I’ve had a tough couple weeks, and it’s gotten me thinking about the three worst days of my life, those days that couldn’t be contained by a mere 24 hours and stretched to weeks and months. They’ve averaged about one a decade–the first in the early 90s, the middle in the mid aughts, and the last just a couple years ago. I don’t want to talk about those right now, but they’ve got me thinking about other memories, especially from when I was really little.
It’s hard to say what my earliest memory is. The day was either July 4th or New Year’s Eve, in 88 or 89. There were fireworks and I was still young enough to be carried when my mom, dad, and I ventured south along the river to one of those cookie cutter subdivisions that sprung up like mushrooms in the 60s and 70s, all identical red brick and beige walls under asphalt roofs. They even had a basketball hoop, which merrymakers had strung with garlands of firecrackers above ice chests overflowing with beer. All around spun satyriacal displays of cavorting men and women, faces twisted in manic delight like on the eve of the end of the world. Each seemed ancient to me, unfathomably old, but now that I think about it, my mom was my age now, 29, and my dad was 36. Their friends were the same.
I remember my mom drinking a beer, can tilted, dark liquid flowing brown like sewage. It’s my only clear memory of her ever drinking alcohol. That was my dad’s job. In lost-youth reverie, someone had even erected a bouncy castle in the backyard, stationing it under floodlights that collected party-goers and termites in a one to one ratio. The castle was only for grown-ups. I was outside and my mom was in when these two guys, guffawing and plastered (by then I’d learned the telltale signs), came up and threw their shoulders into the inflated structure, flipping it over. I think they might have even highfived. I scampered over to find my mom, who, wide-eyed and panicked, clutched the black netting of an exposed wall. “Go get your dad,” she said in that quiet way we use to hide when we’re afraid. I ran weeping after my father (who, incidentally, would abandon us not too much later). I don’t remember much after that, save for crying in my mother’s arms as she and my dad talked to the men who’d flipped the castle. They were trying to show me that everything was all right, but I was inconsolable.
Even thinking about it now I could cry. It’s funny how these things stay with you. I’ve retained so little of those early years, when my parents were married and we lived together on Center St, between 1985 and 1992. I remember trying to stay up late to watch Night Court, the volume low, until my dad appeared as a silhouette in the doorway, not saying anything, just pitching his head to the side in the WTF pose that I’ve unfortunately inherited. I remember a bar called the Bungalow, or something similar, where my dad played pool under heavy smog, my head too low even to see over the tables. I remember a Halloween party, fake cobwebs plastered to ceiling and wall, my dad in clown shoes, his friend dressed like a giant cow with huge peach-colored plastic udders, a source of lewd entertainment for hours. It was the same guy for whom my dad and his friends bought a novelty cake shaped like two giant breasts, sloped like volcanoes, caldera nipples marring their tops. I no longer remember for what occasion.
I remember a dark night on Gallo Street, a party at the house of the woman he’d eventually leave my family for, my dad and a man named Earl getting into a drunken argument and stumbling to fight behind the garage, coated in flaking white paint and amateur graffiti, the same garage the older sons would keep their stolen bike and car parts in, and probably even the purebred dogs they boosted from a nearby feed store. We trailed behind them, past the fig trees with their rotting fruits and subsequent maggots, past remnants of old barbecues, refuse left where it had fallen, all the way to the wood fence at the back of the property, my mom screaming at my dad to stop stop stop, to get in the car so we could go home. I don’t think either my dad or Mr. Earl ever threw a punch. But I probably learned a few new words that day.
Mr. Earl died a couple years later, under mysterious circumstances that no one has been willing to discuss with me, though I’ve always assumed it was an OD. And it’s funny–I started this post saying I didn’t want to talk about any of the worst days of my life, but this has all been a lead-up to the first one. So, let’s stop here.