A disgruntled daughter comes to her senses. Futility gets shot down, optimism rises and falls again. A Dad dies and comes back to life. Those closest do damage; kin, family. It’s not their fault. They were raised that way in California where the sun breeds a peculiar strain of yearning.
Branches of one lone avocado tree hovers over our back yard as if a cape. It covers the whole of our lawn and a portion of a dirt alley that runs behind our house on a modest slant in Santa Barbara, California. At three-years-old, I travel our yard at an extremely low level. The fallen fruit is as big if not bigger than my bare feet and crowds the ground. When I try to step around them I step on them instead. Their skin splits, green meat oozes on my toes and gives me the willies.
I wipe my feet on our porch mat then go inside toward the front of our house and look out our screen door. I can’t quite see the Pacific Ocean, but the smell of the salty sea air conjures its vision. I imagine it and that’s good enough for me.
Our two-story home is built of a dark wood, which makes it shadowy. There are windows but the outdoor trees shade them and prevent any meaningful light from entering.
There is one sunroom: wherever dad is.
It is almost nightfall. Time to sit on the bottom step of the staircase and wait for him to come home from the theater where he playacts and pretends. A long thin blade of fading light slices into the living room from a side window. I follow dust as it dances in its slivers until I hear dad whistling in the distance. The sound means he’s approaching the wooden gate at the end of our path. I thrill because I know what’s coming.
He stomps into the house the screen door slams behind him. He looks around, pretending not to see me. “Where’s my little girl?” he says in a big booming voice.
“Here, Daddy. Over here.”
He squints at me. “Are you sure you’re my Terry. I won’t stand for a substitute.”
“I’m sure, I’m sure.”
He lifts me up and twirls me until I giggle with glee.
“Oh, yes,” he says. “You are my little girl.”
“Put me up,” I say and he props me on his shoulders and holds my legs while we go from room to room to find mom, and my brother, Jolly, who is six, three years older than me.
Until bedtime my every moment is spent either following dad around or perching myself somewhere where he’s in view.
Mom’s name is Joy but Dad’s the one who has it. I know the word because I have asked. Jolly is definitely jolly. But mom is not joy. And, I am Terry wondering why my name means some kind of cloth.
Jolly and I share a room upstairs and down the hall from mom and dad. One morning we awake to mom’s screams. We rush to see what’s wrong. Mom sits on the edge of their bed, her eyes frantic. The straps of her nightgown slide off her shoulders. She’s gripping onto a short piece of paper. Jolly and I gawk at her undoneness. Where’s dad? I don’t realize that moment is going to be one of those moments in time; a freeze frame I’ll remember forever.
“It’s a note from your father,” she says and releases the paper from her grasp. As it floats downward, I see handwriting on it and somehow understand the great power of words.
Later, Jolly interprets the note for me. “Mom had dad go to the store to buy milk and he came home with buttermilk instead. He’s not going to live here anymore.”
“Can’t he get another?” I ask, to which Jolly replies, “You’re too young to know anything.”
I’m not too young to know anything. In fact, I know to not let anyone know how much I do know. That’s what I know.
We stay on in the house and miss dad. We ask questions; Mom answers without saying much. She claims we are now poor people who cannot afford to buy clothes as if poverty will replace him. Instead of the big dinners she used to make for him, she serves us hamburgers and beans. For lunch we eat Wonder bread, butter and sugar sandwiches, which, after I eat one, I crave more. If poverty can’t replace him, hunger will.
I’m never out of her sight and Jolly runs free.
Mom makes me an outfit but before she sews it she has to fit it to size. As instructed, I stand perfectly still on our front yard. She kneels beside me, straight pins clenched between her teeth while uttering grievances about dad with no further mention of milk or buttermilk. My role in life forms as a silent-taker-in-of information, a pose-no-threat make-no-demands little girl and I don’t ask about milk or buttermilk.
“After all I’ve done for him,” she says again and again. She bought him a theater in town so he could do what he loved. “Isn’t that what he wanted?” She asks me accidently sticking my ribs with a pin.
When dad and mom met, he was a film actor under contract. (he’s the sheriff in the pic below)
We move from Santa Barbara to Sherman Oaks, California for a fresh start. Mom continues to lord over me like a hawk. Jolly and I still share a room. We have twin beds. Our blankets are identical: wool off-white with bold yellow, red and black thick stripes across the top. The house is spacious, wide and light. We have a yard and a TV. (diagram of our house)
The anticipation of dad coming home never leaves me and Jolly. We ask mom a lot about where he is and when he’ll return and she shushes us as many times as we ask. Jolly and I believe though and we enhance our belief with stories we tell each other before we go to sleep at night about how he’ll make his entrance.
Jolly … “Dad’s on TV, riding a horse chasing bad guys. He sees us watching him and gallops out of the TV and lands in our laps.”
“What about the horse?” I say.
“Your turn,” Jolly says.
“When I wake up and get out of bed, my feet can’t touch the ground. I float around and when I open my eyes, I’m on his shoulders.”
“I thought you said you woke up,” Jolly says.
“I did,” I say.
“Then your eyes should already be open.”
We are alert to each other’s scenarios in order to ferret out any flaws that might make them less real, less likely to come true.
Mom settles with dad’s absence. She meets other theater people. The more she seems to move on, the more Jolly and I worry she’ll forget and not try to find him.
One Saturday she takes us to a hot dog stand close where we live and near Coldwater Canyon; a main link from the San Fernando Valley to the other side.
Each hot dog on the menu has a name, The Mutt, The Chili Dog, The Sunshine Dog, etc. There is a mechanical horse by the door, which can be ridden if you’re a kid with a nickel in your pocket. Just outside the front window by the red plastic covered stools, is Ventura Boulevard. A broad four-lane road that divides the haves, southward on the hillside behind it, and the have-less, northward, on the flat lands of the Valley. That’s where Mom, Jolly and I live. We live on flat land.
Right now we’re at a round table in the middle of the room. The Mutt, my favorite dog, arrives with a complimentary bag of potato chips. Jolly runs over to us and sits down in front of his dog, also a Mutt. He’s been by the mechanical horse where he’s been watching the other kids ride. Mom ignores him and stares at me, which makes me fidgety. I ask her for the umpteenth time when dad is coming to see us.
“Never,” she says in a tone of unmistakable finality. “Your Dad is dead.”
All the air gets sucked out of me. I can’t breath or speak. I gasp and with that bit of oxygen stuff nearly half The Mutt into my mouth, it goes down in lumps and deposits itself into the empty vastness that is now me. I need more and continue stuffing the thing down until it is gone. Maybe Jolly asks some questions. I don’t know. Nor am I aware of time passing but eventually I hear silence. That’s when a thought comes and makes everything better … That’s why he hasn’t been to see us!
With dad dead the days for Jolly and me level completely. Now not only do we live on flat land, we live in flat land. No high expectations to buoy us, no disappointments to be turned into brighter future possibilities. Death deals its blow. We land on our backs at the bottom of some nebulous monotone.
Mom moves us one town over from that house in Sherman Oaks into a much smaller place in Studio City. We live in an apartment building near the banks of the Los Angeles River; a man-made cement waterway created years previous to circumvent floods. A family lives above us. We hear them walk and flush their toilet. Our front door opens and faces another front door just like ours. The only thing different about our neighbor’s door is the number on it. There’s an identical building across our courtyard where Jolly finds friends. All Jolly’s friends are my friends. I am his shadow. He leads all of us in made-up plays he creates. He’s growing into a short version of dad. Same dark curly hair same face shape.
We cross the street to the barbed wire fence that travels the length of the LA River and peer down. What do we see? Gray concrete, some green escaping through its cracks and a trickle of water sitting stagnant at the river’s lowest level. I think we look for lizards or just wait to see if anything moves.
Each night mom lets us bring buttery warm toast to our beds. Jolly enrolls in a new school. At almost five years old, I’m not yet eligible to attend, but I’m old enough to tag along with mom to visit her friends.
One friend, a man, lives in downtown Los Angeles on a wide street. This friend is an actor who runs a theater. After noticing the looming old houses with their front porches and window overhangs, I want to see inside of one. But mom bypasses other parts of her friend’s house and leads us straight into his kitchen, which is as big as a living room. There’s a round dining table across from the sink and the space in the middle has enough room for two more exactly like it.
Freshly baked cookies are on the table where I am told to sit. I get a whiff of vanilla and chocolate. Mom whispers in my ear that I need to wait to be offered one.
Her friend’s too busy to notice how much I want one of his cookies. He’s talking about his theater. He leans against the sink and wrings his hands as he speaks. His shoulder jets up and touches his ear as his voice rises. Soon friends of his arrive with their son, my age. Their kid is blond wiry and jittery, like he swallowed a bouncing ball. He grabs a cookie off the plate, without asking and smiles at me. The kid’s mother has red hair and is loud. The kid’s father’s eyebrows are as thick as a mustache. When he walks over to the sink to fill a glass with water, he turns profile and his eyebrows stick out from his forehead. An insect could land there and nest. I think maybe several already have.
Everyone talks about the theater. I watch how mom’s polished nails flick the ashes off her cigarette into an ashtray. She laughs animated.
The kid asks about a house next door to the house where we all are. It sits on the back end of a vacant lot and is where the props for mom’s friend’s theater are kept. I’m interested in this kid’s way with adults. He seems to know what he’s doing because he gets them to agree to let him show me the house. Even mom agrees.
I follow him through a yard and part of the vacant lot. We enter the house. The first thing I see is a mirror on legs, furs draped on it. Opened suitcases scatter about the floor, each with bright colored costumes spilling out: sequined dresses and men’s suits. We settle into the main room crammed with furniture and boxes of make up. A hat rack dangles hats and wigs from its posts.
I sit on an ottoman. The windows are dirty and dusted over.
The kid paces in front of me and starts talking with accents, pretending he’s an actor. He tries on different hats. He asks me to try on a hat but I don’t want to risk moving from the safety of my seat. I’ve never been alone with a boy without Jolly there with me.
In a lightening fast movement, the kid picks up something from a side table and shakes it against his ear. It makes a scratchy sound. He brings it over to me. It’s a box of stick matches. He lights one then blows it out. Then he lights another and blows it out, too.
“What are you doing?” I say, bracing my legs against the ottoman.
“Playing,” he says.
I look away.
“I got an idea,” he says. “Why don’t you light one of these matches, put it back in the box and see what happens.”
He holds the box out to me.
“I don’t know how to light them,” I say not taking the box.
“It’s easy.” He demonstrates and with one quick strike, lights a match and blows it out. He hands the box back to me.
I think it may not be such a good idea, but reason that the kid thus far has shown he knows what he’s doing so I do what he says. I strike the match and put it inside the box. The matchbox explodes out of my hand and onto an old stuffed chair next to me. I jolt up off the ottoman. The chair burns from the inside out and a thin line of ember ripples over the upholstery. The kid says we need to smother it with some of the clothes lying around. We toss costumes over the chair and instead of stopping it, the costumes ignite into flames, which jump over to a couch inches from where I’d been sitting. Smoke fills the air. Frightened, I see the panic in the kid’s eyes and my fear turns to terror.
The kid and I run outside and go behind a garbage can in back of mom’s friend’s house. Panting and coughing, we huddle together and look on as smoke billows across mom’s friend’s yard. The kid won’t stop talking. Soon I shut myself away in an invisible cocoon and as his voice diminishes, my own emerges. I repeat over and over to never ever listen to what anyone tells me to do.
Firemen in yellow hats drag fat hoses across the lawn to try and save the house. I hear mom frantically calling my name. I can’t come out. I’m guilty. I’m guilty. I look at the kid, the instigator, and despise him deeply. He tells me not to tell what happened. I reiterate my promise to not do what anybody says and take a vow of silence right there.
The fire is put out and mom’s friend’s theater stuff, along with the house, is burnt to the ground.
We see mom’s friend go with firemen to where his house of theater props once was. It leaves an opening for the kid and I to scurry back into the man’s kitchen.
“Where were you?” Mom asks, relief in her voice. I crawl on her lap and cling to her. She knows. I don’t say a thing. Not a word will be spoken from me from here on out.
A fireman walks into the kitchen and squints his eyes at me and the kid.
“That place was a fire hazard,” the fireman says. “All those old rags and chemicals. Good thing no one was hurt.” He tips his hat to me, bends down and asks me if I, or the kid, know how the fire got started.
I shake my head and glance at the kid. His head is down. For the first time that day he’s not talking.
It’s been almost a year since taking a vow of silence. I haven’t spoken to anyone (with the exception of my first grade teacher). I’m six, it’s a Saturday and mom and I are visiting one of her new friends, a woman who lives in a canyon.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with her,” mom says to her friend. “Ever since that dreadful fire last year at Dean’s, she’s stopped talking. I’ve tried everything.”
Outside a sliding glass door is a beautiful blue pool; the house is surrounded by trees.
“You’d think a child her age would want to talk so she could have friends,” mom says. “What friends would want to play with a girl who refuses to open her mouth?”
Mom’s voiced her disappointment in public and in private for as long as I’ve not been talking. I’m familiar with it. It’s our routine, our act.
“I suppose I should be thankful she can at least nod her head.”
On cue, I nod my head both ways.
The woman steps back from me. She wears a flowered cape over a matching swimsuit, her feet look rough, her toenails long. She turns her head this way and that at me as if I am something she’s about to decide on. ‘Should I buy this one?’ Her head turns the other way. ‘No, on second look maybe not.’
Finally, she puts her hands on her waist and puts her face next to mine and says, “That’s all right with me, dear. Joy and I will talk without you.” Her red lipstick leaks into the corners of her mouth. Her stiff hair brushes against my cheek. I watch it as she stands up straight. She’s got hair that refuses to move, I think.
“I suppose you’ll want to go in the pool?” The woman says.
I nod that I do not want to go in the pool
“Joy, you’re right,” the woman says. “She is odd. At least I got a nod out of her.”
After they fix refreshments and a plate of crackers and cheese, mom and the woman wave me over from the couch where I’ve been sitting to go outside. They settle at a table by the shallow end and I linger quietly by mom’s feet. Not paying any attention to what they say, I study different tree shapes along the mountain behind the pool and rub my hands along the warm flagstone. Eventually I wander off unnoticed toward the blueness of the water. I lean over the deep end to gaze at the pool’s floor and a shiny drain.
I slip, fall in and go under.
The information I have at six on drowning is that you have two times to go down and if you’re not rescued the second time up, the third time down will drown you.
On the slow float down, I’m thinking mom will see I’m drowning and rescue me. When I emerge and turn toward the table where mom is, I see her gabbing excitedly with the woman.
I go under a second time.
Not so sure mom will save me now my thoughts turn to dad and how he loved me. Wherever I end up, he’ll be there waiting for me. I imagine him pulling me into his arms and hugging me so tight, a sign he’ll never let me go. I drift off into a comforting reverie of dad twirling me and tucking me in at night. I am not aware of my descent until I feel the cold chrome of the drain on the soles of my feet. I try to dive back into the dreamy state of dad but cannot. I begin to struggle with the water, flapping my arms and legs until I realize my movement keeps me in the center of the deep end and I stop. I float closer toward the light of the water’s surface and hope that mom’s seen me drowning. When I come up, her arms reach out and pull me from the water. Her friend stands behind her and gapes at me the way I’d seen women do in scary movies.
Mom’s angry and apologetic and dries me off accordingly: roughly and gently. The woman echoes everything mom says.
“I wish she would talk!” They both say at the same time.
On our drive home, mom may have issued an order like …
“I need you to speak. You have got to speak. I won’t have it anymore, do you understand?”
I do understand. If I could have yelled in the pool on that first time up, I would have but I was afraid more water would get into my mouth. Speaking couldn’t have helped me then.
Until that day my not speaking was the only thing I had to hold onto. But, the pool had given me something else: an ability to travel to another land where dad was. Unlike Jolly’s made-up plays, this land was magical, soft, encompassing, sweet and felt so real. And, it was a place that I could go whenever I wanted. I know because after dinner that night, while the TV was on, I went there.