While my parents were away on vacation, they sent an old lady called the Ironing Woman to stay with me and my brother and sister. She had long white hair that was slicked back in a ponytail and wore dentures that were taken out each night before bedtime. She smiled blankly at me each night when she handed me my devil dog with a glass of milk before she sent me to bed. When the devil dog box was empty, she would send my brother out to get more and if he couldn't find them in the the Shoprite, she would mutter under her breath and tell him to get vanilla tasty cakes or ring dings instead. My brother always took his time when he was sent on these expeditions, mostly because he would stop at Kirk's Drug Store to see his girlfriend Kathy. Kathy's father owned the drug store and she always did her homework behind the counter when she worked the register, and alternated between polishing her nails and studying. Her navy blue and white cheerleader outfit was usually on display behind the counter for customers to see when they picked up their prescriptions or bought something. "You're the cheerleader, right?" Kathy would beam her white teeth smile and swing her pony tail as she nodded "yes" with a demure giggle. And when my brother walked in the store to get a root beer or to pick up bengay for my mother, Kathy would jump up and absolutely squeal with delight. She wore his high school ring with a pride I had never seen.
I could never understand why we went through boxes of devil dogs so quickly until I discovered that the Ironing Woman had been eating them when I was at school. One day, after I had gotten off the bus and run home out of breath because the neighbor's dog King was chasing me, I saw her eating a big fat devil dog with the cream coming out on one side. My mouth started to water, but after we made eye contact, I quickly averted my eyes and ran into my bedroom to change into my play clothes. I pulled the plaid jumper over my head, pulled out my two pigtails that were tied with red yarn, threw on my purple bell-bottoms and ran outside to play in the woods with Bee.
Bee was short for Bianca, and she was one hundred percent Italian. The meatballs her mother, Sylvie made were almost as good, if not better than my mother's matzah balls. (but not better than her blintzes or beef stew). Sylvie, short for Sylvia, worked as a waitress at the big resort on the lake called the Fairmont Hotel, which featured an indoor skating rink, gourmet food, a cocktail lounge and live entertainment. There were always skinny men in plaid pants and wool turtlenecks cruising the hotel lobby in between shows, and these same men used to stroll through Main street on their hours off from singing. Bee's mother was always tired and her father who worked at the Elks Club as a bar tender was always screaming at us. Whenever we saw him, we would dart past him in fear before the beer he was drinking turned all of his growls into full blown roars which made us gasp. Bee's mother used to apologize for Chet, while at the same time screaming at him and us for "eating her out of house and home."
Most afternoons, after the bus dropped us off at Bee's house, we would go inside of the tan colored ranch house where she lived and cook ourselves gourmet meals like they featured in Redbook and McCalls. We would say goodbye to Vince the bus driver and run into Bee's house that was never locked even though no one was home. The first thing we always did was to put the TV on and pull the plastic off of the couch where we would sit watching reruns of I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best. We grabbed boiled eggs out of the fridge and munched on potato chips for hours. At night, we would watch Mash and The Mary Tyler Moore Show as we moved on to more sophisticated dinner snacks which Sylvie had in the freezer, manicotti or sometimes homemade cannoli's. Sylvie would walk in, see we were eating her dinner as snacks and go ballistic. She often swatted our backsides with ping pong paddles and screamed "How dare you?" We batted our eyes at Sylvie and she just shook her head saying "You girls..." We knew she had a soft spot for us after all. Mary Tyler Moore was our ultimate idol and both Bee and I pretended we each had a "Donald" for a boyfriend, and that we worked as career women wearing big hats in New York City. Sometimes, we had some of her father's beer to see what alcohol tasted like. We drank the beers right out of the can and imitated her father screaming at everyone. We mixed Rum with Coke and pretended that we were in her mother's fancy hotel watching bands and day dreaming of being rich. Oftentimes, we drank the Rum and Coke with our pinky's in the air and imitated my father who was so fancy.
Because no one was ever home, Bee and I could pretty much do anything we wanted. At first it was just the two of us, but as time went on Bee started inviting the paperboy over to make out. The paperboy would cruise over in his bike wearing a Lakewood High School navy windbreaker and tennis shoes, even though he was in middle school and didn't play tennis. l was always assigned to guard the house in case Chet came home early from the Elks Club screaming or if Hope, Bee's older sister, happened to stop by. Hope was married to Stu but was always coming to the house to get things like sugar, laundry soap, or lipstick. Hope was always wearing rollers in her hair and when we made fun of her, she got mad. One day, after Bee and I had made one of our famous grilled cheese sandwiches, that we served with potato straws, Hope rushed into the house during one of our I Love Lucy episodes in tears. We lowered the volume of the TV when she walked in and put our hands on our hips. "What was she doing anyway?" She and Stu had just had a fight. Hope was crying so hard that we thought someone had just died and her mascara had stained her perfectly pink cheeks black. We offered her some of our grilled cheese, but Hope just kept crying until Sylvie came home in her waitress uniform, offered her a Rum and Coke and told her to just "go home to her husband." Hope dabbed her eyes, gave Bee and I teary hugs that almost broke our backs and drove back to Stu. About a week later, we found out that Hope and Stu had picked up in the middle of the night and driven to Florida. Sylvie was so upset that she stayed in bed the next day and didn't go to work. She told us that Stu was a good for nothing bastard and that "He and Hope would be back just watch."
About a week after the disappearance of Hope, there was another death in the family, but this one was literal. Bee's sister in law sister died of a brain aneurism. It happened one night after dinner before Bee and I even knew what the word meant. It happened when Bee and I were eating ice cream sandwiches outside on the hammock, watching the paperboy ride his bike with no hands. The paperboy had taken off his shirt and was showing off. He was so cute that Bee and I swooned whenever we saw him and my own stomach did back flips. We were breathless as we watched him drive up and down the dirt road that was across from her house. He knew we were watching and winked at us periodically which made my stomach go even crazier. Bee and I cried so much about Bobby's death that we started laughing hysterically the next day at the bus stop. When Vince pulled up to get us, he asked us what was so funny? Vince smelled like aftershave and black coffee. He was in his sixty's and always handed us sticks of gum like Dentyne and Juicy Fruit. Sometimes he even gave us wads of Bazooka or Double Bubble, which were my favorites. Bee and I laughed so hard about Bobby dying of blood on her brain that we peed in our pants at the bus stop. We had to ask Vince to hold off on driving to school while we ran back into Bee's house to change. Sylvie screamed at us and told us to get out After all, two people had just died and why were we laughing?
As we ran into Bee's room with tears running down our cheeks, we heard Sylvie blowing her nose and screaming at Chet to stop drinking. The next thing we knew, Sylvie was throwing cans, bottles, and tubes of toothpaste at Chet and telling him that it was his fault that Hope had married so young. She got married to "get out of the house" Sylvie screamed. And it was also Chet's fault that her oldest son's wife had just died. It was "his drinking that had killed both of them." Chet got even madder at Sylvie's 's accusations and left their bedroom to get another beer and go to the Elks Club early "before anyone got there." This made Bee and I laugh even louder, and we giggled and tiptoed our way into the kitchen to grab meatballs for Vince, which we handed to him with our bare hands. As we left the house and slammed the screen door, the little crystals on the lampshades dangled and made the most beautiful chiming sounds. And as we looked back one last time before running out to Vince, we saw Bee's 's older brother staring at the black TV screen like someone had just died. But in all fairness, he had just lost his wife.