DEATH IN AUGUST
by William Hengst
In 1944, at the age of five, I invented the magnifying glass. The end of a Coke bottle, when held up to the sun, could make anything burn and vanish. First, bits of paper—cellophane from my dad’s Chesterfield packs, and my bubble gum wraps—then live things like slugs, worms, the hind end of ants. Once I torched a whole village, many casualties, dead ants smelling like burnt tires. I needed to hurt something that couldn’t hurt me back.
That “something” was my family, what psychiatrists might characterize as a “three-person emotional system.” As the fourth person, I was the outsider. This dynamic played out every night at dinner: a formal affair, the table set with silver serving dishes, candles in the center, Maddy, our maid, serving each of us in our place, my mother in a fresh cotton dress, my father in his lawyer suit and tie. It pained me how each evening she dressed for him, and how he, not I, was the center of her attention.
My sister, Barbie, took the air out of the room. Three years older than me, she monopolized the conversation, while I was the silent observer. When I did have something to say, she regularly interrupted or ridiculed me.
I didn’t like green vegetables or legumes then, especially lima beans. My parents would insist I try a few. I refused, and finally, in desperation, they urged me to try just one. At that point Barbie challenged me. “If you eat that bean, Billy, you’ll throw up.”
Of course I did.
Barbie often taunted me; she could be physically cruel. I reported those incidents to my parents, but the only thing they did was tell her not to do them again. I felt disregarded and unappreciated at times, but I kept my anger bottled up inside.
Often in the late afternoon, I skated around the block, clockwise then counter-clockwise, my legs thrusting, the wheels pounding the sidewalk in a satisfying rhythm. An opportunity to get away from home, suck in some air and clear the muck of Mom and Dad and Barbie. Sometimes I stumbled on the uneven spacing between the pavers, causing my skates, though tightened with a church key, to fly off and I would fall and scuff a knee or strafe a hand. If either of my best friends, Jimmy Strawberry or Ray Hurley, saw me, they would call out, “Are you okay?” I just waved, got up and skated on, my legs pumping faster, gliding from slab to slab. I became a runaway freight train, sailing over cracks, the wind blowing in my ears until the anger inside me spilled out and I shouted: “Why can’t my family pay more attention to me?”
We lived on Brighton Road in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a quiet, shady street of single-family homes with spacious front and back yards, well manicured by hired yardmen. I knew one of them by name—Mr. Kovaleski, the old gardener who came each week to the Powells’ property, two doors away from our house, to cut the grass, trim the hedges, and tend the big garden out back. He was a fixture on Brighton, part of the scenery.
In time, I took a serious interest in our yard. I cut the grass and enjoyed digging out dandelions and other weeds in our lawn. My father even called me his “yardman” and raised my allowance. One day, I was cutting through backyards along the fence line on the way to Jimmy’s house, when I came across Mr. Kovaleski at work in the Powells’ garden. I hid behind a bushy thicket and watched as Mr. Kovaleski, puffing on his pipe, his arms and upper body twisting rhythmically, swung a long-handled scythe in graceful arcs across a large mound of tall weeds. I stood there, entranced by the swish of the scythe cutting through the weeds, the slow, soft way they lay down in neat piles. He paused and took what looked like a small flat stone and began to sharpen the blade. Then I moved on to Jimmy’s. I don’t think he saw me.
Not long after that, I overheard one of the older boys on Brighton refer to Mr. Kovaleski as a “dumb Polack,” because his English was so poor. I felt pained by this slur and told the boy it was a cruel thing to say. I didn’t realize it then, but I admired Mr. Kovaleski. Although he was skilled in a way I had not yet become, we both were yardmen.
One morning at the beginning of the summer of 1946, I woke up feeling confused. When I recalled for my mother the weird conversations I had had with strangers in the night, she promptly took my temperature. It registered a hundred-and-four. Within minutes she telephoned the family doctor, then, surprisingly, canceled her plans for the day—an appointment with the hairdresser and a luncheon with friends—so she could stay home with me.
The doctor ordered x-rays and that afternoon a medical crew came to our house and set up a tripod and camera in my bedroom, and took pictures of my chest. Polio was the big scare then. Air-conditioned movie houses were suspect vectors for spreading the dreaded disease. A girl in my second-grade class had to wear a brace to support her withered leg, and because I had been to a Saturday matinee at the Colony Theater the week before to see a Hopalong Cassidy film with Jimmy and Ray, my mother feared the worst: Was Billy to be reduced to wearing a shoe lift the rest of his life?
“Billy doesn’t have polio, Mrs. Hengst,” the doctor told her the next day as they stood at my bedside. “He has viral pneumonia. This strain of pneumonia can cause a heart murmur. I want him in bed for thirty days. No strenuous activities for a while after that.”
I was stunned. I had been looking forward to day camp. Now those plans had to be canceled. I wasn’t looking forward to spending a month in bed because I was afraid the only people I would see or talk to each day would be my family. As well, I wouldn’t be cutting our grass for a while or digging up weeds.
As it turned out, my sentence to bed rest wasn’t so bad. I felt like royalty. My meals were brought to me on a tray by Maddy. My mother poked her head in the door every morning, although as soon as it was clear that I was out of the woods, she resumed her busy schedule of committee meetings and luncheons. My father looked in on me before going to his law office and again at the end of the day. Within a week of my confinement, Barbie confided, “We miss you, Billy. It’s not the same without you at the dinner table. I think they’re worried about you. Dad’s been pretty quiet.”
I was surprised they missed me, but I didn’t miss those meals. I’d found better things to do while in bed, such as listening to radio shows like The Breakfast Club and Arthur Godfrey in the morning, and soap operas like Our Gal Sunday and Portia Faces Life in the afternoon. I also kept up with the Cleveland Indians’ baseball games and looked forward to the night games, my bedroom dark except for the glow from the radio tubes. The coverage of the out-of-town games was especially suspenseful as I lay in bed in the darkness and listened to the sound of a Teletype machine clicking in the background. Then came a long pause and dead silence. Eventually, a live announcer came on the air to report the outcome for each batter. The suspense waiting for the announcer’s voice was equal to the suspense of The Shadow radio show. I usually fell asleep before the game was over. One of my parents must have come in during the night because when I woke up the following morning, the radio was always turned off.
Soon I created my own imaginary team and called it “Wooster,” after the small city in Ohio. I entered it in the American League and filled the roster with make-believe names, Wizzenberry for Strawberry, Harley for Hurley, and famous people’s names, like Larry Truthman for Harry Truman. Some names just flew out of my head, like Sam Shazaam. I kept records of batting averages and my team’s place in the standings, making sure Wooster remained in the pennant race with the Yankees, Red Sox and Indians. I wrote everything down on one of my father’s yellow pads of legal-sized paper. He even set up the family Underwood typewriter on a card table by my bed and taught me how to hunt and peck.
Sometimes Jimmy and Ray stopped by to bring me the latest neighborhood gossip, standing below my second-floor window and calling up to me. They even brought me comic books, Archie, Batman, Little Orphan Annie. Gene Autry was my favorite. But their visits ended in July when the Strawberry and Hurley families went off to Canada on summer vacations. Without those visits, it seemed as if time had stopped, with the outside world going on without me.
Often though, I just lay in bed and stared out the window, hoping to catch glimpse of Mr. Kovaleski through the canopy of leafy tree branches. But only once did I see him cutting the grass in the Powells’ front yard. Maddy told me he lived in the Polish part of Cleveland near the steel mills, and was a “widower.” I had to ask my parents what the word meant. They said it referred to a man whose wife had died. The only things I knew about his life were what Maddy told me.
By the end of July, the doctor pronounced me fit to leave my bed, free to move about inside the house and outside in the yard as long as I stayed close to home for a few more weeks.
At first, I lay low in our sylvan backyard, sitting under the big elm tree, my back pressed against the soft gray bark and read a comic book, a stick of Blackjack dissolving in my mouth. At breakfast one morning, my father said a big storm was coming. As I sat under the elm, the clouds began to build and thunder rolled like heavy furniture in the sky. The wind picked up. I could feel it along my spine. A robin bobbed for worms. I scooped up a handful of seed wings that had fallen to the ground. More helicoptered down with the wind. I wondered if it might become one of those isolated tornadoes I’d heard about but never seen. I saw myself lifted up and carried to some far place away from my family.
I soon began to advance the fortunes of my Wooster team by playing “one-a-cat” in the backyard; I had played the game before on the vacant lot on our street with the boys in the neighborhood, but now I had to do everything myself. Baseball in one hand, my thirty-four-ounce, Ted Williams’ Louisville Slugger in the other, with each swing of the bat I sprayed balls to every corner of the yard, then ran to retrieve them, all the while imagining I was running the bases. Past the delphinium and phlox was a single, beyond the hollyhocks a double. The rose bed was a sure out. Every shrub, every flowerbed had a designation. Center field loomed far off in a wasteland of junipers, where the ball usually got lost for an inside-the-park home run. Another homer if I whacked the ball over the privet hedge. Sometimes I struck out just to keep the score down. It all depended on what the game called for.
By mid-August I was allowed to venture further. One hot afternoon I put on my skates and took to the sidewalk, hoping to find Jimmy or Ray home. The older boys were at overnight camps. Even Barbie was gone, off at a four-week camp. I had the street all to myself.
I skated by the Powells’ house. Mr. Kovaleski’s black Ford coupe was parked at the curb. I expected to see him at work, but he was lying on his back on the front lawn under the small Japanese maple tree, clutching the bottom branch with one hand. His other hand was outstretched, holding a milk bottle half filled with water. He was wearing his bib overalls. I figured he was tired from the heat and just resting.
I skated on down to the Hurleys at the other end of Brighton and glided up their driveway. They were the first family on Brighton to blacktop their driveway. I loved how easy the smooth surface felt on my skate wheels. Our driveway was still gravel with ruts. There was no sign of Ray or his family. Their lawn in back was overgrown and apples had fallen off the old apple tree. I could smell them rotting in the grass. I coasted around the turn-around part of the driveway and headed back to our house.
Mr. Kovaleski was still lying on his back when I reached the Powells’ house. He no longer was holding on to the tree.
“Hello, are you okay?” I called.
There was no response. I called again. He just lay there, one hand on his chest and the other outstretched on the lawn, the bottle now on its side, the water gone.
Something seemed wrong. I took off my skates and walked closer. His face was flushed and sweaty. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. The sleeves of his denim shirt were rolled up to his elbows, the shirt wet under the arms. I was afraid to call again for fear he wouldn’t wake up, or if he did I wouldn’t know what to do. I felt helpless and scared. I thought he was dead. I’d never seen a dead person before.
I ran to the Powells’ front door and rang the bell. “Your gardener’s lying on the ground. He isn’t moving,” I told Mrs. Powell when she answered.
She looked past me. “Oh my God! Mr. Kovaleski. Is he breathing?”
I felt ashamed I didn’t know.
Mrs. Powell rushed past me. She knelt beside him and put her hand on his chest. “He is breathing, but very slowly. We better get an ambulance. Would you stay here with him while I call for one?”
I felt I had something important to do while I stood watch. A fly landed on his forehead. I hoped it would wake him up, and he would open his eyes, but he didn’t move. Mrs. Powell returned and announced the ambulance would be along shortly. Her voice was reassuring, her take-charge attitude too. She told me it was all right if I wanted to go home. I gathered up my skates and took one last look. He still hadn’t moved. I didn’t want to leave him. I wanted to stay until the ambulance came, but Mrs. Powell said I should go. He’d be safe with her.
That evening at dinner, my mother said, “Mrs. Powell called. She said their gardener died on the way to the hospital. She said to thank you for finding him.”
“What happened, son?” my father asked.
I described how I had found him and thought he was just resting. I said I felt bad because I’d left him lying there and skated down to Ray’s. I was sure if I had stopped, I might have saved him.
“There probably wasn’t much you could have done, dear,” my mother said.
When addressing me, she routinely called me “dear.” But that evening I really heard the affection in her voice. I realized she cared for me and understood what I had been through that afternoon.
“He was pretty old,” she continued, “and his heart just stopped. You did your best.”
I still wasn’t sure I had.
The following morning I walked over to the Powells’ house. The old Ford was still parked at the curb. The driver’s side window was rolled down. I climbed up on the running board and looked in. The front seat had a hole in the upholstery. The stuffing was sticking out. An old sweater, silver thermos, a wood-handled trowel and a few other hand tools were on the passenger side. Still curious, I opened the door and climbed in behind the steering wheel. I pressed my nose in the sweater. The smell of tobacco and sweat gave me a funny feeling, as if I had crossed a line. A faded black-and-white snapshot of a woman was pasted on the dashboard. I wondered if she had been Mr. Kovaleski’s wife. I wanted to know more, so I opened the glove compartment, but only found a tin of pipe tobacco and some road maps. Seeing the photograph and a tobacco tin made me feel sad. Soon I left the car. Within days it was gone.
Barbie returned from camp a few days later. She was definitely nicer to me. Eventually, my friends came back from their camps and vacations, and soon it was Labor Day and school began.
I wish I could say that I continued to play backyard baseball, to finish my Wooster story. It seems like a good way to honor the summer and the memory of Mr. Kovaleski. I imagine slamming baseballs every which way, running the bases over the brown carpet of fallen leaves, fast as Mercury, Wooster tying the Yankees for first place in the league. In the playoff game, at the bottom of the ninth, Sam Shazaam leads off with a double. Then the Polish slugger Kovaleski is up. Kovaleski hits a home run to clinch the pennant. When he crosses home plate, the Wooster players lift him on to their shoulders for everyone to see and celebrate.
Wooster goes on to crush the Cardinals in the World Series. The next day I hold a ticker-tape parade in the backyard.