I’d like to be from somewhere. Technically, I’m from Cincinnati, but that only means I was born there. We left, my mother and I, before I was old enough to know what a place was. Growing up, I never had the same bedroom for more than a year. My mother would meet “the nicest fellow” and we’d pack up and head for his hometown. From Ohio to Alabama to Kentucky to Georgia to Rhode Island back to Ohio, I took a round trip with layovers at 19 addresses in 17 years. For the longest time we owned this beat-up, tan ’63 Oldsmobile, same age as me. We might be just going to the grocery but it seemed strange to look out the back and not see a U-Haul.
I remember a day long ago, my first memory, from not long after we left Cincinnati. I don’t even know where it was. A white sky hung over flat, manicured lawns. Low, golden brick ranch houses slumped in the heat. The still air seemed to hum. Standing next to a neighbor’s car I was too short to look into the windows.
A woman called me—not my mother, but the neighbor woman. She pushed open the car door from inside, leaning across her child, who sat in the passenger seat and stared at me with dark, wet eyes. In my memory, the child’s other features were so indistinct I can’t even say if it was a boy or a girl. The woman told me to hurry up—we were late. As I began to climb in the child reached over and pulled the door shut on my hand. My thumb left a vivid dent in the metal frame of the car door. I remember laying on the flat grass, my hand held out above me, as blood dripped down my arm onto my chest. One part of the sky was whiter and harder than the rest. I heard the woman yell at her child, and from somewhere I could smell charcoal smoke. Afterwards, every time my mother and I set out on a long car trip I would remember the woman’s harsh voice and her car looming above me. The blue curve of the roof was so far away and it scared me, the car scared me.
Later, years later, there was a hotel room. My mother and I stayed there for three days finishing up school and work while our furniture traveled hundreds miles up the Atlantic coast from Savannah to Providence. I don’t remember the room much. Dark plastic furniture and a wide, open closet. We lived out of our suitcases. I remember thinking it was odd to have furniture and not use it. The dresser drawers were always empty. The television picked up stations we didn’t get at home. I didn’t like the unfamiliar newscasters and I didn’t like the way the closet was so exposed. My mother parked the car right outside the door.
I had this habit of converting my various bedroom closets into an office. I would put an old end table and chair and lamp inside. They were always the same—the chair from a cheap dinette set; the table with a shelf at the back. The lamp was a gift from my grandmother. It hung on the wall, the light fixture extending out from a wooden ship’s wheel. I would put pictures and posters up around the lamp. The pictures changed over the years, though their themes, like the lamp and the table and the chair, endured. Pictures of places. Lots of places. I’d gaze at the pictures and build them up in my mind. A Montana valley at dawn. Waves breaking against a rocky Patagonian shoreline. South African men dancing in long lines. An indistinct figure sitting alone on a bench at Devil’s Tower. The Scottish Highlands, the Black Forest, the steppes of Mongolia. All kinds of places. I really liked my offices. They were always the same, and somehow it never occurred to my mother they even existed. She never found me when I was cached away inside. No one found me.
There was one house in Pawtucket, at 21 Finch Street. I was in fourth grade. My closet was too small to make an office, and at night black dust settled through it and coated my clothes. My mother thought I was burning things but I thought the house was haunted. I could hear sounds at night which crept up from the basement. Skittering noises, moist noises. One night I woke up and I could hear my mom screaming. I ran to her door and in the dim light coming from a street lamp outside her window I saw the shadow of a man kneeling on her bed, hitting her. I turned on the light but no one was there. She woke up and told me she’d been having a bad dream.
But I like 21 Finch Street. I like the way it sounds, like an address out of an old British novel. I like to say I used to live there, and I like to tell people about the haunt. It’s thousands of miles and many years away now. Places once close transform when I look at them from them far away. That’s why I like 21 Finch Street. I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to find out if what I was afraid of so many years ago is still there, creeping up from below. Or, worse yet, that it was never there in the first place.
– | – | –
Distance is magic—sometimes black, sometimes white. Sometimes a little of both. I see this place or that and I think, I could be from there. Lots of places. I build them up in my mind. Mountains. I like the sensation of driving through mountains late at night, light fog clinging to the bare rocks, patches of black ice on the road. And forests. I like the sun made green by fir needles in the afternoon. I walk through the trees and in the distance, through a break in the foliage, I can see grey-green mountains. And I like deserts, especially deserts with mountains. I see them far away when I think of how many different places I’ve lived.
I lived in Rhode Island for just under two years, part of third grade through part of fifth. When we moved there I was amazed at how little grass I saw. Back in Savannah there had been lots of huge yards and tall mossy trees, scent of red clay. In Pawtucket there were flat mortared surfaces. There was a harshness to it all, to the endless plains of asphalt, to the perpendicular brick buildings, to the telephone pole trees. But there was also a simplicity and an order which attracted me. Even when garbage blew across the street between the apartment buildings I found it clean and pure; the lines were clear. It reminded me of the hotel room. It would always be there, secure in its sameness. Though unaffected, perhaps, by my passing.
We lived at 81 Arthur Avenue before Finch Street. The day we moved in some boys came to the door and introduced themselves. I heard my mother’s shrill voice: “Sweetie! There are some little friends here!” I don’t remember their names, but I remember I was glad they came. Eric, maybe, one of them. Mom and I were a long way from home, wherever that was. I went outside with them, just to bum around. It was cold and dry and I could smell the power plant when the wind blew. We wandered around the apartment complex and they told me about their older brothers. The brothers were in a gang and they would protect me. We climbed around headstones in the old cemetery that bordered the complex—the only significant grass within the range of my Keds. Later that day I met the brothers and we gathered together a ton of kids and got up a huge game of team Hide-n-Seek. I can remember the smell of cold pavement from when I crawled under a parked car.
Days passed. I went to school, pretended I didn’t have homework, hung out with the other kids. The older brothers skipped school, drank out of paper bags, rolled their own. I heard there were lots of gangs; they fought a lot. Other gangs would sometimes attack little kids for fun unless the kids were under protection. I heard about a kid named Jimmy Booth who was a grade ahead of me. He got his cheek cut up by someone’s older brother. Later I found out the older brother was from my gang. He and others would walk me home from school, or watch a bunch of us play soccer in the parking lot outside my apartment building. Every so often my gang would find a fight. The other little kids and I watched.
I didn’t use my office much at first at 81 Arthur Avenue. I was satisfied with the pavement outside. One day me and the kids were playing street hockey when another gang came running toward us. My gang started rushing around, yelling at kids to get back. Someone handed me a long, heavy chain. I started to run but I tripped over the chain and by the time I scrambled back to my feet the fight was all around me. A strange older boy jumped in front of me. He had long black hair, and a knife in his hand. I started crying, and when he jabbed the knife at me I swung the chain around as hard as I could. It hit him on the side of the head and wrapped around his face a couple of times. For a long thin moment I thought I’d only made him angry, but then he collapsed on top of me; knife tip nicked my chin—two stitches. I remember screaming and trying to get away from him. One of my older brothers pulled me out from underneath him.
My gang won. The intruders fled into alleys and side streets and into the dark cemetery. I stood there letting my tears dry. Almost giddy, people were talking about how I’d whipped some serious ass. The boy still lay there. One of the older guys unwrapped the chain from around his head.
“Not dead,” he said.
“Too bad,” someone else said. Scattered laughter. They took his knife out of his hand and handed it to me. I didn’t want it, but they made me take it. They told me I had to cut his thumb off. At first I didn’t believe them, but they insisted I had to do it. We got attacked, they said. Penalty for violating our territory: loss of thumb. I had the boy’s knife—he was only a few years older than me—and it was very sharp. The gang started to grumble when I didn’t move. Someone grabbed the back of my neck and squeezed. It hurt, I think. Finally I bent down and grasped the boy’s thumb and sawed it off. He lurched up and screamed, but one of my older brothers hit him on the back of the head with a piece of wood so I could finish. I started shaking after, while the others stood around bragging, and then I ran away. I threw the thumb into the cemetery. My mom had a date after work, so I had plenty of time to get my clothes washed.
Afterward, I spent more time in my office. I didn’t play soccer so often, and before long I started hanging around with Jimmy Booth. No one bothered us too much. We cut through the sewers to get home from school.
Dry blood stained the pavement for a while. At first I thought it would never go away, but after a couple of rains it faded. I checked everyday. It wasn’t long before my mother decided she didn’t like the environment I was in and she moved us to 21 Finch Street. It was in a nicer, quieter, grassier neighborhood. In the end I still liked the order of 81 Arthur Avenue. I was glad of its ability to remain unchanged, and I almost wished I could be from there, to have a part of its resoluteness in me. I thought of the hotel room, and I knew if I ever went back to the scene of my crime I wouldn’t see my violent mark. It wasn’t there. It had faded with the rains and with the power of distance. I realized I would have to learn to use the magic of distance for myself.
Now, years and miles later, I kinda like 81 Arthur Avenue. It’s a good tale.
– | – | –
Motion, moving, we were always moving. I loved it, hated it. I screamed at my mother for it. She was a nomad. In my harsher, less understanding moments I think of her as a woman who did little more than follow her vagina. When I think about it more, I know her motives ran deeper. My grandmother was sick and dying when we left 21 Finch Street for our last big car trip, back to Ohio. Mom was willing to pack up and go be with her own mom. That may not be saying much for a woman who barely sat still long enough to glimpse a bit of scenery before she was off again, but it’s something I try to remember. Still, it’s hard to keep the motion out of my mind.
Over the years I developed a keen liking for houses. I lived in a few houses, here and there. I could tell they weren’t going anywhere, and I liked that. One place I lived in had been owned by the same family for more than a century before my mom and a step-dad bought it. Hundred Year House, we called it. I could tell people had been there for a long time from the worn spots on the doorjambs—all at the same height; from the smell of dusty lavender in my mother’s bathroom; from the rows of empty jam jars under the basement stairs. Apartments are different; people come and go. I don’t like that kind of motion—it’s too irregular, too unpredictable. Hundred Day Houses. Smell like grease fires or too few showers or a single recent coat of off-white latex. Carpet cleaning chemicals. Old cat spray. In the end, looking at 81 Arthur Avenue, or the hotel room, or Finch Street—or anywhere else—I find I have very ambiguous feelings about everywhere. I don’t know what I can claim or what can claim me. There’s someone out there who can look back at Hundred Year House and call it home, but what do I call home? That’s why I keep moving. That’s what I’m on the road to find out. I want to be from somewhere.
I remember things which are always there in the midst of all the motion. A dachshund named Gretchen who lived on pasta, or the ever-present ship’s wheel lamp. That lamp could never give me comfort. My office could never be my place of stillness and quiet. Ultimately it was my hiding place, first at Arthur Avenue; later from rampaging step-fathers. But there were other constants: a cheap nineteen-inch color television, a couple of chaise lounges my mother set up in our various spare bedrooms through the years for us to relax on in the evenings, and there were books. Those were the nice things, spun together in a thread winding around the eastern United States. Mom and I could never get lost; we always had that thread to follow, back through time.
As I grew older it got easier for me to use those items to work my magic. I build up from them. I can see a room with plants in the window—no curtains—and a small rack of books on one wall. The television has its own stand. Gretchen the Spaghetti Dog is curled up on one of the chaise lounges. It is 81 Arthur Avenue. In the distance, out the window, I can see mountains. If I follow the mountains with my eyes I see the light change. The plants are gone from the windows. My mother has a macramé thing hanging there now. The room is smaller. Gretchen is smaller. The television is still on its stand, but the books and chaises are gone, replaced by a battered couch and wall-hung, sepia-tinted photographs of people we never knew. This is Skidaway Road, Savannah. If I keep working I can find Abercorn Expressway and Hunter Air Base, or Covington, Kentucky, or 1634 Sundale Avenue in Dayton. One of the problems with distance is it blurs things together too much. The farther you get, the greater control you need to make it work. Gretchen the Spaghetti Dog often shows up in places she couldn’t have been. One thing I like though—if the magic doesn’t quite work, I can always make mountains.
One last thing I remember. It was in the hotel room. I was in third grade and we were leaving Savannah for Pawtucket. I had this tremendous crush on my teacher Miss Sikes. I was sad to be leaving her. I didn’t know how she would make out without me. I decided to leave her something to remember me by. In those last three days in the hotel room and at school I worked diligently on my gift: a tiny book with poems and drawings and a dedication to Miss Sikes on the front. Poems about Patagonia. Drawings of South African Dancers. And mountains. Always mountains. My mother didn’t know about it and Miss Sikes didn’t know. When I finished I put it on the bedside table in the hotel room so I wouldn’t forget it.
The last day my mother and I packed up before we left for school and work. We put things in the car, checked out of the hotel, then Mom drove me to school. Right after school she picked me up and we headed for Pawtucket. I left the gift sitting on the bedside table in the hotel room. On the last page, having steeled my nerve, I’d written, “I love you.”
Distance lets me see a maid who came into that hotel room and found the book, read the inscription as for herself. The same distance also tells me that despite what I thought at Arthur Avenue, you leave your mark. You always leave your mark, even in a sterile hotel room. Look for the doorjambs in Hundred Year House, look for a man’s thumbless hand in Pawtucket. I’ve always wanted to be from somewhere. I’ve wanted to point to a spot, put my finger on it and say it’s mine. But perhaps that’s asking for too little. Am I any less from Hundred Year House than the family which preceded me? In the end, if I grab a stranger on the street, tell my story, and ask where I’m from, what will he tell me?
From Cincinnati, most likely.
But that only means I was born there.