My older brother and I were too young to understand the concept of moving to a new house—we thought we’d be moving back to our old place in a week or two. So, while the parents were occupied with the moving van and its burly attendants, we descended through the foreboding trapdoor in our closet, into the crawlspace, and there buried a Peter Pan Peanut Butter jar, filled with valuables that have long since slipped the reach of my memory.
I have often speculated on possible artifacts interred in this accidental time capsule: gum ball rings, marbles, bugs, my brother’s broken Hopalong Cassidy wrist watch, cereal box tops, Mercury dimes, bottle caps, whistles, the severed head from a Howdy Doody puppet . . . .
These ghostly inventories eventually triggered in me a salmon-like urge to return to the site of the buried jar. I drove nearly forty miles to a dimly familiar cul-de-sac, and after cruising up and down it a couple of times, parked my car on the side directly opposite the boxy little house my parents had purchased, with Dad’s G.I. loan, in 1952.
The trim of the house had since been recklessly painted a tacky grape color, and the front lawn looked like a moonscape, but the original awning, over the kitchen door, still clung stubbornly to the wall and my memory.
While sitting in my parked car, gathering the nerve to approach the current residents for a chance to tour the old place (and perhaps open a certain trapdoor), a young dog-faced man, with a shaved head and tattooed neck, stuck his face in the driver’s-side window and asked me what the hell I was doing here. He kept one eye fixed angrily on me, while his other eye seemed to be independently scanning the sky for aerial assaults. He wore an oil-stained tank top: transmitting the layered odors of an auto mechanic who’d been bar-hopping for the past three days.
“I used to live in that house,” I said, pointing like an orphan in a fairytale etching.
The dog-faced man screwed his canine features into a vicious smirk. “Well I live there now,” he said, then sauntered across the street and crawled under an old pickup truck that was suspended on jack stands in the driveway.
There was no trapdoor in the closet of the new house my family moved to in 1955. Instead, there was an outside entrance to the crawlspace, covered by a framed screen, which could be lifted up and out from its location on the west side of the house. My brother and I pretended we had discovered the entrance to the tomb of a forgotten Egyptian pharaoh. We explored the tomb a few times, until I was bitten by a black widow spider.
My brother dragged me out from under the house, like a miner pulling an injured comrade from the ruble of a cave-in. My mother, in a panicky attempt to take charge of the situation, instructed me to: “Stay calm—stay calm. We don’t want the poison to rush to your heart and kill you.”
While the poison was completing several laps around my cardiovascular system, my mother forced me into our Nash-Rambler—the so-called “transportation car”—and drove like a Destruction Derby Racer to our family doctor’s office, where the doctor greeted us with a benign smile and a menacing-looking hypodermic.
When we returned home, I was put immediately to bed. I recall having a high fever and being fed copious amounts of orange juice through a flexible straw. For weeks afterwards, I’d wake up screaming from the same nightmare: a giant spider—the size of a catcher’s mitt—crawling up my bedroom wall, dragging, like a mythological punishment, a large blood-red hourglass.
* * *
I abandoned my initial plan: the idea of asking permission to examine the ruins of my first home. I just sat there in my parked car, watching the dog-faced man’s large black boots jerking in comic reflex to his unseen struggles under the old pickup truck. After a while, I turned my attention down the worn and buckled sidewalks, looking for the ghost of my four-year-old self. My memory’s ear supplied the music of push mowers and bamboo rakes, as I saw myself being pulled in a wagon by my older brother, heading to a small market to trade bottles for coins. In another ghostly mirage, I witnessed my valiantly doomed effort to run away from home on a squeaky red scooter. I can’t remember why I was fleeing, but the scooter proved no match for a determined father in a Nash-Rambler.
“I smell a nark,” the dog-faced man growled. He had again positioned his angry young face in the open driver’s window. He was tamping into his greasy left palm an unopened pack of cigarettes. I recognized his rapid eighth-note motif as the popular performance piece of “no fear” smokers: the tough guys who wear skull-embossed shirts and refer to cigarettes—almost affectionately—as “smökes.”
I drove off without saying a word.
My second childhood home—the one in which I had lived until my late teens—was only about ten miles from the first home. I thought I would be able to recognize some landmarks and drive directly to it.
I was wrong. The town had been drastically altered: streets were widened and phone cables buried; old buildings had been either remodeled beyond recognition or else razed completely. I laced through tracts of newer housing, down streets with names like “Orange Grove” and “Quail Ridge”—names doubly ironic, considering the conspicuous absence of both orange groves and quail in Orange County.
There had been acres of real orange groves here when I was a boy. There had also been real California quail: marching single-file, chattering, in bird falsetto, Chicago-Chicago, and offering tempting but impossible-to-hit moving targets for young boys armed with Daisy BB guns.
I drove a little further, into a neighborhood at a higher elevation, and pulled the car over to catch my bearings. There were several real-estate signs, a few of them adorned with small plagues, shouting the word: SOLD, like explosions in a comic strip. The street was packed with dozens of oversized vehicles, some of which looked as if they’d require a rope ladder in order to climb up to the driver’s seat. I scanned the western horizon and saw the encroaching development halted at the edge of a small weedy field, where the houses seemed to be held back in awe of a sacred object: a lone rusty oil pump, seesawing from the earth the last pathetic drops of fossil fuel. I turned in the opposite direction and peered between a pair of morbidly obese SUVs, where I could just make out in the lower distance, the old city park.
I took the road leading down to the park and pulled my car into a lot that was riddled with potholes, loose gravel, and the scattered fast-food wrappers from a smattering of the BILLIONS SERVED. I locked my car and got out to walk around.
The old park playground had been “modernized.” The equipment from my childhood—the metal slide, galvanized monkey bars, wooden teeter-totter, and beloved and dangerously lopsided merry-go-round—had all been replaced by a clump of nondescript plastic apparatus. I walked a few yards past the old horseshoe pit and found the half-buried remains of the brick barbeque my father—and countless other fathers—had used during the 1950s. Someone had recently painted on it the word “Droopy” and a row of symbols that looked like an Etruscan epitaph. On a grassy mound nearby, I noticed the dark-gray form of a man lying in a fetal position: evocative of one of those plaster casts from a vaporized Pompeian, A.D 79. I assumed the man was either asleep or passed out. I got close enough to see a sign of life (he was breathing) and took relief from not having to report a corpse to the police.
My old elementary school would be an easy walk from the park. I considered it to be a worthy pilgrimage, and took a shortcut through the middle of the park, arriving at the school while most of the classes were still in session. I looked through a fence, into the small yard holding the kindergarteners, where an ancient reenactment was in progress. In observance of spring, the children had started, in Styrofoam cups, seeds of some kind, and were placing the cups on the wall of a low cinderblock planter, while the teacher was digging with a hand spade, small holes in which to plant the seedlings. I watched a sea of small heads—each topped with a newspaper admiral’s hat—bobbing in wild glee.
I walked past this scene and stopped in front of the school near the flagpole. About thirty yards behind the flagpole was the old hallway, from which the students would file out to meet the buses. I remembered the time when the entire enrollment was gathered in a long snaking line, ending at the mouth of the hallway, waiting to be inoculated against polio. It was a new vaccine then, a miracle, and our community leaders had wasted no time in getting the serum out.
Of course, my older brother and I didn’t see it for the miracle it was; we likened it to waiting in line for the Guillotine. We moved wide-eyed with the other victims, exchanging occasional knowing glances. Then, when our places in line moved to within ten feet from the white-clad nurses, we took off running, as if prearranged, toward the city park.
Like my earlier attempts at escape, this too ended in capture. Our father caught each of us under his opposing arms and toted us back to the waiting car. He didn’t return us to the line, but instead took us home. We thought he’d let it go at that, but he and our mother had other plans. Two days later, they tricked us into going to the doctor’s, under the ruse of getting our eyes checked.
My older brother hated needles as much I did. It was curious, then, that he overcame his fear and, years later, died from a hepatitis infection contacted from heroin use.
He was far from fitting the stereotype of such a fate. As a boy, he had been a bookish introvert. His main interest then was to become an archeologist; and he was in constant practice for this profession: searching for ancient civilizations in vacant lots and backyards—with me as his loyal assistant. In junior high, he took up the trombone, becoming a near virtuoso by the time he’d entered college. Later he became interested in neophonic jazz and quit college to pursue a career in that genre. A few of his peers compared him to Urbie Green. He even won an audition to go on the road with the Don Ellis Band. But he left that band to pursue gigs with smaller ensembles. After that, I can only guess, because the next thing I heard was that a friend had found him dead on the floor of his single room apartment. He was twenty-eight years old.
The news was a blow to the whole family; but especially to our grandfather. A mere month after my brother was buried, my grandfather suffered the warning tremor from his own final heart attack.
I went to visit him in the hospital. His bed sat near a window overlooking a flat stretch of lawn that ended in a tall stand of cypress. I knocked softly on the door jam and entered the room. My grandfather’s pillowed head was bent toward the window.
“Hi, Gramps,” I said, pulling up a chair next to his bed. He was wired up to an oscilloscope-like machine, monitoring the abstract representation of the functions of his heart.
He turned to face me and smiled. “It’s good to see you,” he said. His smile quickly disappeared and he looked as if he might cry. “I want to tell you something but I’m afraid to say it,” he said. “Do you know what I’m saying?”
I said I did, but I didn’t.
“I just can’t talk about it,” he said.
The heart monitor made a noise—which scared me a little—but I pretended not to notice.
“I know,” I said.
He looked out the window thoughtfully then said: “I been doing a lot of thinking. I’m remembering things like they just happened. Like when I was a little boy, for instance.” He turned to face me. “I thought I’d forgotten these things—you know?”
My grandfather usually talked to me about baseball or politics or fishing or what it was like to live in Chicago during the Roaring twenties, but he now had me in unfamiliar territory.
I said I understood.
He put his hands on my forearms, sat up, and positioned his face close to mine. He looked at me as if he were examining his own features in a mirror, nodding like a salesman. He stopped nodding for a moment and inhaled deeply through his nostrils, then started nodding again, slowly exhaling.
I waited for him to say something but he only nodded. I was barely twenty-five, and had no idea what was going on, but I continued nodding in concert, as if I understood everything.