Please check back again next week. With any luck, the author and his new computer will be on speaking terms.
Our sincere apologies,
The author's computer died a nasty, nasty death early last week. Unfortunately, his new computer isn't functional yet.
Please check back again next week. With any luck, the author and his new computer will be on speaking terms.
Our sincere apologies,
Due to ongoing technical difficulties, there will be no blog this week.
In the spirit of full disclosure, let me quote the author: "I hate (expletive deleted) computers!"
Thank you for your understanding,
Mother called her children together. We stood around the dining room table for the "family meeting," which is what Mother called it. I didn't know what to think but stood there silently as did my siblings, waiting for Mother to speak.
"The Coroner," she said, "ruled that your father died of internal injuries."
She needn't have told me what caused those injuries. I knew. So, too, did Byron Nelson and his son, Johnny, my blood brother. However, only I was aware of the horror in my life: Dad's ghost was now seeking its revenge. His specter chased after me in the dark, pushing an open coffin on that soundless, chrome contraption while I made my way home alone, returning from a baseball game or friend's house. During the winter months, darkness would come too early.
"I have to pee," I said. Besides that, I was chilled to the bone although it was almost summer and warm.
"Hurry up and go," warned Mother, her eyebrows inverted Capital V's.
They waited. And none too patiently. "Hurry up," cautioned James.
“”Yeah,” agreed Bill.
Finally, I returned.
"The Coroner also said the way your father's liver looked, he didn't have long to live, anyway." Clearing her throat, Mother paused yet again. Although her eyes were glossy, tears did not fall. I figured she was all cried out. I watched her Adams apple rise and fall in the awkward silence.
Finally, she continued. "Here's what I'm proposing to you: I believe we should leave the past in the past and not talk about your father." She stopped and then added, "Ever again. What do you kids think?"
"Yes," we cried out in an avalanche of soprano, contralto, and tenor voices. Why talk about Dad, anyway? He wasn't a bit like my friends' fathers. A wife beater and alcoholic, he stopped drinking not long ago and seemed to be a better husband and father—for a brief interval, that is. Too brief. Unfortunately, he returned to his worn but comforting path of harboring and drinking the contents of a whiskey bottle. Why else had Bill K. and Dick B. visited Dad the day I watched him shakily drink the elixir he had poured into a coffee cup?
In the dark, I whistled or hummed loudly, thinking the ghost would disappear. That didn't happen. Although I wouldn't or couldn't look behind me, I was certain the maddened, silent specter was gaining ground. I had to run faster, much faster. Faster still. Or else it would catch me. And kill me.
Certain the hideous and deformed freak looked like the horrible monsters in my brother Bill's Horror comic books, it had only two objectives: 1. To stuff me in that coffin and batten down the lid, making certain I couldn't get out; and 2. Bury me. Exactly six feet underground. No less. No more. Worms would soon enough play pinochle on my snout.
On two occasions, I stopped. Slowly, I turned around. I saw neither beast nor casket but felt their presence. It was there. its coffin was with it. Hiding, it was preparing its horrible, eventual ambush. It would grab me and toss me in that casket. That was the way my life would end. Nobody would be the wiser.
"Where is Gordon?"
Mother and siblings hunched their shoulders. "We don't know. He simply disappeared."
The two times I stopped, I was certain that beast and sarcophagus hid behind a row of bushes, nearby garage, huge tree, house, or four-door sedan, parked in a nearby driveway. It didn't show itself. It patiently waited, holding on to that coffin, prepared to give me chase. I turned around to head home. The chase was on, but with more intensity.
Once I'd get indoors, he'd stop. With the lights on, I'd be safe. For a while, anyway. On my bed, I hid under the covers and kept my flashlight on. I could hear him breathe in the basement as I kept asking, "Ghosts don't breathe, do they?" Eventually, I fell asleep.
When I'd seek fresh batteries, Mother demanded. "What do you do, Gordon, eat those batteries or do you leave your flashlight on all night?"
"I don't know why they burn out. They're batteries, and batteries burn out."
"Next time, you pay for them with your money, and not mine, understand?"
"Yes, I understand."
During daylight hours, the horrible beast remained in the basement, behind the hot water heater. Each time Mother told me to go to the basement and fetch a can or bottle of foodstuff purchased at the A&P, only I knew what waited down there, and it wanted me as dead as it was. I zoomed down those stairs, made a hard left at the furnace, followed by another hard left, running by washing machine and dryer, latching on to a bottle of catsup or a can of French style beans. Turning around in a nanosecond, I passed by dryer and washer, plowed a right at the furnace, twisted again, and flew up those stairs. I never saw it. But I felt it. I knew when the time came for it to finally end its horrid game, I'd likely die of fright.
Although I never saw its coffin, either, I was certain it was a shiny, steel affair, glossy rayon cloth, lining its steel interior with soft pillow for my eventual still, dead head. While it screwed down the lid tightly, roaring and cackling, I'd kick and scream. Dad's specter would bury me behind Mount Calvary Cemetery in that dreadful swamp. I was convinced it was justified: A life for a life.
Following that, the creature would transport my soul to its assigned place of eternal damnation. I wouldn't get to see Saint Peter at the Golden Gate. Straight to hell; that's where I'd go. The monster would tell the Prince of Darkness, "This is the boy who killed me."
"Thus, shall I assign him to stoking my furnaces," announced Lucifer. Tossing back his head, Beezlebub then bellowed, "That's where all my murderers go. Boy, did you hear me?"
"I didn't mean to kill him," I screamed. "I didn't mean it."
"But you killed him, anyway," retorted the hideously, grinning, fallen archangel, saliva hanging in columns between its upper and lower blood-red, shark-like teeth. "I find you guilty. Your fellow murderers await you. Begone, boy."
To protect myself from an imminent childhood death, I learned I must have friends accompany me to any event that occurred in darkness. I'd no longer venture alone in the dark. The specter was aware. It returned to our basement and waited. Undoubtedly, it would eventually catch me. It was not only a matter of time, the beast was positive I'd let my guard down.
Gordon B. Hoffman didn't pen another word in his diary. Decades later, after Mother had died, his adult sister, Annette (Crazy Annie), a speech therapist and realtor, discovered the diary at the bottom of a box in Mother's bedroom closet. After reading but a few lines, Annette gave me the book.
The clause, “Gordon is I,” sounds pretentious even to a retired English teacher, but I happen to be both Gordon and retired teacher. Over the past twenty-odd years, I occasionally read excerpts before I became its editor and made it public.
Purchased in Woolworth's Five and Dime store, the book yet retains the embossed gold-colored word "Diary" on its front cover, which is saying something for objects produced decades ago by the American work force.
I believe Mother must've read it because she threw out all my other personal effects after I joined the Navy, including model airplanes and cars; buzz welder; three flashlights; and my collections of jackknives, matchbooks, and "Hot Rod" magazines.
I paid two bits for the first issue of "Hot Rod" at Your Record Store near Davis's restaurant in downtown Wisconsin Rapids. That issue is now worth five thousand dollars. Neither restaurant nor record store exists, plus records are used mainly by finicky audiophiles. CD's work quite well for my ears.
After Dad's death, besides giving up writing in the diary, I also miraculously stopped bed wetting entirely except for two brief summer periods when I visited Dad's brother, Uncle George, his wife, Marie, and their children Mary Lee, Mike, and Buddy.
On my first reading, I discovered I was more unwise as a youth than I had previously thought. If a family member had discovered the book, I had two perfectly-prepared explanations for its existence: 1. It belonged to a chum who gave it to me to hide; or 2. I found it in the Old Grove's outhouse-sized, abandoned electrical building with missing door.
How is it possible that a friend would have family members with the same first names as my family and how could a book left to deal with Wisconsin's weather be in nearly perfect condition?
By the way, that building is the same one where Bobby Kell stored a cache of his father's cigarettes under a pile of the previous year's fallen leaves that crackled whenever we brushed them aside during the following spring and summer to get at those "coffin nails" or "cancer sticks." That's what everybody called them. Decades later, the Surgeon General didn't have to enlighten us.
Oh, those were the days for which I have such fond memories of childhood friendships, including but not limited to the four Kell children; the Peterson (Danielson) brothers; Louis "Louie" Abler; Johnny Nelson; Karen Klinkenbeard; Johnny Ristow; Lynn Manley; Roger Aton; Billy Schroeder; Jimmy Lokken; Mary Ann Schnabel; Timmy Lattimer; and Lee Anunson (Oh, could he cuss, and would we laugh). Such fond, fond memories.
I swore I'd never be like my parents. However, I turned out to be as humanly imperfect as they, which prompts an overdue apology to them and to my adult children who swore they wouldn't follow my path, either.
So, what's the point of this? Simply, I have decided to continue the diary in this public venue in the tradition of Gordon Bartholomew Hoffman, a nom de plume I cooked up seventy years ago as an eight-year-old. I shall retain his penname.
By the way, I loathe self-centered confessions by either the famous or infamous. So, where does that place me? Plainly, this word gatherer sees himself as being no better than the best and no worse than the worst but somewhere in between, including ninety per cent of the rest of all living humans.
The five-above figure includes Mother Teresa types; Medal of Honor recipients; police officers; fire fighters; active U.S. military members; and ordinary citizens who put their lives in jeopardy to save the lives of fellow humans they don't even know.
The five-below figure includes politicians who serve more than two terms of office; child molesters; religious terrorists; rapists; contract murderers; and all other felons, convicted or not, who don’t regret they committed their crimes because they were wrong. In that order.
Relatives from Chicago and Racine poured into the Crazy House the afternoon after Dad died. I sat next to Pa. Pa is Grampa Hoffman's name. Turning to me, Pa said, "I dreamt the other night of a green bull in a red field."
Uncle John, Dad's younger brother and Pa's son, interpreted for Pa. "It was God's way of warning Pa that somebody had died."
Pa blubbered. Snot dribbled and bubbled below his nostrils. Uncle John offered Pa his handkerchief. Pa wiped his nose and then tears. Yuck. "I had no idea it was my first born."
I wondered if Pa was drunk. Like father, like son.
* * * * * * * * *
Mother was too busy crying and talking to everyone, telling the same story repeatedly about her finding Dad, dead in bed. So, Mother appointed her sister, Fat Aunt Florence Pier Dominici, as our boss. "Ask your Aunt Florence if you want anything," Mother told me.
I went up to my aunt. "How're you holding up, Gordy?"
"I don't want to go to the funeral home."
She nodded. "Everybody else going, but if you don't want to, you don't have to."
"You must go," screamed Pa, who overheard us.
"He's your father. It's only right," agreed Uncle John.
"Aunt Florence is my boss. She says I don't have to."
* * * * * * * * *
An hour after scads of people finished eating a ton of sandwiches and meals and cakes and pies and cookies brought over by our neighbors, the Crazy House soon became as quiet as a cemetery at midnight. Most people had gone to the funeral home. Uncle Leo, Fat Aunt Florence's husband, was smiling as he asked me, "How'd you like an ice cream cone, Kid?"
"I can show you where Herschleb's Ice Cream parlor is."
"Good, then, let's go."
I sat in the rear seat of Cousin Robert's car, a 2-door 1950 Mercury with flathead V-8 and Smithy muffler, which sounded keen. Robert is one of Fat Aunt Florence and Uncle Leo's sons. He's the one who was in the Navy and could blow smoke rings better than anybody when I was a little kid.
It didn't take me long to realize the three had tricked me because Robert headed the car across the bridge, turned left at Monkey Wards, and soon stopped and parked the car, turning off the key. I saw the dark red brick Krohn & Berard funeral home. I crossed my arms and darned near yelled. "I told you I didn't want to come here, Aunt Florence."
"Stay in the car if you want," she said. Both Robert and Leo had to help her out. She huffed and puffed, and so did they. Soon, they were gone. I watched them climb the stairs and enter the funeral home.
A short time later, Uncle John approached the car. He knocked on the window. I rolled it down. "Gordy, it's only right that you come inside."
"I don't want to."
Uncle John opened the door. "Come on," he said, pushing the split front seat ahead and smiling. "You can stand in the back of the room with me."
"I don't have to see Dad, do I?"
* * * * * * * * *
The funeral home's big room stunk of flowers, yuck, and was filled with people, praying the rosary. Father Dockendorf, meanest priest in the world, recited the first half of each Hail Mary as if he was bored. The people finished the prayer. I could hear Mr. Abler, Louie's dad. His dad is always the loudest with his singing and praying at mass. I took a peep at the casket, but that was it. As I turned away, I discovered Crazy Annie wasn't so crazy, after all. She stood in the back of the room. "Are you going to see Dad?" I asked.
"No. I'm. Not." She almost shook her head clear off her shoulders.
"Neither am I." I reached for her hand and held it.
After the praying was finished and people were leaving the funeral home, I thought we'd soon return to the Crazy House. Instead, Father Meanie somehow snuck behind me and grabbed my arm. I tried to get away but couldn't. Then, he grabbed Annie's arm. "What are you doing?" she screamed. "What are you doing?"
That priest lifted both of us off the carpet and bull-rushed us to the casket. I tried to look away. However, Father Meanie grabbed my head and stuck it into the casket. I opened my eyes. I saw a black rosary wrapped around Dad's hands. He never prayed the rosary. Ever. He didn't attend Sunday mass, and he ate meat every Friday. Including Good Friday. A rosary wrapped around his hand. What a laugh.
Then, the priest pushed my face against Dad's face. I pissed my pants. I felt it running down my left leg. I saw it dripping off my trousers' cuffs. I started bawling. People thought I was crying because Dad was dead. That wasn't the reason at all. I was bawling because my face touched Dad's dead face plus I pissed my pants.
* * * * * * * * *
The next morning at 11 O'clock, Saints Peter & Paul Catholic church was overfilled with big wheels and plenty of Dad's hard-working patients, Consolidated mill workers and farmers. Mother and her five kids followed the casket down the main aisle. The pipe organ was as loud as could be. Its steeple bell continued to knell. Church bells don't ring at funerals. They bong ever so slowly. You can count to ten between each knell. I learned about the word knell from a nun.
The folding chrome contraption on which the casket was placed made no noise as the undertaker pushed it and the closed coffin (thankfully) toward the communion rail. I thought it should make noise. It didn't.
Annie's and my summer school classmates sang in the choir loft the "Dies Irae," a Latin hymn sung only for the dead.
Monsignor C. W. Gille and two other priests, including Father Meanie, said the High Mass. Gille sings offkey and burns more incense than anybody in the whole wide world. I hate the smell of incense. I darned near puked.
* * * * * * * * *
Mrs. McDaniel drove the big black Packard we rode in to the cemetery. I sat in the front seat next to her and talked about the car. She couldn't answer me because she didn't know much about cars.
As we approached the Kell house on Baker Street, I waved at my friends, Jimmy, Bobby, Hen House Helen, and Betty Ann. They didn't wave back. They looked sad. I wondered if Hen House was reciting the poem, "Don't laugh when the hearse goes by, or you'll be the next to—"
* * * * * * * * *
At the cemetery, I stayed behind everyone. Crazy Annie did too. She held my hand. Suddenly, the crowd made a gasping noise. "What's that?" I asked.
Doc III came to us. "Mother just fainted," he whispered.
"Why?" I whispered back.
"Why did she faint, you ask? You're one, dumb shit. aren't you?"
"What I meant is Mother should be happy."
"You're not only stupid; you're crazy."
"She should be happy because she won't have to worry about Dad drinking anymore."
While two men and a lady held up Mother, Monsignor Gille mumbled at least a hundred prayers and splashed holy water all over everyone with that club that priests use to toss holy water. I'll have to find out what that club's name really is. Monsignor mumbles everything. It's hard to understand him. Just then, I looked across the ravine, hiding the Green Bay and Western railroad tracks. "Look," I said to Crazy Annie.
"Look where?" That was Dork. He wanted Annie to join him near the casket, but she would have none of that.
"Over there. A treehouse."
Dork looked. "I don't see a treehouse."
"And you pissed your pants at the funeral home." He grinned the nastiest grin. I had no comeback.
* * * * * * * * *
The next morning, Chicago and Racine relatives said their quick goodbyes and were gone. Aunt Marie, Uncle George's wife, told me I should visit her family, including cousins Mike, Buddy, and Mary Lee in Racine next summer. Uncle George didn't say anything. Aunt Marie drove the family's big Buick. Uncle George sat in the front passenger seat. My cousins rode in the rear seat.
In the afternoon, I grabbed the Schwinn and rode it to the spot in the cemetery where I had stood the day before. I looked across the railroad track ravine. The treehouse. It was gone. Somebody must've torn it down. Most likely Dork.
When Crazy Annie and I walked up Old Grove hill before noon today, I said, "Something really bad has happened."
"What do you mean, Gordy?"
"I don't know what it is, but I can feel it." When we walked in the Crazy House, Byron and Rose Nelson, Otto Schuman, and old Mrs. Hahn were standing in the parlor. Mother was sitting on the couch, crying, screaming, "Your father is dead."
I ran down the basement.
Much later, Punky Myers' dad found me and said, "I heard your father fell from a ladder the other day."
I bawled like a baby. Mr. Myers hugged me. He didn't realize he was hugging a murderer.
Finished with summer school classes at SS. Peter and Paul grade school, Crazy Annie and I turned the corner by Mrs. Hahn's place. That's when I saw Bill K. and Dick B. make their way down our front porch steps. They were jabbering with Mother as she held the porch door open. I wondered why the men were there. "Hi, Bill," I called out.
Bill K. jerked, saw me, smiled. "Hi there, Kiddo." Dick B. didn't say anything, as usual. He's the silent type.
"Is something the matter?" I asked Bill K, who turned to face Mother, who gave Bill a look that meant something, which I didn't understand, but he did. He turned, once again, to face me. "Uh, no," he said, "everything's copacetic."
"What does that mean?"
"It means everything's fine and dandy."
"Never heard that word before. I like words." Because Mother still had the door open, I could see all the way through the parlor and dining room and into the kitchen where Dad sat at the kitchen table, his head bowed. Even from where I stood, I could see his hands shake like leaves in a windstorm. Dad lifted a coffee cup to his lips. Or was it a whiskey cup? "Are you sure everything's copa—"
"Now, Gordon," warned Mother, "I don't want you bothering Mister K."
"I wasn't. I was just asking him a question."
She shook her head real hard. "Well, as far as I'm concerned, you're bothering the poor man."
For the umpteenth time, Bill K. turned from me to look at Mother. "Oh, no, Mrs. Hoffman, this curly-hair, freckle-face, all-American boy, doesn't bother me at all." He laid a hand on my left shoulder and looked directly into my eyes. "Young man, do I look like someone who'd lie to you?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"Well, by golly—" He laughed and laughed some more before he could continue. "By golly, I would never lie to you, Son. Thing is, your dad had quite a fall the other day, and he's been in a lot of pain."
Oh, oh. Suddenly, I needed to pee. Real bad. I wondered if Dad had said anything about me not standing on the ladder, so it wouldn't slip and he'd fall. I surely hoped not. I was more nervous than I've ever been, Diary.
After Bill K. and Dick B. left, I didn't make a peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich for lunch as I had earlier planned. Instead, I ran across the street to see if Johnny Nelson was home. He was. He opened the back door of his house. Chewing with his mouth open, (yuk) he held a couple of chocolate chip cookies in one hand. He pushed them at me. Want one?"
"No. Have you told anyone about what happened with my dad and the ladder?"
"Yeah, I told my dad. Wanna cookie?"
Sometimes, Johnny just doesn't pay attention to what I say. "I said no. You told Byron, huh?"
"That's what I said."
"What did he say?"
"What did who say?"
"Your dad, Byron."
"Oh, that. He told me to keep my mouth shut about what happened."
"And I've kept my mouth shut." Johnny kept on munching a cookie with his mouth open. Yuk.
"Johnny, you can never tell anyone what happened. Ever."
"I told you I wouldn't. Besides, I only told Dad. That's all."
"That's not good enough. You'll have to take an oath as my blood brother, so I'll know for certain you'll never tell anyone else."
"But we ain't Indians."
"You should've said aren’t."
"That's why I was held back in fifth grade."
"What're you talking about?"
"You remember. I didn't know how to talk proper like. You did. That's why you're going into the seventh grade, and I'm only going in the sixth, but we started out as kiddy gardeners together."
"Well, anyway, we don't have to be Indians to be blood brothers." I reached into my pocket and brought out my jackknife. I opened the main blade.
"What're you going to do?"
"I'm going to cut here," I said, pointing to the upper, inner part of my right thumb. "You'll have to do the same thing with your right thumb, that is, after you're finished with that last cookie. After that, we'll grab hands, press our thumbs together real hard, and that way, we'll become blood brothers forever."
After I made the puncture cut with the blade's tip and he could see the trickle of blood, Johnny said, "Geez, you actually did it. How do you know all this stuff about blood brothers?"
"Saw it in a cowboy and Indian movie."
"That's good enough for me." Thus, finished with his last chocolate chip cookie, Johnny punched a tiny hole in his right thumb. It bled.
"Okay, now grab hands," I said, "and press your thumb real hard against mine." We held on real hard and didn't let go for a long time as I explained the blood brother process to Johnny. "What's happening is your blood's going into my body and my blood's going into your body. That makes us blood brothers."
"Are we now?"
"I'm pretty sure we are." We let go. "Now, you have to swear you'll never tell anyone about what happened."
Johnny raised his right hand. "I swear." He wore a mile-wide grin. "Geez, Gordy, it isn't bleeding no more and I finally have a brother I've always wanted."
"Never mind. And you're a better brother than Doc III and Dork put together," I said, adding, "It's amazing."
"I don't have to pee anymore."
"You didn't tell me you had to pee before," said Johnny.
"Never mind. I'm going to go and make myself a sandwich."
"But I offered you a cookie."
"I know you did. I'd rather have a sandwich."
"Guess I'll see you later, brother," said Johnny.
"That you will." I made my way across the street. I was super hungry.
It's night, Diary. I turned off the ceiling light. I'm sitting on the bed with my flashlight on, so I can write in you. Six days have passed since Bob Martin died. I miss him as much as I miss Grampa Frank, but as what happened with Grampa, I'm getting used to Bob being gone. Mr. Peters is Bob's opposite. So, it doesn't matter where I spend my pennies. This morning, I bought a four-cent box of Cracker Jacks at Turbin's.
After Dad finished lunch today, he said, "Gordon, I want to investigate the paint job your brothers did above the front porch. So, I'll need your help."
"Yes, sir." That's the first time Dad ever required my services except for playing the piano for his bedridden, stinky patients. Since Doc III and Dork were painting in the back of the house, that's the likeliest reason Dad needed me. "Here's what I want you to do," Dad said as we stood on the lawn, looking up to the front porch roof that one of Otto Schuman's heavy, wooden, two-piece extension ladders leaned against. Dad pointed downward. "I want you to stand on that bottom rung."
So, I hopped on the bottom rung.
"Not now. Stand there after I start climbing. That way, the ladder won't slip and fall."
Dad isn't like Albert Kell, who wears work clothes and work shoes and climbs extension ladders as fast as monkeys zip up trees in Johnny Weissmuller Jungle Jim movies. Dad, however, was wearing a white shirt, colorful paisley tie, dark brown trousers, and brown wingtip shoes. He held on tightly to a rung above him and took one shaky step with one foot at a time. When both feet made it to the next higher rung, which took some doing, he waited before he started to raise himself to the next rung. I was looking up at his duff. "You don't have to worry, Dad. The ladder can't slip because I'm here."
"That's good," he replied, his voice as wobbly as his legs. Later, level with the rooftop, he got off the ladder, stepped on the roof, turned ever so slowly, looked down, and grinned. "That wasn't bad, was it?"
"No," I fibbed.
Dad disappeared. I figured he was making his way to the attic's exterior wall, with its two windows that makes it look as if the house has eyes. I waited and waited some more. I'll tell you this, Diary: Being an extension ladder's anchor is borrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring.
"Hey, Gordy." That was Johnny Nelson, calling from across the street. "What're you doing?"
"What's it look like? I'm standing so the ladder won't fall."
"See my new truck?" He held up a shiny red and blue toy dump truck. "Works like a real one." Johnny jerked a lever on the truck's side, causing the bed to rise and fall. He had more toys than all us Hoffmans put together. I guess it's because the Nelsons have only two kids, not five like us, plus Johnny's dad hardly drinks at all, maybe two bottles of Point beer on a hot, summer day, and that's it.
"Looks really neat," I yelled. I got off the ladder and backed away. Dad was still inspecting. Time advanced as slowly as a three-toed sloth. "Dad, when are you coming down?"
Considering how he made his way up the ladder, I figured coming down would take longer. When Albert Kell wanted to come down, he approached the ladder, grabbed one ladder side, turned around, held on to both ladder's sides, quickly lowered a leg until a work shoe's sole touched a rung, and then down he'd come, as fast as a monkey.
I just had to see that truck. I jumped off the rung, backed off, and watched Dad run a hand alongside an attic window that was painted the other day. So, I ran across the street, figuring I'd have enough time to inspect the truck and get back to the ladder before Dad started down. I looked at the new toy. "Keen," I said. "It's super kee—"
A blood-curdling scream.
Including my breathing.
Maybe my heart stopped, too. I don't know. I do know this: Dad was on the lawn, staggering as if he was drunk. The two parts of the ladder had separated and lay kittywampus on their sides. Dad spun around as if he were "It" in a game of Blind Man's Bluff. "Is he drunk?"
"Huh? What did you say?"
"I said your dad—is he drunk?"
"No, he joined AA. I'm not supposed to say anything about it. We'd better get out of here because I was supposed to be over there so the ladder wouldn't—"
"Looks like it did. Where should we go?"
"Your backyard. Let's see how the truck works with real sand."
Much later, I peeked around the corner of Nelsons' front porch. The Oldsmobile wasn't in the driveway. I figured Dad must've left for his office. So, I walked across the street. Making certain nobody saw me, I stared at the ladder's two parts and spied a spot near the halfway part of the top extension. The rung was missing. It must’ve busted off. Zillions of splinters stuck out.
At supper time, I sat at the kitchen table. Everyone was there, except for Dad. "Where is father?" asked Crazy Annie.
"He's not a priest," said Doc III, sneering.
"When you said 'father,' James thought you meant Dad was a priest," translated Dork, the Hoffman interpreter and know-it-all.
"He is, too, my father," Crazy Annie shot back.
"Kids, your father doesn't feel well," said Mother. "He's in bed, resting. So, don't make a lot of noise."
If the arguing continued, we kids knew Dad would scream and yell and come out in a rage with his strap. Or worse, the buckle end. Everyone whispered. I didn't say one word. I was trying to figure out why Dad hadn't yelled or bawled me out. And why hadn't he told Mother? Or anyone else? I'll tell you, Diary, I'm thankful he didn't.
Every kid in the neighborhood, Diary, wondered what we should do when the funeral car carrying Bob Martin passed by us on Baker Street on its way to the cemetery. "We should stand and salute when Bob goes by," I suggested.
"Was he in the Army?" asked Johnny Farish.
"I don't think so," said Jimmy Kell.
"You can salute, anyway, even if he wasn't in Army," offered Johnny Nelson.
"I agree," said Bobby Kell. "A salute means you're showing respect."
"We could stand on the sidewalk and make believe we're watching a parade," yelled Paul Peterson. Even Paul's whispers are loud.
"That's stupid," said Hen House Helen Kell. "It's a funeral, a time for silence and respect."
"Does anyone even know when he's going to pass by?" asked Crazy Annie, my sister, the very first time she proved to me she had a brain. The rest of us shrugged. "Are you guys ever dumb," said my sister.
Giggling, the youngest Kell, Betty Ann, said, "Don't you think you ought to find out when the hearse is going by?"
"And how do we do that?" demanded Glen Peterson, moving toward Betty Ann, attempting to bully her with his size.
"It'll most likely be announced in the Tribune," said Hen House.
"The Chicago Tribune?" I asked.
"What a dumbbell," laughed Hen House, looking straight at me with arms akimbo. (Thank you, RDWP). "Why would anyone in Chicago be interested when Bob Martin's body is being taken to the cemetery? I meant our Daily Tribune."
At that moment, I recalled what Leonard Habeck at the Standard gas station told me: "Doc, a man should never argue with a woman. If he's right, she'll cry. If he's wrong, she'll either call him a dumb ass or think he's one. Either way, he loses."
"Okay," I said, "I'll tell you what. I'll go down to Baker Mortuary and find out."
The others looked at me as if I was crazy. "You'll do what?" yelled Paul.
"They won't let kids in there," warned Johnny Nelson.
"You'll see," I said, "I'll find out."
The next morning, shortly after nine O'clock, I mounted the Schwinn and made my way down the hill to First Street, once again. This time, I saw the tall man with white hair and red face, walking toward me. He wore dark blue trousers, white shirt, striped tie, and shiny black shoes. I put on the brakes and dismounted. He smiled. "You again?"
"Were you able to say your farewell on that rock?"
"That's good. What's your name, son?"
"Gordon Bartholomew Hoffman."
The man with red face and white hair chuckled good naturedly. "I assume your father is Doctor Hoffman."
As he extended his hand, I pushed out mine. With my hand hidden in his, he nearly shook my arm off. "I'm George Baker." He pointed to the white building with pillars. "And that belongs to me and my wife."
"So, you're the undertaker."
He chuckled again. "I prefer Funeral Director."
"Yes, sir, funeral director. Can you tell me when you'll be taking Bob to the cemetery? All of us kids who live near Peters and Martin's grocery store want to show how much we cared for Bob."
"I assume he must've been a kind and generous man."
As I nodded, I felt unwanted tears form. "Yes, sir," I managed. "He was a good man, a friend to all us kids and Romie Nelson with cerebral palsy. And everybody else. Bob called me Carrot Top." I managed to smile.
The funeral director nodded. "His passing must have been a shock to you all."
"Yes, sir, it was." By this time, I was bawling.
"Tell your friends to be on Baker Street shortly before two O'clock tomorrow afternoon."
"Yes, sir. Thank you very much." I spread the news in the afternoon.
The next day, Crazy Annie and I and all the Kell kids, plus additional kids and adults we didn't even know, stood on both sides of Baker Street, waiting. Paul and Glen and both Johnnies didn't show up. Mrs. Kell waited on the front steps.
Finally, Betty Ann was the first to spot the police car that led the slow-moving cortege. (Thank you, RDWP). Mister Baker wasn't driving the funeral car, but he must've told the driver to slow almost to a halt as he reached us. I saluted. Everyone was sad and silent. Me included. A moment later, that changed. I figured the cop turned on the squad's siren, but after the last car with its headlights on passed by, I discovered it wasn't a siren at all. Instead, it was Romie Nelson. He was crying uncontrollably as his dad stood by his side, barely holding Romie upright. Other men rushed to help his dad hold up his distraught son.
Fifteen minutes later, we played hide and seek at the Kell house. I hid in the garage. Nobody found me, of course, in that messy garage as I thought about how I'd miss Bob Martin for the rest of my life.
When I arrived home after visiting the church, I asked Mother, "Did you hear about Bob Martin?"
She sighed. "It's been on WFHR every hour. I wonder whatever made him do such a thing?"
"Mister Kell said it's because Bob's wife wanted diamonds and furs."
"That's not a reason for Bob to become a murderer."
"Murderer? Bob's no murderer."
"After he killed his wife, he became one."
I knew Mother was correct in the dictionary meaning of the word. Still, Bob could never be a murderer. "Mister Kell said his wife was a bitch."
"Gordon, how many times have I told you to not use that kind of language?"
"Bitch is a female dog. It's not a curse word."
"When a man calls a woman a bitch, he doesn't mean she's a female dog. He means something else altogether. When you're older, you'll understand. Just trustwhat I—"
"Gordy, Gordon Hoffman," interrupted Glen and Paul Peterson, Paul's nose pushing on the rear door screen.
"Hello, boys," Mother sang out.
"Did ya hear about Bob Martin?"
I descended the stairs. "I still can't believe it."
"Us, either. Our folks said Bob was the least likely man in the world to kill somebody and his self."
"I'm in total agreement with your parents," said Mother.
"Hi, Mrs. Hoffman," yelled Paul. That's all Paul does is yell. Even when he talks. "Dad says Bob's wife's family won't allow Bob to be in the same funeral home as his wife."
"Where'd you hear that?" I asked.
"Dad told us."
"Gordy," said Glen, "we're going to the river to fish. You wanna come along?"
"Be home in time for supper," said Mother.
* * * * * *
The next morning, I thought about what Dad had said yesterday after he arrived home from his house calls. He said Bob was at Baker Mortuary on First Street while Bob's wife was at Krohn and Berard funeral home on First Avenue, across the river.
So, after I carried my wet sheets and underwear to the basement and put them in the washing machine, I went up to the kitchen and ate Rice Krispies. "Why do you keep looking at the clock?" asked Crazy Annie, my sister.
"Because I want nine O'clock to hurry up."
"I have something important to do."
"None of your beeswax."
At one minute after nine, I was on the Schwinn, heading downhill behind Dr. Barnett's house, across the street from the Old Grove, on the route I take to thecity swimming pool. The chain kept hitting the chain guard every pedal revolution, causing quite a clatter. When I got to the First Street stop sign, I turned left and rode on the sidewalk.
Baker Mortuary is a huge, white building with tall pillars. Our fifth-grade teacher told us it was a mansion, built long ago by one of the Arpin twins, local lumber barons, originally from France.
I got off the bike but didn't move. Adults visit funeral homes. Not kids. Should I knock on the door?
"Good morning," a deep, base voice said behind me. I thought I was going to pee in my pants. I turned. The tall man with white hair and red face smiled. "You're not the new paper boy, are you?"
"No." I pointed to the door. "Is Bob Martin in there?"
He smiled. "Bob's In there but not being shown. His casket is closed. Did you wish to say goodbye?"
"Where is a place you like to go and think?"
I pointed to the other side of the swimming pool, below the dam's first gate. "On that big rock, I fish there and like to be alone."
The tall man with white hair and red face nodded. "If I were you, which I'm not, that's where I'd go to say goodbye to Bob, not before a coffin in my mortuary."
Minutes later, I sat on the rock, thankful no other kids were there. When it felt right, I stood, gazed at puffy, white clouds in the perfectly blue sky. Placing my left hand to the side of my mouth, I yelled, "Bob, I know you're up there. I miss you. I'll never forget you." I could no longer stand.
Bawling like a baby, I crumbled to a sitting position. Eventually, I left the rock and returned to my bike. I rode up the hill to Habeck's gas station. Mister Habeck lent me a wrench, which I used to fix the chain guard.