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On a hot, gray Wednesday in July, David Zielinsky had finished mowing his lawn and the lawn of his father's house next door, and was putting away the mower when his uncle pulled into the drive in his week-old car, a yellow 1949 Willys Jeepster. It looked like the result of a night of gin-provoked coitus between a runtish moving van and a ragtop Studebaker and was, David thought, the worst match of car to driver ever to hit the American road. Uncle Stan had been a Chicago cop, the short young balding one in that famous picture placing the cuffs on Capone, then Eliot Ness brought him to Cleveland, then Stan went to war and did things that Aunt Betty said he couldn't talk about so don't ask, then he came home and opened a one-man detective business and accepted the obligation of raising his nephew, his wife's sister's half-orphaned kid. A man like this, David thought, should drive a four-door Ford.
"Shower up, ace." Despite the threat of lake-effect rain, Stan got out and began, with due American efficiency, to put down the car's cream-colored top. "I'm buying you lunch." Stan Lychak was the kind of man it was hard to question. David felt brave asking where.
"Downtown," said Stan. "We're meeting someone. Maybe get a haircut, too, if you get a move on." He stroked his neatly trimmed silver mustache, took off his hat and ran his hands over his friar's fringe of hair. "Both of us. I'll get you back here in plenty of time." By which he meant David's paper route, the afternoon Cleveland Press.
Downtown was eight miles away, but David had crossed the Cuyahoga River only for school field trips, Christmas shopping, or Indians gamesnever, as far as he can remember, in a car. The streetcar was how you went, when you went,which was seldom. "Where downtown?" David was, he knew, pushing his luck.
"Place on Short Vincent Street."
"Who are we meeting?" David asked, already sure.
"It's a surprise," Stan said, which, to David's mind, cinched it: they were going to see David's father, Mike, a Short Vincent regular, who every couple weeks swung by the house next door to get his mail or sleep one off. David hadn't spoken to him in months.
David had of course never been to Short Vincent Street. It wasn't a place you took a kid. Aunt Betty called hello. She was on the front porch, reading Beowulf (she'd been taking night-school classes for years, toward a degree in no one knew what). Stan smiled and went to kiss her. They chortled, like kids going steady.
Then Stan returned to his car. "You still here?"
"I am," David said. "Listen, you want me to move back over there?" He pointed to his father's house, where David had not lived since he was four, and his mother left for Hollywood and drowned soon thereafter, and to which he did not even have a key. "I will if you want."
"What?" Stan furrowed his brow, shook his head. "Where'd you come up with that? Did you think that was what I meant?"
They regarded one another. David was an all-elbows beanpole in cutoffs and Keds. Stan was a compact, guarded man who hadn't wanted children and seemed never to have been one. Once, for a trip to Euclid Beach Park, Stan wore brogans and a fat tie.
"Well?" Stan resumed the ministrations needed to transform his nutty car. "Shake a leg."
On the drive up Pearl Road, Stan tuned in a broadcast of the Cleveland Orchestra. At each stoplight, he turned the radio down; as he got underway again, he'd turn it back up, overtaxing the tinny dashboard speaker. "Ah, Finlandia," he said. "By the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Pride of the Finns."
As if David cared.
"Born I believe in 1865," Stan said at the next light. "Still living. Sadly neglected these days."
"Yes," Stan insisted. "Great."
"Did I say he wasn't?" Yes. Though you had to be impressed by a guy who was practically a hundred years old.
The light at the west-side foot of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge turned green. Ramrod stiff behind the wheel, Stan adjusted his hat for the upcoming wind, put his car into gear, and began the slow ascent up the bridge and over the river.
Flanking the road, on each corner of the bridge, were mammoth sandstone pylons, each carved into the shape of an impassive art-deco angel, each clutching what looked like a large toy to its breast: the one on the left a stagecoach, on the right a car, what looked like a 1930 Dodge. Stan pointed and, over the scratchy music and howling wind, yelled. "The Guardians of Traffic!"
David felt a pressure on his chest, which might have just been the wind off the lake and down the Cuyahoga Valley but felt like more. Everything, everywhere, was large. The limitless lake shimmering in the haze to the north. Closer, on Whiskey Island, were mountains of gravel and salt, and those monster-movie-insect Huletts that loaded and unloaded the freighters. And to the right, to the south! As far as the eye can see stretched a crooked valley: a tenebrous wonderland carpeted with smokestacks and tank farms, drawbridges, ore trains, and every stippled color of smoke and fire you could
Will you look at all the bridges! A Tinkertoy exposition of drawbridges, cranking every whichway, spinning andlifting, rotating and tilting, pitching and yawing: right, left; up, down.
Halfway across the mile-long bridge, higher than the track where the streetcars go, with nothing above him but thesky, and, David threw back his head and gave himself over to the wind. Even the sky looked too large to fit where the sky used to go!
Uncle Stan, hat securely in place, tapped him on the arm and winked. "Nice view, eh?" DaBefore them loomed two more sandstone angels, the one on the left holding a steam engine, the one on the right a
dumptruck. Beyond the bridge was a hobbled mess of truck docks and sooty brick food warehouses, and beyond that: Terminal Tower! The tallest building in the world, if you don't count New York City, and let's not. Fifty-two craggy, greenish, wedding-cake stories, rising and tapering toward the turreted spire. On top, an American flag. Below that, a Cleveland Indians flag.
Could it be a mistake? Isn't this an off-day, the day after the All-Star game?
"Indians flag," shouted Uncle Stan, pointing. "They fly it any time the Indians're home."
Only as they were about to reach the eastern side, as bridge became road, did David think to look back at the river they'd crossed: the Cuyahoga, clotted with black freighters, kinked as a great beast's spilled intestine, glowing green and yellow. It was a beautiful damn thing.
Stan pulled into a parking lot just as the sun broke out and the orchestra played the brassy last bars of Finlandia. He turned off the car, turned the key, and they sat listening to the applause. The radio went to commercial. All he said was "outstanding." All David could think to say was, "yeah." He asked if Stan wanted help putting the top up. Stan assessed the sky. "No," he said. "I'll risk it."
It was the day after the All-Star game. The Indians were in first. Cleveland was no one's idea of a joke. An ex-cop felt okay about leaving his new car unlocked. The sun shone.
At least until you turned the corner onto Short Vincent, that dark 485-foot-long glorified alley.
"I thought it'd be bigger," David said.
"That," said Stan, "is how it usually goes."
Doormen and bellboys milled around under the canopy of the alarmingly medium-sized Hollenden Hotel. The nightclubs were open, but the music wouldn't start for hours. Two main restaurants, Kornman's and the Theatrical were normal-sized, with nondescript facades. There were no elephants or famous movie stars or flagpole sitters or Presidential motorcades; nothing that local lore or David's father had led him to expect. Just a dark 485-foot one-way street, westbound.
Stan checked his watch. They were of course early. "In here." He held open the door to Ciccia's Barber Shop. "Let's get our ears lowered."
David and his uncle took the last two seats, underneath a cobwebby moosehead sporting an Indians cap (black, red bill, wishbone C, no Wahoo). On the television set was a floor-fight in Philly, over a civil-rights plank in the Democratic platform.
In the middle of a workday, Ciccia's was full of cigar smoke and men, and the talk was full of what you'd think. Baseball. Mock despair over women. Lies about fish. The skinny from the touts and sharps about today's sure things. The word on what's what in City Hall, who's bent and straight at the C.P.D. The things the Press, the News, and The Plain Dealer knew about but wouldn't print. Plus the guy in the next barber chair could be anybody. Bill Veeck, say.
"Mr. Veeck," said the barber. "You're next."
David, the only kid in the place, stared as the Indians' owner, a young, curly-haired, sunburned ex-Marine, grappled with his metal crutcheshe had a wooden legand, still chuckling over one of his own jokes, climbed into the chair. In 1948, to own the Indians was to own Cleveland. Give a snakeoil salesman single-malt to sell instead, and, as David's father would say, the world lines up to suck his dick.
"What about it, Billy?" called a monstrously fat man in a derby. "How long can it last?"
Already, David was thinking how he'd tell the story to his buddies in Old Brooklyn. He reached into his pocket, but there's nothing for Veeck to sign. Just some change and a comb.
"Should be a hell of a race," said Veeck. "Come out and see. Bring your wives."
"Shoes ain't got a wife," somebody said.
"Don't need one," said Shoes. "I got yours."
There was talk of who might catch Clevelandthe A's, the Red Sox, the evil Yankees. Someone asked Veeck about the Satchel Paige stunt.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Mark Winegardner, published by Harcourt, Inc. and reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.