No More Swedish MeatballsbyKrenna Smart©
Hi. Thanks for all the work you did to get Dreams of Destiny and Running on Fumes out. This is a portion of my new novel which is about 74% completed. It's very different from my other stuff. Comments and crtitiques are VERY welcome.
Every year the symptoms of PCT, or Pre-Christmas Tension, began in the Hansen family on what Kristen's father, Karl Hansen, called "Black Friday." Black Friday was the day after Thanksgiving: The opening of Christmas spending madness on the Eastern seaboard. How Karl hated that day.
Black Friday was the day when Kristen's mother, Evelyn would head off in a flurry of excitement for a Christmas spending binge. She’d bundle Kristen and her older sister, Elizabeth into their winter coats and drive down to King of Prussia where the new Penny’s store started out what was to become one of the largest shopping malls in the world. Off they’d go to spend God knows how much money in pursuit of making $mas, as Karl called Christmas merry.
Kristen first became aware of PCT in about 1961 when she was six. PCT occurred much earlier than 1961, but she was too young to recognize the symptoms. Each year as Christmas approached, Evelyn would become cranky and Karl would become testy as hell. They would remain that way through New Year's Day when Christmas with all its blessings was finally over.
Oh the havoc Christmas wrought upon the Hansens! It was all tied up with Grandma Christina's suicide by hanging many years earlier. But of course Kristen didn't know that when she was growing up. She just knew Karl became a little strange and morose during the dark days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Evelyn drank a bit more then, too. Evelyn and Karl's fights became bitter and more brutal. Dishes went flying through the air during dinner. One year the tuna casserole ended up on the kitchen ceiling when Kristen's brother, Ned, spilled Ketchup on Elizabeth's lap. Karl flew into a fury and threw the plate up into the air and the tuna and noodles stuck where they stayed for at least four days. That was Karl's punishment.
Evelyn was great a punishing Karl. That was her tour de force. Evelyn made Karl pay and pay for her miserable days spent as a house wife in the Hansen mansion. She had a degree in social work but typing was her greatest talent. Evelyn was jealous of Karl's competence.
Karl was good at everything he put his hand to. From 8:30 to 4:30, Monday through Friday Karl worked in a small office of a large corporation designing new technology. He was an inventor - A mathematician of the old school who never talked about his work. When he was at home took things apart and put them back together just for the hell of it. He was a carpenter, a mason, an electrician, a piano tuner, a clock fixer, an auto mechanic. He could be just about anything he wished to be. Except happy.
The Hansen’s lived in a kind of suburbia that no longer exists in America. Most of the houses were built at a time when one bathroom was enough for a family of five or seven or more. Every morning the fathers on the block would get up for work, and step into the shower. After their showers they'd wipe the steam off the bathroom mirror and scrape at their beards with single edged razors. They'd emerge from the bathroom clean shaven, with white clots of shaving cream and little pieces of toilet paper on their necks ready for another work day.
Downstairs there would be a cacophony of children getting ready for school, fighting over the cereal and spilling milk on the floor. Maybe there'd be a baby in a high chair playing with gooey Gerber baby food. Mothers dressed in fuzzy bathrobes and slippers would be juggling the telephone and a spatula, frantically trying to sort out whose lunch box got what sandwich and what notebooks went with which child. The kitchen would be full of the smell of coffee and bacon. There might be a radio chatting about local matters. The fathers would sit down long enough to read the front page of the news paper, gulp down a cup of coffee, and eat a plate of bacon and eggs. Then they’d kiss the wife and kids and head off to the office, or where ever it was they went to earn the wages which supported a life that was becoming more and more difficult to enjoy.
This was the time between world war two and the Viet Nam War when the United States was emerging as a world power. The cold war and the space race were in full swing. New inventions were coming out daily making life sweeter and easier. Mothers were still staying at home and were focused on issues like good nutrition and early education. Fathers were working and scrambling for bigger houses, better cars, nicer vacations and college educations for the 2.2 children they were raising.
The air waves were relatively quite. Television was still mostly in black and white and there were only a few stations. There was no F.M. radio.
The houses in the Hansen’s neighborhood were built in the 1920's to accommodate Pennsylvania railroad workers. The Paoli train station was only about a five minute walk from the Hansen mansion. The street where they lived branched off from Central Avenue. It made a little incline, and then a long downward slope. At the bottom of the hill was a short avenue which connected to another street which ran back up to Central Avenue. It was the precursor of the modern, suburban cul-de-sac.
The Hansens’ began their marriage in a house at the bottom of the hill and kept moving up the street as the family grew.
In winter when there was enough snow, the older kids on the block would make snow hills at the top of both streets to stop the cinder truck from coming in and ruining the sledding. The sledding was incredible. Snow was eagerly anticipated by all of the kids, and many of the parents on the block from the moment Halloween costumes were stuffed back into bags and placed in old steamer trunks in the attics.
Every kid on the block had a flexible flyer or some other kind of sled. The minute snow flakes started to fall excitement began to build.
On early winter afternoons Kristen would look out of the school window and watch the sooty sky praying fervently that the lovely little crystals would cling to the blades of brown grass on the playground. Every flake that melted on the tarmac basket ball court was a tragedy. "Please stick, please stick" she would urge the snow drops. She thought each flake was a friend waiting outside for her greeting.
Every snow storm was Kristen’s secret little miracle. If she didn't pay enough attention to the gathering storm from her warm school desk it would dwindle and die. She would be responsible for its failure to turn the drab, grey world into a joyful crystalline wonderland.
Kristen would be unable to concentrate on anything but the storm. She'd stare out of the window, watching the swirling eddies of snow. Then she'd glare at the stubborn second hand of the big IBM clock on the classroom wall. "Oh please let it keep snowing," she’d pray silently, waiting anxiously for 2:45 to arrive.
The bell would ring and Kristen would be out of her seat like a shot. She'd gather up all her books, superstitiously believing the storm would peter out if she failed to take her work home. If she left her books at school the storm would know she wanted a snow day and would desert her.
School was only a five minute walk from home. The trip would be magical. A hush would fall on the land when the snow began to fall. Kristen would walk through a tunnel of glistening snow flakes imagining she was on her way to her own fairy land, then throw her hands up into the air and pretend she could fly. She'd test the flakes on her tongue -- the smaller they were the better. Small, furious flakes meant a long, hard snowfall, and hopefully night sledding, which was the best sledding in the world.
By the time she got home Kristen would be out of breath and wet through to the skin. She was always the first one home.
If the snow storm was a good one, school might be canceled. Snow days were the best holidays in the world! Odds were laid on whether on not school would be open. The optimistic would shove their home work assignments aside. Fingers would cross. Hopes would rise as the snow piled up. If the storm started early enough in the day, sleds would come out of garages. Runners would be scrubbed with wax. The kids would wait anxiously for the first pass of the snow plow. If the snow was right the whole world would change. There would be an early dinner. Snow suits and boots and hats, gloves, and mufflers would come out of the closet in a great rush. Everyone would congregate at the top of the hill and the fun would begin.
When the Hansens lived at the top of the hill all they had to do was grab their sleds off the porch, run to the street, drop belly down onto their sleds and fly. Over and over they would go careening down the street at top speed. All of the kids in the neighborhood would gather at the top of the hill in their snow gear and the festivity would begin.
The sledding would go on for hours. Parents would join in and forget their worries for a while, laughing helplessly as they zipped down the slope on their kid's sled or flying saucer. Snow ball wars would be waged. Forts would go up. The snow flakes would dance and fly in the street lights. The sound of whirring car wheels stuck at the bottom of the hill would reassure everyone that the snow fall was significant enough to justify another half hour of fun. When it was over there would be steaming hot cocoa.
The sky looked special at night when it was snowing. It had a fuzzy quality. It was so beautiful. Kristen thought if she could just will hard enough, it would keep snowing forever and the night would never end. But the nights and the storms did end. She knew that the storm was ending when the flakes started to fall in large, fluffy fist-fulls and felt such sorrow when the last flake landed.
The local radio station began announcing school closings at about 10 p.m. Throughout the township kids would sit glued to the radio with bated breath and crossed fingers waiting to hear if school was canceled. Bedtime was suspended. Parents knew the kids would never sleep until a decision was made. Kids would listen gleefully as the tally of closings grew. If the snow was still falling, they'd cheer when the predicted accumulation rose and groan if it was lowered. Kristen would run up the stairs every five minutes and peek outside to see if flakes were still swirling in the glow of the street lamps.
Finally, finally, the announcement would be made. There would be a collective groan throughout the neighborhood if school was on. Home work assignments would be done badly and with a mutinous attitude. Plans were made for the holiday if school was closed. The few mothers with jobs would make hurried arrangements with baby sitters or bargain for time off if it was available.
The poor fathers were stuck. They had to keep their noses to the grind stone. Only a major disaster would justify a father taking a breather for a little thing like a snow storm. They just had to get up an hour or so early to dig the car out of the snow so they could make it to work on time. Sons were often pulled out of bed early to help. Let them get a taste of things to come while the girls sleep in.
Kristen doesn't remember a time that she and Rita O'Leary weren't friends.Kristen's very first memories were of sunny days playing in the back yard of her first house with Rita and Rita's baby sister Jean. She remembers that no matter how hard Rita tried she shouldn't pronounce spaghetti. She called it bascetti until she was about eight years old.
Evelyn went back to work when Kristen started first grade. There was a two hour time lag from when school let out and when Karl and Evelyn got home. At age ten, Ned was old enough to be responsible for himself.
Mrs. O'Leary agreed to look after Elizabeth and Kristen during the gap but the arrangement never went into effect. Much to her disgust, eight year old Elizabeth became responsible for Kristen, and often Rita, until Evelyn and Karl got home.
Evelyn and Karl didn't know it, but the arrangement was a disaster. Elizabeth was having her own problems and wanted little to do with Kristen. She was an angry child and took it out on Kristen. But the Hansen pact was sacred. Tale bearers were dealt with severely when Karl and Evelyn weren't looking. Even worse, Kristen and Elizabeth now shared a bedroom. Kristen had nowhere to turn when Elizabeth's temper flared. So she kept her mouth shut and withdrew into her own little fantasy world whenever possible.
After a while Kristen became pretty good at avoiding Elizabeth and things settled into a pattern. Elizabeth had her friends and her world. Kristen had Rita. Things would have been perfect if Rita had gone to public school but the O'Leary's were Catholic and their tribe was enrolled at the nearby Parochial school.
Kristen liked first grade okay but soon became bored, just like Ned and Elizabeth said she would. She lived for the weekends. Some Saturdays Rita and Kristen would take peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and head down the hill through the woods looking for adventure. They would make it an all day affair. They'd start out at the stream looking for tad poles and frogs and worms. Then they'd head up the hill. Rita would usually lead the way. There was an over-hang at the top of the hill where they would sit and watch cars come up North Valley Road. Sometimes rougher kids from another neighborhood would be at their spot throwing rocks at cars. Rita and Kristen were smart enough to avoid that kind of trouble. They'd amble on down the path to the corn field or head over to the Boy Scout cabin at the far end of the Forest Preserve. It’s all tract housing now.
They'd climb up onto the roof of the cabin and do what ever it is little girls do to pass time on magical Saturday afternoons. The sun would head westward. Then the dappled light in the woods would change letting them know it was time to head for home.
Rita and Kristen had an instinct about how long they could stay out without getting into trouble. More often than not they'd end up in Kristen's back yard just as Evelyn was sticking her head out the door to call them in for supper. "Oh, there you are," Evelyn would say with relief. "I was just about to call out the Marshals."
The time between Labor Day and Christmas always passed in a blur of anticipation. The year was reaching its crescendo. First came Mischief Night and then Halloween. Two nights of pure Hell and anxiety for the parents and heaven for the kids on the block. Mischief Night was the night before Halloween. No one knew who invented it but it was an institution in Kristen's neighborhood by the time she was old enough to crawl. All of the kids in the neighborhood would dress up in black clothing and carouse the neighborhood in search of trouble. The local police were always out in force aching to catch little heathens with bars of soap or eggs in their hands.
A week before Mischief Night the neighborhood gang would pick an afternoon to tromp through the woods carrying pillow cases and head for the corn field at the bottom of the hill. They would stuff the cases full of corn cobs and spend the next few afternoons peeling off kernels to use as ammunition during what most of the kids thought of as the best night of the year.
Every year some budding hoodlum would come up with a new and better prank to play on a neighbor. Most of the pranks were harmless. Kids’ imaginations weren't quite as vicious as they are now. The parents kept careful rein on the fun, which went on from sun down until about 10 o'clock. Everyone knew if you got caught soaping a neighbor's window your punishment would be to wash all of their windows the weekend after Halloween. You could soap car windows but God forbid if you did any damage. That would have ended it right then and there.
The following night was Halloween. More madness. Costumes plans were deep, dark secrets. The local elementary school had a Halloween parade every year so most of the kids had two costumes: The one for school, which could be thrown together in about five minutes, and the one for the big night which had to be cool and clever and better than last year's costume. Hardly anyone wore store made costumes in those days which looked good in the package but didn't do the trick once you got them home. Once bought, they were usually discarded in disgust and handed down to someone's little brother. The real pleasure was the invention of a really unique costume. Rita and Kristen would agonize for weeks over what to be for Halloween.
Dinners were served early on Halloween night in the Hansen's neighborhood. And the minute the sun set the costumes went on. The Hansens and the O'Learys established a Halloween ritual when Kristen and Rita were about 4 years old. The Hansen kids would put on their costumes and have their pictures taken by Karl and Evelyn. Then Ned, Elizabeth and Kristen would run over to the O'Leary's, where Rita and her sisters were getting ready. More pictures would be taken. Everyone had their own huge grocery bag. The older kids were responsible for the younger ones. The kids piled out of the house in a big excited group and started making the rounds at about 6:00 p.m.
For Kristen it was the most exciting night of the year. Every house on the block had a carved jack o' lantern on its porch.
The moon wasn't up yet when the kids started their rounds. It was spooky in the dark spaces between the street lamps. The group, jumpy and skittish, would travel through the murky light telling stories of ghosts and hob-goblins. The air was cold and crisp and kind of smoky from smoldering piles of autumn leaves. Fallen leaves and branches crunched under foot as they walked. Dogs in the neighborhood yards picked up on the excitement and barked or bayed as the little pack of children passed by. An owl would hoot off in the woods.
The Hansens and O'Learys would meet up with other groups of kids almost immediately. Sometimes there would be as many as thirty kids on the street at a time dressed outlandish costumes traveling from house to house begging for treats. They would convene in front of a house, ring the door bell and shout "trick or treat." The door would open and the group would be ushered inside.
The neighbors knew each other and the parents made a game identifying the kids in their costumes. It was quite an accomplishment to get through the night without being identified. Candy bars were bigger in those days. The bags filled up quickly. But the game went on for hours.
At about the middle of the journey the kids would arrive at the spooky old mansion on the other side of the block. The owners of the mansion weren't well known. But they really got into the spirit of the evening. The driveway was well wooded and it was a spooky walk to the house. The front porch was old and sagged a bit. An old black cat sat on the rail.
The kids always huddled together a bit closer on their way up to the house. This was the pinnacle of the evening! The moon would be high now. The wind would rustle dead leaves on the ground and in the trees. The tree branches creaked, and looked like fingers reaching out to grab the children as they passed.
The hair on the back of their necks would rise. One or two of the kids would chicken out at this point and go home. The braver ones marched on. Some would sprint the last few yards and land on the porch hugging themselves with fright.
Once they were all gathered on the porch the oldest kid would pick up the big old door knocker and let it fall. Once, twice, thrice. Sometimes it took a while for the door to open. The kids would stand shivering with excitement on the porch. Then the door knob would turn and the door would open slowly with a long squeak.