The Art of Folding Wax Paper – a novel by David Castlewitz
By David Castlewitz copyright 2022
Mickey Arden wondered how many men Uncle Tony had killed. Watching him labor over an old radio at the back of the store, Mickey struggled to imagine this slow moving man as a fleet-footed soldier. Once, when Mom was in a really good mood, she’d shown him family pictures taken during and after the war. There was even one of her in her WAC uniform. She was thin then, but her hair was wavy like now and her eyes, even in the old photograph, were dark and penetrating, adorned with thick eyebrows and long lashes.
There was also a picture of Uncle Bob who died at Anzio. Like Mickey, he had a narrow face, a dark complexion, and close-set eyes. Mickey wondered if Uncle Bob’s hair was thick and curly like his own or if he had Mom’s thin soft locks.
There were a few snapshots of a gaunt Uncle Tony in his army uniform. He looked startled, like a surprised animal.
“Any of my Dad?” Mickey had asked. The question brought a sigh from mom and tears to her small brown eyes. She shook her head and closed the picture album and put it back on a high shelf in the living room.
Now, looking at Uncle Tony, Mickey began to wonder what other picture albums were hidden in the rooms where they lived above the store. Mom didn’t like it when he rooted through the cardboard boxes in her bedroom closet or the crumbling papers in those wooden crates stored in the basement. Rooting was a forbidden pastime, but one that ten-year-old Mickey enjoyed because dusty old things spoke to him of their history and unrolled in his imagination like a movie. He felt like a pirate searching for buried treasure whenever he had a chance to dig through Mom’s or Uncle Tony’s secret things.
He looked across the length of the store, past the bins of iron pipe, coils of wire and rusted hand tools. Electric fans and lamps and toasters that Uncle Tony had salvaged and repaired and offered for sale, lay scattered along both sides of the room. There were bikes and ice-skates, aquarium tanks and electric water pumps, fishing rods, golf clubs, and tennis rackets.
“Sweep the floor, Mickey,” Uncle Tony said, looking up for a moment. Mickey got the broom and carefully swept the dust to a spot near the front door, where it could easily be whisked out onto Front Street. Finished, he marched to the back of the store, put the broom on its hook by the door to the shed and held out his hand for his nickel.
Uncle Tony gave him a dime and said, “The price of everything’s going up.” A smile appeared on his small, dark face. “How was school today?”
“I’m in the play,” Mickey said. “I’m a narrator.” His tone was matter-of-fact. He didn’t want to sound too happy. Mom told him, you get too happy about anything and someone will take it away.
“Better get upstairs and do your homework,” Uncle Tony said, pointing at the staircase behind an open door. Mickey took the steps two at a time. If he had all his homework done before Mom got home he could watch TV after supper.
Seated at the kitchen table, he emptied his book bag onto the floor, grabbed his geography text and worked through the ten questions prescribed for the night. History homework was next. That was his favorite subject. He easily memorized dates and events and famous people. They were studying the American Revolution right now and there were plans for a class trip to downtown Philadelphia where some of the events he read about had actually taken place.
Math, his least favorite subject, came last. This night’s problems were hard to understand. Long division confused him, especially since he wasn’t suppose to use his fingers. Mrs. Gills would apply her ruler to your knuckles if she caught you counting with your hands. Even if you put your hands under the desk, she’d catch you.
He was only on problem four – six more to go – when Mom came home. He heard her heavy footsteps on the stairs. Then he saw her. She stopped in the doorway at the top of the steps and looked into the front room, then at Mickey in the kitchen. “You finish your homework?” she asked. Her voice was hoarse. She spent her work day talking to retired military officers on the telephone, logging anywhere between 25 to 100 calls per day. Everyone she talked to had a complaint. Handling complaints, she often said, was why she had gray hair at 35. Mickey wondered if it was also why she was always angry, her forehead always furrowed and her cheeks were puffy, her lips chapped in the winter, fleshy in the summer.
“I asked you,” she said in her hoarse whisper, “did you finish your homework?” She shrugged off her cloth jacket and put her heavy pocketbook on the end table by the telephone on the wall.
“I got a part in the play.” Mickey smiled, hoping she’d be happy for him. He thought he saw her dark eyes sparkle for a moment.
“Get good grades, Mickey. That’s more important.” She threw open the cupboard above the sink and pulled down a small can of tomato sauce and a can of string beans. She got a pot for the spaghetti from under the sink and banged it on the drain board. “Finish your homework in your room. I gotta make supper.”
Mickey scooped up his three-ring binder, text books, book bag, and pencil case, and carried everything to the room he shared with Uncle Tony. Mickey had the cot in the corner, next to the door. Uncle Tony’s bed was larger, but not by much, and was set against the wall with the window. Mickey’s corner of the room had a small table that he used as a desk, a stool to sit on, and a crate for his comic books. Uncle Tony’s side was bare except for a nightstand. A chest-of-drawers that they shared took up a large portion of the tiny room.
Shutting the door, Mickey muffled the sounds coming from the kitchen and got back to work. Finished with his math, his homework papers labeled with his name and safe in his binder so he could hand them in when told, Mickey waited to be called back into the kitchen. Sometimes, Uncle Tony and Mom had “adult talk” to conduct – money issues, usually – and he wasn’t allowed to overhear any of it. The best way to avoid interrupting and getting into trouble was to wait for someone to say, “Mickey! Supper’s ready.”
Uncle Tony and Mom were already seated at their regular places, each at one end of the small metal table. Mickey had the chair by the wall. He didn’t need much space. Mom put a plate of spaghetti in front of him. There were still some string beans left in the bowl, so he scooped them onto his plate.
“Mom’s going away for a few days,” Uncle Tony said. “It’ll just be you and me. How’s that sound to you?”
“What about my play?” Mickey asked. “It’s next week. The Autumn Play. The open house?”
“I got vacation time I have to use,” she said. She pushed her plate aside. There was still a pile of spaghetti soaking in tomato sauce. She got her cigarettes from her pocketbook.
“It’s next Thursday,” Mickey said. “Are you going this weekend?”
“Next,” Mom said. “I’m leaving Thursday. After work.”
“You’ll miss the play,” Mickey said in a whisper.
“I can’t change my plans now. Earl’s already rented a house for us in Ocean City. You want to get Earl mad?” She lit her cigarette and blew smoke at the ceiling.
“Will you come?” Mickey asked Uncle Tony.
“I don’t know,” Uncle Tony mumbled, and put his face close to his plate as he returned to his supper. Mickey sighed. Uncle Tony liked to go to the corner bar and sometimes to a movie and sometimes to the store, but he rarely went anywhere else.
“Don’t sigh like that,” Mom chided. “You’re not an old man.”
“We do the play for the whole school during assembly,” Mickey ventured, looking from Mom to Uncle Tony. “In the morning,” he added. Mom puffed hard on her cigarette and stubbed it out in her dish.
“Maybe I can go at night,” Uncle Tony said. “Don’t keep asking me about it.” He finished eating and pushed himself away from the table. He looked down at his sister and said, “You should go, Joanne.”
“I go to all his damn things at school.” She glared at Mickey. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me before I made plans?”
“You never think. You know that? You never think ahead.” Her chair scraped the linoleum as she pushed it backwards and rose to her feet. “Clean the kitchen, then go to bed.”
“The witch’s brew smelled terribly bad,” Mickey said, trying to follow Mr. Holbert’s instructions and pronounce each word distinctly. Jane Krubbs, his fellow narrator, chimed in with, “So Little Greta knew they were in trouble.”
In pantomime, two other fifth-graders trekked through the forest, came upon the house, and confronted the tall, gawky girl who played the witch. A frown came to Mr. Holbert’s wide face. Author of this year’s script, and principle of Hammer Elementary, Holbert attended nearly every rehearsal. Tomorrow morning they’d perform for the school assembly. Tomorrow night was the annual Hammer Elementary School Parents-Teachers Open House. Traditionally, the fifth grade class provided the entertainment.
Holbert limped from one side of the room to another. He avoided the paper scenery made by the fifth-graders who didn’t have parts in the play. Mrs. Gills trailed after him when he went into the hallway. Mickey overheard her say, “I don’t know what to do,” in that squeaky voice she used when she was angry.
Mickey and Jane sat on their benches. Another girl, Rita Kolowski, stood nearby. She was in the sixth grade and she had helped Jane and Mickey learn their parts, and demonstrated to the others how to mime their actions in tune to the narration. She’d even pitched in to build the scenery. Mickey knew she wasn’t very popular with her classmates, but the teachers loved her.
“It’ll be all right,” Rita said. “Everyone’ll be so proud.”
Mickey cocked his head at her. “Was something wrong?”
Jane threw down her bound copy of the narration. Her red hair and stark white face made her look fierce. “Yes, something’s wrong! This microphone keeps squealing.”
Mickey shrugged. “I didn’t make it squeal.”
“Yes, you did,” Jane said. “It’s your fault. That’s why Mr. Holbert’s mad at us.”
“It’ll be okay,” Rita said in her gentle voice. Mickey noticed that she seemed to be looking past them. He saw her nod. She left them for a moment and stepped into the hall. He looked back over his shoulder. Rita and Mr. Holbert and Mrs. Gills were engaged in urgent whispers.
“We just need to practice,” Mickey said to Jane. She sat with her chin against her chest, her arms crossed, her lips set in a pout. Rita returned and guided them out of the room and over to the stairwell. There was only Mrs. Gills there now. Rita stood off to one side, as though she wasn’t part of the meeting. Jane and Mickey sat side-by-side on a step.
“This isn’t working out,” Mrs. Gills said. “Your voices are too young. You make the microphone squeak.”
“Then how do we talk so it doesn’t squeak?” Mickey asked.
“Rita will do your parts,” Mrs. Gills said. “She’s a little older. She’s much better at speaking into a microphone.”
Mickey swallowed. “I don’t need a microphone,” he offered. “I’ve got a loud voice.” He didn’t like Mrs. Gills smile. There was no warmth in her face. She was like a bird of prey and she had him in her talons. She shook her head several times. Jane began to cry and Mrs. Gills took her into her arms and patted her back. Mickey stepped away from the stairs and glanced at Rita, who smiled warmly at him.
“Does this mean we don’t get to do our parts?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“Of course, you dumb-dumb,” Jane snapped at him. “They’re giving it all to Rita.” She buried her head in Mrs. Gills body and her thin shoulders shuddered as she sobbed. The school nurse soon came, evidently summoned by Rita, and Jane was led away. After a while, Mickey noticed that he was alone in the stairwell, and the sound of Rita at the microphone as she rehearsed the play drifted back at him. Every once in a while, the microphone squeaked and Mr. Holbert said, “That’s okay. Step back a little.”
Mickey carefully clipped his bow tie to his white shirt. His hands shook a little and his dark, round face was set in a grim pose. He felt the tears damming behind his eyes, but he swallowed the urge to cry. He didn’t want to admit that he had lost his part in the play and didn’t expect he’d have to tell mom anything because she was leaving directly from her office at the Veteran’s Administration building in downtown Philadelphia for Earl’s South Eighth Street shoe store. From there, they were driving across the Delaware River to New Jersey and a seaside weekend in Ocean City.
Seeing her come home as usual on the Front Street trolley, Mickey was afraid she’d had another fight with Earl. But Earl arrived in his car a half-hour later.
“I thought you were going to Ocean City,” Mickey had said to his mother.
“We’re leaving after the play,” she explained.
Dressed now in his good charcoal gray pants and white shirt and dark sports coat, Mickey stood outside his room and stared into the kitchen. Earl sat at the table, leaning back in his chair so that it balanced on the back two legs. He drank from a quart-sized bottle of Schmidt’s Beer. A robust man with a ruddy complexion and thin blonde hair, he looked like he was always about to laugh or sing. But, Mickey had learned, it was only a look. He seethed inside and he reminded Mickey of the bullies he encountered in his North Philadelphia neighborhood.
Uncle Tony had shaved. His hands were not as grease-stained as usual, though there was residual grime under his fingernails. He had brushed his leather shoes and had put on his dark pants.
“I didn’t think anyone wanted to go,” Mickey said when he walked into the kitchen. “Hi, Earl.”
Earl nodded. His light gray eyes danced, leaping from one thing to another. He never seemed to look straight at anything. He put down his bottle of beer. “I told your mom, what’s the difference, we get there tonight for supper or tonight just to go to bed. We get there. The important thing is, your mom gets to see you in your play.”
“You coming, too, Uncle Tony?” Mickey asked, re-assessing how bad this was going to be.
“I’ll sit in the back. If I gotta get up and go, I will. Your mom can walk you home.”
“I can walk myself,” Mickey said. “Nobody has to come with me.”
“After I made Earl change our plans?” Mom stood in her bedroom doorway, dressed only in her slip. Her hair was plastered about her head. It was a darker shade of brown than usual. She had colored it to hide the gray. “We’re all coming, so you don’t have to tell me how we never do anything for you.”
“I never say that.”
“You say it plenty,” Mom said.
“Get dressed,” Earl told her.
Mickey got a drink of water at the kitchen sink. He didn’t like the taste. His stomach grumbled at him. Soon, his mom emerged from the bedroom with her hair combed, her body perfumed and powdered, her naturally dark eyes highlighted by mascara. She wore one of the dresses she normally reserved for dining out with Earl. She looked thinner than usual, cinched in by a girdle, Mickey assumed. Earl smiled at her and they walked down the stairs in single file and through the dark hallway to the side door, the one they used when the store was closed.
“I can drive us,” Earl offered.
“I like walking,” Uncle Tony said.
Mickey thought of a way out. Maybe this was it. “Why don’t you two drive and me and Uncle Tony can walk.” If he got his uncle alone he’d explain the situation and his uncle would understand, might even laugh, and help him get out of trouble. Because this was going to be trouble, he thought. Not only had he made his mother change her plans, but he had forced Earl to come along. Neither of them would be happy when they discovered he was no longer in the play.
“We can all walk,” Mom said. She strolled along with Earl on her left, on the curbside of the pavement. Mickey walked a little ahead of his uncle, who followed with a wary look left and right, his hands in his pockets.
Hammer Elementary wasn’t far from home. It lay on the other side of Kensington Avenue where the elevated train ran, just beyond the trolley barn where the Philadelphia Transit Corporation maintained its ageing vehicles. The school was three stories high, made of brick and stone, with a black iron fence surrounding a paved schoolyard. Near the front door were the painted lines where the different grades lined up in the morning so they could be called in one at a time.
Rita Kolowski and her mother and father appeared up ahead. She wore a flowing dress and sported a large corsage on her shoulder. Her father had on a suit. Her mother was dressed in a shiny, velvet gown, and carried a small fur wrap. Mickey noticed his mother bend her head towards Earl. A few words rolled back towards him. “Show offs. Where they think they’re going?”
If he waited until they got inside, even his mother wouldn’t make a scene. She might seethe, but she wouldn’t scream at him inside the school building. By the time the play ended, the worst of her anger would be spent and going home wouldn’t be so bad. Mickey was sure of it. Uncle Tony might not talk to him for a few days, but Uncle Tony sometimes went days without speaking to anyone if he didn’t have customers come to the store. Earl would curse him and get into a shouting match with Mom, but that was something he could handle.
Slowly, Mickey advanced towards the school. He watched Rita ascend the stone steps to the front doors, which were propped open. Suddenly, the girl slipped. She fell. She let loose a wounded sounding, “Oh!”
Her mother and father knelt down beside her. Mickey stopped and stared. If Rita was hurt, they might take her to the hospital. If she went to the hospital, Mr. Holbert and Mrs. Gills wouldn’t have any choice but to turn to him. Where was Jane? If she didn’t come tonight, it would all fall on him and he’d be the hero. He’d save the school play.
He ran to Rita. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“She’s fine,” Mr. Kolowski said, the pungent aroma of witch hazel oozing from his long face. Rita stood. Her stocking was torn and her knee was bruised, but there was only a little blood and Mrs. Kolowski wiped it up with a handkerchief.
Mickey went inside. Not having an auditorium, the assembly space was made by opening the divider between two rooms. The children sat at the desks and on the floor. Parents were given folding chairs alongside the walls. The windows were open to let in a breeze because it was another one of those warm autumn nights.
The walls were decorated with cats and witches and other symbols of Halloween. Pumpkins adorned the windowsills. Orange and black crepe paper streamed across the ceiling. The decorations had been put up by the sixth grade; it was their traditional contribution to Open House Night.
“Where’s Uncle Tony?” Mickey asked.
“He went to the bathroom,” Mom said. “We’ll get seats. You go do what you’re supposed to.”
Earl looked at his watch. “We need to leave by eight,” he said. “Or we might not as well even go.”
“These things never last long,” Mom said. “You think these kids can sit still longer than an hour?” She laughed.
“I’m not in the play anymore,” Mickey said before Mom and Earl walked away. “They took the part away from me.”
“What did you do?” Mom asked. She stood over Mickey and he averted his eyes from hers.
Mr. Holbert intruded. “Mr. and Mrs. Arden? Hello. I’m Mr. Holbert, the school –“
“We met,” Mom scoffed. “I’ve been coming here for five years. Don’t you think we met by now?”
“We’re very sorry about Mickey and Jane having to –“
“And he ain’t Mr. Arden,” Mom added, her face red. “I’m Miss Arden. Okay?”
“Sorry,” Mr. Holbert said. “But we’re all very proud of Mickey, the way he stepped down from his part in the play. For the good of the school and all.”
Mom shrugged. “Come on, Earl. We’ll sit near the back.” She turned to Mickey. “If we hafta leave, you just go home with Uncle Tony. Earl and me ain’t stayin’ too long.”
“Okay,” Mickey said.
“Mr. and Mrs.” Mom seethed as she repeated the phrase. “I love telling them it’s Miss. I love seeing the shock on their faces. Don’t know what to make of it when you throw it back at them, do they? Call me a whore and call him a bastard behind our backs, but when you throw it back at them it sticks and stinks like shit and they don’t like it.”
Mickey cringed. Everyone could hear her and dozens of eyes watched his mom and Earl slip to the back of the room. Before any eyes could find him, Mickey faded into the dark and took a seat on the floor, his back to the wall. Thank you, Mr. Holbert, Mickey thought. Mom would be so mad at him she’d forget she’d come to the play for no reason. Mickey smiled, glad that he wasn’t in trouble anymore.