Love this remembrance, though, of the East side of town, and who I imagined lived there for many years.
Rocky Mountain News headline. Page 2. April 10th, 1957.
Blaze Erupts In Westside Elementary School
I said a hundred more prayers of supplication after reading that, but Jimmy and I decided against finding Dennis and stringing him up by the thumbs...or the balls. Local investigators somehow failed to add up two and two, to our greatest relief, and so the mysterious fire in Mr. Kintzele's lot, the girl with the incinerated scalp at the Comet, and the roaring blaze in the auditorium at Barnum Public School remained isolated incidents.
We decided to forevermore curb our fascination with pyrotechnics…well, kind of. Jimmy boasted that he’d nearly solved the problem of the amount of gunpowder needed to propel his broom handle rocket into orbit.
Detective Ryan visited the home of the Minkle family. I learned much later that Butch Minkle had answered the door with the ever-present cigarette dangling out of his mouth that day. Unlike me, he didn’t make a good impression on Detective Ryan. But he did make a lasting one. Being stupid, Butch’s vocabulary was limited to sentences which made little sense, were contradictory, or else splattered with four letter words—and that didn’t set well with the detective. All told, his explanation of the events that terrible day at the Comet Theater sounded very much like a lie to Ryan. Suspicion concerning who committed the crime fell immediately onto his and Inky’s shoulders.
Still, the matter was easily settled now that a battery of suspects had been tracked down. Ryan requested that my parents bring me, and that Mrs. McGuire bring Jimmy, down to the home of Dennis to star in a line up. All hope in my heart vanished when Mom informed Pop at the dinner table in tears that her son would likely be going to juvenile hall soon—if not the state penitentiary. Afterward she left the tear-stained room and marched next door to awaken Mrs. McGuire, if such a thing was possible, and inform her that Jimmy must accompany us on the death march. Mickey’s name was never brought up.
“Did you do it?” Pop inquired calmly after mom had disappeared in her breast-beating, doloroso veil.
I did not lie. “No, sir. I had nothing to do with it.”
We walked; Mom two steps in front of Mrs. McGuire, Pop bringing up the rear, Jimmy and I sandwiched in between. Down past Clifford’s big house, past Allen’s tiny one, then across Ellsworth Avenue we walked. Midway down the street we passed the dancer’s front door, and a sort of hellish feeling welled up in my stomach. She sat on the porch swing with a friend—or maybe the other girl was her sister. I tried not to glance over at them, or at her I should say, but a morbid impulse latched onto me and I turned my head. She’d noticed the parade, and she must have known it was more a procession of calves to the slaughterhouse, or murderers to the gallows. I dropped my eyes and cursed the moment.
When we reached our destination, I saw detective Ryan standing on the doorstep of Dennis’ house, the door ajar, the boy’s mother halfway in and halfway out, holding a handkerchief over her mouth and nose. At her side peeking out at us stood the bane of creation himself. I shot a look at Jimmy. He was sweating bullets this time around, and he whispered to me, “By his little balls.” Dennis eased farther behind his weeping mother’s skirt.
“Ah. Here they are, Mrs. Humboldt,” Ryan said when we came to a halt at the foot of her porch. “Terrence, can you step out here and take a look at these two boys? Do you recognize them as the ones who gave you the matchgun?”
Dennis, or little Terrence as it turned out, poked his head out from behind his mother’s broad posterior. He wasn’t looking at me, I’m certain. His eyes locked on Jimmy’s immediately, and the necessary words were quickly communicated. Even little Terrence valued the jewels he had not yet had the opportunity to use. He crumbled in the face of Jimmy.
“No?” repeated Detective Ryan.
“No. I never seen these guys before. They ain’t the ones. There was three of ‘em.”
Detective Ryan’s brow fell at that lie. He addressed Pop matter-of-factly. “Wait by my car.”
And so the five of us turned and marched back out to the street. Ryan, Terrence, and his mother had disappeared by the time I took a seat on the curb and looked back at the house. A few moments passed in that state of Limbo out in the silence of the street. Then Ryan exited the house alone and strode down the steps, down the sidewalk, and came directly to me.
“You told me yesterday that you’d given the boy a matchgun, Daniel. Now he tells me he’s never seen you before. What’s up here? Did you or did you not give that boy the weapon that enabled him to start a fire at school?”
I stood alone in the universe after that question. A concept I’d never truthfully encountered on a real level surfaced in my head. A moral dilemma. I had two options, and neither of them was particularly palatable. Deny my involvement, or tell the truth. I answered Detective Ryan.
“No sir. I didn’t. Jimmy did…but I was there. And it was us who shot the match inside the Comet…”
Mom let out a sound that was not a wail, nor a screech. I had kicked her in the stomach and her response was a muted bellow, a groan, a whimper.
Pop remained quiet.
Mrs. McGuire merely seemed confused.
I thought better of speaking at the dinner table that evening; of even being there in fact. But, my presence was requested, and my replies to the questions pitched at me were duly noted, as if Detective Ryan had seated himself with his notebook and pen at the ready directly across from me. A rancorous veil was thrown across me, this time not only by Mom, but also by Pop.
“Even if it’s true you didn’t actually shoot that match in the theater, or have anything to do with handing the gun to that boy,” Pop lectured me waving a finger in my face, “you’re still guilty by association.”
“Yes, and I’ll tell you another thing, and it ain’t two…” Mom began.
“Be quiet, Rosie, I’ll handle this,” Pop said. The color in his face deepened to incendiary red as he continued, at long last not the least lost for words. Mom sat back in her chair, defeated, or content with his command, or waiting—but in silence.
“So here’s the deal. I’ll drive you to school for the remainder of the year, and pick you up at 3:30 every afternoon. I can’t stop you from talking to Jimmy or that Fumo boy while you’re out of my sight, but by God if I hear even a whisper that the three of you have done anything—anything—that would make me raise an eyebrow…do I make myself crystal clear?”
Like looking through a window in God’s home on high. “Yes, Pop.”
“Good. You’ve shamed your family and yourself. Don’t ever let it happen again. Understand?”
“Alright, then. You’ll stay in this house until I say you can leave. Now, finish eating, get the dishes done, and then go to your room.”
I looked up. Mom had placed her hand on Pop’s forearm, and though I’d pierced her side with a spear a few hours ago down at little Terrence’s house, I saw her mouth curl upward into a smile. She remained silent as I rose and took my plate to the sink in the kitchen.
“And one last thing,” Pop added. “You’ll go along with me to that girl’s house and you’ll tell her you’re sorry. God help you if her folks decide to press charges.”
“What about Barnum School?” I asked in dread.
“We’ll wait and see there.”
At last Mom decided it was probably safe to interject her feelings on the matter.
“Skippy. That was a courageous thing you did…telling the truth. I’m proud of you.”
The smoke cleared two weeks later, and I heaved a sigh of relief. The girl at the Comet had a name, I discovered. Marilou Jenkins. She was very pretty, an honor student at a private school for girls on the eastside of town. As promised, or as threatened, we visited her.
Jimmy, Pop, and I drove to her home one morning when the sky had abandoned itself to a somber rug of gray. We pulled up to the curb, and at first I was shocked and disheartened when Pop checked the address he’d written on the back of an envelope, and then announced, “This is it.” He cut the engine of our dusty old truck, emitting a cloud of smoke out through the tailpipe thicker than the dreary sky above us. We had driven to another planet.
“Je-sus H. Kee-rist,” Jimmy remarked, and I had to second the invocation.
The home, sitting in Versailles elegance on the corner lot, looked more like a grand museum or an important public monument, except for the park-like expanse of golf course lawn, and the English gardens meandering through the acreage spanning the distance to the mansion that would have made Mom explode with envy. Bordering the broad parkway, towering elms stood, perfectly aligned and spaced. They were trimmed as if a small army of tree barbers spent innumerable hours each day manicuring them, until even the squirrels and birds donned tuxedos before entering the branches.
The three of us exited the truck in a state of awe—Jimmy and I, anyway—and hiked up the meandering flagstone walkway to an entry as imposing as that of Montecello. I glanced nervously at my ragged sneakers as Pop pushed the doorbell button.
The door was opened halfway by a predatory-faced woman dressed in the attire of a maid instead of what in my mind should have been spots, or stripes. She smelled strongly of lemon oil mixed with mothballs, and she showed us into a foyer the size of our entire house, where we were politely instructed to wait. She then padded silently across the black and white checked marble floor into an adjoining gallery lined with ten foot-tall paintings and milk-white statuary. Standing in the foyer peering in, it seemed to me none of it had any practical use beyond its grandiose statement of sinful wealth and extreme snobbery. Undoubtedly, Mom would have agreed. And, the statues were naked.
But such was not the case with the occupants themselves.
A middle-aged gentleman dressed in a Lord and Taylor black suit strode across the floor several minutes later as I stood gawking at the smooth, sculpted, firm breasts on one of those statues. He was followed by a much younger woman, fashionably attired, who at first I mistook for Sophia Loren. Miss Marilou Jenkins, sporting a blonde, pixie cut hairdo, followed her beautiful black-haired mother. My eyes fixed on the young woman immediately, trying to imagine if she could have looked any more angelic with locks like waterfalls of silk drifting all the way to her shoulders, and snow white wings that had not been savaged by the fire. I shuddered and drew in a breath as inconspicuously as my instantly smitten condition would allow. I glanced again quickly at the undressed statue directly over her shoulder—and then as quickly made an abbreviated act of contrition.
Miss Marilou Jenkins surveyed the three visitors from the westside; Pop and Jimmy, impassively, briefly, and then she let her gaze fall on me where it rested as she followed her parents into the foyer where we stood waiting. Whether she was counting the droplets of sweat that had begun to form on my forehead after seeing this creature Jimmy had lit on fire, mentally sneering at the apparent rags I’d thrown on not two hours ago in ignorance of the impending audience, or simply wondering what alien universe I’d escaped from, I could not tell.
“Mr. Morley. Thank you for coming across town with the boys,” Mr. Jenkins spoke in a clear, mellifluous voice as he walked toward my father, his hand extended in greeting.
Pop seemed very comfortable, or at least not particularly ill-at-ease. He shook the gentleman’s hand.
“I’m very sorry, Dr. Jenkins, that this visit became necessary. This is my son, Daniel, and his friend Jimmy.” He motioned with a nod of his head for me to say something. But what was I to say in that ambassadorial place, standing before these people who likely had just removed wreaths of laurel from their heads before entering the cavernous room?
It’s so lovely to meet you, sir. May I kiss your daughter?
And so I merely said, “Hello, sir.” To my undying horror, my voice cracked mid-sentence. The velvety mid-range C of ‘hello’ suddenly kicked up three octaves at the next short word, ‘sir’. I cursed my vocal cords and would have bolted for the door right then except that Miss Marilou Jenkins’ aquamarine eyes had brightened like twin novas, and she smiled across the room at me. I cleared my throat. My cheeks and forehead bled heat.
“Please,” Dr. Jenkins gestured to us, “Come into the library. Right this way.” He waited until Pop drew alongside him, and then walked with him, trading small asides, grinning at my father’s pithy replies.
The amiable doctor’s wife lingered a step behind the two of them. She smiled at Jimmy and me and then inquired. “Your mother could not make it, Daniel?”
“No, ma’am. Saturday is laundry day.”
“I see. That is a shame. And your mother, James?” she said turning to Jimmy, who turned up his nose at the appellation.
“Umm…she’s emptyin’ bottles.”
I cringed, certain that...
“I see. Baby bottles? You have a younger brother or sister?”
Jimmy nodded, as if he had rehearsed his answer. “Yeah, one of each.”
“Ah. How lovely.” We crossed the expanse of the gallery of naked statues, Miss Marilou Jenkins gliding between her mother and myself as though one of those marble images had come to life and stepped down from its pedestal. I thought I caught the faint scent of lilacs drifting from her. “The younger ones must keep her very busy, indeed.”
“You can’t imagine,” Jimmy laughed. “Bottles everywhere. And crappy diapers.”
Mrs. Jenkins’ pencil-thin, dark eyebrows soared upward at the remark, and she shot a mildly disdainful look at my best friend. Miss Marilou Jenkins put a hand to her mouth, stifling a giggle. We moved on, me wishing I had at least worn my old suit.
At the end of the gallery of statues and paintings, an ornate archway of stone led into a wide hallway lined with several imposing carved wood doors, their polished brass handlesets set midway up on one edge in the European style. Dr. Jenkins stopped at the second room on the right, opened the door inward, and indicated with a gracious wave of his hand for us to enter. Again, and not for the last time that day, my jaw dropped. This was the library.
Four wingback chairs—that Pop took only casual notice of, but probably would be able to describe down to the last luxurious thread later—were set in a semi-circle in front of a kingly desk of mirror-polished wood. Floor to ceiling bookcases stood, packed with volume after volume, and except for the doorway in, and a single, tall window behind the desk, the books dominated; a dense wallcovering of thousands of lofty, written thoughts.
We took a seat; Pop, Jimmy, me, and to my right, Miss Marilou Jenkins with her faint scent of summer flowers. Dr. Jenkins sat imperiously in his leather chair opposite us behind the desk. A gray-mist shaft of light shined through the window making him appear otherworldly. Lit from a passageway leading back out into a place that was not the city I inhabited. He leaned back and surveyed the two arsonists, the fingertips of his right hand tapping his chin, and then he let his gaze fall on his daughter.
“That was a very serious and foolish thing you boys did in that theater. You understand that, don’t you,” he said, as though the statement was being directed at her.
“Yes sir,” I concurred holding onto my vocal chords with all that I possessed.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Jimmy followed.
I did not wait for anything further to erupt out of Jimmy’s mouth. I turned to Miss Marilou Jenkins and melted into an apology worthy of my finest moment inside a confessional.
“Please accept my sincerest forgiveness, miss. If I had it all to do over again I wouldn’t of…well, that is…I would have…”
Miss Marilou Jenkins’ smile broadened in amusement at my comments. She turned full-face to me and said, “I accept your ‘forgiveness’. I was planning to have it cut anyway.”
I heard Jimmy exhale in relief. If we were to be chastised and made to kneel in sackcloth outside their door for one or two weeks; made to survive on moldy black bread, and water from the gutter, it appeared it would not be at the hands of the girl sitting beside me. We both looked imploringly over at Dr. Jenkins, as if to say, “See, sir? No harm done. None at all.”
“What were ya’ doin’ at a theater clear across town?” Jimmy asked Miss Marilou Jenkins in the momentary lull in the conversation. Pop looked over at Jimmy in astonishment. I dropped my gaze and squinted with pain. Still, it was a good question, but I would never have had the courage to ask it. I waited for her answer.
“Our daughter wished to visit her cousins who live near a park on your side of town,” Dr. Jenkins emphasized the phrase, ‘near a park’. Barnum, I guessed, as there was nothing as grand as City Park where we lived; just the small, hilly half mile square home of smaller trees, smaller trails, a smaller playground, and the smaller lake. “Her mother and I were going out of town. Perhaps we should have taken her with us?” he asked in a serious tone, but with a glint in his eye.
In the moments ahead we learned these things:
Dr. Jenkins had been in Minneapolis with his lovely wife that weekend attending a convention of Proctologists. The eminent rectal repair specialist did not tell us exactly what one hears at such a convention—perhaps long hissing sounds punctuated by laughter and the pinching of noses?—but he lectured us, punctuated, definitely, with extremely long words neither of us had ever heard before. We sat before him nervously, and I’m certain shook our heads yes once or twice, when in fact we should have shaken them no.
The inferno in Miss Marilou Jenkin’s hair turned out to be not an inferno at all. In fact it was only a minor brush fire of really little consequence. The cousin sitting at her side had had the foresight and prize fighter reactions to smother it long before it did more than eliminate most of the split ends caused by teasing and hairspray.
“Young gentlemen such as yourselves from good Christian families,” Dr. Jenkins turned his head slightly toward Pop and nodded. Pop nodded obligingly back at him. “…must consider their actions very soberly, weighing the consequences…” And we listened to it all again.
An hour later as we left his mansion I couldn’t help but overhear Pop inquiring of Dr. Jenkins whether he knew the little known fact that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart suffered from Tenesmus, brought on by an unwillingness, or forgetfulness, to run to the chamber pot due to his complete immersion in composing. Of course, Pop continued, the physicians of the day diagnosed the discomfort as nothing more than gas.
“Not precisely true,” corrected Dr. Jenkins (who certainly would have known). “Herr Mozart consumed entirely too much beef, and drank cheaper wines far in excess of what would even then have been considered moderate to heavy alcoholic consumption. While he imagined his bowels…”
At the end of which Pop quipped that never in his life had beef, or beer, at least, “…caused any discernible deviation from other than a normal bowel movement in my life. At any rate, I bow to your probable expertise concerning Mr. Mozart’s unfortunate condition. It certainly didn’t affect his fingers.”
With a hearty laugh, the doctor agreed wholeheartedly. I moved down the corridor toward the entry at the side of Miss Marilou Jenkins, lost in a cloud of medical shadows cast by the doctor and the upholsterer. My father, I suddenly realized, inhabited a world far below the one he should have lived in.
“He loves to speak to his guests about stuff like that. My father is so weird,” Miss Marilou Jenkins whispered to me.
“So is mine,” I whispered back, my lips touching the strands of sweet-smelling hair covering her ears.
At the entry, Dr. Jenkins grabbed hold of Pop’s hand once more, clasping over the top of it with the other. For the short moments of our visit they had looked in each other’s eyes on an equal plane, but I knew the moment we left that the invisible barrier separating their worlds would have to be erected again.
We returned to Barnum along the same streets that had taken us to that place of refinement and beauty, relieved, silent.
(c) 2012 Patrick Sean Lee