Lincoln Street on the top of the Hill, Stambaugh, Michigan: Spring, 1974
Memoir By Chad Faries
On top of the hill is where I first folded into the crease of freedom and was stuck there like the text of a love letter that’s stuffed in a back pocket of soldier walking in a foreign land.
There was Lisa Gasperini across the street in pigtails, sucking on a pixie stick full of purple sugar. Her tongue looked like a big bruise when she stuck it out at me from across the street. She knew our house was old and my shoes were plastic. Her house was big and blue with aluminum siding and a garage. Ours was big too, but had old gray asbestos siding with fake wood grain. We didn’t mow our lawn much either so the grass was high and shabby. After a good rain ducks in love would often settle there under the big Elm tree mistaking the landscape for a secluded marsh. Mother and Eddy had taken to streaking so much that the shades were always drawn and it appeared that maybe no one really lived in that Lincoln street house at the crest of a hill where the only direction to go was down.
I walked across the street and grabbed Lisa’s pigtails with each hand until her tongue popped out of her mouth, and I looked right at it and said, “I want you.” She ran home crying and at three years old I knew she wanted me too, even though she didn’t know it.
I figured she was going inside to a nice lunch of Wonder Bread with perfectly square orange cheese and a perfectly circular slice of bologna. The sandwich was surely cut into two perfect triangles. Maybe her father patted her head while she was eating her geometry and said, “Don’t cry, it’s alright.”
I went home, opened up a can of tuna, and peeled an onion with my teeth. I grabbed the broken saltines out of the pantry and the mayo from the fridge; made my way into the living room and sat down on the floor with a paper plate since most of the glass ones had been broken. There was a bump sound and I looked up at the ceiling. Mother and Eddy were napping upstairs in the dark with the music playing loud to drown out their sleep-talking. They were listening to “Satellite of Love.” I liked that song. Satellites gone way up to mars, soon it will be filled with parking cars. I watched it for a little while, I love to watch things on T.V. I loved to watch things on TV too so I clicked it on, but with no volume so I could listen to the rest of the song. “Sesame Street” was on and Big Bird was with Mr. Snuffleupagus, a big hairy mammoth with droopy eyes. Only Big Bird and me could see him. Anytime someone else would come into the picture, Snuffy would discreetly leave and Big Bird would have to argue for his existence.
Satellite’s gone up to the sky, things like that drive me out of my mind. I wanted to see Lisa again. I bet she was finished. I bet she’d have on different clothes too. Probably some long pants because it got a little chilly in the spring. There was really nothing to worry about in Stambaugh other than the weather. The only crimes around were those of ecstasy, and as long as you stayed out of its path you were safe. The women of my family were fast becoming criminals. At 17 Aunt Faith married the first man that she saw with dark skin and sunglasses sitting behind the wheel of a Chevy Impala. Brian had just got back from fighting in some war. As far as I could tell he was a good man because he let me steer the car in a big flat parking lot with modern apartments one time when they had taken me away to another city for a weekend. Aunt Holly and Aunt Amy had taken to breaking the law with Grandpa Duke’s sons from another marriage that followed him up from Lower Michigan. There were four of them, Sheldon, Marty, Brian, and Bruce. And one daughter too, Julie. She was about 13 with a lot of freckles and used to practice her kissing on me. She was doing illegal things with Uncle Brian’s younger brothers, Chris and Corey. In 1974 there was a lot of ecstasy in the U.P. It smelled like patchouli and something Brian called napalm.
I wiped the tuna fish oil off the corners of my mouth with my hand and stood up. I was off to check out Lisa’s pants. As I walked toward the door there was a knock. I stood on my tiptoes and looked out the plexiglass window of the front door. It was Winston, another guy who had been in that war with Brian. He was with his girlfriend whose name I could never remember, and hair I could never forget. Long like a horse’s tail, tied at the back of her head with some dried flowers in it. In my world of binary oppositions, her dark river water skin was love and Winston’s warped and torn smirk was hate.
“Come on, let us in,” he commanded, so I did because I was getting out of there anyway. “Jesus Christ it’s fucking dark in here. Man, open the shades or something,” he said as he tossed a paper bag on the Formica tabletop. “Where’s Kate and Eddy, kid. Upstairs again? Christ, listen to that music. Hey,” he screamed, “Come on down you fucking rabbits!” I said bye to the girlfriend and left the house full of sound.
* * *
Lisa was across the street pumping her feet up in the air on her tire swing that hung from a thick branch trying to touch the leaves of the oak tree with her patent leather shoes. Standing there in my tall grass I imagined to her I must have looked like a smear of chalk on a green blackboard. I wondered what she thought I spelled out. Probably something like “silly boy,” or “naughty boy.” I was OK with either. I just stood there for a while as a smear of illegible text until her sweeping arc became less and less. Then she stopped and read me clearly as she swayed across the street knowing she was about to break the law.
We walked around back together and turned on the tap that stuck out of the house and took turns putting our mouths under the stream of water and drinking until we were silly. We spun around on our heels and confronted a lapse in the landscape.
“Let’s go down that hill,” I said, and we would. The hill in the back of the house was really wild; full of old car parts and barrels. It was a dumping ground for broken branches neighbors had collected from their yards after great spring storms. All the energy from those wild winds and fat raindrops was concentrated in that scene. The Weeping Willows laid long sheets of shadow over everything. As Lisa and I stood there together looking down at the expanse, we hooked our pinkies together and walked on looking for a corner of a sheet where we could sit Indian legged and act like we were disgusted of each others presence.
We walked into the even taller grass over some rusty engines and sat together on an old rotting branch and looked out over Stambaugh like we owned it. There was Nelson Field at the bottom of the hill across the street. On the weekends the West Iron County Wykons would play football there and the sportscaster’s voice booming from the loud speakers would carry up to our house. The words seemed more like directives than information on the football game. At the very bottom of the hill was a brick Catholic Church. It still had a bell that someone would ring manually around six p.m. For sure it wasn’t the Priest, because by six he had a shiny nose from drinking blood all day and was in no mood to pull a chord and turn on the light of God. He didn’t want to blister his healing hands that comforted many a choirboy. If the wind blew hard enough the bell would ring on its own and the whole town would get confused about time.
“Do you want to sing a song together?” I asked.
“Why?” she said.
“Because I think it would be fun.”
“What kind of song?”
“I don’t know. We could make something up.”
“That sounds kind of dumb. We don’t even have any music.”
“We can just sit here and wait for the bell to ring.” I suggested, so we did.
The smell of burnt cake was thick in the air and I knew that bell hadn’t rung. The Scandinavian grandmothers still had faith in the bell’s ability to clang at a consistent moment and would regulate their baking accordingly. But tonight, with no clapper clanging, smoke filled the households and children were hungry.
Back inside, later that evening Winston would bash in the face of his river water girlfriend and I would hear the loudspeaker drifting up from Nelson Field saying in a dead pan voice, “Winston, it is time to stop. Stop Winston. It is time.” I had taken to screaming again, just like when I was one. It always felt good to go back to one because the memory there was so pliable that I could smooth it into any shape I wanted. Here I was watching Eddy wrestle Winston to the ground and the whole time I was back at one year old, crying because Holly and Amy were antagonizing me by strangling my Charlie McCarthy puppet. His wooden jaw was limp. His mouth was opening and closing, but all of his language was gone. He was supposed to make a noise, just like that fucking bell. Holly was tugging on his puppet string harder and harder, blistering her hands, but the clapper must have been broken because he wouldn’t ring. So this is how I managed to be three, by blurring myself back into one to a seemingly less significant time so I could forget the present. But it didn’t always work so well. And then I would just have to rewrite the story.
* * *
“I don’t think the bell’s gonna ring,” Lisa said.
“We don’t really need it. I have a song now,” I comforted.
“What is it?”
“Do you like stars?” I asked.
“Yeah, but what’s that mean.”
“It just means do you like stars?”
“OK then,” I said.
“Well, where’s the song?”
“I’m thinking. It’s kind of about stars and stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?” she asked again and again.
“Like cars, and Mars, and love.”
“Really?” she said all confused and sort of disgusted at a dirty tuna fish boy’s ramblings.
“Yeah,” I said and sang, “Satellite’s gone up to the skies, things like that drive me out of my mind. Now you sing it with me.” And she did. We sang it over and over and I poked her belly and she giggled. In our tall outback grass littered with dead cars, houses ceased to exist and we watched it for a little while.
“What song is that?” she asked genuinely interested now.
“It’s called Satellite of Love.”
“What’s what? A satellite?
“Everything.” she said firmly.
“Well a satellite is like a big thing in space that goes around the world really fast over and over.”
I didn’t really know. “I think it comes from Paris,” I said. “People kiss there a lot, you know.” She didn’t ask any more questions. So we continued to sit in that space that I’m not really sure we sat in until I made things even better to counter what was really happening inside the house. I grabbed Lisa’s hand and licked the back of it.
“You wanna get naked?” I said bluntly.
“Why?” she said.
“Because it’s fun. Mom and Eddy do it all the time.”
“He’s like my dad.”
“Is he your real dad?”
I didn’t know how to answer. “I have a lot of dads, and moms.”
“No you don’t.”
“Yes, I do,” I said and took of my shirt and Big Bird shorts. “Now it’s you turn.”
And she took off her white jeans that had sunflowers all over them first and then took of her shirt. The wind of all the past storms passed over our bodies from the gnarled sticks and we were tickled. Then we forgot our nudeness.
“Can we go in a satellite?” Lisa asked suddenly.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but we can go on my Big Wheel. We can go really fast I bet, maybe even all the way around the world.” We were so amazed at the possibility. I’m sure we were, regardless.
We left our clothes and took our nudeness and amazement with us to the front yard and I pulled my Big Wheel out of the grass. I rolled it over to the very top of the hill with one hand and led Lisa with the other. I sat way up front on the seat so she could fit right behind me. Her skin was all over me.
“We’re gonna have to go real fast to make it all the way around the world,” I said, “so you better squeeze me really tight.”
“I’m afraid,” she said, and she really meant it. I could feel something moving in that belly I had poked as it pressed against my spine. I put my feet on the pedals that were attached to the big front wheel. I was Eddy on his motorcycle with Mother on back. I started pedaling like I never pedaled before and we fled past my own voice screaming from inside the house. We fled past the Elm in my front yard and ducks in love flew off into the dusk as Winston came out on the porch bleeding from fingernail scratches to the cheek; his girlfriend at his side with black clouds in her eyes while Lisa’s parent’s screamed across the way over the sound of a ringing bell for her to come home, but everything was drowned out by speed and the plastic wheels tumbling along the cracked and uneven pavement as Lisa and I sped faster and faster down Lincoln hill fleeing an inevitable night. And I realized that in Stambaugh a day was a really long time and you could push the darkness away with a friend if you had the right muscles in your tongue. I reached my arm back over my head to stroke her pigtails and told her “Don’t cry, it’s all right.”
And then we moved.
Chad Faries has published poems, essays, photographs, interviews, and creative non-fiction in Exquisite Corpse,Mudfish, New American Writing, Barrow Street, The Cream City Review, Afterimage, Post Road, and others. His book, The Border Will Be Soon: Meditations from the Other Side was a winner of Emergency Press’s open genre book competition. It chronicles his visits to Yugoslavia between 1995-2000 and will be published in May 2006. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and was a Fulbright Fellow in Budapest. His memoir, Some Houses, is seeking a publisher. When not traveling he is a carpenter and professor. He recently purchased an old Victorian home and now is planning his next Triumph motorcycle in order to solidify his artificial existence as a renaissance man.
Photo "At the Fair 7" courtesy of David Ritter, Phoenix, Arizona.
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