A rollicking memoir through the shifting zeitgeist of the last five decades
In The Barefoot Bingo Caller, Antanas Sileika finds what’s funny and touching in the most unlikely places, from the bingo hall to the collapsing Soviet Union. He shares stories that span his attempts to shake off his suburban, ethnic, folk-dancing childhood to his divided allegiance as a Lithuanian-Canadian father. Antanas has a keen eye for social comedy, bringing to life such memorable characters as ageing beat poets, oblivious college students, the queen of the booze cans, and an obdurate porcupine. Passing through places as varied as the prime minister’s office and the streets of Paris, these wry and moving dispatches on work and family, art, and identity are ones to be shared and savoured.
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About the Author
Antanas Sileika is the author of four works of fiction. His first book, Buying on Time, was shortlisted for the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Toronto Book Award as well as serialized on CBC Radio’s Between the Covers. Woman in Bronze and Underground were both listed among the 100 books of the year by The Globe and Mail, and the latter is in development for a film. An essay of his will be included in Best Canadian Essays of 2016. Antanas is the director of the Humber School for Writers. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.
Read an Excerpt
1953–1993: Hermes Repaid
To prevent me from reading all day long my mother bought a piano.
A piano demonstrated that she had finally got back something of what had been lost by the war. A piano represented culture and achievement, and her youngest son was to be the embodiment of the return to grace. All the better that no one else on our working class street in Weston owned a piano.
Although I had no musical talent, I could use the piano as a form of retaliation upon my much older brothers.
I loved nothing on television so much as movies, especially the old ones and even the corny serials that had once been shown in cinemas before the war. Sunday afternoons were zones of freedom for all of us after church and before finally buckling down to do homework on Sunday nights. Serials and double-header movies played on TV in the afternoon but, sadly, so did Wide World of Sports.
My older, more powerful brothers would watch any sport at any time. I didn’t begrudge them the baseball and football games on TV, and we all loved hockey, but they would watch anything, from water skiing to pole vaulting to motorcycle racing. I found it a crime that arcane sports, barely sports, trumped my movies. So I sought revenge.
“Why are you playing the piano?”
“Why do you have to practise while we’re watching TV?”
“I have to practise whenever I can.”
“We can’t hear the announcer.”
To add pungency to my aggression, I played badly, repeating errors without ever correcting them. Playing badly took no extra effort. I did it naturally, to the acute pain of not only my brothers, but also my piano teacher, Mr. Rose.
After giving up on personally teaching me, Mr. Rose kept assigning me to new and different piano teachers in his school. One died, to be replaced by another who liked to mimic students’ playing by simultaneously playing on their forearms. After some alert parents had him fired, my next teacher was Frank, a hairy-fingered Italian who taught to make a few extra dollars to supplement his job playing for burlesques at the Blue Angel. Frank had seen it all, and the Tony Bennett knock-off let me bang away unchastised through clouds of his cigarette smoke. If I aggravated his hangover too much, he’d tell me to run across the street to Inch’s Drugstore to get him a cup of coffee.
My brothers used the same tactic. “At least bring us some Kool-Aid.”
“Why should I?”
“We’ll give you a quarter.”
“As soon as we have one.”
I knew their weaknesses and they knew mine. A quarter would pay for a comic, a bottle of pop, and a small bag of chips. I brought them their Kool-Aids and lived in the dream of collecting the quarters, which were really nothing more than notional coins, bitcoins of the past, because they existed only as abstractions.
Older brothers were mixed blessings. They were frenemies avant le mot: champions, teachers, exploiters, torturers, benefactors, and the only ones who really understood you.
Andy and Joe were ten and six years older than me. Andy was practically an uncle, the one who dressed me in the morning when I was still too small to get my own socks on. They were strong, sporting boys. Joe was the only boy in the history of St. John the Evangelist elementary school who could knock a baseball right out of the playground. The two of them could play “goalies” on the driveway for hours with two hockey sticks and a tennis ball. They knocked a lightweight golf ball around nine holes in our suburban backyard and threw footballs out on the street with deadly accuracy.
Naturally, they expected to train me in their skills, but by a cruel roll of the genetic dice, I had come out timorous and inept, the third brother in fairy tales but without the happy ending. Their attempts at coaching could be hazardous.
“Don’t be afraid of the ball,” said Andy.
“Don’t be afraid of the bat,” said Joe.
I was backcatcher to my brothers, who were pitching and batting, and I stood well back of the bat, so far back that the ball was already arcing low, making it hard for me to catch.
I wanted to please them, so I did what I was told and pulled up close behind Joe. His bat caught me straight across the forehead on the back swing.
It could have been worse. I could have been hit on the forward swing.
“Stand over there,” said Andy. They had learned a little of my incompetence, and if they couldn’t train me, at least they could keep me out of the way. I stood by the back door as the two finished preparations over by the garage. They had devised bolos by putting two hardballs into a pair of complicated string bags and then running a thin rope between them. Bolos were used to wrap around the feet of runaway cattle. We didn’t have any cattle. Still, we might have cattle one day, and if we did and the cows ran off, we would have bolos to stop them in their retreat.
Andy swung the one ball around over his head while holding on to the second, and when he finally had enough momentum, he let go.
His aim must have been off.
I had never been hit by two baseballs in quick succession.
My footballs wobbled and never flew very far. Nor could I ever get the hang of catching one of them. I held my hands up, but the ball always flew between them. I was more goalposts than receiver.
Seeking to emulate my brothers, I played on the elementary school hockey team, and I was the only kid in grade four who was often asked not to bother to dress for the game. My enraged immigrant father would shout down at the coach from the stands, but the coach was indifferent. As for me, I was relieved. All skates seemed designed to hurt my ankles. In my four-year career on the ice, I scored only one goal, and it was disallowed by the referee, based on no rule I had ever heard of, unless it was to grant a career shutout to a hockey player who was not even a goalie.
This difference in temperament extended to other parts of our family life. Andy and Joe ate hamburgers, potato pancakes, and roast pork with gusto. I preferred sautéed mushrooms and could only eat eggs if they were scrambled dry and served on lightly toasted bread that was quartered diagonally.
It drove them crazy to watch my mother prepare special meals for me, the baby who came into the family when my parents had finally reached middle-classdom after years as struggling immigrants. My brothers still remembered the bleak DP camp in Germany and the dreary farm outside Fort William in their early years in Canada.
They had helped my father build our house. At first, they all lived underground in the basement while the place was slowly banged together above them, scattering sawdust on them daily. As for me, I grew up in the completed house in my own bedroom with cowboy curtains and an electric train set. On warm days, I could open my window and listen to the real trains that passed through Weston a half mile away and imagine a better place than the one I inhabited, a place where sports were not the measure of a boy’s success.
I escaped into books and became the household reader, occasionally driven outside by my mother, who thought it wasn’t healthy for a boy to be inside so much on fine days.
I was no better in sports with boys my age than I was with my older brothers, but the street presented many more options, especially in the empty lots and farm fields that had not been developed yet. There we built catapults and, if we had any money, bought cannon crackers to blow up toy soldiers. War games were played every day, and once my mother called me indoors and gave me two dollars because she was embarrassed that I was using a Luger plastic water gun while the other boys all had long guns. She was mortified to be the mother of the most underarmed kid on the block. We built go-karts whose wooden disk wheels always fell off because we had no axels and used nails instead. We kept up low-level gang warfare with kids on other blocks, using dirt clods as our main weapons. We took child prisoners whose hands we tied up with clothesline, and we held them until they wet their pants or it was time for supper. Indoors, we built telegraph systems using scraps of wire, an old door buzzer, and my electric train transformer. But we never learned Morse code well enough and had to run up and down stairs to confirm the dots and dashes with the sender.
As my brothers and I grew older, the difference in temperaments persisted.
We couldn’t really fight because they were so much bigger and stronger than I was, but they had taught me a few tricks. If you can’t beat someone with better strength or speed, then beat him any way you can.
I was in grade eight when the friendly janitor, probably bored down in his vast boiler room in the school basement, grudgingly let a few of us boys hang around with him. He was a sincere and effusive Italian and all of us, although on the edge of high school and coolness, still loved boyish things. He opened up the furnace to show us the jet of hot flame that heated the boiler. He let us try on fifty years’ worth of costumes from plays and arcane Catholic processions. There were silk capes, tiaras, crowns of thorns, crosses of many sizes and materials as well as dozens of broken plaster saints that he didn’t have the heart to throw out. And among these riches, we found a near complete set of boxing gloves.
There were three well-worn twenty-ounce sparring gloves, fuzzy leather pillows. We couldn’t find the fourth glove no matter how hard we looked. The janitor was a boxing enthusiast, and he had us try them on and spar. The missing glove was a left, so the boxer who wore only one glove on his right wrapped a towel around his left hand and was permitted to use that hand to block, but not to hit.
Down in that cellar, Vaughn Currigan and John Varneckas and I became enthusiasts, learning to keep our fists up, pulling our punches on the instruction of the janitor. We were all aware that one bloody nose would bring down the wrath of our principal, Mother Cecily. We learned to keep our fists close to our faces, like we’d seen in the movies, and we already knew that hitting below the belt was forbidden.
We boxed before and after school. We learned how hard it was to keep our hands up. And we learned restraint, never going in too hard for a punch.
We took turns taking the gloves home. On my day with the gloves my luck was good because I found my brother Joe there after school before our parents came home. Down into the basement we went, where the Ping-Pong table and the hockey sticks were stored. I was the one with the single glove, and we started to spar.
Joe was bigger and faster than I was, yet I could block most of his punches. But not all. He was being particularly light with me, careful not to hurt me, but he kept making it in with taps on my cheeks and kidneys. He was getting on my nerves and a decade of helpless-little-brotherness was about to be cast off. Joe tended to swing wide. He hadn’t been trained by our janitor.
Tap, tap, tap across my cheek and shoulder, and finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought of the backswing of the baseball bat. I remembered the bolos. The next time I saw an opening, I went in using the forbidden left hand, wrapped only in a tea towel. I went straight to his nose, not too hard but hard enough.
His moment of shock was all I needed. I went tearing upstairs to the ground floor and then up another flight to the bathroom, the only door with a lock on it. He wasn’t far behind me, but I had enough of a lead to lock the door and put my foot against the bottom on the inside.
It was like being in a horror movie. He banged on the door and threatened me at the same time that he ordered me to open the door. Any fool knew how to open a bathroom door lock with a bobby pin, but it wouldn’t work as long as I held my hand on the inside knob and didn’t let the lock mechanism turn.
“My nose is bleeding!” he roared.
But that was a good thing. The closest other sink was in the kitchen, and he eventually had to go down there to get a towel.
I would have to come out eventually, but my parents would come home from work soon and protect me from him. I sat tight and waited.
He couldn’t get me then, but we all had long memories. Brotherhood was like the Cold War of the time, mostly uneasy peace with occasional skirmishes. Nuclear war never actually broke out. We saved those conflagrations for exchanges with our father. And at the same time Joe took me under his wing after Andy moved out. We went to James Bond films, and if he couldn’t turn me into a good sportsman, at least he turned me into a reasonable fisherman.
We grew older and missed the whole hippie thing because they were too old and I was too young. I felt as if the French Revolution was happening, but I couldn’t take part because my parents had grounded me. Worst of all, my mother worked for the Feds as a chemist on street drugs, and she warned me that every police sample came into her building with the name of the accused on it, and it wouldn’t do to have the last name we shared on the brown paper envelope.
We may have missed the cultural explosion but we didn’t miss the fashions. For a while Joe wore long sideburns and a Fu Manchu moustache, and eventually all three of us had beards. Photographs from this time are painful to look at, decked out as we were in wide ties and long collar points.
Then brotherhood under one roof was over. We all went our own ways. Suddenly, there was nothing to argue about, unless it was politics, and the only sports that ever appeared in our common lives were occasional Super Bowl games we watched together. Even then, I never knew the teams or the players and watched the games as if they were some sort of spectacle, say Kabuki theatre or ballet. But it was better than OK to sit around with them.
They liked to remind me that I was the spoiled one, and I would remind them about how they had beaten me, but these were old stories by the time I turned forty.
There was a big surprise party for me. Such a surprise that I needed two shots of vodka to calm down. Sixty people gathered together from all parts of my past to celebrate the middle of my life.
Near the end of the party, when we were getting ready to go home, my brothers held something out to me.
It was a blue velvet bag with a gold string. I knew it well. Crown Royal whisky used to be sold in those bags. We kids had all loved the bags and put marbles or other treasures in them. They hadn’t been made for quite some time.
My brothers didn’t say anything and I took the bag. It was kind of heavy. I jerked it up once and heard the clink of coins inside. I looked up at them, uncertain.
“The quarters we owe you. Thanks for the Kool-Aids.”
1969: The Rocket
The town of Weston was the victim of the City of Toronto, half-consumed but not yet fully digested, still visible like a freshly swallowed frog inside the body of a snake. Not much happened in Weston that would register on the national news, but what happened in the world outside found its muffled way into Weston.
Our high-school principal, in a burst of newfound liberalism, now permitted jeans to be worn to school, and boys with long hair were no longer given the choice between a barbershop and suspension. But the small town atmosphere lingered old-timers came out to watch the afternoon high school football games; men of all ages wore shiny Weston Dodgers “hockey coats” in fall or winter; any young man with a Saturday-night date would be reasonably expected to spend a few hours in the afternoon cleaning and polishing his father’s car, if he could get his hands on it.
My own father believed that a car was like a bottle of liquor: it was a good thing to have, but the more you took from it, the less you would have left. This philosophy never stopped him from drinking quickly, but when it came to the family car, he believed every mile his sons drove would subtract from the total number of miles in its life. Other fathers seemed to think like ours. Father-son battles on driveways were common, especially in the new suburban part of Weston, where everything interesting was too far to walk to and teenagers needed a place to make out.
The sock hop had died and the mosh pit was still waiting to be born. We were stepping hesitantly out of our Archie comic lives; there were still a few Bettys and Veronicas around but the boys they were looking at were Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa.
TV was our window into the world, where the Vietnam War was happening, but so was the moronic comfort of Gilligan’s Island, a television show so stupid as to achieve camp status. And in 1969, TV was our window to Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.
In a burst of space enthusiasm my classmate, Les, came to me that September with a book on rockets.
It was the banner year of high school when the homeroom girls were all pretty and the boys were beginning to lose their awkwardness. We had just the right mix in our class of public school kids and Catholic school kids to feel comfortable and thrilled at the same time.
Les was the first guy I knew with a steady girlfriend, red-haired Becky, who came from one of the important local families. Les’s mother had divorced and remarried, which wasn’t scandalous anymore but still slightly racy and modern. He had brillo-pad hair that would turn into the best Afro I ever saw on a white man a few years later. And he had enthusiasms that he carried around with him like germs it would take just a little time with him before you were in the drama club, or photography club, or hustling girls outside our Weston hangout, the Central Restaurant. Les loved girls, and even though he had a steady, he considered it his right to flirt. He was amazingly successful at this, and it paid off to be around him because it brought me into the dating game and into my first clash of the sexes.
There were no women involved in our early rocket research. This consisted of studying a handbook on how to build one, with instructions on how to load the chemical engines in a kitchen sink while crouched down so that if the explosives went off, we’d lose nothing more than our hands. My mother was a chemist, but I didn’t ask her about explosives because she knew too much. She might try to talk us out of it.
Instead, Les and I walked twenty minutes to the bus stop, rode half an hour to the subway, and then another half hour on the train to get to a hobby shop on Yonge Street. The shop was full of parts for electric trains, balsa wood to make kites and gliders, gasoline-engine model planes that flew in circles off a long wire, and plastic model kits of warships and spitfires.
We asked at the counter for chemicals to make rocket fuel.
“Are you nuts?” The owner was a big, round man with eyeglasses and a cigar.
We showed him our rocket-making book.
“Sure, I know that book. I even know the guy who wrote it. He’s got a couple of lawsuits running against him after the explosions. All that material is illegal in Canada.”
Everything was illegal in Canada, a country that disappointed us repeatedly when compared to the USA we saw on television. Even Mars Bars and Three Musketeers, chocolates we saw advertised from Buffalo, were not allowed in Canada. We were living in the land of safety and boredom.
“So if we ever made rockets, how would we get them to fly?” asked Les.
“You want rockets, I can give you rockets. Come with me.”
He pulled out a broad drawer from underneath the counter. It had four different rocket kits from one to three stages.
“So how do they fly?”
“The kit comes with a chemical engine included, like a big firecracker open at one end. You put a loop of electrical wire into the open part, run the wires back to a switch and a battery, and when you flip the switch, the coil heats up and the rocket takes off.”
“How come these are under the counter?” asked Les.
“They’re in a legal grey area. The people who banned firecrackers are trying to ban the engines too. So far, they’re still legal, but it’s better to keep them out of sight.”
Les and I looked at one another. We still mourned firecrackers and fondly remembered banned cannon crackers that could blow your finger off if you held on to three of them and set them off in your fist. What we were going to do was almost against the law. The appeal of the rockets was now all the greater.
Our problem was money. We didn’t have part-time jobs and my European parents had never heard of allowance and would have scoffed at the idea if they had. Somehow, we scraped together enough money for a single kit with a spare engine, but no launching rod, wires, or batteries. We’d make those or scrounge them somewhere.
“Just take my advice,” said the hobby guy, “and don’t use a wick to fire the engine. They’re almost always too short and you can burn your fingers in the blast.”
To do this, we had to do it right. Les would go home and make a launching pad of a thick piece of plywood and a steel rod that stood straight up as a guide to make sure the rocket shot up true. My job was the electrical parts. I owned an electric train, so I had a lot of electrical wire and I had some idea of how to do this. My father had all sorts of odds and ends among his tools, and I found a toggle switch, built a box, and managed to borrow an old car battery that still had some juice in it.
Word got out about what we were doing. Eight boys came with us after school down to the field behind the hockey rink near the Humber River. The car battery was heavy and Les and I took turns carrying it. No one rode bikes in high school then. A bike was good up to grade eight. After that, you left it behind, no matter how far you had to walk. After all, a girl might see you, and a girl would never take a bike-riding boy seriously.
We set ourselves up on the field as officiously as possible. I coiled two thin wires to make a loop and pushed it inside the bottom of the rocket engine as deeply as I could. The launching pad had to lie flat and Les used a small level to make sure it was so. The tips of the rocket fins had to stand perfectly on the pad once the rocket’s guide was slipped down over the rod that protruded from the pad. I ran the wires back to my box switch and then the pair of wires that ran from the switch to the battery, and suddenly heard the whoosh and looked up to see I had left the toggle switch in the “on” position.
The rocket had taken off without a countdown.
I craned my neck as much as I could, but the rocket was out of sight. I’d missed the takeoff and I missed the whole flight and I was overcome with bitterness until something tiny blossomed up there in the vast expanse of indifferent blue. The last burst from the engine had fired forward to push out the nose cone and release the parachute, and now the rocket came down elegantly, swinging from its parachute like an angel swinging on a star.
There was a slight breeze and the rocket drifted toward the river. We ran after it, ready to wade into the smelly shallows if we had to save the cardboard tube from getting wet. But we were lucky, and it drifted just short of the water and Les caught it in his hand in triumph. The boys with us were all about the same age: we were in transition; some were shaving like men and some looked as if they belonged in shorts. But what bound us all was the wonder of the thing.
We had to do it again.
This time, I made sure the toggle switch was off before I attached the battery, and this time we had a proper countdown. The engine blast blew out the wires and the rocket shot upward with incredible speed. I watched it until it disappeared, and then waited for the blossom that I knew would come.
We were heroes among all the boys in school the next day, but the girls remained indifferent. Most of them looked like women. We were interested enough in them to wonder at their coolness, to wish they’d admire us even a little, but our enthusiasm stayed boyish to most of them.
Les and I conferred during lunch in the cafeteria, over French fries and gravy and Swiss steak. We got a lot of advice, some of it from boys who had not even been at the launch. Les was nothing if not ambitious. If a single-stage rocket was good, a three-stage rocket would be better.
Since a single-stage rocket shot out of sight, a cooler head might have asked why we needed a three-stage rocket, but there were no cooler heads among us. The important thing now was to get the money. It was useless to ask my father for money. He hated to spend it at the best of times, and spending it on toys was pure foolishness to him. My mother was more sympathetic, but I would need ten dollars for my share, and that was half the cost of a week’s groceries. It was too much. I returned empty pop bottles, but we never had many of those and the returns didn’t add up to much. I borrowed from my older brothers, but that only brought in two more dollars. My uncle’s visit from Detroit brought me up to nine, and Les was too restless to wait any longer, so he put up the last dollar.
But as we were raising money, we were also contemplating a grand enlargement of our project. True men pushed the boundaries. The Americans had put a man on the moon. Twelve years earlier, the Russians had put a dog in space. We wanted to do something equally grand, but our resources were limited. We settled on the idea of sending a mouse into the sky.
They sold them down at the pet shop, where kids bought them as pets and, it was rumoured, keepers of exotic snakes bought them to feed to their animals. At sixty cents for one white mouse, the cost was manageable. Les had to spring for it but he didn’t mind. It had been my idea. Now I had an engineering problem to solve, because we could not just put the mouse in the tube of the rocket. The mouse needed its own compartment. Down at my father’s tool bench, I determined that the body of the rocket was wider than the tube from a roll of aluminum foil. The one would fit inside the other. I designed the two-inch tube carefully, with air holes on the side, a double cardboard base to protect the mouse from the last upward blast of the engine that would kick out the nose cone and parachute, and finally a sturdy string so the mouse compartment would be firmly attached to the rocket after it was ejected and swung back to earth.
This project seemed noble to us. We were not exactly doing research because we were not discovering if animals could go into space. The scientists already knew that. But we were echoing the achievements of our time. We had not even learned the word yet, but if we had, we would have said we were joining the zeitgeist.
The girls in the class did not share our enthusiasm. Word of the mouse got out, and at first we couldn’t even understand what had made them pay attention, unless it was that they had come to their senses about the higher calling we were following. But Elaine and Linda cornered me at the locker alcove. Elaine was sophisticated for our grade. She knew of Time magazine and federal politics. She wore glasses and had short, blonde hair, which made her look serious, but she wore a tight mohair sweater that made me want to look at the rest of her. Linda was very quiet the class brain, the rougher boys called her. She had straight blonde hair and a slim body like something out of the twenties. She was long and lean and smart and I’d danced with her a few times at class parties. Elaine came up close to me, and Linda hung back, but Linda was the one I’d hoped to stand closer.
“Is it true,” Elaine asked, “that you and Les are going to send a mouse up in a rocket?”
“That’s right. Isn’t it incredible?”
“Incredibly stupid and cruel.”
I looked at her, not understanding. “Why is it cruel?”
“Because you’re going to torture the mouse.”
“Nothing is going to happen to the mouse. People have been to the moon. Haven’t you been watching TV? A dog went into orbit twelve years ago.”
“The dog’s name was Laika, and it died.”
“Science has come a long way since then.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Why aren’t you talking to Les about this?”
“Because Les is an asshole. I was holding out some hope that you might be a nice boy.”
I bristled. To be called a boy by a girl was demeaning, and to be called a nice boy was tantamount to an insult. But what could she have called me? A man? That would have sounded odd. I was somewhere between: just a guy, not yet a man, and most certainly not a boy.
“What do you think about all this?” I asked Linda.
She shrugged. “I think she’s right.” Linda looked at me with doleful eyes as if I were someone she loved who was doing the wrong thing, the way my mother might look at my father if she found an empty mickey of Five Star Whisky in among the Ajax and Mr. Clean bottles. Of course, my mother would give that look for a moment and then launch into a furious tirade. But Linda didn’t do that. She just looked at me.
“I’ll tell you this,” said Elaine, holding a finger up like someone twenty years her senior, “nothing had better happen to that mouse.”
There must have been fifty of us at the field on the day of the launch. The girls were there too, but the pack of them, six or seven, stayed up on the hill above the field. Not so far away that they couldn’t see what we were doing, but not so close as to be complicit. I studied the group and saw that Linda was among them. What was it about her that I found so attractive? There was more to her than met the eye. She was very smart, but too smart to let it show. I thought maybe I loved her at a distance, but wasn’t sure how to close the gap.
I’d told Les what Elaine had said.
“Don’t worry. She’s mad at me, not at you.”
“I made out with her for a while at the last party. Then I made out with someone else.”
“You mean it’s not about the mouse?”
He looked at me like I was a child, and I didn’t want to pursue it.
I had brought the mouse in a big mason jar with holes punched in the top because it had eaten through the cardboard box I’d bought it in. It was a pretty mouse, white, with long whiskers and a pink nose. It was accustomed to being handled and did not try to escape from my hand or bite me. I held it in my fist with its small snout sticking out the end, but it was a tight fit to get it into the compartment I’d made for it. The mouse managed to turn a bit and stick its nose out of one of the breathing holes before I slipped the compartment into the rocket and put the nose cone on top. I passed the rocket to Les, and he ran a preflight examination. Did the mouse squeak? If it did, we didn’t hear it.
We made everyone stand back. Even the girls came closer, down toward the base of the slope they had been standing on. Les did the countdown, and I flipped the toggle switch. We had liftoff.
It might have been a good idea for us to study aerodynamics a little more. The designers of the rocket kit had known what they were doing and they had never expected anyone to add a payload. The rocket went high in its first stage, but not as high as the single-stage rocket had gone, and then there was a sort of pause as the first stage blew off. In that moment of no upward thrust, the rocket’s nose, made heavy by the addition of the mouse, turned down and aimed at the earth. We scattered. The second stage drove the rocket back toward us with great force and it struck the ground and stuck into it, which was lucky for us. Because if the rocket had been merely lying on the ground, the third stage would have driven it across the field, maybe into the feet of one of the boys with us. But as it was, the third stage simply burned fiercely for a moment, and then the final burst upward made the nose cone eject or, more precisely, made the top of the rocket detach from the nose cone stuck in the earth. And when it did so, it threw out the unopened parachute and the compartment that contained th
Table of Contents
Hermes Repaid 1
The Rocket 11
The Beer Barrel Polka 23
Summer Lessons 42
The Barefoot Bingo Caller 63
The Shack 75
Babylon Revisited 91
Literature on the Installment Plan 103
Town and Country 112
After the Party 132
The Turn of the Knob 151
A Story to Die For 159
I Feel the Earth Move under My Feet 175
The Church Basement versus the Kremlin 186
Dinner with Dementia 199
The Three Faces of God 203
Where I'm Coming from, Where I'm Going To 212
About the Author 225