What you need to understand is that when I was a boy, there was always a whole shitload of gossip flying around about some of the grownups who lived in the neighborhood. It wasn’t like any of that talk ever came my way directly, mind you; it was just sort of out there, common knowledge, you might say, at least among the adults. The only reason that I was privy to a lot of that talk was that I was a pretty quiet kid and I think sometimes the adults just plain forgot I was there and said things they probably wouldn’t have had they realized I was hanging around. I found out pretty early on that you can learn a lot more if you’re not always waiting for your next chance to speak and as a consequence, I knew stuff that I had no business knowing. I look over my shoulder now to a place more than forty years away and realize that the street I lived on was kind of a poor man’s Peyton Place, chock full of tales of infidelity, impropriety, and betrayal.
Take Ronny Binder, for example. Ronny had a family of four girls and a wife named Peggy. Now Peggy was one of those real mousey types with a high-pitched squeaky voice and a short, staccato laugh, kind of shy and introverted but really pretty nice overall. I overheard her telling my mom one time that Ronny said he loved her at least a million times when they were going together but once she got pregnant she never heard those words come out of his mouth again. Ronny and Peggy ended up getting married anyway and Peggy lived with that lonely secret ever after and I don’t imagine that it made her feel too good. But nobody ever saw her brooding or sulking over that little sadness of hers, or anything else for that matter, even after a fire gutted her house one summer afternoon. Seems as though an oven mitt caught fire and spread to the curtains above the sink and before they knew it, the whole house was up in flames, a red-hot inferno that the fire department fought for nearly three hours. Once the insurance money came through, the place was fixed up like new, but that took a while and in the meantime Ronny and Peggy and the kids had to stay in some trailer park for about six months. Honestly, for a person who endured such private misery, I have to tell you that Peggy sure held up well in public. I suppose it was pretty clear to everybody that she didn’t have a very happy marriage and it was obvious that she was thankful to have her girls because they were just about all she ever talked about. I sure hope they told her they loved her every day because I think Peggy needed to hear it from someone. I think everyone needs to hear it from someone, don’t you?
Anyway, Ronny was a strange bird, and I think Peggy was kind of afraid of him. I don’t think he ever hit her or anything like that, but he was built like a brick shithouse, like a bodybuilder, which was sort of odd back then. And that made him kind of menacing, at least that’s the impression I always got. I know that memories are often a little skewed when viewed from a faraway place, so I’m really not too sure how accurate my take on it is. But I just had a feeling that Peggy was a little scared of Ronny. I mean, the guy never smiled. He just never smiled. And he roamed the block in the summer like a nomad, bouncing from one yard to the other, making small talk with grownups who really didn’t have much to say to him, their eyeballs doing one of those quick Oh, God! Here he comes again! rolls whenever they saw him heading their way.
Jimmy Reitz, who lived kitty-corner from us on the other side of the street, once set up some barbells in his garage and a bunch of us kids gave it our best shot at bench pressing the entire eighty pounds. None of us could do it, not even the older guys, and a couple of them had just turned thirteen. Just as Scotty Van Allen started to give it a go that day here comes Ronny traipsing up the driveway. We all said hello and he watched us a little until he decided to pick up that barbell himself. Ronny ended up putting on a really cool display of strength by grabbing that thing with his pinkies and arm curling it over and over like nobody’s business and that sure impressed the hell out of us kids. Before we knew it he took off his tee shirt and stood there stark naked, well, from the waist up anyway, covered with nothing but the matty hair on his chest and a faded tattoo of the 101stAirborne he got a couple weeks after Normandy, muscles flexing almost like he was Charles Atlas or something. It couldn’t have been but a minute later that Jimmy’s mom came out of the house and invited all the kids in for cookies and milk, “seeing as you all look like you’ve worked up quite an appetite.” Well, that seemed like a pretty fine offer to us, so we thanked Ronny for the show and headed in for a glass of cold milk and a fistful of Oreos. Mrs. Reitz stayed back to chat a little with Ronny and I don’t know what they were talking about but he sure didn’t look too happy when he left. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it seems to me now that Mrs. Reitz didn’t care too much for Ronny. I think I understand a little better now why his wife Peggy was kind of scared of him. I think she was afraid for her children, just like Mrs. Reitz was afraid for us.
Anyway, back when I was a kid there was supposedly a Peeping Tom lurking around the neighborhood, and although I didn’t completely understand what a Peeping Tom was, I knew that some guy looking in your windows on the sly couldn’t have been a good thing. I remember thinking that I didn’t have much of a worry since my bedroom windows were about ten feet above the ground, too high to poke your snoot into without standing on a ladder.
But I recall my mom every now and again whispering to Pops that she had a feeling somebody was looking in the front room windows while he was at work. It scared her, too, a little for herself but mostly for my kid sister Rosie. Mom was sure it was Ronny, even though she didn’t have any proof. I don’t think they ever did find out if it was him or not, or if that Peeping Tom really even existed, but either way, my mom always believed Ronny would have been a perfect candidate for the position.
There was other stuff, too, which stoked a lot of gossip around the old neighborhood. Now that I look back, there sure was an unusual amount of inappropriate behavior going on, though inside my little pea-brain I figured that’s the way it was in every neighborhood. Who knows? Maybe it was. Maybe it still is.
Anyway, when Marge Leahy pulled her kitchen shades down after her husband left to start the swing shift at the mill, nobody thought it too strange, not at first anyway. Mr. Kirsteen lived alone in the house directly across from her yard and had a perfect view of Marge’s kitchen. He was kind of a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type of guy, an adequate handyman, Pops always said, but not too exceptional in any particular way. But he was really generous with his time, at least where Marge was concerned, and was always ready to help her out. You could almost bet that within five minutes of that shade being lowered, Mr. Kirsteen could be seen heading over to Marge’s with a hammer in one hand and some nails in the other, just itching to fix something. Sure seemed to me like she had a lot of stuff that needed fixing over at her place.
So things like that were going on all the while I was growing up and I sure didn’t know what exactly any of it meant, except in general terms, but I sensed that a lot of what was happening was kind of bad. That’s what some of the ladies led me to believe anyway.
Back then, a few of the women got together every Thursday afternoon for Pepsi and chit-chat (my mom was one of them) and they all agreed that just like Marge Leahy, Mrs. Branigan, who lived on the corner, was kind of trashy, too. I didn’t know what trashymeant either, but I supposed it meant that she didn’t take her garbage to the curb on Tuesday mornings, but to be honest, that didn’t seem to me all that grave an offense. And although she had a standing invitation to join my mom and the other women once a week for a cold Pepsi, Mrs. Branigan never took them up on their offer. To this day I don’t know if her absence could be accounted for because of the hurt she suffered as a result of all that cruel gossip or because she had another, more gratifying way of passing her Thursday afternoons.
Uncle Jimmy, my dad’s younger brother, gave me a cigar box just before he left for California I don’t know how many years ago. I used to keep all my favorite stuff in it, you know, my marbles, an old Matchbox car, a little pocketknife that could hardly cut butter that my mom didn’t know I had because if she did she would have taken it away from me, stuff like that, stuff that only a boy would really appreciate. I don’t know whatever happened to all those neat little trinkets, but nowadays that very same cigar box is home to a bunch of black-and-whites from the old neighborhood and even a blind man could see from those photographs that Mrs. Branigan was a looker— a real looker. Makes me wonder whether all that chatter over a cold, Thursday afternoon Pepsi might have been a little more than just speculation after all, but I guess I’ll never really know for sure.
But don’t misunderstand me: it wasn’t like Mrs. Branigan or Marge Leahy had a monopoly on infidelity. There were a few men around who were guilty of that very same offense. Hell, Mr. Galatka, butcher, husband, father of four and our very own next-door neighbor, supposedly bragged to Pops that he had two other kids with some “sweet young thing” fifteen years his junior. I didn’t know about that until I was quite a bit older myself, and if what everybody said was true, then I’d have to agree that his behavior was pretty reprehensible. It was an odd thing, really, but while Mom and the other ladies sipped daintily on their soda pop, I never heard them whisper a word about Mr. Galatka being trashy. I guess what he did wasn’t quite as bad as what Marge Leahy or Mrs. Branigan had done.
Anyway, that’s the kind of stuff that went on in my neighborhood. It probably wasn’t a heck of a lot different than any other neighborhood around Chicago, whether it was a block of sturdy brick bungalows like mine or one of those fancy I’m-better-than-you-because-I-live-in-a-big-mansion-and-make-a-lot-of-money-too neighborhoods. The funny thing was that other than seeing Mr. Kirsteen with his hammer and nails, I personally never witnessed any of those other transgressions and honestly never knew of anyone that did. I suppose it’s possible that some of that stuff happened for real, maybe all of it even. I imagine it probably did, but all these many years later it’s pretty hard to tell as most all the actors are gone now.
I could go on and on forever about all the goofy stuff that happened during the time I was growing up, and I probably will, too, but not just yet. If I don’t forget, I’ll tell you about Lena Zarantanello and her obsessive-compulsive disorder. Of course, nobody knew what an obsessive-compulsive disorder was way back when. We figured she was just plain nuts for scrubbing the sidewalk in front of her house every Monday morning, on her hands and knees no less. When she was asked about it, Lena said she did it on Mondays because Monday was floor-scrubbing day and as long as she had to do the kitchen floor, she might as well do the sidewalk while she was at it.
There were other crazy things going on too, like Mr. Fox, though what he did didn’t seem nearly as funny as Mrs. Zarantanello scrubbing the sidewalk. Mr. Fox was pretty rough on his sons, always hollering and screaming at them, and I remember thinking that they must have been really bad boys to warrant those whippings every day.
All this stuff I imagine was supposed to be hush-hush, secrets that nobody in the neighborhood was supposed to know about but just about everyone did. I think the only people who didn’t know the cat was out of the bag were the ones trying to keep the cat in it. From what I could tell, listening to the ladies gab every week over their frosty Pepsis, there sure didn’t appear to be any secrets that actually stayed secret for too long. It seemed that every family in the neighborhood had at least one skeleton in their closet, and I crossed my fingers that none of them knew about ours.