You can hear the buzzing from a hundred yards, like a lawn mower but this is poor Southern California, so no one has a lawn to mow, just rocks and concrete. Rows of houses look exactly the same. This neighborhood could look middle class, except for the lack of grassy lawn where the wasting waterers claim their class. The closer you get to the border, the poorer and browner it gets, “the inner city” on the city’s edge. The poor whites live tucked away on streets like this, hiding inside a decaying façade of financial stability.
The façade of our house is broken open by the buzzing. It sounds like the buzzing of an air conditioning system. As you get closer it is clear this buzzing is alive. Bees are buzzing in and out of the hive that hangs over our front door. We leave it open because, who is going to break into a house buzzing with bees? They are our own private security system. They lived here before us and will after us. We take a deep breath and run. Surprisingly none of us have ever been stung.
I have no idea how old our two housemates are. When you are a child, everyone seems old. Tim is a grizzled white man with rumpled clothes and the stench of stale alcohol and houselessness. He drinks orange juice every morning, mixed with vodka. Tim has a very cool car; a black mustang with black interior. It is uncomfortable because of the hard rubber seats baking with no air conditioning in the inland heat. He is always busy doing nothing; standing close when I watch television like some sort of pigeon waiting for me to drop crusts. I watch a lot of television while Mommy is out. It is hard for me to keep track of when she has a job and when she doesn’t. They run like water through a dam abandoned by the beavers.
Judy has curly hair frizzing all around her head. She too has a distinct smell but it isn’t until high school I recognize patchouli and pot. A time capsule of the summer of love, she wears flowery skirts and flat sandals. Mommy and Judy are perpetually at odds. Mommy has no issue with me riding alone in Tim’s car, but I am not allowed to spend time with Judy. My mother doesn’t trust women, despite the fact that trusting men has gotten her nowhere.
I am forever grateful to Judy. Not being a very thorough person, she hadn’t gone through the closet of our room beforehand. Inside was a treasure trove: Connect Four, Family Feud, Checkers, and my favorite – the game of Life. We might not be playing life so well, but it sure is fun as a board game. Spin the dial – you get a career! Pick a card – you get married! There’s no divorce in Life, no abusive marriages, and at the end you get to retire in a luxury townhouse or a mansion.
The prime discovery was a fully constructed Millennium Falcon. How I still long for that toy! No one knew where it came from, or who put it there. I got to fly away with Luke, Han, Chewbacca, and Princess Leia. My Princess Leia was a badass warrior and strong with the Force.
My favorite part of the house is the pool. It has no water and a jagged crack splits the bottom. There are two white and blue striped pool chairs, one with a broken slat. This is the Promenade Deck of the Love Boat. I am Julie the Cruise Director. I make lists of passengers, welcoming the rich to the adventure that awaits. I spend mornings with Laverne, Joni, Lucy and other friends. Then I step outside through the dusty glass door that transports me into the world of my mind. Others might look at our yard and see suburban decay, I see the scaffolding on which to hang a life of imagination and escape.
Esmeraldas Drive was my first street, in Tierrasanta, the Holy Land. Certainly Mommy hoped it would be. A brand-new house in a brand-new housing community, a middle-class miracle built on land that was previously a marine base, previously Mexico, previously Spain, previously Kumeyaay. God’s desert made green by the transport of water from the Colorado River and the care of Mexican gardeners.
Our house had a carport in back and a sloping lawn in front, ringed by other houses. Beyond were tennis courts, a playground for children, picnic tables, basketball courts, a gated swimming pool with an extra shallow pool for babies, a jacuzzi, and a clubhouse.
My earliest memory is lying inside the doghouse. I had my arms wrapped around Wafer, our toy fox terrier. Wafer was vomiting all over the scratchy lilac rug underneath me. I lay with my head against his heaving stomach. The smell of the Hibiscus bushes Mommy planted mixed with the sticky rank of vomit. We buried Wafer in the back corner. The yard became a wild tangle of trees and vines, like the thorn wall that surrounds Sleeping Beauty’s castle. I liked to prowl to the unmarked grave, where I could sit, hidden and safe in the sacred quiet of death and trees.
Another hiding place was the attic, piping hot and filled with asbestos. The panel opened in the closet of my room. I would tightrope the boards perching like a bird listening into the emptiness. After the divorce the sound of scampering feet and squeaking through the walls deterred me from the attic.
The other place of safety was my rocking chair, an orange velour sold only in the seventies. In the sweet slice of time Mommy and I lived there alone, she rocked me singing, “I gave my love a cherry which had no stone. I gave my love a chicken which had no bone. I gave my love a story which had no end. I gave my love a baby with no cryin.’”
One night I awoke falling off my bed onto hard tile. The house was shaking. I ran out of my room. Mommy scooped me up into her arms. We went downstairs and turned on the radio. Mommy had her earthquake kit- water, candles, batteries, and rifle. I curled up in her lap on the couch (as unattractively orange as the rocking chair).
When my father bought us out, Mommy and I left. My brother and father returned. My brother’s room remained full of Legos, books, and a Commodore 64. The rest of the house fell slowly and steadily into decay. My brother’s carpet was green, the rest fire engine red. My father painted the white walls orange as if a slow burning fire were rising to the roof. The master bedroom became filled with newspapers, confederate flags, and the nauseating smell of Old Spice.
Once I had a Raggedy Ann doll on my pillow lying to the right of a bunny. Suddenly it was lying on the left. Terrified I ran and flung it deep into the pit of my father’s room. A week later, I saw the doll. It had somehow migrated its way to the door. I screamed throwing it back into the pit as far as I could.
My father’s lack of desire, ability, or mental clarity to clean left the natural world to its own devices. My brother liked to wake me up in the middle of the night saying nonchalantly, “come downstairs, have a snack with me.” He would throw on the light, and they were everywhere. Screaming I would leap onto the dining room chairs. The scuttling, the scattering of the black bodies, knowing they were hiding in the cupboards, waiting for darkness to return. I fell for it every time. I don’t know why I expected it to be different.
In my room I put a blanket under the double doors so nothing small could enter. I would take a scarf to crisscross around the two knobs creating a lock so nothing large could get in. One night I woke because the doors were being pulled back and forth. Someone, something, was trying to get in. But my homemade lock held! I never knew if it was my father or one of the guys who rented the den on the first floor. Their rooms were always filthy too. I was both frightened and relieved. At the very least I knew I could protect myself.
Moving from Esmeraldas Drive to Calle De Vida, from Emeralds to the Street of Life, from the good life to subsistence, poverty got steeper, dirt got drier. Self-protection and imagination were the streets I walked looking for home. Perhaps home lives only in the imagination, in the hunger that exists for belonging. Perhaps home lives only in the body, your own, or someone who loves you. Either way el Calle De Vida leads to el Calle De Muerte.
By LM Neal