From Deep Shaker (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), by Les Roberts
The sprawling mass that is Cleveland Municipal Stadium can be cold and uncomfortable at the best of times. In the winter—not the best of times—being there constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. On this particular November Sunday a freezing rain was drubbing the faithful football fans of northern Ohio, those small hard drops that sting your face and eyes, falling at a forty-five-degree angle, and most of it was finding its way down my collar. The temperature was about twenty-six above zero, and the wind howling in off Lake Erie sounded like an avenging Mongol horde. The Browns were in the process of blowing out the hated Pittsburgh Steelers, and for all intents and purposes the game had been decided at the end of the first quarter.
Matt Baznik and I had been friends since high school. He’d managed to snag thirty-yard-line tickets, one of the perks of his civil service job at the Department of Public Works, and when he’d called and begged me to join him, I couldn’t think of a single reason to say no. So I had dragged myself out of bed—or out of my girlfriend Mary’s bed, to be more precise—and met him at his house for the drive to the stadium. Mary’s bed had been more fun—and warmer. Mary is the sales manager for Channel Twelve, a local TV station, and someone had offered her tickets to a Willie Nelson concert that Saturday night, but we’d spent the evening watching an old movie on the VCR and cuddling instead. Why should I waste an evening seeing someone who dresses worse than I do?
Like me, Matt Baznik is Slovenian, a big solid guy with a receding hairline, a roll of fat around his middle, and blue eyes that he squints as a result of the myopia that kept him off the school football team and out of the service. He was huddled in frigid misery in his car coat, draining his sixth beer, which undoubtedly added to his chill, cheering listlessly every time the Steelers fumbled or had a kick blocked, which seemed to be every few minutes or so. He didn’t appear to be having a very good time.
“You want another beer, Milan?” he said. “Or maybe a sausage sangwidge?”
“I’m okay, Matt,” I said. But I wasn’t. I wished that pro football teams occasionally conceded games so we could go home, where it was warm and dry. But then the impossible happened—the Browns’ offensive line grew suddenly porous and Bernie Kosar got sacked. The capacity crowd let out an outraged roar. In Cleveland it’s unforgivable to lay unfriendly hands on our quarterback. Bernie Kosar is more than a popular sports figure or a mere celebrity; he is a local hero, an icon, a shining example of young American manhood. And at home, when Bernie gets sacked, it is simply not tolerated. A yellow penalty flag sailed through the soggy air and landed in the backfield, but none of us had to wait for the crime to be identified. No matter what they called it officially, we all knew it was fifteen yards for roughing the Deity.
While the referee paced off the penalty, Matt said to me, “Milan, I think I’m in trouble.”
He was peering through his Coke-bottle-bottom glasses at the nonaction on the field, but from his distracted expression I doubted if he could have told anyone the score. The corners of his mouth were pulled down by invisible five-pound weights.
“What’s the matter?”
He shrugged. “I can’t talk here.”
“Then let’s go someplace where we can.”
“Naw. You want to watch the game.”
“There’ll be other games. Come on.” The weather had gotten steadily wetter and colder, and I felt as though I’d just been paroled.
We made our way through the crowd, which was screaming in delight at the gift first down, and I was glad when we reached the shelter of the stadium’s overhang, out of the pelting rain. The loonies who paint their faces brown and orange and sit bare-chested in defiance of the elements each week in that enclave near the end zone known as “the Dawg Pound” were barking like fox hounds.
We got into Matt’s Plymouth after about ten minutes of wet and silent walking. When the engine warmed up, the blast of the car’s heater was a benediction. Matt drove out of the jammed parking lot and onto the street.
“You want to go for a beer?” I said.
“Let’s just drive around a little, okay?”
He turned east, the lake a roiling gray mud soup on our left, out the Shoreway and then along Lake Shore Boulevard, past the high-rise apartments that now stood on the old site of Euclid Beach Park, that magical place of amusement known to seven decades of Clevelanders as simply “the Beach,” where Matt and I and our friends had gone to meet girls and ride the Thriller and Flying Turns and Laff-in-the-Dark, where I had encountered my first real fistfight and copped my first real feel. There isn’t much left of the park now—a cement bridge from one of the old thrill rides is now part of the entryway to an apartment building—but it has long been rumored that some optimistic and sentimental citizens bought up the components of the old rides when the park closed in 1969 and stored them somewhere, in the hopes that someday there would be another Euclid Beach Park. The memories got to both Matt and me at the same time, and he turned and gave me one of his few smiles of the day.
Our original plan was to repair back to Matt’s house after the game to have dinner with his family. He seemed distracted, a million miles away, but at least he was headed in the right direction. He chewed on his lower lip and peered out at the rain-slick streets through the rhythmic sweep of the wipers, and swung west again. He didn’t seem to have a destination.
“What’s up, Doc?” I said.
“I don’t know what to do anymore. About Paulie.”
Matt’s son Paul was a year younger than my fifteen-year-old, and they had been playmates, combatants, and friends to one degree or another since before they could walk. At times when they were in grade school, Paulie had been over at our house so much I almost wondered which one was Milan Jacovich Jr.
“What’s the matter with Paulie?”
Matt steered through the madness that passed for a traffic pattern at University Circle, and past the various departments of Case Western Reserve University, past Severance Hall, the Newton E. Baker Memorial, the Art Museum, and the breathtakingly beautiful gothic Church of the Covenant, and headed up Mayfield Road through Little Italy. “He hardly ever comes home anymore, and he never tells us where he’s going or who he’s with. He’s gotten really fresh to his mother, and me he won’t talk to at all. He just grunts. He won’t come out of his room, and if Rita Marie goes in there to clean he gets like a crazy man. He won’t take out the garbage or dry the dishes. He’s more like a boarder than our kid. It’s real bad, Milan.”
“It’s just the age,” I said. “They all do it. They start getting hair under their arms and think they can walk on the water. He’ll grow out of it.”
He shook his head forcefully. “It’s more than that. Like he don’t give a damn for anything anymore. You remember his dog?”
Once you’d seen him, you’d always remember the dog. For Paulie’s tenth birthday, Matt had bought him a rottweiler puppy, which they’d named Croat in honor of the centuries-old friction between the Croatians and the Slovenians, with the expectation that he’d grow big and mean and serve as a protector for the boy. Croat had matured into an amiable monster whose most aggressive behavior was slobbering on those unfortunate enough to come within range of his pendulous dewlaps. Boy and dog had forged steel bonds of love on sight.
“Sure,” I said. “The sprinkler that walks like a bear.”
Matt shook a Winston out of his crumpled pack and ignited it with the dashboard lighter. “Well, Paulie don’t even talk to him or play with him anymore. He even shuts him out of his room. The big bastard just lays by Paulie’s door and whimpers all night long.”
“He’s probably in there whacking off. Fourteen-year-olds have different priorities than the rest of us. Don’t you remember when you were fourteen?”
“I wasn’t like this, that’s for sure. My father would’ve handed me my head.”
I lit a cigarette of my own. I didn’t really want one, but what with him smoking in the closed car, it was a matter of self-defense. The roaring heater fought to drown out the persistent tattoo of rain on the roof. “How long has this been going on, Matt?”
“Oh, since spring, I guess.” He stuck the fingers of one hand under his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “It started getting bad in the spring and summer; now it’s like there’s a stranger in the house with us. I tried talking to him, I yelled at him—I even knocked him around once or twice. But I just see him slipping away.”
“Don’t you think you might be overreacting?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know anymore.”
“Teenagers are tough,” I said, hunching down in my seat in a futile attempt to get warm. “There are times when I think Milan Jr. hates my guts. Other times the decent, funny kid we raised pokes his head through all the garbage and relates to us, and it’s almost like old times again. You just have to get through it.”
“Yeah, but there’s other things. Like Paulie asked for a new stereo for Christmas. Well, he already had a stereo, and I told him that. He said he wanted a good one. Showed me an ad for some damn Japanese thing costs eight hundred dollars. I told him no way, and he went out and bought one for himself.”
“For eight hundred dollars?”
“He told me he got it used from some other kid, but I don’t believe him.”
“I can’t see Paulie stealing a stereo.”
“Me neither. I think he bought it all right. But where did he get the money?”
“Doesn’t he have a job after school and weekends?” It sounded silly even as I said it.
“Delivering pizza. Could you save up eight hundred dollars for a stereo you didn’t really need delivering pizza?”
“I couldn’t save up eight hundred dollars now,” I said.
“I think Paulie’s into something really shitty, and it’s scaring hell out of us.”
It sounded shitty to me, too, but I didn’t want to tell Matt. The sadness in his eyes was leaking out and casting a further pall over a day already daubed in grim shades of gray. I reached over and switched on the radio, which was tuned to Magic 105, but it didn’t help any. It certainly didn’t do anything to improve my frame of mind.
My heart went out to Matt Baznik. I was a part-time parent these days, trying every other weekend to come up with meaningful and fun activities for two boys who were four years apart in age, making sure I gave each of them a certain amount of private time so they could talk to me of their fears and problems and triumphs and failures and dreams. And with every fortnight that passed, I became just that much more alien to them, a father who lived six miles away. I had watched in helpless anguish this last year as Milan Jr. grew apart from me like a ship pulling away from the dock.
Fatherhood of a boy—which is the only kind I know—is a bear at the best of times. They hand you this little bundle of squalling, peeing humanity and tell you that for the next twenty years it’s your job to not only feed and clothe and house it, but to raise it up into adulthood with a sense of responsibility, morality, and decency. You’re supposed to teach it to fish and to swing a baseball bat, to impress on it that school is good and necessary, stealing is bad, and hurting other people is wrong, and you try getting it to respect women, its elders, and the dignity of all living things. You point out that some day it will have to leave the nest and it better learn from you the lessons that will enable it to hunt and forage for itself, and through all this you have to somehow convince it that you are all-wise and all-knowing and what you’re saying is the True Word.
And then this hunk of protoplasm that sprang from your loins in a moment of careless abandon starts feeling its own hormones expanding and banging against one another like bumper cars. It gets into high school to find its peer group is cutting math class, smoking in the john, and feeling girls up, and all of a sudden the guys in woodshop are the cool, “rad” ones and you’re just an aging, stupid asshole who’s losing his hair.
“Is there anything I can do, Matt?” I had to make the offer first; Matt would have died before he asked me.
He mumbled his answer in a voice so low I could hardly hear. “Could you maybe try and talk to him tonight? He might open up to you where he won’t to me. I mean, you’re like family anyway.”
This was obviously why he’d invited me to the football game; it would forever remain unspoken, but it was tacitly understood. I traced my finger across the condensation our breath had misted on the car window, feeling the wetness through my knit glove. “I can try. I’m not the number-one father figure in town these days, but I’ll give it a shot.”
He allowed me a half smile of gratitude. Yugoslavian men are not comfortable showing their emotions, especially to other men, and I knew how hard it was for Matt to ask for help. I hoped that little smile would be the end of it, because neither of us wanted to talk about it any further.
We pulled into the driveway beside the Bazniks’ brick house in Euclid. Matt had suspended a basketball hoop over the garage door years ago for Paulie, and knowing what I now knew, it seemed sad and poignant and pointless in the rain. When it comes to our kids, most of us don’t believe there will ever be a rainy day.
Croat pounded out from his shelter under the steps and greeted us. The dog was a leaner, pressing his hundred-pound bulk against my legs while I petted him hello, and he shook himself all over, spraying rain and strings of saliva in every direction. I took an extra long time rumpling his soft ears, knowing that he must be aching for the attention he used to get from his young master, which was now being withheld from him. How do you explain to a dog that the human he’s idolized since puppyhood has turned into a sullen and silent jerk?
We walked in the kitchen door and were assailed by the unmistakable aroma of punjena snicla, Serbian stuffed veal, and I was glad I hadn’t eaten much at the ball game. Rita Marie, Matt’s wife, looked momentarily confused, glancing from us to the little black-and-white TV set on the counter, where the football game we had left was still in progress.
“It got too cold and wet for us to stay,” I explained to forestall any questions, and kissed the rosy cheek she offered me. Rita Marie had gone to school with us too, but Matt had fallen in love with her about seventy pounds ago. She now looked like a cocktail waitress in a neighborhood bowling alley.
She said, “Twenty years ago a little rain wouldn’t have made you guys leave a Browns game.”
“Twenty years ago we were dumb,” I said, peeling off my wet coat and hanging it on the rack by the door. “Is coffee on?” The question was rhetorical. The only time coffee wasn’t on in the Baznik kitchen was at four o’clock in the morning. She fixed steaming mugs for both of us; black for me, and loaded with cream and sugar and calories for Matt.
“Where’s the kid?” he said.
Rita Marie frowned, vaguely waving a hand. “He said he’d be back for dinner.”
He looked pointedly at me, and the two of us repaired to the living room. The furniture had been of good quality when it was new thirty years ago. Most of it I remembered from when Matt and I were kids. The football game was showing in there on a larger color TV. It didn’t improve the quality of the play any. Fumbles and stumbles were the name of the game.
“Back for dinner,” Matt mumbled. There was a bitterness in his voice that disturbed me. “Where the hell is he on a rainy Sunday like this?”
“He’s probably watching the game at a buddy’s house.”
“Nah. He don’t even give a shit about the Browns now.” There was a touch of wonder in his voice; disinterest in the Browns was the strongest indictment yet of a kid from the East Side of Cleveland. “I’m telling you, Milan, something bad’s going down.”
“Let’s just wait and see, okay?”
He slurped angrily at his mug as though everything that was askew in his life was the coffee’s fault. Sitting in his favorite upholstered chair, big as he was, he seemed somehow diminished, his family problems pressing him down like an anvil.
Then he said, “You never have any problems with your kids, do you?”
“Sure I do. I told you, Milan Jr. can be pretty damn stubborn when he wants to be. Of course, Lila catches most of the crap because she’s there with him every day.”
Matt said, “How do the boys get along with Joe?”
I stared down at a little amoeba-shaped rainbow of oil floating on top of the black coffee. I put the mug down on the end table. “All right,” I said.
“I don’t know if I could take that, Milan; another man raising my kids.”
“He’s not raising my kids!” I answered with some heat. “He’s living with their mother. My kids are my kids, and I’m the only father they’ve got!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to piss you off.”
“You didn’t piss me off,” I said, pissed off.
I slumped back against the sofa cushions and watched as the two-minute warning sounded at the Stadium, but the crudely played game didn’t hold my attention. It kills me that wimpy Joe Bradac is living in my house and watching my sons grow up while I’m halfway across town in a rented apartment. The boys, Milan Jr. and Stephen, have been what’s kept me going since they were born, and not having them with me hurts so bad that most of the time I just sweep the ache under my emotional rug so I won’t have to deal with it. I’m not mad at Joe Bradac for being there, although he’s never going to be my best friend; I just hate it that I don’t have more time to spend with my sons. They grow up so damn fast.
The fact that Joe is openly cohabiting with my ex-wife, Lila, doesn’t annoy me at all any longer. I care deeply for Lila as a person, and I probably always will, but whatever romantic love we shared when we were young sputtered and turned cold a few years after I got back from Vietnam, and all that’s left is the caring friendship of two people who have shared most of their adult lives together. Whomever she might be sleeping with, it hardly bothered me a bit. Mainly because I had a new someone in my own life, a golden angel named Mary Soderberg, who has blue eyes and Swedish cheekbones and is ten years too young and ten times too pretty for me, and who’d made the last nineteen months of my life seem like only nineteen minutes, the most joyful nineteen minutes I’d ever known.
The front door opened, admitting a blast of cold, damp air, and then slammed shut again, hard, and Paulie started up the stairs two at a time, dark hair rain-plastered to his skull.
“Hey!” Matt barked, an uncharacteristic meanness in his tone. Paulie took another double step up, then thought better of it and stopped.
“Where you been?”
Paulie shoved his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. “With the guys,” he said, barely audible.
“Don’t you say hello to Mr. Jacovich?” I would have preferred him to call me by my first name—Jacovich is a mouthful for anyone, even another Slovenian—but his father insisted on the formality.
Paulie looked at me for the first time, and there was a softening of the sullen cast of his features, so slight as to be nearly unnoticeable. We’d always been pals. “Hiya,” he said.
“Whaddaya say, Paul?”
Apparently not much, because he tossed his head and continued up the stairs. I noticed as his top half disappeared that the cuffs of his jeans were sopping wet.
“See what I mean?” Matt said.
“Frankly, no. He’s fourteen years old; you expect him to run in and give Daddy a big kiss, for God’s sake?”
Matt put his face in his hands. “Jesus, Milan, go talk to him, will you? He’s always respected you. Talk to him. I don’t know what to do anymore.”
I went back out into the kitchen and lifted the lid of the simmering pot on the stove to take a sniff. In the neighborhood, Rita Marie Baznik’s punjena snicla was almost a legend.
“Get away from there,” she warned, waving a cooking spoon at me. “Don’t go sticking your dirty fingers in there.”
“Mmmm. I’ve been looking forward to this all day, Rita Marie. I hope you made a lot.”
“Don’t I always?”
I refilled my coffee cup and began ascending the narrow stairway to Paulie’s room. It was a long damn trip.