I remember living in many different places in Denver as a young child, but not exactly which memory flash fits in where when it comes to sequence. I do recall the last two very clearly, though. Both were distinctive, thanks to events relating to felony, police, hidden basement nooks, a zucchini, and a ghost.
But we’ll get to that.
I was born in Flint, Michigan in October 1970, and landed in Denver with Ma after my parents’ separation when I was about two years old. I have specific memories in both places, and know my second birthday was in Flint, but I lack clarity on which place was first in the Denver recollections. What I can say for sure, though, is that it was many. Disruptively many. Much like our first year settling in California, after the Greyhound dropped us off in Santa Rosa on August 4, 1976. I remember a surprising lot from those three or so young years.
I remember one place clearly from its kitchen. It was the 1970’s and the place was very new and contemporary. Orange shag, brown paneling with spindle-trimmed cabinets, the whole bit. The kitchen was long and narrow, with a sliding glass door at one end. Dark brick-red glazed tile flooring (you know the ones, with the slightly blackened corners) shone bright and glossy, ricocheting light off the shiny wood panels and through the wide archway into the otherwise dark living room. The living room had its own windows, but light never stood a chance with the bulkiness of the coarse, vertically fine-striped pleated drapes coupled with all the dark paneling. I learned how to tie my shoes in that kitchen, sitting on the scallop-edged bench at the scallop-edged table. And I was pissed that I had to wear arch supports.
That flash – that’s my specific memory of that house.
There was another scene I remember. The house had a straight run from the front door to the bathroom, along a linoleum corridor of sorts, that was open to the right to the living room through a wall that was low and topped with tall spindles. Again with the spindles and the wood paneling. Ma was asleep one morning, and I had woken up and was restless and playing, as any toddler/young child would. Ma had this funky wooden walking stick that always just sat around decoratively, and a heavy earthenware jug that she had found behind some stones in a basement as a child, and they often turned into toys for me. In playing that morning, I decided it would be fun to see if a whole role of toilet paper could fit down the toilet intact. (It does not. Even if you push with both hands and then climb in to stomp on it.) When Ma woke and came sloshing through the living room to see where the water was coming from, she was even more irate when I tried to charge her to access the bathroom through the toll gate I had made across the door by fitting the walking stick into the jug in a way that I could pivot it around.
That flash – that’s my specific memory of that house.
There was a little pink place. It was stucco and 1930’s, early, with a steep pitched roof. Sort of a storybook house, in my memory. We lived in some little cavey part of the house, accessed through the corridor-like laundry room that doubled as my bedroom. I don’t think we lived there long, though, not even compared to the rest in such a short period. Perhaps days, even. Maybe it was the light flickering from the dryer’s pilot, maybe it was bogeymen, but at night there were shadows that moved on the wall, creeping in towards me. They made it very hard for me to go to sleep. I discovered masturbation as a distraction in that cot.
That flash – that’s my specific memory of that house.
One place was a bright 1960’s apartment complex with a huge “natural-style” pool with boulders built into it. We stayed there with Ma’s friend whose son was, by default, my friend. Again for just a few days. I got washed off the step I was sitting on in the pool by the turbulence from herds of kids doing cannonballs, and started to go under. Someone grabbed me and pulled me out. I cried, I peed.
There was a dome high in the mountains. We were there a couple of weeks perhaps with some friends of Ma’s, and their two sons my age and a year younger. It was cold and snowing, and I loved the shape of the house, warming by a pod fireplace that hung from the ceiling, sleeping in bunk beds, and fascinating over the pattern of connected triangles-within-triangles. In the bunks one night, I tried to teach the other boys about masturbation. The boy my age caught on to the trick. The younger brother thought it was weird and wanted to tell his parents on us, but we begged him out of it.
Way out in the country somewhere was a white Victorian-style farmhouse that had been covered in asbestos tiling. It was on a huge, sunny, sloping clearing, with pockets of woods all around, and no neighbors in sight along the dirt road. There were others living in the house, too, so Ma and I shared a room with her boyfriend at the time, with me on a pallet of blankets on the floor. The slope of the land allowed for an above-ground basement that was reached from behind the house. The basement was very poorly sealed, with wide gaps between the white planks, big enough for me to stick my fingers through. One of the ladies living in the house told me to watch out for the bogeyman grabbing my fingers, and I ran screaming and never approaced the basement again.
What is it with kids and persistent bogeymen?
That same country farmhouse an outhouse with spiders. I still get freaked out by spiders (but I cup them and bring them to a plant outside when I cross one in the house. I just squeal loudly while doing it.) There was no plumbing in a house that was so remotely situated, aside from a hand pump in the kitchen. It was the first place we lived that was free from the bounds of modern conveniences like light and glorious push-button heat and being able to bathe when you feel like it in warm water without grit in it and being able to poop without having to get dressed and put on shoes and grab a roll of toilet paper because the one outside is going to be damp and icky and have spiders in the tube. It would not be our last.
The house had a smell of cow dung about it. About the general area, really. And the ceiling was covered – literally encrusted – with flies. Flies like you’ve never imagined possible. The house what white inside and out (and remarkably dark despite that and the altitude and open setting), but the ceiling was black. Black with flies. I can’t express enough how solidly fly-inhabited that ceiling was. Maybe the bogeyman in the basement was really dead bodies that the lady was hiding and that’s why she scared me away from there. I can romanticize, can’t I? It was probably related to the dung smell though. Ma regularly inhaled flies on accident when hitting roaches. It grossed her out because she was vegetarian. Not because of, well, flies.
Ma’s boyfriend had a red Jeep, the open type. We went riding around the countryside a lot, and there was this one prairie area we went to when the prairie dogs were “running” or something like that. I don’t know if it’s a seasonal thing, or a time-of-day thing, or what, but this particular field became so overrun with them when we pulled onto it that we had to stop because they were as dense as the flies on the ceiling at home sweet home. The golden light of the late sun shone at angles across this field of dry grasses, sparkling off the seed heads like light dancing on water. It vividly remains in my memory, the way the twinkles were turning from bright yellow-gold to amber, and then darkening to orange, and suddenly there was a new type of movement as the prairie dogs surfaced and started multiplying. The diminishing fiery light shone across the mass of them, a tangle of tan furry bodies and shadows too thick to even put your foot down, as far as I could see.
Anyway, those flashes…
That brings us round to the more particularly memorable houses I mentioned at the beginning of this tale. Felony, police, hidden basement nooks. The very last place we stayed before escaping Colorado on Greyhound was Ma’s boyfriend’s basement apartment near a big park and a zoo. Different boyfriend than the fly place. This one was the one who would be my part-time father figure for the seven years after my parents’ divorce. This was the place where he was handyman, where I had a wall of my own to paint as I wanted. This was the place we fled to when Ma had gotten caught forging checks from the community college office, and we had to change our names and flee the state. This was the place where the police came looking for us, where we hid in a nook in the wall behind the hanging clothes in his closet, Ma telling me we were playing hide-and-seek. We were grateful that the stay there was also only a few days, given the stress of the period.
But before that was the ghost house.
Being the 1970’s, water skiing was really all the rage. At least, it was among Ma’s group. One of the guys she dated (I think it may be the same as the red Jeep) had a speed boat and took her out all the time on Sloan’s Lake. I remember the lake as this disgusting green water with frequent dead geese and ducks along the shores, mixed with the early onset of plastic trash such as six-pack rings and champagne corks. What a clear and specific picture I still have in my head, again, with the trash and carcasses stuck in slimy dark mud near the playground. I even remember floating dead rats in the lake while we were out. Great place for water skiing. But considering that later in the 70’s, in the Russian River here in California, Ma taught me that swimming the breast stroke is the best way to avoid getting hit in the face by turds from Santa Rosa’s constantly (at the time) overflowing sewer system, it shouldn’t surprise me that she skied (and tumbled) with dead things.
Not far from the lake, if memory is correct, is where we lived on Chase Street. It was a cute little one bedroom bungalow-esque cottage accessed through the back door on this little alley of a street, with a huge yard that was shared with a big brick house. Really, the front door was in from the yard, but since the parking space was behind the house on the alley, the back door was really the primary entrance. In the parking space was a little garden box about the size of a hope chest, and I was growing zucchini in it. I hated zucchini like all vegetables, but it was about the plant and the single fruit it was producing. I was devastated when we had to leave it behind, with all our belongings, in our flight to the basement apartment and eventually from the state entirely.
I remember one night in particular, waking in the dark and talking to Ma across the room in her bed. Our little cottage was a simple affair, with a living room, kitchen, and a bedroom separated from the living room by a wide door with a curtain; we each had a bed in opposite corners. I sleepily talked to Ma for a moment, about what I can’t possibly remember, then suddenly she was standing in the door looking at me through the curtain and asking who I was talking to. I said You! and pointed to her bed. When we both looked over, there was a very old woman in a black housecoat lying on Ma’s bed. She looked at us, startled, and disappeared.
Some nights later, we were watching TV when pictures started to drop off the wall and shelves.
Another night from the kitchen while eating I looked past the living room, and again saw the woman in black standing in the bedroom doorway. She waved, a cute little wave. The type one makes at babies, with fingers waving from a stationary palm.
Ma mentioned it the people in the brick house one day, and their expression of shock made her think they weren’t going to believe her. Instead, they told her about the old lady who had died in the house the previous year, and how she was a friend to all the kids in the neighborhood. They all used to come over for popsicles and cookies, and to play in the big, open yard. She loved kids, and everybody was missing her.
Ma was a freewheelin’ hippie type at the time herself, and it was interesting to note that whenever pictures fell it was always ones of her. The old lady never knocked my photos around, only Ma’s.
Once we knew of the story, I started talking to her all the time. I only saw her those two times, but I knew she was there. It all really started coming to friendly poltergeist head when Ma took me to see Raggedy Ann at the movies, and I was excited all morning to see all the talking toys. When we returned from the show that day, all my stuffed animals had been arranged in a circle on my bed – taken down from their shelves and the dresser-top. There was a deck of cards spread out among them, as if they had been playing Go Fish. Needless to say, I was thoroughly delighted!
Ma would take me to school in the morning then go to school/work herself and pick me up afterwards. Every single day for the rest of the time we lived there, we would come home to new tableaux with my animals: different card games, stacked in pyramids, hidden in amusing places like the cupboards. She knew how to entertain kids! But as the drama began to unfold with the discovery of the forgeries, she became much less friendly. More pictures would fly, and sometimes she even knocked coffee out of Ma’s hands, as if there wasn’t enough chaos in our lives just then. That certainly expedited our flight from the house; Ma was not entertained, and we were out within a couple of days.
I wonder if the old lady looked after my zucchini for me. I wonder if she’s still there, even. For her sake, I hope she’s found her own escape.