On the long summer days before camp begins, my best neighborhood friends Lesley and Linda and I head outside right after breakfast, roller skates tied together and flung over our shoulders, bike tires pumped. We’re ready for adventures, but most of them only involve excursions to the woods at the end of the street—really, just a vacant lot on a hill overgrown with trees and prickly shrubs—where we play hide-and-go-seek for hours or discuss plans to run away from home when we’re much older, maybe fourteen. But in the summer of 1955, we’re not prepared for an event more fantastic than anything we could imagine: the arrival of Bobby Avila, star of the Cleveland Indians, who has rented the house across the street from us for the summer. I will always remember the excitement that Bobby and his family brought to us, but those memories are tinged with sadness as well, for the end of that summer and the following fall brought tragedies large and small to me and our street, marking the end of my days of innocent fun and tamping down much of my playfulness and spontaneity.
On the Friday that Bobby and his family move in, the word somehow gets around the neighborhood, and by 11:00 on Saturday morning their entire front lawn is awash in bikes and boys, at least fifty of them. I want more than anything to cross the street, but it’s pretty clear to me that this is a boys’ only event, and at eleven years old I am not confident enough to confront the boys, who no longer want to hang out with girls. And so I stand on our front lawn taking in the scene and consoling myself with the fact that I live across the street from Bobby Avila and can walk over there almost any time, but just not now.
Not taking time to put down the kickstands, the blue-jeaned, striped t-shirted boys have dropped their bikes on the grass and now mill around in small groups, hands shoved deep into their pockets. None of them move toward the door, and I wonder if they are not quite sure what to do next. Ring the doorbell? Wait until Bobby comes outside? Like pilgrims at Lourdes, they stand in hushed silence, and I do the same, hoping that Bobby will appear.
We don’t have long to wait, for within minutes Bobby Avila opens the front door and surveys the crowd. He is not so much taller than the boys, but his body looks powerful: biceps bulge from his white t-shirt, and even from a distance I can see his massive hands. Three little girls and a boy, all copper-skinned like Bobby, open the screen door and stand behind him, peeking out from between his legs. In one arm, he holds a sleeping baby. While he takes in the scene, smiling, the boys stand quietly. Are they terrified that he might order them out of his yard? But Bobby widens his smile and calls out, “Buenos dias, boys! Gracias for the welcome!” Instantly the boys rush toward him, most of them with balls for him to sign. Bobby holds up his free hand and the boys freeze.
“Wait! Wait!” he calls out. “We have a whole summer to get to know each other. Right now it’s time to take my kids in for some lunch.” A small, dark-haired woman—a slightly larger version of the little girls—steps outside and surveys the scene. She shakes her head, takes the baby from Bobby, and shoos the rest of their children inside.
“Manana,” Bobby says, waving the boys away.
The boys return to their bikes, some of them kicking at the tires, others looking back over their shoulder in case Bobby has changed his mind. They silently ride away, a few of them glancing at me. I give them a wave and wonder if Jimmy Brown, who lives on the next street and was my playmate for years, might decide that I am worthy of being his friend again. Sure, I am just a girl, but a girl who lives across the street from Bobby Avila.
My family gets to know Bobby and his family very well that summer. The four oldest kids range in age from three to seven, and they appear at our back door regularly in the morning, usually about 9:00. My fourteen-year-old sister and I are happy to entertain them, give them snacks, teach them English, and pick up a few Spanish words. Playing school has been one of my favorite activities ever since kindergarten, and I am thrilled to have four eager pupils who are much more vocal and animated than the stuffed animals who usually fill in as my students.
The most special days for my sister and me happen when Bobby invites us to a game. My sister spends hours deciding which blouse to wear, which shorts. I am ready in five minutes, decked out in my summer uniform of jean shorts and a t-shirt. When my sister has at last decided on the most flattering outfit and is brushing her hair for the fifth time, we hear a horn honk and race down the stairs, waving a quick goodbye to our mother as we hurl ourselves out the screen door. There is Bobby in his pink Cadillac convertible, top down, motioning us to get in.
“Hello, my lovely senoritas! It is my pleasure to escort you to the baseball stadium.” My sister always gets to sit in the front, since she’s older. She whips out from her purse a blue and red flowered scarf, covering her head and then dramatically tossing the ends over each shoulder. Then she smiles at Bobby, and I realize that she has managed to put on red lipstick without our mother noticing. In the back seat, feeling like the little sister that I am, I glare briefly at the back of her head, but then turn around and notice some of the neighborhood boys following us on bikes. I wave to them, trying to look as perky as Sandra Dee. The boys scowl and pedal harder, trying to keep up with us. As Bobby peels out of Dysart onto Fairmount Boulevard, I wave once more and, when I am sure that the boys can no longer see me, practice a few air kisses. Then I settle in for the rest of the ride to Municipal Stadium, smiling smugly at people who gawk at Bobby and the car when we stop for a light.
Bobby parks in the players’ lot and points us toward the special entrance for families and guests. He gives my sister and me badges with our names. I hang back a little and let my sister lead the way. She takes off her scarf, shakes her pony tail a few times, and prances to the gate, looking so confident and grown up that I wouldn’t be surprised to see her take a cigarette out of her purse and ask someone for a light.
In the family section, there are lots of little kids running around, and all the players’ wives seem to be blonde, skinny, and beautiful. Not my kind of skinny, with stick-pin legs and flat chest, but what I think must be sexy skinny, with small waists cinched in by wide belts, curvy legs, and full breasts. Even my sister looks a bit intimidated by these women. One of them smiles at us, introduces herself as Early Wynn’s wife, and invites us to sit with her and her children.
By the fifth inning, the Indians are losing 6–1. Bobby has struck out once and walked twice. My sister is reading to Early Wynn’s kids and I am off in my fantasy world. I may look like an eleven-year-old girl, but in my mind I am twenty-one and being romanced by one of the Cleveland Indians, a man who looks very much like Bobby Avila. Just as we are about to be pronounced husband and wife, I hear my sister calling my name. The game is over, and we need to meet Bobby back at the entrance gate. So close to get married, and now I have to leave that fantasy for another time, which will probably be soon, as I find myself moving more often into that parallel world in which life is more satisfying and interesting than mine. But since I don’t know or understand what really happens on a honeymoon—I’ve heard my sister and her friends talking about it, but I’m sure that what they’re saying couldn’t possibly be true—it’s probably good that I got interrupted.
As the weeks go on Bobby and his family become less of a novelty to our neighborhood, and by August, when we have just a few weeks left before school starts, it is unusual to see even one bike parked on Bobby’s lawn. The Indians are still battling the Yankees for first place. We have watched the All-Star Game on television with Bobby making an appearance as the alternate second baseman. My sister starts to spend more time with her girlfriends planning what they will wear for the first day of ninth grade and deciding which boys are the cutest, while I am still playing school with Bobby’s kids, who now are speaking half in English and half in Spanish.
Although I am sort of looking forward to being the oldest in elementary school as a second semester sixth grader—I am what is called a “midtermer,” which means that I started kindergarten in January—already I start to miss the easy pace of summer. Once school begins, we will be reminded daily that in a few months we will be going to junior high, where much more will be expected of us. I’m not so sure that junior high is where I want to be. One of my girlfriends has already gotten her period, and it’s disgusting to think that will happen to me soon. It doesn’t seem fair that the boys don’t have to go through that mess, and part of me wishes that I could stay eleven and in elementary school a few years longer.
At the end of August the Trenton family, who rented out their house, comes back; Bobby and his family return to Mexico. A few months later Mr. Trenton moves out, leaving Mrs. Trenton and their four children so that he can live with another woman. I’m not supposed to know the part about another woman, but I hear my mother talking on the phone, using the words “divorce” and “tramp.” Only one of my friends doesn’t have a father at home, but that’s because her father died. I begin to worry every time my parents have an argument.
Teddy Schwartz, who is fourteen and lives next door to us, stops pulling down his shade at night, and from my bathroom window I see my first naked boy other than my little brothers. Lesley and Linda, my best neighborhood friends, die in a house fire, trapped on the second floor while trying to get to their babysitter, who is sleeping in the attic. She survives after jumping out a window. I begin having a recurring nightmare in which Lesley and Linda’s parents come home to a burning house just as their daughters are being put into an ambulance; it’s a nightmare, but it’s also what I have seen from our living room window. For weeks I smell the charred furniture which is pulled out of the house and piled up on the tree lawn.
What has started out as a summer of excitement and adventure has moved into a fall and winter of sadness and worries. The wistful eleven-year-old girl who stood on the lawn on that summer day is gone, replaced by an almost-twelve-year-old who has trouble falling asleep at night. Everything seems to be changing too quickly. A “For Sale” sign goes up at the corner of our woods, and by spring most of the trees have been cleared and a house is nearly complete. Lesley and Linda’s house is repaired, and a new family moves in. I find out some years after the fire that their parents have adopted a daughter, who will be in my class when I student teach ten years later. Mrs. Trenton and her children move to another city.
My parents decide that with four kids we need a bigger house, and when they can’t find one that they like, they decide to build. Although my sister and I get to help design our bedrooms, I am not happy about leaving Charney Road. I complete one semester of seventh grade at Wiley Junior High, but when we move to Shaker Heights I have to start seventh grade again because they don’t have midterm. I don’t know anyone at Shaker, and to make the situation even worse, we only have a half day of classes until the new junior high building is finished. Without lunch period and activities, it’s hard for me to get to know anybody.
Occasionally I still have dreams about the summer of 1955. I see flashes of Bobby Avila, smiling at me with impossibly white teeth and beckoning me to him. As I get closer, I realize that he’s not Bobby at all, but my father. At this point I usually force myself awake. But before I fall back asleep, I try to remember everything about that magical summer: the bike-filled lawn, Bobby’s kids in my pretend classroom, the rides in the pink Cadillac. The rest of the memories I put away for another time.
About ten years ago, Bobby came to Cleveland as a representative of the old Negro Baseball League, which he played in when he was quite young. I wondered if he would remember the summer of 1955 on our street. As I waited in line to see him and studied his face, it looked so familiar to me: the wide smile, the deeply tanned skin. When it was my turn to shake his hand, he looked briefly surprised, and, when I reminded him who I was, he immediately hugged me.
“My little senorita all grown up!” he exclaimed. We chatted briefly and my husband took some pictures. I asked Bobby what he remembered about that summer on Charney Road. He briefly closed his eyes, as if trying to recall some images. Then he took my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “I remember the kindness of you and your family, how you opened up your home to my little ones. It was a beautiful summer. Gracias.”
Before the guard told me and my husband to keep moving, as others were waiting in line, Bobby said softly, almost in a whisper, “A long time ago, so many memories, so many years.”
Two years later, I read Bobby’s obituary in the paper. So many memories. So many years.
After thirty years as a teacher in the CMSD, Gail Arnoff began teaching at John Carroll and Case Western Reserve. When she is not teaching, writing, or reading, she is running, practicing yoga, gardening, baking, and doting on her six grandchildren. Her memoir pieces have been published in The Persimmon Tree and Lilith (online). “Remembering Bobby” is about a Cleveland summer which began as exciting and fun, but ended with sadness and a goodbye to childhood.
Cleveland Public Library
325 Superior Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44114
Literary Cleveland is a nonprofit organization and creative writing center that empowers people to explore other voices and discover their own. Through an expanding roster of multi-level classes, workshops and events, Literary Cleveland assists writers and readers at all stages of development, promotes new and existing literature of the highest quality, and advances Northeast Ohio as a vital center of diverse voices and visions.
Founded in 1869, Cleveland Public Library serves the residents of Cleveland through its network of 27 neighborhood branches, the Main Library downtown, Public Administration Library at City Hall, homebound delivery services, and mobile services to daycare and senior centers. From a collection of 10.5 million items, the Library lends over 5 million items a year to its 330,000 registered borrowers and to 43 other CLEVNET-member libraries in 12 counties across Northeast Ohio. Cleveland Public Library is home to the Ohio Center for the Book and the Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled, serving all 88 counties in the state of Ohio. For more information, visit cpl.org.