The Polish Housewife

  DONATA SZPATOWICZ loves a good joke. She’ll love to pull your leg. So, motioning over her shoulder, she seems to hint that Spicebush Lane, behind her, might be that street-paved-with-gold that drew her parents here from Poland. But as she goes on, the twinkle in her eye gives her away, and you realize she’s not speaking of some imagined prosperity along the main thoroughfare of Lindera. There is no land of milk and honey to be found in this grimy little mill town. She is, in fact, looking beyond Spicebush, past the last row of company houses and across Railroad Lane. Not to any street, but to the railroad tracks. And ones glazed not with gold but with the red of iron ore. Iron–and the steel forged from it–are the gold here in Lindera. But millworkers like her father and her husband Janek will never claim a grain of Read more…


The Coal Birds

  WAR IS KINDLING in Europe, and before long we’ll get dragged into it. Still, we all sleep fitfully, even those on the day shift. No one gets any shut-eye, with rail cars jostling into Lindera every hour of the day and night. Our only consolation is that there are things more important than sleep. We can’t begrudge these iron boxes bristling with scrap metal, bound for the open hearth furnaces inside the mill. Washing machines, engine blocks and tricycles–it will all be melted down to arm the Allies. Plowshares beaten back into swords, you might say. We can’t begrudge them because we hear the trains over there, the German trains, are bearing another kind of cargo, and before long rumors will tell of how they were bound for another kind of fire. Meanwhile, other rail cars roll into Lindera laden with coal. And running behind these you’ll see the coal birds. Read more…


The Ice Cream Sky

  YEAH, TELL ME ABOUT IT, PAL,” said the guy in the aisle seat, looking up at me. I stood holding my carry-on, staring down at our cramped accommodations in the last row of coach. We had the aft most, ass-worst seats in the house, not counting the flight attendants’ jump seat a few feet back. And of course the restroom, which in that moment I fondly recalled being much more luxurious. And with running water and other amenities besides. “I hope for your own sake you at least got the window seat,” he said. Frowning, I shook my head like they do on tv, where the doctor comes through the swinging doors of the operating room, looks soberly at the assembled loved ones, and shakes his head. My traveling-companion-to-be stood and let me and my bag squeeze into place. “The plane’s Read more…


The Cage

  THE CANARY SHRIEKED AND FLAPPED ITS WINGS in a blurred flurry of yellow, slinging blood up the wall, across the shelves, and onto the white sleeves of the teenage boy who struggled desperately to control it. “Stop! Stop it!” the shop owner yelled as he came running from the front. “What in the hell are you doing?” He hurried to the table, pushed the boy aside, and grabbing a clean white towel from the shelf, wrapped it tightly around the bird. “You’re fired, young man,” he shouted. “Get the hell out of here!” The boy staggered back and looked at Marie, who stood by helplessly, one hand over her mouth. “NOW!” the man bellowed at him. He turned and ran out the back door of the shop, but the girl was frozen in place and could only watch as crimson crept Read more…


Wuchina’s Chicken

  MARIE AND SONNY SAT on the landing outside the kitchen door, kicking their dangling feet, their chins propped on the railing as they speculated about the objects bobbing down the Ohio. They were just far enough away that they knew they could pronounce with impunity the identity of every one. In between, they watched trains of iron ore and scrap roll into the rail yard and, reading out the white lettering that paraded by, argued about where those places were. Their father came and stood in the doorway behind them, jingling the change in his pockets. Out of sight to the east, somewhere inside the caverns of the steel mill, a locomotive screeched out a grinding stop, making every box car bang into the one before it. The cascading of 70-ton dominos echoed across the river valley. “So, passerotta,” Tony Read more…


A Personal Mythology

  WHEN I WAS THIRTY-SEVEN, my first marriage floundered, then ran aground. And like others shipwrecked in that tragic way, I suddenly found myself confronted by a band of mutinous castaways–those personal demons who, without my ever suspecting it, had been holed up all along below decks. Fortunately, I found a good therapist, one who knew I had to take at least some responsibility for what had happened. And so, when I mentioned, Oh, by the way, my mother left when I was eleven, we began to look closely at the role that abandonment might have played in my fractured relationships with women. With her help and encouragement, I began a series of long-distance phone calls back to Ohio: conversations with my now estranged mother that might help me recover something from the past. But not just from my personal history: this was as much Read more…


Butter And Eggs

  STANDING ON HER FRONT PORCH, Donata Szpatowicz pressed a scrap of paper against the flaking wooden column and scribbled a note with her pencil. “So, Mimi, Mr. Szpatowicz’s forehead took six stitches from a hunky’s shovel last shift,” she said as she wrote. “Yesterday was the twenty-fourth? I’m playin’ my dime on six twenty-four.” Maria di Mercurio, Mimi for short to everyone in Lindera, wrote the number in her little notebook. “No malice aforethought, I hope,” Mimi said, tucking away the pad. “Nah. Bodrogi had no reason to hit him,” Donata said. “A total accident. Besides, that melon of Janek’s is always getting in the way of something.” Mimi laughed. “Yeah, he’s got some noggin’ on him alright,” she said. “Dangerous business, that mill, Mimi,” Donata said. “Everywhere you step. Have you ever seen those boys swing them shovels on the open hearth?” “No, Read more…


A Weekend In Dayton

  RED SAID TO TELL YOU no hard feelings,” says Betty, or, as she was known to Lee and me, Mrs. Moose. “He must really like you, brown-eyed boy.” She’s just brought our order of burgers and fries, so we can eat while we bowl. “Except he did say no food on the hardwood,” she adds, lighting up again and motioning with her cigarette toward the ball machine and the wooden approach. “Only at your seats.” Lee waits til Betty’s headed back to the grill. “No hard feelings? For what?” my sister asks me. But Moose’s wife hears her, stops, and turns around. “About the divorce papers,” Betty calls back. “You didn’t know about that?” “What?” Lee shrieks, her voice rising above the crash of pins around us. “Can we not talk about it, Lee?” I say. “I just want to forget about those Read more…


Greetings From Texas

  HERE’S THE GREAT STATE OF TEXAS–” I read from the postcard I hold in my hand, “–And the others that surround it. Everything is big about Texas, except the states around it!” My collection of Texas picture postcards, sent back by my Uncle Henry in Dallas, has captured the imagination of my Canton, Ohio audience. This is the one that shows a distorted, cartoon map of the United States. An overly exaggerated Texas sprawls across the middle, stretching from Canada to Mexico, shouldering aside the rest. I don’t blame my cousins for being in awe of the place. We’ve all heard the stories. Everybody knows somebody who’s moved there, friends or family even more charmed by its harmless braggadocio. Most of all, I love being the center of attention. I’m addicted to the oohs and ahhs as I present yet another postcard. Read more…


The Sax

  MY EYES ARE RIVETED. I can’t look away and feel a gag coming on. My stomach begins its gymnastics routine again for the second time this week, and I think I’m going to puke, in front of everybody, standing here in line. I’m watching Virgil Tipton empty his horn’s spit valve into an empty metal wastebasket beside his chair. The hollow tapping echoes through the classroom, and the brown steel resounds with a disgusting splash and trickle. Somebody behind me must see it, too. I hear them moan in revulsion. But I fight back the nausea. I refuse to be deterred. I turn away and focus on my music teacher, Mr. Gleason, sitting behind his desk. “Next,” he says, following one finger down his list. “Jamie Michaels.” “I want to play the trumpet,” I say. “Smile, please,” he says, looking Read more…