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Surprise party.

He had an idea - a Christmas idea - which was crazy. But maybe that's why it worked.

You understand, this is my story I want to tell. Understand, please, that I'm talking about what happened to me in the weeks before December 18 when I was in the sixth grade at Linden School, Livingston Avenue and Delos Street, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Listen now. I was ten years old and we lived then on Clinton Avenue, which ran parallel to Livingston, two blocks east. There was Clinton, then Robert Street, the shopping block, then Livingston. From north to south there were Colorado, Delos, and Isabel streets. This was my world then, you understand: my house, the school, the playground across the street from the school, the grocer, the drugstore, the movies, all on Robert Street, and the fruit store owned by the Italian. This was my world, my orbit.

Not much of a world, was it? Just those few city blocks. My younger brother, whom I pulled around in a coaster wagon 20 years ago, could have flown over it in the war and erased it with one bomb. Not his bomb load, you understand, but just one bomb.

Still, I know of no ordained geographical limit for tragedy. Nor is there a chronological basis for grief. We can get it at any age, can we not?

I remember it as well now, in this winter decades later, as when it happened. I remember shining the Sam Browne belt each night, rubbing the badge with my ma's silver polish. I remember the discarded Al Smith buttons we wore; they were blue and white. I didn't remember the Italian's name, though. We always called him "the Italian," and when I began to think of telling the story, I called my ma in St. Paul and she remembered.

"Ma," I said, after the hellos and how-are-yous. "Ma, you remember when we lived on Clinton Avenue?"

"Yes, Joe. Of course."

"You remember the fruit store on Robert Street? An Italian ran it, and we called him |the Italian.'"

"Yes, Joe, yes. Why, Joe?"

"What was his name, ma? Do you remember his name?" I asked.

"His name? His name? Yes. His first name was George. George - George - George Paradino."

Paradino. Sure, the Italian. George Paradino. Sure.

"Joe? Joe, why?" she asked again.

"You remember the year I was a school cop and I had the second grade to take care of? You remember what happened, ma. Your remember."

"I'll never forget, son," she said.

"Well, I want to tell it. I want to write it now."

"Yes, Joe," and her voice was soft. "Yes, Joe," and her voice was gentle. "Yes, tell it, Joe."

You see, she was in on it with me too. Right from the start, although it was my idea. You see, now, at 30, I remember it all as though it were happening to me now, today.

Understand, at 30 I don't want to tell you about Santa Claus. Not about Santa Claus, nor about miracles, nor about angels, nor about - . Well, listen now.

The second-grade kids were my responsibility that term. I met them at Robert Street every morning, took them across with the metal sign we carried, and took them back at lunch. I crossed the street with them four times each day.

You see, I'd been made a school cop just before Thanksgiving, when Johnny Albertanti moved up on Hamline Avenue. His family moved and he changed school, so there was this extra belt and badge. I remember the day Miss Thompson, our principal, called me in, and she said, "Joe, would you like to be a school policeman?"

"I think so." Holy smokes! A cop! Holy kopoly, a cop!

"You think so?"

"I mean, I'd like to, I guess."

"You guess?"

"Well, cripes!"

"Cripes?"

"Gee, Miss Thompson," I said, I remember looking out of the window behind her and reading the sign, Riverview Commercial Club; reading the letters slowly to myself, pronouncing each letter, trying somehow to get my stomach together and my throat clear and my lips wet so I could say what I wanted to say.

"Gee, Miss Thompson!" A badge! And the belt! Holy smokes, wearing the belt all the time! Cripes, the belt!

She laughed, then, at last. Smiled at me and laughed, put her arm on my shoulder and led me to the outer office, to her secretary's desk. There lay the belt and there, propped against a thin glass vase, No. 869 - I'll never forget the number - was the badge. There was my badge.

"You'll have the second grade, Joe," she told me, "and at noon hour you are to report to Frank Kazaley, who will instruct you in procedure."

"Yes, ma'am." He didn't have to instruct me. Every day, crossing the street with the other kids, it was I who always stood in the center, arm high with the metal sign, the cars stopped on each side.

"All right, Joe."

"Yes, ma'am." Instruct me!

"All right, Joe."

"All right, ma'am."

"You may go, Joe."

"Yes, ma'am." You understand, I couldn't move. Eight cops and 300 kids, and me one of the eight.

"Joseph, will you get back to your class?"

"Yes, ma'am."

She saw it then. She saw it on me, I guess. She smiled; she picked up the belt and came toward me, slipping it over my shoulder, and then she pinned the badge on the belt. Was ever brave warrior knighted by so gracious a queen? Was ever subject so completely the slave of his sovereign, and can I tell you, even now, how I felt that day?

I had won sprint races in St. Paul playground track meets. I had been to summer camp, and my uncle had taken me up in an airplane, an open biplane. He had bought me skates, and Tom Mix had autographed his picture for me, right there on St. Peter Street at the door of the Orpheum. But the belt! The belt and the badge!

So I was a cop. I was a good cop, and I wanted to be the best cop, and I guess maybe I was. The weak before Thanksgiving everybody in our room chipped in and Miss Morgan, our teacher - she was young and redhaired and had a boyfriend; he was gym teacher at Clinton Junior High - Miss Morgan bought a present for each of us, and cakes and apples and small colored cookies. We had a party after two o'clock; we skipped music and math that day. Our room was about the happiest in the school that day, I guess. Maybe the happiest in the city.

I told ma all about what happened in Miss Thompson's office that night at home. I told her about my idea. We'd been the only room to have a party, and I said I wanted to have a party for my wards, for the second grade. I remember I was sitting in the kitchen watching her iron, a glass of milk beside me, and my homework and a book of Ralph Henry Barbour's. I wore the belt, and the badge was propped up against the milk.

"I'll give the party, ma."

"You, Joe?" She dipped her hand into the glass on the ironing board and sprinkled water on a shirt.

"I can do it, ma. I can do it."

"You are not the teacher, Joe." She was always patient with me, listening always and talking everything out with me.

"Well, ma, listen." I sat beside the kitchen radiator. "Listen, ma; when Miss Morgan talked to us about the Thanksgiving party, she said we'd all pitch in and she got everything for us. Well" - I spread my arms wide and the milk sloshed over - "well, I'll do the same thing. I'll get money from my kids and hold it, and then, the last day of school before Christmas vacation - well, I'll buy them things and it'll be a surprise. Nobody will know and the teacher will be surprised."

I could see me then, sitting there by the radiator and drinking the milk, up in Miss Thompson's office. I could see me there with the belt and the badge, Miss Morgan being called up and the second-grade teacher, Miss Le Tourneau, she having come to tell Miss Thompson about it, all three of them there. I could see myself standing before them, and Miss Thompson telling Miss Morgan the whole story, and Miss Morgan taking me to our room and telling my class the story. I could see me then taking the second graders across Robert Street that afternoon, and next year - cripes, next year maybe captain. I'd be captain! Captain of all the cops and march in the school-cop parade holding the Linden School flag.

"Holy kopoly, ma!" I was filled with the thought of this great adventure. "Holy kopoly! Cripes, ma! Don't you think so, ma?"

She set the iron on end and came toward the table. She turned then, I remember. I remember all this, you see. She turned and went back to the ironing board, pulled the cord from the socket, and then came to the table.

I had my scratch pad before me, and a pencil, and I pulled a chair for her over next to me. "See, ma," I said, "I've got 30 kids; there are 30 kids in class. I know that. I've got their roster here," and I reached behind the Sam Browne belt, unbuttoned my shirt pocket, and got the mimeographed roster out for her. "Well, there are 30 of them," I said, "and what I'll do, I'll take two cents a day, and five days a week . . . and how many weeks until the 18th, ma? Do you know, ma?" I got up and went to the grocer's calendar hanging high on the wall above the telephone on the kitchen-cabinet shelf. I stood on a chair and counted the days, and there were 20, all right.

I figured it out there on the scratch pad, and it was $12. Cripes, what I could buy with $12. I thought then of a baseball glove or bat for each boy and a doll for each girl, and then ma said, "You, Joe."

"Me?"

"Yes, son, you must pitch in too."

"Me?"

She nodded, her eyes soft as only her eyes could be - the brownest, softest, most gentle, kindest eyes I've ever known. "You're not only the manager, Joe," she warned. "You can't be just the treasurer. You must also pitch in."

"O.K., then. Swell. I'll put in two cents a day."

"A nickel, Joe," she said and smiled at me.

"A nickel?"

"You are in the sixth grade, Joe, and they in the second."

"But a nickel!"

"Your allowance is larger."

"Allowance. I haven't got any allowance. Cripes, we can't afford allowances, ma. Gee, ma, you're trying to spoil it for me."

She never became angry wit me. She reached into her apron pocket then and got her coin pursue. She opened it there on the table and she found a quarter, and she said: "Here, Joe; this is for the first week. Here is your pitch-in for the first week, and Monday you begin your pitch-in from the second grade." Maybe she didn't speak grammatically, my ma, but she was some ma. Take my word for it, friends, she was some ma, all right.

That night in bed I went over it and over it and over it. I was so pleased with myself that night and all day Saturday and all day Sunday. Sunday night I could barely sleep. I was reading in bed and my ma came in with some apples. She sat on my bed and we ate the apples, and then she took the book. She said to go to sleep, but I'll tell you now, it must have been near dawn when I stopped thinking of my plan.

I was on Robert Street at seven-thirty. I was supposed to be there at eight, but I came at seven-thirty and I told the kids to meet me at lunchtime. As I took each group across the street, I told them there'd be a meeting of the second grade at lunch hour behind the Delos Street precinct station.

I remember now how enchanted they were with the idea. At noon I showed them the quarter and said this was my first week's contribution. I put it in my cap, holding the cap before me, and then each of them, the girls pulling at the knots in their handkerchiefs, the boys taking off their mitts, their money in the thumb of the mitt, each put his or her pennies in the cap.

I hadn't thought it would work out so easy, and I ran home with the money, down the middle of Delos Street, running stiff-legged, so as not to jostle the coins. I counted them while I ate. There was 85 [cents], all right - 60 from them and my quarter. I had to eat quick and get back to the corner, so I gave the money to ma.

I was full of my secret that afternoon, but had made the second graders promise they would not tell; each of them nodded solemnly at me, their lips tight.

That day after school, after we'd got all our classes across the intersection, there was a cop meeting in Miss Thompson's office. She talked about our deportment. Our deportment must always be the best, she said, in school and during noon hour, and even after school. Even on the playground or even at the movies or if we were downtown with our mas, we had to behave like leaders, because we were leaders, she said. Then she made hot chocolate for us on the electric plate she had, and afterward, between the eight of us, four on each side, we walked with her to Robert Street, eight of us across Robert Street, holding up traffic while Miss Thompson crossed. She bowed to us when she had crossed the street, and I hurried home to tell ma.

That night after supper, when the dishes were finished, ma gave me an empty tea can. She bought tea in red, maybe six-inch-high, tin cans, and this was to be my bank. I got a slit in the top with a chisel and hammer, and then ma wrapped it - the can - in red and blue crepe paper she had up on the shelf in the closet. She taped it up all pretty, and I dropped the coins in one by one. I took the tin bank to bed with me, and I lay there shaking it quietly, I thought, until I dropped off to sleep.

That first Saturday, after a week of collections, ma took me downtown to the dentist. Afterward, still feeling the drill in my mouth, we walked to Seventh Street and the department stores. I guess that in my head I bought everything I saw there that day. The windows were full of toys. I'd never been touched one way or the other by these displays, because always, without ma telling me, I knew how meager our Christmas would be. I don't even remember my father; he died when my brother Phil was born, and I guess we were pretty door.

I sure got crazy that day, though. Cripes, I wanted to get everything for those kids, and ma took me from one store to the next, and never said a word, never put the damper on my talk. I did it myself, coming home on the South St. Paul trolley. My teeth had stopped aching then, and I said, "I can't buy that stuff for the kids."

"No, son."

"Gee, I must be nuts thinking of that stuff."

"One day, Joe."

"Yeah? When?" We were crossing the bridge, and I watched a barge coming down the Mississippi, and I was the captain taking her down through St. Louis and into new Orleans and out into the Gulf of Mexico. "When, ma?"

"When you have your children, son; your own children."

"Yeah. Well, we'll have to think of something to buy those kids." I felt very old.

"You'll buy good things for them," she said.

That tin box got pretty full by the last week. There were mostly pennies and nickels, you see, and it got pretty heavy. During the day ma kept it in her kitchen cabinet, but at night, after supper, I'd keep it on the kitchen table next to me, holding it with my hand while I read or did my homework.

The last week the kids were on me all the time, and I had to bring some of them home with me after school to show them the box. Thinking of it now - how those six-year-olds kept their secret, not even telling their parents; never knowing, really, whether there would be a party, but, having promised, keeping their promises - thinking of it, I wonder at the trust of the very young - the simple, complete faith in whatever is told them.

Wednesday night ma and I talked about the presents, and she got it. She said what to buy, finally. I could get a huge fruit basket from the Italian. He'd fix me a beautiful basket, she said, and I could carry that into the second-grade room, bring it right in there and put it on Miss Le Tourneau's desk, and there would be the surprise. She said the Italian would wrap portions for everyone, and all of it under cellophane paper.

I got the tin box and, after the dishes, I walked to the Italian's. Do I remember him? I can tell you now how he looked - a thin, short man, always with a two-day growth of beard, and always with a white apron, and his shop the cleanest, the freshest-smelling place in all the world. He was alone in the shop when I came in, and he said, "What do I do for you, little mister?"

"I want a basket," I said. "A fruit basket."

"Sure, then. Absolute. How much money for the basket, little mister?"

I walked to the side, to a wrapping board slung beneath the orange racks, and I set the tin box down. I didn't let him help me, but worked it open myself, tearing the tape and the crepe paper, and finally pulling the lid back. He was a wise man, I guess, for I remember he let me count it all, waiting while I sorted pennies - hundreds of pennies - and nickels and dimes and ma's quarters. I counted it once and it was $11.70, and then I counted it again, He counted it the third time, and I told him there'd be $1.30 more. I told him I had some more money coming, but with the secretiveness of youth would not divulge my plot. I couldn't, you see, for I would then betray my kids and myself.

"You buy this all for the school?"

So I nodded yes. I could not tell, and there was the admiration in his face, the warm glow in his eyes at this youngster who bought such a present with his money. Of course I was guilty, taking the credit this way, but I was ten. I was ten years old, you understand.

He took my hand and he showed me what there would be in the basket. He showed me tangerines and he showed me huge, thick-skinned oranges. He showed me the beautiful, baseball-sized Jonathan apples and pomegranates, nectarines from Florida, bananas and those yellow, soft, juicy oranges. He showed me walnuts and hazel nuts, Brazils, cashews. He showed me tiny, bright-colored boxes of animal crackers, and he showed me candy canes.

"Oh-ho!" he said. "What for you, little mister," make for you, little mister," and he showed me the basket, bushel-sized, the woven strips green and red and blue and pink. "Oh-ho!" said the Italian. "I make you prettiest basket in St. Paul, you bet."

Thursday after school I collected four cents from each kind while they besieged me with questions. I must tell them now, they pleaded, but I'd kept the secret for so long and so well that now I could only pledge them to continue waiting.

There behind the station house I outlined my plans, all of them gathered about me while I spoke. The next morning in their room they were not to answer the roll call. They were all to sit straight, hands clasped on the desks, and when Miss Le Tourneu started the roll, they were to be silent. They were to wait, did they understand?

I would get them all across, Robert Street, and the l'd go for the present. l'd have the present in my room, and after my roll call, then Miss Morgan would excuse me and l'd bring the present down to their room. Far from being angry, Miss Le Tourneau would be the happiest teacher in the school.

They were fascinated by the cabal. I remember their eyes alive, and each looking from one of the other, delighted with the intrigue. My heart pounded with the telling of if and I felt then as though I were leading a revolution, as though here, with my army, I, the general, planned a swift, bloodless coup.

That night I brought the Italian the rest of the money, and then, while I watched, he began preparing the basket. He gave me a tangerine, and I stripped it clean, eating a section at a time, feeling the tang of it and the juice of it far back in my throat.

He was a surgeon now, the Italian, and this his operating room. The basket was set on a long sheet of cellophane there on his table in the back room. He wrapped small balls of fruit - apples, tangerines, and oranges - then a candy cane, a box of animal crackers, and on top of each a container or peppermint. He wrapped 30 of them, and I told him about the teacher, and he wrapped a special bag for her. I stayed until the basket was ready, until he had brought the cellophane up and around the basket, the bags within lying alongside giant oranges and grapefruit. I stayed until he had tied it all with a red silk ribbon. I told him then that l'd come for it the next morning, and he gave me another tangerine.

"You are a fine boy, little mister," he said.

"Thank you."

"By golly, not many boys think to bring such a presents for school friends. For teacher."

"Thank you." I said again.

"If I have a boy |stead of four girls, like I have, then I sure wish boy to be like you, little mister," he said.

"Thank you I better be going home," I said.

"Oh-ho," he laughed. "Momma waits for you now, eh?"

Of that night I can't remember anything now. I can't remember whether I slept or talked with my ma first or whether I had milk before bed. I can't remember any of it, but of the activity the next morning, of the affair then, I can recall everything, and I can yet, even as I write now, feel the trembling in my stomach, the dry throat, the cold hand at my heart. I've remembered that morning always at Christmas, and now it becomes difficult to move the pen across paper.

All right, then. I went first to the Italian's, who had the basket on a small wagon. He told me I could take the wagon and return it at lunch hour.

To the kids who crowded around me there at the intersection I repeated my instructions, pledging them to silence when the roll was called. I hurried them cross quickly, and then ran down the block to the Italian's. You remember that my world was bounded on the south by Isabel Street, I walked around Isabel, behind the school, and then, leaving the wagon, came in by a narrow door used by the janitors. The basket was awfully heavy, I remember now pausing at the foot of the stairs and then again at the top of the first flight.

I got the basket into my room, set it on my desk, pushed my way through the kids who gathered around the basket, and hurried down the hall, down the stairs to the first floor and the second grade. They were all at their desks, and I stood a moment inside the door, forefinger at my lips, until I heard the teachers talking in the distance and scurried to the water fountain to pretend I was drinking.

And there I waited until Miss Le Tourneau had passed, until she had entered the room, and then, unmindful of the bell, I tiptoed to the door and looked in. She was at her desk, arranging her books, smiling at the class. They, the little, obedient soldiers, sat with hands clasped. unsmiling and waiting.

So the end was near, the weeks of waiting finished, the surprise at hand. I was ten, remember, but I took the first four steps in one leap, and then, holding to the railing, flew up the two flights, down the hall, and into my room for the basket. Miss Morgan would excuse me; I knew she'd excuse me.

She was so pleased. She smiled at me as I entered. turning her head from the kids gathered around the basket as she watched them digging into it. "Joe" - she smiled and she beckoned to me with her hand - "Joe, this is so wonderful and thoughtful of you."

But I couldn't move, you see. I stood just inside the door, motionless, and I couldn't move. The cellophane had been ripped off the basket, scattered about the floor. The oranges, the grapefruit, the lovely, lovely, individual packages that the Italian had wrapped were now in the hands of my class. Of course, the kids here had though it was their present and had torn the cellophane immediately.

"Joe," she said, "how nice of you. and sweet. A Christmas surprise for the class," she said.

The kids didn't even turn. They were too busy digging into the basket. I saw the cellophane scattered over the floor, and now I wanted only to get away, to run to my mother, to get to the closet there in the front hall of our house and pull the door behind me and lie forever in the dark and never be discovered. They'd come for my belt and badge, and I'd never be a school cop again.

And those kids. I could feel the tears coming, and I could only look at Miss Morgan, seeing her red hair in the sunlight. Those kids! Sitting there and not answering the roll and waiting for me! Holy smokes, those kids!

I ran. I turned and ran from the room, leaving my cap in the cloakroom, thinking, as I ran, that my ma could come back for it. l'd never return to this school; I couldn't.

Down the stairs, down the hall, panting now, my breath coming short, and I remember kind of groaning in sorrow and self-pity as I ran. I can remember my life broken, my world shattered, the years to come shadowed always by this horrible, horrible thing that had happened to me. Those kids and their two pennies every day. This had happened because there was $13, because I hadn't been honest with the Italian, let him think it was all my party, and then I began to sob. I sobbed then, but it wasn't until I stood outside their door, standing on tiptoe and looking in through the round window, seeing Miss Le Tourneau standing before her desk, the kids white and frightened, but still silent, waiting now for their leader and general, it wasn't until then that the tears came. I should have gone in, right? Entered and told Miss Le Tourneau, right? But I was ten, and I'd been betrayed, you see and now I could only move away from the door, unable to check the tears, moving blindly for the outside door and my ma and the closet.

I didn't see them - neither Miss Thompson nor the Italian - but I heard them behind me. "Joe," she said. "Oh, Joe, wait." she said, and I moved faster then, wanting to get to the front doors before she could stop me.

"Him," I heard the Italian say. "Is him, tha's little mister, sure.... Hey, boy," he said. "Hey, boy," he said, and now I thought that I had done something wrong to him too, that he had come for me. I walked faster, head down, and then he had my arm, turning me so that Miss Thompson saw I was weeping, and he saw it and became silent. He squatted like a baseball catcher, the apron trailing on the floor, and he took my arms.

"Wha's matter you, boy?" he asked. He looked at Miss Thompson. "Wha's matter here, Miss Thompson?" he asked, and then she knelt.

"I'm so proud of you, son," she said. "Mr.Par - Par -"

"Paradino, Miss Thompson. Me, Paradino. George Paradino."

"Mr. Paradino came to tell me of your wonderful gift," she said, and I looked from one to the other, the tears gone now, and sick with the knowledge of how it might have been.

"The basket, Joe," she said. "Mr. Paradino was so impressed with your gesture that he brought another basket, too, and he told me about what you had done."

"Sure," the Italian said. "Absolute," he said. "You do him, little mister. You do him, so I do him. Me, citizen, George Paradino," he said, and smiled at me.

So I've told you of no miracle and I've offered no proof of Santa Claus nor shown signs of angels. Thus it happened years ago. Miss Thompson listened as I blurted out the story, and the Italian, George Paradino, carried his basket into the second grade, I following, and then Miss Thompson.

That afternoon they had their party and we had ours upstairs, and Miss Thompson came to both. It was all right then, you see, and Miss Le Tourneau came up and shook my hand, and Miss Morgan was proud of me, she said.

Later, after I'd got the second graders across Robert Street, standing there with the other cops, we saw Miss Thompson, and we all ran forward to meet her and take her across the street. But she took my arm and she smiled at me. She smiled then, all right, and her face was warm and friendly, all right.

"Thank you, boys," she said to the others, and then to me: "Will you escort me," she asked, smiling still, "little mister?" she said.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Katkov, Norman
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Words:5145
Previous Article:Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story.
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