Dayton Ohio, summer 2006
I haven’t lived here in 25 years. And yet I know this place as I ride along the sidewalks, floating along in the twilight. I know the order of the houses: heading from the narrow treeless lots of the 90’s duplexes by the highway, past the old Friends Meeting House, past the single-story brick ranch houses along the main road, and into the plats: curved arrays of similar split-level brick-and-timber 1970s constructions with the two-car garages on one end, and the steps to their raised entryways on the other.
I pass two homes I know to have been marked recently by grief: that of my high-school art teacher dead this week of a massive heart attack at age 62, looking just like my father in his newspaper photo, and that of my dear old neighbor woman, dead within 36 hours after receiving the diagnosis of the cancer she had known in her fears for years but feared to face. I pass the house of the girl who was the prom date of my friend, who brought her little brother along on our double-date day-trip to an amusement park in order to keep him from getting beaten up by her parents in her absence. I pass the houses of childhood loves (Lisa Miller, this means you), and old tormentors (Darin Cook, Mike York, and Mike Haney, this means you). I pass through the old farm fields and woods that were all slowly turned into housing developments almost identical the one I lived in. I ride up and down the huge hills of my memory, only to find them diminished in size by their age, worn down by the years and sagging slightly, no longer impressive or fearsome. I imagine I could easily pedal up them now without panting and struggling; I might even skateboard down them without falling and ripping the flesh off my legs. I see the bare concrete drainage ditch that they replaced our enchanted creek with, now silted and overgrown, surrounded by large trees, except for one stretch where an unfortunately conscientious homeowner has assiduously cleared all the brush and maintained its original sterility. Up the way though, you can hear that the frogs have returned, and made the stream their home again.
The pond where I fished (and where Mike Patko broke through the ice) is gone, as are all its catfish and bluegills and tadpoles and snakes, but the Swafford’s house is still the Swafford’s house, its front yard still filled with lawn chatchkes. The houses that always had meticulously-tended lawns (“I like to cut on the diagonal—but ya gotta vary your cutting pattern—it’s better for the grass”) still have meticulously-tended lawns. The two towering beeches that served as spiritual anchors in our youthful cosmology are both gone, but a tiny corner of the woods that they commanded remains—right there is the sacred nook of boulders in the trees we called glenwood, dropped by glacier, river, or moved there by the railroad cut. When I was little we used to pick through the rubble for signs and omens. We believed in magic then, and somehow we managed to feel the power leaking up through the earth in those rocky hidden places. We gave them all names like “Witch’s lair” and “Warlock’s will” and “The Toy Fort”, and I still carry scars on my left knee from falling into the scree while jumping from stone to stone to stone in the gathering dark as a storm approached one summer night.
There are remnants of the dirt trails I used to zoom along in the cool dampness of the shade before bursting back out into the dusty bowl of the open field¬, blasting full-speed on my banana-seat bike with the headlight, horn and speedometer, but no helmet, of course. I can still smell the mud, and I can still see the map we made of our domain with curvy lines of yarn glued onto a big yellowed sheet of sketch paper. I remember I wanted to map out all the sticker bushes—they were our sworn enemies--but my sister countered that they were not permanent features of the landscape. We thought that we were permanent though, maybe because in those days one summer lasted an eternity.
We believed that one summer when the lightning bugs lit up the black wall of the trees like a carnival ride would last forever—a permanent feature. We thought the donkeys that kept us awake, the spooky call of the owls, the corn we “found” and the archaic mysteries hidden in the abandoned barn—those were permanent features. Everything we felt the magic streaming through, that we thought would stay.
Well, the high-tension powerlines stayed, and they’ve gotten more diligent about cutting down every last living thing that grows beneath them these days. The brick red placards that used to read danger high voltage! are still affixed there some twenty feet off the ground, but there are no discernable letters to read anymore. And my old house—my old house is still there. The decorative wrought iron my mother swore was going to pull down the whole front wall is still there. The small ginko tree is still patiently growing in the front yard, and the willow my mother swore was dead 30 years ago still lives at the top of the hill in the back. It all looks the same—same mailbox, same railing. Same windows. My mother’s roses still bloom on the south end of the house, and the pyrocantha still climbs up the brick of the north (thorn bushes on either side, it strikes me now…). From way down the hill, I can still see the patio cover my father built by himself 32 years ago without a permit, (the one my mother swore would rot and fall down or devalue the house). Looking across the field and through the trees I can still see the television flicker right where it always used to be. In my mind I can see the wood grain on the door to the garage, the satin reflection of the Christmas tree in the kitchen door, and the colored glass panes we put up on either side of the foyer after our dog tore up the side curtains scratching and nosing to see out.
I mowed that grass, writing songs in my head and imagining some kind of lawn-mowing competition/race that would combine speed with style points for crazy designs. I lay on that hill in adolescent torpor, reading and dreaming and pining. Hoping. Wishing for deliverance from the sadness and torment of my own mind, from the emptiness and hurt that I could not at that time even begin to know the dimensions of.
Many years later, after my father’s stroke, when I returned to my youthful habit of taking walks in the wee hours of the night (and getting harassed by local cops again too), I remember looking at my old house and wondering at how much like a boat it was, and how miraculous it was that it could even stay afloat on such rough waters. Such a small craft, really; when you took a good look at it (docked for the night as it was), it was impossible to imagine how on earth it managed to hold so much pain.
Tonight when I look at it up there on its hill, I try to imagine I can still see a skinny boy climbing out of that back window to sit on the roof and savor the last bit of the sunset. I try to catch myself flickering through from my past, but someone has a backyard spotlight turned on, shining right through the woods and into my eyes—it seems to identify me as a threat (an interrogator’s lamp). Then one of the countless snippy little dogs around takes up yapping at my presence, and I can’t quite conjure up my old self.
It’s getting dark now. My reflector fell off my bike on the way here, and now my batteries have died on my front light, so I can’t see where I’m going, and am not visible to oncoming traffic. I’ll have to take the roundabout way all the way back to my parent’s new house, where my ailing father sits in front of the TV waiting. There are sidewalks all along here, but you can zoom along them in the dark for miles without any chance of running into anyone, even if you have no idea what’s up ahead. In the end, the feelings come, even though I can’t imagine myself as real here in this moment, just sailing along in the shadows past the rows of darkened houses…