Far Away from Harm
Tricia got her way, like always; and the Volesters prepared to move to The City. Ozzie told Mr. Crucolo he wouldn’t be working for Milkpail anymore—and he was going to tell Mr. Crucolo a lot of other things too, such as “exactly where to get off” (no mention of off what) but decided to “let sleeping dogs lie” (no explanation as to why doggies were asleep at a dairy).
Felicia was in buoyant spirits now, like the reinflated balloon she increasingly resembled. She took over crossing off the squares on the wall calendar, counting down the days to Moving Weekend, which was scheduled way before the New Baby’s due date. (“This child is not going to be born on the Indiana Toll Road. One delivery at a time, please.”)
Vicki had to participate in this daily countdown, as though it were some sort of game; but at least Mommy was feeling pleasant again. During the winter’s final snowfall, she even came outside and helped Vicki build a miniature snowman that they perched on the porch railing to surprise Daddy. Then after Mommy went back indoors, Vicki decided it’d be a much bigger, better surprise to transfer the little snowman to the arm of Daddy’s favorite chair. But she couldn’t manage opening the front door while cradling the snowman, and he slipped through her mittens to smash on the welcome mat.
“What happened??” Mommy demanded, looking ready to deflate. So Vicki quit crying and fibbed that it was the wind’s fault: a sudden gust had toppled the snowman off the railing and reduced him to flakes. Mommy regained her buoyancy, promising they would build a bigger, better replacement the very next day; but temperatures rose overnight, and by morning all the snow had melted.
Now it was springtime, and the Volesters were spending Easter Sunday with Ozzie’s parents in Beansville. This crossroads village lay twenty miles east of town in what people called the “Thumb,” because on maps the state of Michigan looked like a giant ovenmitt. Ozzie, as a boy, had worked summers on a farm near Beansville; and then when PopPop retired, he and MomMom had come to the Thumb to live in what people called a “ranch house,” despite its lack of cowboys or any animal larger than the opossums that raided MomMom’s fruit trees at night.
There was always enough food at the ranch house to supply several chuckwagons. Today they’d started with baskets full of marshmallow chicks, spiced gumdrops and chocolate eggs; followed by an enormous glazed ham with pineapple slices, and an enormous walleye fish that PopPop had caught and grilled, and sweet potatoes (that didn’t taste anything like Sugar Smacks) and stuffed golumpkis (that smelled just like their name) and finally an enormous homemade cheesecake topped by half a can of Reddi-Wip.
The Volester family tucked in and packed all this away, with MomMom frequently urging additional helpings on everybody. “Felicia! Remember you’re eating for two—take some more ham! Oswald! I can see the pattern on your plate—take some more fish! Girls! There are children starving in China, and you haven’t finished your vegetables—what did you do with your appetites?”
Tricia’s had been spoiled by the Easter baskets, and Vicki was a fussy eater at the best of times. Their grandfather, however, needed no persuasion to accept seconds or thirds or Vicki’s surreptitious offer of unfinished golumpki, pausing only to dab his mouth with a linen napkin or swab his brow with a cotton bandanna.
The latter later got spread over PopPop’s face when he settled down for an afterdinner snooze on the living room Barca Lounger. Vicki watched solemnly as the bandanna fluttered up and down, up and down, while PopPop made deep rumbly blusterous noises like a Badger clearing its throat.
In later years Walter Volester’s granddaughters would realize he must have led a rather dramatic life—growing up by the sea in Küstenland, serving in the Austrian Navy (possibly under Captain George von Trapp), leaving Trieste in 1920 (perhaps on the same boat or train as James Joyce), putting in four decades at the Saginaw Steering Gear factory, becoming a charter member of the UAW and surviving the early union wars—
—but whenever they asked PopPop about any of this, he’d only say: “I don’t remember. Let’s talk about now.”
(One thing he never forgot, though, was an indelible antipathy to all things Italian. No spaghetti was ever allowed under the ranch house roof—not even Franco-American.)
Vicki shifted her gaze from the fluttering bandanna to a large tinted photograph hanging above the Barca Lounger. This was of MomMom as a girl, looking very much like Tricia might in ten years or so, with the same pink cheeks and green eyes and yellow hair. Geraldine Kosnowski she was called back then, a gumsnapping switchboard operator at Saginaw Steering Gears, and to PopPop she hadn’t changed the least little bit. Her eyes were just as green (though now behind hornrims) and her hair even yellower (thanks to Clairol Nice ‘n Easy) and she still snapped Wrigley’s Doublemint (when her dentures permitted).
Also on the living room wall was a big color picture of Tricia, along with a smaller one of Tricia and Vicki together, and snapshots collected in a single frame of Uncle Ted and Aunt Edie’s five kids. That made—counting on fingers—seven grandchildren, of whom Cousin Barbara was the oldest, with her brother Beaver (Ted Jr.) next in line; yet Tricia was by far the favorite. Probably because she took after their grandmother so much: “the spitting image” people said, which Tricia thought inelegant.
MomMom and PopPop treated Vicki with a “You too, dear” attitude she guessed was every secondborn’s lot in life. “I’ll always be older than you,” Tricia repeatedly informed her—implying smarter, richer, happier, and lovelier as well. But just wait till Julie the Raindrop was born: then Vicki would be promoted up a rung of the ladder and not be forever bringing up the rear.
She smoothed the skirt of her Easter dress (handed-me-down, of course) over her own little rear and wandered into the ranch house kitchen. There she stood awhile in fascination by the Lady Kenmore, which made its own deep rumbly blusterous noises as it washed a load of dishes. “Robots can do anything,” thought Vicki as her mother called her over to the breakfast nook.
“Come have some Swiss Miss, darling.”
“Yes, you too, dear,” added her grandmother.
Vicki was handed a brimming mug of hot cocoa that she blew on and took tiny sips from while Tricia and the others gabbled about the wonders of The City. MomMom had acted upset for awhile about “the last of my little birds leaving the nest”—which Vicki’d thought must mean the feeder out back, till Tricia explained the birds were them and especially Daddy. Uncle Ted and his brood might be in Pontiac, Aunt Bonnie in Grand Rapids (as a Dominican Sister) and Uncle Jerry wherever the Merchant Marine sailed; but “Oswald” had always lived within twenty miles of the Old Folks. And now he and Felicia were not only leaving, but taking Tricia (plus Vicki and the yet-to-be-born New Baby) away with them!
On the brighter side, the Old Folks could afford to do some traveling. PopPop had retired on a comfortable pension, thanks to his forty years in the UAW; and MomMom didn’t need a team of wild horses (since there was a Buick Special in the ranch house garage) to drag her off to visit The City.
As the breakfast nook conversation grew repetitious, Vicki took her still-brimming mug and departed unnoticed in search of her father. There he was, sitting out on the patio beyond a sliding glass door. And here Vicki was, in a rerun of the snowman-on-the-porch dilemma. She wanted to join Daddy on the patio; she needed both hands to manipulate the tricky latches on the glass door and sliding screen; she dared not risk spilling her Swiss Miss.
Okay. She’d been taught not to bang on windows, and Daddy couldn’t hear her call through the glass. She didn’t want to ask the others for assistance, lest she be branded as infantile or ordered to finish the hot cocoa first. No—Vicki wanted to be outside, holding a full mug, with no scalding brown stain down the front of her Easter dress. (So there.)
Thus, painstakingly, she set the mug down on the kitchen linoleum. Wrestled open the glass door and sliding screen. Moved herself and mug out to the patio. And slid the doors shut again—an accomplishment ranking right up with Hannibal’s crossing the Alps.
She found her father singing softly to himself: a song about having been born in Michigan, so he wished and wished again he could go back to some old farm, far away from harm.
“Hey there, Kitten. You bringing me something to drink?”
“No, this is mine,” said Vicki. “It’s still awful hot, though. You want it?”
“Naw, I’m stuffed,” said Ozzie, clapping his stomach. “Your grandmom sure gave us a humdinger of a feed.”
Vicki parked her mug on the patio table and sat on the neighboring chair. Before them was a verdant lawn, blossoming apple trees, and a hint in the distance of the Lake that surrounded the Thumb like Jack Horner’s plummy pie.
“Are you gonna sing any more, Daddy?”
“Hmmm? Oh, that. Just an old tune from an Easter movie I saw on TV the other night... heh! Haven’t even left yet, and already I’m homesick.”
“Is that like carsick?”
“Heh! No, Kitten, it means you miss the place you came from. ‘The rooster that use-ter wake me up at 4 a.m.’—well, I don’t feel that homesick. I’ll settle for an alarm clock at 6:30.”
Vicki picked up her cocoa, blew on it, returned it to the table untasted. “Daddy, do we hafta move?”
“Now sweetheart, we’ve gone over this and over this, you ‘n’ me. It’s an important step we’ve got to take, for your mother and the New Baby—”
“Lordy yes, and Tricia. But just wait till you see our apartment in The City: big room for you girls, a little room for the Baby, two bathrooms—won’t that be nice? And no more worrying whether the roof’ll leak” (the bungalow’s had, that winter) “or whether the drains’ll clog” (the bungalow’s had, the previous autumn) “—‘cause we’ll have a landlord living right in the same building, there to handle any problems. Sure, it’ll be different—better for all of us, I hope—I mean it will be better. For us all. Think how excited Mommy and Tricia are! You will be too, Kitten; I promise.”
Ozzie laid a broad jaunty hand on her tight-clenched little fist. “Let me tell you something. First summer I was going to work on the Tatum farm, I was scared stiff. Fact! I’d lived in town all my life, hardly ever seen a live pig or mule before, much less had to slop or harness ‘em. I almost chickened out—told your PopPop I didn’t want to go. But he said to me, ‘You got to be strong to get along.’ And he put me on the bus and sent me to the Tatums, and I tried to be strong to get along, and it all turned out fine! Why, I didn’t even want to come home when summer ended—couldn’t wait till I could go out there again. Boy! The smell of that hayfield, the clover in the pasture—I tell you, that was the life!”
“So why can’t we go live on the farm?”
“Well, it’s gone, Kitten. The Tatums sold it, and houses like this one got built on the land.”
“We could live in one of those houses—”
“No, sweetheart. We have to live in The City. Maybe someday we can come back here, but it probably won’t be till you’re a really big girl. So now I need you to be a pretty big girl. Can you do that for me? Be strong to get along?”
Vicki felt a colossal weight descend upon her narrow tulle-clad shoulders.
“Um... I’ll try...”
“That’s my Kitten!” Her father scooped her into his arms and carried her inside, leaving the forgotten mug of cocoa on the patio table for an opossum to knock over that night.
It took all of Vicki’s get-along strength to withstand the subsequent week. Most of her toys and clothes and other belongings were taken away, bundled together and packed up in cartons. It was like birthday presents in reverse, except that these were finished off not with ribbon-bows but smelly brown sealing tape. As the week wore on, more and more cartons got stacked higher and higher in emptied closets or in front of cleaned-out cabinets. And though Vicki kept getting reassured this wasn’t for keeps, that all her things would be returned to her at the end of the move—
—still, you never knew. Maybe they’d forget to bring Vicki’s stuff to The City. Or accidentally send it somewhere else, or lose it along the way. Tricia told her to quit talking silly nonsense, and then began worrying about the salvageability of her own possessions.
“Girls,” said their father in his most patient voice, “everything is going to turn out just fine.”
But how could you be absolutely certain of that? Especially on the bleak Friday when two large sweaty men you’d never seen before parked a big truck in the Volester driveway and started carrying all the cartons out of the bungalow, followed by all the furniture. Mommy meanwhile kept filling up bags and parcels and suitcases that Daddy loaded one by one in the Corvair (when he wasn’t saying “Take it easy, Fel”). Vicki’s grandparents arrived in mid-afternoon, having collected Tricia from school, and more bags and boxes got stowed in the Buick Special.
Finally there was nothing left to extract. The sweaty men closed up their van and drove it away; the Volesters squeezed into their two cars and took off for Beansville. Vicki tried to grab a parting glance at the lemon-yellow bungalow, but her view was blocked by all the luggage; and in later years when she’d ask if they could revisit the old neighborhood, she would be told it had gotten too dangerous.
At the ranch house they had a light supper (by MomMom’s standards) and then even the grownups went to bed early. Ozzie and Felicia slept in the guest room, while Tricia and Vicki bunked down on a fold-out divan.
“Get plenty of rest, girls. We’ve got a big day ahead of us.”
“That means none of your whining,” Tricia added privately. “You better not kick me in your sleep, either.”
Vicki apologized in advance, then decided to show Princess Smartysnoot by not shutting her eyelids all night long. But before she could cap that resolution with a So there, morning had somehow dawned and a sketchy breakfast was being served, and flush-brush-wash-‘n’-dress was the order of the day.
There was a gap on the Corvair’s back seat just wide enough for Vicki to fit inside, accompanied by Sylvester and King Leonardo and some Little Golden Books. Tricia, she knew, occupied a similar socket in the Buick Special. Vicki wished her sister’s hand was there to hold as Daddy vroomed the car (“Here we go, Kitten! You feel like a spacegirl on a moon rocket?”) and PopPop vroomed his, and then a split second later they were racing down the highway with a constant surging WHIZZZZSSSH as if carried off by a cyclone—
—except that Dorothy, at least, got to bring her old house with her.
Every so often Mommy or Daddy asked how Vicki was doing. “Okay,” she’d reply. Sometimes they would tell her to take a look at this interesting object or that curious vista, and she would pretend to be able to see it. To ward off boredom she opened Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, studying the illustrations and picking out words that had a v in them. Particularly the nice big capital V as in Vicki; also Volester. Though smaller v’s were also acceptable, since they didn’t lose bits of themselves in lowercase like dumb old b’s or h’s.
At lunchtime they stopped at a Howard Johnson’s in Kalamazoo, a town that didn’t live up to its alacazammy name. There Vicki ordered the Jack Horner—peanut butter sandwich and chocolate milk—while Tricia, as usual, demanded the Simple Simon Plate (highest-priced item on the children’s menu) and had to be cajoled down to the Miss Muffet. Both girls were allowed to choose from 28 flavors of ice cream: Tricia selected Peppermint Stick for herself and Black Raspberry for Vicki, who was dithering; while their mother ate an entire Banana Royal on behalf of the New Baby.
Settling back in her spacegirl-gap with a replenished tummy, Vicki took her version of PopPop’s after-Easter snooze and awoke two hours later on rubbery legs, being guided by a firm hand into a diner restroom.
“(Yawn.) Are we there yet?”
“No, darling. This is Indiana.”
Vicki felt too drowsy to look for any Indians, and declined more than a few swallows of water. The grownups fortified themselves with coffee and tea (how could they gulp steaming hot beverages without burning their tongues??) as Daddy and PopPop ran fingertips over roadmaps, tracing what they called the “home stretch.”
Which took them straight through Dante’s Inferno.
Or so Vicki would think of it in later life, when she’d know it to be steel mills and blast furnaces and oil refineries. But the glimpses her four-year-old eyes caught were of Maleficent in massive-dragon form, attacking one beleaguered castle after another, causing dusty smoke to spread a reek like rotten eggs on a grease-caked griddle—
“Breathe through your mouth, Brownie. It’ll get better soon.”
The stink did lessen (gradually) but scary images kept flashing at her whenever she dared peep over the front seat. They were on a bridge—they were passing slums—they were heading for a canyon whose cliffs were made of buildings, the tallest ones she’d ever seen—a jagged line of them looming up to scrape the horizon, folding in on either side to trap a swarm of cars and trucks and buses that made their own Corvair swerve—jolt—lurch—honk—adding to the accumulated racket that rose and rose till Ozzie and Felicia had to yell to be heard and still not be understood—
Vicki shrank down as far as the gap would permit, covering her face with King Leonardo as she wondered just how bad it was going to hurt when they crashed and burst into flames—
“This is it,” Daddy declared in his regular voice. “Walrock Avenue: we’re here.”
King Leonardo got lowered (gradually) to reveal neither Inferno nor traffic purgatory but rows upon rows of brick and granite and concrete. At intervals a lone tree sprouted out of the sidewalk, but Vicki could see no bushes or shrubbery or even much that could be called grass. Heavy clouds obscured the sky above, sending occasional raindrops (none of them Julie) to blob against the windshield.
Munchkinland it wasn’t.
Yet when they turned into an alley and parked the Corvair and Buick Special, and all got out and walked around to the front stoop of what Mommy called a “greystone”—their “greystone”—the door was opened by a short stout man very much like the Munchkin Mayor. He lacked the curly moustache and green top hat, but still greeted the Volesters most reee-gally: “Welcome, my friends! Welcome to Pfiester Park.”
Vicki didn’t recognize anything remotely parklike nearby before she got tugged inside their greystone and up several flights of stairs. She and Mommy had to rest a moment on each landing, while Tricia and MomMom galloped ahead with Daddy and the Munchkin Mayor, and PopPop lumbered placidly behind.
At the top of the staircase they all had to wait while the Mayor hunted through various pockets for the right key. The other adults urged Vicki to come look at the “3W” hanging on the locked door. She knew they expected her to read it as “Three-Double-Vee,” due to her previous objections that W’s were obviously two V’s stuck together, so what did U’s have to do with it? Now she felt too bewildered to play along, but all the grownups kept pointing and grinning (except the Mayor, who went over to bellow “JUNIOR!” down the stairs) so she said her line, dutifully.
“That’s foolish,” glared Tricia. “When do we get to go in?”
The Mayor was about to give another shout when Junior appeared. The inelegant spitting image of his namesake in the Three Bears cartoons, he wore a flannel shirt and dungarees instead of a diaper, but was just as huge and hairy and said “Yes Paw?” the exact same way. “I have got the key that you want in my hand, Paw!”—for which he received a bristling scowl from his short stout father.
3W’s door opened and everyone entered the New Apartment. “Ohhhh!” went Tricia; “That lovely bay window!” went MomMom; “The phone’s installed! Is it working? It is!!” went Mommy. She immediately wanted to call Gran and Dime and Aunt Fritzi, but Daddy said “Take it easy, Fel.” The first people to contact were the movers, as he was about to do; why didn’t the womenfolk go check out the rest of the place?
“This way, ladies,” announced the Munchkin Mayor. Not that there was more than one hallway to follow him into.
A kitchen. A small bedroom. (“This could be mine,” exclaimed Tricia; “No, the Baby’s going in here,” said Felicia.) A middle-sized bedroom. (“This one is yours, you girls—isn’t it nice?”) A middle-sized bathroom. Then a large bedroom, with its own smaller bathroom. All extremely vacant-looking, in Vicki’s opinion. And the wrong colors: dull tan and tacky beige instead of the bungalow’s bright Crayola shades.
“Felicia! You really ought to have a lie-down,” MomMom declared, with a “You too, dear,” to Vicki.
“Got just what you need,” said PopPop, toting a lawn chair and lounge into the biggest bedroom and setting them up in a corner as MomMom directed.
“Now, you two have a nice nap, and I’ll take Tricia for a gander at the neighborhood. (Walter! Don’t try to carry too much.)”
Resting in the lounge chair, Mommy had an uncharacteristic fit of giggles: “Goosey Goosey Gander, /Whither shall I wander?...”
Vicki had always been bothered by that nursery rhyme, since “wander” and “gander” sounded different. Increasing her discomfort were the many, many stairs in this greystone, down which not just old men but innocent little girls might be taken by their left leg and thrown. Then the stairs would go crack, she would break her back, and all the little ducks would say quack, quack, quack...
“Moving van’s coming!!” Daddy hollered.
Incredulous delight from Mommy. Portent in stomach-pit for Vicki. And before they knew it the cyclone raged round them once more, hoisting furniture and stacks of cartons into 3W’s vacancies along with the parcels and suitcases being lugged up from the cars by Daddy and PopPop. No pretty lady genie was there to blink the twister into magical place; so Mommy called out anxious instructions and inquiries, struggling off the lounge to poke her head through the biggest-bedroom’s door, only to gasp and retreat as another lamp or nightstand or chest of drawers was hauled in.
Be strong to get along, Vicki kept telling herself. Be strong get along and in my lady’s chamber, all the little ducks go—
“Oz...?” went Felicia.
“Come out, come out wherever you are!” sang Tricia and MomMom.
Vicki and her mother emerged from their hideaway to find all the Volesters’s worldly goods well and truly moved, not to say jumbled. Ozzie was paying the large sweaty moving men; he and PopPop shook hands with them, with each other, with huge hairy Junior.
“I will tell Paw that you’re here,” Junior remarked.
Tricia stayed awake late that night, which meant Vicki had to also.
“I don’t understand why the Baby has to have the small bedroom. It’d make a lot more sense for her to be in here with you. Then you could look after her—you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course you would. Remind Mommy and Daddy of that, as often as you can. There’s still plenty of time before Julie gets born. They could put my stuff on wheels, and we’d have no trouble rolling it next door.”
“Um. I guess.”
“Aren’t you excited?? (Shhh! Keep your voice quiet. Oh wait—maybe they didn’t hear. Maybe they can’t hear us in here.) ‘Daddy? Mommy? Can I have a drink of water?...’ Neat! In the old house they would’ve heard that even if I whispered.”
“They know you get your own water.”
“Yes, but the glasses aren’t unpacked yet.”
She and MomMom, during their gander at the neighborhood, had found Such a Nice Corner Grocery across the street. From it they’d wisely acquired paper plates and cups and plastic utensils, plus some provisions for that evening’s supper (makeshift) and tomorrow morning’s breakfast (potluck).
After dining on cheese and cold cuts, the elder Volesters had departed to spend the night at the Conrad Hilton—“our own little vacation.” Any other time, Tricia would have pitched a fit at missing out on a deluxe hotel. Yet tonight she was content with a mattress on the bare floor of Apartment 3W at 1710 West Walrock Avenue in the neighborhood known as Pfiester Park, since all of it—right down to her innerspring—was located in The City.
Tricia was so content she kept getting up to go over to the curtainless window, raise the blinds and have another gloat. Vicki, when dragged along to share the exhilaration, could see nothing but a narrow side alley illuminated by a streetlight. Which cast really weird shadows into the bedroom, to splotch across its bothersome bunches-of-gray-grapes wallpaper.
“We’re going to have such fun,” Tricia insisted. “Me and you and Julie. It’s going to be a wonderful life for us from now on.”
“Hey!” (Brief shake of narrow shoulder.) “Where’s my brave little sister?”
“Who’s my brave little sister?”
“Well then! Remember that. And if I do have to stay in this room, don’t you go messing up my side of it before I get back.”
With all the day’s upheaval, Vicki had managed to forget that MomMom and PopPop were taking Tricia home with them tomorrow. Special arrangements had been made so she could finish second grade at her old school, including daily transport to and fro by Buick Special for the next six weeks.
It was terribly, horribly, monstrously unfair that Tricia—who wanted to come live here; who’d made the family leave their bungalow and drive a billion miles through hellacious pandemonium to be here—now got to return to the reassuringly familiar Thumb, while Vicki was stuck by herself in this strange room with weird shadows and dreadful wallpaper and many, many stairs between it and escape for six whole weeks which was practically forever! “Brave little sister?” She’d be a broken-down old lady when Princess Smartysnoot finally reappeared to get her own way like always—always—and take the smallest bedroom for her own exclusive use, leaving Vicki in here with Julie the Raindrop whom yes, she already adored, but didn’t even know yet and who as a New Baby would probably go Waaaaaaaaaah all night every night for the rest of Vicki’s oh-so-wonderful life from now on!
But to share such thoughts with Tricia was inadvisable.
Therefore Vicki shed no tear and heaved no sigh.
Instead, she took a deep silent breath and started singing to herself that she’d been born in Michigan, so she wished and wished again...
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2009-2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
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