It is 1979 and the world smells like Schlitz, all day pots of Folgers or Brim, unfiltered Pal Mals, Lipton tea with sweet and low, Aquanet, musk, Old Spice, new carpet, the chalk on the edge of pool tables, wallpaper paste and sometimes motor oil and gasoline and enamel paint and sometimes mineral spirits and oils and watercolors. Occasionally like pie or pot roast and summer tulips or Lilac trees that they encouraged you to stick your face in.
Your blanket that goes with you everywhere has holes in it. Your soft blue babydoll that has beans inside her body tells you I love youuuu when you pull a string on her back. Or Play Paddy-Cake? Or Go Bye-Bye? There is scratchy carpet inside homes that soak up the smell of casseroles and tobacco, linoleum in kitchens and metal shopping carts at K-Mart with wheels that stick. Hot steel slides burn your hands at the park in the summer and mittens stick to your winter coat with little roach clips. Polyester adult laps and bird dogs and poodles who lick your hands. Velour and vinyl and always the click clack of Zippo lighters.
Memories are not that far removed from dreams. Some stay with you and others disappear before you have a chance to contemplate the lesson or the poetry. First memories are the most dreamlike and they run together defying all sense of linear time. One overlaps another like a crazy quilt, or rings from the raindrops on the lake. Memoirs are never about one person. Perhaps some are and maybe they fall flat. It’s what is in the foreground and the background that supports the story. It’s a shared lived experience. Art is life, life is art.
Your dream starts at the house on Piatt Street in Mattoon where you move to with your parents when you are two. Except you are not at the house on Piatt. You are on the floor at Mrs. Welch’s house near the railroad tracks. Your’e on the floor in your brown, green, orange and yellow quilted sleeping bag that is just your size. It’s late and dark outside and you’re supposed to be sleeping, but all the lights are on. You are the only child left, or at least that is what your memory provides you. The room is vast and brown linoleum stretches under yellow lights. It’s quiet. You don’t remember Mrs. Welch’s face or her voice or what she smells like. You only remember her white nurse shoes, her thick nylon stockings and her polyester skirt that reaches her shins.
Cold air and then warm. You’re inside your bedroom, on the twin bed, on your back in your puffy blue coat which is being zipped off you. The zipper vibrates your torso. You are sleepy. A night light makes the room blue like a moonlit sky. A humidifier puffs warm water into the air with a hiss. The strong eucalyptus scent of Vicks Vaporub, thick on your back and chest and under your nose.
In your parents bedroom your dad, his dark curly hair wild from sleep, gets out of bed, naked, to go the bathroom. His feet make the wood floors creek.
You are standing in front of the Zenith TV that sits on a stand with brass handles in the front wallpapered room that faces the street. You are the same height as the TV. You are watching Sesame Street. But then you disappear. You don’t know what happens. You are just gone. You only notice you are gone when you are back. You are still standing in front of the TV but Sesame Street is no longer on. Where did you go? How much time has passed? Does anyone know?
You are standing in the hallway between the bathroom and the two bedrooms and your eyebrows are likely furrowed. You have stopped right here because you are suddenly confused. Perplexed. Frustrated. You don’t know what to do with your hands when you walk. Do you hold your arms straight down with your fingers stretched apart? Or do you slightly bend your elbows and hold your hands into fists? You panic a little. You don’t know what is right.
You are panicked again. Your heart is racing. You look down at your feet. You are relieved to see that your shoes are on. You have been worrying that you have forgotten to put on your brown Hushpuppies.
You are walking to Dairy Queen with your great-grandmother, Nana. She wears a crinkly plastic hat that she ties around her chin to protect her soft white hair, even when it’s not raining. You have been walking for a while and you are very concerned that you have made a big mistake. You think we should have gotten there by now. You are very worried. You insist that we turn back. It’s not safe for us to keep going. We return home with no ice cream, but we are home and we are safe. Years later you will remember this and see that we had maybe another block to go of our three block walk.
You are sitting on the edge of the table. Your mother is pleading with you. You are screaming because the pain in your ears will not go away. All you can do is scream.
Mr. Trueblood is your neighbor. He is an old man in bib overalls and he is mowing his lawn. He is always mowing his lawn.
You watch adults take pills and you think that is how you make babies. You swallow a pill with a glass of water while you tilt your head back and shake your head to make it go down.
You are at the neighbors on the corner who are good friends with your dad. Frankie is your age . His sister is older and she has red hair. You are playing memory together and you are not very good at it, but you concentrate. The stairs leading to the basement off the kitchen are linoleum that is supposed to look like bricks and there are little aluminum edges on the stairs that make a clicking sound when you walk down them. Frankie and his sister have a brother who is always sitting only a few inches from the TV. He is always there in front of the TV and does not acknowledge you.
It is winter and the snow is deeper than you are tall and you can barely move in your snowsuit. You walk carefully.
It is summer now and you're riding in the VW bus with your dad on a country road and you run out of gas. It is hot and the oily road is tacky from the sun. You are very worried. He is calm. You walk to a farmhouse, he carries you on his shoulders, you think. You tell everyone you see that we were in a wreck.
It is 1981 now and you are 4 years old and your parents no longer live together. You are standing on the porch with your mom and your dad is in the driveway in a borrowed yellow convertible. Your parents are fighting, maybe about a missed dentist appointment. You will now visit your dad in Springfield on the weekends and your world opens up into new rooms and textures and sounds.
Your dad now has a roommate and his roommate has a girlfriend named Andrea and she has beautiful long straight brown hair that reaches her waist. She is very nice. Dad’s roommate has a stress toy named Panic Pete and he lets you squeeze it and Pete’s eyes pop out and you think it’s the funniest thing in the world. You always make sure to put it back on the shelf right where you found it.