My sister and I used to spend summers with my grandparents, my mother’s parents, at their teeny-tiny apartment in Nalcrest, Florida. Nalcrest is the retirement village of the National Association of Letter Carriers, the postal union. Nalcrest is shaped like a wheel with a bingo hall in the center. And a statue of a postman near the bingo hall. And a post office right around there, of course. Other establishments floated in the center, but none that anyone cared about. All the old postmen hung out at the post office, ostensibly waiting on their mail. They discussed post office business, comparing and contrasting the old Post Office Department with the new-fangled U.S. Postal Service. And ZIP codes, hah! Who needs ‘em? This postal talk went on and on.
My grandfather, Pop, in addition to being a postman, had also been a Golden Gloves boxer, and a first basemen somewhere in the Cleveland Indians minor league system. In his 60s and 70s, when I first knew him, he was formidable still. I worshipped him lavishly. Pop was not as colossal as I imagined him. No actual living-breathing man is. When he went on his walks around the wheel I’d follow him maybe a pace or so behind, the better to worship him.
When I wasn’t following Pop around, I was following my little sister Sissy, who cynically took advantage of me. She realized early on in life that I’d do just about anything that she told me to. I was high strung; I think my mother described me that way. I was skinny and very small for my age. I was uncoordinated. I immediately said whatever popped into my head. I liked swing sets way beyond the age you’re supposed to like swing sets. I’d get on one and try to launch myself into outer space, or I’d twist it around and spin until I got sick.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,” she’d tell me, shaking her head like so.
I was full of potential, according to the school counselors. Tsk, tsk. What a waste, what a waste. Always drawing and doodling and doodle-drawing and nothing else.
My sister and I paired off. No matter where we went―-from new school to new school, from new house to new house―-we were together and always at home in each other’s company.
Our father moved us every two years. We lived in Cleveland, Rocky River, Akron, St. Louis, Lincoln, and then down to Florida. We had our own sense of humor, our own world. One of the things we’d do was turn off the sound on the television and do all the voices and dialog for the characters.
People always wanted to possess Sissy, as if she was a shiny bauble. She went out with a lot of boys in high school, but their ardor always scared her off. She refused to be possessed.
There is not a thing I don’t remember about her. Her eyes were the blue of the Gulf of Mexico, with flecks of gold shimmering inside. Her hair was wavy and dirty blonde. She could smirk. She was horribly thin. Had she survived much into the 1990’s, she would have ended up in rehab. Sissy always kept up with the trends.
My sister could come across a bit strong at times. When we were in grade school, she took an instant dislike to this little redheaded girl named Laura who, in Sissy’s estimation, giggled far too much and acted like a fool just to make friends. “Look at that,” Sissy growled to me one day at the bus stop, poking me hard in the ribs, “she covers her mouth when she giggles! I hate that!” So Sissy made it a point to tell Laura surreal things and convince her that these things were absolutely correct. For instance, “Ham comes from mallard ducks.” “Croquet was invented by bored construction workers.” And so on. This whole teaching experience went on for about a month, and Sissy had other kids in on it, and even a teacher was convinced to get in on the joke. I think the idea was that if that girl wanted to act like a fool, Sissy was more than willing to help transform her into one. It ended with a phone call from Laura’s mother to ours. At the dinner table that evening my mother suddenly burst out laughing. “Ham comes from a mallard duck! That’s priceless!”
Another Sissy anecdote: Sissy had this friend named Gayle in high school. The first thing she ever said to her was, “You desperately need a vice.”
“What vice?” Gayle asked.
“God,” Sissy said. “Anything.”
One evening, feeling Nalcrest-bored, Sissy convinced me to go with her on this cross-cheese-wheel rampage, riding a pair of geezer trikes that didn’t belong to us or our grandparents. The cheese wheel had these rain gutters made of concrete that acted as the spokes, and we rode as fast as we could through them. We were Bonny and Clyde in a fast getaway. Old postmen and post-spouses shook their crooked veined fists at us.
“Demons!” one old lady shouted at us.
“I know you!” an old man shouted.
He did know us. He reported us to Pop. The geezer trikes were returned with apologies and much head lowering.
My sister and I lay on the sofa bed listening in on our grandparents as they discussed the whole boy-girl problem. We couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet away from them. Their apartment was tiny, and only consisted of two actual rooms, with a miniature bathroom and miniature kitchen. The kitchen wouldn’t have made a good crawlspace, that’s how small it was. They’d crammed a great deal of their ancient, old country furniture (which had been hauled over from mid-Europe by our severe ancestors) into the tiny apartment space, making it seem smaller still. There was hardly room enough to pull the bed out of the sofa. Something had to be done with the ancient, ornate coffee table, so it ended up out on the screened porch. My grandparents were too cheap to run the air conditioner, so my grandmother rubbed Ben Gay on our foreheads to simulate coolness. It did not work. We lay there sweating and listening to them plot our fate.
Grandmother said, “The boy is too excitable.”
Pop said, “The girl does it to him. Gets him all riled up.”
“I don’t understand it. Ralph and Lola were never like that.” She had this scratchy little voice. Much later on I found out it was because she’d tried to kill herself by drinking lye. That was a long time ago, long before I was born.
Pop said, “She makes him do the things. It’s like he’s her wind-up toy.”
“I’m not your wind-up toy,” I whispered to Sissy.
“Shut up and listen,” she snapped back.
“I think they’re out there talking,” Grandmother said.
“Go quiet them down, mother,” Pop said.
“Oh, you go quiet them down,” she snapped.
“I’m old,” Pop said. “I need my sleep. Just go to sleep.”
“I’m not a wind-up toy,” I whispered to Sissy.
“Shut up,” Sissy whispered back. “We’re in enough trouble already.”
“I’m just saying―”
“I heard you the first time. Go get a flashlight,” she said.
I got up, walked around and found a flashlight on the coffee table out on the porch, barking my skinny little boy knees only once. It’s not that I see well in the dark. In fact, I’m pretty much night blind. But I can map out places in my head just by looking at them, including rooms. I’d taken a good look around before lights off.
I got back in bed, attempting not to make a sound. It didn’t make a difference. We could hear the two of them in the other room snoring like a pair of steam locomotives. “Now what?”
“Click it on and let’s do a sci-fi movie,” Sissy said. And we did, replete with shadow puppets and our cheesy voiceover work. And me humming the score through my teeth, doing my best theremin impression.
Later on, we sat out on the porch, atop the heavy coffee table, and gazed out through the green screen mesh at the moist Florida night sky, watching the fighter planes zip past on their way out to the Avon Park bombing range just twenty miles away. The grandparents had an extra freezer on the porch that they’d bought from a dead postman’s wife. People were constantly dying, or in the process of dying, in Nalcrest, and the surviving postal retirees would snap up the deads’ worn out appliances for a song. The grandparents’ TV was an ancient Zenith that separated out the red, blue and green colors along the top, middle and bottom of the screen. The air conditioner window unit clanked when they bothered to turn it on. We sat out on the porch with our Ben Gay foreheads each holding a bowl of butter brickle ice milk to our skinny chests saying nothing. We knew this would be our last night together for a while and didn’t want to spoil it by fighting or getting caught out on the porch. One of us would be sent home the next day. The other would get to stay here among the oldsters. Then we’d be swapped out. Instead of spending the summer together, like always, we’d spend it completely apart. We’d end up strangers or something. It was terrible to think about.
Mom showed up in time for lunch the next day. She seemed pretty disappointed in the both of us. She chowed down on a braunschweiger and onion on rye sandwich. She washed it down with a Budweiser, then plopped down on the couch, slipped off her shoes and propped her feet up on the coffee table.
“Lola!” Grandmother went.
“Oh, come on, Mom. This thing is ancient.” She didn’t take her feet off it, just sat there tilting her head back like she was getting one of her migraines.
Sissy said, “It’s getting kind of late. Shouldn’t we just stay the night?”
“Nice try, Miss Tissenbaum,” Mom said. “All right. Head to the bathroom.” Mom always made us urinate before car drives, even if it was just going up to the corner store. I don’t know where this Miss Tissenbaum stuff comes from. It was something Mom always called Sissy when she was angry at her. That, and Mom’d do her fake kung-fu moves. Hy-ah!
Sissy slumped off toward the bathroom.
“And you,” Mom said, glaring over at me, “I’ll deal with you, mister.” She put her shoes back on, stood up and clapped her hands, humming angrily under her breath.
Pop said, “You parked in the wrong spot again.” He had this obsession with parking in the right spot. “You’re in Mr. Argyle’s spot.”
“Poor Mr. Argyle,” Mom said.
“Y-you don’t get it,” Pop said. “You have to park in the right spot. It’s the way things are done. That’s all I’m saying.” Pop had a mania for rules and orderliness.
“Yeah, yeah,” Mom said. “We’ll be out of your hair soon enough. Are you finished in there?”
“Almost,” Sissy said.
“Let’s see a little life in there,” Mom said. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in you.”
“Sorry, Mom,” I said.
“Your father will hear about this,” she said.
“Sorry, Mom,” I said.
“Sorry, mom, sorry, mom, sorry, mom. Well that sorry stuff isn’t going to cut it.”
My brain was telling me to pick up the instamatic camera on the coffee table and hurl it through the front window. I quickly rejected the suggestion.
Sissy emerged from the bathroom. Mom went in. “She’s gonna lecture me the whole way home,” Sissy said. “Blah, blah, blah. Quit taking advantage of your brother. If you had a backbone we wouldn’t be in this fix.”
“Give it a rest,” I said.
Pop was reading the paper in his big easy chair. Grandmother was fidgeting near the bathroom door.
“Parked in the wrong spot,” Pop muttered, flipping the page. Indians lose to Royals 10 to 3.
Mom came out and Grandmother said, “Maybe we’re being too harsh. Maybe both can stay.”
“No, you said it yourself. You’re too damn old to care for them both. Something has to give. Get your bag, Sissy, and head out to the car. We have to get out of Mr. Argyle’s spot.”
“I’m just saying,” Pop said.
Sissy pleaded, “Mom, Grandmother said we could both―”
“Zip it,” Mom said. “Get your bag.” And she started her humming again. “Let’s see a little life there, Miss Tiss.”
They headed out the front door, across the green lawn, toward the car, Sissy in front, Mom clapping her hands behind her. Grandmother was most of the way to the car. I trailed behind Grandmother. The car started and barked tires out of Mr. Argyle’s spot. The passenger side window rolled down. Sissy shouted, “Write me every day!” And they were gone.
Spend more time with the same characters in Small Town Punk.