Nights

When I was growing up, I slept on the couch every night. We lived in a small house with only two bedrooms – one room belonged to my parents while the other had finally become my room after my older siblings moved out. The two bedrooms shared a thin wall, lumpy in places where decades of termites had packed their mud inside so tightly that the wooden paneling bowed out at the seams. I could never sleep in that room. I was afraid of the dark, and if I kept the lights on, yellow jackets would fly down through the light fixture in the ceiling which was connected to the attic. (I never set foot in my attic even once, but from what I gather, it was a jumble of bees’ nests and copper wires that somehow never caught fire.) So night after night, I’d wait until my parents went off to bed and then stretch out on the couch in our living room, cuddled underneath a velour blanket to protect me from the window unit air conditioner that was permanently set to arctic. I loved Nick-at-Nite and spent hours watching Roseanne, I Love Lucy, Three’s Company, and Bewitched, but never Gilligan’s Island because that show is stupid. By midnight, I’d get hungry and tiptoe into the dark kitchen to try and dig through the drawer with the Little Debbie Cakes. The plastic would crackle so loudly that sometimes I’d give up and run back to the couch for fear of waking Mom. Because the only bathroom in the house was on the other side of my parents’ room, Mom and Dad always slept with their door open right beside the kitchen. The floorboards underneath the linoleum cracked like thunder no matter where I walked, so my goal was always to take as few steps as possible. If I looked too closely, I might see a large house spider scurrying up the wall, illuminated by the light of the refrigerator. When I was little, I used to run into Mom’s room shrieking, begging her to come kill the spider. If woken up prematurely, Mom was even angrier than usual. She took on animalistic qualities, gritting her teeth and barreling toward her target so quickly that her silk nightgown caught the air and blew behind her; she almost always scared the spider away, but then I was left to deal with an enemy with less legs but far more bite.

Training Wheels

When I was a little girl, I got a purple Huffy for my ninth birthday – shiny with long, violet tassels hanging off each handlebar. On the back, there were training wheels. At 9 years old, two wheels didn’t seem like enough to me, and wouldn’t until well after my 12th birthday. One afternoon, my brother Shawn convinced me it was time to remove them with the compelling argument, “You’re 12 and almost as tall as I am. It’s weird.”  After a few days under his tutelage, I was sure he had been right and wondered what had taken me so long; I got brave. My childhood home was built on top of a steep, grassy hill which overlooked a one-lane paved road that eventually turned into gravel. The gravel abruptly turned into lake. We were literally “the last house on the left” and if you went further, you and your vehicle would end up underwater. One evening, the brave evening, I decided the best thing to do would be to get on my bike which had no handbrake and ride down the steep one-lane road. I walked the bike from my front porch to the gravel driveway and mounted it, wondering even then why bike seats were designed to encourage hemorrhoids. I skidded and slid down the bumpy driveway as the gravel shifted under my tires, re-gaining control just in time to jerk the handlebars to the left, steering out of my driveway onto the pavement. Within seconds, I was cruising. I could feel the wind whipping across my face, and it just kept picking up, now so fast that when I tried to breathe, I gasped, unable to exhale. I’d never gone this fast before! I didn’t realize that bicycles could go this fast! Too fast, I realized suddenly as I registered the sight of pavement turning into gravel in front of me. I’d never survive the bumpy transition at this speed – I was going to wipe out. Either that or keep right on going and drown – I didn’t know how to swim either. I could almost feel the bits of rock hitting my face, my front tooth getting knocked out by a stray piece of gravel, the water rushing in to fill my lungs so that they burned, begged for air. I started shrieking, so loud it echoed across the holler and probably woke up all manner of nocturnal wildlife. I tried to use the foot brake, pedaling backwards, but the bike had too much momentum – each time I slowed the bike, I’d take my foot off the brake to jump off and find that the bike would have already begun to pick up speed again. Away I went, hurtling toward the gravel. In my periphery, I saw a flash of a person – a black hoodie. Then I heard Shawn’s voice yelling from behind me, “Turn your handlebars into the ditch! Steer into the ditch!” I wouldn’t realize until afterward that my brother had leapt off the steep hill in front of our house, rolling to the bottom in hopes of intercepting me, only to have me fly by, feet outstretched, screaming and crying, “EEEE!!!!” Back in the moment, I followed his instruction, jerking the handlebars sharply to the right so that I steered into a ditch full of brush and mud. My palms ran red with blood, scraped and burned raw from being outstretched during a head-first landing, but at least I still had all my teeth.

The County Fair

…The county fair smelled like funnel cake and horse manure. It sounded like carnies calling out as you walked by, yelling for you to play their games. My dad said all the games were rigged, but I was never good enough at them to be able to tell, and I wasn’t convinced he was either. Once I won a poster of the band 98 degrees. I don’t remember what game, only the prize. It was small, only 5×7 inches, but I loved that it was behind glass. Sometimes I’d run my finger along the edge just to feel how sharp it was.  I’m pretty sure I clumsily shattered it within the week. The fair was too warm, humid, and to me, came with a sense of danger or maybe just an inability to predict what was going to happen next. Screams were everywhere, coming from happy children riding the rides set up less than two days before by men I’m not sure I would now so quickly trust with my life. Sometimes I rode the cages. The cages were like a  ferris wheel if the placid, romantic benches were replaced with squirrel cages that twirled 360 degrees as the giant wheel whisked them up and over, over and over. I wouldn’t be surprised if I still had bruises from the safety belt cutting into my thick thighs. I also liked the ride that looked like a blue octopus wearing yellow space-ships on the bottom of its tentacles like roller-skates. I would load into one of the ships and feel the octopus’ arm lift me up and down as her body spun me faster and faster until I was nauseous; once I threw up a single pea. Eating at the fair was always more complicated than it needed to be. I remember standing in line for thirty minutes just to be served scorching hot french fries drenched in ketchup, so hot that you shoved them all in your mouth as fast as possible so they didn’t have the chance to burn your fingertips. The saving grace was the funnel cake, a delicacy my family waited for all year. Funnel cakes are little more than fried dough covered in powdered sugar…

The School Bus

…The school bus was a big behemoth that inhaled small children and exhaled diesel fumes. I remember the feeling of carrying my red Arthur backpack up the stairs,which were right behind the collapsible door that moved side to side like the elevator in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. At that age, each stair was nearly as tall as I was. In the mornings, the bus was cold but still warmer than it was outside. It was quiet in the mornings too, and even though the whole experience of “bus” was overwhelming, there was still something comforting about sliding into one of the big brown seats. They hid me from the bus driver and the other kids. I would let my head rest against the frosty window and play Super Mario in my head across all the fences we passed, up the sides of buildings, across porches. Sometime we sped up, causing the platforms to blur, and I’d get a headache trying to keep up with imaginary Mario. Sitting there, hidden, drowsy, entertained, I felt safe, like what it might be like if the beast swallowed you whole and you found a cushy spot to nest just behind his spleen. Sometimes we’d hear the crackle of the bus driver picking up his radio followed by the polite tone of Frank the Bus Driver/Pastor saying, “Amber, please turn and around face forward… kushhhhhh …. Now, please …. kussssshhhh … Thank you.” click. Mornings were sedate. Evenings were rowdy. Evenings sounded exactly like 90 children who have been pent up in a red school house all day and then loaded into a crowded yellow clown car should sound: a dull roar…

Mom’s Kitchen

…When I was little, Mom’s kitchen was where I played in the evenings. As I crawled across the floor underneath the table, I remember small crumbs sticking to my hands and the always wary feeling of bumping my head on the table’s roof above me. Sometimes I could smell the warm scent of urine, a gift from my mother’s chihuahua, Trixie, who Mom tied to the chair leg every night to contain her mess. The chairs that sit behind the table, closest to the window that faced our front porch, were always covered by groceries, usually bread, sometimes moldy, and stacks of paper plates. There seemed to be layers and as an adult, I wonder how it helps her to have them there. From under the table, I can see the fridge, big and yellow. The linoleum in front is torn years later when we replace that fridge with a new one, white and boring. Every time I walked barefoot in the kitchen after that, I took special note of the transition my foot made from linoleum to hole, a section of exposed wooden beam, back to linoleum: “This shouldn’t be here.” Above the table, the kitchen always smelled like food: fried chicken, fried potatoes, homemade chili, “deer steak” that I wouldn’t learn some people called venison until I was in college.By then, I’ll have also learned that my mother’s southern comfort cooking taught me to eat like a baby bird – soft foods with rich flavors, ideally pre-chewed – My mother so badly hoped and expected to please in the kitchen that had I asked, she might have obliged. The kitchen was also loud. Its universe was filled with the banging of pots, the addling sound that was an iron container making contact with the metal sink, which had knobs that were incorrectly labeled hot and cold. Mom also threw fits in the kitchen, so it was a shrill place, not only loud because of the pans. I nearly tremble now hearing the sounds of the kitchen, even just in my mind, for they almost…

torn
What was your mom’s kitchen like? Or your dad’s? Or your grandma’s? Or your kitchen now? Tell me in the comments! (Or don’t! It’s your life!)

The Whole Damn House

…The house I grew up in is old. My mom told me one time it was at least 80 years old, and that was at least 20 years ago. It smelled old, but don’t tell Mom because she’ll take it personally. The smell wasn’t of dirt or a symptom of an unkempt house as she would assume, but it was impossible to get rid of, an unrelenting must that seeped into the blankets and pillows, twice as much because most of the extra bedding was stored in a dank corner behind the couch. Parts of the house seemed to lack a decent foundation, particularly the bathroom. The bathroom was the worst, especially in the morning. I remember staying in the shower under the hot water for so long my skin reddened and was dry for the rest of the day just to avoid the inevitable goose-pimples brought on when I opened the shower doors and all the winter air came rushing in. In the spring, the bathroom was warmer but prone to fungus. Multiple times I saw little white mushrooms sprout on a moist bathroom towel positioned around the base of the tub to compensate for a leaky seal. They were gross, repulsive, stigmatic – they made me feel poorer than I was and looking back, still do. They also fascinated me in the grotesque way that humans get fascinated by gross things. I think it was the incongruousness of their white umbrellas against the ordinary, domestic bath towel, blue with fringes on either side. When the shower got going and the room filled with steam, it felt suffocating, nearly dank. But then the washer or dryer would kick in and the whole room would hum with the sound. I would sit on the toilet in my towel taking in the heat and the noise, my ears vibrating and for some reason that made me feel safe. In some ways…

Mushrooms
Put a towel under it!

The Front Porch

…Our front porch is large and spacious, concrete and next to a steep hill overlooking the one-lane road that ran by our house. Mom’s hanging baskets full of flowers hang above every post, and in the evening when she comes to water them, the whole porch smells like a car wash – wet, the sudsy smell replicated by the perfume of the flowers. There’s a swing that hangs toward the back, and mud daubers build their nests in the top of the chains so that when you sit down, a flurry of mud falls in your hair, down across your lap. The springs also make a dangerous creaking sound – not the squeaky sound that says they just need oil, but more like a severe cracking sound that made me think the roof to which the springs were attached was falling in. I get a melancholy feeling when I think about the swing. It’s where I moped during much of my teenage years, sitting in it, rocking back and forth, the wind and the mist from the rain blowing in on my nose and cheeks. The wood was smooth, worn from age, and I would run my fingers along the boards absentmindedly, liking the assurance there were no splinters to look out for. Often, my dogs would come ask for pets while I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself. I would pet their heads, soft beagles and jack-russell terriers who ran the whole night and then lazed on the porch the whole day. They smelled rank, and my hands would always smell just like them when I finally pulled away. You couldn’t leave anything on our front porch – the dogs would chew it up by morning and then come ask for pets as usual, like they’d done you a favor…

Beagle
Seriously, our dog looked just like this. We called him Radler, and he snored so loud we chased him away from the house at night.

The Big Rock

…The big rock is hard to the touch, and it smells like wet no matter how many hours have passed since it last rained. The big rock is big enough for me as a small child to spread out completely, its coarse coolness a welcome respite from the summer heat. The big rock makes me feel safe. It’s far away enough from my childhood home that it feels like a different universe, one in which children are in charge. The big rock is close enough to my tiny shack that I can still see my family outside, so I feel safe. The pine needles cover the ground around and under the big rock, and they crunch under my tiny feet. Sometimes I bring chalk and draw on the big rock. I like the way the chalk vibrates in my hand against the rock’s surface as I draw all sorts of symbols that mean “This is mine. This is a safe space for children.” The rock is shaped like a boat, ferrying me to safety. The rock is cold and damp and I’m not old enough to bother worrying about the ten thousand snakes that probably live underneath. The bank that we climb to get to the big rock is steep, and our toes often slip out from under us as we try to get there. The big rock is quiet, not interrupting the chatty sounds of nature that fill the surrounding area. Birds chirp noisily and as it gets later in the day, we can hear the frogs and the hissing, swishing noises in the trees from a prolific bug that I forgot to ask my dad to name. Next to the big rock is a skinny, tall tree. As an adult, it seems to me the rock and the tree are friends, the rock and the tree so close together that they seem to be leaning against one another. I would sit on the rock and…

The Big Rock
The Big Rock – Like this, except way bigger and with a tree friend.

 

My Childhood Bedroom

…My bedroom as a child was brown. Brown walls that were covered in paneling and brown shag carpeting installed in the 70s on top of five layers of carpet that were already there. When you walk on it, it feels softer than your eyes tell you it should because of all the extra padding underneath. This room has little insulation from the elements – the layers of carpet touch floor, which touches ground. When it’s cold outside, it’s a walk-in refrigerator. My dad was poor and cold as a boy – often his family didn’t have money for shoes or heat. Since he spent so many years freezing, he now keeps our house in winter hot, uncomfortably hot. My room, exposed to the elements from the outside then became the air conditioner for the whole house. We would exasperatedly throw the door to my room open and let the cool air wash over us, blowing against the sweat caused by the furnace downstairs. The room smelled like dirty socks even though my mother did her best to ensure no dirty socks were in the room. All of my siblings that came before me, three plus at one point an ailing grandmother shared that room and it’s my theory that the dirty sock smell was just a mixture of all of our scents and a stubborn must. The room was large but filled with the clutter of former inhabitants. On my dresser were pictures, old, black and white, of my aunt and uncle on their wedding day. Mom wouldn’t let me take it down even though this aunt and uncle were still alive and in good health and despite the fact that the room belonged to me. The aunt and uncle come to visit sometimes and I found the stark contrast between the youth in their wedding picture and their appearance now as seniors disturbing…

Shag Carpeting