I drive by a house on a dark street on the edge of our neighborhood. It’s a lost street, really, a lost block of old houses in need of repair, a very long block stretching between two neighborhoods.
For reasons I can’t understand, I want to stop the car to look at the house. Want to circle it. Want to look at it a bit longer.
The kids are in the car, though. And so I don’t.
It’s maybe a mile from our house. A forgotten place, that’s not at all like where I live now.
* * *
In dreams I find myself in two places at once. The kids will be with me at work. Nora will be driving with me back in Tacoma.
They are panicky dreams, where I am not at all in control. Where things happen faster than I can see or understand.
I have long tried to keep the various parts of my life separate. Family, work. With kids, without. This city, another.
* * *
I mention to the kids that, when I was a kid, a lot of my friends had newspaper routes. This is a strange and surprising thing to them, as newspapers are delivered by car now, adults flinging the papers from a slowly moving vehicle.
“I’d always get looped into helping some friend do his paper route,” I’m saying as the six of us sit around the dinner table. “So I’d have to meet him at the paper box to load up.”
“What’s a paper box?” Sam asks. He’s eleven. The others are ten, ten and nine.
“They were big plywood boxes that were positioned around town,” I say. “Big bundles of newspapers would be dropped in them.” I take a bite of food. In a moment, I say, “Sometimes we used to sleep in the boxes.”
There’s a pause as the kids, and Nora, ponder this. I realize I should not have mentioned this part.
“Why would you sleep in them?” Cole asks.
I pause, then say, “Because we were tired.”
I’m not entirely sure how to get out of this. We slept in the boxes when we were too drunk to go home. We’d convince our parents that we were sleeping at each other’s houses, so we’d have the whole night on our own, and we’d get somebody’s cousin to buy us beer, or someone’s brother to get us whiskey, and we’d drink under a bridge on Proctor Street, three or four of us down there drinking till one of us got sick from it, and it was always cold at night in Tacoma, always raining, and you’d climb out from under that bridge, drunk and sick and wet and making fun of your even sicker friend, and the only place to sleep was the paper boxes, because you couldn’t sleep under the bridge in case some of the older, scarier kids, the kids in high school, might come to the bridge later, so we’d clear out before then, wandering the five or six blocks to some dark paper box where we’d sleep for a few hours.
It’s not really a story I meant to tell here at dinner. I don’t even like to picture it.
The kids are still looking at me. Nora too.
We were maybe twelve or thirteen then, a few years older than Cole and Sam.
“Mostly we’d just take a nap,” I say. “Summer. It was warm out. A nap before you’d deliver the papers.”
* * *
When I was eleven years old, my brother moved out of my mother’s house to live in Alaska with my father.
He and I were very close. Two years apart in age, in the youngest years of my growing up, there was me and my older brother Danny.
If I remember right, it was announced to me a few days before it happened, when Danny was packing to leave.
It’d be like Cole moving away next week. And the rest of us would only see him in the summer and at Christmas break.
Suddenly, Cole would be gone.
And although my mother and I would see Danny at school breaks and we would often talk about him – sometimes so much so that it was like he was still living with us – we wouldn’t speak of it, the fact that he’d chosen to leave. We wouldn’t ever mention it again.
* * *
In the dreams I’m still in two places at once. Former marriage, current. Tacoma, here. I find myself unable to manage each part simultaneously. Unable to reconcile the personalities and people in each of those lives.
In the dreams, Cole and Sam move beyond my field of vision, jumping into ditches in a place I somehow know to be Tacoma. Nora will be sitting in the passenger seat of a car, looking at the houses on a street to which we are being forced to move.
Ellie and Carmen will be there, because I see them walking away.
* * *
At the dinner table, I mention that I’ve been to Alaska.
“You’ve been to Alaska?” Sam asks. All the kids are surprised. It seems like I’d have told them this, more than once.
“Yes,” I say. “Grandpa lived there for 20 years.”
Cole tilts his head. “Grandpa didn’t live in Tacoma?”
“No,” I say. “He lived in Alaska then.”
“You lived in Alaska?” Carmen asks.
“No,” I say. “I used to visit. But I didn’t live there.”
The kids know my parents were divorced. But, apparently, I’ve never made clear that Grandpa lived in another city.
Many of the kids’ friends have parents who are divorced. But none of those friends have a parent who lives in another city. These days, kids alternate days or weeks. Our kids, their friends, all do.
“I’d go up to Alaska every summer and sometimes for spring break or Christmas break.”
Cole still has his head turned. Ellie is fidgeting with her fork. Sam is looking down. Carmen is looking toward her mom.
“It was different then,” I say.
There’s still a silence.
“You wouldn’t move,” Cole says, “would you?”
“Never,” I say.
People pass food. The conversation moves to homework, practice, the day ahead tomorrow.
* * *
I had a cousin tell me once, when we were maybe ten or eleven, about how he’d smoked pot with his dad. It was strange and scary sounding and I wasn’t sure if I believed him. I do now, though. People do strange things with their children and my aunts and uncles were all scarred by the alcoholism and abuse of their father and so maybe my uncle thought that by smoking pot with his son he’d be the antithesis of his father, that instead he’d be his son’s cool friend.
There were drugs everywhere. I first watched a kid get high when I was eight. A neighbor boy, a year younger than me. He stole the pot from his mom. There were drugs at parties and in homes and on the school bus and in the pockets of kids sitting through geometry and science.
* * *
In every city that you might ever live in, there are streets between neighborhoods, forgotten streets that city planners lost track of at some point, borders to neighborhoods and shortcuts for commuters. There are houses on those streets that you barely notice as you pass. Dark houses, with many objects in the front yard.
When I was growing up, those are the houses where I played. Those are the houses where, later, I got drunk.
Now, though, I’m a parent. A husband. A legitimate member of the business community. My neighbors, they see me, see me mowing the lawn or taking out my recyclables, and they think I’m as normal as them. I wave to my neighbors. I set my refuse on the curb. The low fat milk cartons. The wrapper marked organic chicken.
I live very far from Tacoma now. I’ve spent a lot of time creating this new impression.
* * *
In the middle of the night, I wake up and think that I’ve taken some sort of hallucinogenic drug. My speaking is altered, my sense of time destroyed, my whole consciousness caught in a peaking moment of the drug, lost to it and unable to make it stop. I wake myself and for a moment I am scared. Sure that I really have taken drugs.
I haven’t, of course.
But there’s a fear, always, that it might have happened. I lay awake for a minute. I touch Nora next to me. I picture the children sleeping nearby.
I haven’t, of course.
It just seems like I could have.
* * *
Sometimes I feel that our house is getting away from me, that the work I need to do has outgrown completely the time and money I have. It’s a fairly big house, a beautiful one and I don’t ever want to live anywhere else. Leaves that need raking, gutters that need cleaning. Cracked paint on the window sills. I see only the flaws, only the work, only the time I don’t have.
* * *
I wake up and have to remind myself whether there are kids in the house. It’s a few seconds of wondering, remembering, of establishing this day versus another. My mind moves from room to room, checking off whether each bed is filled.
It’s maybe sad that I should have to think about this. That I could wake up and have to wonder whether my children are here or at their mother’s.
* * *
I went to high school with Ted Bundy.
Bundy graduated many years before me. But my uncle actually did go to high school with him. And my brother’s friends knew Bundy’s family. They lived just five or six blocks away.
It reminds me of a teacher I had in Tacoma, Mr. Cavanaugh, who when I was in his class and even back when my uncle was in his class, Cavanaugh had long gray hair and wore a bright orange hunting jacket and sometimes when I had his class I could still smell the beer on him at 7:30 in the morning. Those were mornings in biology when he’d take some fish or little pig from one of those jars and wave it around the room, dripping formaldehyde on the desk of some cute girl in the front row and Cavanaugh would be talking about cells and reproduction and about how guys needed to wear jock straps and girls needed to wear bras and that’s just a fact, he’d say, no need to debate it, the sexes are different. He’d keep going and talk about how in the 60’s the girls would wear mini-skirts and no panties and once the students got him talking about all this, I knew there’d be no osmosis that day, knew there was no point but for me to read quietly at my desk as he talked about how the girls wore no panties, you could see it from up here at the front of the class, and I’d even tell them I could see things, he’d say, and they didn’t care.
And my uncle was there, in the 60’s, sitting, I guess, next to the girls in the mini-skirts. Maybe even sitting next to Bundy. Maybe he was there too.
And even that’s not entirely true. I think of it as real. Because I did have a teacher like Mr. Cavanaugh, although he’s really a combination of two different teachers I had, but those two teachers did those things, one when I was in fifth grade, the other when I was in tenth. But it’s simpler to tell that story as one person. One memory.
And I don’t know if my uncle ever had a class with Bundy. Though they were about the same age.
But, still, Bundy’s family really did live down the street.
* * *
There are things about my childhood I don’t have the words to discuss. Not so much a hidden moment I can’t reveal. It’s not about some dark secret I haven’t yet told you. It’s that there’s something I can’t find a way to describe. A poverty of speech, it’s called. The inability to articulate why these things cause me so much pain.
* * *
I don’t drink gin often. There’s a certain danger in it for me. I’ll drink a bit too much of it. Drink it a bit too fast. Strange things will happen then. Not always bad, and not always good.
The kids are outside playing. Nora is making dinner. I’m sitting on the porch on the second floor. I can see neighbors tending to their yards. There’s gin in a glass near me and the photo albums of my childhood that I look at before and after I write and there’s dark music on the stereo.
Strange things could happen. Half a glass and, really, I can’t help but think what’s possible.
* * *
My uncle had pit bulls. Two of them, that he got after the Dobermans he’d had both died. Tacoma was a place of fierce dogs. Dogs like that project a sense of fear and violence and protection from enemies just outside the door.
In Tacoma, you wouldn’t have said there were enemies. You simply felt that there was something, someone, from which we all needed to be protected.
I remember the pit bulls were very sweet dogs. They wanted to lick my face and lay on top of me. Big, thick dogs that pressed against me and had white fur that was very soft and underneath the fur there was muscle that was as hard as wood and I looked around to see if my uncle was still nearby because you couldn’t help but wonder if something bad was about to happen with those dogs.
Another time I saw one of the pit bulls in his yard, the white face red and its rib cage rubbing hard against the chain link fence as it ran around the edge of the yard. It was carrying a dead cat, still rubbing hard against the fence, for five minutes or more, until finally it dropped the cat and ran and jumped for the tire that was hanging from the tree, five feet in the air that dog jumped and it caught the tire with its mouth and it hung there, shaking and swinging and its body was hitting hard and loud against the fence now, blood all down its neck and saliva spraying out from its mouth.
* * *
“I had a friend in high school who lived with his uncle,” I say to the boys as we’re getting out of the car, in response to something one of them said. Something I can’t remember now.
“Why’d he live with his uncle?” Sam asks.
“He didn’t get along with his mom,” I say, and I’m already into it before I’ve thought about what I’m saying.
“So his uncle took care of him?” Cole asks, slowing down, concerned.
I’m trying to think about my answers now. Trying to tell them how things were, without telling them too much.
“Well, yes, his uncle was great. But my friend, Sean, he was sort of on his own. He got a job and had to buy his own food and if Sean really needed something, his uncle would help, but it’s not like his uncle had a lot of money.”
The boys have stopped walking now. “Sean? Your friend Sean that we’ve met?” Sam asks.
I’ve forgotten that they know Sean. They’ve met him a number of times when we’ve visited the Northwest. He’s one of my best friends.
“Yes,” I say.
“Where was his dad?” Cole asks.
I pause, thinking. In a moment, I say, “He wasn’t really around.”
The boys slow as we walk. Cole stops completely.
I think about Sean moving out after years of his mom taking him to dinner at the bulk food bins in the big grocery store near the highway, and how his mom cleared out the furniture in their house more than once, calling the police, telling them the house had been robbed so that she could collect the insurance money, Sean spending the night in the back seat of his mom’s old car.
I’ve turned to the boys now, standing next to me in this parking lot. Cole touches my hand, not quite holding it, but touching it for a moment.
“You’ve met Sean,” I say. “He turned out fine."
* * *
My father’s father killed a woman, years later returning to abuse his wife in my father’s chaotic and welfare-supported home and sometimes, my dad said, he could hear his dad raping his mother in her room.
My grandmother took in laundry to make money, which embarrassed my dad, his house full of other people’s drying and folded clothes. His shame at being poor, at having to hitchhike to school and wear hand-me-down clothes and feeling dirty, all that made him obsessed with making money, with getting ahead in his career. A career best pursued up in Alaska.
Dad never talked to his father as an adult. Some of his siblings tracked the father down and made their peace with him. But not dad. When Danny and I were kids and we’d ask about our grandpa Barnes, did we have one, dad would say he never knew him. “He could be that guy sitting at the table right there.”
We’d be in a restaurant when he’d say this, which is, when we were kids, where we always seemed to see my dad.
* * *
Staring again at the dark house on the lost street, I notice that, along the side of the house, there is a tricycle. And I realize children must live here. Grown up now, maybe. Past the age of riding that tricycle now leaning against the house.
But there are people in that house. Children.
* * *
I used to roam all day in the vast, forgotten woods on the other side of Tacoma, woods filled with beer cans and tires and metal objects of indeterminate purpose, woods that we called the gulch. Woods that these days are known as the Homes of Timber Ridge, The Villas at Pine Creek, but that back then were aimless, empty woods filled with purposeless kids in search of something, anything to do.
* * *
I drive by the dark house again. I realize suddenly, obviously, that the house is Tacoma. My Tacoma. The kind of place where I grew up. Where there was drinking and pot smoking and some friend’s uncle playing electric guitar in the other room and warm beer someone’s cousin bought us and it was never clear whose house this really was. Small and insignificant houses, that were dark on the outside and devoid of anything but us doing nothing.
* * *
I sit on my porch. Staring at the photo album I often look at before and after I write.
A photo of a restaurant window with me and my brother inside it. A photo of me on a bicycle. A photo of my father sitting alone on a bed.
Photos that are painful and haunted and beautiful and possessed. Possessed by my demons, which break free when I look at this photo of a street corner, a home, Danny and me near a simple stack of chairs.
Or maybe there are demons within the photos themselves.
In truth, I think I hope that the photos have demons.Anyone who writes, I think, does this because of the demons. The dark memories. Empty moments. The things that embody everything we spend so much time trying to forget.
The photos are a reminder of Tacoma, where I grew up and which is the place I fled, my Tacoma, but it could be your Tacoma, anyone’s Tacoma, anyone’s place or memory or moment that they cannot really ever flee.
* * *