The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
Mr. Belz was beaming happily. He appeared to be expecting us, for the bell had scarcely started to tinkle when he opened the door leading into his neat white butcher shop.
"So, I read in the paper Poppa has already sold a story, yes?" he said. His round, red face was creased with many pleasurable wrinkles.
He wiped his hands energetically on what at an earlier hour of the day had been an immaculately white apron; it was now flecked with the blood of his wares.
"Maybe now things will be different, yes, Mrs. Seltzer?" he suggested, half questioningly. "What will it be today, now? We have -"
But Mother interrupted him. "Mr. Belz, I must tell you something first. We haven't paid our bill yet and I'm afraid we can't."
I looked up at Mother. Her face had a strained expression, and her hands twisted anxiously around her market bag.
"It's true Charlie sold a story," she said, "but selling one story after all these years, wonderful as it is, is not much help. We don't know yet what will happen. We hope it will be all right, but we can't tell. I know Charlie will try -"
Mr. Belz leaned his fat arms on the counter, a deep frown on his usually friendly face.
Even under normal circumstances he dominated his small shop. His own personal width occupied fully a third of the space behind his counter. He had always seemed as wide as he was high. Now he appeared gigantic.
Mother's growing nervousness affected me. I suddenly took an interest in her market bag because it brought me closer and more protectively near her.
For a long moment Mr. Belz was silent. He seemed to be thinking his way through a problem, weighing it as carefully as if it were on the scales at his elbow. Finally he lifted his eyes, and looked squarely at Mother. There was a funny little smile on his lips.
"Mrs. Seltzer, I am surprised by you," he said. "Have I ever asked you for money, yet? Why should I be doing so now, please? Do I not know what you have been doing - do I not know about the brown paper, the way you've been working to help Charlie? Do I not know these things - was I born yesterday? I am ashamed you should bring it up. And now, Mrs. Seltzer, what are we going to have today, yes?"
He reached over the counter and put his big, pudgy hand on Mother's rather gently. "And I suppose we will also want some more brown paper, will we not?" he asked.
"Yes, yes, Mr. Belz," Mother said, "and thank you so much. We'll pay our bill one of these days, I promise you - you can be sure of that."
Mother finished her purchases and we were on our way out when Mr. Belz called to me.
"Louis," he said softly, "look!"
In his hands he held a nice large slice of summer sausage.
"Thank you, Mr. Belz," I said, the words and the sausage meeting one another.
"Louis," the butcher said, "be a good boy, and help your Momma - she needs it."
When we got home Father was waiting for us. He had written three pages of a new story and then run out of paper. Mother put her market bag down, fished out the brown butcher paper Mr. Belz had given her, and whacked off a sheet.
Having thus satisfied Father's immediate need, she went rather deliberately about the job of converting the big roll of paper into makeshift manuscript sheets for his stories. For this she had contrived a complicated but, for her purpose, effective procedure. I watched as she folded the paper like an accordion until she had a large pile in front of her. Then she went to the kitchen drawer and got out her breadboard. It had been in the family for three generations and was chipped and white with continual use and scrubbing. Mother had added
marks of her own to it, not only on top, but on the underside, where she had grooved a deep and perfect rectangle the exact size of the expensive paper they could not afford to buy at Alderson's Stationery Store up on West Twenty-fifth Street.
Carefully, she placed the pile of paper on the breadboard over the square she had grooved in it, and weighted it down with a paving brick she kept in a corner near the door, which otherwise served as a doorstop.
After she made sure the stack of paper was in exact position, she started the sharp tip of the knife around the groove, feeling her way with the knife's edge. It looked hard to do, but to Mother, after long practice, the job was simple. In a surprisingly quick time she lifted off the brick and picked up a neat stack of about twenty sheets.
Patiently she repeated the process until, at the end of a half hour, she had prepared approximately 250 sheets - a supply that might, with normal writing, last Father perhaps a week or ten days.
After neatly arranging the whole batch, Mother placed it in a box at Father's elbow on the table, stopping long enough to kiss him lightly on the forehead as she did so. Father looked up - smiled appreciatively - and then went on with his work.
Mother shoved us out of the kitchen. It was a rule of the house - established by Mother and rigidly enforced by her - that when Father wrote there was to be absolute quiet. When he chose to write in the daytime, our cruising range around the house was restricted a
great deal. For one thing we were deprived of access to the water pail that stood near the little table he used for a desk. Mother's cupboard, almost at Father's writing arm, also was off limits. We solved this problem by stocking up our provisions in a small wooden bucket with a galvanized iron cover, that was placed just outside the kitchen door. Into it we put everything we would need while Father wrote - cookies, bread, candy, kite string, Indian feathers, pocketknives for mumbletypeg, a broken cup to scoop up water from the well bucket near the house, and a host of other miscellaneous articles that were sure to come in handy for a robust family of five children, bent on play and a normal quota of juvenile mischief.
Fortunately for us Father didn't write very often during the day. His "inspirations," as he called them, came much more frequently at night. Every night he arranged the kitchen table in a corner a short distance from the potbellied stove, placed the lamp on it, and pulled up the straight-backed chair with the cane seat which had almost sprung apart. Any night I expected to hear a thud and see my father sprawled on the floor. I kept wondering, if Father actually did fall through the chair, how, with his big bulk, he would get himself out of it.
Mother's faith in Father was so great that we looked upon him with awe and respect, because she did. She tired in every way to protect him from the cares and troubles which came from not having enough of anything to provide for a family. Even at a very early age we children sensed the crisis in which we lived. We
knew what Father was trying to do, and what Mother was doing to help him accomplish it.
Father had had very little education. He did not finish the second grade in public school in Columbus, Ohio, where his family had lived before they moved to Cleveland.
Our grandfather used to tell us, much to Mother's chagrin, that when Father was a small boy he ran away from home and joined the Sells-Floto circus as a water boy for the elephants. Any romantic detail about this exploit that was inadvertently overlooked by Grandpa was supplied by Father himself. Of all the varied jobs he had after he slipped away from grade school, never to return - and to acquire such remarkable education as he put together for himself by his own experience, his extraordinary gifts for observation, concentration, and imagination - the one which obviously intrigued him most of all was that of water boy for Sells-Floto circus. He talked about it often.
This was only one of many things Father did during the fifteen years before he came to Cleveland and "settled down." He was successively steeplejack's assistant, himself climbing to the top of some of the higher church steeples; floorwalker in a five-and-ten-cent store; railroad brakeman and handy man; and cowpuncher in New Mexico. For several years he was an itinerant typesetter and a writer for small-town newspapers, working in several places where his favorite author, Mark Twain, had labored; and, like Mark Twain, he was an intense lover of the land along the Mississippi River.
One day in October, when Mother had brought in a new supply of butcher's brown paper, Father wrote steadily for hours. He took out very little time for dinner. Restlessly he walked up and down outside for a breath of fresh air, while we all pitched in to clear the table and wash the dishes as quickly as possible. Then, as twilight came, he eagerly took up his place once more at his "desk."
Everybody went to bed - except Father and myself.
There were only two sounds in the small kitchen as the evening wore on, and midnight was imminent. Once was the cracking of coal behind the isinglass "window" of the potbellied stove before which I lay reading. The other was the scratch of Father's pen, as he sat bent over the small table in the flickering light from the kerosene lamp.
I was lost to everything except the engrossing story of the prince who vainly tried to climb the glass mountain to rescue the princess. The weird shadows fashioned so grotesquely by the dancing flames of the stove heightened the strange world to which Grimm's fairy tale had transported me.
Both Father and I were so completely intent upon our respective interests that neither of us heard Mother step softly into the kitchen. Not until I felt the sharp pinch of her fingers on my left ear did I know she was near-by.
"I have called you for the last time, Louis - and now off to bed you march, young man - this instant!"
She emphasized her order with a sharp tweak on my
ear and a propulsion at the rear end which sent me scrambling off-balance toward the bedroom.
On my way I heard her say, turning her attention to Father, "You two - always you two. Louis always reading, reading, reading. He's going to ruin his eyes. Why can't you help me with him, Charlie - he's as much your responsibility as mine. But you're just as bad as he is. Off to bed now - both of you !"
My Father sat stubbornly at his "desk," mumbling, "Just a little while, Ella."
Mother stood uncertainly at his side while I watched from the bedroom doorway, hoping also to be reprieved. Then she turned her wrath and her worry in my direction. "I thought I told you to get to bed, young man. Now get!"
With one flying leap I jumped into bed, almost pushing my brother Bob, sound asleep, out and onto the floor. He managed to save himself by grabbing a bedpost.
I didn't go off to sleep immediately. For a long time I lay in bed listening to the steady scratching of Father's pen and speculating on whether the prince finally made it up the mountain. The suspense was intolerable, but I knew what disaster would befall me if again I slipped out into the kitchen to retrieve my book and find out. After a long time, and in half sleep, I heard Mother's voice, raised this time to an anxious pitch.
"Charlie, stop now? It must be three o'clock. You'll just get another of those terrible headaches."
The scratching of the pen stopped, but only for a moment.
"Ella," my father said, "I'll be all right. I'm almost finished with this now."
Finally, I fell asleep. I don't know how long I slept, but I was awakened by Mother shaking me roughly.
"Louis, Louis - wake up. Run for Dr. Medlin, quick! It's Daddy - something's wrong - something's awful wrong!"
The excited words got me onto my feet in a second. Already she had thrown off the quilt and had my pants and shirt and shoes in her hands ready for me to put on.
"Oh, hurry, Louis - hurry," she kept repeating over and over again.
I got into my clothes faster than ever before, and dashed through the kitchen toward the door. On the way I was shocked to see Father lying on the kitchen floor, right beside the cane-seated chair at his little desk. Even without stopping I noticed that his face was white, that he didn't move. Mother was wiping his forehead with a cold towel as I raced out.
It was dark, and cold. On other nights when I went on an errand for Mother every corner held a ghost or a frightful creature lurking to jump out at me; every post and pole concealed some horrible giant or weird animal. These were all forgotten. Only one thing mattered. Father was sick, desperately sick, and it was my job to get Dr. Medlin just as fast as my legs would carry me.
From our house to Dr. Wendell Medlin's was about
a half mile. I don't know how long it took me that early morning to make it. A stitch in my side made breathing hard, but I plunged on at breakneck speed, sometimes tripping, almost stumbling and falling several times as broken pavement or rocks got in my way. But I kept blindly on - pushing my legs, gasping for breath. All the time I kept thinking, "If I don't get there in time, if I don't get there in time, something terrible might happen to Father."
At last, exhausted and out of breath, I reached Dr. Medlin's house, threw open the gate and ran up the front walk to the steps. I pounded the heavy iron knocker against the door. It sounded loud in the stillness of the early morning.
The doctor didn't come - I kept pounding.
A flickering light came on at last, and an irritable voice sounded: "I'm coming - I'm coming. Stop that infernal racket."
And Dr. Medlin, a large, heavily built man, appeared in the doorway. He was wearing a long, flowing nightshirt with a startling pattern on it which under other circumstances would have made me laugh. He was still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes with his free hand, holding the flickering candle in the other.
"Who in tarnation is it?" he asked, looking at a level above my head, evidently expecting to see an adult. He looked down and saw me. "Why, Louis, it's you! What are you doing here at this hour? What's wrong, Son?"
My breath was coming back through my chest still ached.
"It's Daddy, Doctor - it's Daddy. Mother says for you to come right away, please! Hurry, he's lying on the kitchen floor. Something awful has happened."
Without a word, Dr. Medlin turned around, and leaving the door open, made for his bedroom.
"Louis, you wait out by the barn for me, I'll be there right away," he called over his shoulder.
Obediently I went to the barn at the rear of the rambling old house. Now some of the ghosts and evil creatures of the night began to reappear, but only the sight of my father lying so quiet and white-faced on the kitchen floor would stay long in my mind. I did not even feel the cold of the October dawn, though frost was gleaming under the bright moon and stars, on the roofs and fences and even on the grass.
Dr. Medlin's barn was quite a way back from his house. I opened the door. Against wide cracks at the far end of the stable I could see the silhouette of his dapple-gray horse, who had what seemed to me the crazy name of Rameses. The horse chomped at the side of his stall and neighed at me. He seemed to know that he would be called upon, as frequently he was, to go out into the night with the doctor.
Dr. Medlin appeared, still buttoning his coat, carrying his black case.
"Get up in that one," he instructed, nodding toward the two-seater carriage.
With quick, sure movements, he led Rameses from his stable, moved him into his traces, deftly fastened the leather harness, and climbed into the driver's seat.
"Now, Louis," he said. "That didn't take long, did it"?"
His voice was now gentle and kind. He wrapped me in his big robe, and brought me close to him.
"Giddy-yap, Rameses," he ordered, and the horse moved out of the stable, up the drive, and into the street at a quick pace. Once on the unpaved street, bumping and jolting, Dr. Medlin's carriage careened along at as fast a clip as the horse could make it.
"Your Daddy will be all right," Dr. Medlin said, and then, quite obviously to get my boyish mind off my fright, he pointed to the stars.
"Aren't they bright? They always are just before the dawn. It's always darkest then - and then the sun comes up, and everything's all right. It'll be all right, Louis."
In front of our house Dr. Medlin didn't even bother to tether his horse. He walked hurriedly up the walk, opened the door without knocking, and went straight to the kitchen where Father was still lying on the floor with Mother hovering over him.
"Hello, Ella," the doctor said, shortly. "What's happened here?"
Without waiting for Mother's answer, he opened his black bag, brought out his instruments, and gently rolled Father over on his side.
"I don't know, Doctor," Mother said. "I heard him fall. I came out here, and there was Charlie on the floor - right where he is now. He hasn't opened his eyes since. I don't know -" Her voice was rising in alarm.
"Well, don't be excited, now, we'll find out in a minute," Dr. Medlin said.
It seemed an eternity to me before Father opened his eyes, looked bewilderedly around the kitchen, first at Dr. Medlin and then at Mother and then at me. He lay there without saying a word for a little while, and then asked, "What happened?"
Mother rushed over to Father and took him in her arms.
"Now, Ella, let Charlie lie there for a couple of minutes," the doctor said. As Father lay quiet, now with a pillow under his head, he quietly told Mother, "Charlie has been working too hard. He's got to stop writing for a while - for maybe a few weeks, even longer."
Mother explained that she hadn't been able to do anything with Father for months now - "Ever since he sold that first story," she said. "It's write - write - write all the time. He's sent five stories away to magazines in the last month or so. I was afraid something would happen."
Again her voice betrayed her anxiety, and the doctor put his hand on her shoulder, saying, "Well, first let's get him to bed."
Together they helped Father, still bewildered by it all, to bed.
That was the year Father really became our hero. And that was the year I grew up, even though I was only eight, for wasn't I the oldest in the family - the one to whom Mother had turned in time of crisis - the one who now got odd jobs around the neighborhood to help? I felt suddenly important, and indispensable to the household.
Many things happened that winter. Perhaps in weather, in hard times, and certainly within our own home, it was the worst of any we ever experienced. Yet, with Mother's grim determination to make everything come out all right, it did.
Three things happened which left their impress upon me for the rest of my life. Father, virtually helpless for a time, took the attitude that his oldest son, in spite of his tender years, was entitled to adult treatment and attention. Also, that winter I took my place in the household as a breadwinner. I got up before daybreak to carry papers before school. At noon each day I carried Mr. Bell's warm lunch to him from his home up on West Twenty-fifty Street to his barber shop on Fulton Road, a distance of three- quarters of a mile. At night I carried the evening paper - The Cleveland Press - and to wind up the day I worked in the grocery store across the street until it closed.
The third important thing that happened to me that severe winter, when I was just turned eight, was the firm resolve that one day I would be a writer like my hero, my father - and a newspaperman.
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