After my father died when I was nine, I assume my brother was my official caregiver. I call it an assumption since I don’t remember much of that first year without Papa. I still went to school and I had my own key to get into the house, but then my brother would come home from school eventually, and we would watch late afternoon television on our black and white Philco. (My mother kept that Philco until she was forced to leave her house by illness at age 89. You do the math.)
I remember the school days much better than I remember that first summer. I have no idea what I did all day. Did my brother work that summer? He was fifteen that June. I don’t remember. And unfortunately, my brother doesn’t seem to remember either.
The only thing that is crystal clear in my mind was our walking trips downtown.
My mother worked at an asphalt plant called Hetherington & Berner. She would take two buses to get there each morning and two buses at night and lucky for her, the return bus stopped right by our house on Park Avenue. In the summers, many of the employees would carpool downtown, about a 10 minute ride in order to do some shopping at the department stores. Back in those years, downtown shopping was still the norm.
Here was the routine, every couple of weeks (perhaps on her payday, I’m not sure), Mama would call us at home and tell us to meet her under the L.S. Ayres department store clock on the corner of Washington and Meridian Streets right at Noon. My brother and I would walk the distance, one and a half miles. My brother insisted that we could walk it in 30 minutes or less and although that may be a reasonable time for a teenager, it was a lot of double timing for my short legs.
But all the same, I was determined to keep up. I was determined to be like my brother. Unfortunately, about halfway there, my determination would flag and I would whine and cry and stomp for him walking strides ahead of me. I think this became a symbol for me, this constant effort to keep up with my brother, but all the same, a little behind.Under the clock, we would meet and hustle ourselves up to the 8th floor Tea Room. What a wonderful treat to dine in such luxury. And no matter how much I would eat, there always had to be enough room for Strawberry Pie. Or, on other days, we’d go downstairs to the Colonial Room and eat in the cafeteria.
I don’t really know how much time she had for lunch, but more than likely, it was an hour. And so our time in the tea room would be over before we knew it and my mother would need to meet her ride downstairs. And yet, despite the rush, we would stop on the way out at the candy counter and mother would buy us a couple of two-inch square blocks of milk chocolate to eat when we got home.
The walk home is not as vivid as the walk there. Or maybe we rode the bus, who knows? But to this day, pure milk chocolate and fresh strawberry pie are still my favorites. They are the emblems of the good life, the sweeter memories, the part that made the walk downtown worth it all.
On the other side of our house, was a very similar home to our own except the porch was made with yellow brick instead of red. Both houses had wood siding and large, old-fashioned windows that whistled in the wind. The backs of our houses were different because of my father’s renovations.
Nonetheless, the house seemed to rotate families in and out of it, both from the top floor and the bottom. I’m guessing the house was a rental which would explain the revolving inhabitants. For about a year (maybe longer, I don’t remember), one of those families had a daughter my age. We played together as best we could, but she was not allowed to come over to our house when my mother wasn’t home during the day(my elderly father was my caregiver until he died and he was not deemed safe). As a result, she and I invented a number of games that could be played across the fence from catch, to a form of volleyball, and so forth. It worked out fine.
One day, we got into a different kind of throwing game that escalated into a battle of wills: who could aim and throw a rock over the fence and hit the other person. The game wasn’t created in anger but out of a typical argument of “yes, I can” and “no, you can’t.”
I watched the rock sail over the fence and I had plenty of time to move out of the way, but part of the game was holding still: a type of “chicken.” To dodge, whether struck or not, would be losing, yielding, giving in. That was not my way.
And so the rock, about the size of a fist, struck me solidly in the head at my hairline. We looked at each other in shock. We would be in lots of trouble. We ran, sobbing. She to the other side of the yard under a tree and me to the house.
When my father saw me, his nursing instincts did not manifest. Instead, he became angry and incensed that a neighbor child would hurt me. Blood poured out of the wound, down my face and onto my clothes. He grabbed me by thehand and we marched next door to show the girl’s mother the damage done. Since my father couldn’t speak English and I was screaming bloody murder, I can’t imagine what the poor woman thought or understood of what happened. There we stood at her front door, my father raving in Latvian, me hiccuping and crying while at the other end of the house, I could see through to the back, my little friend was splayed across their screen door screaming, “I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t mean to do it.”
The memory folds there. I’m pretty sure there was no hospital visit nor a doctor visit. Perhaps the girl’s mother did first aid. I don’t know. I had no lasting scars, except for the blood and tears that neither of us could explain to the adults in our lives.
My mother called it the shack. It stood at the corner of the alley facing 10th street next to the green duplex. If that house would have been in Appalachia, it would have seemed more appropriate, or if it was on a farm somewhere, you could have called it the “old house” grandpa built. Instead, it was one of our neighbors. No one knew what really held it together.
I was forbidden to go inside the shack under any circumstances. My parents considered the family suspicious, dirty, and probably dangerous.
In the summertime, the shack was downright entertaining. All kinds of people would pull up to the house from hot rods to trucks to motorcycles. It was a loud house. People were screaming at each other all the time but it was never clear if it was out of anger or normal conversation. It was a drinker’s house and a smoker’s house. It was a laughing house.
I wish I could remember the name of the girl who lived there. It was something like Brenda or Sue or maybe it was a combination like Brenda Sue. And in her own way, she became my friend. And of course, I had to go inside. It was an adventure, another world: men in undershirts sat around the tiny black and white television, grandmas and daughters sat in the kitchen smoking cigarettes and drinking iced tea from Ball jars, toddlers walked around in dirty underwear and heavy diapers, while younger guys with slick greasy hair drank milk from cartons as they stood by the open refrigerator door or picked at a guitar on the stairs. There was always music playing, day and night, on the radio.
Brenda Sue was worldly to me. She wore make-up and she teased her hair and she wore curlers at night. She smoked cigarettes, used a lot of swear words, and listened to country music. She probably wasn’t more than three or four years older than I was, but she acted much more so. Brenda Sue soon became my source of information for all the dirty stuff and bad words I would ever need to know.
I don’t remember who ratted me out for hanging out at Brenda Sue’s. It might have been my brother or Gladys or maybe my mother just figured it out. I’ll never know.
The shack finally burned down. It was a miracle no one was hurt. Like putting a match to a very dry, dead pine tree, the house blazed and was gone in what seemed like minutes; then nothing was left but black timbers, a brick chimney, fluttering papers, and roaches. Every house on the block got a share of the shack’s roaches.
Later, as young adults, my brother and I would reminisce about the rednecks and white trash from our old neighborhood. We would tell stories of the fights and the brick throwing and the filthy graffiti. But there was another part of me that also remembered the people, the ordinary people, who had made a life in a ramshackle little house on 10th street.
We didn’t live on a farm, remember? We lived within a mile of the Monument Circle of downtown Indianapolis. Nor did my mother grow up on a farm. There was absolutely no reason for her to believe that it made sense for us to have rabbits, ducks, chickens, and the nastiest, meanest, most belligerent rooster I have ever known or want to know.
Here’s how it all started.
My mother thought it was cute that the downtown stores would sell baby animals at Easter time. That’s right: tiny bunnies, ducklings, and chicks. So each year, my brother and I would be gifted one or more of these little critters. And they were wonderful: so sweet and cuddly. But they do grow up. The bunnies were first: the only reason I remember them is an album of black and white pictures with my father feeding them carrots by hand, a white one and a black one.
We actually had several rounds of chickens; some even laid eggs and my mom was thrilled to eat them. But the excitement of getting eggs was completely overwhelmed by the rooster who ruled the yard, the chickens, and ultimately, me. I don’t know how we ended up with a rooster. It must have been some kind of mistake in the chicks for Easter farm. Whatever it was, I hated that rooster. Whenever I had to go in the yard, he would chase me or if I didn’t see him and thought the coast was clear, he would jump out from behind the garage and scare me. He would peck at my legs and stare at me with his beady eye, left and then right. Eventually, the chickens died, but he lived on. One time I tried to run him down with my tricycle, but to no avail. I wish I could remember his exact passing, but it’s a dark spot in my memory. Did I repress my part in some dastardly deed? It’s possible. Certainly, he deserved it.
On the other hand, the year of the ducklings was another story. We all loved the ducks, even when they grew up. It was during this time (my mother had been a widow for awhile by then), that my mom did several upgrades to the house. In addition to switching our heat to gas (from wood), she also decided we didn’t need a bathtub and had a shower installed in its place. The bathtub was bequeathed to the ducks. That’s right. She had a friend dig a bathtub sized hole in our back yard so the ducks could have a pond. You can’t make this stuff up.
A couple of miles away from us the Central Canal weaved through the city. Along its shores were many domestic white ducks along with the migrating mallards (and a few mixed concoctions as well). We tried to convince my mother to take the ducks to the canal like everyone else did, but she would not let them go. Finally, there was only one left and she would not die. We named her Petunia. All right, I doubt there was a “we” in the naming of that duck. I did it.
Petunia didn’t seem to mind that she was the only duck on the block. She had her bathtub pond, she enjoyed being carried around by little kids, she quacked during church services next door, and she would eat just about anything out of my hand. I do remember her end, however, since I was the one who discovered her: drowned in the tub. All true.