into just about any conversation or fortified institution.

 The twins cherished the sanctity of their considerable back porch room with two large windows separated by a cracked wooden door leading to a small balcony their father Antonio erected, enabling the girls to freely star-gaze beneath the long humid night sky. The girls memorized each constellation and connecting stars and thrilled at the sight of a blazing meteor streak across the heavens.

 Large deep set eyes, coal black in the shade and dark green in sunlight were their most distinctive features. Both had sable colored locks curled loosely around the head and neck that fell naturally near the blades of their narrow shoulders. During winter months the both appear anemic, much to do with diet or lack of, but first sign of spring their skin would gradually convert to a Mediterranean tempera.

 The walls of the private back porch laboratory were framed in knotty pine. Posters covered nearly every square inch of visible wood. There were maps depicting the locations of various Indian tribes, birds, animals, and the Galapagos Islands courtesy of National Geographic magazine. The centerpiece was an eight-power microscope given to the girls on their ninth birthday by the Bella family. An odd assortment of feathers hung from the top of Juliette’s bunk down past sister Anna’s mattress. Every shape and size arrowhead, quartz rock, petrified wood, dried flower, hatched egg shell, locust skin, beetle, and polished moon stone stood like collectibles on the two window sills.

 Early spring the girls devised a scheme inviting themselves into the anthropology department of Rankin College on a Sunday when all classes had ceased. They begged their mother Darla, to drive them ninety miles to see a display showcasing a few bits of broken pottery, an unidentified femur bone dredged from the bowls of Leason Caverns and a lacrosse ball made from the skin of a squirrel belonging to the Iroquois. Nobody gave much thought about Sunday being a day of rest. The girls felt certain they could get a private screening if need be. That’s exactly what happened.

 There were few people hanging around the science building, a caretaker and what seemed a couple students. Fortunately, one of the supposed students was a professor of biology who had access to the rare find. She allowed the girls a few minutes in front of a glass enclosure encasing the historic collection. The girls stood transfixed on the objects examining every detail right down to the discolored regions of the rather large bone and peeling dried skin of the lacrosse ball. It wasn’t uncommon for the two spend an entire day searching the library for unusual information on matters of science they’d seen on television or memorized from the latest National Geographic usually omitting stories on contemporary cities.

Everything had to be ancient or pre-civilization as we know it, with the girls. The Bella’s humored the sisters giving them much freedom to discover and explore. Antonio hoped his two offspring would eventually obtain degrees in agriculture and teach somewhere near home.

 It was the second Friday in July when Anna and Juliette make the trek along the southern rim of Clear Mountain collecting wild berries. They spotted a red fox earlier in the day near Rosa’s prized chicken coop and worried of its intentions. When they return near noon they see a trail of white feathers leading up the mountain towards the berry patch. There they discover a den no more than a few inches in diameter hidden among prickly bushes, enough protection allowing a small predator ideal cover.

 “I’ll get a stick and poke him out” says Anna boldly.

“Don’t do that, he’ll attack us.”

“Don’t be silly Juliette, he’s just eaten.”

“Anna, please don’t stick him. There are probably babies down there.”

 Just as Anna concedes to her sister’s wishes a figure behind leaps from a crouched position and sprints top speed up the side of the mountain disappearing over the ridge. I came along just in case they decide to explore the wild lands just beyond family land and mostly stayed to myself.

 “It’s him! It’s the caveman I tell you,” screams Juliette. “He’s real!”

“Of course he’s real.”

“But, I mean, I saw him.”

“We both saw him and he – ran away like he was scared of us…..

“We’d better get dad and the boys..

“No wait, he ran away. He must be more afraid of us than we are of him - don’t you see.”

“Anna, we can’t be chasing him all around, it’d be too dangerous.”

“Why not?”

“He’s a caveman….don’t they hit the people over the head they want to eat?”

“How stupid! They’re people not cannibals. Don’t you want to find his cave?”

“I don’t think we should do that.”

“It’s more exciting than dumb arrowheads.”

“I don’t know.”

 "Why not? We can look for a few minutes - O.K.?”

 The brave young souls begin the journey up the slope each clutching a weapon torn from branches of a dead cedar tree.

“What if he charges us?” asks Juliette.

“We scream really loud….somebody will hear us, says Anna”

 The moment they arrive on the summit they spot the naked figure ambling towards the apple orchard. The two cautiously push through tall weeds bearing weapon at right arms. As they clear open ground they observe the figure walk slowly between two rows of sun-drenched apples stopping momentarily to sample the fruit, discarding after each bite. Fear had all but vanished while the girls study the steady movements of the ancient man.

 “He has a beard,” says Juliette.

“Of course he has a beard…all cavemen have beards.”

“I know that… but it’s like a normal beard…shouldn’t it be bushier?”

Just as Anna was preparing to answer, Juliette’s words alert the figure causing him to quickly vanish back into the brush..

 “Wow! Did you see that?’ says Anna.

“Where’d he go?”

“We better tell dad now.”

“Juliette, we discovered him. What if dad tells the police and they tell the college, they’ll send all sorts of scientists down here and steal him from us.”

“Anna, we’ve got to tell someone.”

“What about grandma? She’d keep a secret,” says Juliette.

“Where’s Alfredo?”

 I catch up and humor the girls and walk them to grandmas. All this talk of cavemen and dinosaur’s is just too silly for me.

Rosa was enjoying an afternoon nap when the twins sneak up on her slumbering front of a small electric fan. Everyday mid-afternoon she’d catch a few minutes of solitude before preparing dinner. The girls knew it wasn’t wise to rouse her in this state but couldn’t conceal their excitement.

 “Grandma, wake-up! We’ve got to talk to you, says Anna.”

 Rosa sighs, then turns and faces the back of the couch.

 “Grandma, you’ve got to listen to us….we saw the caveman again,” says Anna.

 As if someone had dumped a tub of ice water down her blouse Rosa quickly shoots up and focuses bleary-eyed on the two sisters.

 "Why you bother me right now with such nonsense? I can never get much sleep around here.”

“Grandma, it’s not nonsense…he’s for real…the both of us see him…tell her Juliette.”

“She’s telling the truth Grandma. He’s got a beard and he’s wild…. and runs around naked, and I think he’s dangerous.”

 Rosa pauses, wipes her tearing eyes then lifts both girls on the couch.

 “I believe the both of you saw something, just what I don’t know for sure. I promise, tomorrow after mass I’ll ask Father Lantos if he’s heard of any strange goings on. If anyone should know, Stevie would be the first to hear about it.”

Father Stephen Lantos replaced Emanuel Paul as parish priest after the elder Paul suffered through prolonged illness some say brought on by excessive drinking. Paul’s regal aire didn’t always sit well with young parishioners who preferred liberal theology to what they perceived arrogant banter bordering on fascism. Lantos was youthful, approachable, concerned and above all flexible on social issues. Paul’s rigid stand on morality and spiritual matters mostly bored and intimidated most young devout Catholics causing them to question their beliefs. Lantos was so warmly received by the community they took to calling him “Stevie.”

 Lantos family had roots deep in James County soil. They grew prized tomatoes that would be diced and sliced and canned for public consumption. A factory would appear late 1920’s which employed thirty family members and a handful of itinerant workers. Father Lantos spent his childhood basking in sunlight of family and religion. He closely followed the ascent to the throne of Pope Pious X1 and studied his many papers concerning capitalist greed and social issues. He admired the intellectual accomplishments – the tree doctorates in philosophy, cannon law and theology and wanted one day to serve in the newly independent Vatican. He lived a carefree childhood much under the watchful eye of aunts and uncles – sisters and brothers.

 The girls felt confident Rosa would keep her word and stood among men who gathered early morning on the back porch before breakfast, patiently awaiting her return. As Jim’s truck pulls up the girls spring from the basement, run up the stone pathway leading to the sidewalk to greet Rosa. The road stood four feet above sidewalk level leaving the girls gazing up the shiny black finish of Jim’s truck at the passenger door. As Rosa cautiously descends the steep incline clutching her rosary and smartly bound leather Catechism, she notices two eager faces dressed with anticipation.

 “Grandma, what’d he say?’ Anna inquires.

“Won’t you girls let me catch my breath?”

“Sorry grandma, did Stevie say anything about the caveman? “Begs Anna. “Do you think God saw him too.”

 Rosa laughs at Anna’s words then reaches down and pulls her near.

 “You are surely the most inquisitive young woman ever been born in this family.”

“I’m ‘qusitive too Grandma,” calls Juliette.

“You’re right about that Juliette… you two keep me guessing.”

“What about the caveman?”

“Father Stevie says he hasn’t heard a thing about such a creature and maybe the two of you let your imagination give life to one of those stories about hom….dids…wait a moment he wrote it down for us… it is, hominids.”

“What’s that mean?” asks Anna.

“It means your caveman belongs in history books or them nature magazines where you found him when you’re not digging holes or collecting arrowheads on Clear Mountain.”

The parish at St. Joseph’s was tiny compared to the cathedrals in Philadelphia, but quaint enough for everyone get to know you. 

 The Bella’s always sat in the balcony. Antonio preferred early mass, I'm not sure why, but I think  it's the only one he could stay half-awake for lasting thirty or forty minutes. He’d eventually fall asleep anyway. 

 The Bella’s were known for excessive whispering in the balcony. That's one of the reasons they didn’t build a gallery in the new church. Darla played organ while Anna and Juliette sang in the choir. Both excelled, as they did with all things.

 Christmas Eve was special, beginning early with a stop by Aunt Carmen’s and Uncle Ceasars for the immense spread, then to mass.

 The girls’ favorite memories were of Midnight Mass when Darla played the organ when Frannie Ellis was still alive, that's Angie Moretti’s husband.  Darla and Frannie would sing duets like their favorite, “O Holy Night”. It was beautiful to hear, the two sang wonderfully together. Frannie had a heart attack when he was nearing 38; then died leaving Angie with all those kids.

 After midnight mass all would travel to Grandma Rosa’s for more food. It seemed like food was the focal point in everyone’s lives.
The twins hated Lent. Friday, during the season, meat was forbidden and removed from the table. After breakfast they’d proceed to church for the Stations of the Cross. This is a repetitive chant ritual where the priest takes you through the entire walk that Jesus made the day he was nailed to the cross. Both adults and kids bided time until the procession come to a somber conclusion. Father Lantos made all this more palatable by holding the hands of the youngest members of the parish and walking them about while delivering the message. Everyone was in need of “Stevie.”

Father Lantos was born in neighboring Chalk’s Point and had cousins living in downtown Wilkesburg. He attended seminary school at Bellarmine College graduating tops in his class. He served in Haiti as a missionary during the brutal reign of Baby “Doc” Dulvuier where he clashed on many occasions with the infamous ‘Ton Ton Machutes’, Dulvuier’s hand-picked assassins masquerading as a civilian police force. Through it all, he managed to win the respect and loyalty of those he served. The heavily Italian constituency around Wilkesburg lobbied for his return after father Paul entered the sanitarium. Eventually, the favorite son returned home to a hero’s welcome and a community needing to renew it’s faith.

 It was just past two when Sylvia Bella, young Edward’s wife comes crashing through the Rosa’s front door looking as if she’d witnessed the face of Satan.

 “Where’s Rosa? Where’s Rosa? You’ve got to help me.”

 Rosa was situated on a short leg stool sorting string beans in the upstairs back porch.

 “Out her Sylvia.”

“Oh, Lord God almighty….”

“Sylvia, calm down”

“Rosa, Rosa, I saw him……I saw him standing in my driveway.”

“You saw who?”

“The caveman the girls talk about.”

“Now, you know that’s just their wild imagination talking, says Rosa”

“I’m telling you like Jesus was standing right here with us, I saw the caveman’s behind ….and he was bare-naked in my driveway.”

 Rosa stands up and consoles the trembling woman.

 “I’ll get the boys to have a look.”

“Can I stay here until Edward gets home?”

“Sure you can. This is a matter the boys should take care of.”

 Rosa witnessed a lot in her seventy plus years; the death of two sons, crop failures and years of excruciating poverty but there was no past experience offering mental counseling when dealing with primordial man.

 Rosa leaves Sylvia in the security of her basement and begins the short walk down the hill towards town when she meets Julian Bass, a local banker, pulling out of his driveway. Bass drives her to the far edge of town to the first milking barn where three sons and a couple hands were pushing cattle across the narrow road to grazing fields while two others shovel manure from the milking stations. Rosa thanks Mr. Bass then calmly approaches the men.

 “I’ve got to talk to all of you.” She says in a sober tone.

“What’s wrong? Someone seriously hurt?” asks Daniel, Edward’s youngest son.

“No, it’s not like that at all. Wait until everyone’s here.”

  A crowd of men sporting work clothes spoiled with sour milk, grease, and manure gather.

 "Sylvia saw this thing standing naked in her driveway; she thinks it’s that cavemen the girls keep talking about. I don’t know if it’s dangerous or what, but we’ve got to do something. It keeps appearing more frequently. He may be a beggar after food or as the girls believe a ‘caveman’, which I doubt, but for everyone’s safety, we’ve got to capture him unharmed.”

 “We’ll get our rifles and flush him out,” blurts Daniel.

“No, no, no…you can’t do that. During the thirties we had a lot of half-naked men and women come across that mountain in search of food and shelter. None ever harmed us. We fed and treated them as if they were family. Since this ‘thing’ has had every opportunity to harm the girls and any one of us, and didn’t-I don’t see it as a threat.”

 The men chat amongst themselves before speaking.

 “We need to light up the mountain. I’ve got five or six spot lights with maximum high beams so intense you could blind a colony of earthworms,” says Daniel.

 “Daniel, the creature runs around all times of the day. What do you think we’re chasing, a ghost?” says Rosa.

“How do you know he’s not sitting up there watching us sleep, perfectly content and secure waiting for just the right moment to attack us?”

“I’m going to leave it up to you all. Just don’t hurt it,” says Rosa before walking back towards the fence gate.

“Daniel! Do you understand?”

The boys receive Rosa’s instructions like an edict from the Vatican. They pick up hunting outfits, duck calls, blankets and rope, and then mount oversized spotlights on the rear of five trucks.

 Late afternoon, Daniel and a few men gather at Rosa’s and aligned the strobes at various regions across Clear mountain and wait for the sun disappear over the mountain’s apex. Another group of men assemble on the Moretti’s side awaiting orders to advance towards Rosa’s.

Just as the sun plummets, twenty men spread the length of the area receive a flashing signal from Daniel announcing the commencement of the search. All you could hear the first ten minutes was the sound of dried wood crunch and the occasional cough and sneeze.

 As they reach the area beneath Coggin’s Pass, a voice calls out.

 “Over here, over here, there’s something trying to get away…hit the lights, hit the lights.”

 Suddenly, Daniel and crew blaze the terrain with light so brilliant and intense it seems the whole mountain was about to burst into flames. Hundreds of blinking pupils get nabbed in the onslaught, causing them to dart haplessly from one position to another.

“I’m up here, I think I’ve got him cornered,” screams a voice.

 Daniel quickly directs the crew to focus on the troubled area.

 “I see it , I see it……Oh….dammit, it’s only a deer - a son-of-bitch deer. Oh my God, she’s shitting all over. Kill the lights, she’s convulsing.”

 Daniel and crew quickly redirect the beams towards a group of men nearing the base of the mountain just beyond Rosa’s backyard. The shocked troop raised their arms blocking the intruding beams.

 “Knock it off Daniel. You’ve got every creature crashing and stomping each other up there. It’s a nightmare. This is absolutely stupid! Says Wallace Gertz, local fire chief”

 Nothing out of the ordinary appeared that evening leaving the men certain the threat had passed. Defeated, the men assemble in Rosa’s upstairs kitchen.

 “Grandma, how come Uncle Daniel and them chase the caveman at night?” asks Anna sitting at a desk in the adjacent living room.

 Rosa responds, “Understand this! When men own big toys they have big ambitions. I told them your creature moves around in daylight.”

“Grandma, everybody knows cavemen sleep in caves at night.”

“You’re right Anna. Go tell them while they’re feeling pretty smart what you just told me,” says Rosa sporting a mischievous smile.

 Anna accepts Rosa’s advice and enters the men’s only area. It wasn’t like there were warning signs designating the territory off limits just an awareness that males-only gatherings originated the moment Grandfather and his men companions planted roots in the twenty-acre homestead. This isn’t to say women were forbidden to sit in the room, bring fresh coffee and cakes, but it was understood they weren’t meant to interrupt the flow of conversation. The young ones did as they please. Anna had no fear or understanding of the rules.

 “Uncle Daniel,….Uncle Daniel. Cavemen sleep in caves at night,” says Anna.

“Anna, stop the cavemen talk - why can’t you ever play outside like the others.”

“It’s too dark.”

“I don’t care how dark it is - we’re talking men’s talk.”

“Uncle Daniel, I’ve seen him and you haven’t. You should be asking me and Juliette what we think.”

 The men cease conversation and look directly at the thin waif of a girl.

 “He likes apples. You could set a trap with apples and maybe catch him in a huge fish net or something.” “That’s it - out of the room.” an exasperated Daniel yells as he points towards the kitchen door.

 Dejected but not defeated Anna quietly exits the upstairs kitchen.

The men continue debating strategies when Antonio comes up with a plan. “We need to spread out. How many sons we got between us and the Moretti’s that aren’t working the farms?’ “Theres twelve,” says Daniel.

 “O.K. We can post them so they can watch things for a couple weeks all around the mountain.”

“But they’re just kids,” says Antonio.

“Kids, what the hell you think my girls are. Have you ever seen them run scared?”

“No,….but they’re part crazy like you,” says Junior, Rosa’s eldest son. “Remember when you went bear hunting with a catcher’s mitt ?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m just kidding - but I do have serious concerns about you and groundhogs, says Junior”

Antonio pauses. “Look, it’s the challenge.”

“What sane man screams halt and jumps from a moving car so he can run down a groundhog other than Antonio,” says Daniel.

“I’ve never seen you catch one,” says Antonio.

“Why would I do that,” laughs Junior..

 All eyes turn towards elder brother Jim. “Antonio, you’ve got three groundhogs cramped in a much needed grain bin. What do you plan to do with them? Make sandwiches?

“I haven’t decided - all I know is I can out run anybody in the county.”

“So what – do you really need a box of breathing ground hogs to remind you how fast you can run? Take Daniel over and show before you let them go tomorrow, or I will.”

“What do your animal loving daughters think about you locking up innocent critters?” asks Junior.

Antonio bows in embarrassment. “Don’t say anything about this to the twins…they’ve got IQ’s bigger than every one of you r brains added together, especially you Junior…the guy who’s never read a book .”

“Yeah…that’s ‘cause I’m a genius,” laughs Junior. “The last thing I saw you read was that pamphlet on artificial insemination, telling you which hand to stick up a cow’s ass.”

“The hell with all of you….you think you’re so smart …I saw you running around chasing fireflies with a flashlight.

 “You were there too,” says Junior.

“Look brother, I’ve got ten years on you and I can still whip your behind, so don’t say another word about my family.”

 “ Don’t take it personal Antonio, …..I’m sorry,” says Junior.

“My girls can out smart any three of your boys. Twenty dollars says my girls catch the caveman first.”

 The men sip away at the last remnants of Folger’s crystals while rubbing the fleshy joints of their short fingers across the face and up under their caps before Jim speaks.

 “Keep your money Antonio. I don’t want to see any of the kids get hurt.”

“You’re still worried about them, aren’t you? The kids would just be hanging around Rosa’s all day doing a few chores. I’m telling you they’d have lots of fun. Sort of like cops and monsters,” says Daniel.

 The men come to agreement and gather the boys for orientation. Two were assigned to play next to Sylvia’s driveway. Two more near Coggin’s pass - a couple on the grassy plateau. Two near the apple orchard. Two near the chicken coop. Two back of the pig barn and two in the bushes near the highway. The girls were free to roam. Other than a few directions concerning protection the boys were told they could freely play, but quietly.

A week passes without incident until two young sentries spot something carry a blanket to open ground. They watch as ‘it’ stretches the cloth wide across a patch of sweet grass.

 “Shut up…shut up, it’s moving around,”says Bobby Bella, Edward’s youngest son and brother to Raymond. “Don’t you think we should call Dad?”

“No, it’s liable to get away without us catching it….. We should sneak closer.”

“You’re crazy Bobby, I’m not touching anything…..we could get into real trouble.”

 The boys crawl slowly through thick bush pausing briefly to unhinge a prickly torn, swat flies and clear grasshoppers from the path.  As the figure comes in full view it becomes apparent it’s been seduced by a searing noonday sun. The boys soon recognize the figure of a contemporary man not the missing link the girls had spoke of. And like all playful young boys they begin to exchange whispers and laughter.

 “That’s no caveman -I mean he has a beard - who has a beard around here?,” says Bobby.

“I don’t know -maybe he’s a bum…”

“I’ll get closer - you stay here and let me check him out.” Bobby slithers to no more than ten feet from the blanket then suddenly jumps to his feet and starts laughing hysterically.

“It’s Father Stevie -It’s Father Stevie!” It’s not a caveman, he’s a priest..”

 Father Lantos quickly springs to his feet, clutches a towel and sprints into the woods with a cacophony of squealing voices trailing him. “There he is’s Father Stevie -Father Stevie -over there -no, he’s over there.”

Poor Father Lanto’s name sounded over the valley like a distress signal warning of an impending doom. Bobby and Raymond sprint down the mountain notifying each lookout on the way. Word spread fast as the children assemble at Rosa’s back porch enclosure where Sylvia and Rosa were cleaning lunch from the wooden picnic tables. Like an uninvited gust of wind the boys come barreling through the torn screen door.

 “Grandma, I know who the caveman is.”

“Is that a fact, Bobby…aren’t you boys supposed to be looking out for it?”

“Grandma, its Father Stevie.”

“Why don’t you boys go about playin?” Rosa says trying to ignore the gang.

“Grandma, you’re not listening - we chased Father Stevie through the woods, and he was butt-naked.”

 The boys burst into laughter.

 "Stop that Bobby…Don’t talk about our priest like that.”

“Honest Grandma, I’m not lying…tell her!” The mob responds with one loud roar -Father Stevie.”

 Rosa stands paralyzed as if speared by a angry hornet.

“Grandma, are you all right? Says Raymond”

 “You boys get out of here and keep your mouths shut until I get back.”

 Rosa could barely conceal her anger, hurries to the living room, swipes her black purse, then storms from the house.

 Down the hill past friends all nearing or beyond her age she barely acknowledges the cordial greetings. Rosa was on a mission one I’m certain wasn’t fully thought out. She rushes down sidewalks past hellos and casual conversation focused entirely on the bell tower east end of town. With heart pounding an irregular beat Rosa begins perspiring through the soiled cotton smock. Her long gray-streaked hair usually rolled in a bun, stood erect as if connected to the power lines above. Tears stream down her cheek to the neckline protecting her everyday garment. Rosa was aware of the consequences of the young priest’s actions. It was one thing to sun bath nude but exposing oneself before children was a defenseless action one that carried the ultimate penalty.

 Rosa crosses the threshold to the inner sanctum of St. Joseph’s; stops, kneels, recites her vows, then walks front of the church. The hall leading to Father Steve’s private study was located a few feet beyond the alter. Rosa waste no time politely calling for the young priest, instead, forces the heavy mahogany door open and confronts a fully clothed man.

 “How could you do this to us?” She pleads.

“Mrs. Bella how kind of you to drop in…can I get you a coffee…maybe tea.”

“Father Lantos…you know exactly why I’m here - don’t patronize me.”

“Mrs. Bella, I’m sorry, but I haven’t a clue why you’re here. If it’s for counseling.”

“Stop it Steve! I’ve known you since you were a few month’s beyond your mother’s womb. If she were living she’d talk some sense in you before you destroy your life.” Stephen halts the charade then collapses in the high back leather chair which inspired so many sermons before.

 “I’m sorry Rosa.I’m sorry I’ve been so careless - and I’m truly sorry the boys saw me up there. I never expected this to happen.”

“The boys? What about the twins who saw you many times running around like a skinned animal. They believed you were a caveman. God only knows I wish it were true.”

“Rosa, I apologize - I sincerely apologize – nothing strange about that.”

 “Stephen, that’s not good enough. We depend on our priest. If you had to be naked why couldn’t you just drive off to some other hillside rather than sin on my mountain? What were you thinking?”

“Sin? That’s not a sin, besides, I‘ve always liked it up there - it’s comforting and familiar.”

 “Comforting? Stephen, comforting? The sick and poor need comforting - you need special help.”

“Rosa, I’ve sunbathed all over the world and nobody paid attention. What’s the problem here in fact in Haiti nobody wears much clothing and noboy sees it as a sin?”

“Stephen, God wants grown men to wear clothes in front of children. The police will lock you up around here for behavior like that. Did one of those bishops or the pope teach you to run around naked? No! Am I right?”

 “Rosa, this conversation is getting ridiculous. Whoever heard of such lunacy made over a man sun tanning in privacy?”

 “I hear rumors about what goes on in those seminaries.”

“Rosa, stop it.”

“You forget where you live?” says Rosa.

“It’s that bad?”

“It’s worse than that!”

 The two sit quietly waiting for the other to render a solution. Rosa rolls one finger over another as if massaging her imaginary beads. Father Lanto’s head slips into his palms.

 “Rosa, I’ll die if I lose this parish. You know I love all of you - you’re my life. I only wish you could forget about this and let the past be the past. I’m telling you, I meant no harm.”

Rosa ponders the priest’s confession and genuine sincerity. Before she can reply the young priest interrupts. “Look, I administer penitence to my entire parishioner’s especially those who seriously transgress the Lord. Surely, you could offer me a way out.”

 “Stephen, I know when I leave here I’m going to cry all the way back up the hill. You’ll tear at my heart the rest of my life. I wish I could give a simple answer that would forgive your actions, but God won’t let me. It would be silly of me to think I have the power God gave the Pope. I know this town -it’ll forgive and forget, but when it concerns children, there is no forgiveness. You know yourself that a priest must live by stricter laws and stricter discipline.”

 “Rosa, I’m an equal member of this community. We all are mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters to each other. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

 “You know Stephen it was easier when we first came here. The pope spoke, you did what he said. Now,  it’s to easy to sin with all the free talk. Everybody’s got big sins. I know once they find out about you, which I can guarantee they already have, you’ll want to find another parish far away. Next thing you know those peace folks and beatniks will be up here. I won’t allow that!”

 Rosa’s final words rang in the young priest’s head like fair warning from God. When she spoke she spoke the will of community. There would be no arbitrator. The episode was a painful experience for everyone including the young children who basked in Father Lanto’s convivial spirit. He wasn’t a flawed man but one of great conscience, a decade ahead of the times with immense potential and a caring heart. There never was any evidence he ever was or would ever be a predator, only suspicion.

 The painful episode would linger for years in the hearts of the community. The twins stopped digging on Clear Mountain believing in some way they had contributed to Father Lantos capture and eventual banishment. Rosa took great pains to remind the girls that Father Stevie was a brilliant man who would do many great things no matter where he was called and they should never stop digging beneath the surface for the truth.

Time would pass and many more offspring would be christened at St. Joseph’s.

 It was decided an older priest would be needed to bring stability to the floundering parish. The archdiocese in Philadelphia sent a middle-aged man whose talents lie more in administration than inspiration. It was learned that Father Lantos abandoned the church and began a lifelong struggle in behalf of the poor and destitute with the same compassion and commitment he’d shown in Wilkesburg.

Rosa lived only four years past Father Lantos departure. The church gave her what was called a state funeral. There were hundreds in attendance and a procession extending miles beyond town. There was no doubt that she was the moral conscience of the community. We all trusted her judgment.  Juliette became an anthropologist while Anna taught history at Shawnee Creek High School.

Most of my generation is all over the map now, except for me and a dozen or so cousins who still find comfort in the familiar just like our beloved Father Stevie. It wasn’t that long ago when people put their faith and trust in the church and its infallibility.  It was all about honor, love, perseverance, family and above all, protecting the kids. That part will never change.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Ghost Hands Across the Player Piano

Delroy Figgins played the Chase Lounge some eighteen years before succumbing to a heart attack plying the loins of Molly Jarvis in the women’s bathroom.

Figgins had celebrated a January birthday in fact a milestone – number sixty.
Throughout the near two decades Figgins earned an honest reputation as the man who could play any song from any era –right or left handed in any key. The trick was to first learn the lyrics then one would never forget the melody.

Art Tatum would occasionally drop by and share a drink and talk repertoire and the two men would play some kind of head game based on ‘stump the audience’.
Figgins praised Tatum as being the only true pianist on the planet who knew every inch of the instrument even the grooves in the wood frame, the cigarette holes, down to the pedals near the floor. He said when Tatum touched a piano it would submit and play mistress and give him every inch of her flesh without commitment or payback.

Both men had a special version of ‘Tenderly’ and had it preserved on piano roll.
Piano rolls were popular in houses where folks never understood the instrument or practiced long hours but liked to entertain when company dropped by. Most times it was rag time music, sometimes a bit of Gershwin – whatever, it had to be fast and impressive.

Figgins played with his trio – Lamar Gold bass and Riley Everett drums. The three of them were like brothers and pounded a rhythm irresistible to dancers.
The club was owned by the Stinson family and seated a hundred and fifty patrons. Figgins and crew packed the place.

The night Delroy perished was the first time the room went silent in twenty-five years.
Sonny Stinson swore one day he’d buy one of those player pianos and let it do the work and save a few dollars, although Figgins wasn’t high priced like Bill Basie, Tatum and Fats Waller.

Three days past the funeral the new piano arrives along with a box of piano rolls.
Riley and Lamar think the end had come and planned moving down the street to the Hotel Belvedere and the Tap Room. Certainly a demotion, but still a pay check.

Sonny invited the men stay on and continue performing as if nothing unusual happened.
Riley wondered who the next piano player would be and if the three would be compatible.

Stinson told him to call Gold and tell him just be here at nine sharp ready to entertain as before.

At eight forty-five the two arrive after a couple drinks and a drive around Lake Malby.
The room was packed and everyone seemed to be getting along fine even with the vapors of death in the air.

Everett was first to notice there was a dummy in a suit jacket situated on a gold-covered pillow leaning on the keys. At first he laughed and thought to himself – what if Figgins had seen this spectacle and the jokes that would have transpired. He then takes his customary seat behind the drums and waits for Gold.

Gold played the tables – not the gaming ones but the ones crammed with fine young women. He smiled and toyed with his pencil thin moustache as if he was a casting a voodoo spell, then serves notice he was not only a handsome dandy but a musician of note.
When he cleared the brocade curtain and slipped on stage he sees the plump dummy head resting on the keys - pats him on the back and says, “Figgins, you’ve never looked better.”

The band mates sit awaiting the arrival of a new leader but none shows other that club owner Sonny Stinson, who begins winding the piano.
“Boys, what do you want to play first – how about a waltz?”

Gold looks over at Everett and nearly busts a lung laughing.

“You can’t be serious? Wait, how many tunes does the dummy know?” he demands, before nearly stabbing an eye on the tuning pegs of his upright bass.
“Look men, this thing never makes a mistake – I have a boy coming in tomorrow night and every night after that who will assist. He’ll change the rolls, label and pull and wind between tunes. All you have to do is accompany.”

Gold shot back with a look that would revive the Dead Sea. “Are you fucking crazy? That’s a fucking dummy and it ain’t got enough spine to sit up straight. You making a fool of us?”
Stinson reminds the two he pays and they play.

Everett thinks about the directive and offers a solution.

“Here’s the deal Sonny – we get to call the dummy anything we want. If he screws up I get to stick him in the ass with my drumsticks, rattle his nuts and if he talks back,  tape his mouth.”
Stinson looks at the two as if the Boonsville asylum doors had sprung open. “Do whatever - just play – I’m sure the hired help don’t much care what you think.”

The piano began churning a boogie woogie groove. Near bar six the three were playing in tandem. The piano roll purrs along as smooth as a locomotive, sporting a rock solid bottom. The bass lines never fluctuated; in fact Gold was deeper in the pocket than most evenings with Figgins at the keys.
Next up, ‘Tis Wonderful,’ with Gershwin at the piano. This was smart and classy – short but sweet. Then a very settled Everett asks the boy – “what else you got in the box.”

“I see some James P.Johnson, some Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, Ballin' the Jack, Basin Street Blues, Bumble Bee Boogie, King Porter Stomp - how about The Twelfth Street Rag?"
Then it hits the two – they were now playing with the greats the best ivory men every to reside behind the piano.

Three days in Gold notices something odd going on with the dummy – it seemed to be moving between songs and sitting higher on the stool – then slump at songs end.
He’d try to catch Everett’s attention but as soon as eyes locked, the dummy assumed its natural catatonic state.

As days pass Gold would witness odd occurrences – strange movement and then the most shocking of all. The dummy spun around and grimaced just as he plucked a foul note. All the while, Everett sees and says nothing.
Gold passes it off as hallucinations from an encounter with some wicked Mary Jane.

The set ends and Gold doesn’t know whether to alert or inspect. He decides to take a closer look. Just as he reaches the piano bench – the dummy mumbles, “You suck.”
Gold doesn’t  know if he really heard something or invented himself.

“Can’t you play in tune – your meter is killing me,” a voice comes from near the dummies head.
Gold reaches back and wallops the stuffed object and watches as it tumbles to the floor. He then steps on the head and looks clearly into its stitched eyes, sees no sign of life and walks away.

Sitting to the right of stage a woman in a yellow dress pulled up around her knees both legs muscled by garters and stockings yells over ,’He deserved it honey – I saw it all – he was giving you bad looks.”

By now Gold was questioning his own sanity and dismissed the woman as being a loon.
As he walked passed she says, “Even if he’s got an attitude, he still plays real good,”

That was it – Gold fires himself and starts packing when Stinson and Everett come blowing in.
“Ah, come on Lamar don’t let a dummy kick your ass,” says Everett.  Then Stinson whips out a cylinder shaped object from behind his back – presses to his lips and yells ‘You suck.”

The room explodes with laughter and big mama leaps up runs over and gives a big hug.
“You been fucking with me?” asks Gold

“Yep, every night – got me a megaphone, got a bit of string - pull it’s leg and watch you turn blue,” says Stinson.
“Fellows, the new man comes tomorrow night – we just needed a week to sort this out and have some fun,”says Stinson.

“But what about the piano rolls – the boy?”
“Listen – the boy works harder than the both of you and cost me more, besides his folks have had enough.”

“I’ve hired Elmer Tapscott!”
Gold looks at Everett rolls his eyes and says, “Dress the dummy – the gig is his for life.”