Heritage Trails

AP Service:  Dateline: Milan, Ohio


            A break-in during cherry festival last week at the birthplace of Thomas Alva Edison left the sleepy town of Milan, Ohio perplexed. 

            “Nothing appears to have been stolen,” George Conklin, chief of detectives said yesterday. “In fact, we seem to be dealing with some kind of vigilante maid service.”  

According to docents familiar with the historic site, papers placed on Edison’s desk had been straightened, and one mirror appears to have been wiped clean of fingerprints and dust.           


I’d been working the bar at Coltrane’s, in Ft. Myers, Florida for maybe two months before Alva and I talked. Alva was [img_assist|nid=5683|title=The Silent Body Melody by Orna Ben-Shoshan © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=167|height=250]Coltrane’s, had been working there since the place opened, and no one—not the bartenders, not the big, slow-witted busboys, not even the owner, Mr. Harvey Synell himself with all his money, ever messed with Alva.

I was the new girl at Coltrane’s. I’d come down from Jersey for my grandfather’s stupid-ass wedding and couldn’t figure a reason to go back—Mom gone, my brothers all married and cheating, just like every guy I’d been involved with. I got sick of angry, big-haired wives coming by whatever CVS I worked in that week and getting me fired. I think I could have put up with the guys with the bad toupees and the smoker’s breath sliding their rings in their pockets before asking me out for coffee, but after Mom died, I couldn’t take the way there was never a woman to cry to. New Jersey’s a small state if you’re past thirty-five and you find yourself in bed with other people’s husbands.

The manager at Coltrane’s didn’t ask for references, only if I was strong enough to carry trays of drinks without spilling. I said sure I was. I have never been afraid to work up a sweat, I said. But I was thinking, just don’t ask me to deal with people or vermin.


            “Well, will you look at the tail on that one?” Alva said to me the night a rat moved right out from behind the twelve-burner stove in Coltrane’s kitchen.    

            I glanced at what looked to me like a line of thick electrical cord, bundled and bound with gray electrician’s tape circled tight around and around until it came to one nasty little point what looked like yards from that nasty rat’s ass. That was my view from my vantage point up on a counter. I didn’t have a clue how I got up that high, one leap; the only time in my life I ever vaulted anything.      

“Jesus. You scared of a little four-legged creature of God that I could smash with a broom handle?” Alva laughed when she saw where I landed. 

            That rat was the size of a full-grown cat.

            And then Joe’s screaming. “Freya! Table four is waiting on their nachos and the guy with the scotch looks pretty damned hot about it.”

            Oh great, I’m thinking while Alva’s leaning against the wall near the door by then, getting ready to light an unfiltered Camel even though any other waitress would be afraid of being fired if she broke the no smoking in the kitchen rule.

            “You want me to take that table, Freya?” After that, Alva’s the one thing in my otherwise dim life that shines.


For a town where the bulb and filament were perfected right in a lab on the main drag, Fort Myers surely is no bright light. Coltrane’s is smoky, blue-gray haze hanging over tables of desperate out-of-towners over-paying for cocktails. No jazz, despite the restaurant’s pretentious name. The usual night’s entertainment is some group of overweight bikers doing bad covers of Dylan songs. There’s always some girl channeling Janis Joplin, throwing back Southern Comfort and showing her navel ring to a bunch of guys who would probably rather be taking each other home.  

            “Just like every one else around here–a real riot,” Alva commented to me the day we saw the photos:  Edison on a camping trip, Edison on the porch sipping lemonade, Edison fishing with one of his six children. Tie and jacket, pressed pants and straw bowler hat present in every shot.


It was my idea to tour the Edison and Ford estates. The only place I knew well was Jersey. I wanted to be a tourist when I was off work. Alva had lived in Fort Myers all her life, never bothered with the city’s stars: Edison, Ford.

“You’re a decent sidekick, Freya,” Alva told me. “But sometimes you have the strangest ideas of what constitute a good time.”

Then she came into Coltrane’s one night and told me what I catalogued as one of her bigger whoppers. 

            “He’s no biggie,” she told me the fifth time I harangued her about how important T. Alva E. was. “Only really important thing he ever did was me, indirectly, I mean.”

            She had me, I admit, though all I did was raise an eyebrow.

            “Oh. Didn’t I tell you he’s supposedly my illegitimate grandfather?”

I thought she was humoring me. All either of us really wanted to do was get the highball glasses dried and put away before the first set started and the customers were screaming for service. It was the end of a particularly draining week, the chiropractors and Barcalounger salesmen in town at the same time for their conventions.

“No shit, your grandfather?

“No shit at all,” she said.


“Well, that just sounds good to me; I would give one of my flabby arms to be able to claim kin other than the ones I own. My grandfather? His last stroll down the proverbial aisle’s what got me down here. Too bad you couldn’t have come to the wedding,” I said. “A real psycho ward home movie.”

When my grandfather remarried, it was to Vera, a woman more than thirty years his junior and for sure, he wanted to please her. Vera wanted to get married by water, and though she and Granddad had moved from New Jersey to Florida by then, they lived in a trailer park in the flatlands in the state’s center. So Vera’s daughter set up one of those blue plastic swimming pools in their backyard, and, to mimic those fancy old hotels in Miami, her son put a spouting whale in the water.  The gray plastic whale swam in circles, growled its mechanical little wind-up toy growl, and every few seconds spouted a stream of not so clean water onto the hems of the wedding party.   

Even now I can hear how, over that growl, my relatives talked about Vera, about what a gold-digger she was to marry this deaf old man and him with Parkinson’s pretty advanced.  Really they were angry, my three brothers especially, because we all learned the morning of the ceremony that Vera had been having an affair with Granddad for twenty-two years before Grandma died.

“Jesus Christ.” Alva hooted, when I described the scene. “As if she wasn’t going to get the worst maybe two years of your grandfather’s life and end up wiping his butt to boot.” Alva is my go-to girl for perspective, alright.

Later she admitted she only confided her grandfather thing to shut me up about going on a house tour. A house tour of the Edison winter estate was Alva’s idea of how God would punish a truly shitty bar waitress on her one day off. 


Somehow I prevailed. “Well we gotta’ see if you have his eyes.”


            Edison on the docks with his straw bowler and a white linen jacket. Edison with the president of the United States and his friend, Henry Ford, sitting by a campfire his servants built, the great inventor in that white jacket even here.           “You think he left his jacket on and had the servant press his pants while he boinked Grandma?” Alva said, like she knew exactly what I was thinking. I remember how two white-haireds moved away from us then, looking at us like we were something they’d scraped off their shoes.

            But when we got to the inventions room Alva got animated all of a sudden.

            “Freya,” she said, dragging me from phonograph to bulb, from display case to display case. “You gotta’ see this.”

            Turns out Alva was a bit of a science freak as a kid, before her father beat it into her that she was a girl and that it was her destiny to wait tables to salesmen for the rest of her life. “Think I could be an inventor?”

            That question stayed with me. Alva with ambitions. Who’d have thought?


            “You really wanted to be an inventor?” I asked during our next shift. “I mean, I know you’re smart enough and all, but inventor?”

        “Sure,” she said, coloring a little and then looking out over the usual crowd.

“Right now I’m inventing full heads of hair and decent sports jackets on those guys at table three. This morning I invented a deeply satisfying mouth feel and taste for my Special K and diner coffee.”

            I know she was embarrassed, but I watched the way she held her tray after that. I watched the way she carried her head up too. I thought she was maybe inventing some truth in her being descended from T Alva himself, and I felt something. Pride? In my most secret heart I guess I also have one ambition; I always thought I’d make a good one of those what they call motivational speakers. Look at that, I thought, watching Alva that night. She seemed to grow a couple of inches taller after that smart enough remark.


            Now, back in Jersey, I’m wondering when did my motivational speaker’s triumph turn so crazy. I have to park back of the Oasis, unlock the kitchen door, and drink my first cup of coffee in quiet before I can face that question.

            “You sitting here in the dark for a reason?” Gladys says, flicking on a light. Gladys is my first waitress to show up every morning.

            “Yeah,” I say and get up off my stool, top off my coffee with hot and sit again. “I was just thinking of Alva.”

            “What’s got you thinking about that nut-job friend of yours?” Gladys is saying. Everyone in my diner’s heard a bunch of Alva stories. I flip her the paper, that Ohio thing.


            After that first trip to the estate, Alva wanted to go back and then go back again and again. Visiting the relatives, she called it, smirk-faced, while Gee at the bar thought she’d become all saintly spending so much time with family. I was the only one at Coltrane’s who knew.

            “You got any family to speak of, Alva?” I asked once when we were hanging at her place.

            “God forbid!” The line of ash from her cigarette glowed when she took a pull on it. It dribbled onto her kitchen floor, just missing Leon, her part dachshund, part hell-knew-what, who stood as close to her leg as he could without going up her jeans. “Except, of course,” and she got hyper-smirky here, “Grandpapa Edison. How about we head off and catch the last tour, Freya?”


            Jeezus, but how many times did Alva take that tour, I’m wondering as the first customers settle into the Oasis booths. I could have spoken the whole guided flaptrap with the docent after my third trip, but Alva went back every Thursday. After a while, even I began to believe it when I heard Gee and the others at Coltrane’s talking about how Alva must be at the nursing home visiting that make-believe failing aunt she told Gee of; what a saint she was for putting up with that old woman. It seemed more logical than believing she was back at the estate. How was I to know she was casing the place? 

By the time she found the photo, she knew the schedule of every guard and tour guide, knew which bathrooms were locked up[img_assist|nid=5686|title=Underneath by Kristen Solecki © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=160|height=250] first and by when the gate snapped shut. She knew the first moment of opening time and a quick route out while the first visitors came in. I don’t know how she learned these things, or how she came to evade security. God help me but there are things you don’t want to know, even on behalf of a really good friend. 


            “You got to get here quick.” When Alva called about the photo, it was past midnight and I was just off a shift serving Venetian Blind salesmen and tolerating blue-grass covers. I hadn’t even pulled out of the Coltrane’s lot.

            “It’s important,” she said. “Otherwise, you know I wouldn’t bug you.” 

            I admit even if she hadn’t said that, I would have been made curious by her tone. Serious. Excited. So Not Alva. 

I drove directly to Alva’s and found her wide-awake, her kitchen table strewn with old black and white pictures.

            “Look here,” she said before I had even parked my tired ass in a chair. “Evidence.” 

            She stuffed an old photo of a gray-haired woman—sharp, but not too young—under my nose. “Evidence of what?” I asked trying to see the photo like a detective might. It was taken by a cheap camera; that much was for sure. The edges were serrated the way photo edges always came out a long time ago, before processing got so fancy. The woman was pretty, looked a little like Alva around the eyes and had a sneer on her lips, like whoever took the photo she was probably flirting with. 

            “Look. Here. And here.” She pointed to the hand the woman had laid in her lap. She held a magnifying glass over that section of the photo so I could see the ring on the woman’s finger. It was a signet with a big E on it. And under the hand lay a straw bowler hat.

            “Who is she?” I asked, though my head told me the answer.

            “It’s my infamous grandma,” Alva said, “And look. His ring. His hat.”

            I knew she wouldn’t hear any contradictions or what ifs, so I didn’t offer any. “What are you going to do with this—evidence?” I feared a big scene: Alva chaining herself to the gates of the TAE winter estate until someone acknowledged her genealogy, or Alva hiring a fancy lawyer and taking the family to court, but what she did, well, that just plain astonished me.

“I’m putting my grandma where she belongs,” she said.


            When I tell this story at the diner, someone always asks didn’t I ever find out how she pulled it off and the answer really is no. There are times you don’t ask for too much information. I know Alva left for the Edison estate one late afternoon, telling Gee the old aunt was sick as hell and she had to take off early. And I know she wasn’t home all night because I did like she asked and went by to feed Leon. Knowing there was no old aunt, I decided I’d better wait at her place till she came home or till the police called, but the police never called. I fell asleep with my head in my hands on her kitchen table and she woke me sometime after 9 a.m., wearing the same clothes she’d had on the day before.

            She never breathed a word of what she did and I didn’t ask. But the next time she went to the estate for the tour, she dragged me along and there it was: a really sharp 9 by 12 reproduction of Grandma, ring, hat and all framed and parked along one wall in the photo room. Edison on the dock in a hat and jacket. Edison camping with Henry Ford. Alva’s grandmother laughing into the camera. I had to cough to keep her from asking the docent giving us the tour who the woman in the photo was. The tour cruised right by the picture and for all I know, it hangs there still.


            I was afraid Alva couldn’t leave it at that, and you know she wouldn’t have, but as luck would have it, before she got herself arrested, I got handed an opportunity to get her out of town.

            “Holy shit!” I think those were my exact words when I opened the official- looking envelope that was special delivered to Coltrane’s during one of the few really crowded lunch rushes I ever recall serving. “Holy good God damn.” 

It turned out my grandfather, who’d passed—not quietly—a year after the infamous nuptials, hadn’t left everything to his child bride Vera, like the family feared he would. Nope: The Oasis Diner came to me. 

            I’d forgotten about the Oasis, nearly forgotten Trenton, New Jersey. Turns out my grandfather’s wife was more than happy to [img_assist|nid=5687|title=Stream Off Route 82 by Deena Ball © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=155|height=250]forget Trenton herself once she found herself in Florida, even in the ugly part in the middle. “I told him I’d give away the business rather than have anything to do with that butt-hole city again in my life,” I think the lawyer said were her exact words. So there I was, an heiress.

            I wasn’t too crazy about making the move north myself, but Alva told me I’d be crazy not to.

            “Freya,” she said, maybe a dozen times before I finally agreed to it. “You can’t pass up this opportunity to get out from under. Look, Kiddo, your very own business.” We could both be motivators when we wanted, Alva and me.

            “Imagine me as someone’s boss,” I said. Alva was probably the only soul who knew I’d actually imagined that once or twice myself. “But you come too.”            I wasn’t sorry to quit Coltrane’s but I knew I was about to miss Alva something fierce. In the end, it took less convincing than I thought it would to get her to at least drive up with me. I guessed she was going to miss me too.

            God we had laughs on that drive, the U Haul towing my Nova behind it and so many really bad songs on the radio. Alva insisted on playing the worst oldies station in every state between Fort Myers and Trenton. “So you won’t miss the bands at Coltrane’s just yet,” she’d say.

            I put her in charge of the AAA books and finding cheap motels, which is, I’m afraid to tell you, how she found out about Menlo Park.


            The breakfast rush is over. I’m thinking about Milan, Ohio. Too early to call Alva. If she’s back in Florida, she’ll be out cold after a late night on the drunkards shift. Worse yet if she isn’t home to answer. 

            “Alva, you take too many chances,” I told her when she told me about her plans for Menlo Park and she snapped right back, “What do you mean you? It’s we, Babe. You’re driving the get-away car.”


            Thomas Alva Edison’s known in New Jersey as “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” I wish I’d remembered that when I gave Alva the Mid-Atlantic AAA book. By the time we got to Maryland, she’d picked up every cheesy brochure on the Edison labs up there in North Jersey and was determined to go. The moment we unloaded the U Haul into my new mobile home out Route 1, she left me to unpack the kitchen and took off for her first tour of what she called “Edison’s North.” The second tour she took me on, and the third, but at the end of that one, at just about closing time, she said for me to go ahead, she’d meet me outside.

            “Just wait by that back alley I pointed out when we came in this time. I’ll be there,” she said.      The voice on the P.A. had announced closing time already and I knew this was not a good sign. 

            “I just have to go to the bathroom,” she said. Her eyes were glinting like they were throwing sparks off a disco ball. She had brought a bigger handbag to the labs that day, I noticed, big enough to hold a framed 9 by 12 photo.

“Don’t go getting yourself arrested,” I said to Alva. “I hear Jersey cops can be mean sons-of-bitches.”


            There are two of Jersey’s finest at my counter for lunch, nice guys really. One of them notices I’m distracted and even asks if everything’s okay. 

            “Yeah, where are you today, Freya?” Gladys comments after I put the wrong sandwich down in front of the wrong cop.

            I don’t tell Gladys that I’m back in Menlo Park, watching from the back alley into a locked historic site and praying my best friend doesn’t find herself in Rahway State Prison by morning.


         I watched Alva’s shadow pass around the flashlight lit room, saw through the gauzy curtains as her shape moved to the wall opposite the front window and stopped in front of a painting hanging there. For a moment I thought she was about to remove it, but she just straightened the picture, stood back, and straightened it again a couple of times until it appeared she was satisfied and could move on to another part of the room. Then she was out of my view altogether. 

            The second hand on my watch jerked in large, exaggerated motions, each minute passing as if it was a decade until Alva suddenly appeared at my passenger side.


I remember she said it like it was nothing, and then I was off onto the open road.

“What happened?” Silence.

  It’s like a movie in my head when I replay it now:  Alva’s bottle-red hair has come loose from its clips and is blowing wildly around her face. I’m afraid she’s going to catch a piece of it in the ash of her cigarette but I know better than to say anything about that. I merge us onto the New Jersey Turnpike, am halfway back home before I try again.

            “What happened back there?” 

            Alva’s finished two Camels, lit one off the last, and started on a third.

            “You do not want to know, Freya.” 

            And yeah, I tell my regulars when I retell the story. Yeah, after the tearful goodbye, after Alva took the train ticket I bought her and headed back to Fort Myers, I did drive back up to Menlo Park, and no, I don’t know how she did it, but sure as shit, Grandma was there.


            I turn the dinner hour over to Carmen. She’s old and doesn’t want to do early or late hours; serving up stewed tomatoes and macaroni and cheese, the AARP special I added to the menu, is just about her style. On the drive home, I’m sitting in traffic as usual, so I’ve got plenty of time to figure what I’ll tell Alva.

“Hey, Alva,” I’ll start, casual like, if she happens to be, by some miracle, sitting at my kitchen table when I come home for the day. When she left to go back to Fort Myers, I gave her a key. You never know when someone like Alva’s going to need a place to sleep, or maybe hide. “Hey Alva, what’s new?” I won’t let on at first about how worried I’ve been for her; I wouldn’t want to drive her away. I haven’t met too many people I can really talk to yet in Trenton and Alva sure would be a sight for sore eyes.

            “You got anything worth eating in this place?” That would be her idea of a greeting and I’ll say, “Well, hello to you too.”

            But sure she’ll be hungry. Milan, Ohio’s a long way from Trenton. Not just in miles but as to a whole life, I’d like to tell Alva. Here you’ve got Formica-boothed diners and traffic circles, guys in hoody sweatshirts coming off a night shift road crew out Route 1, coming in for a cup of coffee black, and as hot as you can serve it. At the counter of the Oasis they’re like as not to be sitting next to some hotshot MBA with his first job up there in the State House, his suit jacket shoulder right up against that construction worker’s shoulder and him asking for a skinny latte.

            Better make that decaf, the hotshot kids always say here in Trenton.

            “As opposed to?” Alva will say. She hates when I presume to know a place I don’t.

            As opposed to how I see Milan:  lily white, cream and two sugars and Alva crazy enough to think she fits right in, her with her fire engine dye job and those stilettos she always wears when she’s serving anything with three olives in a stem glass to a regular.

            When I tell her my picture, Alva will say, “Freya, I swear you have become a cynic since you came north. You lacking sunshine or just sad you went missing the Barcalounger salesmen in February?”

            In no time at all she’ll have me laughing as she’s spinning the scene: all that polyester in light blue and who knows how many hair pieces sliding further and further with each round of drinks.

            “Stop it before I pee myself,” I will have to say. I’ll be laughing but inside I’ll feel a little sad, thinking my way back to all those smoky blue nights at Coltrane’s.

            A bar in Fort Myers is a long way from a diner in Trenton. I’m missing Alva, missed her the moment she went back to serving martinis and left me here to serve up two eggs, scrambled, but keep them dry and rye toast, jelly, no butter. 

            Trenton’s even a long way from the Trenton I remember when I was a kid, the place my grandfather cheated on my grandmother for twenty-two years, the place where any self-respecting diner customer never met a cholesterol he wouldn’t shove in his face.

            I pull into the mobile home park—no rental cars with Ohio plates in sight—and I’m sad to say no lights on in my unit. Alva’s out there somewhere and who might that be driving the get-away car? Alva’s crisscrossing the country leaving her mark in state after state. Claiming my heritage, she calls it. I’m unlocking the door and getting set for a quiet night, all the lives I’ve left behind me spooling out over highways—Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Ohio Tollway, or straight down 95 to Florida. All the lives I’ve left behind.

“Cut the violins and shit, Freya.” I hear that husky smoker’s voice in my head. I pick up the phone and dial a number more familiar than my own.


Liz Abrams-Morley is the author of Learning to Calculate the Half Life (Zinka Press, 2001,) and What Winter Reveals (Plan B Press, 2005). Her second full-length collection, Necessary Turns, is due out from Word Press/WordTech Communications early in 2010. Liz’s poems and short stories have appeared in nationally distributed journals and anthologies and have been featured on National Public Radio. She has received fellowships from the Pennsylvania Arts Council and the Ragdale Foundation. Co-founder of Around the Block Writing Collaborative, (www.writearoundtheblock.org) she is an adjunct gypsy, part of the MFA in Creative Writing faculty of Rosemont College, and serves as a poet-in-residence in area schools.  

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