New Novel, Chapter One
Note: after being challenged by a comment by fellow Binghamton native, novelist Roger K. Miller (The Chenango Kid), I decided to post chapters of my new novel as blogs - with a word of caution: not all novels get finished. Many of mine have died on the vine without ripening. If that's okay with you, lets get going with Chapter One from "A Witch Next Door."
A white church with a dirt and gravel parking area filled the corner. Seldom used, a road wandered up into wooded hills toward the county airport. Next to the church was a darker house, shades always drawn. A witch lived there, according to my three older brothers. Next came our house and, then, a less chaotic place where my best friend lived.
Our house was too small to corral five children under eight, two adults, just four rooms with Dad’s car parked in a driveway separating ours from the necromancer’s place. Getting out must have enticed Mom already. For someone else, getting out might mean the disgraceful, hidden crime, a wrist sliced open to an unsolvable puzzle. Mom went the other way. Suicide crosses everyone’s mind. In hers, it was probably something like a rag blowing across a busy street on a stormy day, here and gone, dispatched before the skies cleared.
Dad moved us all out before anything drastic happened, moved to a much bigger place. My brother and I still slept together on a cot in a bedroom without closets, our other bothers in a bunkbed and our sister in a room by herself. Mom and Dad slept in an alleged master bedroom downstairs, off the kitchen. Seven of us shared one, small bathroom. Raised on a farm with ten brothers and sisters and only an outhouse and a manual pump for water, Dad probably believed this was a step up. Mom, I’m guessing, twenty-five and in charge of five children under ten, felt like she was walking around in a mutable straitjacket.
But if that was true, I recall no evidence of it. Mom drove us around in Dad’s car when she could get her hands on it, dispensing lessons about double and triple parking and coasting downhill by releasing the gears for a free ride. She sang How Much is that Doggy in the Window and Que Sera Sera with her hands on the wheel. Once, on a Sunday outing, she badly sprained her ankle when her high heel got stuck between the slats on the merry-go-round in a play area at the Ross Park Zoo.
Saturday morning, our next door neighbor dedicated country and western songs to us on his radio show. Mom loved it. He was probably flirting with her. That Sunday when she injured her ankle at the zoo, we saw his band play live. I remember Les telling all of us who’d gathered on folding chairs that he was about to “wind Ronnie up,” introducing his guitarist son for a solo. Les later became notorious for dying in his girlfriend’s bed, a heart attack taking him while his tractor trailer rig idled along Upper Court Street below her house. He shares the historical distinction of dying in the saddle with Nelson Rockefeller, proving that death disregards riches. A decade later, Les’s girlfriend became my father’s. Rumors of a marriage circulated without closure. Decades after that, Les’s widow became my stepmother, long after it might’ve been useful for my brothers, sister and I to have one.
Such were, as I understand them, the foundations of country and western music. Granted more idle time in the transition from farming to a more urban culture, we let our morals soften in the pursuit of happiness. Christian regulation went into decline as soap operas soaked up housewives’ afternoons.
In the Fifties, America was falling apart. Later, experts were shocked and the public dismayed over escalating divorce rates and broken families. I wasn’t. I confess to a kind of smug satisfaction. Glass walls were suddenly everywhere, other families just as fucked up as mine. They kept their robes on longer, but their bodies were just like ours. Culture ruptured. We kept up a damn good front for a long time.
The prevailing mystery of my life centers on the question of how my parents managed to take credit for five children. This is like Pluto and Mars finding a way to pair up in orbit and birth a mini, sunless solar system of their own. Inconceivable, yet conceived.
“Your father swept me off my feet,” Mom told me, warming convincingly with the memory.
That would have been easier to believe if I’d never met Dad.
No knock on Dad. I’d just never seen any evidence that he was a sweep me off my feet kind of guy or that he had the weapons for smooth seduction tucked away in his arsenal. That we knew of, he had exactly two romances in the thirty years between Mom’s leaving and his dying far too young. The one we knew about only from gossip. The other was visible, but cryptic. I use “visible” loosely. I found out about this romance when, wandering home after midnight on a Saturday, I collided with rearranged furniture in our lightless living room. In the morning, I figured out that Dad had rigged a pair of chairs face to face to create a makeshift bed where his date slept while he dozed in the alleged master bedroom.
I was sixteen, and my knowing hormones alerted me to the issues.
What eventually dismayed us about his affair with Dorothy was the way in which her son, who threatened to become our stepbrother, got privileges denied us. A case of Coke, for example, was parked in a utility room near the kitchen. Any soft drinks we ever got were bought out of our allowances, calories, empty or otherwise, a no nonsense matter in our home, previously.
I began having Coke for breakfast that summer, slipshod rebel that I was.
Add to that the fact that Dorothy’s son, Chuckie — yes, Chuckie — was pudgy and uninteresting, softened by divorce into a momma’s boy. My brothers weren’t always the greatest guys, but they were always, at a minimum, interesting. It was a family trait.
In concert with my brothers and sister, I was happy that Dad finally had the companionship everyone craves, and like them, I was amused by his efforts at subterfuge, sneaking her in and out of his bedroom like he lived in a restricted boarding house. It was funny that Dorothy captured Dad by flirting him up from her post at the cash register in the supermarket. It was nice to see how she bolstered his confidence and how he warmed up in her company.
But I didn’t like her. At first, I did, but then, we got to know each other.
A year after he recorded it on an album, Nat King Cole’s Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer was becoming a seasonal classic. It came on the radio one day when I happened to be in the kitchen with Dorothy.
“I remember how much I used to love Nat King Cole when he first started out,” she reminisced. “What a voice! Then, I got to see his picture, and holy cow, he was a nigger. I never liked to listen to him again.”
Nor I to her.
Racism was casual and usually undisguised in the Fifties and early Sixties, but the awakening of the Sixties rendered it bitter and disgusting for some of us.
It was sad when Dorothy and Dad broke up. Not because of her racism — Dad was a racist too — but because Dad ran out of patience with her pampered son. She walked after a dollop of criticism landed on her face. She chose to walk several miles home, and he didn’t go after her. His polar ice shelf returned.
The only hint of romance I saw from him in all the years that followed was a forgettable incident when he was what we then called tipsy, a light, playful inebriation, and flirted with my cousin. It was harmless but a side of him he usually kept behind his shield.
True, when they were both in their sixties, Dad married Les’s widow. There must have been some romance, although she complained that she’d married for companionship and had been disappointed while wrestling with Dad’s taciturn nature. The man could put up a wall like none other. He was sullen, just astonishingly unmovable and inaccessible when he felt like it.
That marriage ended in classic catastrophe. Dad returned home from work one afternoon and found Juanita gone, which was probably okay with him by then, but somehow, she’d managed to drag every stick of furniture out the door with her.
That’s not what you find in the track record of a sweep me off my feet guy.
Mom was a fabulist, though, her reported history Swiss cheesed with missing pieces, otherwise frequently in dispute or subject to change. You could count on the gist of who she was, but you wouldn’t want to gamble on the facts.
The last time I saw Mom, my brother, his wife and daughter invited my sister and I to travel with them to California to see her. She was in her seventies, then, the ruins of a once great beauty as undeniable as the lingering relics of Rome. She laughed easily still, recounting details from decades old memories while less precise with the recent past. She was also weakened by internecine battles, many of her own instigation, that racked her second family on the Left Coast.
The melodramas and intrigues are hardly worth getting into, and who had enough time to jot down those nickel stories for the archive anyway? But after an afternoon spent with our half-sisters and their families, during which Mom became so rattled she forgot her diabetes medication, we drove her, still shaky, to her house where we got to meet our youngest half-brother because he was slow to escape.
Just for the record, two half-brothers and one half-sister were no longer in the family circle, outside the Mom loop voluntarily. The youngest, who still lived with Mom as an adult and was rumored to manufacture illegal drugs in his bedroom, was scrambling toward a car in the driveway with his girlfriend when we pulled into the driveway.
“There’s my baby,” Mom exclaimed. “You can meet him after all.”
During our earlier visit, around lunchtime, she’d been unable to awaken him in his bedroom/lab.
He seemed nervous, eager to be gone, shuffling steadily toward the getaway car. We later guessed that one of his sisters called ahead to say the East Coast crew was approaching and he needed to get out before his personal wreckage became visible. It’s strange what people will do to maintain appearances when no one else gives a shit.
Shaking my youngest, little known brother’s sweaty palm, I did nothing to discourage his departure. A get acquainted chat seemed unlikely. He got in and his girlfriend backed her car out. Then, Mom and I stood alone in her driveway. No one else had gotten out of our car. She was like a saturated sponge beginning to feel squeezed.
“Listen,” I told her, “it isn’t between you and them. It’s between you and Him.”
I pointed upward.
Okay, so I stole that from Wayne Dyer. It was my one chance to give my mother advice, and it was sincere, if plagiarized.
That did “so much good,” she later wrote, but within a year, she took offense at something she thought I said to one of my feuding half-sisters and banished me. I never saw or spoke to her again. When she died, my wife and I were visiting a friend in Vienna, and I heard about it only from a slew of messages left on my phone in New York. I was too late, even for the funeral.
I wish I could say I felt some profound sadness at her passing, but that would be a lie. I just took it in stride. Mom abandoned us long before, my wounds healed over. It might even have been a wise move on her part, but some broken things can’t be put back together because the pieces change over time. What fit once now can’t.
The only lingering question in my mind is, when did she effectively abandon me? Was it when she left town and started another family with her lover or was it earlier, much earlier?
“When I saw you were another boy, I wanted to put you back,” is how Mom detailed the miracle of my birth.
Fourth boy to spring from her into this crazy world, I was not the girl she wanted. She joked about it. She had to put a smiley face on it, really. Women then never admitted resenting the burden of motherhood.
My oldest brother had barely turned four when my parents had to find a way to jam me into their crowded home, my youngest brother not yet two. Who could blame her at twenty-one, vivacious, in love with the world and anchored by four weights? An orphan before she married Dad, we were her only intimate family.
And here she was, stuck with one more boy. Me.
Mom and Dad kept tensions sufficiently under control to survive under the same roof for six more years. The daughter Mom wanted arrived less than two years after me. Given that, it’s surprising how little I remember.
One early spring day, an unfamiliar car sat halfway down our driveway when our school bus approached. My brothers and I ran down the steps the instant the driver stopped, then paused to inspect the car. In its trunk was a huge corrugated box stuffed full of our clothes. Memories began accumulating at that moment, when I was six and a half. Before, there’s a lot of empty space. It’s odd, but should I worry about that or the historical vacuums to come?
The story as it’s now told is that we form consistent memories after roughly three and a half. Earlier, something called childhood amnesia is explained by the fact that our language skills are so undeveloped that we can’t shape what happens into something our brains can add to the library. After that, laying things down as stories gets right to it.
We never consciously remember everything at any age, but it’s strange to me that I vividly remember the witch from when I was around three and a half, actually a couple of months less, and another event that’s remarkable because it’s my only memory of my father before he got rid of Mom and took custody.
What I wonder about is the missing memories. The Halloween when my brothers scared me with the witch next door is firm but hazy. I don’t even remember my brothers individually, not as characters separate from myself, for years, but what I remember doesn’t scare me. It reminds me how much I loved belonging to them, even as their younger incompetent. I know this because my next memory of them is from nearly a year later when we’ve moved to our new house. I don’t see them but feel the intense sadness when they climb on the school bus without me in September. I remember crying so hard on the edge of our rough lawn at the side of the road, Mom had to come out and get me.
After that, not much at all until we’re playing Little League baseball, each of us on different teams.
The other thing I remember from three and a half comes with two markers. I remember the thrill of childhood play. The girl next door, who must have been my age, is running through her house with me. We’re chasing each other, no goals, just the wild enthusiastic release of energies that now drive parents into panic. Out of control. I remember being warned by her father to be careful and that, not much later, one of us bumped a plate on a shelf and smashed it into a million pieces. What sticks this to the bulletin board in my head is that I then got spanked by her father, although I don’t remember that, just the aftermath.
The rest of the adhesive is stirred by my running home and telling my father that our neighbor spanked me. Over a backyard fence, the men met face to face, and when told about my offense, Dad backed off as Mom stood by. They agreed that I had the spanking coming.
The power of what I learned that day clarifies when I dig around and find that I haven’t a shred of memory of my father after that until I was six years old, nothing, not a spanking, not a word of advice, not a friendly smile, nothing until he took us out to the zoo on visiting day after he and Mom separated. By then, I was mostly afraid of him and his flairs of violent anger.
I take what little clay I have to work with and what I make of it is that I became so attached to my brothers to fill a gap left by my parents. That gap eventually led to my risky and rewarding independence. Independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though, because it brings along an uncanny gift for shredding attachments and a deficit in understanding pains inflicted on others.
Rebels leave bootprints.
Somewhere, there is a cave and deep down beyond where the bears slept and artists recorded pictures on the walls are missing years from my childhood. Hypnotherapy might pump them up to the surface in a kind of malformed froth, but I’m not sure I want to invest in sorting all that out. Memory retreats for a reason, and if it’s insight I want, the memories I kept are already pregnant with messages I can use.
The used car in our driveway with all our clothes in it? Mom’s funky variation on a moving van.
Mom was never burdened by careful contemplation. She was more of a dreamer, an expressionist in a painterly world of neo-realists. She and her boyfriend cooked up a plan to leave the sometimes cold Northeast for sunny Florida, a land not yet set aside as a vast retirement village.
Shock is a memory eraser. After spotting that car, parked halfway down so that its door met the steps from our front porch, I vaguely recall standing by during a wedding that night. The next connected the thread begins running when our car breaks down in Georgia. Bob, Mom’s boyfriend, is not with us. He’s drove ahead in another car with a man I assume was the recent groom. Mom has sardined us in with the bride in the loaded sedan from the driveway.
I remember the thrilling red clay of Georgia and being taken in by a couple from a nearby home when our car broke down, invited to stay overnight in their log house, polished wood everywhere. What I don’t remember is getting the car fixed or arriving in Florida. I don’t remember anyone else from our certainly traumatized crew, my brothers, my sister or even Mom until we’re all stuck in a terrible boarding house in Miami and my close call with death imprinted a turning point.
Next: I Never Left Binghamton
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