“They Crawl on Walls” by Waide Riddle.
The morning of Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24th 1945.
The war was over, but you wouldn’t have known it.
The city froze under a dark ice cap of gray swirling cloud. The sun had not shown itself for several days and the grey hues were slowly turning into an ugly blackish- blue. Snow fell from the painful looking sky, and with it, ghosts of soldiers past, young and old, blew the bitter flakes into a frenzy against people’s faces.
The Chicago Press
The printing presses were noisily at work at the newspaper. Everyone was working double time to possibly leave early and enjoy a festive evening with family and friends. The toxic odor of ink filled the air and a sign on the wall warned all:
ABSOLUTELY NO SMOKING
Down at the loading dock, the paperboys braved the cold. All of them dressed in the heaviest wool fabric. A flat cap (tam), fingerless gloves, an overcoat,
faded trousers, worn leather shoes tight over thick socks and ‘long johns’ underneath.
Leopold Nicholson was one of the company’s best paper boys. He was quick, thorough, ambitious and a true go-getter.
He cut the string that bound the bundle of papers with his pocket knife and tucked the rusted blade back into his coat pocket. He proceeded to count out loud a total of 24 papers. He folded each quickly and tightly. With a rubber band, he secured them, and tossed them individually into his paper sack.
His fingers were black with ink and his face smudged and dirt speckled.
Leo, as his friends called him, was sixteen and had been at the Chicago Press for over a year. He was their number one go- to guy. All the other paper boys looked up to him and admired him. He was their mentor.
On the street, all he had to do was ‘yell and sell.’
“Leo!” It was Tony, his boss. The sharp baritone voice startled him from behind. He turned hesitantly from rolling and counting his papers to see him with a young fellow standing next to him. The lad was about the same height and build as Leo; only slimmer.
He was a sight to behold. A physical mess. He was full blood Italian and loved to eat… and eat… and eat; which made him horribly and grossly obese; which also contributed to the fact that he excreted a constant nauseating sour body odor that lingered long after he had left a room. He was also a chain cigar smoker… puff… puff… puff; a cloud of smoke always circled his head.
“Leo,” he said again, “got someone I want you to meet. This here is Samuel Coleman. Poor guy lost both his folks in a house fire not long ago. He come here to work. He’s gonna shadow you for awhile. I trust you’ll show him the ropes. OK, Leo? So, take good care of our buddy, Samuel.” He said this with a bold wink then put his hand on Samuel’s neck as a friendly gesture.
Leo cleared his throat, “Hey, Samuel, fine meeting you. Sounds like a plan. Sorry about your mom and dad.”
The two boys shook hands firmly.
Samuel didn’t smile but gave an appreciative look. “Thank you.”
“Good. You guys are friends now.” Tony smiled and puffed, then said, “Samuel, wait here for a minute while I have a few words with Leo.”
Samuel nodded as Tony escorted Leo over a few feet.
“What’s up, boss?” Leo asked.
Tony leaned in close to his face and as soon as he opened his mouth it was like the entire Chicago sewer system overflowed. The rank smell of old food, cigar, and who knows what, just about knocked him over.
And then there was the issue of the spittle. It sprayed.
It took everything Leo had not to suddenly heave.
“Yeah, yeah see, now don’t get me wrong, I ain’t got nothing against no body, you know that right? But, Samuel here is a Jew. So, it’s up to you, but, I’d watch your back. Can’t trust a Jew, you know. A Jew is a Jew. They’ll steal you blind in a heartbeat. Hear me? Be friendly, just don’t get too close. For your own good, you see. I’m looking out for you, Leo. Got it?”
Tony puffed at the cigar and smiled encouragingly… a cloud of smoke nearing obscuring his face.
Leo pretended to absorb the information. “Yeah, got it, thanks, boss. I’ll be careful.” He looked at Samuel kindly; who looked horribly lost just standing there.
“Then, hop to it!” Tony said as he patted Leo on the shoulder and went back into the building without acknowledging Samuel further.
Leo walked back over to the boy, “Let’s hit it. Go ahead and grab a couple of the bundles. We just need two. I’ll take the bag.”
Samuel said nothing. He grabbed the two bundles and shadowed him out.
Streets of Christmas.
The dock was cold, but the streets were colder. Icy chilled winds blasted them, and as they inhaled together, Old Man Winter sucked the air right from them.
The sidewalks were hustle and bustle and that meant good money for the paperboys. In the near distance, the low toll of bells from a church…
A Christmas carol… but the music was more melancholy than merry.
They rushed across an avenue dodging traffic from both sides, nearly getting hit. Cars sliding on the ice… drivers honking… not in the mood for stupid stunts from kids.
Buck, the cashier, was already drawing a crowd at the nearby newsstand. He greeted Leo and Samuel with a simple wave.
The boys didn’t take long to set up. They cut the strings from the bundles, stacked the papers, and then counted their change.
Leo was the first to yell, “Extra, extra read all about it, Truman kills bill for state job control!”
Then Samuel, “Extra, extra read all about it, President Truman vetoes bill!”
And suddenly, the crowds began to swarm around them wanting to buy a paper.
This was the thrill of it! They yelled their headlines again.
Business men and ladies stopped mid-stride and handed change to the boys and grabbed a paper. Each customer tipping the boys a penny.
A group of carolers gathered and began to sing.
Diddy Johnson, Leo’s black skinned buddy, a street violinist, walked up with his music case in hand and tipped his top hat to the two boys, “Salutations, gentlemen.”
They smiled as he opened the case and handled the musical instrument as if it were gold. A beautiful violin and bow… he stood stoic next to the choir… and, perfectly on cue, played as they sang.
The masses stopped and listened. It was an extraordinary sound of beauty.
Bullies, hoods and street rats.
Applause and laughter erupted when the choir and Diddy finished.
“Happy Christmas, everyone!” And they all dispersed, leaving Leo and Samuel cold on the sidewalk, snow falling down on them.
By mid-afternoon, it had only gotten more bitter and blistering. Buck had already closed up the newsstand and left.
“So, how did you dodge being in a orphanage?” Leo asked.
“No one wants a sixteen year old boy. I’m too old. That’s all.” Samuel said flatly.
“Yeah, I was fourteen… one day my pa flat out didn’t come back home from work. Then my momma had to go to work after that and one day she never came home either. I didn’t know what to do except come here to the presses. Been here since. They take care of me. As crazy and confused as Tony is, he’s been good to me. He let me sleep on the floor of the printing press room till I could handle myself.”
Samuel didn’t respond.
“I guess we’re too old for parents, eh?”
The thought of not having a mother or father depressed them both.
“What do you wanna be when you grow up?” Samuel said wanting to change the subject.
Leo thought for a moment, “I don’t know… I don’t know if I have much of a chance for anything right now. My plans are here. Selling papers. What do you want to do?”
Samuel didn’t say anything. He was deep in thought. Perhaps he had asked Leo the wrong question because it suddenly dawned on him that he couldn’t see a future. He couldn’t see plans. This was as good as it was going to get.
Snowflakes gently peppered his face.
Leo looked at him and read his face. There was sudden despair between the two of them…
They were interrupted.
A man in an elegant charcoal gray Joseph A. Banks overcoat and fedora passed them. He took the last paper from Leo and gave him a penny tip.
“Good holiday’s to you, boys.”
“Thanks, mister.” Leo said, genuinely grateful.
The man hurried away.
“That’s it, we’re out of papers. We’re finished for the day.”
“Good is right. I am–“
“Hey, Jew Boy!” Someone shouted from across the street.
The intrusion was offensive. It angered Leo and frightened Samuel. Leo recognized the voice instantly.
“It’s Larry Stanford.”
“Larry Stanford. Street kid and his thieving buddies.”
Larry stood across the street with three other boys, Miles, Willard and Clive. All of them filthy from head to toe. They were the city’s street urchins who lived in the alleys and stole to survive. Forget about asking for change; they just took it.
“Hey, Jew Boy, you know your name, don’t you?” Larry taunted as his hoodlum friends broke out into laughter.
Samuel was quiet. He knew what Christian boys were capable of… he took a step back and closer to Leo.
“Hey, Leo, you turn into a Jew lover or what?” He yelled again, wanting trouble, and Leo was happy to give it to him. Miles, Willard and Clive laughed and hollered more insults at Samuel.
“Don’t worry. They ain’t gonna do nothin’… but, I will.” He looked down and spotted a marble size pebble on the slosh covered sidewalk. He picked it up… feeling it between his fingers… its weight… light… and… just right…
Before any of the boys could blink an eye, he aimed… and threw.
It bounced hard against Larry’s forehead… breaking skin.
“Shit!” He yelped and grabbed at the pain. “Ya fuckin’ hit me!”
Miles and Clive held on to him as he fell off balance.
“Ya bleedin’, man! Ya bleedin’“ Miles said.
“He left ya bloody.” Clive added.
Willard handed him his dirty handkerchief and he pressed it against his forehead, “I’m coming to get you, Leo. Get ready.” Larry looked down at the bloody cloth; anger flared across his face.
All four boys headed across the street; in the lead was Larry.
Samuel was shivering from the cold and shaking from fear of being beaten by the approaching thugs.
Leo stood his ground. It wasn’t the first time he’d had a run-in with these guys.
Larry was in his face. Staring eye-to-eye. Inches away. He was breathing heavy… a trickle of blood was running down the side of his nose and over his lips.
“Ya hit me, man! Ya think it’s funny? I’m bleedin.“
Leo didn’t move or say a word.
“I said, do ya think it’s funny? I’m bleedin.“
Leo started to chuckle. “Well, yeah, I do.”
“What’cha gonna do to em, Larry?” Willard said.
Leo still didn’t budge.
Larry looked at Samuel briefly, then back again. “Well, I’m a Christian.”
“You’re a bitch.” Leo said flatly to his face.
Clive, Willard and Miles burst into laughter. They’d never heard of any guy be referred to as a ‘bitch’before.
They couldn’t stop laughing.
Even Samuel cracked a smile.
“Shut up!” Larry shouted and the goons clammed up. He turned his stare from Leo to Samuel. “Watch your back, Jew Boy. Your friend here, Leopold, ain’t always gonna be around to help you.” He stepped back and smirked. His street rat friends did the same; adding obscene finger gestures.
Their faces said it all, watch your backs.
And, then, they were gone.
The dark colors of Christmas.
Darkness had fallen on the city.
Samuel and Leo walked the sidewalk. Christmas was at its glory in the store front windows as the lights and decorations reflected off frosted bulbs and cascading tinsel. Every color shined brilliantly. Toy soldiers, bright red wagons and kites with long tails were magic to their eyes.
They stopped… and remembered their mothers and fathers, caught in an erstwhile moment, like a scene from a holiday postcard that had yellowed with time and never to be again.
“Where you gonna stay tonight?” Leo asked.
“I don’t know… I ain’t got a place to go from here. I guess I’ll manage. I always do.” Samuel wasn’t looking for pity. He was just telling the truth.
Leo thought… considered… scratched his head… looked around… then smiled.
“Hey, why don’t you stay at my place for the night? I’m not far from here… and it’s warm. Got plenty of room… and I don’t mind the company. What do you say?”
Samuel thought it over quickly. He was, after all, froze to the bone. ”That would be really great. You know, you can call me Sammy if you want?”
“OK, Sammy… let’s get otta here.
The winter… this night, had eyes.
Eyes that spied on Leo and Sammy as they pushed against the wind and the weather elements. Snowflakes blasted their cold faces as they hung on to their caps; scarves wrapped around their ears and necks were no match from the pelting ice. They stopped in front of a darkened depressed apartment building. The sweet essence of Christmas was not visible at this lonely place; their noses offended by the repugnant odors of urine, feces and garbage.
”We’re here.” Leo said and dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out a pair of keys. “Sometimes the heating doesn’t always work in the building, but I got a good wood stove, so we should be just fine. I got a set up in the very back. Ground floor.”
Sammy nodded; his teeth were chattering. He just wanted to get inside and be warm.
Leo inserted one of the keys into a lock, it was a single door; old and weathered gray, and turned it. The hinges had rusted severely and created a loud ghostly grinding sound as it swiveled and opened by itself. The ghost echoing into the darkness before them as they stepped through and slammed the door shut.
Bolted doors thrown open.
It was dead quiet.
The building seemed to moan and sway with the rhythm of the wind and snow storm outside.
Neither one of the boys moved. Both were breathing hard. Leo could hear Sammy’s teeth chattering…
“C’ mon,” he said. “We need to get warm.”
They walked down a long hallway… it kept getting darker and darker and… “… the lights are out again, I guess… happens a lot to us…”
Sammy could barely make Leo out. They went through another door and suddenly they were in pitch black. Dead still. No sound… not even the wind.
“Here we go,” Leo said as he felt for a keyhole and door knob. “It’ll be dark, but I got lots of candles.”
Sammy was shivering and chattering uncontrollably.
The next thing he knew, he was being pulled further into strange darkness. He heard a door close and lock next to him… he leaned against the wall…
“Let me get a fire started.” He heard Leo say.
Shuffling. Movement. The strike of a match and Leo was suddenly there, across from him, illuminated in orange-yellow glow.
Within minutes, there was a small stove fire burning.
Sammy stood glued over it with his naked fingers and hands extended in the hopes of finding refuge in the heat. He watched Leo light candles… striking a match… carefully… putting the flame to the wick… a boy’s room slowly became visible.
A small kitchenette, a ceramic tub and wash basin, a toilet with a blind, a mirror, a small desk-table and chair, a standout closet and a pull down bed.
It was simple and practical.
“It’s perfect for me.” Leo spoke up. “ I like it… it’s home… I’m comfortable here… are you feeling warmer?”
“Yes, thank you… you call it home… that’s nice. Any time you can say the word ‘home’ is good.“
“Good for now…”
There was an uncomfortable silence between the two of them. Leo walked over to the stove next to Sammy to warm his hands. The heat came up in waves and rolled over his flesh. It felt mighty good.
“I got plenty of snacks for tomorrow. Milk, too.”
Sammy nodded in appreciation, his fingers and hands starting to feel normal again. His teeth weren’t chattering and his shivering had stopped.
Leo reached over and took one of his hands and held it. His touch was strong…
There was another gulf of silence between them. Neither moved. Then Sammy leaned over and kissed Leo on the lips…
Leo shoved Sammy back against the wall in shock. He was visibly angry. Outraged.
Like a firecracker, he went off.
“Why’d you do that?” He shouted.
Sammy had been slammed hard; the impact knocking the breath out of him.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
Leo grabbed him by the shirt and pushed him up against the wall off of his feet. It was a vise grip.
“Why’d you do that to me? Answer me! Why?” So much anger and torment in his eyes.
“I… I thought you wanted me to.” Sammy’s heart was racing.
“Guys don’t kiss other guys! Never! Ever! Do you hear me?”
“I thought … I thought.”
“What!? Why’d ya think that? Why?”
“The way you looked at me and touched me…”
Leo reared his other arm up and made a fist.
Sammy shut his eyes tight and waited, his feet dangling.
He felt Leo’s grip loosen and fade away… his feet came resting to the floor… he heard Leo stumblingback and away… then collapsing… weeping… Weeping? Sammy cautiously opened his eyes.
He saw Leo crumpled at the small desk chair, his face buried in his hands, crying silently, his body shuddering with emotion… Leo looked up at him. His eyes were cloudy with tears. He didn’t even try to hold them back. He choked… rivulets of pain… washed away… ran down his cheeks … dripping into darkness. “I don’t know how to explain it… seems no one does… no one will talk to me about it… I always had feelings… I always had them. As young as I can remember. As far back… feelings I wasn’t allowed to talk about… to share… I couldn’t explain to anyone. I went to church. Another church. Church after church looking for God and answers. Looking for someone to talk to. I even confessed. I confessed to priests. To ministers. To pastors… even a Rabbi. All of them… All of them suddenly hated me when I told them what I was feeling in my heart. They said it was forbidden. God forbid it. They said I was sick. I was unnatural. They said they loved me, but I was evil. They wouldn’t have anything to do with me… they wouldn’t even touch me because they said God would not want that. I prayed to God. I prayed hard. I begged God to take these feelings away from me… I told God I was sorry that I hurt him. But my feelings didn’t go away. They stayed. Then daddy was gone. Then mama was gone. Everyone was gone. But the feelings never left me… things that I feel so deeply… I don’t understand.”
His eyes glossed over again and tears fell as if they were unstoppable rivers.
Sammy knelt at Leo’s feet…
He leaned forward, as did Leo, and they pressed their cheeks together. He could feel the wetness of tears and very fine stubble… and all he wanted to do was comfort him.
What seemed like hours , after time, Leo softly spoke, almost inaudible, “I begged God to kill me. To take me. All I could think of was why? I asked God, why? No one would tell me. I didn’t understand… no one would tell me…”
He kissed Sammy, and both of them wept in each other’s arms.
Something deep inside Leo awoke. The chaos and conflict interrupted. Something so innate, so personal and so intimate that it belonged to only him. Only he could claim it. Only he could own it.
This moment, this image from his ‘timeline of life’ spoke to his emotions and needs with absolute clarity.
This kiss, with another boy, like him, felt only natural. Perfect. Healing.
How could this be so unspeakable? So forbidden? So unnatural?
He disappeared further into the embrace. Absorbed it.
The door that had been bolted shut for so long had suddenly been thrown open.
They Crawl on Walls.
They were warm.
Laying in each other’s arms, covered with sheets and quilts on the pull-down bed,
Leo watched quietly as the flicker from the stove fire and the glow from the candles danced across the wall… dream-like shadows filled the room with orange… then yellow and gold… and back again … ominous movement… slow motion ghostly figures with haunting rhythms… oceanic waves swayed from side to side and to and fro… from the ceiling to the floor.
… shadows dancing… slowly crawling… on the walls…
He gave in to sleep… his lips purring quietly.
In time, the candles burned out one-by-one-by-one… the color of black slowly invading.
The last candle… sputtered out, leaving a stream of wax smoke behind.
The night and its darkness were dead.
It was now Christmas.
The Northern wind moaned and the ghosts that haunted the sad building began to stir and rise. They squeezed through the cracks of brick and stone and crept through hardwood floors. Lost souls walking amongst the sleeping living.
Outside, the winter raged.
Large puffy clouds hung low and touched the city with glittery ice. The Northern winds blew… gusts raced down vacant streets and whistled through broken street lamps.
Blocks away, in an alley between abandon and long forgotten buildings, Larry Stanford stood horribly lost. He was confused. Disoriented.
Somehow he had found himself in an alleyway’s endless tributary. A stranger in a maze.
The other boys had left him hours before to go thieve.
They had not returned.
His fingers, face and ears were a deep shade of purple and black… frost bite had set in. He was beyond the pain for his body had given over to numbness. He couldn’t even feel his feet.
Larry heard what he thought was the whoosh of the great wind, but when he looked up he was mistaken and shaken to his core.
He swayed and fell to his knees and stared into the eyes of the Angel of Death. It had come to take him, and take him it did. He fell face first into the snow.
The war was over, but you wouldn’t have known it.