Young Fife: The Lost First Decade

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In the days when Little Eddie was playing Kick the Can in the alleys of Phoenix, Father Felix was a common sight. He made himself available as counselor to those boys who came from broken homes, tried to steer troubled kids in the right direction. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but he never found out what became of Little Eddie Sleeth, the one who seemed to have so much promise.

When the father is shown a current picture of Fife Symington, there is no hesitation in his opinion. The eye opens wide; he stabs the photo with a wrinkled, bony, brown index finger.

"It is him! It is El Blanco! For years I have felt a strangeness to this man Symington, a certain familiarity," he says excitedly. Then he sighs with the resignation of one who knows the pain of watching good work go for naught.

"I am saddened by the paths some of the boys--my children of the streets--have taken. Some are in jail, some living lives of sin, some, even, are dead. And now I learn the fate of El Blanco. It is almost too much for an old man to bear."

She doesn't want to talk about it. She hasn't in years, hasn't allowed herself to utter his name anywhere or to anyone but herself, alone, in her room at night, when the lights are off. That's when the memories come back, the truth, the questions, the hurt.

Of course, no one ever asks her what happened to her kid stepbrother, Eddie, who got taken away so long ago, and Esther Sleeth volunteers nothing. But, deep inside, she knows. Esther has seen the pictures of the governor, she's heard him speak, felt the inexplainable emotional pull when she reads of Fife Symington's--Little Eddie's--accomplishments. And failures.

"What they're saying about him, the things he's done and all, maybe those things are true. But we did our best with him, Mama tried so hard, and when they took him away and he ended up with those folks back East, well ... let's just say they changed him. And I do not mean for the better."

The Sleeths lived in a simple, wooden house in South Phoenix; it's still there, empty, unattended, its place in Arizona history unacknowledged. The paint is peeling; ripped screens hang off the windows like rusted flaps of skin; where there should be grass, there is dirt; and where there should be dirt, there are weeds.

Esther has agreed to come out to the old place. She is the last of the family to remain in theValley. She walks around the house as the sun sets and softens edges, but this is no romantic log cabin. Itis, as she puts it, "pretty much a dump. Like it was then."

She stops next to a gnarled tree. "The oranges off this tree are ornamental," Esther says. "You're not supposed to eat them. The way I found this out was once Eddie talked my brother Vince into eating one; he bit into it, and the juice made his lips numb right up. Eddie could talk people into doing the damnedest things! Vince beat him for three hours or so. God, that was funny."

Esther says that, of the six Sleeth children, she was closest to Little Eddie. "We spent hours just playing together, playing make-believe restaurant. Little Eddie--Iused to call him "Little D."--always had to be the chef," she says, the hard lines lifehas left in her face warming into a smile.

"Early on, he'd make mud pies," she continues, "and when he learned to read, he'd take recipes out of the newspaper and pretend he had the real ingredients, though it was mostly stuff we found in the trash or just lying around. Olive oil would be Valvoline, scallions would be dandelion stalks, for dried currants he'd use little rocks. You get the idea. D. would talk his friend Billy, Billy Hudge, into being the waiter. He'd serve it all up to me, and sometimes I'd take little bites. You should have seen Little Eddie's face light up!"

And, briefly, her face lights up, too. Then it goes out.
"That's really about all I care to say about Eddie; no one's gonna believe it, anyway," says Esther. Then she gets into her Pinto and drives away.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap