This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (#32 post). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.
It starts with the father, for the boy. But it does for the girl too, Dawn says: they wind up marrying a version of their dad. For better or for worse, familiarity trumps change, or getting to root cause, even with the prospect of pain.
My first memories as a kid deal with pain: pain makes an impression, you kind of come out of the womb experiencing it for the first time, fallen from the tree, the nest.
The summer of 1976, I was 5 going on 6 and almost didn’t make it past that year, had a T-shirt with an illustrated Henry Winkler as the Fonz from the show Happy Days, his smiling, greaser, everything’s-going-to-be-alright way, the collar on his leather jacket turned up, his thumbs…and mom said there were blood stains on that shirt from at least three accidents I’d gotten in, we laughed: the worst was putting my arms through a glass window, running: that was a scary drive to the hospital in our VW bug—I remember the way the wound was bubbling in my arm, wondered if I’d die: that got me a scar like a three-inch worm on my bicep, and another on the same arm that looks like a suicide attempt, an “X” on the wrist where the glass just missed the vein…there was getting hit in the head with a rock (kids actually threw rocks at one another in my neighborhood) and feeling my scalp, gone wet…and getting chicken pox, falling out of a tree onto a freshly pruned limb that gouged my stomach, made a wound that looked like a mouth, I thought. I kept that last one from my parents, hid the wound, for fear they wouldn’t let me out again.
All that when I was 5, and as a parent now I wonder why we pamper our two kids (or perhaps, an argument they should be pampered?). Was it me being a boy, allowed to roam the apartment complex alone with sticks, killing slugs, vandalizing hood ornaments on cars?
There was the awful memory being found out as a shoplifter, my younger accomplice Stevey, a pathetic boy with curly hair, eternal snot-crusted nostrils, who resembled the brand of bacon “Hatfield” from our area, the cartoon pig on the package, the slaughterhouse where they made it off Hamilton Boulevard, driving between Allentown and Bethlehem, the odd stench there, the things you remember.
Stevey was cute and innocent looking and to that end, I exploited him: I taught him how to steal from the local convenience store, where we amassed petty fireworks (snakes, caps), dirty magazines, chocolates, baseball cards, pretty much anything we could fit into Stevey’s oversized winter coat, which was vast.
And the moment Stevey’s mom called mine and I could deduce what was going on from mom’s side of the conversation. And Stevey, his mom and dad, would be stopping by for a discussion on all this…and those moments I stood by the washing machine in the living room of our apartment, waiting. Time took on a new quality then. I learned it could slow down and stop, expand.
And then the memories to follow from our first house after we left the apartments and moved to 12th street: the Dugan family, their clan of Irish-American cops and laborers, the big picnics and volleyball matches, learning to play street hockey, to fist-fight. The rites of passage that snake out from childhood to adolescence, that circle around sex, drugs, alcohol, trying on the masks of our adults, what we perceive we need to grow up.
We moved from that first house to our final one together in Bethlehem, English Tudor style, what I later learned is called Fachwerk (framework), the exposed beams—across the street from a baseball field and a park, the bus stop where I waited before I had friends who drove.
That’s when I met my favorite teacher Mr. Perrett, the one with the lazy eye and male pattern baldness, who wore a denim jacket and smoked, would walk from his house to the pharmacy where I worked and buy Winstons by the carton—and I’d give him shit and he’d give me a smile like fuck you, and it was in his class I learned to write, had someone dedicated to reading my writing for the first time, and he liked it.
And I went to Mr. Perrett’s house a couple times because he lived near ours—he lent me a tent for the senior prom so my girlfriend Marie and I could sleep in it together in our back yard—and there were a couple young men like me who went to his house I knew, a kind of privilege because he was a cool teacher—he lived alone with two dogs, had friends he’d go see in New York: and looking back now I have to think he was gay, and there was some level of unease about him for myriad reasons I imagine now, having a student come to the house—but that one time he told me how he and another English teacher (Judy Smullen) would laugh and read my journals (probably drinking), and how they both thought what a great writer I was, and how much that meant to me. How that never seems to change as we age—the need to be, by what others believe.
I tried to reach him before I moved to France, and sent him a letter but I don’t know he got it. It’s funny how we perpetuate who we are by being with those who see us that way. Or we “un-become” by being with those who don’t.
Mr. Perrett was friends with Mr. Midway, the sociology teacher, and Midway had us do a project where we wrote a letter to our future selves: we spent several weeks documenting our lives then, as 16-year-olds, who we wanted to become, and gave it to him with postage, so that five years later he’d mail the journals back to us.
I got mine finally, well into college, but couldn’t open it. Like something precious you’d put in a jar and save, those things often change form or go off when you open them.
When I finally did, there was my handwriting, that sad, old journal where the spine broke off but the glue still kept it together, yellow and sickly looking, and the title was from a Beatles song, A Day in the Life, by Bill Gibbard.