Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

Husky on Edwards Husky brings to mind a noble arctic dog with the spirit and power of a wolf majestically running over a snowy, windswept landscape.   This is exactly the wrong husky for our story.  The husky I am referring to is corduroy or denim.  Husky is a size.  Husky was the name of Sears department stores' largest size for young boys.  There is no wolf like spirit here; the closest thing is sweaty armpits and chafed legs.  Huskies were made from a treated fabric that would be pulled uncomfortably tight over pudgy frames.  The fabric would resist staining.  The fabric acted like a personal drop cloth for fat kids. It would resist spills of coke, cool-aid,  BBQ and pasta sauce, as they trail from the mouths of over eager eaters.  Mothers can then simply wipe away the drops of sauce and dribbles, from these errant gobbles and chews.   Huskies are for that special type of American child,  the one who overindulges, the glandular, the big boned. And it was to this weighty child's mother, that Sears marketed the clothing line.  A mother buys Huskies for their child for practical reasons, not for aesthetic ones.   And it is the child who must suffer the indignity of the brand, or wear it with pride.    This is the story of an unapologetic, heavyweight, Husky wearer, waddling over the landscape of a middle American town, above average in every way that is physically possible. Edwards is a street on the near south side of St. Louis. Missouri, a city founded in the late seventeen hundreds at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Most people who are not from there, associate it with Huck Fin and his raft.   The city has several major league sports franchises, hockey, baseball and football, for which it is also widely known.   St. Louis has large Catholic and Jewish populations that it owes to nineteenth century immigration from Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. 1

Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

 The 'Louis' in St. Louis is often pronounced 'Louie' by people living south of the old Mason Dixon line.  But none of the papists or Jews who actually live there would say 'Louie'. The Catholics, Jews, and almost everyone else who lives there, pronounce it 'Louis', in a distinctly northern way. In the nineteenth century St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the United States.   And during that gilded age the city was outfitted with beautiful public buildings and social resources as gifts from wealthy philanthropists, like the St. Louis library, Art Museum, Forest Park and the Symphony Orchestra.  The World's Fair was held there in 1904 and transformed a large part of the city's rural areas into a world stage for the exhibition of the emerging modern world.  When I was young my grandfather, Bud Whacker, used to tell me that just about every modern convenience was invented at the 1904 World's Fair.   Inventions such as ice cream cone and the hotdog bun were believable, but the paperclip, the garden-hose and the can-opener, what's more, the car window roller-upper and roller-downer, the club sandwich and the toothpicks used to hold that invention together, seemed, to me, a bit too much. Think of some invention, anything, a soda bottle top or copper wire, for example, Grandpa would proudly say it was invented at the worlds fair. The 1904 World's Fair left a powerful lasting impression on the city, a high water mark of cosmopolitan possibility and importance.   The twentieth century was less kind to St. Louis.  It saw its population slip to the ranks of the 52nd city in America.  And far from being a world stage, it became more of a quaint museum, with a few bright spots of culture supported and protected from ubiquitous social ills and urban decline.   This cultural St. Louis was a world physically close to Edwards 2

Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

street, in the south side of the city, but conceptually far afield from my world, which consisted of a two story converted duplex at 2015 Edwards.  This two story building on a small lot in a dying city in the Midwest marks my origin. This building formed my original celestial sphere; a young boy's universe constructed of red brick.   This small world of mine was situated in the little Italy section the city bordering both the Irish and Jewish quarters.  For most of my young life there was just five people living at Edwards, my mother, sister, grandmother and grandfather and me. The Edwards house was built just after the World's Fair as were many of the buildings in the surrounding ethnic neighborhoods.  The bricks of these buildings were reclaimed from temporary structures used for the World's Fair exhibition.  Some of the bricks were glazed with different colors and were smooth to the touch like semi-opaque ancient glass.  I  have a lasting tactile memory of feeling the smooth glaze on the bricks of our house.   The glazed bricks were gathered together in batches of mismatched colors, like a patchwork quilt over the buildings of the ethnic neighborhoods. These bricks often formed a beautiful color pallet that, I believe, was most elegantly demonstrated in the brick shed in the back yard of our Edwards house. The ethnic neighborhoods shared these glazed bricks as a meager but fitting family inheritance from the World's Fair. But that is perhaps just a small part of the Fair's impact on these neighborhoods which were built in the shadow of the great exhibition. There was no shortage of colorful stories.  St. Louisans called the Irish neighborhood dog town, and not out of some ethnic slight against the Irish.  Rather, to hear my grandpa tell it, it's an ethnic slight against the Chinese. Grandpa maintained that a group of primitive Chinese people were displayed at the World's Fair. But the exhibitions ran out of money and they had to cut the Chinese free, instead of sending them back home.     3

Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

"You know let them out of their cages." Grandpa said. "Cages, Grandpa?" I replied  "OK  maybe not cages but some sort of hut or other kind of enclosure. The important thing is the fair organizers just let them fend for themselves.  "Now Greg," Grandpa continued,  "do you know what Chinese people eat?" "No, Chinese food?" I said imagining something like cat food.   "Chinese food!" Grandpa retorted, irritated by the tautology,  "No, son, they eat dogs." "Dogs?" I answered quizzically,  "No they don't, Grandpa. They couldn't." "Yes, son, they would eat Rover or Spot.  They eat dogs just as we eat pigs.  And you'd probably eat the neighbors' dog too, if Grandma were late with your lunch." "Grandpa that's mean,"  I complained but deep down suspected it to be true. "So, as I was saying," Grandpa continued, "they let these Chinese guys go fend for themselves right in the city as if it was in their jungle home.   "Back then things were different, the city did not have all these 4

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buildings and highways. They had just invented all that crap at the Worlds Fair so it didn't quite circulate yet. "So these Chinese guys holed up in some trees and bushes right near where Paddy's pub is now, on the south side of the park. "You know Paddy's, they got the burger you like." "Yes, Grandpa, just near the park." "So they holed up there in some trees. But they were getting hungry and they didn't have no money, no Chinese money, or real money." "What did they do Grandpa?" "They made arrows and bows out of stuff just lying around," Grandpa continued, "like from the trees and garbage. "I guess it was the head Chinese guy that had the plan.  He was thinking, that if you give a man a fish he eats for a day.  But the river was like seven miles away, and they didn't have fishing poles, they had arrows. So, the head Chinese guy instructs them to hunt dogs." "Dogs! How did they eat them? "The Chinese guys hunt them and then the Chinese ladies skin, and cook them. "But you're not getting the story boy," Grandpa continued, now, somewhat frustrated. "This ain't a recipe, fatty.  I am trying to tell you a story about ingenuity and hard work.   "It's about the railroads, laundry and about those funny hats you see 'em wearing. 5

Greg Kreisman

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Grandpa put his hands to the corner of his eyes and gave a big smile and said in an accent, "ancient Chinese secret." "Ancient Chinese secret," I parroted in reply. "Now, Greg, where do you think they found the dogs?" Grandpa questioned pedagogically.  "Dog houses, maybe?" I replied. "Yes, Greg, dog houses, in back yards, that's a good start. But are you going to feed the whole Chinese community that way." "No, I guess not," I answered. "You ain't thinking boy," Grandpa said, harshly correcting me. "You got to use strategy, like a general. What is it that dogs want?" "Bones, maybe?" I answered cautiously "Yes, bones,  but what else?" Grandpa asked again. "Dog houses," I answer returning to my previous thought.  "Get off that already, Greg.  What dogs want are cats." "Cats, Grandpa?" "Yes, cats," Grandpa stated authoritatively. "So this is what they do. These Chinese guys stay holed up in those 6

Greg Kreisman

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woods.  Now they made their arrows. And remember, that they're half naked, mind you.  Now these Chinese guys came on down here to little Italy were we live now." "Why's that?" I asked. "We'll you know how your Grandma, is a Dego WOP.  That's an Italian immigrant without papers.  Get it W. O. P. "Well, Greg, you know what Dego WOPs eat?" "Spaghetti," I replied. "No, Greg, they eat roof-rabbits, or what we call them in plain English, cats." "Oh, grandpa no, it can't be." "That's the honest truth," Grandpa continued. "These Chinese guys came down and stole some of the Dego WOPs' cats and used them for traps, to catch dogs.  "The Chinese guys tied the cats to a tree with transparent sausage casing, and waited on the dogs in the trees. The dogs were up-wind and get the smell of the cats. And then BLAM! The Chinese shot the dogs with arrows." "The Chinese used the Italian's cats to trap dogs," I said, "it all sounds so sad."  "Now you got it, Son," Grandpa said, patting me on the head. "It was a more barbaric time. And you know that created the longstanding 7

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mistrust between the Italians and the Chinese, that is, until the Irish moved in."

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Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

Squirrel Highway

So my childhood home was this red brick, two story building, built just after the 1904 Worlds Fair. It was positioned on the east side of Edwards street, in the middle of a small city block.  An alley ran along the south end of the house.  The alley was like a country road misplaced in the middle of the city, a relic left partially paved with weeds and wildflowers growing 12 inches on either side.  The two story house was remarkably small.  Not even 30 feet from front door to back door, and less than 25 feet from side to side. It was originally intended to be a 4 family flat, so it had two doors on the first and second floor.  Each floor was cut into four pieces, which made four rooms, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room.   Indoor plumbing and bathrooms were put in just before my grandparents moved in.  The original intention of 4 families living in just two rooms a piece with no plumbing or bathrooms always seemed quite rough.  Knowing that, somehow, made this place seem like a castle, as our one family was living where 4 families had lived before. The building was tall and box-like. It had a flat roof.  But it was certainly not square to precision.  The tall walls of the house seemed to be in a slow-motion sway, when viewed from the sidewalk.  I am not sure whether this was an optical illusion of perspective or poor craftsmen-ship,  I suspect a bit of both. There were first and second story stone and concrete balconies, that ran the length of the front side of the house.  They were merely three feet wide but each of the four front doors had access to them.  The ornamental white sandstone was so soft, as children, we could easily clear out a gash after a 10 minutes of rubbing.  Sometimes I would sit on the front porch soaking in the morning sun sitting next to my mother who 9

Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

was cat napping in a folding chair. I would sit and feel the sandy residue beneath my toes and working small indentation into the facade of the building.  The only problem was that the second floor balcony by design or accident leaned toward the street, and gave the impression that you could easily fall to the street below.  A three foot tall black metal railing was the only protection.  I was often cautioned not to lean against the railing, heavy as I was, as it seemed to be loosely attached to the stone pillars with rusty metal screws, some of which had already broken free from the crumbling sandstone. I would safely survey my neighborhood hugging one of the sandstone pillars for balance. You could see clear to the next street, over the one story houses in our neighborhood.  When I stood there I  felt as if I was up in the aether.  From that rarefied air you could launch a paper air plane clear down the block if you folded it really well. Across the street was a single story sausage making plant.  It was started by and catered to the Italian immigrants in the neighborhood.  There were no windows facing us, just white cinderblock walls with a black tar roof. During the summer the smell of the meat curing was only overpowered  by an occasional coating of fresh tar on its roof. Power lines, suspended on tall wooden posts, ran up and down the block.  Fat electric cables and thin phone lines connecting and crisscrossing all of the neighborhood homes.  Leaning, like I wasn't supposed to, I could almost touch one of the lines, a big post was less than two feet from the tip of my chubby little finger.   These lines may have been intended just to carry power, but their other use seemed far more natural and exotic.  It is what we called squirrel highway. Grandpa took me outside. We'd left the back gate and walked up 10

Greg Kreisman

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the alley to the front of the house.  We were facing east looking at the front of the house. He told me to look up. Just to the right of our house was a tall electrical pole a good 12 feet above our porch. To the left of our house  was another electrical pole just as high, with clunky ceramic resistors and hulking electrical capacitors. As we were on the corner of the alley, we were a hub for the neighborhood power grid. That powerful electrical grid connected the East and West of the neighborhood. It had two thick heavy black wires, and stood just 6 feet above our porch. Four feet above those wires, ran a second smaller series of cables. Grandpa told me those were for the telephone. Squirrels would run up and down the poles, over the lines, jumping from tier to tier, from crowded thick cables to thin telephone lines.  The squirrels would exit at trees, jumping onto branches, or exit at buildings, jumping onto roofs,  or even exit on our porch. "Now boy," he said, "see that pole?" "Yes, Grandpa." "When you're upstairs with your mother, while she does her nails, don't you ever lean over and try to touch those wires." "Yes, Grandpa." "They will fry you sure as anything," he said, now, patting me on my round tummy. "And you would fry up real nice, apple in your mouth and everything." "Cut it out, Grandpa." 11

Greg Kreisman

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"But Greg, I just wanted to tell you that I know your mother's been doing her nails a lot.  And staying out late at night, too.  I just want to let you know that this is normal." "It's OK," I said, "I like staying downstairs with you, on nights Mom stays out." "Greg, I want to tell you about Squirrel Highway. Now you know how those squirrels run back and forth along those wires. They can cross any direction in the city. The squirrels can go up north to Jewish town. They can go down south with the Dutch. They can even travel far north and be with the blacks, but I don't think these squirrels want to do that. "Now I'm telling you a story about a certain girl squirrel, who lived on squirrel highway. This squirrel had a big fluffy tail. It was a real pretty color, kind of brown and little red. It was like your mother's hair before she died it blond." "Yes, I remember, Grandpa, real pretty she called it all burn hair, which sounds kind of bad to me." "That's right Greg. This auburn haired squirrel had a real nice family. She had a mother that went to squirrel mass almost every day. But this auburn haired squirrel like to run about. The mother and father squirrel sent her off to squirrel college, so she could find a good squirrel husband and maybe even a decent job so she could bring home some nuts. But, this auburn haired squirrel met a sad gray squirrel that she thought had a lot of potential. This gray squirrel was going to be a squirrel doctor, taking care of a lot of sick squirrels. She and her squirrel parents thought this squirrel doctor was going to have a lot of nuts. 12

Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

"They'd both came running home on holidays. When the squirrel father met this gray squirrel doctor, he thought the gray squirrel looked a bit different. His nose was much longer and bigger. Kind of like your nose, pudgy." Grandpa said, tweaking my nose. "Cut it out, Grandpa," I said, pushing his hand away and looking up at the power lines, looking out for other squirrels darting across them. "This gray squirrel's nose was long and thin, with a black tip that darted back and forth every time food was put on the table. The squirrel father thought the gray squirrel's beady eyes, made him look like he was planning something.  And one time when the auburn squirrel, the gray squirrel and her parents were all sitting around the table talking about tails, they all of a sudden set on what was so different about the gray squirrel. That gray squirrels tail was bald as your bare ass." "But, Grandpa, squirrels have bushy tails." "Not this one Son. This tail was bald and segmented, like some kind of worm. It was, really, really, ugly. "Grandpa, that's a rat!" "Well done Boy, you're not as stupid as the auburn squirrel." While patting me on the shoulder, Grandpa quietly remarked, "I hate to think who you get that from." "What's that, Grandpa?" "Never mind, Son. Back to the story. 13

Greg Kreisman

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"So the auburn squirrel and a  the gray squirrel, or rat, get married. And It turns out that the rat is not yet a full squirrel doctor. He still has a lot of work to do. And he doesn't bring any nuts, whatsoever, back home. He even borrows nuts from the auburn squirrel's parents. "So the auburn squirrel is working really hard.  And one day, a couple of squirrel babies come along.  One real fat one and a real skinny one. The fat one would eat a lot of nuts too which made for more pressure. "At this time, there is a big rodent war going on, far way from these squirrels' part of squirrel highway. So the rat goes off to the rodent war.  The auburn squirrel and her children move in with her squirrel parents." "Where is the rodent war, Grandpa?" "Far away, Boy, where all the squirrels have different color skin, and low morals." "Do the squirrels use guns?" "Yes, Boy, of course they use guns.  But the moral of this tale is that, this rat won't ever be coming home on squirrel highway. "I know how you look out that window and how you sit on the porch, with your mother, with her painted nails, and bleached blond hair.  Just remember, when you're watching those squirrels run up and down the thick black power lines, that the bald tailed rat is never going to come back home."

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Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

The Shed

My childhood home at 2015 Edwards was situated on a small lot. It was a rectangle just 55 feet long and 25 feet wide.  There was no front yard. The front of the building sat directly against the sidewalk and street. The left side of the lot bordered a half-paved alley, with weeds and wild flowers poking up through crumbling asphalt. There were three round trash cans set toward the far end of the lot. The back of the lot bordered a grass alley. This alley was unpaved and had dandelions and other weeds were growing unchecked. The house took up half of the lot, with the remainder left to a small back yard.  Yards like this were commonly referred to as "postage stamp" yards, owning to their diminutive size.  A brick shed stood at the far end of the yard. The shed was our lot's finest example of glazed bricks, reclaimed from the World's Fair.  All of the bricks used to make the shed were remarkable for diversity.  The shed had patches of deep greens, with dashes of reds, blacks, browns, and even the odd bright yellow brick. It was a tiny, but sturdy structure, almost a perfect cube. It was a mere 10 by 10 foot building. It had one window on the back wall with plywood covering the glass. And, yet, even with the plywood, there was a blind hung over the window.  The blind was open, and its metal louvers had been collecting dust for several generations. There was a large green door that smelled of mildew. Long chips of green paint were peeling off its soggy wood.  This door was held shut with a large padlock.  I remember being just tall enough to open it on my own, if I wanted to lend a hand to my grandmother.   When the door was open the smell of mildew intensified, and mixed with the smell of tar, paint and oil, from long forgotten household projects. 15

Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

There was very little light in the shed, as the only window was blocked, and it had no electric lights.  The only light came from the doorway. I would cast a shadow as I peered in.  I could just barely see the wooden beams of the roof. They looked as if they were railroad ties.   Strips of tar paper slipped through the joints of the wooden beams, making an outline that could easily be mistaken for a hanging bat.  On the right side of the shed was a large deep shelf that held most of the smaller tools and seemed to be home to every sort of bug and creepy crawly. On the left side of the back wall there were the remains of the stove pipe which outlasted the wood stove which had long since been removed.  Spiders spun large webs at the end of this pipe, catching the few flies that found their way down the now blocked chimney. The shed floor was concrete.  Tools, bicycles and the lawn mower were kept on the five feet of remaining floor space. Grandma would cut the small lawn with a push lawn mower.  It had a cylinder of cork-screw blades attached to two small wheels.  The wheels were so old they reminded me of wagon wheels. The handle was little more than a modified shovel handle.  I would often take the lawn mower out for her, trying to make myself useful. "Greg, bring out the rake and the scissors. And hurry up, on account it's going to rain." Grandma said. I dragged the lawn mower behind me, its blade ratcheting harmlessly as it free-wheeled. I carried the rake and the scissors in my chubby right hand. "Can I mow the lawn, Grandma?"

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Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

"OK Greg, but you gotta run over those dandy lions two or three times,  they just lay down and wilt, tricking you into thinking they're cut.  But just when you turn your back, there they go popping up again." I ran the mower over the weeds, pulling it back and forth several times.  Grandma took the scissors and started to manicure the lawn,  snipping at the edges where the lawn met the concrete.  These were not some sort of specialized gardening tool but, regular scissors that you might use to cut paper. "Hold up Greg, we got some good dandy lions here." I stopped mowing.  Grandma got down on her hands and knees and started picking at the weeds.  Her body made an odd shape on the lawn.  Her curly white hair was all you could see of her head, as she bent face-down, pulling up the tender young dandelions.  Her backside stuck up in the air, and the two tails from her long coat fell backwards onto her back.  She looked as if she were a giant bunny rabbit with a fluffy white tail and a fat black face.  "How about these over here, Grandma?" I said pointing out other dandelions. "No, they ain't no good, if they got a flower already.  They're too tough even if you stew 'em." She collected the weeds and set them in a pile in front of her.  Still kneeling, she fixed her jacket.  She took an empty Wonder Bread bag out of her pocket. She shook the bag.  It caught a gust of wind, and opened.  The bright circles of color on the Wonder Bread bag made a stark 17

Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

contrast to Grandma's dreary black outfit.  She looked as if she were a nun carrying a golden chalice or gilded bible. She, then, picked up the weeds and began to fill the Wonder Bread bag. "OK Greg, that's about all the dandy lions in our yard.  You finish up here, I am going back to the grass alley and see If I can find enough dandy lions to round out a salad for dinner."  I continued cutting the lawn. The wind was picking up and the sky turning gray.  The shed door was still open and the grass cuttings were being blown back into the dark, dank shed. "Greg where's Grandma gone to?" Grandpa said, sticking his head out the back of the house. "She's in the alley looking for dandelions, for salad." "Damn, woman!" Grandpa shouted toward the alley as he walked into the yard. "Why you gotta pick weeds for dinner. Why can't we eat normal vegetables, like white people. You don't have to go picking on the ground. Dogs shit there." "Shut up Bud,"  she said while walking farther down the grass alley, to a particularly bushy bunch of weeds. "Hey Son," Grandpa said to me,  "your grandma's got a big butt.  That's where you get if from,  her side."  He patted me on the stomach, "No wonder you eat so much candy, with her feeding you weeds."

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Greg Kreisman

Husky on Edwards

"I like them, Grandpa." "Shit, kid, you'll eat anything that won't eat you first." "Mary," Grandpa shouted, "get your ass back here, it's starting to rain." Grandpa took the lawn mower out of my hand and kicked the blades with his leather shoes. The  cylindrical blade freewheeled backward and the thin blades of grass and long dandelion stems flew off.  He then put the mower back into the shed. "Greg, Bring the rake, it's raining now."  Distant thunder reverberated. Grandma walked back into the yard leaving the metal gate swinging behind her, her Wonder Bread bag full of fresh dandelions. I drug the rake behind me and set it in the shed,   Grandpa took the key out of my hand,  pausing to look into the shed, as the light faded.  He gazed into the darkness, as if trying to remember something.  I stood next to him trying to look where he was looking, trying to stand as he was standing, all the while, smelling his strong after-shave mixed with, grass cuttings, mildew, oil and paint.  "You know what this used to be, do you?" Grandpa said, after a long pause. "What, what used to be?" "What the shed used to be." 19

Greg Kreisman

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"No, Grandpa." He points to the back of the shed, "Look at that, on the window,  that's a venetian blind. This used to be a venetian blind factory." "What kind of factory?" "A venetian blind factory," He repeated.   "Do you know how to make a Venetian blind?" "A venetian blind,"  I said pointing to the blind covering the boarded-up window.  "No, It looks kinda complicated. Grandma doesn't like me playing with the living room blinds." "Oh forget it. Get in the house. It's starting to rain. Sometimes you are stupider than I imagine. But wait, tell me, Greg, who's buried in Grant's tomb." "I don’t know. Is it someone famous?" I replied. "Get in the house, and check on your sister!" I run across the freshly mowed lawn and up the back steps.  The back of the house had a porch and balcony like the front, so I was now protected from the rain. The sky was almost green as Grandpa finished locking the shed.  He was wearing a hat, like he always did. He locked the door and Grandma had walked beside him. She gave him a kiss on the cheek.  He hugged her, and after breaking free from the embrace, slapped her on the butt.  She was carrying the wonder bread bag full of 20

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young dandelions.  She had turned up her collar, as the rain started to come down more heavily.  She followed me, running up to the porch. Grandpa walked more slowly.  The heavy drops of rain  were bouncing off his narrow brimmed hat and black trench coat.   Grandpa was a short man. He was bowlegged from malnutrition as a child.  He was a skinny man,  who seemed to carry all his strength in his forearms and hands. His shoulders were narrow and his back was slightly bent.   I thought he walked like a cowboy.  He had straight gray hair that came to a pronounced widow's peak on his forehead.  He had a long crooked nose, kind eyes and a mouth that was most often turned in a smile. After grandpa comes up to the porch we all enter the house through the back door. I  run through the kitchen, straight into the living room where Angela was laying on the floor watching TV on a large black and white television that was already a museum piece.  The picture was stretched at the sides, as the picture tube was rounded like a small section of a sphere.   Angela was two years younger than me. She was resting her head on her hands laying on the living room rug, her small frame in skinny red corduroy pants and a white t-shirt with blue piping.  I ran in and kicked her foot. Then ran to the window and started playing with the blinds.   "Cut it out Greg!" "Hey, Angela, look at this," I said, pulling on the blinds, quickly opening and closing them. "This is a Venetian blind." Sh-wing, sh-wing." "So what, who cares? You're not supposed to play with that. Grandma's going to spank you." 21

Greg Kreisman

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Sh-wing, sh-wing, I continued opening and closing them. Sh-wing, sh-wing. "Angela did you know, that the shed used to be a Venetian blind factory.   I bet you don’t know how to make a venetian blind?" "Who cares? Its just a stupid blind. Greg you're a dipstick dork." "But look how well it works," I insisted.  "Do you think the string goes up inside that top part?" I say moving a chair toward the window too get a better look at the blind's workings. Sh-wing, sh-wing.    "What time is mom coming home tonight?" Angela asked, completely ignoring my investigation of the blinds. "I want to go upstairs to our house." (The bottom four rooms of the house were Grandpa's and Grandma's The top four rooms was where my mother, my sister and I lived.) "I don't know," I replied. "She's working."  Sh-wing, sh-wing. "Get down from there! And wash your hands, you little ragamuffin. You're getting dirt all over the window sill. And look at your feet." Grandma smacked me on the butt. I ran to the bathroom.   "And you, little, lazy princess," she continued, addressing Angela, "help me in the kitchen." As Angela passed the bathroom door she stuck her tongue out at me.   The bathroom was small, less than four feet wide and six feet long. 22

Greg Kreisman

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It had a cast iron tub with animal feet and a white, glazed basin, which grandma would scrub with dry green detergent after every bath.   The bathroom was done in black and white tile, and it had a toilet that sat so high, my feet would barely hit the floor. I followed them into the kitchen. Grandpa was sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper and drinking a cup at of coffee that grandma pored from the peculator.    "So Grandpa tell Angela about the Venetian blind factory," I said, sitting down at the kitchen table across from Grandpa. "Bud are you telling stories again?" Grandma said as while cleaning the dandelions in the sink. "I don’t care about a dumb old factory," Angela said. "Here dear, cut up these carrots,"  Grandma said to Angela,  "but careful that knife is sharp." Grandpa remained quiet behind his news paper. "I want to make a Venetian blind," I said, proudly.  "It doesn't look too hard.   Can I use your tools?" "Shut up, Greg! You're such a dork, blinds are stupid.  I like curtains." "You’re the dork Angela. I could make one I could make one. Curtains are for girls. Blinds are cool tell her Grandpa. Tell her about the 23

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shed, tell her that it used to be a factory, tell her!" "Damn, Boy!" Grandpa said putting the paper down,  "You're too fidgety.  Calm down and I'll  tell you about the factory." "Oh Bud, you can go on all day, can’t you," Grandma interjected. "Well, Greg, you know we moved to this house when your mother was just a sweet auburn haired girl.  Long before she went blond.  And long before you were a sparkle in your father's beady eyes."  "Bud, please!" Grandma interrupted. "Just, tell him about the blinds." "OK. Now listen, when we moved here, there was not a single thing over any of the windows. The sun would come streaming through during the day. And at night the street lights, and the car head lights would shine through. Grandma did try to sew some curtains.  They were real pretty to hang in the window, but curtains can only do so much, especially in the summer. "We were still moving in and hadn't explored the place yet.  The house was dirty and I had just got my job at McDonald Douglass, and Grandma was busy taking care of your mother and her older sister and brother."   "You mean Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill?" "Thats right Greg. We had just opened up the shed. There wasn't much in there, no bikes or lawn mower,  just some burlap sacks covering something on the shelf.   24

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"What do you think we found?" "Spiders?" "Well, hell yes, spiders! But that’s not the important part.  What do you think we found? Think  a bit this time, Greg. "  "Venetian blinds, Grandpa" "Give this boy a treat, Mary, he's beginning to think a little.  Yes, venetian blinds. Enough for every window in the house, even the bathroom windows.  How many windows is that?" "Um lets see there's the downstairs living room, kitchen, bedroom,  well a that’s..." I said, counting slowly on my fingers. "It's 18," Angela said confidently. "18 windows in the whole house, upstairs and down stairs." She then continued cutting up carrots with a butter knife "See your little sister is sharper than you are, tubby." "Tubby! That's for sure," Angela repeated "Shut up! Monkey face." I said directed at Angela. "Now Greg don't go disturbing your sister when she is using a knife she might cut herself." Grandma said. "So we find 18 Venetian blinds," Grandpa continued, "and they're 25

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covered in a burlap sack. Just the right number to fit over all the windows in the house. And we also find a lot of spare louvers."   "Found a lot of spare what?" I said. "Louvers kid, you know what a louver is?" "What, Grandpa?" "The louver is part of a blind, and it ain't the cord." "The flat things that go up and down, Grandpa?" "Yes, another word for them is slats.  Now Greg, there is a lot of art in a louver.   And in the shed we found a bunch of louvers, made of all different kinds of materials.  And there was this manuscript.  Like a note book with all sorts of crazy designs. But at the time I didn't think much of it." "Bud, what are you going on about," Grandma interjects.  "After we moved in," Grandpa continued, "I met with some Italians who had been in the neighborhood for years. They told me about the crazy guy who used to live in our shed. He was from Italy just like the rest of the WOPs in this neighborhood.   "Greg can you guess what city he was from, remember we are talking about venetian blinds?" "Maybe, Rome, like the Pope." 

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"No not like the pope," Grandpa corrected, "this man was from Venice. He comes to St. Louis around the time of the Worlds Fair and starts his business.  This man always wore a big hat because he doesn't like the sun.  "Back in Italy this man in the big hat, spent all his time in fancy museums looking at pictures of fat naked ladies.   Because back in Italy, especially in those days, they had nothing but fat ladies.  Your grandma would have made a good fat lady, if she stayed in Italy." "Be quiet Bud," Grandma said. "Greg's never seen a naked lady, cause he's a big dork," Angela interjects. "Have too!" "Have not! Mom doesn't count." "That doesn't matter Greg," Grandpa said interrupting the name calling, "there is plenty of time for naked ladies.   "But this man from Venice, who wore a big hat,  had a problem. In St Louis, at that time, people did not like nudity, like they did in Europe.  They would wear, maybe, two or three layers of clothes. They would even put clothes on statutes, if it showed too much leg and other bits." "Really Grandpa?" "It's true.  They covered all the statues with flowing robes, until a good old naked Venus would look like the virgin Mary."

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"I think Mary is beautiful, like a princes," Angela said. "So this man from Venice who wore a big hat because he didn't like the sun, starts manufacturing Venetian blinds, right here in our shed.  But he also mixes in his other interest-- naked ladies." "Oh Bud what on earth are you going on about?" "It was your Uncle Bill that discovered this," Grandpa continued. "Grandma, here, doesn't  know about it.  "Of course I don't Bud."  "Tell us! Grandpa, tell us!" Angela and I shouted. "Your Uncle Bill uncovered a bunch of louvers.  And these louvers were sort of odd, in that they were white on one side but had some kind of colors on the other.   "Now one by one you couldn't tell that those louvers made up a picture. But your Uncle Bill was a patient boy who also has some interest in puzzles and naked ladies. "He found that if you make a Venetian blind with those louvers, when you fully close it, you get a picture of a naked lady, but when open it is hidden."  "Where is it Grandpa? I want to see it!" "We don't have that thing, anymore. And good thing too, because looking at a picture like that is not good for your eyes. "In fact, that's what happened to that man from Venice.  He spent 28

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so much time closing the binds and looking at naked ladies, that he lost his sight." "How about Uncle Bill?" "Well, luckily, I took it away from him before that could happen. It just goes to show you that there is more than one way to make a Venetian blind."

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Italian Cream Bread and the Virgin Mary

At the end of our block was a bakery,  Missouri Bakery.   It was one of two other, two story brick buildings on our block.   The two story bakery and our two story house seemed to form bookends for the one story houses shelved on the south side of the block. I always thought our house had some special affinity with Missouri Bakery because of the two story-ness and of course the red bricks.  But the most powerful motivation for regarding the bakery as special was not this architectural similarity, but the fact that they made food.  The speciality of the Bakery was the Italian bread.  They called it cream bread.  I don't think it had milk in it.  But that did not stop the Jewish in-laws from pausing before taking a bite being concerned of Kosher law of dairy and meat when eating an Italian sandwich.   This cream bread had a golden brown crust and seemed quite firm, but was in fact light and fluffy inside. Sometimes a slice would have large pockets of nothingness under the crust.  I would feel cheated when I could see my salami  peeking through.  When we bought this cream bread, we always bought it sliced. In its sliced form, it was almost as mailable as grocery store Wonder Bread. It lacked, however, the colors and fan fair of the Wonder Bread bag.   While Grandma was in the basement, doing the laundry, while, Grandpa was napping in his chair, and while Angela was laying on the brown carpeting watching TV, I would sneak into the kitchen.  The kitchen had a counter made of plywood and covered with cheap material that is supposed to look like marble. The same fake marble covered the kitchen floor. Grandma used to call it linoleum. (I would 30

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often confuse linoleum for oleo which was some kind of artificial butter. Grandma's house was like a reserve for endangered words.) Across the linoleum floor sat a large gas stove. It was the kind with four burners and a griddle under the hood, for special pancake days.  Next to the stove sat the earliest from of an automatic dish washer. It had a bread box sitting on top, stocked with Italian cream Bread and Wonder Bread. The dish washer was on wheels. When it was loaded with dirty dishes, Grandma would move its butt-end up to the sink. Then, like some pornographic kitchen gesture, Grandma would have to pull out its long hose, and with two hands attach it to the sink faucet.   Next to the dish washer was the real hearth of the house.  Traditionally, this was the stove. More modernly, it could be argued that the TV is the nexus of family interaction.  But to a ten year old fat kid, the fridge is really the hearth.  Grandma's fridge was that special color green shared by many appliances in the seventies.  I never entered or left the kitchen without opening the fridge and looking inside at the food, which was there for picking.  The fridge held blocks of Velveeta Cheese,  tubs of butter, and glass jars of jelly.  There were apples, peanut butter and lunch meat.  It held baloney and the richest of the childhood meats, braunschweiger.    My chubby hands and food gathering reflexes had been honed, to the point where I could deftly open the fridge,  scan for the best target,  snag some slice of ham or salami, scoop a finger full of peanut butter or mayonnaise, and shut the fridge, before being scolded.   Then kicking the fridge door shut with my right foot, I would hold the spoils in my right hand. With my left hand, I would open the bread box that sat on top of the promiscuous dishwasher, and pull out a slice of the most convenient bread, which was more often than not the Italian cream bread.  I would, then, fill the  slice with the contents of my right 31

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hand and  eat it, before anyone became wise to my actions. With precision raids of the fridge, conducted many times a day, I became quite serious about efficiency.  So I conducted 'bread tests'.    The bread box usually held a loaf of Wonder Bread, a loaf of Italian cream bread and some stale coffee cake for Grandpa's breakfast.  I would never touch his coffee cake. I wanted the white carbs. The pure stuff,  the kind you can feel turn to sugar on your tongue and gums.  I would take out one slice of Wonder Bread and one slice of Italian cream bread. I would feel them in my hands;  both had soft fluffy dough, giving to the touch.  For malleability and sculpting, Wonder Bread had the clear advantage.  I could take Wonder Bread and crumple it in my chubby little palm.   With the folds of my greasy palm I could, with one hard squeeze, make a small Wonder Bread statue of the Virgin Mary.  The head of the Madonna pushed up through my forefinger and thumb, while her body clothed in flowing white vestments was created in my tightened fist.  Of course,  while I did this, I would say a little prayer before dunking her in jelly.   This sort of devotional sculpture could not be done with the Italian cream bread. However, it  had other useful attributes.  While the crust of Wonder Bread is almost the same consistency as the bread itself, the crust of Italian cream bread is very different from its bread.  When the cream bread was sliced, the crust formed a shell that protected the soft bread inside.  The crust gave it form, like canvas stretchers supporting a painting. Italian cream bread could support mini masterpieces of snacking, created with finger fulls of food from a refrigerated pallet.

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The Virgin Mary I loved the virgin Mary.  A three foot statue of the Virgin Mary stood in our yard, on the far right side of the shed. This was the devotional place in our yard, which was in a very devout neighborhood.  Every back yard,  in this Italian neighborhood,  had a statue of the Virgin Mary.   The basic form was pretty much the same, a young woman dressed in flowing robes standing on a short pedestal cast in inexpensive cement.  However, back-yard, Virgin Marys were very different in the details.    Some back-yard, Virgin Marys had painted layers of vestments.  The outer layers were usually blue and inner layers a deep orange. Others had blue outer vestments with a golden sash and crown.   A few were more detailed with painted hair and face. Then there were the few truly devout neighbors who would electrify the Virgin and outfit her with spotlights and even a neon halo. These flashy differences are easy to see. To the initiated,  to the ones who pray daily, to those who carry a rosary, other more subtle differences were apparent.  Back-yard Virgin Mary's have three basic differences, head position, arm position, and snake or no snake.    Mary's head is either a tilted down to the right or to the left.  Her arms are either, folded in a prayer position on her chest, or, extended out in a welcoming pose, as if to give a big, low hug to the whole world.  The third difference is, whether or not, Mary is standing on a snake.  Usually, a back-yard Virgin Mary, that had folded arms, had no snake. Nor, could you see her bare feet. Her folded arms made this Mary seem a little up-tight. Grandpa used to say they reminded him of protestants.  33

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A Virgin Mary with extended arms, standing on a snake, had her little feet out, for all the world to see. The snakes mouth was usually open, sculpted as if it was his last dying breath. Yet Mary stands elegantly, as if she standing on a beach or freshly mowed grass.  She is not portrayed digging her heel in for the rib crunching coup de gras.   The virgin in our back yard was the cheapest one on the block.  She was an extended armed, Mary standing on a snake.  However she had several large disfiguring gashes on her backside and one foot was nearly missing. What's more, if you didn't know any better you might easily have mistaken the snake for a long lump of dog poop.  But her face was pretty and tilted slightly toward her left. We did not paint it.  We left it cement gray.  But we did extend her pedestal, by placing her on two discarded red bricks raising her a couple of inches higher than the neighbors Mary, whose vestments were painted blue and whose head was crowned.   My sister and I loved the Virgin Mary. We would say rosaries with our grandmother, sitting in the living room. We had glow in the dark rosaries, so we could finish one decat, ten hail Marys, as we went to sleep. We had prayer cards with rich colorful pictures of Mary and baby Jesus. We had small statues that we would use as toys, alongside Star Wars action figures or Barbie.  Mary was part of the family. And when we prayed we only prayed to Mary.  We never prayed to Jesus. We never really thought about him. I think it was because he was such an exhibitionist. Our church was one of the churches that had a very realistic Jesus on the cross. A skinny guy in a loin cloth leaves little to the imagination, beaten and bloody like some New York street twink, with a heroin habit. We could, just, not relate to Jesus' 34

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whole deal.   We could, however, relate to Mary. She's behind the scenes.  She has the ear of the big guy, God the father. Not like her ADHD son who can't open his mouth, without offending someone and causing all sorts of drama.  My favorite prayer was the Memoriae: Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.. . . Mary was the person to go to in a tight spot.  She won't let you down.  The prayer plays up Mary's accessibility and readiness to help. This suggests praying to others in the pantheon may not be as fruitful. The safe money is on Mary.  Inspired by this confidence, Yes, confidence, that's one thing you sure can't get from bipolar, narcissistic Christ.

I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother… The of flying was always my favorite part. And when forced to memorize and recite it in Catholic grade school, it was the line that almost no one forgot.  (Fruit of the womb was another favorite line from another Mary prayer. That would always get a giggle.)  …to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. 35

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I loved the repetition of the actions.  I always thought of my self as sinful, all the stolen snacks and bad thoughts. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. I would often say this prayer quietly to myself, after Grandma had put us down to sleep. We would stay in Grandma's spare room on nights my mother was out. "Now get to sleep you Little Ragamuffins," Grandma says as we hopped from one single bed to the other.  Grandpa was watching the 10 o'clock news with the volume turned so loud that we could easily listen through the french doors that separated the rooms.   "Grandma we aren't tired."  "I want to watch the news with grandpa," I said. But really I was totally bored by the broadcast, and looked forward to the commercials and secretly hoping to watch the programing after the news.  This was usually a rerun of MASH, a comedy about doctors in the Korean war.    "Let us! Please, please, we'll be good and go to bed right after," we said squirming on the beds. "Please, Grandma, just 10 minutes.  Maybe we could stay awake until Mom gets home." "Get you butts under the covers, or I will get the spatula."

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This was Grandma's ultimate threat.  The spatula was a Rubbermaid cooking tool about 10 inches long with a hard plastic handle and a thin rubbery blade.  It would sting quite a bit, when Grandma would smack it  against our rear-ends. "Let's say our prayers, now, and you can have some cookies for breakfast." Grandma was a natural strategist and knew that for a cookie, I would exert pressure on my sister. We would say that popular prayer that I am sure contributes to my chronic dread, paranoia and panic attacks.  'Now, I lay me down to sleep I pray the lord my soul to keep If I die before I wake I pray the lord my soul to take.'  There is nothing like children quietly secure in their beds with the self consciousness of their possible death.    Grandma left the room.  I could see blue light from Grandpa's television through the french doors. I could still hear the broadcast and would fade in an out while trying to follow words I barely understood, Cambodia, bombings and vietnamization. I would gain some consciousness during commercials for Tide or Lava.  But then slip closer to sleep with the sports news.  I could barely make out some small talk between my grandparents.  I was waiting, like most nights, so I might possibly hear my mother's car pull up outside the house. I hoped I might hear her keys jingle, and follow her footsteps up to the house. But not this night. I said one more prayer to the Virgin Mary, a Memoriae, requesting that she protect my mom, and somehow help my dad find his way home.

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St. Ambrose   My Catholic grade school was two blocks from Edwards on a street named for the famous Italian inventor, Marconi. St. Ambrose was a large stone church, with large wooden doors and an ornate, circular stained glass window.  It was by far the most awe inspiring building in the neighborhood. Attached to the church, there was a less ornate sacristy, where the priests and nuns lived. Behind the Church sat a building that housed the Catholic grade school. The classes were, for the most part, taught by Carmelite nuns.  They wore long, black habits and kept their hair covered.   There were a few lay teachers who were neighborhood house wives looking for a little extra income.   The classes were small and grades one through eight shared the small playground during recess.  My class was very small with only eight boys and twelve girls.  I was by far the fattest boy in my class. My dark blue schooluniform pants, in husky size, seemed to be made from different material than the thinner boys.  As if they had shortened the legs of a workman's pants and put them on me.   My pockets and zipper seemed abnormally long and pockets were vastly spacious.  The other boys pants fit slim on their tiny frames and their light blue button up shirts tucked in under black belts, completing the ensemble with clean cut style.  My shirts were either too loose or too tight and kept scooting out of the pants, which I held up with a brown belt that had self-made extension holes, ice-picked into the leather, to accommodate my expanding girth. My sister and I would walk to school. On the way we would meet up with tributaries of other grade school students, joining into a stream of 38

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uniformed children that would be entering the large glass doors of the school building.   We would break off into our classrooms, walking down the long corridors of the first and second floors.  The home room teachers would stand at the classroom doors and like shepherds guiding us into our proper places.  The nuns all wore long black habits.   What distinguished one from another was one's expression.  There were kind ones like Sister Fullamina. Her face and hands were as white as a porcelain doll, and naturally red pigment on her lips. Occasionally, when she was adjusting her habit, the children could catch a glimpse of her greasy brown hair, with gray strands sprinkled throughout the locks.  She would gently guide the first graders into their homeroom. Sister Fullamina's kind disposition made the transition into grade school life easy.  As a second grader I envied those lucky children, like my sister, who were still in her homeroom, being gently guided into class with loving welcoming gestures.   Second grade homeroom was taught by Sister Fullashitta her face showed the wear and tear of years.  Her lips twitched with disappointment as each of her homeroom children entered. Her arms were not open  and welcoming like a Virgin Mary or Sister Fullamina. Rather, her arms were more often than not crossed, or when very impatient snapping a long ruler in the palm of her hand or, using the ruler as a crook to forcefully guide her errant flock.  She often singled me out.  But it wasn't because I was the fat kid with a husbandless Mother, who died her hair; it wasn't that I stood for everything that was wrong with this earthly world; it wasn't  because I was a gluttonous pig stealing chubby fist-fulls of food from the fridge; it wasn't even that my father was Jewish and I had a Jewish name. She singled me out as support.  I was of average height but thick, 39

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not just fat.  I was fat, no doubt about it, but there was some structure there too. A massive frame holding up my girth and topped off with thick brown hair cut into a perfect bowl on my head. (The hairstyle was often referred to as helmet head. I used to imagine that this was not only for its appearance but for the fluffy protection that it lent me.) So Sister Fullashitta singled me out as her crutch when she really wanted to lay into one of the children.   For example there was Matt Norseman who was s skinny kid with a narrow face, a big smile and a sharp wit which he would not spare against the nuns.  When he would poke fun at one of them Sister Fullashitta would pull me out of line or get me up from my desk and walk me over to Matt's desk.  Then with the ruler in her right hand she would repeatedly snap it against Matt's knuckles, while, she stabilized her aging body on my fat frame with her left hand, her larger than normal nun hand mussing up my perfect helmet head. I would often catch Matt looking at me helplessly, judging me for aiding in his corporal punishment.  I would close my eyes or look away.  This was not my fight. I was merely doing what I was put on earth to do.  Support the Lord's work like some unwilling apostle who would later rise to importance.  And you would think that in my role as nun crutch I my be given some special favors. But Sister Fullashitta would unleash her full critical power against me despite my aid.  She always seemed to have a problem with my gait.  I was fat, my blue husky uniform pants would rub together.  If I was walking alone through the cinder block hallways of the grade school you could easily hear my pants swishing together.  Sister Fullashitta hated this. But she was really critical of the way I walked down stairs.  "Gregory why do you always lead with your right leg when you 40

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walk down the stairs.  You look like and empty headed ape smuggling bananas."  "Sorry, Sister Fullashitta" "Try it again."  She clears the rest of my classmates from the stairwell. So I can have a clear piste for my downhill run.  I could see that Matt Norseman was already making some stupid remarks about Sister Fullashitta's comments.  And why did she have to say empty headed ape.   I knew I would have to endure several days of teasing for that one. "Try it again.  Your just like some lazy Roman soldier, the kind that killed Christ." So I walked, fighting all of my instincts to shuffle down the stairs as I always would.  In order to walk one foot in front of the other, requires one to twist his hips from side to side which, to me, felt almost sexy or flirty.  And to make this movement while wading through the gaggle of my little girl classmates put me off.   It was much easier to shuffle,  it's fun and care free.  Perhaps, shuffling is  not graceful, but you won't catch your big thighs together and fall flat on your big fat butt.  So of the two Nuns you first meet at St. Ambrose school Sister Fullamina and Sister Fullashitta, Sister Fullashitta was hands down the worst.   We would often talk about them on the playground.  The playground was sweet relief from the confines of the classroom and the dangers of social etiquette and advanced bipedalism.   The playground was an asphalt square with four-square boxes painted in yellow.  The twang of red rubber balls and screaming children's voices were everywhere.  We were young prisoners ragging on the 41

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guards. "Isn't it funny that Sister Fullamina is named Fullamina,"  I said. "What is that ape boy, Does Sister Fullamina have a banana for you?" "Cut it out Matt,"  I said and gave him a punch on the arm (Reminding him I have the clear weight advantage.)  "You know Sister Fullamina is really nice,  but her name is 'full of mean a'." "Yeah I guess that's kind of weird," Matt said almost keeping his eye on the girls four-square game. "I wish there was something we could call Sister Fullashitta," I questioned aloud. "Her breath stinks like poop. And my knuckles still hurt from last week," Matt replied. "What's worse when I got home my mother saw the marks on my hand and then she gave me another wallop for acting up at school.  So I get hit again just 'cause my knuckles are bruised." "You should wear gloves," I suggested. "Well, helmet head, you should just roll over for once," Matt said angrily, "you just stand there like a dog's dork while she hits us." Later at home I told Grandpa about the nun making me walk down the stairs.   He wasn't a church goer like Grandma and I could usually get 42

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sympathy from him if it was an ecclesiastical offense.  I told him that I thought it was funny that Sister Fullamina was in fact nice and Sister Fullashitta was the mean one.  "So Grandpa, I wish I could call her, some kind of mean name." "Who are you talking about," Grandpa said sarcastically, "Sister Full a shit duh." He paused and  patted me on my helmet head.  "Son, I look forward to when you are a little bit smarter so you can see how stupid you really are."   The Scapula Sister Fullashitta would start the day with homeroom. This was the time when all the administrative details were taken care of. We had role calls to smoke-out the absentees and the tardies.  There were other issues, such as signed homework and notes.  After that there was always the issue of extra clothes for "accidents" and other miscellaneous business. One girl, Marybeth, had an accident almost weekly, that required an emergency change of clothes.  We would be standing, saying the pledge of allegiance, or sitting drilling the times tables and the class would erupt in laughter at the sound of runny water interlaced with desperate sobbing.   Now, second grade you think you have it all together,  but these things happen to the best of us. I still always wonder why Marybeth never just ran out of the room before it started or why after so many times she still cried.  There were even a few times late in the year that the event was so predictable and expected that no one in whole class laughed when she started to tinkle during the recitation of the Our Father.   She just simply 43

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walked to the back of the class picked up her bag containing her emergency uniform and left the homeroom for the nurses office, while the rest of the class sat down and opened their grammar books. One thing we never laughed at was puke.  A kid puking was an awful, frightening affair.  If one student ralphs in class and least two others will retch and possibly blow chunks as well.  There is no humor about it. It is a serious matter involving a trip to the nurse's office not for a quick change but a glass of 7-up and phone call to parents. It most likely means a trip home.  Kid puke is like an oil spill. It is treated as an accident involving hazardous waste. With pee, the janitor simply mops up. But with puke he cordons off the area and lays sawdust over the spill. The treated sawdust barely covering the odor of fruit loop breakfast, fear, and bile.  So after homeroom, if there were no accidents, Sister would usually start with some English.    Then every hour we would switch books, ending a lesson on one subject and starting another.  The day was pure monotony.   Everyday, lunch and recess spared us from these tedious classes for an hour. Twice a week we would have art or music that let us do something other than quiet study.  I rarely followed the classes I would sit there and daydream.  Serving my time in solitary contemplation or staring out the window at the trees.  Occasionally we would have a guest speaker. It was usually a priest or deacon to tell us some facts about the Catholic faith. "Children, children, please, pay attention, we have a guest today.  He is a new a visiting priest Father Geoff Brannigan.  He is a visiting priest from Ireland and he is staying at St. Patrick's in Dog Town.  Have any of 44

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you gone to mass there?" A few children raise there hands.  Sally proudly says her cousins go to school there so she often goes to mass at St. Patrick's.   I had never set foot inside another church. My grandmother always feared going to the wrong denomination so we never went into other parishes. My Grandma often spoke of the horror of one time, in her youth,  sitting  halfway through a Protestant service. "Father Geoff is going to talk to you about redemption, heaven and Mother Mary." Sister Fullashitta stated. "So can any of you tell me on what day, your man, Jesus was born?" Father Geoff asked. The class was unusually quiet.   Guests tended to scare the smarter kids like Marybeth and Matt, I guess they were busy thinking.   Sally who spoke up about her cousins in Dog Town was certainly one of the dumbest students in the class but totally unafraid of speaking to anyone.   I was sensing that  this could be my chance to shine. So I begin to calculate. Well, I know that Jesus was born a long time ago.  And today is Tuesday. So I begin counting back one thousand nine hundred and seventy-six years.  I was getting lost in calculation and Marco the second stupidest kid in class was raising his hand.  So I blurted out: "Saturday, Father, Jesus was born on a Saturday. And Mary took him to mass the next day." Marco, noticeably upset at my circumvention of standard procedure of waiting to be called upon, blurted out his guess, "Sunday, 45

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Father, it was Sunday. And Mary was at Church." "No, children that's not quite right," Father Geoff said a little shaken by our answers. Now the rest of the dullard students in class offer up their hypothesis, "Wednesday. . . "Monday. . .." The smart kids stayed completely out of this theological train wreck. "No, Dear children, you have gone off the mark," Father Geoff said sympathetically. "The answer is Christmas, Jesus was born on Christmas." Father Geoff now leaned back on Sister Fullashitta's desk almost exasperated.  Sister Fullashitta sat behind him looking terribly disappointed at her class.  Father Geoff was dressed in standard priest black, with a black suit coat over his black shirt.  He had a full head of greasy white hair and pale wrinkly skin. His black suit coat was ill fitting and his large white hands waved about as he talked. "I am here to talk to you about Mother Mary.  And a gift that she gave to all of us.  A gift that can make sure we get into heaven.  And this gift will make sure you don't have to spend too much time in purgatory, or fall all the way down to the fires below."  "You mean h. e. double tooth picks," stupid Sally said. 46

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"Yes, dear child."   Father Geoff continued, "There was this Priest a long time ago named Simon, Simon Stock.  He lived way back in twelve hundred and fifty-one.  And the Mother Mary appeared to him. In her hand she was holding two pieces of brown cloth with two long strings connecting them.   She told Simon to take these pieces of cloth and string and wear it around his neck.  With one piece of cloth over his front and the other piece over his back.  She told him that he who wears this cloth will surly escape the fires of Hell."  We students were transfixed by the story and shocked at father Geoff uttering loudly the word Hell. "Now you children know that as you are dying, even if you have committed the worst sin, even if you have murdered, you can ask God to forgive you. And he will surely forgive you. But for your sins you may have to do some time in purgatory. " "So all I have to do is say  I'm sorry before I die and I get into heaven?" stupid Sally asked.  "Yes, the Almighty is forgiving of our sins." "So we just have to say we are sorry?" dull Marko asked.  "How about a murder?" another student asked. "Why yes, that is up to God."

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"What if you stole a million dollars and you killed someone," another young theologian asked. "Yes, the Lord is forgiving.  But if you have committed so many sins that your soul  has turned black you may have to spend some time in purgatory as punishment for your sins.  But God will not send any soul to Hell that is truly repentant.  Do you know about purgatory children?" "That's the place unpasteurized babies go to," Sally said. "I think you mean unbaptized, sweet child.  But no, unbaptized babies go to limbo." "Yes, father, I know" Mickey d'Angelino said. "My grandma tells me to say some prayers for my father who was in a poker game that went wrong. Grandma says he lived like a bad man but he was a good boy at heart.  She tells me to say some extra prayers so god will let him out of purgatory early." "Why, yes, that's right," Father Geoff  said, stunned that a single theological question was answered correctly. Sister Fullashitta was showing something close to pride for her students. "That’s right children, God may see fit to let you wait before you get into heaven.  After you die he will make you work off your sins. But you have to be truly sorry." "Does it hurt there, like the other place. You know. The H word?" Maggie asks.  

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"Now children you can say Hell as long as you are not cussing.  But ..." Suddenly Mickey interrupted, "Shut up, stupid Maggie, of course it doesn't hurt in purgatory. Mickey was noticeably bothered by the idea that his father could be suffering in purgatory. "You're such a pig face Maggie." "Now children please be calm," Father Geoff tried to quiet the small row that has developed in the class. "Mickey," Maggie replied, "I don't know why you're so upset, your Dad is in the penitentiary not purgatory.  My mom told me so.  My mom says you are all a bunch of low life crooks. And he ain't never getting out." "Shut up pig face."  Mickey lunged across the desk and just managed to grab little Maggie's pigtails. Sister Fullashitta erupted,  rushed past Father Geoff, who was noticeably flustered by the ruckus, he was obviously unaccustomed to dealing with young children in close quarters.  The priests' position, high on the alter and in the sacristy, keeps them isolated from the young, rebellious flock.  Whipping past my desk and grabbing me by the collar, Sister Fullashitta drags me to Mickey's desk and delivers him 5 sharp smacks with the ruler as she again balances her weight on my head,  and sends 49

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him out of the room.  "Mickey d'Angelino," Sister Fullashitta yelled, "you're sure to follow that Father of yours. Out into the hall.  "Sorry, Father, Please continue." Father Geoff regained his composure and returned to the major themes. "Forgiveness dear children, forgiveness is what the Lord gives us.  If we are truly repentant. That means you must say you are sorry and you must work off, by prayer, all the sins you have committed." The class began to calm and follow Father Geoff again.  Mickey was peeking through the small window of the classroom door. "Think of this example children.  Imagine you have just thought bad thoughts about your parents,  then, you walked down to the corner market and stole a piece of candy. Next, as you are tired from abusing yourself all night long, you walk straight in front of a bus and it hits you. In a blink of an eye you are dead.  God has taken you. Were you ready? Were you free of sin?" "err Father," Sister Fullashitta interjected loudly, "these students are a bit young for self abuse." "Oh, yes, sorry Sister. "You get the point, children, you do bad things and suddenly you are dead. You don't have time to ask god for forgiveness. And your soul heavy with black sin falls deep down into everlasting fire." The children who were listening were upset, some sobbing other 50

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shouting.   "Quiet children, please calm yourselves.  This is what I am here to talk to you about. This is why Mary's gift to Simon is so important." Father held the brown scapula in his hands and showed the class.  He held the scapula with such reverence and awe as if the pieces of felt and string held tangible power. We children were transfixed by this celestial loop hole, this holy insurance policy on a string. "Now look closely children, it says on one face of the scapular, that whomever wears this shall never suffer  eternal fire. "So even if your soul is weighed down by un-confessed sins, you will not go to hell. What's more every day you wear this, takes some time off purgatory." Father Geoff then turned around to his briefcase on Sister Fullashitta's desk. As he does the class erupts into chatter about sins and death by accident. Whether it is possible to ask God for forgiveness before you die.  I was watching Father Geoff closely, and not joining in a conversation with the boys about whether it is possible to ask for forgiveness before a lawn mower cuts off your head.   "But what if it gets your lips and mouth first?" Ben said. "Then you can't say your sorry, before you're killed."   "You don’t need to say it out of your mouth, you just need to say it inside your head," Matt corrected him. Father Geoff took out a plastic bag full of scapulars handed them to 51

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Sister Fullashitta.  They were passed along to each of us.  I put it on, right there in class. I was instantly warmed by the power.  I felt easy as if a great burden had be lifted off of me.  To be honest, before that day I had never worried about the worst case scenario of death for a Catholic.  That is death without repentance.  But the notion of eternity in hell or even a thousand years in purgatory caused by the simple omission of an 'I'm sorry', was a powerful thought, easily obsessed over.   From that day forward I obsessed.  Even wearing the Scapula while crossing the street I would repeat, I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry,  just in case a car when hitting me would rip the scapular off my neck.  One cannot be too careful. Constant repentance was logically, the safe bet.

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Family History

Kreisman is an odd name for a Catholic boy in an Italian neighborhood.  It is an odd name for a Catholic. The name is Jewish.  Although, it sounds German, old folks and Europeans can readily identify its Jewishness by the single 'n' in 'man'.  As my father was absent, my father's parents Lou and Ester were my only connection to my Jewish heritage growing up.   Grandpa Lou, my father's father, was a short, tubby man with a long bulbous nose and thick white hair.  His ears seemed enormous to me.  He had short, fat fingers that he would use to grab food from other peoples plates. His thick hands seemed to always be greasy.  He was loud and transparently self-centered.  This was evident even to children.   His favorite joke consisted of questioning how others feel and when they answer he responds by telling them how he feels: You're hungry, how can you be hungry? I just ate. You're cold, how can you be cold? I have this wonderful coat.  Grandma Ester, my father's mother, was exactly opposite.  She was thin, quiet and shook like a small animal. She had a large hooked nose.  Thin, curly, black hair framed her thin face. They had moved to the suburbs of St. Louis from the Jewish neighborhood in the city, as the blacks started to buy houses there in the sixties.  Grandpa Lou complained that liberal Jews are to blame for selling their houses for a social ideal with no thought of property value.  On the occasions all four of my grandparents were together, religious differences were easily bridged through racism. "Bud," Grandpa Lou said, "these Italians really know how to take 53

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care of the neighborhood." "The mafia, that's what does it," Grandpa Bud replied, "and the church.  They make sure that no houses in this neighborhood are sold to the wrong people." "I hear you don't even have black mail men," Grandpa Lou questioned. "Well, only very rarely," Grandpa Bud replied. "We don't seem to have them twice.  They see to that down at city hall." Talking about black people in St. Louis always stirred-up Grandma Mary.  She seemed to be such a sweet old lady. And for the most part she was sweet, although from time to time, she was embarrassingly racist.  "They're taking all of our jobs," she would gripe, implying that black people were taking the unskilled city jobs away from the Italian immigrants. Grandma Ester would, for her part, try and gripe along, but her racism lacked a certain enthusiasm. And as an educated Jew she rarely competed for those type of jobs.  These racist sessions would often end with talk about munitions.  In the late sixties many families living in the city started buying guns.  The guns were for protection.  The white city dwellers imagined impending race riots.  The civil unrest and upheaval of the sixties were interpreted by these middle-aged immigrants as nearing apocalypse of their way of life.  Lives that they had just carved out for themselves. So they looked to the only protection they could trust, guns and ammo.   In our little house, we had two shotguns, a hand gun, and cache of 54

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bullets. They were kept in the basement with my grandpa's tools. They were never taken out.  The guns were like the scapular I was wearing. The guns were last resort comfort from obsessive thoughts that your neighbors might one day come to kill you.   Grandpa Lou loved to talk about money and held himself as if he were wealthy.  He always had a new Cadillac. He never bought. He leased, and traded up every year.  He said cars kill you on resell.  You're screwed once you drive it off the lot. Although he lived in the suburbs, he worked in the city, at a furniture and dry goods store called Fair Mercantile. It was a large building built at the turn of the twentieth century.  It was made of the same red brick as the Edwards house. It was located just off the railroad tracks. It had a large warehouse and huge platform elevators that Grandpa Lou would take me on when I visited him.  My Grandma Mary often complained that Fair Mercantile was anything but fair as the prices were too high.  Grandpa Lou's wholesale prices were still more than Sears or other newer department stores.   Even back in my childhood Fair Mercantile was a dinosaur, and Grandpa Lou was too.  His sales skills had been honed for a different world. A more elegant world, were people wore hats, and women wore skirts and heels, where people would get dress up to go out dancing.  Back in the day, even the poor immigrants and the blacks had their standards of right behavior.  Grandpa saw the lifestyle and the lax morals of the seventies as a deal breaker for most sales. "Look at these bums!" Grandpa Lou would say, "driving these beat up muscle cars, wearing dungarees to work, and t-shirts with pictures on them with no over-shirt or sports coat.  It looks like they are in their damn, pajamas.  How can you sell elegant furniture to bums.  Dead beats like 55

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these probably sit on the floor."  Grandma Ester would chime in, "yesterday, honest to god, I saw a thirty year old woman with no bra and no jacket in shorts, walking down the street with her kids. I had to turn my head." There was larger reason that this modern day lack of morals was so present to mind with my grandparents. Their children were getting a divorce.    The marriage had started out as some sort of an abomination for the two grandmothers.  Grandma Mary, my mother's mother, was devout Catholic and Grandma Ester was a devout Jew.  Each saw the marriage as a threat to their way of life.  My grandfathers could not have cared less about that.  Grandpa Bud, my mother's father, was not at all opposed to the marriage as it seemed my mother was marrying up; a Jewish doctor as a son in law is something to brag about.  A doctor is a very practical job too.  Doctors work with their hands and go to work every day.  Doctors have more in common with plumbers and mechanics than they do with white-collar rich folks. Grandpa Lou, my father's father, was not marrying up in a financial way, but my mother was a beautiful young woman.  And Grandpa Lou certainly saw that his son was doing much better than anyone had expected, as he was the skinny runt of the Kreisman family.    Grandpa Lou was short, but he was stocky, and had powerful arms for a Jewish man of his time. He almost never took exercise, only lifting the occasional ottoman on the job.  Grandpa Lou's eldest son Stewart was the golden boy of the Kreisman clan.  He was 6 feet 2, with full wavy hair, broad shoulders and 56

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a strong chin. His nose was big, but it was straight, aquiline. He was such a good looking Jew my mother would comment that he could be mistaken for an Italian. Stewart boxed too. He did quite well in the amateur leagues in St. Louis but got out early to start his own successful business.  A picture of Stewart shirtless in his boxing shorts and gloves was proudly displayed in my grandparent's living room. Kent, my father, was barely 6 feet even when standing perfectly straight, which he seldom did. His rounded shoulders gave him a gestural shape of a wilting lower case 't'.  He had a big hooked nose.  He was barely athletic, occasionally running around the track, a skinny figure in shorts. My mother would tell him, "don't worry, I didn't marry you for you looks." To fully trace the positive and negative qualities I inherited from my mother's and father's sides, I need to elaborate a bit more fully.  Was I a chubby little boy in ill-fitting clothes snacking my way to obesity, as a result of genetics? Where did the obsessive thoughts come from? Does 'crazy' run in my family?   My mother's family has a history of insanity.  Although, a complete story of the insanity, on my mother's side is obscured by the fact that, when they arrived in America, they had broken off relations with the rest of the family in Italy.   This leaves my great grandmother as the earliest record of mental instability in my family.  Great Grandma Maria was by personal accounts a very scary woman.  She arrived in America in her thirties, already the mother of five children, of which my grandmother Mary was the youngest.  Great Grandma Maria, always wore traditional black dress and kept her head covered with a scarf.  Her wardrobe was something very close to a nun's habit.  When the family arrived in St. Louis from Italy, they lived in 57

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tenement housing near the river. That part of St. Louis was completely torn down in the sixties during the last great stage of urban revitalization.  The famous Gateway Arch and park now occupy this place.  At the time, it was a very crowded and dirty part of the city.  Rail and river traffic had not yet been replaced by interstate trucking. It was a vital place, where immigrants who were willing to do any sort of labor could easily find some work.  My great grandfather did pretty well for himself on two fronts.  He had aligned himself with the local Italian strongmen and became something of an immigrant organizer.  If you were looking for work you could come to him.  He knew the people on the job sites.  He would provide the candidates, and get a small commission for each position.  You would also go to my great grandfather, if you wanted a place to live.  He would put you up in a tenement and collect the rent, taking a small piece for himself and giving the rest to the landlord.   In five years he had accumulated enough money to purchase a small tenement and several horse drawn carriages.  He expanded into the ice business.  He would use the carriages to deliver ice, to his clients which he had already put into tenements and jobs. This way he took a few more dollars from everyone he dealt with. He was a savvy businessman by all accounts. He knew the right people in the neighborhood.  Was he in the Mafia? Well, certainly it was not like the movies. The mafia at that time was an engine of commerce.  They were the banks for people who could not go to banks to get a loan. They would connect the savers, who had some cash, with the immigrants, who needed to borrow to set up their family in the new world.  The Mafia made transactions possible. Did the Mafia also deal in prostitution and other things beyond the law?  Without a doubt. But it was a different time, a lawlessness without pretension of rule of law. They were giving people what they wanted.   58

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The financial system of today is much the same in function.  Loans are given to people who cannot afford them to buy things totally overvalued.  But now there is the pretense of rule of law. Just phony ideals and swiss cheesed regulations that inauthentically assure people and superficially distinguish today's lenders from the loan sharks of the past. So obviously, on my mother's side there is some business acumen and intelligence. This more recently had manifested itself in my mother's brother, Uncle Bill, who started his own successful family business. He has two lovely children who are married and given him grandchildren.  You can trace the line of sanity and good decision making from my great grandfather.  However, this did seem to bypass my mother.   Great Grandmother was a different story.  While Great Grandfather was busy making a life and money for the family, Great Grandmother had lost it.  She was institutionalized when my grandmother was just five years old.  Some speculated it was because of the new environment.  A fast paced American city at the turn of the century was a totally different psychic landscape from a quiet Italian village.  There must have been issues with the language and the burden of children.  My mother loved to tell a joke, that she thought shed some light on my great grandmother's problems and issues with not being able to speak English.  Two Italian immigrants are having lunch.  Tony, an immigrant who speaks English pretty well, asks his workmate Luigi why he always eats baked beans for lunch. "You could have a nice sandwich like this it's called tuna fish," Tony says.  "But all I know how to say, is 'baked beans.'" 59

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Luigi replies, "Well it's really simple, 'tuna fish sandwich.'  Say it after me, 'tuna fish sandwich.'" The next day Luigi goes into the restaurant, the waitress says, "What'll it be."  Luigi says carefully, "Tuna fish sandwich." "Sure honey," the waitress replies, "do you want that on white or wheat toast." Luigi startled by the follow up question says, "Baked beans."   So living overseas can be stressful. But it isn't sufficient condition for clinical insanity and seldom requires institutionalization. Yet, Great Grandma was put away.  My grandma was still too young to live on her own and was put in an orphanage.  Her brothers and sisters were able to start work already.   The boys worked on the docks and did odd jobs.  And her sisters started to work at the Tumms pill factory.  They would put pills into bottles, and stick cotton in the narrow openings with their thin fingers.  Although my grandma's five year old fingers were certainly thin, she was just too young to go to work with the rest of her family. So she was sent away to an orphanage next to the Catholic cathedral, south of the tenement where her family lived.     My grandma Mary lived in the orphanage from the time she was five, until she could work and live on her own at age 15.  The orphanage was strict. It was run by nuns.  They had the best intentions when doling out harsh punishments. The nuns were trying to instill in the young children, a strong moral fiber to resist the temptation to do something immoral to escape their crushing poverty and loneliness.   The nuns ran the orphanage like a work camp. The children did all the chores, but had four hours of study each day.  They taught the children to cook and clean and do the laundry.  But the most important thing they 60

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learned is how to patiently get through a day of drudgery, boredom, and pain without fidgeting or complaining. Meanwhile, Grandma's Mother Maria was locked away in a mental asylum, on the southwest side of St. Louis.  The asylum was called City Hospital.  It was a large gated campus in what, was then the remote suburbs of St. Louis.  Behind the gate was a complex of nineteenth century four story buildings. They were the largest and most ornate structures in that area.   There were rooms and wards for all kinds of mental illness, retardation, and physical handicaps. There was even a room for the horribly disfigured.  In these wards, they locked up all the people who could just not function at the unforgiving pace of normal life.  Others they locked away because the sight of them was just too much for normal people to take, such as the disfigured.  The burn victims and deformed, who were not distracted by depression, voices, or delusions, were more equipped to deal with the disappointments and difficulties of every day life. Every day life just could not handle them. For the most part these deformed inmates became the care takers for the others with retardation and mental illness.   City hospital was a very scary place. The thought of Great Grandmother Maria in black garb lurking in the long dark halls of ward, her face crushed by disappointment was a thought that plagued my grandmother.  Great Grandmother Maria was sedated most of the time. She lay on a small cot in a windowless room, that was cleaned by a horribly deformed woman that was otherwise perfectly normal.    Back at the orphanage Grandma Mary slept on the top bunk of a bunk bed in a large room that held 15 bunk beds.   The room reeked of thirty, dirty children.  Grandma lived day in and day out without affection.   No mother or family to hold or touch her.  Starved for loving 61

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affection, she soon adapted and became prickly to any touch.  The nuns discouraged touching, as it could very easily lead to sin.   At age 15 grandma got a job at the same pill factory her sisters worked at.  She had all the rambunctiousness worn out of her and she would gladly sit for hours on the tall factory stool stuffing cotton into the narrow tops of pill bottles.  When she was 16 she met Grandpa Bud.  Grandpa Bud was not Italian.  He was a mutt of poor early American immigrants.   His last name was Wacker, which was German.  He had come to the city of St. Louis from the surrounding undeveloped countryside to find work and new way of life.    He came from poverty he was orphaned when he was 5 years old. He was not sent to an orphanage. He went to the circus to work for his aunt, a trapeze artist.    His parents had died in a house fire.  Well, really a shack fire.  Their ramshackle shack, in the outskirts of Missouri, was normally heated by wood, which they cut in the summer and dried for easy burning in the winter.  But one year my grandfather's parents had come into some money, after having a better than expected crop of peanuts, and tending to the animals of a rich farmer next door. With this extra money they had purchased some coal to heat the stove.  People were raving about coal heat.  They raved about how little you had to stoke it.  With wood you would have to constantly monitor and throw on another log.  But coal was so compact and burned so slowly and evenly that one shovel-full would last all night long.  The potbellied stove sat in the main room of their shack. My grandfather, his parents, and his brothers and sisters, would sleep around it in widening circles based on their rank in the family.  My grandfather the youngest was, therefore the farthest away from the fire. Grandpa had great sense of black humor about the fire. He had told 62

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us the story of the night he became an orphan, many times. "It had been a good year and it was late December. All the work had stopped as the ground is frozen too hard to work. There was snow on the ground.   My mom had pickled up a bunch of greens and other things to eat.  One week before the old mare, Bonnie, had died so we'd been eaten horse meat stew all week." "You ate Bonnie, a horse!" I cried, "Grandpa, how could you do it?" "It wasn't easy," Grandpa continued. "Bonnie was really nice. She would carry me back and forth to school.  I was really sad when she died, but when your hungry you got to eat.  And my mom was a great cook she made horse meat and pickled greens taste good.  Not like your Grandma Mary, here, she'll turn a T bone into shoe leather."  "Still, horse meat, Grandpa?" "Well, to tell the truth, the only one who seemed really upset by Bonnie dying was Ben Brown, the donkey." "Ben Brown? Grandpa, what kinda name is that?" "Ben Brown was a stubborn old donkey.  He didn't seem to like any one in the world, except me and his horse friend Bonnie. "Bonnie and Ben Brown shared a stall at the side of our house. Ben Brown used to do work around the farm and would still pull the plow now and again but he almost never went into town except when there was a lot of provisions to buy.  And every time I left for school on Bonnie's back I would catch him giving a glance like he missed me."

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"Oh, Ben Brown sounds, cute!" I said. "Well, they took old, Ben Brown into town that last time. They loaded him up with a cart to carry a bunch of coal back to the house.  The same coal that we used to cook up Bonnie the horse.  "I remember sitting round the table eating a bowl full of horse stew in the warmth of a coal heated room.  You could hear the wind outside and I felt kind of sorry for Bonnie while chewing." "Oh, Grandpa, no!" "I felt  kind of sorry for Ben Brown the donkey too. He had lost his friend Bonnie, the same Bonnie who the whole family was chewing on.  I remember  looking out the window seeing Ben Brown's  dark sad face and long ears twitching in the cold.  I felt even worse with the next bite of Bonnie the horse.  "We were all sitting around the table my dad was spooning out another helping of horse all around. When we heard a couple loud knocks on the wall.  My mother thought there was someone at the door.  But the knocks came louder and from the other side of the house." "Who was it, Grandpa?" "Why, Ben Brown of course. He had turned his rear-end to the window now and started kicking with his hind legs against the wall of the house.  He kicked so hard he knocked a whole clear through the wall and broke the window too." "What did he do next?"

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"He just stuck his head in the window and one hoof through the whole in the wall. He started pawing in our direction like a dog begging for some attention." "Did he want some food Grandpa? Did he want a piece of Bonnie too." "Heck no! He wanted me. He was lonely.  So I went over and started petting him. After dinner we tried patching up the hole in the wall with a thick blanket, but it was powerfully cold and the wind was blowing at the blanket. When it did we could catch a glimpse of poor old Ben Brown kicking at the dirt like the saddest donkey in the whole world. "But it was late and hole or no hole we had to get some sleep.  In winter all of us used to sleep around the stove." "You didn't have your own room, Grandpa?" "We didn't have shit. And I mean that literally, we didn't have a toilet.  We had to go to the out-house. And in the winter we had to sleep where it was warm. So we are all sleeping around the stove. That night the stove was powerfully hot as Mom was burning coal all day long while cooking Bonnie.  But that wind kept a blowing and just before he blew out the lamp my Dad put on another chunk of coal." "Were you warm then, Grandpa?" "Yes. I remember  it was so hot I was almost sweating just before going to sleep.  And I was sleeping the farthest from the stove, 'cause I was the youngest.  The stove was red hot and we were all full of horse meat. We could not keep our eyes open, and we fell asleep. But next 65

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thing I see is a wall of yellow fire and all of sudden I was outside in the snow watching the house burn down."  "What happened, Grandpa?" "Well, I am not sure of all the details but that red hot stove must of  let loose an ember and hit my Dad's moonshine. That must have made the house burst into flame." "But how did you get outside?" "Ben Brown had dragged me by the pajamas. He was standing next to me watching the house go up in flames, snorting and jumping like he had gone mad." "Ben Brown saved you Grandpa?  You were saved by a donkey?" "From that day on it was just that donkey and me." "What happened to your parents?" "Well, they died.  My Dad was dead, charred worse than Bonnie.  My mom went to the hospital, but died soon after she got there." "Oh Grandpa!" "No, Greg. It's OK. That was a long time ago. And Ben Brown and I went to live with my aunt in the circus. But that's a story for another time."

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Grandpa and Grandma meet My Grandparents met in the city of St. Louis, in the late nineteen twenties.  They were both orphans of a sort. My grandpa was a true orphan. Grandma just lived like one.  We are not quite sure when it happened, but my Great Grandfathers' businesses went bust during the volatile economic crises of the depression. Luckily pills were still in high demand. And my grandma's thin fingers were stuffing pill jars seventy hours a week.  Pill jars were flying off the shelf to calm the nerves, cure the headaches, and upset stomachs of the people who had lost their jobs and livelihoods.  The only other industry doing well was booze. In Nineteen Nineteen the Federal government had passed a law the Volstead Act,which prohibited the sale of alcohol. This was popularly known as prohibition.  But the government did little to enforce the law. The production and distribution of liquor just moved to the black market. A market in which my grandma's brothers already had many connections. Prohibition was really more of a deregulation of the liquor industry, allowing anybody with a bathtub and a hot plate to get into the booming booze business.  So the eldest of my grandma's brothers began bootlegging from their tenement house downtown.  Grandma's father didn't have a taste for alcohol. He hated the loose morals and fast life of his bootlegging sons.  Great Grandpa preferred building things that matter. My grandfather Bud had left the circus where he had gained a lot of people skills, as well as freak skills.  He could climb just about anything, even with his bowed legs. He could eat just about anything you set before him.   A skill he would later say came in handy with Grandma's cooking.   He was a good runner and a stand up guy.  So Grandma's brothers hired 67

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him to do some odd jobs. He would run cash where it was needed.  He would pick up ingredients for the home brew. Or even work the speakeasy door, in the basement of the tenement where grandma's brothers cooked up the booze.   Grandma's family would get together often, after she was out of the orphanage.  Grandma had learned to read and write. The nuns had seen to that.  She had only an eighth grade education but was by far the best educated of her whole family.  So the family often turned to her for paper work matters. Grandma would even read some stories to her sisters when they were not at the pill factory. Grandma's dexterous fingers turning the page of some popular romance novel.  Reading to her sisters in a studious, reverent, voice given to her by the nuns. She was close with her sisters and never resented for a moment her life in the orphanage.  Occasionally the girls would go visit their mother still institutionalized in the west of St. Louis.  They would take the trolley car that ran from down town city center, past Forest Park and walk to the quiet grounds of the asylum.  Great Grandma Maria would be there swinging through emotions from ecstasy to spite when greeting her children and then comfortably settle down in depression as the visit wore on. They would speak to her in Italian and relate what little gossip they could to her.  They never mentioned her husband. He had gone missing about a year after the stock crash and the loss of his business.  My grandma's family and neighborhood folks were sure he was dead.  There was even one story that implicated his sons.  Not that his sons out right murdered him.  Patricide is far too classical crime for my family.  There was some talk that Great Grandpa's backers at the building site hurt by the economic climate tried to put the squeeze on Great Grandpa's sons for some of their booze money.   The tight fisted brothers refused. Some people said that Great Grandpa's body drifted north up the Mississippi river all the way to the Great Lakes. 68

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My grandmother and grandfather met at the speakeasy in the basement her brothers' tenement on one of the few nights she went out.  They hit it off right away. Grandpa related the story often. "Now I met your grandma, when I was working with her brothers.  They were tough guys.  But real handsome boys, and they had some money so you could never meet a girl while you were around them. "This one night there was this beautiful girl I just couldn't resist.  I thought to myself this beauty, I've got to make her mine.  "She had dark curly hair and a sweet face.  She was always looking down and glancing up real quickly.  Like she was shy or something.  But if you ask me she was just being coy.  So I am watching her flashing her pretty brown eyes, and long black eyelashes, brushing her long black hair. "I got up to go over to talk her I was as nervous as anything."  "Did you ask her out?" "Well, I got kinda scared and lost my nerve halfway to asking.  Which was strange because in the circus I had no problem talking to anyone, fat lady, bearded women, and contortionists.  But something about that angelic face of your grandma's got me second guessing myself." "Did she ask you out, Grandpa?" "No but close. So I am loosing my nerve.  I feel my knees shaking and I cant find any thing to do with my hand so I start rubbing them through my hair.  Now I had a bit more hair back then and I wore Palm 69

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Aid at the time. Do you know what that is?" "No grandpa." "It's kinda like old fashioned hair jell for men.  But it's real greasy, so my sweaty palms must have reacted with the grease and my hair is stuck up to a point on the top of my head.  Just then I catch your grandmother's pretty brown eyes looking at mine. And she just bursts out laughing. I go about as red as a tomato. Then I think all is lost when I see grandma's brother go over start talking to her. "O' grandpa you're so silly." I put my chubby little hand on his head, as we sat on the living room couch.  I was kneeling next to him to be at his height. I had both tuned out the television.  Angela was lying in her usual spot. Her hands propped up her head, as she was totally engrossed in Linda Carter as Wonder Woman.  Trying to hold on to the point of the story I said. "Grandpa, what's the problem with Grandma's brothers." "Nothing really, it was that I didn't know they were her brothers.  I thought I lost another one to the Romeos of the speakeasy. "Now your grandma was still laughing, so I know I made some kind of impression on her but she stopped everything and gave her brothers a kiss on the cheek." "Oh I get it. You thought they were together." "That's right son.  But the next thing I know Grandma's brother is walking over to me.  He says that he's got a job for me and its real important." 70

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"What's that, Grandpa?" "He told me I got to walk his sister home.  And after that walk home, I never let her out of my sight." Grandma and Grandpa were married soon after they met.  And for the first couple of years lived downtown.  Those were hard times and things felt as if they were falling apart. They scraped by, between the pill factory and the helping out the bootlegging. They got by until in 1933 Prohibition was repealed and it became far too costly to be in the liquor business.  That added a bit of pain to their lives.  Grandma's brothers were broke and went missing for about ten years.  Grandpa got a job from the War Powers Act, building a large canal through the south side of St. Louis with runoff water from the Missouri river. They moved into the house on Edwards in the late forties  after the Second World War.  Grandma's sisters had gotten married to and moved out to the suburbs with some guys they had met in their brothers' speakeasy.  These men were country folk and not a single one of them an Italian. Nor were they Catholic.  But they had a little money and they could put food on the table.  And they were in love.  Which under those conditions was lucky to find.  So my grandmother was the only one of here family still living in the city of St Louis when they moved into the house on Edwards in the Italian neighborhood.  The family got the idea to try and take Great Grandma out of the 71

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institution.  She had been institutionalized, drugged and shocked for twenty years.  She was getting old and the doctors thought she had mellowed. They thought with the right home environment she might enjoy the last ten years of her life on the outside.  What's more they were in a quiet neighborhood in a two story house that afforded privacy. They could get some things from the old country. Great Grandma could go to mass with other roman catholics. So Grandma and Grandpa set her up in the upstairs apartment.  The same one that my mother, I and Angela would later live in.  This change of living situation was not a smooth adjustment for anyone, especially Great Grandmother.  My grandparents were newly weds and like most Grandma was already pregnant with her first child. There was no honeymoon period. They were both very busy just making ends meet.  The added pressure of a disturbed old woman who speaks almost no English didn't help. Great Grandmother could ask for a few necessary things in English, food, water, etc.  While expressing her emotions, she exclusively used Italian.  Except for the emotions of anger and disappointment.  It seems the orderlies at the institution had taught her to cuss like unstable postal worker, with a full bag of Christmas mail, and a rock in his shoe.  Grandpa had learned about that soon after their first meeting.   He met her only once before she moved in.  Great Grandma was powerfully disappointed by my grandfather's short stature and skinny build.  And the fact that he was not Catholic pushed that disappointment over to out right anger.  And the curses came so fluidly that Great Grandma needed to be restrained by orderlies and strapped to her bed.  Grandma was optimistic, even after such an inauspicious start, that a family could be made again.  She would be an orphan no longer.  72

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Now I am not sure if this changed the relationship between Grandma and Grandpa.  Adding responsibility of children and the elderly are just those everyday sort of responsibilities, I have been raised to avoid.  But there is a certain warmth to the idea and reunification of family an almost impossible gesture of grace and salvation, like a donkey pulling a child out of a house fire.  So one Saturday, Grandma and Grandpa took the trolley car out past forest park and walked into the gates of City Hospital and took that black clad old woman home to their new home on Edwards. The adjustment was very hard to take. The hopes that she could walk about the Italian neighborhood and go to church were dashed when Grandma and Grandpa discovered that she had lost what few people skills she had.  She, now, had no requisite shame about bodily functions, or many other taboo actions, that were necessary for civil society.   She would belch and fart. With no one to dress her, she would walk out on the porch totally naked.  Her wrinkled breasts covered only by her long thick white hair, which was ordinarily worn up under her black scarf. Her legs, arms and privates were covered in an unnatural fur as well.  These air baths happened infrequently but when they happened they would cause quite a scene, as the front porch was visible from way down the block and clear to every one leaving the bakery with fresh bread.   "I got a real kick out of this!" "Be quiet Bud.  Don't tell the kids about that." "Now Mary, its nothing too embarrassing.  It's just a little skin, the way God made us."

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"Yeah grandma, we really want to hear.  Tell us." "Well, my favorite thing, that would really get her, was when I agreed with her." "How's that, Grandpa?" "Now my mother in-law your Great Grandma Maria was a tough lady. Sort of a witch too." "Bud, that's too much!" "Listen kids, I don't mean any disrespect. I am not calling her a witch to describe her as a mean old woman, which she was." "Bud, please!" "What I mean is, she was the sort of a witch, like in the storybooks. She could see things. Or at least she saw things, all kinds of weird stuff." "Like what, Grandpa? Did she see ghosts?" "Yes. She would see ghosts, animals, people, all kinds of things that other people couldn't see." "Grandma is that true?" "Kids," Grandma Mary says, "Great Grandma Maria was sick, and kinda touched in the head."

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"Listen to me kids. Grandma knows it's true she just doesn't want to scare you." Grandpa leans in and holds us by the shoulders speaking very low. "She had a sort of second sight." "Cool! Could she cast spells?" "Well, she could cast things all right and would often be lecturing me from the back porch "She'd be wearing black robes like your nuns at school, and some times nothing at all. She would yell down at me about some dream she had and would tell me to do some special thing that day so something bad wouldn't happen." "Like what?" "Well, one day she tells me she had a dream that I got washed out to sea.  Now there ain't no sea nearby. But it did put me off a little 'cause I was working on river Des Peres, putting in stones for some water runoff. "She said to me, 'Beware Bud Whacker. You'a gonna' be washed in di mare you gunna' mori di mare,  mori di mare.'" "Mare is the sea the sea?" "Right you got it.  So, I just go ahead and agree with her. I tell her Ok and then she gets real angry." "Why's that, Grandpa?  You agreed with her wouldn't she be pleased with that."

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"Well, when I agree with her I say OK and make the OK sign with my hand. You know, put my for finger and thumb like a circle and wave my hand about." "So what's wrong with that, Grandpa?" "Well, you know how some hand gestures are bad?" "Yeah, Matt flips the bird at Sister Fullashitta when she's not looking." "Grandma chimes in, they're just little kids bud what are you telling them this stuff for." "Nothing that I'm telling them that they haven't seen on that television, Mary. "So yes, it's just like flipping the bird. The OK sign means something bad in Italy. "What does it mean?" "Your grandma is going to kill me but all right.  You see your finger and thumb make kinda' of a circle right? Here you do it." "Like this, Grandpa?" "Yes. Wave your other fingers out. That circle is supposed to be your butt hole. I guess the fingers are like hairs.  When you put that up to your lips, in Italian, you're telling someone to kiss you on the butt hole."

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"Cool!" "Now don't tell your grandma or mother, and Sister Fullashitta would sure enough kill you if you do that to her." "OK! Grandpa," I said, while waving that hand gesture away from my lips. "So just like this. I would agree with Great Grandma Maria every day. She'd get so angry and say a bunch of words that I can't explain to you until your older." As if he couldn't resist a time worn impression of his mother in-law he repeated, "God Damn you Bud Whacker, God Damn you." Only adding to the difficulty of caring for Great Grandmother was Grandma's brother Franco's return several years after they had moved into the house on Edwards.  Franco and Nickolas had suddenly quit town after prohibition ended, as their business was made redundant by the major breweries. The small guys could not complete, the standards were now too high.  The bathtub moonshine, which had been an old recipe for grappa, may have been classic, but could not make it along side the Anheuser Bushes and professional liquors makers. Their distribution lines had been severed and their speakeasy now irrelevant.  They had briefly toyed with the idea of going into a legitimate business of distributing liquor but the mob had already seized the main markets. We don't have a full account of where they went.  All we know is that Nicholas ended up in the Navy during world war two and Franco returned just after the war.

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Franco returned to St. Louis five years after the Second World War ended.  He found his way to Grandma and Grandpa's house on Edwards. Grandma and Grandpa had had three children by that time. In 1947 they had Betty Marie.  1948 they had William, 1949 they had Mary Nancy, my mother. So the house on Edward's was crowded with a young family on the bottom floor and a crazy old woman on the top floor. When he returned, Franco looked like a different man. He was often distracted. His keen sense of surrounding and skills of social interaction, which had made him a very successful bootlegger, seemed to have been erased.  He was no longer sharp young man.  He was a twitching shell often lost in thought.  He was ill groomed, not even paying attention to the most basic hygiene.  He had a greying beard and he was missing the middle finger on his right hand. What's more he now called himself Fritz instead of Franco. Grandma was moved to pity by the sight of Fritz. If she looked closely, at times, she could still see her brother behind the eyes. She made Fritz shave and cut his fingernails all nine of them. The difficult part was getting Fritz and Great grandma Maria to live together in the four small rooms of the second floor of the Edwards house.  Great Grandma Maria had lost all of her motherly instincts over the years of institutionalization and did not even recognize Fritz as her son, even after his clean up.  Great Grandma Maria spent most of her time lying in bed depressed.  That left the three other rooms almost always free. Before Fritz arrived Betty, William and Mary Nancy would secretly play up there in the largely empty three rooms. Quietly trying to sneak a peek at their Grandma Maria with her long gray hair down.  78

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They had heard their father's story that she was a witch and wanted to see if she was talking to the devil or some other evil minion. Was she looking into a crystal ball, perhaps they would even catch a glimpse of their own future. Little did my young mother know that her peeking at her crazy Grandma Maria lying depressed and wailing in the front bedroom depicted a fairly, accurate view of her own future. About 27 years later, my mother lay in that same bedroom with a towel over her head to bloc out the light while morning the loss of her love, as she was thrown into a deep depression, while trying to cope with the fact that her husband was leaving her for a woman he met overseas while away in the army. Perhaps Great grandma was a witch or at least a genetic looking glass reflecting this probable future.   After Fritz moved it became much more difficult for the children to go on a witch hunt.  Fritz liked to walk around naked and was most of the time fully intoxicated and half aroused with self-abuse, as he scribbled on the walls with paint he picked up at the dry goods market. He was painting his way through the cannon of french postcard he had won in a poker game at some point during his long post bootlegging travels.  Over the white walls of his room, kitchen and living room he had crudely painted pornographic pictures of french women spread eagle. Grandma Mary was shocked when she first saw them. She went after her brother with the broomstick, beating him about the face and hands. But this sort of criticism didn't keep Fritz from painting more women with their legs open and breasts out. Grandma must have begun to like some aspect of the paintings. She stopped trying to repaint the walls after losing two nice new broomsticks and her best mop handle by breaking them over her brother's head. An artistic compromise was struck that turned into an artistic 79

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collaboration.  Grandma had left the pill factory after it had become automated. They no longer needed thin fingers to put the cotton balls.  Some re-tooled war instrument could now do it far faster than thin, fingered immigrant girls. Anyway, Grandma's fingers were not a thin as they used to be, when she was pregnant first child her fingers balloonedup to the size of sausages and after the birth, she did not regain thin youthful digits. Grandma had been working in a pattens department of large Dry good store downtown.  Here they sold all sorts of patters for dresses and clothes, with which the modern housewife could make inexpensive clothes for their growing families. She had learned how to sew on her lunch break from a seamstress who worked in the sewing machine department. With her second paycheck, she had purchased a sewing machine for the home.  She kept it in her bedroom and while Bud would sleep she would be making clothes and pot-holders long into the night.  So it was with this tool Grandma discovered how to deal with the nude pictures that Fritz was painting on the wall.  She would take the most fashionable patterns that they had on display and with discarded scraps of material make real clothes for the naked french lady that fritz painted on white walls. She stuck them to the wall with staples and gooey white wallpaper paste.  If it was a skirt, Fritz could still peruse the entire pornographic portrait.  One particularly disturbing portrait was of a young french girl sitting straight on a tall stool, her long black hair was shoulder length just above her tight corset bustier.  Her thin white legs were spread, but just where her vulva was supposed to be a picture of the Virgin Mary was drawn. Her white robes and head dress mimicking the woman's vulva. Grandma was very disturbed by this one not only because it was blasphemous but also because it was so suggestive.  Grandma had never 80

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seen the resemblance to images of the Virgin Mary and the female pudenda.  But now that she had, she could not help but make that same perverted connection every time she saw one.  She would often caution us not to pray in front of the statute of Mary for too long perhaps as it was unseemly to have to young children praying before some monster cunt.  My sister and I could have never understood or suspected her hesitation of us praying before Mary. This all came out the day we told my aging grandmother that her granddaughter was gay and was going to marry another woman. "Angela should have been praying to Jesus more," Grandma said. "Staring all day into that statue of Mary messed her up.  It's my fault. All those Hail Marys and Rosary must have turned her funny."  Word of this erotic home decor spread around the neighborhood.  Both curious children and grown men would try and get a glimpse of this exhibition.  The Italian mail man would often loiter taking a coffee or lemon Cello with Fritz, ogling the paintings pretending of course that he was just dropping off the mail or innocently chatting. Great Grandma did not like the company and a visiting art lover could easily get more show than he bargained for if the old woman's depressed sleep was disturbed.  She would rush out of her room more vividly naked than any french postcard and cussing like a banshee.  Fritz often teased the neighbor children.  When he left the house to get some piece of cheese or beer he would carry cane for a walking stick. With this cane he would catch the legs of neighborhood children,  who would scream and run away, sure that they would be taken back to the scary two story building with the witch by her deranged son.  Grandma Mary and Grandpa Bud soon started to resent Fritz's shameless behavior, and were often at a loss to explain it to the 81

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neighbors.  Fritz had grown dangerous like a wild animal. Grandma tried to constantly groom and shave him in an attempt to make him look more normal. But the pressure of children and a job, she would fall behind on haircuts and Fritz's hair grew long and his face was more often than not covered with some kind of half grown beard.  His teeth were falling out and if you happened to be unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of one of his pleasant smiles you would have been smacked in the face with a wall of sickly halitosis. As if that wasn't enough, just a few days per month both mother and sons peek crazy cycles would overlap like some perfect storm, natural disaster, or biological disaster. During one of these episodes had the police arrived.  They hauled Fritz away as he hung naked from the second story window by a sheet tied to the banister.  The police arrived just as the naked Great Grandmother Maria was cutting the sheet with a carving knife. After this the hopes of a reunited family were dashed. And Fritz was put away under court order by the state, in the same ward his mother had lived for those twenty years. The fact that great grandma and her son Franco/Fritz  were crazy was well documented both clinically and anecdotally. But all her other children had a share of it too. None of them except Fritz was institutionalized.  All of grandma siblings were slightly slow, and saw the world at a different speed. Not that they were retarded or even half. It is as if they were just on some other frequency that set them apart from normal people.  They were not witty like my grandpa. They could not lie. My grandma would stress out at the slightest attempt at dissembling truth. Her two sisters and one brother nick were the same.  The four of them were naive and gullible their entire life.  They were totally authentic and 82

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never hid their true selves and lucky for the world they happened to be good people on top of it.  But this simplicity, with which Grandma and her siblings approached life, had to be explained by the people around them. Their husbands and wives not wanting to believe their marriage partners all inherited this slowness of thought and what's worse passed it on to their mutual children, believed a fictitious theory of events designed to explain away this genetic retardation through environmental factors. Every one of my Grandmother's siblings has a famous story of how they received a large blow on the head after which they were never quite the same.  Nickolas Grandma's brother has the most patriotic story.  After the bootlegging fell through in the late depression Nicolas set out with his brother.  They drifted for a while but they ended up separating and Nickolas joined the Navy.  Now he joined the day of Pearl Harbor attack but not out of patriotism. He hadn't read the paper.  He just wanted to do something.  He was stationed on a mid sized supply ship and they had taught him to work with pipes and use a mop. He still looked like a strong Italian but had lost some of his youthful confidence along with his brother and the bootlegging business.  He was like a different man. He was in a totally unfamiliar environment in the big ocean on a little boat.  There is a story he tells that he was going below deck after having a smoke. Just as he was climbing down a ladder the hatch door on the gangway came loose and knocked him on the head. It knocked him eight feet off the ladder and the ships doctor said it knocked three teeth straight out of is head as easy as a child spitting out candy corn.  It broke his skull, and after that his left eyelid never fully opened. It gave the impression that he was always intensely interested in anyone that he even casually glanced at.  So God takes with one hand and gives with the other. 83

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  Grandma's head injury story took place in the Old Cathedral adjacent to her orphanage in Downtown St. Louis. And for what it lacked in patriotism it makes up in religious conviction.  In Grandma's orphanage the children would rotate shifts helping out in the sacristy and the church.   These children would leave the bare unadorned walls of the crowded dorm and canteen, and find themselves in the open vault of church. On the walls were hung the stations of the cross, 12 large baroque paintings that depicted Jesus' trial and Crucifixion.  They were beautiful and gory. Grandma would think how small her own trials were by comparison, while mopping the floors and dusting the pews.  There was a hemispherical vault at the front of the church. Marble pillars were set inside it and a large cross with a life-like, crucified Jesus hung in the center.  Colored light came streaming in through the stained glass windows. The sounds of child labor echoed upon the stone walls as the children finished cleaning and maintaining every part of the old church.  Still church duty was by far better than the chores one would do in the dank dark smelly rooms of the orphanage.   On church duty, they felt there work was important.  Like cleaning the house of a millionaire or the president.  And every time you looked toward the alter and got a glimpse of Christ or cleaned the bare feet of the Mother Mary statue it was like you were interacting with greatness.  With amicable praise from a superior, maybe life as an orphan is not that different to life in heaven.  Grandma was finding a cosmic common ground cleaning statuesque toe-jam from between mother Mary's marble toes. By far her and all the other orphans favorite chore was ringing the bells. Every hour from 5 in the morning until eight at night the children were responsible for ringing the church bells.  They would climb above the vaulted ceilings of the church up the cork-screw stairs of the steeple.  84

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Then they would pass the heavy wooden trap door of the belfry.  Four children would go up.  It would take the weight of two pulling on the string of the bell and the other two were there as spotters and time keepers making sure the bell ringing was in order.  One day my grandma was dawdling spending some extra time before the statue of Mary.  Praying hard for her family.  She watched as the offering candles burned.  She wanted so badly to light one herself. But she had no money to put in the gilded box in exchange for lighting the candle.  No one was looking, she simply could have taken the punk and lit the candle.  She was debating whether the sin of lighting a candle without paying, was more harmful to herself, than would be the benefit of lighting a candle for her family.  She so wanted to see the glowing flame of concern for her family, there in front of Mary.  Then, Mother Mary could gaze down upon the flame and be reminded of Grandma's love for her family and intercede for her, to put in a good word to God to grant happiness and health for her whole family. The benefits of the offering my Grandmother thought clearly out weighed the sin.  She could simply confess the small sin later.  It was no more a sin, she thought, than stealing a piece of penny candy or thinking bad thoughts about one of the nuns.  So, she knelt there in front of Mary and took a balsa wood punk from beside the candles and after lighting the punk on the candle closest to her, she lit one of the red candles sitting there before the statue of Mary.  Just as she began her prayer she herd the church bell begin to ring. She set out like a shot, before even saying amen. She ran toward the staircase that lead to the steeple. As she was climbing up the spiral staircase, they had already rung the bell 9 times. The trap door was open and she could see two of her orphans friends hanging from the bell rope using their full body weight to ring the bell. She was sprinting up the last few stairs, when the rope broke loose from the bell and her friends were thrown to the floor.  Their weight knocked the trap door shut just on Grandma's head, just as it was poking 85

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through the trap hole of the floor.   She woke up a day later with twenty stitches in her head and a broken ankle. Grandma's thinking became more and more clouded as the years went on.  She was a believer in theological causation.  She believed she and her family owed a cosmic debt for actions that others committed.  For example her granddaughter would later become gay from praying to Mary because her brother Fritz had offended Mary by so rudely pointing out the fact that her image looked like a woman's genitals.  I would suffer embarrassment on the first mass I was serving as part of this cosmic debt.  The veracity of this thesis is largely unimportant. And perhaps demonstrates the peculiar nature of my grandma's insanity. As she could only interpret the payment of these debts after they were transacted.  She could not like her mother, predict when and how these cosmic karmic transactions would take place.  She did however instill in me a legalistic view of the Catholic religion.  There were rules and edicts from the Pope, there were commandments and there was the odd logic of the heavens as my Grandmother saw it.  When I was young I held all these rules as equally true.  For example, thou shall not kill,  an ex cathedra statement from the Pope, or my grandma's belief that the Virgin Mary will turn you gay, held the same deontological value.  I lived in a spiritual universe inhabited by Catholic mysteries, arbitrary daily rituals and wild idiosyncratic superstition.

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Husky serves his first mass At ten years old I began to serve Catholic mass. Our small class of boys would be alter boys for St. Ambrose church.  An alter boy assists the priest in the sacred rights of mass. It also means that you get closer to priests than ever before, sometimes much closer than you like.  Mass was held three times a day everyday and four times on Sunday.  The 4th and 5th grade boys would rotate serving these weekly.   Matt Nordman and I would often be paired up.  It was a Saturday night and Grandma had just been at the sewing machine altering my vestments.  Angela was lying on the floor her head propped on her hands watching TV.  I was lying on the couch.  It was getting late and we had gotten used to our mother not coming home.  So we distracted ourselves with the last half hour of a seventies crime show that we barely understood. Beretta was a streetwise, tough guy fighting crime, on his own terms, as an undercover cop.  He wore a page boy hat and had a pet cockatoo like a pirate. We liked the bird.  (I am not sure if it is a real episode or a fever dream, but I remember having nightmares that some retarded person staying with Beretta cooked and ate his bird.  I remember Beretta was crying when he got back to his dingy apartment and saw feathers on the floor. We were crying.)  Grandma put us to bed before the news had finished, "you have a big day tomorrow you need to get your rest. " Mom had not come home Friday night either. We  had slept downstairs at grandma and grandpa's, as we had been doing more and more often since our father left.

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I had a hard time getting to sleep that night. I had prayed. The scapula was around my neck, just in case I got up to use the bathroom, accidentally fell and hit my head and died before I got a chance to ask for forgiveness. I had said my prayers for my father who I had not seen now for almost two years. I had not even talked to him on the phone or received a letter or birthday present.  Mom told me he was very busy, on the rare occasions that I actually articulated his absence. On most days I just went with the flow. I had Grandma, Grandpa, Mom and Angela who needed anyone else.  I had become jaded and tired of hoping that he might one day come back.  I also had given up mistaking other men for my father. I remember one school day I saw an unfamiliar man in the hall.  His back was turned to me and he was talking to Sister Fullamina,  the nice first grade home room teacher. My heart beat with anticipation and I was actually starting to get embarrassed by my own flood of  happy emotion.  But he turned around and it was just some other dad.  That was probably one of the most puzzling days in my life up to that point.  My body, thorough it visceral articulation of wild hope, had reminded my semi-conscious mind how much I truly missed him. I was at loss to explain it. I simply would pray through it, as I did this night.  I wondered about my Mom and wanted so badly to hear the car door and high heeled foot steps, that meant she was heading home.  But I drifted off to sleep with the sound of the late news. At daybreak Sunday morning, Mom quietly let herself into Grandma and Grandpa's apartment with her own key.  Everyone in the house was asleep. She was wearing a short dress and jacket. Her blond hair and clothes smelled noticeably of smoke.  But there was also a powerful smell of food. She was holding a bag of McDonald's egg MC muffins. She woke us up and snuck us out of the house before Grandma 88

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and Grandpa woke up. She walked up the stairs behind us in the house. And as we waited on the porch with our blankets wrapped around us, she fished in her small purse for our apartment key.  Angela was still half asleep and yawning with the cover pulled over her head like a green , wool, virgin Mary.  I was wide-awake and looking forward to the McDonald's.  After finding the key she opened the door.  The house was cold. We sat at the table still in our covers. Mom put the McDonald's on the white table and I dove in.  Mom went to the refrigerator opening it with one hand and eating her hash-brown with the other.  She poured us two glasses of milk and set them down next to us, with a kiss to our cheeks.  I was already distracted by eating, and like a dog with a bone, I pulled away as she went in for the kiss.  "Well, Greg, it's a big day today." "Yeah, I was worried you were going to miss it." I was not upset at my mother, but just transferring my anger at the fact that I had so quickly finished my delicious sausage and egg sandwich and I could clearly see that Angela had a good three-fourths left.  She was just picking at it, taunting me.  "Of course not Greg," my mother said defensively, and continued more angrily, "now, you know I have to go out," now switching to almost pure despair, "that father of yours that's why I have to go out at night." Changing the subject Mom asked, "Who are you serving with today?" "Mat Nordman,"  I said. As he was the well known smart kid and a 89

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cool guy so it was kind of an honor to be paired up with him. "Kreisman and Nordman," my mother said, "you are paired up because he was a half Jew too." "No, he's not he's catholic like me." "If he was a Jew, he never admitted it.", said Mom "He said that he was German and he was from the North." "Do you know how to spell his name?"  Mom asks. "If you're not a Jew you have two n's on the end of a name like his." I wasn't a good speller and told her I had no Idea. Mom cleared the table and said, "You should start spelling your name with two n's. Angela why don't you go and watch some TV, I want to talk to Greg about his mass" Angela leaves and plops down on the couch the cover wrapped around her.  She leaves the table with half a sandwich left. And without asking I pound on and gobble the thing down, drinking the last sips of her milk to wash it down my gullet. Once Angela left the room my mother repeated herself. "You really should start spelling your name with two N's.  You know 'Kreismann.'" "Why's that mom?" "So they don't think you a dirty Jew like you father.  Greg you are a 90

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big boy today so I can tell you.  I should have never married that man." Whenever Mom would talk about our father it was as if she hit a land mind of obsessive thought and then she would continue in a tirade of anger and desperation. "You know he is not coming back Greg, He is not coming back.  He left us.  He left me. He left you, He left your little sister. O god,  O god he is really gone."  She began to cry. "But don't tell your sister. Oh my lord he's not coming back!" I had long suspected something was up he had been overseas for two years.  Grandpa had been telling us stories loosely veiled as cute animal stories, all of which included a father that didn't return.  I had thought he was dead for a while and was at least comforted by the fact that my prayers may reach him in purgatory. Mom continued, "That weak little man found someone else.  Some other family.  He's probably loving some other son right now.  He acts like we don't exist." Mom's mascara ran as she scooted her chair next to mine.  I had unwittingly been put in the position of jilted lover's confidence and counseling for my mother.  A pattern that would be repeated numerous times in my later life by her and other women who saw me as just a friend they could talk to.  "Greg," she said slightly composing herself, "you're a big boy now.   You're the man of the house.  Now, lets try on that black hassock of yours." Mom took the altered hassock from the bag. (A hassock is the 91

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special alter boy vestments. ) She had swiped it from grandma's house when she let herself in to get us.  She would often take things on the sly she had very sticky fingers and a light touch.  She was an artist with the clever distraction and grab. And almost always got away with it. "Look at you in your black hassock.  You're ready to serve mass.  You're a little man, that's what you are." The fact was that I was so big my grandma had to sew in another black panel into the hassock to accommodate my growing belly. "Kent that wandering Jew, has wandered away but don't you worry your mom's still beautiful right?" she said, flatting last nights dress against her slim figure. Her freshly died hair smelled like peroxide and heavy mascara was running, down her face. "You know I have been going out at night." "Where are you going?" I asked.  "Well, you know Mickey De'Angelo's mother.  She's kind of lonely too, since her husband is in the penitentiary.  She's taking me to these places where you can meet men to marry you.  I am going to find you and your sister a good daddy and get you some insurance. I am going to find me a husband that won't run out on me. "Not a doctor.  You think you're going to get someone good by marrying a Doctor but they are really just self-absorbed tiny men always chasing after nurses. This place there are different kind a men, real men.  Men that work for a living in factory's and stuff." "What kind of a place is it?" I asked. 92

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"Well, its sort of a club house for adult people. Like a club house you might have with your friends.  And not one of the guys there is a Jew.  They all have good union jobs and work at least 60 hours a week. That over time money is really good.  And they all got insurance for your teeth."   She grabs me by the face and purses my lips open revealing an adult tooth that is growing in 30 degrees from straight.  "'Cause you're going to need braces. I am sure." So this was my first mass.  I had to choke back some tears for the loss of my father.  But it passed, as he had already been gone for a couple years, longer even than Mickey d' Angelo's father had been in the penitentiary. But it still was a shock. And with the confession that my  mother was out there looking for another husband, excited all sorts of mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I was not sure I wanted a new father, if the original one was not coming back.  I already had a grandpa that I practically lived with,  so I was emotionally covered.  And the thought of sharing my mother with other people made me jealous.  Since my father left we had been spending less and less time with our mother.  She was busy working, and up to other things, now, apparently.  I did not want to loose her too.  But she just hugged me and straightened my vestments. Looking in the full-length mirror, I saw myself. The slimming black vestments covered my belly and I thought I looked pretty good.  My bleach blond mother was wiping away her running mascara and straightening my bowl cut hair cut.  My sister walked back from the living room and passed as my mother is giving me a big hug from behind.  I could feel my mother's wet cheeks on mine and her flittering eyelashes brush against my skin ever so slightly.   93

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"Greg you look lie a big fat dork. I hope you trip in your dress." "Shut up Angela. It's not a dress.  I am wearing vestments." That’s right Angela, these are vestments. And your brother looks very good in these. Very slimming.  I wish he could wear these every day" Mom turned toward me, after wetting her thumb and fore finger with her tongue, wiped off the bits of black goop she had left on my face from her last strong embrace, "yes, you look very good indeed." I took the vestments off just as my grandma had come upstairs to the second floor.  Grandma wanted to get a look at me before mass. She had painstakingly searched for more black material to extend the vestments for me and was proud of her work.     "What time did you get in dear," Grandma asked Mom. "Late last night, I thought I'd let the kids sleep until morning, isn't that right kids.", Mom said. "Oh, I see you fixed them breakfast too." Grandma stated, inspecting the leftover fast food wrappers. "The vestments look great on Greg."   "Yeah, Grandma I look really good." I said proudly "Well, you better get going 11 o'clock mass starts in an hour and you have to be there a half hour before." Grandma said as she neatly 94

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folded the vestments and put them in a brown paper bag for me to carry. "We will see you there." "Be strong my little man," my mother repeated as I head out the door. On my way to mass I ran into Matt Nordman.  He was carrying his vestments slung over his shoulder like a sports jacket.  He looked like a young catalog model for catholic supply.   "Hey tubs,  what's in the sack?  Is that a snack for mass?" "Shut up Matt. It's my vestments," I said proudly opening up and pulling out the corner." "'Oh you found some that fit you,  tubby?" "Yeah they fit me." I was dreading taking them out I was embarrassed that my Grandmother's alterations would be instantly noticeable to him and everyone else and I would have to endure the humiliation of being on the alter caught out for being so fat my vestments need extensions.  It was as if the jokes just wrote themselves.   I mean really the vestment is the religious equivalent of the moo-moo, not a garment you usually alter with extensions.   We walked around to the side of the Church and let ourselves into the sacristy.  Alter boys have almost unlimited access to the sacristy. We can handle every type of religious paraphernalia, from incense burners to golden chalices. My favorite was a monstrance, which is a gaudy golden cross as heavy as a candelabra but with a circular glass hole in which a 95

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white host was placed. In some ways it looked like a baroque piece of optical equipment, perhaps God's magnifying glass.  When we entered the sacristy we put on our vestments and started to prepare the things we need for mass.  There are numerous important aspects to  the ceremony of catholic mass, to which the alter boy lends his expert assistance. There was the carrying and offering of the cruets of water and wine that would be transmogrified into the blood of Christ. Unpacking the vocabulary and theological ideas that goes in to this task is a difficult job for an adult, but as a child you willingly and unquestioningly absorb the lingo, gestures, and ideas. Take, for example the 'cruet of wine'.  When would a 9 year old south side, half Jew from a blue collar family ever come across 'a cruet' outside the church. In the sacristy there were tens of pairs of these crystal flasks with tiny golden stoppers.  The alter boys would prepare the cruets for the mass in the host in wine room in the back of the sacristy.  On a low table, easily accessible to even the shortest alter boy usually sat 5 large jugs of church wine.  We would transfer the wine from the jug to the cruet. It would take two alter boys. One to hold the cruet and funnel and the other to poor the wine.  It was no real problem if you spilled any, as the wine is not yet sacred. It probably has been blessed to some degree, almost everything in a Church is.  There were even rumors about a blessing for toilet paper that would keep single ply papers from breaking at critical moments. This wine was just about that holy.  You could spill it, with no long term metaphysical problems, as it  had not yet become the blood of Christ.  Thus any one moderately holy, so any catholic, and probably some special Protestants could freely drink the wine with out committing a mortal sin.  We were regularly asked to fill the priest private flasks with this alter wine. One priest in particular would ask us to fill his flask before and after mass.  He had emptied out a small shampoo bottle and used this as 96

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his mass flask.  The label had long ago peeled off.  Matt thought it was an old Pert Plus bottle. But I was sure it was Head and Shoulders dandruff shampoo bottle. Father Glenn clearly had a dandruff problem which was easily visible on his dark black shirt and jacket. But you could tell by his greasy hair that it must have taken a full year to empty that bottle with regular use. We were always amazed at Father Glenn's ability to drink that full bottle of alter wine during the actual mass ceremony.  Of course he would take a big swig before we went out to the alter. He would then stuff it up the billowy sleeves of his mass vestments and secure it in his wast band of his pants under the outer garb.  He would have another opportunity to swig when the lector, usually some nun or lay person who was extremely holy, would come to the alter and deliver the first reading.  He understood from years of experience that the attention of the Church going audience would be directed at the lector, that is if any one at all were paying attention, and he would turn slightly as if to cough and gulp down another big drink.  He did not try to hide it from the alter boys who were sitting beside him.  On the alter it was as if we were on stage of a late night talk show.  The priest was host and the alter boys were the forgettable side kicks.  When attention was turned to the readings, it was time for the host to relax while the next guest was performing their bit.  Older alter boys often bragged about their furtive exploits during this downtime. "You can like so easily pick your nose and wipe it on old father Ross." Ray, a fifth grader bragged. "Oh yeah, he's half dead, I even have to help him up the stairs, to the alter, but don't do it to Father Bob,  he'll catch you for sure." Dan a sixth grader added.

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"Yeah, but I what I like to do is get a belly of alter wine before I go out there and eat a few hosts." Ray said.  'Of course, you gotta drink something with those." Dan replied. "What's best is you can totally be looking at some girl in the mass and just have a raging boner and no one can see it because of the vestments. " "Oh, Suzy with the boobies right?" "And her mom. " "Eww, Ray!" "Come on, Dan, you know she's hot." "You're a mother fucker." Ray and  Dan were older and could cuss and talk about boners without turning red.  But not me. I had eaten the hosts, round white and totally bland, pieces of formed bleached wheat. They looked like circular pieces of card stock.  They came in bags by the thousands packed inside a cardboard box.  They had religious symbols pressed into them forming reliefs of crosses, sacred hearts and, lambs.  It was like an industrial sized box of the blandest children's breakfast cereal imaginable. I think most of the other alter boys ate the hosts as a dare, the thrill of stealing or doing something naughty. And of course they ate them because the famous after school 98

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movie excuse, peer pressure. But like the alter wine the hosts may have had some minor blessing but they hand not be transmogrified into the body of Christ. And eating hosts no matter how naughty it may have felt was not even a venial sin by my reckoning.  I enjoyed the hosts on a whole other level and according to my gastronomic aesthetic. Having tasted communion hosts for the first time only months before becoming an alter boy my mind raced with culinary ideas in that time before I had access to them.  On my many raids of the refrigerator I thought how wonderful it would be to have these hosts as the base of some elegant sandwich.  I imagined that braunsweiger spread thickly on a host with a pickle slice and dollop of mustard would be the closest thing to the food of the gods or something that a rich person with top hat and monocle might eat.  And now there I was with access to all of these.  I didn't see it a stealing either as my chubby hands stuffed fist-fulls of communion hosts into my husky pants pockets.  It was manifest destiny ordained by God. Who better to have these than a true believer in food.  And far from a desperate and despicable act of a glutton, this was a heroic gesture, a making the world, one sandwich at a time, a pure act of free will and devotion that made the angels themselves weep. And of course there was wine drinking but this was usually after a mass.  Especially after eleven o'clock mass. I had no special aesthetic for drinking the wine. For  me drinking wine  was guided in equal parts of goading by older alter boys and my own ability to drink really quickly.  I had an especially loose gullet for a nine year old. I believe this came about from numerous occasions of near choking on poorly chewed mouthfuls of stolen food.  I could not swallow something whole I usually only need to bite the thing in half to get it down.  Sometimes I even imagined I could unhinge my jaw like a python.  This solid food skill transferred quite nicely to liquids.  By the time I was eight I could drink a 99

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thirty-two ounce big gulp without taking a breath.  I would do it on a dare. But possibly more sadly I would do it on my own drowning my sorrow after having spent all my allowance on Donkey Kong at the Seven Eleven.  But as for wine and other intoxicants I didn't care a thing about them.  So to me wine was just some other liquid that I could drink to fill my stomach.  And impress my friends by emptying an entire cruet in one go. 

But this was my first mass, and Matt and I were busily and solemnly preparing for the mass, no eating of host or sipping of wine. We had filled the cruets of wine and water and taken about one hundred hosts and prepared them on a large golden plate. We placed both of these on a small table just outside the alter area.  Later during the mass they would be offered by one of the congregation and we would receive them, and like a wife receiving delivery groceries, begin to prepare the meal.   We were in our black vestments anxiously waiting for the mass to

begin.  Matt's skinny frame seemed to accentuate how big I actually was.  In the large room of the sacristy, Father Glenn was putting on his colorful robes over his simple black priest outfit.  His robes were made of thick material that draped over his body.  He wore a long green sash with a lamb on one side and a crook and cross on the other.   He held a staff in his hand.  This was going  to be high mass so there would be procession so we would enter the church through the front door once the entire congregation was seated.  When you have a procession the priest requires that you prepare the incense burner.  This requires that we light a piece of charcoal so it is white hot for procession time.  The incense burner is a 100

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small gilded bucket on a long golden chain. They call it a censor.  The charcoal much like the kind you use in the barbecue pit.  Except this one has a cross on it.   You set it in the gilded metal bucket and put a drop or two of lighter fluid on top of the charcoal.  Then carefully take a match to it.  After a momentary bright flame, the charcoal burns with a red hot glow.  Matt did the lighting of the charcoal I was not very comfortable yet with the lighter fluid.  So before 11 a.m. we get to dress in robes, handle liquor and play with fire. We walked around to the front of the church. The congregation had already arrived and taken their seats.  Father Glenn was carrying the staff and Matt had given me the incense burner to hold. He was holding a cup full of incense.    The processions are interesting.  There is a great amount of pomp and ceremony.  The crowd had been asked to stand, the organ was playing loudly and the truly devout patrons began to sing enthusiastically while the rest were just mouthing the words.  We proceeded up the aisle. I could feel the incense burner hot on my fat thigh.  It was a little heavy and I was holding the chain which was wrapped twice around my chubby little hand.  We stopped half way down the aisle. Father Glenn motioned for the incense burner.  He grabbed the chain, but was unable to release it from my hand. Thinking quickly I just extended my arm in his direction. And he was able to place some of the incense which Matt was holding on top of the smoldering charcoal. The incense billowed out in a fragrant white cloud.  Still unable to release my hand from the chain, Father Glenn was forced to swing the incense burner at the congregation with my hand still attached. I awkwardly leaned in each direction as he turned blessing the congregation. My hand extended like a heil Hitler. I saw my sister in the congregation she was being restrained by my 101

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mother for laughing. But she was not the only member of the church laughing. At that moment, other muted giggles could be heard along with some exasperated sighs.   We continued up toward the alter and Father Glenn blessed it. I again leaned awkwardly with each blessing.  I kinda got the feeling that he was beginning to enjoy my discomfort and even did a few more swings at the congregation.  I was dizzy not only from rocking back and forth with the blessings, but because I had inhaled a good bit of incense smoke. My chubby fingers were now blue from constriction.  But I soldiered through.  All the while I was confessing just in case I died from incense inhalation or of hand strangulation.   Mat and I made it to our seats. The attention was directed to Father Glenn as he welcomed the parishioners.   With the attention off us, Matt helped me untangle the chain from my hand. He could barely contain himself.  But I could tell he noticed that I was actually quite embarrassed and a little sick. So he took it easy on me. The mass continued and we had a long rest during the readings and the priest's sermon.  During this time I scanned the congregation to look for familiar faces, classmates and neighbors.  I watched my mother, my sister, and my grandmother. They were near the front and nodding off during father Glenn's long monologue.  Every once in a while I caught my mom's eye and she gave a little wave to me.  I looked away turning red with embarrassment.  Now I knew I kinda blew the first part without being able to let go of the censor's chain, but I had a good feeling about the next part.  After the sermon, the organ played another hymn and we began the 102

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process of transubstantiation, turning the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  This was my favorite part because it was half cooking and half Frankenstein movie. The cooking part of transubstantiation is pretty straight forward.  During the hymn after the reading, some chosen people would bring the cruets of wine and water and the hosts up to the alter.  Then the priest using the recipe creates the meal from these offerings. Then distributes them to the whole congregation.  Straight up food service, just like at the grocery store deli. The Frankenstein part was the fun stuff.  On the alter, there is a high alter which is a large marble table. Not unlike Dr. Frankenstein's work table. Or some other thing out of a creepy horror movie. And do I need to remind you that above and slightly behind this alter is a very graphic statue of a half naked man being tortured to death.  What's more all Catholic alters have some relic of a saint. That usually means some small bone, like the pinkie or little toe. Our alter had a chunk of rib from St. Ambrose. We alter boys are like the Igor's to father Frankenstein, doing all the thankless prep work that make father Frankenstein able to turn this simple bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  One of these tasks is lighting the candles around  the four corners of the alter.  In this way the alter table is prepared for the conversion of the food into life. Matt went with father Glenn to the alter gate to receive the gifts. I was being a good little Igor, lighting the candles at the corner of the alter.  I had rehearsed this act tens of times in alter boy training and orientation.  You simply take the punk from a votive offering beside the statue of Mary 103

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on the left side of the alter, light the punk on one of the votive candles. Then guarding the flaming punk with one hand walk to the nearest alter candle and light it. Then continue around the alter and light the other three. But when I got to the votive candles in front of the statue of Mary I found the normal balsa punks had been replaced by a sandy punk.  You might know about these punks from the forth of July or some other holiday when you light fire works. If you have a sandy punk it is almost impossible to hold a flame with it.  The tip of the punk will glow red. The sandy punk's red glow will easily light a gunpowder laced a fire cracker wick. But there is no way in the world that the sandy punk's hot red tip could light a candle wick, not a chance.  So I tried as best as I could to really burn that sandy punk.  I was working it up and down on a candle right there in front of Mary.  It was getting really hot and some of the sand had burnt off.  I had just got my first real flame.  And I was guarding it like a caveman with fire from a lightning strike, as I began carefully walking to the alter candles. Now Matt and Father Glenn were getting impatient.  The song had ended and father Glenn was already standing behind the alter with the bread, water and wine ready to begin the holy process.  But I as Igor had not yet properly lit the candles.  As I reached the alter candle to light it, the congregation had now awakened to the fact that something had gone wrong with the protocol. What was this alter boy doing? He should be at the side of the priests right now. But just as I reach the candle the flame was lost.  Nothing left but a red glowing ember about two inches long.  Desperately I tried to ignite the candle with it. But I failed.  Now totally frustrated, father Glenn began to say some quiet 104

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prayers. And the thoughtful organ player added on another hymn.   But instead of doing the easy thing and giving up on lighting the candles, I returned to the statue of Mary for another attempt.  Again I tried to light the punk, and gingerly walk across the alter to light the candles. But the flame went out again. Father Glenn's irritation at my dawdling was obvious to the entire congregation. I however took it as disappointment in the fact that the candles were not in fact lit,  not that I was causing a disturbance with an obsessive adherence to the letter of the mass procedure.  I was a true believer and thought, without lit candles the sole of Christ would never be able to be resurrected in the bread and wine.  If I didn't light the candles, the hosts would not be transubstantiated, then all of the parishioners would not receive proper communion, and thus have a mortal sin. And if any of them died without confessing they could go strait to hell. I could not have that on my conscience, single handedly sending nearly a hundred people to hell, including members of my own family.   My mother  and grandmother in hell because I just gave up and did not light the candles.  Not on my watch. I would light the candles. I would save my family from the fiery pit of hell.   As I re-lit the punk the third time the church was silent. The organist

had stopped playing.  Father Glenn had stopped praying and had his arms folded in his long robes.  No doubt sneaking a drink,  from his flask, as I created such an interesting distraction.  The only thing you could hear was the sound of my squeaky rubber soled dress shoes and the nervous sounds from the congregation as they waited with bated breath for me to finally complete this simple task. I was trying to block out a muffled laugh that I knew to be my sisters' voice baffled by my mother's and grandmother's hands.  It cut through me.  But this was more important than 105

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embarrassment. This was about saving souls. The very work the Christ himself did.  I could take any amount of razzing.  Lump it on.  My reward comes in the next life.  As I reached the alter candle for a third time, it was extinguished again.  Many in the congregation sighed loudly with disappointment.  And I returned to the statue of Mary for a fourth time.  This was to much for father Glenn who returned to the script of the mass trying to regain the attention of parishioners.  But it didn't seem to work, the congregation had degenerated into quiet talking. I think people had even begun to take bets.  And As I stood for the forth time in front of the statue of Mary.  My grandmother stood up in her pew and cried loudly, "Oh mother Mary, forgive me." She exited the pew with her pocket book in hand and walked up to me.  Standing beside me, she said another prayer to Mary and deposited 4 quarters into the votive candle offering box.  "I am sorry Greg my dear.  This is my fault.  I know it." With the flame now lit I walked over and lit the candles, with the mass still in progress.  I reached the alter candle and lit the first one easily.   Hallelujahs were shouted and there was some muted applause.  I took my place next to Matt.  His face was red with embarrassment for me.  He shook his head, "Tough luck Greg," I didn't feel that though. I was truly proud.  I had just saved the 106

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souls of the entire congregation.

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Name Reassignment and Boobs

It was now out in the open, my father was not returning. The idea came at first as a dull understanding.  The sort of dull half understanding you have when an adult informs you of something that you could not possibly understand.  For two years I had had no father, so to be told some fact about something that isn't around, had very little immediate effect. It is as if she told me that Leningrad is now called St. Petersburg.  Information about remote things like a Russian city or absent fathers, just pass right through a child's conscious thought, which is only concerned with food, TV and toys. Shock set in after Mom had now openly and in earnest started searching for a new husband. The late nights at grandma's house waiting for Mom to return, now had changed their character.  In the months before, my sister and I didn't even question what she was up to. We were innocent and comfortable.  But now after each night out at the bar or date, mom would brief us on the possible guys.  And while we were out shopping or running errands she would point to men and say, maybe you would like him for your daddy. Mom did have a group of girl friends that would come around the house after the husband project came out in the open.  This was fun. It was like being invited to a party. Other than friend's birthday parties some of the first I attended.  I thought my moms friends were beautiful. They all had long hair and wore skirts and high heels, so different from the way my grandmother dressed. They talked fast, smoked cigarettes and cussed. They let me taste their drinks. The bitter sweet taste of alcohol on a young pallet. Mixing with the perfume and smoke.  Sally had large breasts and a 108

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powerful laugh that caused her frame and everything on it to shake.  I loved to stand close to her.  I would do anything she asked me to do, just to be near her.  I could tell even at the  young age of ten that I was flirting.  I wasn't sure it was called that.  But I knew I was acting funny.  I even let her paint my toenails.  Grandpa and grandma were less happy with this new arrangement.  They saw less of us now.  And mom's friends had such a forbidding appeal. Hanging out with them was like being bad without getting in trouble. I felt free, happy and giddy.  It is an infectious feeling and I definitely caught something from those braless seventies divorcees.  But the feeling is also addictive. And there is only so much you can have you are a ten year old boy with his first sexual crush on his mothers friend.  At least sally wasn't a friends mother.   "Mickey's mom was hot. But she doesn't have the boobs." Carl said "Yeah, but Ms Milena has boobs and she smells really pretty too." I said speaking of Sally. "Yes, she's got some great honkers," Carl said. "Honkers?" I said, questioningly. "Honkers, boobs, you know, get it honkers." Carl said while making a honking noise and squeezing me on the chest over my homemade dry weave polyester shirt. "I think that honkers means a person's nose," Billy said.

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"Carl, you're thinking of hooters," Mat said. Carl is unfazed by the correction.  "Have you ever seen a girls boob?" Carl asked. "Greg has some pretty good boobs on him,"  Matt said "Shut up. Matt."  I said, while punching him in the arm. I had seen my mother's boobs many times.  Since I was young my sister and I would bathe with her with no thought at all about shame.  She continued to walk around the house naked.  Not any sort of habitual thing like a nudist.  But the regular sort of natural nudity you would expect a mother to have around her children. Although I was slightly conflicted about admitting it I said, "I have seen my mom's boobs a bunch of times." "Dude what! That's gross! That's your mom."  Carl said. "I'd like to see your mom's boobs.  They're almost as big as Ms. Malena's," Matt added. "How about you Carl?" "Well, my sister's friends were having a sleep over at the house and they were playing around all night. They took off their pajamas and looked at each others boobs.  I think they were playing a game. One of them took me into a closet and showed me her boobs and even let me touch it. 110

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"What did it feel like?" I asked. Not wanting to admit to them or my self that I hand felt my mother's breast numerous times and still if questioned could describe it well. "It felt like heaven, with a nippy titty.", Carl said motioning with his hands "Wow." "Did you kiss it?"  I asked. "Kiss it? No,  I wish. She just took my hand and put it on it.  We were sitting in the closet so it was pretty dark.  But I kinda got a look at it cause the door was cracked open.  And when I was feeling around on it she was kinda squirming.  But she seemed kinda like she was proud of them or something." "You got to second base, man!" Matt said,  "I definitely have to touch some boob soon." "Yeah, me too," I said while unconsciously feeling myself up. "Check it out, Greg's just got to second base with himself." "Hey Greg can you help a guy get to second base too? Just a little feel." Matt said gesturing toward my little fat boy boobs. "Yeah, give me a feel." Carl added.

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Back with my mother's friends was so different from talking with

the guys.  It was easy.  How I wished that Sally Melena would take me into the closet and proudly put my hand to her big chest.  I had to settle for sitting in her lap, momentarily that is before she told me to get off.  I guess I really settled for sitting next to her while she held my chubby foot in her hand and carefully painted each nail.  Her hot alcoholic breath mixed with perfume and smoke I breathed in deeply.  I wanted to capture everything about her. To hold her and be held. It was if I had  ten toes in heaven and this way stole away some lasting evidence with the shiny pink nail polish. But the new exciting life with my mother's friends and Mom's husband hunting and mani-pedi's, had it low points too.  Once a young pallet has tasted the sweet venality of a Strawberry Daiquiri or Tom Collins it was hard to settle for Grandma's powdered milk.  And my mother certainly did not take me out with her to the bars.  So my sister and I would return to our grandparent's house most nights.

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Powdered Milk

Powdered milk best describes the mood I felt being relegated to my grandparent's house, as my mom prepared with her friends for a night on the town.  Grandma's powdered milk was the sad substitute for real milk. This life behind my grandmas wood paneled walls, pacing sadly over brown carpeting, collapsing on a yellow sofa to watch Saturday night television on a black and white TV, was a sad substitute for the real life my young soul had just glimpsed.  A world filled with drinking, smoking and long haired big boobed ladies.  Grandma would make powdered milk each day.  She would take the large box from the shelf. It had a picture  of a cow on the front and a little milk maid with a pail full of fresh milk.  The stuff was toxic. As she pored it out into the jar, a cloud of powder filled the air like weaponized anthrax.  Over years of powered milk making, she had developed her own little procedures for making it, completely ignoring the manufactures suggestions and directions.  She like to get the most out of the powder, so she would boil a third of the water and make a super concentrated solution and then add in the rest of the cold water.  But this process had an unintended result that she completely ignored. It made the milk almost completely unpalatable.  The powdered milk curdled with the boiling water, leaving chunks in the final result.  My sister and  I would fight over which one would poor it over our morning cereal first. Because the first one to pour would most likely get the most chunks.  What's more Grandma would not mix this powdered milk in a pitcher.  She would reuse a Hellman's mayonnaise jar.  In the fridge, it would look like jars of mayonnaise, but it was really substitute milk.  The screw on lids to the jars had become rusted and every morning you had the risk of having rust 113

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tinged milk. It looked like a weak mixture of strawberry Quick.  Later when the lids rusted too badly even for her, she would close the jar with a square of waxed paper held tightly in place by an old beige rubber band.   Powdered milk was an abomination to the substance central to us mammals. It was an abomination to the new life I was discovering . On most nights at grandma's house, my sister and I took turns taking a bath.  When my sister would go in I would sit and talk to my grandpa. "So what color was George Washington's white horse, Greg?" "Brown, grandpa.  It's brown I know 'cause we have a picture of it in our history book." "You should think about things, son." "Now you remember Ben Brown don't you, son. " "Yeah he saved you from that fire.  Right?" "Yeah that donkey pulled me from the fire when I was just about your age. " "That donkey was really smart, huh?" "Well, he was smart, but kinda jealous too.  I think.  We got on really well. And after the fire, it was just me and him. My mother, father and brother's and sisters were all burned up."

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"Grandpa, that's terrible.  What did you do?" "Well, at first I just stayed around our land and Ben Brown and I tried to carry on.  The neighbors would come around and help.  But alone with a donkey, on some tiny farm is no way for a kid to live. You can understand that can't you?" "Yes, grandpa, I think I'd be lonely all by myself.  But you could do anything you want,  stay up late and watch TV." "Well, of course ,we didn't have any TV, nor radio neither. And I was living outside in a shack after the house burned down. So I had to let go of the old life and move on to something new. Now, I was deep in Missouri, and at that time, I got word that my aunt was in the circus.  She was a trapeze artist." "She would fly on the swings?" "Yes, as graceful as a blue jay and twice as fast.  She would swing form one to the other.  My mom had told me all about her. And the circus was coming through Jefferson City.  So me and Ben Brown set out for the circus.  We left everything we knew of our old life.   Well, most of it was taken by the fire anyway." "Were you scared?" "Yes, a little. But I didn't let on.  I wanted to be strong for Ben Brown.  I could tell Ben Brown was really scared and we set out.  He had never been further than the small town, and his long ears started twitching like crazy as soon as we got past the general store.  I just petted Ben 115

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Brown on the head and said 'easy boy, everything's all right boy. Let's go to the circus boy.' You say it now," Grandpa insisted. "Easy boy, everything's all right boy.  Let's go to the circus boy," I spoke carefully with a deep voice trying to put myself in grandpa's place. "I wish I had a donkey. I'd take care of him real good.  How long did it take to get to the circus?" "Well, Jefferson City is in the middle of Missouri and it wasn't too far away.  But donkeys sure don't move fast if they move at all. And it hurt me to do it but some times I'd have to take a switch to old Ben Browns butt to get him moving." "Oh grandpa,  but he saved your life." "Sometimes you gotta give a donkey a whooping if it doesn't keep moving.  It's for his own good.  We didn't have a thing except the clothes on my back and some food that the neighbors had given me. You see the state wanted to put me in an orphanage like your grandma.  But I would have no part of it. And I was ten years old. Back when I was young, that was as good a time as any to go out on your own." "So you made it to the circus." "Yes, we made it to Jefferson City about a week after the circus arrived. It was night, and the animals were tied up outside the tents.  They had this sign that said miniature horses.  But I could tell they were just shaved dogs." "Shaved dogs?" 116

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"Things are not what they seem in the circus, Greg. The sign says one thing, but the truth of the thing is often very different, and a little sad." "So I pass these minute horses, and I guess they had taken the reigns out of their mouths for the night as they started barking like crazy when I passed.  There was a bunch of wooden caravans done up fancier than a department store Christmas tree.  Some of the signs said strong man, fat lady, Mr. stretch and bearded little girl.  But I was looking for Linda the flying squirrel.  "Linda the flying squirrel? Grandpa that's silly." "Linda was my mother's sister.  You see, my mother was the pretty one, so she got married. Linda was a little short and had spiky brown hair. She kinda looked a little bit like a teenage boy.  In fact, she was just an inch or two taller than me and my hair was longer than hers, as I hadn't been cutting it since my dad died.  "So Linda took me and Ben brown in.  I would help her train by holding the swings for her while she did her routine.  We shared just a little caravan at night. But in the day we could practice and hang out in the spacious tents." "How about Ben Brown?" "Well, at first I'd just tie him up out side the caravan at night. And in the day I'd use him to collect trash and hall stuff about. But that all changed with Dirk Jensen." "Dirk Jensen? Who was Dirk Jensen, Grandpa?" 117

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"Dirk Jensen ran this competing circus. And it was really popular for a new sensation called horse high diving." "Horse High Diving, Grandpa? What's that" "It's just what it sounds like.  They get this horse and they train him to climb up this steep ladder about three stories tall. He is standing up there on a ledge, while the crowd is going crazy." "What happens next?" "Well, beneath that three story platform is a ten foot deep pool filled with water." "Then the horse jumps into the water, Grandpa?" "Well, under the best of circumstances it does.  But that's got to be a pretty well trained horse. And Dirk Jensen was supposedly the best horse trainer around." "What if the horse doesn't jump?" "If it takes too long the trainers on the ground just pull a rope and it pulls a pin out the platform. Then the horse goes tumbling into the water.  If the horse jumps on his own, he's less likely to get hurt, as he won't turn over on his back. If he is reluctant to go the trainers have to pull the pin and knock him off the platform, or all the audience will want their money back. The trouble is, about half the time you pull the pin, the horse dies in the fall." 118

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"That's awful." "Well, it's a cruel world, Greg, and sometimes you just gotta jump.  The reluctant horses had let the trainers decide their fate for them.  The scared horse is just sitting up on the platform one minute, and then the next, it's ass over tea kettle into the water.  Sometimes they'd break their leg or the neck.  Either way they'd shoot the injured ones while they were still in the pool." "Why is that, Grandpa?" "You can't pull an injured horse out of a pool while it falling all about. That's just not humane." "Oh Grandpa, that sounds awful." "It was pretty bad, especially behind the scenes.  After a full day of horse diving that water could be full of blood. But the good patrons don't see any of that.  They buy their tickets and are corralled into the spectators area. The horse jumps or is pushed and the crowd leaves happy, before they ever see any clean up.  "Oh my god grandpa,  did Ben Brown start horse diving?" "Well, not a first.  Ben Brown and I would help in the clean up process.  If a horse had been reluctant to jump and the pin was pulled ,dropping the horse into the water breaking its leg they'd shoot it, like I said.  After that they'd take a rope and tie it around the horse and tie the other end around Ben Brown, then I'd take my switch to Ben Brown's 119

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back side."  Smack smack, Grandpa gestured with his hand to my bottom. "Then strong ol' Ben Brown would pull that dead horse out of the water." "Sounds like an awful job, Grandpa." "Well, times back then were pretty tough, and at least we were pulling dead horses in the entertainment industry. It could have been much worse. We could have been in an orphanage like your grandma.  You see even though I lost most of my family, the rest of them stood up and helped, like Ben brown and my Aunt Linda." "That’s nice, grandpa." "It sure is and we would not be dragging dead horses our whole life.  Some days it's going to get better and some days it's going to get worse." "What do you mean, Grandpa?" "Well, I ain't dragging dead horses any more. And I got this house and a job at a factory helping to make the latest war planes.  Things really got better for me." "How about Ben Brown, Grandpa?" Well, Ben Brown was getting old. And he had been pulling out dead horses for a whole year.  Then one day he up and hurts his leg.  Now when an old horse or donkey hurts its leg it usually gets shot.   "Oh Grandpa, no?! Not Ben Brown? Not the donkey that saved 120

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your life! You didn't shoot Ben Brown, did you?" "Now calm down Greg, you know everything has to die.  But that’s not the point. We made about 5 dollars a week dragging dead horses out of the pool and to the butcher.  And on top of that five dollars the butcher gave us a little horse meat too. So that was quite a good job." "Horse meat doesn't sound so good,  Grandpa." "They use to eat it during the depression all right, and they still eat it in France.  Some people probably took a bite of George Washington's white horse too, when he died, regardless of his color.  The worst part about the job was the flies in summertime. When its hot like that and you're dragging a big old dead horse, your gonna attract some flies.  Autumn is the best time of the year for dragging horses bar none. The dry leaves make the horse slide real nice over the gravel roads. It's just something about that autumn air. That it doesn't matter what the carcass is getting hung up on. It's like the whole way to the butcher was paved with a slick muddy puddle, which are ideal dead horse dragging conditions. "I like autumn too, Grandpa. I like playing in the leaves." "So like I was saying, Ben Brown hurt his leg so his days of horse dragging were behind him. But me and Ben Brown got a lucky break. It seemed that Dirk Jensen the big wig guy that ran the competing circus came around our circus and started talking trash about our circus.  He was having some words with the strongman and Aunt Linda. Since Ben brown had hurt his leg he was just standing out in the field near the dung pile.

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"Dung pile?" "That's the place where we'd throw the horse crap and elephant poop.  It was a sort of no mans land but me and Ben Brown would do the dragging of the crap out there. So, as I was saying, Ben Brown is just hanging out there, eating what little grass leaves he can find. The horse high diving isn't going on, on account of the fact that we don't have Ben brown to drag out the injured horses." "You weren't making any money grandpa?" "Not a cent and they were going to shoot Ben Brown on account of his bum leg. Then they were going to send me to the orphanage, on account of the fact that I was really only good at whipping my donkey to get some work done." "What did you do, Grandpa?" "So here's the lucky break.  That Dirk Jensen he is plenty rich.  He wore fancy clothes, had a pretty wife and a girlfriend that was three times prettier than her.  He also had a taste for wagering." "Wagering is that betting?" "Yes, betting. He would bet for fun. But most of the time it seemed he was betting for spite.  So like I was saying, he is in this argument with the strong man, Linda and now the circus owner's got into it to. Well, dirk Jensen is going on about the horse high diving being his idea and accusing our circus of copying."

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"That's true isn't it, grandpa? You just told me that Dirk Jensen had the idea first." "Your right son, but just because something is true is no good reason to pick sides in a fight.  True or false in an argument you gotta take the side of your family and friends, because most of the time son, they are going to be flat wrong." "So Dirk Jensen's insulting our horse diving rig, saying it ain't fit even for a donkey.  And then he goes and bets a stack of money that they could not even get a donkey to dive off there."

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Ben Brown's Dive

"Well, the circus owner, the strong man and my Aunt Linda, knew that I could get Ben Brown to do most anything. So they tell me as long and I get Ben Brown to climb up that steep ladder, I am going to get a big cut of money.  Big enough so I don't have to go to the orphanage." "Grandpa, why did they say you only got to get him to climb up the ladder?  Doesn't Ben Brown have to jump too." "'Cause they know as long as he gets up there, they are going to pull the pin and drop him straight in the water." "But that'd kill Ben Brown, Grandpa!" "Sure enough, It would have killed him like all the other reluctant horses we had dragged out. So they keep telling me to just get him up there and they'll pull the pin. Now I don't want Ben brown to die.  But I think the horse shooter was going to do him in the next week anyway because of his hurt leg. And, I sure would love having a little bit of money. What's more it would keep me out of the orphanage.  So I start walking Ben Brown up the ladder.  I grab my switch and give him a few taps on the rear." "Was Ben Brown scared?" "His ears were twitching a lot. And he was kinda making all kinds of noises 'cause it was hurting him to put weight on his leg.  But it wasn't like dragging a dead horse, so he was making it up the horse high dive 124

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ladder pretty well.  " While were climbing everybody's cheering and a crowd has formed around.  Now they didn't sell any tickets for this jump on account it was just a spiteful wager by Dirk Jensen.  But my Aunt Linda starts going around and collecting some money from the onlookers.  And I just keep guiding Ben brown slowly up the ladder knowing that as soon as he got up to the top they were going to pull that pin. And after that Ben Brown would probably tumble ass over teakettle to his death." "Oh Grandpa! How could you?" "My chest was pounding, my heart felt like it was going to jump right out of my throat.  And I got an idea.  Now I was still pretty small and thin as a toothpick.  I thought If I got on top of Ben brown and got him moving pretty fast we could jump off the end of the dive before they got a chance to pull the pin.  But that fall could easily kill me just the same.  'Cause if we don't make it I'm in ten feet of water with Ben Brown on top of me. "Oh, Grandpa, what did you do?" "I plucked up my courage and hopped on top of ol' Ben Brown and brought that switch down the hardest I ever had on Ben Browns butt.  He plucked up and ran. And we darted fast as we could right off the end of the dive.  While we were falling I could here the crowd gasping." "What happened?" "The next thing I knew, I was looking at something sparkling blue. I noticed my head hurt real bad.  I open my eyes and saw my  Aunt Linda's 125

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sparkling Blue leotard. She was holding me in her arms, smiling as big as the world." "What about Ben Brown?" "I looked over and saw that he had already managed to get himself out of the water.  He was just the same as he ever was, looking for something to eat near the dung heap." "Oh Grandpa, you saved his life. Just like he saved yours." "Greg, it is time for your bath," Grandma said pulling me away from the table. "Grandma did you hear? Grandpa saved Ben browns life, did you know that?" "What have you been telling him Bud?  Careful what you say he's gullible like his mother." Grandma said, pushing me toward the bathroom. It was during that bath that Grandma discovered I had pink toe nails.  She was shocked at first mistaking it for some kind of disease.   "Greg what is that on your toes.  You gotta let those pigs out of their sneakers occasionally. You're gonna have to get them amputated if you get an infection.  Let me put some campho phenique on them after your bath.  Your dammed toes are going to fall off." Campho-phenique was my grandmother's cure-all. It seemed she had purchased a lifetime supply sometime in the late forties. In a time of modern medicine and modern packaging her Campho-phenique was a 126

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stand out, it came in old fashioned medicine bottles that looked more appropriate for a museum than a medicine chest.   My mother swears that Grandma forced her to eat a teaspoon of it for a persistent cough.  Most of my grandmother's uses were not the suggested uses of the product, and were even contraindicated for the particular complaint. And some uses were certainly lethal. It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned that Campho-phenique is a treatment for cold sores.   So while I was in the bath trying my best to scrub off the incriminating pink toe nail polish. Grandma was out side preparing the old green bottles of herpes medicine and the cotton ball with which to apply it.   She was no doubt talking about it with my Grandpa.  I thought It would be so embarrassing if Grandpa found out I had been wearing toe nail polish. And how could I explain to him that I did it only to get close to the older woman that I had my first sexual crush on.   I was  scrubbing like crazy now along with pink toe nails I had bright red toes from all the forceful cleaning.   I thought about stalling even longer in the bath. But my skin was starting to prune and the water was getting too cold.   I finished up and dried off.  I was trying to think up some story as to why my toes had to be painted.  I tried praying to Mary.  I know that a boy having painted toes in not a sin. Even if it is frowned upon by all of masculine society.  But lying about it sure is a sin and I am pretty sure coveting Ms. Malena's boobs is a sin too.  So half way through my prayer to Mary I let it be. Best to take this one like a man.  A man with pink toe nails. So I walked proudly out of the bath room, bare foot, my little piggies living out loud in bright pink.  Grandma set me down at the kitchen table and began to inaccurately apply cold sore medicine to my 127

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pink pedicure.  She held my foot and looked at the toes real closely.  Then she slapped me upside the head.  I didn't so much as stir.  I could feel the slap tingle on my face. I straightened my hair and she gave me a half smile. "Now you go put some socks over your feet and get into bed like yours sister.  No TV tonight. " Grandma said sternly.   Angela was tired and already asleep a book laying right next to her.  I got into bed and thought about stuff. There were a lot of changes going on. I was now an alter boy.  I had been tipsy from alter wine.  I was interested in girls now, a whole new world of women, and most importantly to a young boy's interests, boobs.    My mom was now different. She had new friends who were fun and pretty and were helping her to find a new husband.  It had been revealed that my father was not going to return.   But in the end that was just a small thing lacking, in comparison to all the new stuff in my life.  I felt good and I was happy. I could lay awake in bed and target my prayers more accurately now.  I could pray for my mom to find a husband. I could selfishly pray to get closer to Sally Malena and her boobs.  I could lay in bed and just feel the world turning around me.

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New name

As the weeks of looking for a new husband wore on, after it was revealed that my father was not coming back, my mother started to clean house a bit.  Or more accurately she was rewriting history, much the way it was conducted  during the cold war.  Mom went through the family pictures with a scalpel and a permanent marker.  The scalpel for cutting my fathers face out of photos were it was possible. The marker for covering the face and body when it was not compositionally possible to cut.   We helped her line up the picture sitting in the middle of the living room floor.  Liberating pictures from underneath the clear sticky film of photo album pages.  Mom would cut and blot through the short history we had together. Since my father had been gone for many years these photos of our youth seemed somewhat alien.  The life seemed alien.  I could recognize my mother who had only changed the color of her hair and now dressed somewhat more trashy.  I could recognize my grandparents who over the few years had not changed in any perceptible way.  But when it came to me or my sister we seemed odd. I had no memory of the times when the pictures were taken.  And what's more I had no actual memories of my father, Kent Kreisman.  For example, in one photo he was holding me up to look into the monkey cage at the zoo.   "You don't remember that, do you Greg?" Mom asked. "No, not at all." "Well, you were three then. That was a long time ago." "Tell me about it, Mom." 129

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"It was in the monkey house at the zoo. I tell you Greg it stunk like crazy.  Nothing but animal poop in that whole place.  You remember the zoo?" "Yes, we went last year with school, remember Mom, you signed the note. Or maybe it was grandma? I love the monkey cages. One of the monkeys threw some poop right near Sister Fullashitta.  It was so cool." "Yep, the monkeys were throwing poo that day too. I wanted to get you and your sister out of there I thought that smell would get stuck in your clothes, and would never come out.", Mom said as she worked on more photos.  "Yuck! Monkey poo!" Angela said as she flipped through some other album. "But your father wanted to stay. Frankly I think he is part monkey.  He wouldn't leave until we took this picture of him holding you up to the monkey like an offering. He thought you would make a good monkey child." "I'd love to be a monkey child, running around naked playing all day." I said. "Here, give me that picture, Greg.  Let's see how handsome you look.  You will still have this memory." Mom said as she carefully cut out Kent's face. "See look here, it looks better now.  Do you want to color over you father's body or should I?"

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"Oh you better do it mom,  I always color out of the lines, and I don’t want to ruin such a good picture." In addition to the photo manipulation program that was started. There was also a project to rid the house all things Jewish. Mom ransacked the house looking for anything even slightly "heeby", throwing it in the garbage.  It was our own a mini crystal night, the trash can full of Jewish rubbish and  floor littered with our Father's small disembodied faces.   Our father's parents, Lou and Ester, had given us a menorah for

Chanaka.  It was the first thing to go. It made a loud clunking sound as it went into the garbage "And listen kids," Mom said, "this piece of sacrilegious shit, I want it out of our house.  It’s the devils candle stick holder, you don’t want to hold the devils candle stick do you." "No mom,  the devil is bad," we said. "And so is this piece of junk.  They got it on sale too. It isn't even silver. It's like pewter or some shit like that. "Yeah, get rid of it Mom. It's bad and not worth a cent." "And while were at it.  Don't you ever go to a bakery down in U City.  They sell those bagels there.  Bagels are Jew bread. Bagels are never allowed in this house. You should be eating Italian bread if anything. And were not going to get any of those new frozen bagels that you see on TV.  That's just a plan by those Jews to get you to by stuff while you're 131

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watching those Jew shows on TV. They're just a bunch a hawkers like your big nosed Jew grandpa." Moms ethnic house cleaning spared few things even loosely connected with the Jews.  Of course the Manischewitz wine, the knishes, blintzes and instant matzo ball soup I could understand those. But my poster of star wars was on the chopping block too, because of the influence of the Jewish media. She relented and let me keep it after pleading with her and finally convincing her that Darth Vader is actually a Catholic nun. Mom had even wanted to throw out the first half of the Bible.  You know the Jewish part. After every picture was sanitized and the house was cleared of ethnic material, she asked, "do you kids, remember your father's name?" "Dad," Angela said quickly . "No, Angela, his real name." Mom corrected. "Yes, Mom I remember it's Kent. Kent Kreisman. It's my middle name too." I said proudly. Well, from now on I don’t ever want to here that name.  So Greg you might as well forget about your middle name all together.  And we mention your father we will call him Fred. Fred, like Fred Flintstone. "You got it kids?" Mom asked. "Yes, we got it" "Tell me, then what is your father's name?" 132

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"Fred. . ., like Fred Flintstone" "Good job, you are brave little guys.", Mom said kneeling to the floor giving us a big hug. "And now, kids, we need to take care of the last part of the Jewishness.  When I meet a good man to be your father.  He'll be a good Christian man. Not that he needs to go to Church and all. But just that he is one of us, you know."  "Yes, he'd be like us, Catholic" "Well, that’s the problem guys. He'd really be like me and my mom and dad but not like you guys .  Because you guys, you sound like you got jew names. You see Kreisman is a Jew name and as long as you use it you are one of them.  And you don’t want to be one of them do you. "  "No Mom, what can we do?" "We have to change your name." "Are we going to take grandpa's name. I'd like that?" I said. "No. I don't want you to take my Grandpa's name just on account of the fact that I'm going to get me a Jew lawyer and sue Fred. 'Cause one Jew will go after  another sure as anything when they can smell some money.  And Fred's got some money now. Do you know what your father does.  Well, what he does other than starting families and leaving them." 133

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Mom paused dramatically and said, "He's a Doctor . Yes, he's a doctor all right, now. But when you guys were just babies he was a medical student.  And a Jew medical student at that. Let me tell you, there ain't anyone cheaper than a Jew medical student.  I had to work and pay for everything." "What did you do, mom?" You don't remember little dearies," she hugged us close to her face. Fred's little cut out faces were spread all over the floor the tips of her fingers black from the magic marker which blotted out the rest of his form. "Well, I taught at the very school you go to. And at night I did some cocktail waitressing." Although my mother had a degree from university.  The same university where she met my father, she certainly did not speak as if she were an academic.  Her instincts about teaching were all emotional and she was more of a friend to the students than a teacher. I spent many years of my education trying to overcome the lessons my mother imparted to me concerning reading and writing.  I questioned her one time about how could I read a big book.  I thought that I would get lost keeping track of all the characters.  She told me that it wasn't important who the book was about or the names that they use. Her advice was just to try to remember some things that happen.  After that little pep talk my reading comprehension scores dropped significantly the next semester as I tried to ignore the names. (It was a story about two guys on a raft.  I can't remember the river or the cities they went to.  It had a happy ending.) Of course, if you don't keep track of names the actions can have little consequence. And my mother actually saw the world this way.  Things happen and she just tried to keep doing stuff.  It didn't matter to whom, or 134

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at whose expense. She wasn't really keeping track.  As for endings, those did not matter either.  There is a nursery rhyme about a fuzzy bear.  Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear, fuzzy wuzzy had no hair.  The next line is supposed to be an interesting counter factual.  Namely, that fuzzy wuzzy wasn't fuzzy was he.  Ironically a bear who was named fuzzy was not, in fact, fuzzy.  However, as my mother taught us fuzzy wuzzy was just a nonsense rhyme. We would  all repeat together fuzzy wuzzy was a bear fuzzy wuzzy had no hair. And then spout out random gibberish that ended in uzzy,  uzy, wuzy, uzy, wuzy.  I did not learn the correct recitation myself  until university.   "Like I was saying kids, the point is, I worked and worked for that man.  He was just a student,  and didn't bring in a dime.  I put him through medical school but now he is a rich doctor, and he's gone.  That lousy Jew  won't pay back a single cent. That is until another Jew claws after him for a small cut of our money. "  I sort of sighed, feeling a little angry that my mom was so upset.  But I didn't dare say anything. When she would get like this you just had to leave her be and ride along.  But what she was telling us felt important.  We were doing important things that day.  It felt important like an amputation, an aching pain, that had to be cut. Our world on Edwards being created by fiat, history being changed.  I was beginning to get dizzy and a little nauseous.  The world was spinning. "So you can't take Grandpa's name because it won't look good when we sue Fred." "Can we make up a new name?", I ask.

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"No for legal reasons, like I was saying, I think we should keep your new name close.  We are just going to make it look German. So on paper you have just about the same except from now on you will spell you name with two n's.  Kreismann, so, the people that we meet from now on, like maybe your new daddy,  will think you two are just like us, not a dirty back stabbing lying Jew like you father." "Sure, Mom, that's not hard. I like writing n's", Angela said. "And when you say your name, from now on, you'll say 'kriss' 'mann'. Remember kriss rhymes with kiss."  she said giving us a little peck on the cheek. "Then you just put a 'mann' at the end. 'Kriss man.' nice and Christian." My mother begins to hug us too tightly. But we could feel that the life revisions were almost complete.  We were tired and still had to sweep up the faces from the floor and put the pictures back in the album. "Oh you two kids! You are so beautiful! Gregory and Angela krismann.  How did I ever make such beautiful children from your father's evil seed?"

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Carl's boobs St. Ambrose was a parochial school with an almost completely homogeneous student body. It consisted of second and third generation Italians. These families were either upwardly mobile or on their way to being regular American white trash.   Still they were not the judgmental type, and largely accepted my sister and I, Jewish names or not. But although they were not judgmental they struggled to understand our name change with quizzical dismay.  However the school was totally unwilling to accept the fact  that my parents were getting a divorce. "Gregory Kreisman," Sister Fullashitta said calling role. "No Sister, that's Krissmann," I said proudly. "No, Greg it's Kreisman. Sisters Fullashitta is right." Matt corrected. "Sorry Sister, My mother told me that I am now Gregory Krissman.  Its very important cause she's suing my father. She's going to get lots of money." "Oh I see," Sister Fullashitta said knowingly as she walked slowly toward me, "stand up son. What is your name?" "Gregory Krissman, Sister" She reaches my desk and laid her hand on my head as she often did slapping me hard on my knuckles with her ruler. "Your name is Gregory Kreisman until you leave this class got it."

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I pause and she slaps my knuckles again. "Yes, Sister, Gregory Kreisman, I understand." "Now son, that name was giving to you in a union sanctioned by the lord during a holy sacrament. I don't think that you should change it.  What the lord has put together let no man tear asunder, you understand."

I sat down rubbing my knuckles until recess. Where I could commiserate with classmates.

"Tough luck with Sister Fullashitta, Greg." Matt said. "Yeah, thanks." "But you kinda bring it on yourself. Why do you always have to upset her?  And what's the deal with the new name. That's just stupid. Don't act like such a dork 'Oh I'm Greg I have a new name." "Yeah, none of us have a new name," Mickey said. "I know what you should change your name to.  Crisco," John said "Why Crisco?" "Cause it's fat in a can. You know for cooking but you're just fat, fat in the can." John said slapping me on the Butt.

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"Cut it out guys." "Did you hear about Carl's collection." Matt said changing the subject. "What collection," John asked. "A boob collection."   "Wow! A boob collection." Mickey said excitedly. "Hold on, what do you mean a boob collection?" "He has been going through all of his brother's magazines some of them just for women and he has collected them in a big box." "Have you seen them?" I ask.   "No. But I heard that the process was going on for years.  Carl's older brother Rodney had started the collection years ago.  But now his brother is already in college. So when he left he gave Carl the collection. " "Wow, real magazines with people's clothes off." "Yep, the real deal. He has some Playboys and Penthouse and one French one that  I don’t even know how to say." "Let's go see them." "Yeah, let's go see them. I got to look at some boobies boobies" Mickey said sticking his skinny crossed arms into his shirt and pretending 139

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his elbows are boobs. "Hey, Greg you can get some of Sally Malena's boobs." Mickey says rubbing his homemade rack on my chest. "Go on then, give em a little kiss why don't you.  I know you want to." "Yeah, Greg wants to kiss Sally Malena's boobs," John said. "He's probably gonna eat them all up." Just then Mickey takes his hands out of his shirt.  "Gregory Crisco ate up all of Mrs Malena's boobs." "Cut it out you Mickey." I said, and give him a punch in his skinny arm. "Anyway, one is meant to drink the boob.  Don't you know anything Mickey." "All right guys, I'll tell Carl and after school we can go meet in the play ground and walk Carl's home to have a look," Matt said with all the importance of an agent or a pimp. You can tell he was basking in the warm light of second hand porn.  When I was ten erotic images were hard to come by.  It wasn't like today's world of the Internet and access to any image imaginable. As children we never even saw a boob on TV. This was before the days of cable TV networks and filthy original programing. We didn't even have a video tape player.  Every moving picture I saw at home was completely innocent.  The real naughty stuff back then was largely magazine based. But if you didn't have an older brother or young Uncle you had almost no chance to see it.  That's why Carl was so lucky.  He and his twin sister Carol were the second youngest in a large family of 6.  His older brothers 140

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drove and had facial hair.  They rode motorcycles and did all kinds of crazy things around the neighborhood.  That made Carl cool in a way that no other boys in our class were. He had all the trickle down experience from those older brothers and access to vast amounts of knowledge about the real world, out side of the grade school classroom or after school TV.   And we were lucky enough to get to have a glimpse of the vast library of naughtiness and sex, in the box of dirty magazines. My other chances to see boobs in print were pretty limited but I had taken full advantage of what little access I had.  There was the national geographic collection in our house that dated back to when my mother and father had first married.  This glossy journal was my most accurate source for boobs in the house. Best of all because of its reputation the boobs were right there in the open on the bookshelf.  I had memorized the month, year, and page of the best boobs that national geographic had to offer, in the entire decade of the seventies.  The standard picture of boobs in National Geographic is that they are all of old African women with long saggy ones.  Boobs so not erotic it is only a sociologist that gets any stir from them.   This standard picture is in fact not a great representation of true catalogue of boobs.  There are boobs from almost every continent and age. Some of the best boob pictures are of south American tribes with olive skin and quite perky boobs.  There is even in the November 1974 issue an aerial shot of a nude beach on the banks of a river in Germany.  And with aid of a magnifying glass, one could survey at least 20 pair of European boobs.  The next best place to find boob was the bra adds in the Sears and Pennies catalogs that we would have on hand in the house.   My grandma called them wish books, not for the boobs of course, but for me that would be pretty appropriate.  Grandma would look through the catalogs and circle the things she would like to buy that year.  Grandma would have us circle toys we might like too. But when grandma wasn't looking I would turn from the back pages where 141

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the toys were and a take a look at the bras.  The models had such pretty faces and looked so matter of fact about wearing no shirts.  They didn't seem to be the least bit embarrassed. The final last resort erotic pictures when we were young was the ones we tried to draw ourselves.  I was not particularly talented at drawing them.  But there was an older kid a grade up named Mark and he could draw boobs so good you'd thought they were tracings. Then there was Mickey who would take a simple drawing of a person and cut a little hole where the butt would be then he would put his fingers behind the hole, and sure enough, it would look just like a real but crack.

Back in class it was a difficult as ever to concentrate on some stupid lesson with the thought of all the dirty pictures to be seen later.  Not to mention it had already been a highly emotional day.  I had been slapped by a Nun.  I had Mickey's fake boobs rubbed on me. And what's worse I'd been humiliated in front of the entire class for changing my name.  All this emotion and it wasn't even noon.  But the young mind is resilient and curiosity is a great distraction from ones own life. After school we met in the parking lot outside the play ground.  Matt, Mickey, Carl and John. Matt and Carl were walking up front walking down the street mickey asked me about my mom.  "So my mom tells me that your mom is looking to find a new husband." Mickey said throwing a rock at passing truck.  "Yeah, that what she says. She wants to get us some insurance," I said trying not to let on that I had no clear idea what insurance was or how my mother going to bars with Mickey's mother would get me any. 142

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"I guess I  need some of that insurance too. On account of my dad is away too." Mickey said, maybe the most serious thing he ever said. "My mom says that she needs her pipes cleaned too.  And they got plenty of people to do it down at the bar.  Well, that's what I hear her tell my dad when she's on the phone with him in purgatory." "Mickey, it's penitentiary.  Your dad's not in purgatory." Mat said, interrupting and waiting for us to catch up, " stop talking about boring stuff were going to see some boobs." Carl leads us into his back yard. It's about three blocks from my house.  Carl's house was in a new development that was built in the sixties as a way to entice the new wealthy Italian immigrants. His family ran a successful pizza chain. They had a lot more than any one else in the neighborhood.  But wealth did not spoil Carl. We passed the built-in pool. It had a cover over it. It was late September.  We walked through the back entrance on the way  to his second floor room.  We stopped off at the kitchen. It was the biggest kitchen that any of us had ever seen.  The kitchen and dining room was as large as one floor of my house.   Carl's mom was home and she stopped us. "Hey boys,  do you want some cokes." Mickey and I got kind of nervous.  But Matt as always retained his composure. "Yes, ma'am, thank you," Mat said. 143

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"Well, you are certainly a polite boy. What do you say Greg and Mickey,  you want a coke too?" "Yes, ma'am," we said. "How are your boys mother's doing?  Greg, I saw your mom the other day at the store.  She sure was dressed pretty.  And that blond hair it sure suits her. You be sure to tell her for me." "Yes ma'am" "And Mickey, say hello to your mother. I think I saw her Sunday morning when I was on my way to six O'clock mass.  She was sure dressed fancy for church. And come to think of it she was walking the opposite way to church. "Well, anyway here are your cokes." "Thanks ma'am." "Come on guys lets go to my room," Carl said impatiently. "Have fun boys" Carl's mom said as we hurried out of the kitchen. As we were walking up the stairs to Carl's room I kinda started feeling bad about looking at boobs right after talking to a mother about mothers.  It just didn't seem right somehow. I mean, come on she had just given us cokes, and now we were going to look at naked girls. However, curiosity had got the better of me when we entered Carl's room.

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"So Carl where are they" Matt Said "Under the bed," Carl said as he reached down to get them. "I have to keep them hidden." Carl pulled out a small cigar box while opening it proudly presented it to Matt. "What the heck is this Carl?  Cigars?" "No, it’s the pictures," Carl said proudly. "Carl you said the pictures were from magazines this is way too small for magazines." "Just open it Matt," Mickey said. "I want to see some boobies."   "Quiet Mickey, we don’t want Carl's  mother coming up here." I said nervously. "Wait till you see them," Carl said beaming with pride. "I stayed up late doing it all night." Mat opens the cigar box and a small wave of disembodied boobs fall onto the floor,  like a small pornographic snow fall, no two tits were the same. "Carl! What the fuck?!" Matt said angrily. "What did you do?" "I cut out the best bits," Carl said still beaming over his handy 145

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work.  He got down on his hands and knees picking the circular disembodied breasts.  "There are other naughty bits at the bottom too. You know the ones with hair." Matt angrily dumps the contents of the cigar box on the floor.  "Carl I can't believe you did that.  You mean you cut up all your brother's magazines." "Well, so far I got through little more than half.  I am going to finish the rest up. But my hand got sore from using the scissors all night." Carl said. Mickey, Carl and I stayed on the floor sorting through hundreds of circular scraps of paper.  Although Matt was obviously totally disappointed, we three were in heaven.  The breasts were like gumdrops.  Handfuls of them would paint an abstract topography of young boys misplaced lust.  Matt could not appreciate the innocent boobs for boobs sake.  He needed the whole picture the woman, the face even her likes and pet peeves.  But we didn't mind three mammary misers, in the fort Knox of tits. We played.  In the end Carl reached far back in his closet and pulled out a stack of un-cut playboys and Matt sat there reading jokes we couldn't understand, as we lined up various breasts by size shape and nipple size.  Every once in a while Matt would get our attention and show us the centerfold of the model whose biography he had just read to us.   All the disembodied breasts do however mess with you perception. That night I even dreamt the moon and sun were breasts and the stars in the sky.  And I nearly had a fit passing cantaloupes stacked the produce section of the grocery store, lingering far to long with my chubby little hand on the melon rind.

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Boy Scouts  The first few months of our family's new life was going pretty well.  My mothers search for a new husband and father for her children coincided with awakening of an interest in girls.  Mother's friends were exciting fully operational models of women, something that school girls could not quite approach.  And I was curious about almost every aspect of their life. Perhaps I was beginning to learn what Matt already knew.  That it is the whole package that makes a woman exciting,  not just some disembodied boob. What they had for breakfast. How they hold their cigarette to their lips as they pour themselves another Tom Collins.  The way they fix their bra strap or burn their unclothed thighs on a sunwarmed vinyl seat on a hot summers day.  Spending all the time with my mothers friends gave me a bit more confidence when it came to dealing with the school girls, and classmates.  But school girls seemed so much less exciting. For example, I knew Rosy liked flowers. She would write poems about them ever day. And Marianne liked horses. She would never have a horse. But my mother's friend Sally Malena liked dancing to disco music in high heeled shoes and a tube top. That is very hard for any schoolgirl to beat. There were very few social functions out side of school that involved boys and girls. The only one was roller skating. My three male role models were John Travolta in 'Saturday Night Fever', Leather jacket bound Fonzie from 'Happy Days', and corduroy jacket with leather patches Carl Sagan. The only other social function for boys was the boy scouts.  Our boy scout troop only had 6 people in it. They were all class mates of mine. We had Carl, Matt, Mickey and I were all in it together.  None of 147

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fathers of  the six boys in the scout troop acted as troop leaders.  Mickey's dad was detained, My was gone.  And the rest were either too tired from their work, or, they were already at the bar.  So the school enlisted whomever was interested.   Our scout troop was totally undisciplined.  From time to time we had different guest troop leaders, usually someone's visiting uncle or the live-in church janitor.  We would meet in the church basement and sit on folding chairs holding our scout hand book and wearing a blue neckerchief.  None of our troop members had ever earned a merit badge as there was no week to week continuity of administration.  We would usually sit in the church basement for an hour leafing through our scout book, talking over things we might do.  One night the janitor supervised we really did nothing at all. Sometimes when he was cleaning upstairs, we would rummage through the old cloths that parishioners would drop off for charity.  Almost every church basement has a stage as did ours. And most under supervised scout nights we would take turns prancing over the stage and trying to make the other kids laugh.  Skinny armed Mickey could wrap his arms around himself and with his back toward us mimed as if he was in a long sensual kiss with another person.  Matt could belch a whole Hail Marry. I usually resorted to crazy dancing punctuated with armpit farts. The few real supervised boy scout meetings were really boring. They started when a new guy moved in to the neighborhood who took an interest in the neighborhood boys. The school and church were happy to have him as a volunteer as this freed up the janitor to clean more thoroughly.  So the seven of us plus the new scout leader were meeting regularly, and with the goal of attending a Boy scout  function camp-out in the next month.   There was a lot for us to learn.  We had never gone 148

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though the scout hand book in any detail. None of us had memorized any of the scout mottoes or sayings.  We dressed inappropriately, wearing just our street clothes and a neckerchief. We could not light a fire, tie a knot or pitch a tent.  We were hopeless. But Mr Boiluve was going to give us a crash course and make us prepared to camp along side even the most conscientious Boy Scouts. We had been working pretty hard.  I had even tied some knots at home.  My grandma sewed me a special pair of khaki boy scout shorts with an elastic waste and double wide butt. Even Mickey, who was by far the least serious of us, had memorized the boy scout code.  He repeated it with great pride on the play ground during recess. These preparations that were transforming our scout troop even caught the notice of Sister Fullashitta who asked Matt, Carl, Mickey and I to give a presentation about the boy scouts for the rest of class. Mr. Boiluve took all the attention in stride. Out side of boy scouts it seemed he lead a pretty solitary life.  He had rented a studio apartment over looking the school yard. We would sometimes see him watching us on the play ground during recess.  We wondered if he could possibly hear Mickey's perfect recitation of the boy scout code.  Matt thought it was impossible. But he would just stand at the window watching us.  All the parents thought it was great. A week before the big camping trip we were encouraged by Mr Boiluve not to wear our boy scout uniforms to the meeting.  He said we should not get them dirty a week before going on our big trip.  It was a really warm Wednesday night when we arrived.  I was wearing my favorite t-shirt with Farah Faucet in a bikini, and blue jean cut-offs.  I was sweating like mad whenever skin met skin, especially the pits and the 149

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crotch.  We sat down on folding chairs before the stage. Mr Boiluve was sitting indian style on the stage and said "Congratulations boys, you have all been working very hard."   We were all happy and replied very politely as we had been trained. "Thank you sir." " So tonight's meeting is going to be really easy. Because it's mostly just going to be a pizza party, four large pepperoni and sausage pizzas and some cokes." "Thank you, sir," we replied. "But first we just have to take care of one minor thing. It turns out that you have to have a doctor look at you if you want to go to camp. Do any of you have a doctors note?" "No, sir," we replied. "I didn't hear anything about a doctor's note," Matt said. "Well, don’t  worry because my friend Dr. Dan will be right in the back room and he will check you all out." "What is he looking for?" Mickey asked nervously. "Well, the boy scouts are mostly concerned that you don't have hernias," Mr. Boiluve said. 150

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"Hyenas. That's like a dog or something?" Mickey said. "I know Bobby has a dog, so Bobby cant go." "Well, I sometimes get a charlie horse, it's not a dog but it hurts pretty bad," I said. "No, boys, a hernia is when there is something wrong with your private parts.  So we just want to check and see if you are OK before you go on the trip." "Will it hurt?" "Not at all. Dr. Dan has a real soft touch. So you guys can start on the pizza and cokes and Dr. Dan and I will be in the back room.   Bobby since you do have a dog at home why don't we check you out first." "What's he going to do?" Bobby asks nervously. "Well, you'll just go in the room and pull your pants down.  And doctor Dan will do the rest." We all seemed to be passing our exams with flying colors. Not a single hernia amongst us.  We were all so happy with the pizza party we didn't mind the inconvenience of a little exam. I sat on the church basement stage eating pizza until my turn.  The exams were not taking too long.  I had only eaten about 5 pieces of pizza but I drank about a liter of coke and had an urgent need to use the toilet.  I was a little bit worried about holding too much in my bladder" 151

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"Do you think if I have to pee the doctor will think I have a hernia." I asked Matt. "Greg, it looks like you might have a hernia from wearing those shorts,  your packed in there like a sausage." It was true the jeans were not husky size they were my grandfathers old slim jeans that grandma cut-off just a hair lower than the zipper.  These were adult sized pants for a rather small man squeezed over the wide butt of a ten year old boy.  I was still much shorter than my grandpa but grandma had cut them so short because summer was coming, and summer in St. Louis is hot and humid.  My calfs bubbled out from the short raveling legs like overfilled birthday balloons. My inner thighs were red from chafing even from the short walk from the house.  But I was proud of my shorts.  Firstly, they were once my grandpa's and, secondly, they were not made especially for fat kids.  Sure they were a grown man's hand-me-down jeans cut to ridiculous proportions but they did not say husky on them.  They were normal. "Yeah, Greg's thing is like open up the barn door, its crowded in here," Mickey said, making fun of my tight pants. "Shut up guys,"  I said.   "But aren't you guys worried that they got to check our things." "Na, its nothing Bobby says. I was only in there for a few minutes.  You just pull down your pants and he makes you turn your head and cough while he touches your balls."

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"He touches your balls!" "Yeah, it's no big deal then he takes out his portable x-ray machine and your done." "Portable x-ray machine.  No way?" "Yeah it looks a lot like a camera but has in big letters x-ray." "Cool." "Dr. Dan can see inside our wieners." Mickey said. "I bet it's going to show about ten pieces of pizza and a bottle of coke are in Greg's," Matt said "Cut it out guys. But really,  I should go pee.   I am totally going to fail this test." "That's right hernia boy.  You'll probably kill Dr Dan with the smell of your sweaty crotch." Mickey said "That's it I'm going," I said walking toward the door.  "I gotta pee. You guys are mean." "No, Greg we're just joking around.  Hey look Matt's up next." Mr Boiluve leads Paul out of the back room.  Paul is still doing up his pants buckling his belt.  Mr Boiluve leads Matt from behind by the shoulders and leads him into the back room.  153

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I head to the bathroom in the rear of the church basement.  It was right up the stairs leading to the church.  I went in the bath room and started to relieve myself.  And I was getting pretty nervous about the full frontal exam I was about to have.  I thought about going upstairs to light a candle to the virgin Mary for help.  I had two quarters in my pocket and one quarter would be more than enough for a small prayer for passing a hernia test.  I mean what more could I do.  While I may have made a poor choice of pants for a ball exam.  I was wearing my scapula so in case the test went horribly wrong and I died in the middle of it my soul would escape the fires of hell.  But I needed a little intercession from Mary even after relieving my self. Those pants were really tight.  So I headed up the stairs to the first floor, and entered the church.  The janitor was napping in one of the pews in the back and his snoring could be heard quite easily baffling against the marble walls.   The stain glass windows which during the day were bright and colorful were now dark and muted.  The church was half lit and the light from the candle offerings danced on the statues and walls. I tried to walk quietly along the marble floor but my sneakers are squeaking with each chubby footfall. And my the sound of my thighs rubbing together is rivaling the echo of the janitor's snoring.   I kneel down before Mary looking up at her beautiful face staring down at me. Her furrowed robes and wide arms are familiar and inviting.  It was comforting at some level I didn't fully understand.  I could stare at the statue for hours.   It's funny that I didn't feel so much like praying. I got the feeling kinda like when I was around Ms. Malena in a tube top or looking at the bits that Carl cut out of the magazine.   Sitting there loosing myself in thought in front of the mother Mary, I break my concentration and with some difficulty. And with my chubby 154

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hand released one quarter from the tight jeans pocket pulling the thin white pocket material out in the process.  I put the quarter in the box and reach for the punks.  I light the punk and was about to light an offering and make a prayer when I feel a pair of large hands on my shoulders.  Stunned I drop the punk to the marble floor before lighting the candle. "Now, Greg you shouldn't play with fire," Mr. Boiluve said, taking one hand off my back to play with his bushy mustache. Dr. Dan is waiting downstairs for you.  He's got Mickey in there now so you're next."  "Yes sir.  Is there more pizza?" "Heck yeah Greg, eat as much as you want well even order more.  But if you don't let Dr. Dan take a look at you, you won't be able to go on the boy scout camp. "Yes sir.  I'll go, I was just kinda scared? "Nothing to be scared about." Mr. Boiluve led me down the stairs and back into the church basement. As Mr. Boiluve was leading me into the back room with Doctor Dan. "Saying you prayers Greg." Matt asked. "Yeah, he is praying he's got some balls stuffed in those tight shorts." Mickey joked. 155

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"Quiet boys," Mr. Boiluve said defending me. "If I know anything, it's that little boys all got the same plumbing." "Yeah, but I bet his is clogged with pizza." Mickey added. "Shut up guys." We walked in the room and I dropped my pants. I just closed my eyes hoping I didn't have any secret hernias or there wasn't some strange distortion from eating too much, like the guys were joking. I felt Dr. Dan's cold hands.  He was wearing a white lab coat and a long stethoscope which he did not seem to need.  I could barely see his face as he is wearing a round mirrored head band to take a close look at my stuff.  Mr Boiluve just watched from the chair.  I thought about the fact that I had not lit my offering candle and said a prayer. But I had already payed my 25 cents.  I started to think how awkward it would be to try and light it later with out putting in a quarter.  They might think I am stealing.  I was making myself nervous with the the thought that I might be interpreted and stealing from the church when Dr. Dan took his hands away from my crotch and said. "Initially, Greg, every thing looks OK.  but I will need to take and xray." "Will it hurt? Is it dangerous?"

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"No, but you better close your eyes really tight just in case." "I squinted my eyes real tight. But in the tricky way where you can still kind of see through your eyelashes. I watched Dr. Dan as he took out his portable x ray machine." It looked like a camera. The kind they have at the zoo where you can get your picture taken and take it away right there.  A Polaroid camera.  But this camera had x ray written right were Polaroid was.  "Now make sure your eyes are closed and you better hold your breath too." I held my breath and started to count one Mississippi two Mississippi three. Suddenly there was a bright flash and the sound of motorized wheels churning out a picture, just like a Polaroid. I opened my eyes. "OK, Greg, you're done. I just have to read the x ray. You can pull up your pants Greg." "Can I see it, doctor Dan?" I ask "Do you know how to read an X-ray, Greg?" "No but I have seen them on TV. And my father is a doctor." "Your Father is a doctor?" Dr. Dan said nervously.   "Mr. Boiluve you didn't say any of these boy's parents were medical professionals."

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"Greg you told me you father was gone?" Mr. Boiluve asked. "Yeah he's not here."" "So you can't ask him about the x ray machine?" Dr. Dan again nervously asked. "Please let me see it, Dr Dan." I pleaded. "Well son, I don't think its good for people to see inside themselves." "Ok, I guess your right but still I wish I had an x ray machine." I joined the rest of the guys back around the pizza. We ate and drank coke for about forty five minutes and then went home. The next Saturday morning all the boy scouts met at the church steps at 6 am ready to leave for boy scout camp.  We were waiting until eight o clock when Carl's mother came by and said it looks like we weren't going.   Mr Boiluve had disappeared. After Mr. Boiluve missed the meeting at the church steps. Concerned parents had checked at his apartment overlooking the school yard.  They called the building superintendent who opened the door only to find all of Mr. Boiluve's personal items had been removed.  All that remained was just the modest furniture of the finished apartment.  The building superintendent said it looked cleaner than before Mr. Boiluve moved in. We were all crushed that our hard work memorizing the scout motto and other details scouting would now not find a forum for 158

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expression. But most of all we were disappointed that we would not go camping.  I mean we were ready, x-rays and doctors orders, let us camp. As a makeshift consolation several father's were pulled from their bar stools to supervise a camp out in the small city park two blocks from the church.  The park named Bara park after a local kid who made it to big league baseball. It was a small park with about 15 trees a swing set and jungle gym and behind it a combined baseball and soccer field.  From the center of the park at night you could easily make out shapes of people through the windows of the residences, apartments and businesses that faced the park.    That night, the night that we would have been deep in the woods in the safe hands of Mr. Boiluve and Dr. Dan, we were instead telling stories by street light and roasting marshmallows over the park's barbecue grill. We were having a good time Mickey, Matt, Carl and I, especially.  Mickey's mom even stopped by with Mickey's uncle Rocco.  We could see them walking arm in arm as they left the bar across the street from the park.  Rocco was one of the guys you'd see around the neighborhood. He had a big truck and was always moving stuff off the back of it.  Mickey told us he and no idea that Rocco was related to them until his dad went away, but after that uncle Rocco was around all time, helping Mickey's mom with things about three times a week. Rocco was a big guy  who had a big crooked nose and messed up ear.  He had taught Mickey some boxing moves. Mickey said he's pretty cool and all that, but after he comes over the house smells like garlic, Aquavelva, and smoke. "So,boys how is  the camping?" Mickey's mom asked, from under Rocco's muscle ripped  arm.  Her curly bond hair hanging past her shoulders and the straps of her halter top.  "Not bad Mrs Mickey's Mom," I said 159

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"I know you guys worked so hard.  Mickey about drove me crazy reciting that boy scout motto over and over.  And he even told me about the doctor's check up.  Did you guys tell your folks that you saw a Doctor? We honestly hadn't. After the pizza party we didn't really think it was remarkable. Anyway, grandma and grandpa didn't know much about x ray machines of any high tech stuff they still had a black and white TV. And they used one of those old time can-openers without moving parts. "Yeah, boys sorry to hear about you troop Sergeant," Rocco says still with his arm around Mickey's mom. "Scout leader." "Yeah, scout leader anyways, some people ain't got no courtesy.  They shouldn't treat hard working kids that way.  Especially if they got nice looking mother's like this." "Oh, Rocco." "Next time you's kids wants to go camping we got some open space out by the airport.  That would be real good. You could light some fires.  You just can't dig around too much." "Wow! Mom can we camp out by the airport!" Mickey asked. "Well, have to see."

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"I got a feeling," Rocco said, "that that scout leader of yours went camping without you, and I bet he ain't coming back."

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Greg Kreisman

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The stretch and sew summer. Summer in St. Louis is hot, with humidity always around eighty percent.   And when the sun does shine clearly through the haze it would heat up the asphalt of the Edwards street and our alley and bake almost instantly any earthworms that did not make it across during the muggy night.   The second floor apartment were we lived with my mother had a flat tar roof.  Those four rooms would heat up like a sauna.   We had one window unit air-conditioner that we would leave on full blast.  It was in my mother's room and on the occasional nights that she stayed in from her husband search, we would all sleep to the comforting sound of the fan and compressor. Grandma and Grandpa had an old window unit  air conditioner, on the first floor too.  They had it in their living room. And during most of the hottest parts of any summer day we would lay around on her couch, only stirring to eat. Now summer is pretty bad for a normal kid. But it is particularly bad for the fat ones.  The most obvious draw back is aesthetics. Now fat kids were seldom fashionable.  Before the days of baggy oversize rapper pants and hoodies, fat kids were squeezed into larger sized slim cut pants.  Off the shelf Husky pants may fit in the waist but are often too narrow in the thighs  so my grandmother would have the daunting task of altering when she could.  But summer cloths she would try and make on her own, from hand me downs and fabric samples. Still the sweat would play a large part. Now everyone  knows that a white cotton t-shirt is about the coolest thing you can wear in the summer.  But that same white cotton t-shirt over the frame of a sweaty fat 162

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kid is transformed into a form fitting see through skin tight vellum, under which the pink boyish skin is visible.   While the hot St. Louis days were baking earth worms they were also transforming my shirts into sweaty transparent film and making me an unwilling exhibitionist. Grandma was often embarrassed by this.  She would talk with her neighborhood friends and try and come up with creative and cheep solutions to covering my body.   Grandmas friends were quite critical of me as a fat kid. They saw my weight as a result of a lack of self control.   "No, Greg! Get you face out of the refrigerator, I just let out the pants and we don't have any material to expand them any more. " "But, Grandma I'm hungry." "You're not hungry you're just bored, go take a walk around the block." "It's too hot. And, I only got one shirt left to wear and it's for later." "Greg, my friends have been helping me with that.  They said they saw you yesterday walking with Mickey." "Yes?" "My friends said that you walk kinda funny." "I don't walk funny grandma."

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"Yes, you do. I told them that you're not retarded or nothin'. I told them you walk so funny, only on account of you're so fat." "Thanks grandma." "But they told me about this new kind of material called Stretch and Sew." "Grandma, the stretch part sounds really good." During the muggy St. Louis summers I would put a great deal of stress on a pair of cut-off jeans, even if they were husky to begin with. The real problem was flexibility and give.  One could go ahead and dress a fat kid in over sized pants.  But if he is lazy and sedentary and prone to snacking he is likely to grow to fit what ever size pants you put him in.  That is the problem with corduroy or denim as pants they are often unforgiving and restrict movement of the chubby wearer. "Grandma, I don't want to go for a walk my pants are too tight. "  "Put on your shorts." "But then my legs rub together. I rather just lay here next to the fan." "Get out there boy and move around. On account of if you stay in all the time doing nothing but looking in the refrigerator you're gonna get so fat were going to have to roll you out, naked." Grandma understood these competing  processes that lead to my obesity and tried to offset them in a new manner of clothing me. 164

Greg Kreisman

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Stretch and sew is a pattern company that was founded in the 60s by a woman Ann Person.  It became somewhat popular in the grandmother circles as a method of covering their grandchildren in the most embarrassing clothing possible.  Stretch and sew employed the technique of stretching some fairly giving fabric composed of man made fibers, and sewing it with a long straight stitch. These patterns included  t-shirt and shorts designs that had simple stripped down look of de-humanizing institutional garb. Polyester uniforms for children of a brave new, unfashionable world.   Grandma had found these patterns and it had occurred to her that she might be able to offset the spiral of increasing my jeans pants size only to have me fill them out, because the material itself was restricting my movement. She looked through stacks of patterns.  She was taken in by the illustrations of chubby kids playing freely in garments made of stretchy material.  Some children stood with there arms akimbo like a young superman about to take over the play ground.  She wanted that for me.  Home made clothes that would encourage me to get out and be in the world.  She wanted to dress me for the thin outgoing athletic boy she wanted not the overeating couch potato she had. So the process began.  From July, I would put away all cutoffs jeans and hand-me down cotton pants and t-shirts.  She would head to toe clothe me in tailor made artificial hide that would allow me to move about freely like other children in the summer.  Not being held back by 165

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sweat soaked cotton shirts and popping waste buttons. "Now, Greg you gotta think about these clothes like a prescription," Grandma said  "A prescription?" "Yes, you think of them like something the doctor gives you to take away the pain and get healthy." "What do you mean?" "Well, look at this now," Grandma stood me up, pulling up my shirt, revealing a swollen boyish belly that hung over the tight waist of my blue jean cut-offs. "See this here, is why you're walking so funny. 'Cause you're so fat you can't  pull up these pants to your waist." "And what a waist it is." Grandpa chimed in. "Cut it out, Bud." "See Greg, this wast band is cutting right into you and its gonna hurt your organs." "My organs?" "Yes, your insides." Grandma said as she looked more closely at my clothes, "and just look and that crouch." "Crouch, Grandma?"

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"Where you legs meet at your naughty bits, there," She said as she pointed it out. Grandma, and about every other person I knew growing up, referred to the crotch of the pants as the crouch.  It seems they were searching for an ameliorating word in an attempt to offset the more provocative meanings of crotch.  I always thought it had something to do with the integrity of the pants I was wearing, so when grandma told me she wanted to look at my crouch I would hunker down as low as I could go.   "Look at that crouch just hanging down way too low.  You don't got anything at all that big up in there.  'cause you're wearing your crouch so low you getting chafed. " "Yeah my thighs got pretty red just walking to the play ground and back. I think I need to rest them some more." "No son, you really need to get out and play. Take a look at this." Grandma handed me a pattern envelope.  Stretch and Sew was written in an exciting type face in bold pink.  Red orange and blue stripes cross the composition of the envelope. The summer clothing line for overweight children was being modeled by happy young chubby children with feathered hair, playing on the jungle gyms and hanging from the monkey bars. My grandma was right, the children illustrated on the Stretch and Sew pattern looked intelligent, sophisticated and active.  I sort of identified with the child on the front with his arms akimbo like 167

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superman.  I did lay on the couch. However, I imagined wile lying there watching cartoons, in between snacks, that if I ever did apply myself, I would be powerful. And maybe Grandma had something here. It wasn't me that was the problem. It was my clothes that were holding me back.  I mean how can you conquer the playground if your cotton shirt is so soaked with sweat that it sticks to you like a sausage skin. There are no sausage skinned king of the monkey bars.  I would get out of my Huskies and into some Stretch and Sew.

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