Pages

Monday, December 18, 2017

Fall from Grace by Mitchell Toews

Matt Zehen's wayward friend Davey persuades him to climb the roof of the curling rink to throw crab apples at passers-by; by Mitchell Toews.

A well-thrown crab apple, ripe and soft of skin, makes a distinctive sound when it hits a metal STOP sign. The many crab apple trees along Barkman Avenue were ready for this duty, branches slung low with dark fruit by late August. When I think of my childhood in Hartplatz, that's what I see. My friends and I would fill our pockets, alternately eating and throwing at targets like signs or telephone poles. Blackbirds watched from the tall reeds, their black bodies spattered like ink spots in the swaying green ditch across from my parents' house.

The playtime restrictions for young girls and boys in our small town were not high security. I was, in general, supposed to stay on this side of Reimer Avenue, which gave me access to the fire hall, Main Street, the 5¢ to $1 store, and other distractions including Loeb's yard. If I say we often played in the Loeb lumberyard - amid any number of dangers, treacherous without adult superstition - you will get a sense of the loose restriction placed on us. All the same, some of us were not supposed to go into the heart of the lumberyard compound - at least I wasn't. My mom had read of a boy who had been swallowed up while playing on top of a pile of sawdust and the tall, fragrant pyramids in the sleepy yard were like rattlesnake nests to her.

Mom knew I sometimes strayed inside the chain link fence that marked the Loeb grounds. But she - and she alone - also knew that her interdict against climbing the giant sawdust and gravel piles was fine with me; heights sometimes made me woozy.

One afternoon in the heat of August, my friend Scottie told me that his older brother had been throwing crabs at cars. I shook my head, perplexed.

"Moving cars?"

"Yeah."

"Why?"

He made a face, deeming my question unworthy of a verbal reply. I left it there and we continued our excavations in the sandbox.

A few days later, Scottie came to Grandma's where I was playing in the yard. His older brother Dave stuck his head around the corner of the house, scattering blackbirds from the lawn.

"Matty Zehen!"

I said, "Hello, Davey." Mom always said he was trouble. She had this opinion of quite a few of the kids I played with, but in Davey's case I tended to agree.

I had experienced Dave's leadership in the past. I should have known better that day when he, after exchanging cordialities, suggested an expedition to the roof of the curling rink.

"What?" I said. "Why?"

"To throw crab apples," he said, as if the answer should have been obvious. "Cars drive by and you throw a crab at them and when it hits them, they stop and get out."

"Yeah, right... and then they chase you and beat you up."

"No, they don't, 'cause if we are quiet they won't figure out where we are. After a while they just go away. It is terrible funny."

There was no doubt that we would be caught. I imagined with dread the sound of my dad's leather belt slipping from the loops on his pants, his face looking stern and sad at the same time.

I began a stammering refusal. But Davey, reading my thoughts, retaliated with the all-powerful chicken cackle. My resolve first weakened and then capsized, green creek water gushing over its decks. Like a good captain, my will went down with the ship, drowned in little boys' pride and the value - above all - of apparent courage. Courage, that is, of every sort, except the courage required to hold fast and say no. I buckled.

"When?"

"Now," he said, pushing out his bulging pockets and letting a few crab apples fall out onto the yard.

The curling rink stood facing Creek Road two blocks from our house. It was an arch-ribbed building, short, concrete knee walls spanning its long axis. On the fa├žade hung a faded plywood sign that read Hartplatz Curling Club in the hand-brushed font of the local sign-painter, Hans Heinrich Friesen. Red, white and blue curling houses - circular bullseyes - framed the name like the markings on a Spitfire's wings.

There was a small vestibule and lunch counter in a lean-to built off the front and a large barn door on the whitewashed plywood back wall, gleaming now in the sun. A weedy field on one side of the rink served as a storage lot, filled with assorted rusting pieces of farm equipment, old trucks and other derelict machinery.

Among them was an old Case combine. Rusted dark orange save for patches of newer galvanized steel, it stood beside the rink. By climbing up the hopper ladder on the combine, you could jump across to the roof and land on the slope beside the 2X4 ladder that allowed access to the roof peak. The ladder began about eight feet above the ground, abbreviated thus to discourage unauthorized access.

Davey went first, having practiced and perfected the move required to clamber onto the stud ladder nailed to the black asphalt shingles. Heat waves rose above the roof in the afternoon sun, and when Davey landed, he yelped from the burn on his palms. He wasted no time, hopping sideways onto the ladder rungs like a mongoose dodging a snake. The square-edged rungs, white from the sun, were void of vertical side rails and from a distance resembled a closed zipper running up to the top ridge. Davey scrambled up the ladder to sit perched on the peak, adjusting his seat frequently.

"Scott next!" yelled Davey, as he crab-walked back down the ladder. "I'll help him up and Matty will go behind him," he instructed. A good plan; Scottie was six years Davey's junior and one less birthday than me.

"How do we get down?" I yelled.

"Easy," Dave said," You just hang from the bottom rung and slide down. No problem," he added with palms upturned.

Scottie climbed the combine, giddy with excitement. He jumped onto the shingles with no hesitation. He was so light he seemed to stick to the gritty surface and then scuttled - quick as a gecko - to the ladder cleats. Davey encouraged him and stretched out a helping hand.

Emboldened by their easy ascent, I climbed without fear and jumped across. I made an expert landing with one hand already on a ladder rung and climbed straight up. I took care not to bark my knees on the abrasive shingles, bare-legged in my cut off jean shorts.

A few apples tippled by me, falling from Davey's pockets. I watched them as they dropped into the grass below. I noticed several unfriendly looking pieces of dinosaur toothed hay-mowing equipment directly beneath us. One bouncing crab lay slashed in two, showing its white core and black seeds. A sudden feeling of floating washed over me when I looked back up towards Davey. Scottie was almost to the top when Davey began walking along the ridge, one foot on either side. He marched in slow and halting metre toward the vertical false front of the curling rink.

Scottie waited in a crouch on the roof ridge, breathless above me. "C'mon, Matty," he said with enthusiasm as he began waddling along the crest, gingerly placing fingertips on the hot shingles for support, not quite trusting his ability to stand upright.

I got to the top and was surprised by the height we had reached, looking down on the nearby fire hall's flat roof, on piles of gravel in Loeb's lumberyard, and down even further into the dandelions and reeds growing in the trickling creek far below us. Glancing again at the grinning haymow, I had an undeniable wave of nausea. My temperature dropped; it was as if I had run sweating and hot into a cold meat locker. I watched as Scottie, now brazen, scampered along the roof peak, his arms outstretched. Davey waited beyond him, leaning against the false front and cheering for me to come across.

The length of a curling rink is 146 feet, and with the ladder near the building's rear it was a long walk. I stared down again at the sharp scythe, maybe 24 feet below me. Then I looked across to where Dave and Scottie stood waving their arms, calling for me. I felt a second wave of nausea and vertigo; it staggered me as I began to release my grip on the top ladder rung and walk lemur-like to the front. My runner slipped with a loud scrape on the asphalt shingle. Adrenaline surged down my backbone, tingling and sharp. The half-slip and my pained white face stopped the other boys' chatter in an instant. It was quiet as I caught my balance and gripped the roof peak. I grimaced. In that shaking moment, I was unsure of where I was, and why.

Adding to my confusion and multiplying the tension was my dad's voice, clear as the fire hall's noon siren and just as near.

I swiveled my head to see him far below, standing on the street beside the bakery delivery truck, its front door swung open and the blinker signal tick-tocking; slip - slip - slip, it seemed to mock.

"Mattheus!" he shouted: half fear, half anger - confusion too.

"Dad!"

"What are you doing? Why are you up there?"

"Dad," I started to answer and then reeled. A swimming feeling passed through me as my foot slid down again, losing precious inches to gravity. "I'm STUCK!" I shrilled.

I adjusted my grip, then straightened and reached with a toe, feeling behind and below for a ladder cleat. At the same time, I heard the dull popping of crabs skipping down the radius of the roof, landing with nestling sounds in the grass. Davey stood against the parapet, one hand above him for balance and the other frantically emptying his pockets of evidence. He stood on the far side of the peak from my dad, low enough down the curved roof so he could not be seen.

"You and Scottie stay PUT!" Dad hollered, his voice like a bullhorn. He ran around the front of his truck and began cutting through the tall grass to get to the back of the building and come around to the ladder side, where by intuition and logic he knew we had climbed up.

Scottie froze. I continued to feel for the top ladder cleat, my hands burning now from the sun-baked shingles. Davey was already halfway down the roof. He used the exposed studs on the back of the false front as handholds and slid his feet down the pitch of the roof; a bold surfer on a steep wave. He saw more danger from my dad than from a potential fall. I watched him in surprise and envy. He reached the end of the parapet and jumped down with ease onto a cushioning pile of snow fencing, rolled and stacked like giant scrolls. He took a last look at me, then over at Scottie. We all heard my dad yelling as he waded through the waist deep grass at the back of the rink. Davey bolted, catching his hand on the corner post of the rink building and disappearing crack-the-whip style around the corner at the exact second when my dad emerged from the back.

Dad figured out our route up and hit the hopper ladder on the dead run.

My foot had found the top 2X4 piece, and I had retracted back to a semi-secure crouch on the rooftop. I had my ball cap scrunched in one hand like an oven mitt to protect my fingers from the fiery shingles as I steadied myself.

Dad climbed up to me, panting. "You OK?"

"Yes," I mumbled.

He looked across to Scotty and saw that he too was safe, perched on the peak, his back braced against the false front. Dad's white tee-shirt was soaked through with sweat from the bakery heat, his sleeve was rolled up on one side and a package of Buckingham cigarettes was tucked in the fold.

He encircled my waist with his left arm, his knuckles down like a football lineman. Whispering curses as he touched the shingles, he said, "Put your arms around my neck. Feet around me, like a backward piggy-back."

I did what he said and he climbed down with me hanging to his underbelly like a baby possum. When he stopped, I lowered my bottom down onto a cleat, Dad, grunting with the awkward stance said, "Sit! Sit, Matt. Let go!" I released my grip, using my cap again to insulate my hand and balance myself with him breathing hard into my face. He took a step down so our eyes were level and then said, "Sit still, OK." I nodded in mute agreement and he clicked his tongue and rubbed my bare head. He looked over to Scottie, pointed at him and said in a resonant, Sunday morning bass, "STAY THERE! I'll come for you."



That evening, with all safe, I sat at the kitchen table pushing my food around on the plate while my dad was outside on the cement porch steps, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer from a case of Carling Black Label. I could see him through the screen door as he took two bottles out and returned an empty into the box. He used the edge of the cap of one full bottle to pry the cap off the second with a hissing snap.

"Send Matty out," he said to my mom, who stood beside him taking puffs from his smoke.

I backed my chair across the checkerboard linoleum and went out beside him in the still air. It was almost dark and hazy columns of mosquitoes buzzed over the tallest trees in the yard across the street.

He was a little drunk and when I sat down he smiled at me, front teeth cut at a slant where a hockey stick had sheared them off.

"What did we find out today?"

"What do you mean, Daddy?"

"What did you learn when you were up on the roof and you got stuck?"

"I guess I learned not to go there."

"Nope." He took a long sip. It gurgled and I could smell the yeast in it mingled with the dry sweat of his shirt. "You can't learn what you already know, buddy."

I looked down at the grass growing up between the sidewalk blocks. "Yeah, but I didn't know I was that scared of being up high,"

"Yeah, but," came my Grandma's voice from behind me. She had walked up to us on the lawn and stood with two glasses of lemonade. "You've already got one," she nodded her big chin at her son, who hoisted his Black Label at her in reply. She handed a glass to me and used the other to make a cooling swipe across her forehead. A mosquito stuck to her wet glass and she picked it off and flicked it away. "What did you learn, Matty? Tell Daddy."

"Should you have gone there with Scottie?" Dad hinted, smoke puffing out with each word. He ashed his cigarette into the red cardboard case beside him and tapped his foot a few times, looking straight ahead towards the frog cacophony in the creek. Grandma stroked my neck, where the brush cut receded down to peach fuzz, then sipped her lemonade, motioning for me to try mine.

I tasted it, glad for the interval, and puckered my cheeks. "Sour."

My dad looked down at me and said, "Keep working on an answer for me, Matty. Right now it's bedtime, buster."

I took a big gulp of the freezing drink - enough to make my forehead hurt for a second - then handed the glass to Grandma and gave my dad a kiss on his prickly cheek. "Climb into bed, but no higher," he said with false sternness, winking at Grandma.

Then I was in my room with the window wide open. Mosquitoes ticked with unrelenting determination at the metal screen, drawn by the blood taint on my breath. The wood floor was warm on my bare feet as I stood near the window. I was hidden from view in the shadow. The sun set behind the Economy Store and every dust mote and dragonfly stood out in the golden backlit glow. I could see Dad pulling up weeds with one hand, an empty beer dangling from the other. His cigar-thick pinky finger was jammed down into the stubby brown bottleneck. He and Grandma walked aimlessly, slapping mosquitoes and speaking in private voices. Grandma's piercing laugh punctuated his baritone. Sheet lightning flicked and ominous distant rumbles made a background overture as he described the curling rink incident to her:

"And then I climbed up and the other kid was stuck too. He was against the front and I had to walk along the peak to go and get him, carry him back and then carry him down the ladder." He stopped and rubbed his neck, then his short hair, and last his forehead and eyes.

Grandma chuckled, her gaze on him, full of light and adoration.

"Then Denver Funk drove by, right when I was in the middle of the roof, and yelled at me, 'Don't break your ankle, Zehen!'"

Grandma shrieked, her eyes shut and she crumpled down onto one of the seats on my swing set, racked with laughter. She laughed for half a minute while Dad stood, kicking at the ground, grinning and self-conscious.

My mom leaned against the bedroom doorway behind me. She wore a mint green sleeveless top and white peddle pusher pants. Her hair was pulled back into berets on the side of her head, and she smelled like Coppertone suntan lotion. Later, just before she went to bed, she would smell like Noxzema.

"Do you remember the story of when Daddy was eight and he broke his ankle?" Mom said.

"Kind of," I said, still looking through the window at my dad's ankles as he squatted before Grandma. Crouching like a back-catcher, he drew lines in the sand where my swinging feet had stripped the turf into scalloped dirt runways. Grandma was still giggling, sitting on the plank seat of the swing.

"That Denver," I heard my dad say.

"Haw!" came Grandma's high choir voice.

I looked back at Mom.

She smiled her most special smile. She smiled it bright and she said, "Your father broke his ankle jumping off the roof of the skating rink into a snowbank with Uncle Shoesnick."

"Oh yeah?"

"And you know where that skating rink used to be?"

"Where it is now?"

"No, almost. It was right where you were today when you got stuck on the curling rink roof."

"Oh." I was just seven, but I could see it was both a funny and a serious thing.

"Uncle Shoesnick got in trouble, 'cause he was 12 and your father was just eight. And Grandpa Zehen was very mad and he said that because Daddy couldn't play hockey anymore that winter, neither could Uncle Shoe. And Uncle Shoe got real upset."

"So he had to work in Grandpa Zehen's shoe shop all winter and that's why they called him Shoesnick, right Mom? Like lots of people call Grandpa, Shuster."

"Right. And Uncle Shoesnick stayed mad at Grandpa for a long time. And a bit mad at Daddy too, but not too much."

I nodded and looked out at Grandma and how she looked at Dad as he talked to her now about bakery business.

My mom's touch settled light on my shoulder and it guided me to the bed. She knelt beside me, her strong hand on my back. I said prayers and then she tucked me in with the thin sheet in the hot, quiet room. The thunder was closer now, but still not close enough to smell the rain. A fly tried to buzz out while mosquitoes whined to get in.

"Mom," I said from the bed.

"Yes, Matty?" she replied, as a dog down the street barked at the thunder. "I think I know what I learned. I learned that I should not have taken Scottie there, 'cause he's littler than me."

She turned back and smiled a proud smile. Then she fussed with my covers and asked, "Where was Davey, Matt? I thought he and Scott came together?"

I glanced away in silence, up to the corner where bits of paint had come off the ceiling and you could make a face out of it, if you concentrated.

"Mom?" I said again as she waved goodnight and started to leave.

"Yes, honey?"

"Will I have to work in the bakery like Uncle Shoesnick had to work in Grandpa's shoe shop? Can I still play baseball when I'm eight?"

"We'll see," said my dad.

He was standing outside with Grandma, the two of them looking in the window. Their silhouettes, side by side, looked blurry through the screen. In the gloaming light, tinted by the dull metal screen that was once black, but had since been bleached by the sun, their faces were sepia tone like an old photograph, a hazy shade of summer.

12 comments:

  1. Minutely observed people in a specific time and place. Lovely writing, thank you so much, Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  2. this reminds me of stephen king with its small town setting and finely drawn characters; and the thoughts going thru our young hero´s head.
    Lovely piece
    Mike McC

    ReplyDelete
  3. Time and place said without being said and a wonderfully likable character who could be any young boy - the setting and dialogue are that real. What did he learn today? Good question to make him think about consequences. Excellent story. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well-written story with excellent descriptions of the setting and action that bring everything, especially the characters, to life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thx, Dave. Several recurrent characters in here. Some have visited FotW before. Cheers, MJT

      Delete
  5. A small town setting–almost like Mayberry–probably in the south sets the stage for a kid’s story. Stories with kids getting themselves into eerie situations mesmerizes me, for I love them----------- Stephen King’s It is a good example. This story is about kids doing what kids like to do.

    Love it from beginning to end for it captured my attention and held it. Any story that held one’s interest is a good one!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, George. I enjoy writing about kids. They're not any less complex than adults, I suspect, but maybe not as adept at hiding feelings. Maybe. Anyway, I am happy you enjoyed it!

      Delete
  6. Beautifully written and highly visual in its description. We all know “villains” like Davey!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Paul Michael. Yes, I think I might have got a loan or listened to a speech from a Davey or two.

      Delete