Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | September 14, 2009

MY FIRST BRUSH WITH THE LAW

CLEVELAND, OHIO – 1960

I believe it would have been 1960, the autumn of my third grade year at St. Coleman’s Catholic elementary school on West 65th in Cleveland. Every day I seemed to get into some kind of trouble: either Sister’s desk inspection would uncover a mess; or I’d get caught talking in class; or I’d just laugh out loud at something, incurring Sister’s wrath. I seemed to commit some grievous wrong almost every day so that nearly every evening I would have to stay after school and write something or other on the blackboard 100 times.

Each night I straggled in after all the other neighborhood kids. When questioned, I told my mother that the nun had asked me to stay late to help clean the class room. Cleaning the blackboards and sweeping the floors was what they would have us do. We’d spread a combination of dried coffee grounds and a waxy, powdery green dust catcher all over the floor. Then we’d sweep it, and the dust & dirt, back up and toss it all in the trash. But I was there for punishment, not clean up; clean up was honorable. Other kids swept up around me each night.

Finally my mother decided she’d had enough of me coming home late every night. She told me to tell those nuns to have somebody else sweep the class room, because if I wasn’t home on time she was going to call the police.

Of course, I did something bad that day (the details elude me) and had to stay late again. It being well into autumn, it was starting to get dark by the time I finally approached our house on Lawn Ave. Sitting in front of that house was a Cleveland police car.

I froze, suddenly remembering my mother’s parting threat that morning. Until that moment I hadn’t thought she’d really do it. And I still didn’t fully believe it. But as I looked around me, I knew she had called them. There were no doubts in my mind. And I knew I would be going to jail.

I needed some time to think. My 7 year old mind could not quite get all the way around this one.

I crept into the yard through a gap in the privet hedge instead of using the paved walkway and slipped under the huge hydrangea bushes that filled the corner space where the porch jutted out from the house proper. There, crouched in the loamy earth (I was afraid of getting my school cloths dirty if I sat down), I began to consider my options.

But wait a minute. What if the police were at somebody else’s house? Parking was tight on our narrow street; you could only park on one side. The cops could be anywhere. They didn’t have to be at my house. I crept around until I was at a living room window. I reached up on tip-toes until I could just barely see in. There was a cop standing in the middle of the room writing something down. Could it be my description for the wanted poster?

I went back to my corner and returned to assessing my options. Basically I figured I had two. Reveal myself and go to jail. Or, wait until everyone else went to sleep. Sneak into the house. Gather my favorite stuff (at least as much of it as I could carry). And then figure out some way to get to Nana & Grampap’s in Pennsylvania. It was only 200 miles away. I was sure I could find my way there. They would never let mom put me in jail.

Then the front door opened. There were voices: mom and dad and one that must have been the cop. I don’t remember what they said, but I did not hear my name mentioned. Then the cop got in his patrol care and drove away. The front door was closed, the porch light left on, and I was left there behind the hydrangea bush wondering what to do next.

Crouching in the damp dark of the late autumn night I grew colder and hungrier. Don’t know how long I stayed there before I finally decided to try and sneak into the house as unobtrusively as possible. Maybe, since the cop was already gone they wouldn’t call him back to take me to jail. Maybe I could just slip in unnoticed, get something to eat and go to bed.

I slowly opened the front door and slipped in the house, closing the door behind me as gently as possible. My dad was in the living room watching tv and didn’t say a word to me. I took my coat and school books into the bedroom and then headed into the kitchen where my mother was. She looked at me almost absentmindedly and told me that my dinner was on the table. Then she went in with my dad and they started talking.

I couldn’t believe I’d gotten off so easy. Didn’t even get yelled at, let alone arrested.

Things were pretty quiet around the house the rest of the evening and when bedtime came I submitted without complaint, climbing beneath the covers of the large bed I shared with my sister, Bonnie. The only door in the house was on the bathroom. Between our bedroom and the living room was only some curtains. I fell asleep with the hushed conversation of my parents woven into that evening’s television drama.

Bonnie & me asleep in the house on Lawn Avenue - circa 1958-60.

Bonnie & me asleep in the house on Lawn Avenue - circa 1958-60.

Over the next several days I was able to put together exactly what had happened that night.

We lived on a lot with two old two-story houses on it. The back house, which butted up against the dirt alley, was rented out entirely. The downstairs of the front house was rented, and that’s where we lived. The landlady, Mrs. Ackley, lived upstairs from us. The wooden stairs to her place were outside attached to the back of the house like an afterthought.

She was an old lady, at least as old as my Nana and to me that was ancient. I recollect that she didn’t have much to do with us kids, but was not particularly unkind to us either. None-the-less we kids were all pretty much afraid of her. We had to be quiet so as not to disturb the “lan’lady.” We had to clean up messes in the yard so the “lan’lady” wouldn’t get upset. Perhaps fear was our interpretation of the relationships the adults around us had to the “lan’lady.” After all, this woman held power over all of us: she owned our homes.

I seem to remember that she had an adult son who would come by from time to time, but he was not much of a presence.

A couple of nights before the police visit, my parents were kept awake by Mrs. Ackley pacing back and forth directly above the bed. Eventually they fell asleep with the pacing still going on. The next day nobody saw Mrs. Ackley at all. She usually came out during the day, but not this day. Nor the day after. And there were no sounds from her apartment at all. Finally, late in the afternoon on the second or third day without Mrs. Ackley making an appearance, my mother and the woman who lived in the house at the back of the lot decided to go up and see if she was OK. They knocked on the door but there was no response. They called for her but again, no response. They tried the door, found it unlocked and went in.

Mrs. Ackley was lying on a couch in the room directly above my parent’s bed – she was dead. They went downstairs to our part of the house and called the police.

What were my parents thinking that night as I slunk into the house? Were they contemplating the presence of death right above their heads? Were they frightened by the presence of death so close to their small children? Did they wonder if she had died from something contagious? Were they worried that, with the landlady dead, they might have to find another place to live? or that the rent might go up?

To me it was like a story, a movie or television show. Someone always dies and then the rest of the story goes on without them. It’s a dramatic device, not real life. Not my young life. It was creepy though, to have a dead body upstairs for days before it was found, and us kids soon mythologized Mrs. Ackley into a ghostly character who haunted our play. Especially when we would dare each other to climb the stairs and stand outside the door of the now unoccupied and certainly haunted apartment.

For several days after the police were at my house I was extra good in school so I wouldn’t have to stay late. Even after I found out why the police had really been there, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had narrowly escaped jail and I didn’t want to tempt fate again. I might have even been good for a whole week or so.

10/11/2004 – 09/13/2009
Santa Rosa/Sebastopol, CA

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