A Street of Same Houses
I grew up in a house full of secrets. Locked doors, locked drawers, great gaps of time in the family albums, I took these things in stride. I had to. I learned to not ask questions to keep my mother from crying and my father from whipping me up in their big closet, where Momma couldn’t hear him. Now, looking back, I think she probably never knew about the whippings. After spending the rest of the day and night in my bed, I would wake up the next morning pretending nothing had happened. Without knowing it, I learned how to keep their secrets.
Our house was identical to the rest on our street, a three bedroom detached with aluminum siding on the upper floor and cheap brick underneath. It was a good place for secrets, in the middle of all that ugly sameness. When a secret lives in the wild, far away from other people, its ugliness is noticed and remarked upon. People think that putting a thing far away means it can’t be found out, but those people don’t account for the swiftness of cars and human curiousity. The place to hide a secret is right in the middle of other people, behind walls that all look the same from the outside because then everyone assumes that your secrets are the same as theirs.
When I was growing up, I assumed the same histories for every child on my street. I figured everyone had a pretty young mother with a fear of the outside and a big strapping father who sometimes whipped them in closets.
I was ten by the time I went to school. My folks had to make up a story to get the school board to take me without any transcripts for grades one through four. They said that they were missionaries out in Africa for the first decade of my life and I guess they were backwards enough, and my skin dark enough, to make the story seem true. Back then people were into rock music and disco, my parents wore country clothes, plaid shirts and print dresses. The principal of my new school had served in Vietnam, like my father, so he pulled a few strings and I got in. Except I had to take some tests before I started classes and those caused me to be put into the sixth grade instead of the fifth. I spent the rest of my career at that school learning to fight off boys bigger than me.
Momma was the kind of woman who took whatever life handed to her without complaint. Whenever I came home from school with scrapes and bruises, she cleaned my injuries with the little first aid kit she kept because of my father’s work, and sighed quietly over each one. She never said Ignore them and they’ll go away although I knew somehow that’s how she’d handled most of her injuries. By then she already knew that ignoring the bullies didn’t make them disappear.
Sometimes after he came home from work my father would give me a little pep talk about school or teach me how to throw a punch that actually landed. It took me a few months to piece together the right technique from these rare lessons but after I did the bullies mostly left me alone.
My father had a job in construction, overseeing the work of a dozen other men. Rows of houses like ours were going up all over the city and my father seemed to have a hand in putting up most of them. When a street was finally finished he would come home late that night, louder and less graceful than he usually was, and my mother would roll him into his bed in the room next door to mine where I could hear him snore forcefully into the night. The next morning I would try hard to be quiet but Momma didn’t have to try at all; she was always quiet and always patient with whichever one of us needed her.
Most days, though, my father came home angry and exhausted, tired out from yelling at his crew all morning and fixing their mistakes all afternoon. The anger and frustration would build in him as the project went on, getting more and more behind schedule, until he would come home at times silently seething, without even a hello for me and Momma.
On those days, Momma knew how to handle him. She would serve dinner as usual, just as soon as Daddy walked in the door, but after she put down that last glass dish she would move behind Daddy and wrap her thins arms around his neck. Daddy had a thick neck, straining with cords and sunburnt at the back, to balance out the broadness of his shoulders. He was tall, too, so Momma could pretty near stay just as she was to reach around him, without leaning much to touch her mouth to the bunched muscle of his jaw, rough with dark gold stubble, and bury her lips into the secret spot behind his ear. After a long frozen moment, my father would turn his head and reach up his hand to catch her before she could move away and their mouths would meet sharply, his lips keen and her letting him all the way.
They didn’t say anything, it was a silent show, but that night sure as the sun I would hear the bed rocking in Momma’s room, furthest away from mine, and for the next week or two Daddy would come home whistling.
In time, of course, the whistling would stop and the tiredness would gain on him and a few months might go by where he was tired and angry all the time and then Momma would have to make it right again.
I used to wonder why she didn’t make it right with him all the time, to save him having to be so weary and wronged most days. Then I realized that I wasn’t paying attention to how she was during those times when Daddy was happy because my eyes and ears were always on him, trying to figure out if his mood was good enough to take me fishing or hiking that Saturday, just the two of us.
If my father’s voice was tough and tired, my Momma’s sounded like swallowed grief. Her words were small beneath my father’s, childish, and he guided her in just about everything she did, from the cooking to the grocery shopping. It would usually take a day or two for her to work up the nerve to take that walk to the store, in front of all those staring eyes. Nothing my father or I could say would convince her that folks weren’t staring at her because she truly believed her every step, every word, even every breath was watched and scrutinized by the neighbours and the clerks and cashiers down at the Shop-A-Way.
If folks were staring, it wasn’t because of whatever she feared could be seen of her secret self. People stared at Momma the way they always stared at a pretty woman, one with big scared brown eyes and long dark hair she kept tied back from her face with a leaf-patterned kerchief. It’s funny how I can remember these things: my father’s strong golden jaw and my mother’s bright kerchief when I haven’t seen either of them in twenty years, don’t even know where they are anymore, or if they’re even together. I like to think of them being together still, even if it’s wrong and I go to Hell for praying for such a thing. I know that for them life apart would truly be Hell.
“Who are these people?” I used to ask my mother when I was really little, pointing at pictures rotting quietly behind plastic covers in thick embossed albums. Memories, the albums would say, or Our Family. I knew what these words looked like before I learned to read.
Momma would go through the pages patiently, in the hours before Daddy came home, giving the unfamiliar faces their unfamiliar names. The black and white pictures were mildly interesting for their funny clothes and strange structural hats but it was the modern ones that held my curiousity. In one photograph Momma posed stiffly as a little girl between her brothers and sister. The family relationships were complicated and I never got tired of hearing them.
Uncle Tyrone and Aunt Julietta were Momma’s little brother and little sister, her father and stepmother’s children. Julietta was almost hidden behind the others with only half of her golden head showing from behind Momma’s shoulder. I’d actually met Uncle Tyrone once, when he visited one morning ‘just for a minute’ and stayed for maybe five. He was a lanky young man with a big head full of crisp yellow curls. I remember him being very sweet to Momma but he never once looked at me, even after she introduced us.
“Looks like his Pa,” Tyrone said in a soft undertone as he was heading back out the door he never quite came through.
I spent a long time in front of the mirror that evening, looking for signs of Daddy in my unformed face. My hair and eyes weren’t a bit like his, I knew that already. My hair was dark like Momma’s, nearly black, and my eyes weren’t blue like his or brown like hers but a queer deep grey that was more like an animal colour than a little boy’s.
I went to bed that night with my heart beating strong in my ears, unable to sleep for wondering. What did it mean that my eyes were that other colour, not a Momma or Daddy colour at all? And what did my Uncle Tyrone mean by my Pa, speaking the word as if he was reaching far for some other pa, not my Daddy sleeping comfortably in the next bedroom?
Nightmares followed me to bed for a week after that visit but I couldn’t tell my mother what was happening to me or why I was frightened when I asked to crawl into her bed in the middle of the night.
A fourth child figured in the family albums between Momma and Tyrone, an older boy with the same fair hair as the two younger children, carrying the same tendency to curl.
“My brother,” Momma said sometimes, or, other times, “my twin.”
They looked to be the same age in the last photograph, about eight or nine, although the boy was a head taller than his skinny dark sister.
“He died,” Momma told me once. “In Vietnam.”
As a child you’re always sent out of the room or at school or sent to bed too early so that you miss the big events and see only the aftermath.
One day when I was twelve I came home to find my father in the kitchen with my mother. This was so unusual I didn’t think to ask why he was there or what had happened. My father was never sick and never took time off of work except for the two weeks every summer he used to take us to the beach.
After a moment of confusion, I fell into my after school routine, dropping my school books onto a corner of the dining table to work on after dinner and taking an apple from the bowl on the counter for my snack.
“Nathaniel,” my mother said croakily, lifting her head only slightly from her chest, “go outside and play for a while. Dinner won’t be ready for a spell.”
I dared a look at my father’s face, bent over hers, and saw that it was red and splotchy in a tell tale way. Had he been crying? At twelve years old, I dismissed the thought almost immediately. Not my father. Never. Even now, twenty years later, I can’t quite seem to admit it. I still say things like My father was the old school type, the kind never to show emotion, and I never once saw him cry.
When I say these things, I think of that afternoon in the kitchen on the street with all the same houses, and try to imagine what it felt like for him to lose everything that day.
Maybe it took longer than that day to lose my parents. Maybe they went to court and fought for me. Maybe we even had visits while the whole thing was being sorted out by the strangers who knew what was best for my family.
Memories of other times, later times, might be locked up in my skull, but I remember that day as the last time I saw them, my Momma and my Daddy, her kissing me softly on the cheek and him doing the same after a hesitation, before the lady from the agency walked me to her car waiting on the darkening street.
In the car she and another lady talked about the possibility of criminal charges and jail. I don’t know if anything came out of that. I never knew who to ask.
The secret, it turned out, was in that family album they let me keep, with that little dark girl amongst the other blonde children. Momma was somebody else’s child, some Native Indian woman from the next town who her daddy liked enough to call on for a while. When the woman died, her daddy made his wife take Momma in, to raise her with their own children. His wife didn’t like it and was sometimes mean about it but it was my grandfather, twice over, who was real begrudging about the extra mouth and, I guess too, the reminder of his own misdeeds.
I’m not making this stuff up, you know, I read about it all in the files I had to petition to go through, not just my agency files but Momma’s and Daddy’s as well. There were agencies even back then but at that time they didn’t consider beating your kid every day enough of a reason to take them away. The beatings Momma took, best that I can tell, were as far from the whippings Daddy laid on me every couple months as a lightning storm was from a steady downpour. As she grew up, the neighbours began to suspect it was more than just the beatings. Was it any wonder that she ran away at sixteen and again the next year, this time with my Pa? My real Pa, I mean, not the man who raised me up.
My real Pa was Max Sturm. That’s about all I know, just the name, Max Sturm.
I don’t know why he left her, if he left her. Sometimes I think he went to Vietnam and never came back like all those thousands of young men who forgot to buy a return ticket back from the war. Or sometimes I think he must have just left one day for a cigarette or a drink and that was the last she saw of him.
He never married her, not legally, so when she went back to my grandfather’s place he shut the door in her face. Somehow she made ends meet for the next year or so until my father came back on his two-way ticket and they set up house together in the city and then the suburbs.
That’s what the case files say and I believe them up to a point. But even in the files there are great big gaps to fill and there’s this enormous gap from when my mother welcomes her half-brother home from the war to when they start ‘living as man and wife’. That’s exactly how the paperwork puts it, sly and secret like a gossipy neighbour’s wink and nudge. They never come right out and say it: sex and incest and those other words than can lead to jail. They never say it and maybe they never really knew, could only guess and wink, eventually believing it was the truth because neither of my parents ever fought it.
I was the one sleeping in the far bedroom listening to the distant rock of a bed. I was the boy sitting at the table watching her take away his tiredness with her touch.