“California (Scary) Dreamin’ ” Chapter 6, Excerpt 15, The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

DANNY LARGEST ORIG PHOTOWhen I got home, I could see my breath in the apartment, it was so cold, so I jumped into bed and huddled under the blankets. I kept my new sketch pad, pencil, and fishing pole close beside me. Michael’s alarm clock on the dresser said a quarter to twelve. My birthday was almost over. So much had happened that day to write about in my diary, but I didn’t dare. In fact, I wondered if I’d ever continue the one I had, or if I should get rid of it. Al had said Linda saw me as competition, which seemed weird; and this diary thing would just make that worse.

I heard the kitchen door open and the familiar rhythm of Michael’s footsteps. Then the bedroom door opened.

“Hey, kid, how you doin’?” he said.

“Okay,” I lied.

“I’m glad you’re still up,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Well, because there’s something I gotta tell you,” he said.

This didn’t sound good.

He sat on the edge of the bed we shared, smoking his cigarette, took off his brown plaid flannel shirt, and tossed it on the bed, leaving the inevitable white tee-shirt underneath.

“I didn’t go to work today,” he said.

“Oh, really? How come?” though I knew I didn’t want to know.

“I was at Linda’s.”

“Linda’s?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh,” I said. “I thought you were at work.”

“Well, I was over there, and we were talking,” he said, “or, I should say, yelling. Or I should say, her father was yelling.”

“Linda’s father was yelling? At you?”

“Well, yeah, kiddo, he was,” he said. “That’s the thing.”

“The thing?” I said. “What thing?”

“The thing I’m trying to tell you.” He looked down at his hands, each grasping the other. “The thing he was yelling at me about.”

“What was that?” Did my diary have something to do with this “thing”?

“Um, Linda’s pregnant,” he said. “She’s going to have a baby. And, uh, I guess it’s mine.”

Huh?

“Her father wants me and her to move to California.” He took a deep drag off his Camel.

I couldn’t be hearing him right.

“It’s true, Shorty,” he said. “We have to get married. Linda’s Uncle Joey, Grenelli’s brother, lives out there. He’s got a car repair shop like Grenelli’s. He’s gonna hire me. We’re gonna stay with him and Linda’s aunt, until we can get our own place.”

Michael’s words swam around in my head.

Baby? Married? Move? California? Faster and faster the words spun. But he kept on.

“I have no choice, Danny. Grenelli’s not happy. He threatened me. Said he’d have me killed if I didn’t go to California and marry Linda. He’s got connections, Danny. He’s not somebody to mess around with.”

My teeth dug into my bottom lip. I tasted the blood. The pulsing pain under my lip squelched the gathering scream inside me.

“You should have seen him, kid. He went nuts,” Michael was saying. “Said I disgraced Linda and the whole freaking family. He said I was lucky he didn’t take out his gun and shoot me right there in the freaking living room.”

I bit down harder on my lip, sucking the blood as the cut deepened.

I’m sorry, Danny. I can’t see any way out of this one. It’s gonna be okay, though, I promise.”

Okay? I looked at my fishing pole. My throat closed as my stomach tried to escape up through it.

“I’ll write to you and call sometimes, when I can afford to. And maybe you can come and live with us. I’ll talk to Linda.”

Tears filled my eyes, blurring my drawing pad and fishing pole.

“I’m sorry, kiddo. I really am,” he said.

A tear spilled over onto my cheek, clearing my vision.

Michael looked down at the floor as he spoke. “Maybe after we move out of her uncle’s place you could come live with us. Danny, you okay?”

“What?”

“Look, I know this is sudden. You’re not the only one who’s in shock. I mean, California. What the hell do I know about freaking California?” He dragged hard on the cigarette, then smashed it out in the small metal ashtray on the nightstand.

How could he be so stupid? How could he let that happen? Especially with someone like her? Did he really love her? It was hard to believe, and harder to believe she loved anyone but herself. Wasn’t California on the other side of the world? With nothing but oranges and highways like in the pictures in my geography book? My head pounded, throbbed. I felt beads of sweat beading up on my face. I climbed out of our bed, passed Michael, and scrambled to the bathroom.

“Hey, Shorty, where you goin’?” I heard him say.

I ran and hugged the toilet, my whole body heaving forward, but nothing came. I realized I hadn’t eaten. I sat back onto the tiled bathroom floor, the second time that day wrapped around the toilet. I thought about Teresa’s old threats that Michael would leave if he ever learned the truth about the doctor visits, but even though the so-called “doctor treatments” had stopped several years earlier now Michael was leaving anyway, and he didn’t seem to know anything about all of that. None of this was supposed to be happening.

“Hey, Danny, you okay?” I heard Michael call to me.

I sat on the bathroom floor of my birthday, and even though I knew she was a nice lady, I hated Al’s grandmother for getting sick in the Catskills.

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“Funeral for a Stooge”, Chapter 5c, Excerpt 14, The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

DANNY LARGEST ORIG PHOTOTommy Butler lived just a few blocks further up the avenue. We’d been friends since third grade. I decided to go see if he was home—though I had no idea where else he would be—and spend the rest of my birthday with him. Tommy’s mother worked at a bar and grill in the neighborhood and had odd hours. His father had odd hours, too, mostly because he drank too much.

Once, Tommy found Dad passed out in bed, apparently having wet himself. I could tell Tommy was embarrassed by the stained sheets. Another time, we found Tommy’s father on the living room couch with a cigarette between his fingers which had burned down to the skin on the two fingers that formed a V. I felt sorry for Tommy’s father. He was a nice guy when he was awake, even drunk. I got the feeling he wanted to escape his life but was doing a lousy job of it. I felt sorry for Tommy, too, though he always made it clear he had no pity for his old man. It was probably why, despite Tommy’s bouncy blond curly hair and big blue eyes, he rarely smiled.

Heading up the short avenue blocks, the air was so frosty it looked almost like a white veil across the houses and trees as I passed them. By the time I arrived at Tommy’s, after walking just a few minutes, my face and hands were numb. Tommy and his parents lived in a four-room apartment on the downstairs floor of a wide, three-story house which stood out on the block as the only one with a front garden overrun by untended thorny bushes.

I prayed he was home as my frozen finger pressed the doorbell, but then remembered the doorbell didn’t work, and that I had to pound on the wooden door for him to hear me. I was relieved when I heard what I hoped were Tommy’s footsteps from the inside hall. The dead bolt slid open from the other side.

“Hi,” Tommy said as he pulled the door open.

“Hi,” I said. As usual, the house was stiflingly hot. The landlord who lived upstairs controlled the furnace, and he was old and always cold. I heard The Beatles, “Nowhere Man” playing in the living room.

Once inside, I noticed the 45s stacked on the record player, waiting to drop down and play next, one after the other. I smiled, knowing how Tommy shopped—shoplifted, that is—about one 45 a week, since he never had money. His mother thought I got a big allowance and bought them for him. That was his standing story. The truth was Michael gave me a dollar every Friday, when Mr. Grenelli paid him which I usually used to buy pizza and cokes or ice cream for Tommy and me up on Liberty Avenue. Money wasn’t a problem for Al, so she never let me spend any on her.

“Happy birthday,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “Thanks.”

The victrola arm lifted up and over, and the next 45 dropped down. “Paint It Black”, began playing.

“What’s wrong?” Tommy asked. “You don’t look so good for a birthday boy.”

This was a switch, since Tommy rarely smiled and was usually the one being asked what’s the matter. I sat down on the couch. The brown and yellow flowered slipcover slid down, as I did, showing the worn brown upholstery underneath. I set my drawing pad down and peeled off my jacket and threw it over to the chair in the corner.

“It’s hot in here,” I said.

“Sorry,” Tommy said. “I’ll open the window.”

“Thanks,” I said.

He sat down next to me.

“I just walked from Al’s and it’s freezing out,” I said. “It feels like a sauna in here.”

“You were at Al’s?” he asked, pulling back.

I nodded.

“What were you doing there?” he asked with the usual tinge of jealousy in his voice whenever I talked about Al.

“I just wanted to get away from my apartment,” I said. “She gave me this for my birthday.” I showed Tommy my drawing pad. “There’s a boss lead pencil in my jacket pocket that came with it,” I added.

“Great,” he said with his typical sarcasm.

I wanted to change the subject before he asked me why I’d gone to Al’s first. “Al’s frog Larry died. Or I think it was Larry. I get their names mixed up. Well, I helped her bury him in her yard. She’s worried about Chow Mein. She thinks he’s going to die soon of a broken heart.”

“She’s strange,” Tommy said.

It had been a long day already, so I ignored the crack about Al. His opinion of Al was mutual.

“Um, I was going to get you a present, too, but, you know, I didn’t have any money,” he went on.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, glad to change the subject away from Al. “You don’t have to give me anything.”

“But I want to,” he said, looking dejected. He looked around the room, his eyes settling on the record player, which by now had been playing “Elusive Butterfly.”

“How about if I give you a couple of my records?” he said.

“Um, sure,” I said. “But you really don’t have to give me anything, Tommy.” Michael had a record player he let me use. He might even like whatever songs Tommy gives me, I thought.

“Oh, that’s okay. I want to.” He went over to the record player on top of the hutch. On the bottom shelf was his mother’s faded green paisley cloth-covered sewing box that he kept his hot 45s in. He brought it to the couch and sat back down next to me.

“Want to pick them out, or should I?” he asked and placed the box on his lap and opened it.

“Still a steady customer of Sam Goody’s, huh?” I asked.

“Ha ha, you’re so funny,” he said. “Here, which ones do you want?” He handed the box to me.

I looked into it and pushed some records back, reading the titles—Bob Dylan “Positively 4th Street,” “The Times They Are A Changin’,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”; Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart,” Four Tops “Baby I Need Your Lovin’”.

“What a collection!” I said. “Sam Goody would be proud.” I smiled and shook my head. “Here, just give me whichever ones you want me to have, Tommy,” I said though I felt guilty taking stolen goods.

“Well, okay,” he said, and took the box back. Then said, “Feel like a drink?”

“A drink?” I asked him. “I don’t know.”

“There’s some scotch in the cabinet,” he said.

“Not after last time,” I said, squishing my face up.

“Oh, right,” he said, making the same face. “Well, then, how about a beer? Dear old Dad’s got some in the fridge today. Maybe he knew it was going to be your birthday.”

“Right,” I said. “Sure, okay.”

He went into the kitchen and came back with two bottles of Ballantine, opened them with Mr. Butler’s metal bottle opener, and gave me one. Then he sat back down and took a few gulps of the beer, as did I, though I really didn’t want it.

He smiled. “Why don’t you drink some more of your beer, Danny.” He took a long gulp of his own and set it down on the coffee table.

“Um, what about my birthday present?” I said. “You were going to pick out records to give me. Remember?” I tried to interrupt one sin with another.

“Oh, right,” he said. “Sure, Danny.” He sat up and picked up the record box. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay. It’s just not my best birthday, between my stupid sister and Al’s frog’s funeral.”

“Oh,” he said.

I knew I had hurt his feelings—as I seemed to do often—with my not being in a drinking mood and seeing Al on my birthday before coming to his house. I left out the part about how Al and, especially her sweet kisses, had made me feel better, but his believing Al had depressed me with her deceased frog seemed to cheer him up.

He began to read over the record labels in the box. “Okay, let’s see. You like the Supremes, don’t you? How about ‘Stop In the Name of Love’?” He gave me his innocent smile which was anything but.

“Sure,” I said. The Supremes were Tommy’s favorites.

A few years before, Tommy had moved into the neighborhood and was the new kid in school. Al had already started skipping grades, leaving me behind. Since her schedule had changed, I was spending most of my lunchtimes alone, dodging bullies. I was the only one in our large third grade class who didn’t torture Tommy for being new, and he became very attached to me. He was a Flower Child, perpetually sad about life’s troubles, such as the mistreating of animals (Tommy was a vegetarian), and the war in Vietnam depressed him.

“Oh, and do you like The Four Tops?” he asked. “‘I’ll Be There’? Oh, and how about ‘Baby, I Need Your Lovin’.’”

“Yeah,” I said. “I love The Four Tops.” I drank some more of my beer. He handed me the three 45s. I slipped them between the pages of my sketch pad and put it inside my jacket, so they wouldn’t get broken.

“And I love my birthday present,” I said, “ aside from how you got them. Thanks, Tommy.”

“You’re welcome,” he said and smiled in his no-smile way. Then, he finished his beer and set down the bottle. The effects of the beer were beginning to settle in, and I felt more relaxed. “My World Is Empty Without You,” came on the Victrola.

I never got around to telling Tommy my sad story about Frances and the Diary Dilemma, which sounded like the title of a mystery book. I didn’t even remember to tell him about my new fishing pole. I hadn’t noticed that it was already getting dark, and the walk home would be colder than before. After a while, I started to get up to put on my jacket. I slid my sketch pad with my new 45s under one arm inside my peacoat.

“Don’t leave, Danny,” Tommy said. “Stay over.”

I was not in a hurry to leave the warmth of his friendship for who-knew-what awaited me back at the ranch. I would have been delighted to stay over, as I had done many times, and, after his mother walked home from her job at The Hideaway bar on Liberty Avenue, have some of her great cooking, since I couldn’t remember if I’d eaten anything that day. But with all that had gone on earlier, I had this feeling I should go home, though I wasn’t sure why. Because it was my birthday? I didn’t know. I just wanted to connect with Michael after all that had happened.

“Sorry, Tommy,” I said. “I really do have to go.”

“Okay,” he said, seeming to sense not to push it the way he normally would have. “Will you be around tomorrow?”

“Maybe,” I said, remembering that Al would be away in the Catskills, though sometimes I got to spend some time with Michael on Sundays, so I liked to keep them open. I said goodbye to Tommy and headed down the hallway. I could hear the song “Stay” coming from the living room…“just a little bit longer”. I stepped out into the biting but refreshing cold air.

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“Funeral for a Stooge”, Chapter. 5b, Excerpt 13, The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

ARCH SELZ COVER FRONTI followed her out the back door. The sun was lower in the sky, the backyard had grown more still, and the frostiness icier.

“Isn’t the dirt too frozen to dig through, Al?”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Grab the key from the hook on the wall there.”

I did, and Al opened the garage door and emerged a few seconds later with the—implements of death—a small, pointed hand-shovel and a pick. She carried the mini coffin to the rose-less rosebush, its branches stiff as Larry. On the ground were two large, round rocks sunk into the frosty dirt neatly aligned next to the garage’s outer wall. Andy’s perpendicular influence, I imagined.

She knelt down and, with Larry’s coffin in one hand, began stabbing at the hard dirt with the pick with the other. She hacked away at the frozen ground, then started chopping at it with the shovel, silent tears streaming down her face.

“Want me to help, Al?”

“Yes,” she said, stabbing and digging away with one hand. “Hold Larry.”

“Hold Larry?”

“Daniel, will you please just take him?”

I stuck out my hand and Al placed leathery Larry’s matchbox casket into my freezing hand.

“Okay, Daniel,” she said a few minutes later and about four inches down. “Let me have him.”

I handed her the matchbox. She looked up at me with puffy eyelids.

“Hey, are you okay?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just get the feeling something’s not right with you.”

“Yeah?”

She nodded.

“Well, maybe that’s because it’s the worst birthday of my life,” I finally blurted out.

“What?”

Her eyes got big and she almost dropped Larry into his grave.

“Oh, no! What are you saying, Daniel? Why didn’t you tell me?” Then she smiled.

I was glad to be able to cheer her up with my news of a nightmarish birthday.

“It’s not important,” I said. “There’s just something I have to tell you about.”

“Daniel, what could be more important than your birthday?” She dropped Larry’s casket into his cold grave and stood up a few inches from my nose and faced me.

“Danny, what is it?”

“Well, it’s a long story, Al.”

“What kind of story?”

“Why don’t you finish burying Larry first? Then I’ll tell you.”

“No, tell me now,” she said. “It sounds important.”

“It is important,” I said. “But finish burying Larry. I can wait another few minutes, Alison.”

“Darn it, Daniel.” She turned back to her gruesome task. “Okay. I’ll finish, then tell me.”

“Well, that is why I came over.”

“Oh, sorry, Danny. Guess I sidetracked you. Why didn’t you say something?” Her gloomy mood seemed to lighten as she began to cover poor, stiff Larry in his little sliding-door coffin with frozen, gravelly dirt. When she was satisfied that he was in deep enough to rest in peace, she stood up, brushing the knees of her jeans.

“He needs a headstone,” she said. “To add to Moe’s and Curly’s.”

I was speechless.

“I’ll run and find a rock for him, then we’ll go back to my room, and you can tell me.”

“Right.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you had something to tell me?” she called back from the side of the house.

“You were too sad about Larry.”

“Oh,” she said, back now.

“And then you got sadder and sadder, and crying and everything,” I said.

“Oh, that.”

“I got the feeling you were thinking about your mother, Al.”

“How’d you know?” she asked.

“Because I was, too,” I said.

On her knees, Al finished arranging Larry’s rock with the other Stooges’ tombstones.

“Good-bye, Larry,” she said. “Your friends Moe and Curly are waiting to welcome you to Frog Heaven. And, don’t worry, Chow Mein will, in time, learn to live without you. It won’t be easy for him. Or for me. We’ll miss you.”

I felt like crying, but had already done enough that day.

Al put her hands on my shoulders, her dark eyes still damp.

“Okay, Sweetie,” she said. “Come on and tell me what happened.” She pulled me toward the back door, inside, and back up to her room, where she pushed me down onto her bed and sat next to me, close. I was happy to see she was feeling better.

“Okay, Sweetie, what’s going on?”

Al’s room was cold. Outside her bedroom window, I could see the backyard covered in the sun’s shadow. The warmth of Al’s body next to mine on her soft bed comforted me. I thought about Larry in his matchbox alone in the frozen ground. I thought about my father Frank whom I never knew. I thought about Al’s mother. Al’s tenderness touched me and the tears did start up again. Her face so close to mine, still cool from the outside air, blurred, until the tears spilled over my cheeks and down my chin. I felt like an idiot.

“What’s the matter, Angel,” she asked, and kissed me lightly on my lips, now wet with the tears that had settled in the corners of my mouth. I told her what Frances had done and described the whole mess up to the point when I had to pass the three of them in the kitchen to make my final escape.

“Poor Sweetie,” she said. “That’s terrible.” She squeezed my hands and kissed me again on the cheek.

“Yeah, I was a real mess,” I said, enjoying her softness and sympathy, a side of Al most people never saw. Despite everything, I felt fortunate in that moment.

“Well, Linda never liked you to begin with,” Al said, “and as long as Michael’s not mad at you, that’s all that matters, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. It was true.

“I mean you didn’t really say anything bad, just a bit embarrassing?”

“Yeah,” I said, praying Al would never know she was in my diary, too.

“Well, are you feeling better now?” she asked.

“Just being with you makes me feel better, Al.”

“I have a present for you,” she said.

She smiled. “Here, open it,” she said, and handed me a flat, rectangle gift wrapped in blue, white, and green paper covered in sailboats and seagulls. I tore off the paper. A sketch pad.

“I hope it’s okay,” she said. “Is it the right size?”

I nodded.

“I wasn’t sure if you would like the big one or the small one,” she went on. “I thought a small one would be good because you can take it wherever you go. There’s a pencil in there, too, Daniel, with a special eraser.”

“It’s perfect,” I said.

“Happy birthday, Sweetie,” she said.

“Thanks, Al.”

We sat on the bed for a few minutes, me fingering my art pad and fancy crystal blue pencil, and Al gazing into the tank with its now solo inhabitant, Chow Mein.

Then, Al said, “Oh, Daniel? I would have told you this sooner, but we got sidetracked with Larry, and your story about that sister of yours, and your birthday present.”

“What?” I knew I didn’t want to hear this.

“Well, it’s just that I’m going away tonight, with my father. Upstate. The Catskills? My grandparent’s house. I’m sorry, Daniel. I know it’s your birthday and everything….”

“Oh.”

“Grandma’s not doing well, and Andy decided to go up there, a last minute idea. He’s not sure how long we’ll be staying. He’s worried about Grandma, and even Grandpa, now that my uncle is dead and isn’t there to help out anymore.”

“Right, sure,” I said.

“We’re heading out as soon as Andy gets home from work,” she said. “I’ll call you as soon as we get back, okay?”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “Any idea when that will be?”

“I don’t know yet,” she said. “It’ll depend on how Grandma and Grandpa are doing. I’m sorry, Daniel.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said. Up there in the Catskills, Al wouldn’t be just a walk or even a phone call away.

I left Al’s, clutching my new drawing pad under one arm, feeling better than when I had left my apartment, but uneasy about her leaving. I pushed open the wooden gate from Al’s backyard to the sidewalk on 115th Street and stood at the corner, looking both ways. It was late afternoon but already starting to get dark. I was in no hurry to go home.

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“Funeral for a Stooge”, Chapter. 5a, Excerpt 12, Archangel.

Finally, the aloneness of the hallway. I hurried down the steps and out to the street and the icy rain. Al would understand. She always did. Outside our gate, I turned in the direction of her house on 115th Street and 109th Avenue.

After walking the nine blocks from my apartment, I stood at the corner across from Al’s giant brown house where she lived with her father Andy. The house always looked huge to me on the corner of the short block it dominated, with its gables and pillared porch that ran all the way around to the chain-link fence along the street. They never used the front door that faced the avenue. You had to walk up the street around the side, under the line of giant maples now bare of leaves, to the low gate that led to Al’s small yard, with its little patches of frosted grass and frozen rosebushes, perfectly aligned along the side of the garage that faced the street.

Andy was an engineer. He liked things neat. Perpendicular, Al said. Al was the opposite. Her room was a collage of books, papers, unusual pets, the bed never made. Maybe that was why they got along so well, like Michael and me. Michael would throw his shirt in one direction, his pants in another. I kept after it, though I didn’t mind. It was better than listening to Teresa yell at him about it, even though I could never nail down a memory of Teresa cleaning anything.

Al and I were the only ones I knew who called our parents by their first names. Well, Al called her father Andy but had called her mother Mother until her mother was killed by a car on her way to the store one day.

I knocked on the glass windowpane of the back door. Al’s bicycle was there leaning against the wall. Seeing it always reminded me of when Michael used to ride me on the handlebars of his bike when I was little. I knocked on the inside door, then opened it and snuck into the kitchen. The house was quiet.

“Al?” I called. “Are you here?” I could hear Bob Dylan whining out “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. I crept in a bit farther, into the darkened kitchen where the only light seeped in through the orange curtains, then into the living room with Andy’s shadowy big chair and his desk full of books and papers in neat piles.

“Alison?” I called a little more loudly.

“Come up here, Daniel.”

I jumped, but was relieved to hear her usual voice of authority. Bossy, the kids at school had

called her, and stuck-up and conceited. I headed up the long, wooden staircase.

“How come it took you so long to answer me, Al?” I called. “You shouldn’t leave the door unlocked when you’re upstairs.”

No answer.

“Some maniac could’ve walked right in,” I said and waited for one of her usual wisecracks like, You’re right, one just did.

I pushed the partly-open bedroom door. The thick, teal-colored wall darkened the room. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, her head tilted down, looking at her cupped hands. Her thick, dark hair hung forward, covering her face. She had on her favorite bellbottom jeans and navy-blue sweatshirt.

“I have failed,” she said.

“Failed?” I asked. “You?”

“Yes, Daniel. Me. I failed. He’s dead,” she said. “I tried to save him but I was too late.”

“What? Who?” Not Andy!

“Larry,” she said.

“Who?”

“Larry. The last survivor.”

“Survivor?”

“Of the Stooges,” she said. “The Three Stooges, Daniel. Don’t you remember?”

“Um.” I looked around. Al’s bed was strewn with books and papers.

“First, it was Moe,” she was saying. “Then, Curly went last month. Don’t you remember?”

I stared at her.

“My frogs, Daniel. The Three Stooges?”

“Oh, right.” I tried to sound as if I remembered. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. When I looked in the tank, Larry was struggling to breathe.”

“What’d you do, give him mouth to mouth resuscitation?”

She shot me a look. “Don’t you even care?”

“Oh, sure, Al. I care,” I said, feeling guilty for my sarcasm. “Sorry. Where is Larry. Did you flush him?”

“Of course I didn’t flush him!”

“Oh,” I said.

“I’m going to bury him in the backyard next to Moe and Curly under the white rosebush.”

“Oh, right. He’ll like that,” I said.

She shot me another look.

“What’s with you, Daniel?” she said. “You’re usually more sympathetic.”

“Oh, no, Al. I’m sorry, and sympathetic, too.” I made a sad face and hers softened.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to Chow Mein now,” she said. “He’s sad.”

“Geez,” I said. She had named the catfish Chow Mein because he was supposed to be a Chinese fish and Chow Mein was her favorite dish at our local Chinese restaurant. The frogs (when they were alive) were black and tiny, about a third the size of Chow Mein. Larry the frog, when he was still with us, had been seen hanging around at the bottom of the tank with one of his little black, leathery arms around Chow Mein’s “shoulders”.

“I’m really worried about Chow Mein,” she said.

Chow Mein was frozen in place at the bottom of the tank; Larry, about one inch all around, was stiffly sprawled in the center of Al’s palm in a paper towel. She gathered up Larry’s tiny body with the miniature fishnet.

“Come on, Daniel, help me bury Larry.”

“Oh, sure,” I said. Attending a minuscule frog’s burial seemed fitting. Larry’s sudden death somehow put my problems into perspective. I followed Al in slow funeral procession down the staircase, through the living room and kitchen, and out into the backyard. She stopped short on the back stoop with me tripping up the backs of her shoes. Al remained unfazed. I waited.

She appraised the line of ice-covered rosebushes perpendicular to the garage.

“I need a box,” she said.

“A box?”

“Yes, Daniel, a box. I need a box to put him in.” She turned around and, for the first time since I’d arrived, looked at me.

“Al, are you okay?”

“Daniel, I’m really glad you’re here.”

“Oh, thanks, Al. So am I, but ….”

“Can you please find me a box?”

I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. I had problems that I needed to tell Al about.

“Where should I look for a box?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. She looked down at Larry splayed across the palm of her hand. A tear dripped down her cheek, over her upper lip, and down onto her sweatshirt. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen Al cry, not even with the passing of Moe or Curly, and not since the passing of her mother. I moved closer to her and touched her arm.

“Al? Are you okay?” I said. “I know you’re sad about Larry, but I wouldn’t think it would hit you this hard.”

She stood there staring down at poor Larry who seemed to be getting stiffer by the minute. Another tear dropped, landing on Larry’s belly, soaking into his black, leathery skin.

She looked up at me again. “Why does everything have to die?”

Life and death questions. I was itching to tell Al my problem, but….

“Um, Al, where should I look for a box?”

“Go in the kitchen,” she said. “There’s a box of matches by the stove. Dump the matches and we’ll use the box.”

Back to giving orders. A good sign. I had somehow missed Moe’s and Curly’s funerals and wondered what kind of boxes they were lying in under the frozen ground, but didn’t dare ask. I headed back inside the house and found the match box. It was full. I looked around for something to dump the matches into. There was a big red bowl on the counter with a speckled banana and a brown-spotted apple in it. I picked it up and slapped the foot pedal of the steel garbage pail with my foot, turned the fruit bowl upside down over it, then dropped the matches into the bowl.

I ran back to Al and stopped. Her eyes were closed, as if she were in a trance. I wanted to laugh but knew better. Her right arm was lowering slightly, and Larry was tilting dangerously toward the linoleum floor.

“Al?”

“Yes, Daniel,” she said dreamily.

“Larry.”

“Larry?”

“Yeah, Al. Larry. He’s sliding.”

She opened her eyes and lifted her hand.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t let him fall.”

“Okay,” I said. “Here’s the box.”

“Hold it open,” she said and placed Larry’s stiff little body into the box. I thought of Al’s mother’s funeral just a few months earlier, and the long, wooden box they had lowered into the coffin-shaped hole in the ground. Al’s mother had been struck down by a cab crossing the street one day when she was shopping and never came out of her coma. Al had asked me to stay with her that day. I did, and through that night, without sleep. Andy had seemed lost, keeping to himself, which he still continued to do.

“Al? Are you okay?”

A tear slid down her cheek. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s go bury him.”

The Archangel of Hamilton Beach       ebook 99 cents

 

“The Queen Of Ugly”, Ch. 4b, Excerpt 11, Archangel

“Danny, what’s wrong with you? Did something happen?” he asked, with a glare in Teresa’s direction. She responded by picking up the remote control, turning on the TV and changing channels until she came to a movie, I Want to Live, with Susan Hayward on the witness stand, crying to the courtroom, “Have you ever been desperate? Do you know what it’s like?”

I studied the green reel on my fishing pole.

“Danny, what’s wrong?” Michael repeated.

“Frances,” I said through runny nose and salty lips.

“Frances? For cryin’ out loud, it’s always something with her.” He shook his head. “What’d she do this time?”

I didn’t know what else to do. It was better if he heard it from me and not from Frances or, God forbid, Linda. My stomach had gotten closer up to my throat.

“It’s my diary,” I whispered, gripping my fishing pole and its red wrapping paper.

“What?”

“My diary. It’s my diary.”

“You have a diary?” He smiled and shook his head. “Goofy.”

“She took it.”

“Whadyu mean? She’s so freaking stupid.”

“Watch the way you talk about your sister,” chimed in Teresa, as if she had some high respect for Frances that nobody knew about. “And what do you mean you’re keeping a diary. What do you have in there?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” I said.

“You watch your mouth,” she said and turned back to Susan Hayward.

“She took it to Linda’s,” I told Michael.

He shook his head again. “What’d she do that for?” he said.

“To show Linda.”

“Show Linda your diary? What for?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Probably because it says things in there that she thinks are funny.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, watching the TV.

“Yes,” I said.

“So, who cares? What kind of things?”

“I don’t know. About you,” I said.

“Me?”

“I wrote about you in my diary.”

“Geez, Danny, you’re such a goofball.” He half-laughed, still watching the movie.

“Oh, he’s worse than that,” said Teresa, her eyes still on the television.

“I wasn’t talkin’ to you,” Michael told her.

“You watch it, Mister,” she said, flicking ashes, ignoring that she’d missed the ashtray.

Michael turned back to me.

“I guess she wants Linda to hate me more than she already does,” I said.

“Linda doesn’t hate you,” he said. “She just gets weird sometimes. But why would she care about what you write in your diary, anyway?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just said stuff about how much I, you know, like, wish we could live together and stuff like that.”

“Like I said, You’re a real goofball. So, where’s the big deal?” He shook his head. He seemed to have become more interested in Susan Hayward.

“I don’t know.” That’s not the only entry in my diary Frances will enjoy showing Linda, I thought with a cringe, remembering some of the things I’d written about Al.

“Besides, we already live together,” Michael was saying, his eyes still on the television.

“I know, but I mean like, you know, like later, like whenever we get to leave this place.” Teresa shot me a look just as my stomach arrived in my mouth. I ran into the bathroom, slammed the door, smashed down the latch, and raced to the toilet, leaning over it while my insides came up and out. I hadn’t realized it, but I was still gripping my fishing pole inside its box which had become a part of my body. Then there was banging on the door.

“Danny, what are you doing?” Michael was yelling. “Have you gone crazy or something? Danny, open the door, will ya?”

I held on to the toilet, wishing it would end.

I stayed in the bathroom a long time, sitting on the closed toilet cover now, holding my fishing pole, rocking back and forth, keeping a rhythm. One-two on the forward bend, three-four on the backward. One-two, three-four. One-two, three-four.

Michael finally gave up and stopped banging. The hexagon-shaped white floor tiles moved in and out as I rocked. The tears were dry on my face and tingled. I opened my mouth wide to relieve the itchy tightness of my cheeks. Then I heard voices, coming from the living room. Michael’s, then Linda’s, then Frances’s fat mouth. I didn’t want to hear what they were saying. Holding the fishing pole against my body with my elbow, I slapped my hands up to my ears and moved them in and out to block the voices but then jumped at the new loud banging on the door.

“Hey, Danny! Are you in there?”

Frances.

“Come out here, right now, you little queer!” She cackled. “Don’t you want your little diary back, honey, or should I bring it to your little dream girl?” And that laugh again.

Could I ever hate anyone more? I didn’t want to leave the safe bathroom, pulsating tiles notwithstanding, but I had to get that diary, even though it was already too late. Michael knew about it by now. And Linda. Oh, no. But I had to go out there.

More banging, and the sing-song voice, “Better get out here if you want your precious diary.”

I slid off the top of the toilet. The hexagon tiles swayed with me, as I moved toward the door. I struggled with the latch, then forced it up. The door flew open, and The Thing gripped the knob then filled the doorway, my black and white diary in her puffy hand.

“If you want it, come and get it!” She ran back through the living room and into the kitchen, cackling.

I followed after her cautiously, still clutching my fishing pole. I heard Michael and Linda’s voices in the kitchen. I didn’t want to know what they were saying, I just wanted my diary back, though it didn’t seem to matter anymore. The couch was empty, Teresa back in bed, no doubt. The room still reeked of cigarettes; the television was off. I made my way into the kitchen.

Michael was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, looking more serious than usual, with Linda next to him. Her long, blonde hair flowed past her shoulders. She wore a pink miniskirt and large, gold hoop earrings. It always surprised me how beautiful she was, in sharp contrast to Frances, her so-called best friend. Linda looked at me, shaking her head, lips pursed, eyes squinting. I looked away. Frances stood by the sink, swaying like an idiot.

“Well, aren’t you going to come and get it, Danny?” she sang.

“Frances, give him the book already, will you?” Michael said.

“I’ll give it to him when he comes and gets it,” she said. “Here, little Danny. Here’s your precious diary.”

“Frances! Give it to him right now!” Michael stood up to make his point.

She flung the notebook at me. It hit me in the stomach and dropped to the floor.

“There’s your precious diary,” she said.

I bent down and grabbed it. Then, her voice switched to mean.

“Now, go write some more about how you’re in love with your big brother or is it your little smart girlfriend, you sick little weirdo!” She stuck out her puckered mouth and made loud kissing noises. The queen of ugly.

“Okay, Danny, get rid of that freaking book now, will you please?” said Michael. “Go put it away somewhere or burn it or something. Geez.” He shook his head while Linda glared at me.

With my diary and fishing pole box, I headed for the bedroom. I sat on the bed and opened the notebook to see what The Thing had done to it but found nothing except my own words—one small bit of relief, though little consolation. I closed the notebook and shoved it in deep, back into the tight space between the mattress and box-spring where I kept it. I’d need a new hiding place. Not that it mattered now. But I couldn’t think. I had to get out of there.

I slid open the closet door, stood my fishing pole still in its box into the back corner, and threw an old blanket over it, praying The Thing wouldn’t get her fat hands on it.

The thought of going back into the kitchen brought my stomach back up my throat. I would have to pass all three of them to get out the door. Still a little dizzy, I pushed myself through the living room and past Michael and Linda at the kitchen table. Frances was still at the counter. I didn’t look at Linda again but sensed her staring. Her presence embarrassed me. The words from my diary screamed in my head. I moved straight for the door and turned the latch.

“Where you goin’, Danny?” asked Michael.

“To Al’s,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Be careful.”

“Yeah, be careful,” said The Thing. “You never know what you could pick up from your little girlfriend.”

I wanted to hit her. “Drop dead!” I yelled and stormed out to the staircase.

As I slammed the door behind me, I heard Michael say, “Frances, what is your problem?”

END OF CHAPTER 4.

The Archangel of Hamilton Beach