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!