The sun was just coming up. Another day. There would be The Man with Pipe here soon enough. Small fellow, no more than five feet tall. Only Art — Alleyway — ever saw him. No less real for it. The Old Man with the Pipe would be here sure as satan. Alleyway got out of bed. Opened the drapes to his window. Standing there in his pjs visible to the world. He didn’t care. Proud of his blue pjs with the rocket ships on them. Noticed frost on the ground, it'd been a cold night and snow would be coming soon, sure as satan.
Alleyway shuffled over to the kitchen and poured himself a bowl of Kellog's Corn Flakes. Big bowl, lots of milk. Alleyway hated the feel of dry flakes more than he did the feel of the soggy ones. Had to pour plenty of milk and wolf it down fast. Hungry hungry hippo. He looked at the stupid box. He always looked at the box while he ate. Maybe pasting a comic book on the box would make it more interesting. Alleyway wished there were a comic with that rabbit he saw in the cartoon at the movies last week. Name was buggy or bugs or somethin'.
It was easy to imagine talking to someone like that rabbit. Alleyway liked the idea of talking to cartoon characters. He liked a lot of ideas that he knew were out there, kind of crazy. But he knew the difference between real and imaginary. But The Man with the Pipe was real so far as Alleyway Nelson was concerned. Sure as satan.
The cereal finished, Alleyway put the bowl in the sink. He knew not to leave a mess. Even poured the extra milk — and there was always plenty — down the drain. Time now to get dressed. First off, clean underwear. That was a must for Alleyway. The very idea of dirty underwear grossed him out. Always only clean for him. Clean socks were preferable but not a must and as for the rest of his attire, what he wore yesterday was just fine. It was all topped off, literally and figuratively with his cap. It was his Minneapolis Millers baseball cap. Alleyway wouldn’t trade it for anything. He’d been to a Millers game once and saw them win 7-0 and it was just about the greatest day of his life. His Pop bought him the cap just before the game started and he’d worn it as often as possible ever since. Never would forget that day. It was a perfect Summer day in mid June, just after school had let out. The sun was shiny but not too hot and there was a gentle breeze. Pop had got 'em seats close enough to the field that he could smell the grass and it was the greatest smell in the whole wide world. He had the biggest and best hot dog ever with plenty of mustard on it and a tall icy orange soda and later a chocolate malt. The Millers hit three homers and the center fielder made the greatest catch he’d ever seen and there was an incredible double play and the Millers pitcher struck out 11 guys. Alleyway knew for sure 'cause his pop had kept score. So the cap reminded him of every second of that day and how much he loved baseball and the Millers and of course Pop. Boy did he miss Pop. Alleyway thought about Pop for a few seconds as he looked out the window, but he didn't cry. Nope never did. No sir, crying was for babies. When he felt really low Alleyway would talk to The Man with the Pipe who would nod his head and say reassuring things although Alleyway couldn’t never make out the exact words. But…say there he was now. Standing in front of him as plain as day puffin’ on his pipe. He had a fluffy beard that was white as snow and wore a kinna funny red hat and suspenders and big black boots and by golly it sure made Alleyway Nelson feel real good all over to see him.
“I knew you’d come, sure as satan,” Alleyway said.
The old fella just kind of nodded like usual and then started talking in his real slow voice that Alleyway could never make out. Maybe the man had an accent. Alleyway wasn’t sure. He supposed that everybody had an accent whether they were from another country or just another part of the USA or even if they lived right here in Grand Forks, Minnesota. Alleyway knew that some of his relatives from Finland had accents and so did a lot of the people in town who were from Sweden or other such places but he could understand everyone just fine. It was only The Man with the Pipe who he couldn’t make it out. But it was that very same pipe toting fella that was his greatest comfort in life. And he had been ever since Pop….But that was NOT what he was going to think about now. Nope. No sirree he was just going to focus on talking to The Man with the Pipe.
They chatted for the longest time until Alleyway's mom got out of bed and was suddenly standing there in her night gown staring at her only child.
“Arturi! Who you talkin’ to? Vhy alla time you talk to nobody?” Mom seemed both a little angry and a lot frustrated.
“Aww Mom, I was just talking to a friend of mine. You know the — “
“Lopeta jo!” Mom said, which was Finnish for “stop already.” Mom would do that, switch from English to Finnish and back, even in the middle of a long conversation she’d just go back and forth. Mom was from Finland, born and raised in a town called Kemi. She’d come out to the States when she was just 20 and had met and fell in love with Pop who she married just a year later. Pop wasn’t from Finland but his folks were so they were able to speak the language together. Pop had been born right here in Grand Forks. Mom finally stopped giving the evil eye and went to the bathroom. It kind of bothered Alleyway that his mother would sometimes go pee and leave the door open, especially since she did it once when he had his friend Karl over. Karl didn’t see nothin’ but he could of, which was the point. Mom had been sloppy in certain ways like that ever since Pop….
Alleyway was thinking of going over to Karl’s house to play. It was Saturday so Karl would likely be at home watching his dad and big brother do something like fixing up a truck or cutting wood or some other kind of chore that grown ups were forever doing. Sure as satan. Alleyway could not figure out how Karl could get any pleasure out of watching adults doing boring stuff. But Karl was small for his age and not too strong and not even all that bright so that might have had something to do with it. Alleyway was Karl's only friend.
"Mom, I'm going to Karl's house to play!" Alleyway suddenly announced with a shout.
"Yust a minute, Arturi," his mom said emerging from the bathroom. She always called him by the Finnish version of Art. Pop used to tell him that they'd purposefully given him a name that had a direction counterpart in English and Finnish. Alleyway's father had always told him stuff like that and about his own childhood and his parents' stories about coming over from Finland. Mom didn't nearly talk so much about her own life. She was nice enough all right and he guessed she was a good mother but she'd always been kind of quiet, even when Pop was still around. Pop would tease Alleyway and tell him jokes but Mom was pretty serious and would fuss over him all the time but was pretty quiet about herself and her family back home.
"You want some eks?" There were a lot of English words like "eggs" that Toini Olvinen (nee Siipola) had particular trouble pronouncing. "I make some bacon vit it."
"No thanks, Mom, I wanna go." And with that Alleyway headed for the door.
"You take a yacket, it's getting colder now." Alleyway dutifully pulled his jacket off the peg by the door and bounced down the stairs.
It was a ten minute walk to Karl's who lived at the edge of town by the creek. From Karl's house it was no time at all to go into the woods where it was fun to play imaginary games. Sometimes Alleyway would walk purposefully to Karl's but other times, like today he would take a longer more meandering route and let his mind wander. He reflected some more about the trip to the baseball game with his father. He remembered the long drive with Pop telling him stories and explaining the finer points of baseball. He also recounted the time he saw the great Babe Ruth play in an exhibition game a year before Art was born. "He hit the longest home run any of us had ever seen." Alleyway's dad had said for the umpteenth time. Alleyway remembered how grand it felt to sit there in the ballpark watching the Millers play with his Pop right beside him. It might have been the most excited and most comfortable he'd ever felt and it was at the same time!
Alleyway also decided that he'd propose a nickname to Karl. He'd thought one up: Jalopy Joe. That way they'd be Alleyway Nelson and Jalopy Joe. He was positive Karl would go for it. Sure as satan. Karl was usually amiable to anything suggested to him, especially by his one and only friend.
Sure enough when he got there Karl was watching his father and big brother working away. Looked like they were doing some repairs on their toolshed.
"Hey ya, Karl!" Alleyway shouted with a wave. Karl was sitting on his knees in the dirt, as usual.
Karl turned his attention away from the hammering his dad and big brother were doing and broke into a big smile. "Hiya Art!" Then he sprang up and ran to his friend. Alleyway would have to set Karl straight that he was no longer Art Olvinen and was instead Alleyway Nelson. He'd also have to propose that Karl stop being Karl Jorgenson and become Jalopy Joe. Maybe he'd want a last name to go with it. Alleyway immediately decided on Jalopy Joe Jones. Sure as satan.
As it turned out Karl was more than happy to take on a new moniker and the idea of being Jalopy Joe was swell with him. After all he greatly admired his big brother's car which everyone else referred to as "that beat up old jalopy." Karl wanted to have a jalopy one day himself.
So Jalopy Joe and Alleyway Nelson, complete with new names, headed for the woods to play some imaginary games. First they were pirates who were in the forest looking for a treasure some rival pirates had buried. Then they were soldiers from back in the old days looking for Indian warriors. Finally they were explorers discovering a new country for an imaginary kingdom that was an amalgamation of Finland and Sweden (the latter being the home of Jalopy Joe's ancestors).
After a few hours the boys were hungry and headed to Jalopy Joe's house to see if his mom could make them some sandwiches. Mrs. Jorgenson was a pretty soft touch for making lunch. It seemed she was always in the kitchen anyway, often with Jalopy Joe's big sister, Kate. They were always baking bread or making a pie or cookies or sweet rolls. Not to mention breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Mrs. Jorgenson was -- as usual -- happy to make sandwiches and included a bowl of soup in the meal. The boys hungrily ate and slurped everything in front of them and each downed two glasses of milk.
After lunch the boys stayed inside to play. Jalopy Joe's room was full of toys and books, so they were easily and happily occupied. Around 4:00 Alleyway got the feeling in his bones that it was time to go home. He knew his mother wasn't crazy about being home alone for too long and worried like crazy about him. This was especially true since....Also the days were getting shorter and colder, it was the first weekend of November and once the sun went down just wearing a jacket wouldn't keep out the cold.
Alleyway was sure to thank Mrs. Jorgenson again for lunch, he'd had good manners drilled into by his folks and The Man with the Pipe was forever reminding him too. The Man with the Pipe was really good with advice and reminders and suggestions, even if Alleyway couldn't understand what he was saying, he always got the gist of it. Sure as satan. So Alleyway headed home. He had that mixed feeling of happiness at it being Saturday night and sadness that it was almost Sunday which meant Sunday School and a boring late afternoon dinner at his grandparents' or aunt and uncle's house. And of course there was school the day after that. Alleyway really didn't mind school so much. After all he was a good student and had friends to play with, but he preferred his freedom. School meant limited choices with adults constantly telling you what to do and not to do. Never mind that they had your best interest at heart.
Unlike the walk to Jalopy Joe's house, the walk from would be straight forward, no meandering. Even though it was a half hour before sunset, Alleyway knew darkness was coming soon and dreaded the idea of being alone outside when the sun was down. For comfort he summoned The Man with the Pipe who naturally showed up on cue. They walked side by side chattering away although whatever The Man with the Pipe was saying was indecipherable to Alleyway, although he thought it had something to do with being a good citizen. He was just a couple of blocks from home when someone shouted: "Art! Hey Artie!" It was an older kid standing on the other side of the street with some other guys that Alleyway didn't know. He couldn't think of the older kid's name but nonetheless offered a tentative wave and, "hi."
"Who were you talking to, Art?" the older kid asked the question with a kind of mean sneer in his voice. The other guys with him, who were even older, like high school age maybe, grinned in what Alleyway also thought was a mean way.
Alleyway figured he'd been talking out loud to The Man with the Pipe which he knew he shouldn't do on account of being the only one who ever saw the little old fella. "No one. I was just trying to memorize some stuff for school." It was all he could think of at the spur of the moment, meanwhile he quickened his pace, determined to get away from this conversation and to his house.
One of the other older kids then said, "were you talking to your dead old man?" Alleyway felt like he'd been slapped in the face. He immediately wanted to cry but was determined not to. He hadn't cried once, not since...
"His old man is dead?" One of the older kids asked the one who'd made the rude comment. "Yeah he --"
"Shuddup! Shuddup! Shuddup!" Alleyway shouted at the top of his lungs and then he broke into a run, the fastest run of his life. He heard the bigger boys talking to each other but it grew fainter and none of them were saying anything to him. Alleyway might have been the fastest runner in school and he was proving it now. But just as he got within a few yards of his house, Art Olvinen, aka Alleyway Nelson, stopped dead in his tracks. In the approaching dusk looming over him he saw an image of his father, just as he had discovered him. Because it was Bert Olvinen's only child, his son Art, who had been the first to see him hanging there with a noose around his neck. A suicide that no one could ever have anticipated. No one, not a sole knew that Bert Olvinen suffered from horrible depression, not even his beautiful Finnish born wife, Toini. Certainly not their boy who was then only eight years old.
That Art found him was pure chance too. Anyone could have stumbled upon Bert Olvinen. He'd hung himself behind the town hardware store, from a pipe that connected to the grocery store. In an alleyway.
Little Art had just been in the grocery store buying a candy. His mother worked there as a checker. His dad was an accountant for the mill and his office was next to the grocery store. When Art saw his dad hanging there he began to scream and scream. But he didn't shed a tear. Not then, not at the funeral, not at all in the two years since.
But now he did. He saw his father hanging there in midair with the rope around his neck and he filled up the sky. Art sobbed and sobbed. He was still sobbing when his mother happened to see him and led him home.
After a long quiet bath, Art joined his mother for a delicious dinner that she had made. They ate in silence. After, when she served him pie with ice cream they began to talk. They talked about all sorts of topics and finally even talked about Bert, sharing memories of him. They hadn't talked about him since the suicide. It felt good. They both cried. They hugged. They even laughed. This was like no other night they'd spent together.
Toini tucked her son in that night and gave him a kiss on the forehead, which she hadn't done since he was three years old. Art didn't fall asleep immediately. Instead he thought about things. He thought that Alleyway Nelson was a stupid nick. He'd go instead with Dynamite Jim Douglas. Sure as satan. He also thought that it was time to stop talking to The Man with the Pipe. At least out loud. Dynamite was a pretty smart kid -- all his teachers had always said so -- and he knew that The Man with the Pipe was not going to be coming around for too much longer. But when he did Dynamite would just communicate in his head. That'd be just fine.
A lot would be just fine now. Sure as satan.
Dedicated to oldest daughter because I think she'd like this story.