(originally published in Redwood Coast Review, Winter 2011)
Some years ago, after my mother died, I found among her things an envelope with two photographs in it which I had never seen before. One is of my mother and a man who might be my father, squinting in the sun as they face the camera; the other is of myself and that same man. I’m about three years old, sitting on a trike. The man kneels next to me. We are looking at each other in mutual excitement and adoration. Behind us in this photo are fragments of background, a small section of picket fence, a glimpse of a tree. I don’t remember our house or the street we lived on in Los Angeles. I have no memory of my father.
Why didn’t my mother ever show me these pictures? Why did she want me to forget?
I do remember the plane trip when my mother and I left Los Angeles and moved back to Toledo to live with Grandma and Grandpa. At some point, I was told that my father was in Heaven and another time, more specifically, that he had had a heart attack but other than that, my mother rarely mentioned him. I am sure she never saw another man for the remainder of her life.
Sometimes in my dreams, I do sense a presence I think of as my father, a presence without a face, without form really, just a sense of presence. Is this some primitive form of early memory – I was five when we returned to Toledo – or is the presence merely an unconscious effort to fill a void?
I do know where we were living when I was born – the address is on my birth certificate – so when I have to come to Los Angeles for a conference, I decide to visit the old neighborhood.
Even with the GPS on the rental car, I miss the turn off Sunset and have to work my way back through a maze of twisting streets and small hills in what is called the Sunset Junction district, just west of downtown. My heart leaps when I finally find our street, Greenway. I follow it up and over a hill, past a mix of small houses and apartment buildings, and then suddenly, I am on our block, and then at our old address.
I had always imagined that we lived in a house but this is a squat, ugly, two story stucco box apartment building. I look it over. It stirs no memories. Then I begin to walk down the street and as I get past the building and get a clearer view of the block, I am seized by a tremulous wonder, a conviction that I do remember this street after all, not from my early years but from my dreams.
I often dream vividly, often of places I have been -- landscapes, old apartments or offices – but with an entirely new aspect. Rooms, hallways, windows, whole buildings and side streets exist in the dream versions which extend them and give me a sense of discovery. Thus it has been with this street, distorted and extended in my dreams of it, but recognizable now as this place in its discrete details – a doorway, the gray silver grain in the stone of the old lamp posts, a chimney, the very angle and slope of the street. Will some magic happen if by returning to it, I unite and reconcile dream, memory and concrete reality?
I continue down the block. Another apartment building stands at the end but most of the houses in between are small, single story wood frame. Is this how it was when we lived here? There are some details which must have changed since then – steel bars bolted over the windows of some homes, some front lawns torn out and replaced with cement to provide extra parking. A set of swings sits in one of these cement spaces and two small children, a little boy and a little girl, pump up and down, determined to outdo each other. When I pause to watch, wondering if I ever played here, a woman supervising the children eyes me with suspicion. I nod to her, keep on going. The enveloping sense of being in a dream lifts. There’s really nothing here for me.
I cross the street and start back. Halfway along I see a beautifully maintained bungalow that looks as it must have when I was a child. No bars on the windows, lawn intact, a row of old rose bushes. On the roof, a tell-tale sign, a television antenna. TV antennas are usually removed when an old house is sold. Who lives here now? Were they here when I was? I stand, transfixed, lost in these thoughts when a man trimming some shrubbery comes around from the side of the house. He’s about my age, perhaps a little older.
“Afternoon,” he says.
I tell him I used to live on this street.
“When was that?”
“Long time ago. The early sixties. We left in ‘64.”
“We were living here then,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“Elkins,” I tell him. “I’m Jerry Elkins. We lived at 201.”
Something stirs in him. “On the corner?” he asks. “The house on the corner? It was a house then.”
“Was it?” I say. “I don’t really remember. I thought it was a house.”
“Sure it was. They tore it down in 1970, ‘71.” Then he asks, “Do you remember me?” There seems to be a wariness in him now.
I don’t recognize him but it seems rude to admit this, so I say, “Yes, I think so.”
“We had color TV before you did. You and your folks came over a couple of times. I’m Eddie Armstrong.”
“Yes, yes,” I say. “It’s good to see you after all these years.” In fact, I still don’t remember him.
He asks, “How’s your Mom?” I tell him about her passing and he responds with the customary condolences and even as he does so, I’m very much aware that he hasn’t asked bout my father. Maybe he remembers when he died.
“Your folks?” I ask. “How are they?”
He tells me his father died ten years ago. His mother still lives here, with a housekeeper. He comes by regularly to check on her.
He’s left the front door open and at this moment, an old woman in a housecoat, with a nearly full head of white hair, appears on the doorstep.
“Ma,” he says, “It’s Jerry Elkins. You remember. From 201.” The old woman steps into the sun light, peers at me, studies me for a beat, then says, “My gosh. Yes. You look like your father. I can see him in your face.” This is the first time in my life that anyone has said this to me.
Eddie says, “Do you mind my asking, why did you come back?”
I say nothing for a moment, and then, finally having to put it into words, “I guess I just wanted to see if I could remember.”
“Remember?” asks Eddie.
“Yeah, you know, the street. The neighborhood.”
They look a little puzzled and they are clearly startled when I go on to explain, “You know, I was very young when my father had his heart attack.”
“You don’t remember,” says Eddie’s mother. It’s a statement, a realization, not a question.
“What?” I ask. “What are you talking about?”
Neither of them says anything. “You have to tell me,” I say. “Tell me. Please.”
Eddie says, “ Your father didn’t have a heart attack. There was an accident. Your father was hit by a car. “
“He had a heart attack,” I say.
“It happened right out there,” says Eddie. He’s pointing to the end of the block, to the apartment building where our house stood. “You had a dog, a little dog. It got out and he was chasing it, and a car came barreling down the hill, and that was it.”
“Are you sure?” I ask. “Are you sure?”
He nods and his mother says nothing. I feel like I’ve been punched.
“Was I there?” I ask.
“I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
I really don’t want to ask him the next question that’s come to mind but of course I have to. “Did you see it, Eddie?”
“No,” he says. “ It happened just after I came in. It was getting dark. It was time for dinner. We heard the brakes, we heard it, we heard the commotion. We ran outside. Mom and Dad made me go right back in, so I didn’t see much.”
Eddie’s mother speaks up, “It was terrible. Terrible. Don’t talk about it.” She starts back toward the house.
Eddie stands silently with me, for a few moments, then he says, “I’m sorry.” and turns and follows his mother. He’s almost in the house when I call out to him about a nagging detail of the story.
“What happened to the dog? The dog my father was chasing.”
“Never saw him again,” says Eddie. “You and your mom left the neighborhood pretty soon after. I never saw your dog again.”
I start back to my car, in a kind of stupor but the story of what happened, it turns out, is not quite finished. Eddie has come after me. “Wait a minute,” he says. “There’s something I have to tell you. It’s been on my mind all my damn life. Kids do such goddamn stupid things. I was at your house. We were in the front, there was a fence around it and a little gate and we were having a lemon fight.”
“A lemon fight?”
“You had a lemon tree. We were pulling the lemons off and throwing them at each other. Your father told us to stop and he told me to go home. Sometimes, when I think about it, I think I might not have closed the gate all the way.”
It takes a few seconds for what he’s talking about to sink in. Then I say, “You think that’s how the dog got out?”
“And my father went after it?”
I suddenly feel terribly sorry for this man. “Oh, shit,” I say, “We were just little kids. I might have left it open, you might have. It might have just been broken.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” And then, after a few seconds, “ Thanks for that.” He turns back toward his house and I head for my car. Now my mind is racing. Did I leave the gate open? Did I see the accident? Did I see my father die? Was he killed instantly or did he lie in the street, writhing in final agony? Whatever happened, whatever I saw or heard, my mother certainly succeeded in erasing that early memory by never speaking of it and saying so little at all about my father. She created a hole in my life to protect me. I suppose with therapy I might recover the memory, but I would never know for sure if it was real or a kind of dream.
Across the street, the children on the swings, their energy spent for the moment, twist idly in their bucket seats. I wonder if in years to come they will dream of their old neighborhood and the odd, searching figure who passed through it. And then I am back, just opposite our old address, and as I cross to my car, I realize that this is where it happened, that any point here in the middle of the street might be the very spot where my father was killed. I have to sit when I get to the curb and catch my breath.
The moment passes and I break out in a sweat, a cooling sweat, the kind that sometimes comes when a fever breaks. As I get to my feet, I see the street, the whole block, now transformed, though not as in my dreams. There’s the brightness, the shimmering vitality but not the distortion, the expansion, the suggestion of hidden meaning. The wonder of it is the wonder of the here and now -- the shabby apartment building, the rose bushes outside Eddie’s house, the children on their swing set.