I said, “If ever I have a girl, I would like to name her Marilynne. Wouldn’t that be something?”
She said, “I think it would be something if you could name a daughter Marilynne.”
I must have been 8 years old when I first started walking home from school. That would have put me in the 3th grade and in my second-to-last year at the elementary school. The following year, the school sign would be redesigned by my friend Shauheen, an artistic boy who lived across from the school in a red, two story house. In the front lawn, there was a black walnut tree bearing nasty, smelly fruit in the early spring. Inside, the house smelled of warm spices, of Persia and cardamom.
If you followed Elm Street all the way to one end, you would hit upon main street, the movie theater, and the supermarket where my father worked. And if you followed it the other way, past the barn-looking house, past the fenced in, unkempt, shitting dogs, past the county hospital, and past the city limits, you would inevitably come upon my house, that big, hulking thing. From the elementary school, most of the walk home was indeed uphill, in spring and in winter both, until the last stretch, which was downhill all four seasons.
When I was 10 years old, I went to the middle school which wasn’t that far from the elementary school. Nor was it that far from the high school. Nor was it that far from home. I think school got out around 3:30, maybe at 3:15. The middle school was a neo-Gothic building whose naves were properly gargoyled and whose doors opened, as they ought, onto back passageways. When school got out, I walked home by cutting across the playground that ran parallel to a street lined with unremarkable ranch houses. During recess, many of the boys played football, not least my sometime friend Aaron who, I’m told, died in a car accident in the middle of winter of 2007. If memory serves, the Propsts or Probsts (or maybe just the father, ever a small man) lived on the other side of the street, one house down from the Manuels. I remember a swinging bench out in front of the first, a single mother raising a boy behind the door of the second.
Taking the shortest route through Smith Park, on my right I could see between the trees a baseball diamond, more a sandlot at the time, later to be replaced by a parking lot. Next to it was the local radio station, a house with an antennae, around the corner was the Pleva mother, and behind both was the city pool where I almost never swam. I wasn’t sure about the bloodshot eyes, blue toes, and chattering teeth. Seemed a waste when one could be riding bikes or playing baseball or doing neither.
Smith Park had so many elm and maple trees that shade was never a problem. There was a basketball court also. Years later, I spent many evenings and weekends playing pickup basketball alongside T. Poler, a man who wore black ducktaped glasses, drove a rambling ducktaped car, and might have been something of an ‘eccentric.’ Tall, unselfish, in his early 40s, he was a pretty decent low post player as well as a rather kind, possibly tender, most certainly awkward man, all at once.
In late afternoon when I was walking home, the northern sun tended to cast the park in chiaroscuro light; there were susurros of chiaroscuro and plenty of skittish squirrels. I wore a backpack and knew many things about peregrine falcons, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and about how to spell accommodations. I also knew that our 5th grade teacher had had a ‘nervous breakdown’ (susurros again), and we may have had a substitute for a few weeks before he returned, now looking more careworn and wild-eyed, I believe. I knew things, like suffering.
One of the things I knew well was not to walk through this old man’s lawn when he was standing near the front window because he would tell you so: he would tell you not to do it because walking over the lawn would, in time, ruin his finely manicured lawn. To play it safe (accounting for mood: I usually didn’t), I would walk on the neighbor’s driveway until I reached the unplowed and seemingly unclaimed field around the back. The field was full of prickly things and thrumming things and pass-your-hand-over-the-yellow reeds and of those low-lying little green weeds with the purplish flowers that, if you pulled out the threads and sucked hard on the heads with your tongue and teeth working in tandem, would give forth a few drops of nectar. My friend Jacob, a freckled Norwegian with peach-colored hackles, double-jointed elbows, and an Adam’s apple to boot, taught me this, and I was never much impressed.
Along the back of the field stood a tall row of evergreen trees, as stately as earnest boys saluting the American flag. Through the center of the field ran a trodden path which happened to be wide enough to accommodate a child’s wandering feet. Warmed by springtime, the field felt like an itchy annunciation of summer.
Sometimes I went around the field, taking the long leg that stepped between the back of the squat houses and the front of the weedy plot. This I likely did on the occasions when I saw that some crab apples–those sour, wormy, pitiful fruits–had fallen and were lying on the ground of a poor neighbor’s house out back. The apples were so sour as to border on disgusting, so you ate one more just to find out. You knew they were poor, these people with the crab apple tree, because the front and side of their small house was insulated but exposed. Rumor had it, if such qualifies as rumor, that years later the couple would win the lottery and decide to spend the money on putting up linoleum siding. The color of the linoleum was sea green, as bright as lightning bugs in midsummer, radiating sci-fi at twilight, this sea green the color of mermaid skin.
There were other rumors about town but, I’m afraid, not very many good ones. My father’s rumors about work were so dull that when he prefaced what he was about to tell us with the sober warning that we were not to tell anyone at school we soon lost interest in what he was about to say. I think it was around this time that I first became interested in humor.
Another pitiful rumor: across from the exposed house was an untended orchard attached to a dilapidated house in which, on very rare occasions, you could see these two hunchbacked elderly men wearing overalls and doing, I suppose, some form of backbreaking work with their pitchforks. It may have been those men who owned the field with the wandering path. When I saw them working backbreakingly, I don’t remember ever saying hello or hearing hello back but neither do I recall being afraid of them. It was said of them that they had a bowling alley in their basement and that they spent their days bowling. Maybe this is true.
The rest of the route home was mostly straight, also straightforward. I followed the paved country road that ran beside the untended orchard and past the line of evergreens south or east (in my memory, it is south) for a few hundred yards until it reached the big old gray and dour blue house that sat well and stolid off the road. That was my home, large and ugly and solid, the stone chimney climbing up the side never having been used.
On the home stretch, Butterscotch, our Labrador/Golden Retriever mix, liked to gallop to meet me, his glistening, wild eyes all glory, until he got older and then he trotted, sauntered with alternating shoulders, and finally lay flat, panting in the shade, waiting for me to let him in by the tightly loose side door. After having spent a lifetime rolling in mud and dead flesh and falling absentmindedly into the basements of unfinished homes that, in time, would sprout up all around us, he would die, all ribs and ravages, of diabetes. I was 18 by then.
I remember being home a good deal on my own. I think it was around this time, or perhaps a few years prior, that my mother had started working and my two older sisters, whatever the season, would have still been at school with sports practice, so I would have been on my own till nightfall. I thought nothing of this then and don’t make much of it now, except to say that it seems a pleasant thought, this sense of being alone but not being forlorn.
You know I was always a contemplative boy. The plum tree out front, each year as fruitless as the last, was ever a wondrous thing to behold.
Andrew Taggart, “Our Winter Ourselves,” Writing in Public