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A Memoir Untitled
By Kelli Willingham

Lincoln Avenue was long and straight and lined from one end to the other and on both sides with sturdy red brick houses which my grandaddy built using only the strongest materials and the most punctual laborers- houses which he continued to build right up until the very day that he died, leaving the last house on the far end of the block an unfinished shell with nothing on the inside except the smell of broken earth and wet concrete and the feel of rough mortar oozing out on the wrong side of the bricks.

We lived in the middle of the block, in the only double house which my mother called a split level duplex. All I knew was that we lived in the one side, we being my mother, my two older brothers and myself, and my grandparents lived in the other. I could get to their house through ours. We were connected in the middle, theirs being exactly like ours but in reverse, and I remember spending as much time on one side as the other, my grandaddy and myself being most often together.

Behind us, beyond the long patio perfect for roller skating, beyond my swing set, sand box and willow tree, past the field where my brothers and their friends played baseball and parallel to our street, ran the railroad tracks. How many times I stood in the middle between the tracks and my house and watched the black train cars loaded up with coal clatter past I do not know, but I often imagined myself clinging to the ladder at the back of one of the cars, waving from the other direction at a little girl much like myself, waving and waving as I watched the back of her house go past as the train carried me away.

When my grandaddy died and my grandmother went to live with her sister over in Kentucky, strangers moved into the other side. Naturally my mother hated them, hated everything about them. She hated how they looked, hated the smell of their cooking and she hated their trash, which she said was filled with liquor bottles. They had a little boy and a little girl and I remember learning quickly not to like either one of them. The boy had black eyebrows that grew into each other and he wore red-brown leather shoes that looked like girl shoes and it was easy to make him cry. She would not play with me and I sometimes saw her spying on me from what used to be my grandaddy's bedroom window, her head disappearing quickly behind the flutter of a curtain when I let her see me looking.

The house next to us on my side of the duplex had a redwood fence running all the way around it. It was the kind of fence made of long thin slats that wove in and out of upright posts, basketlike. The fence enclosed an inground swimming pool, the first one I had ever seen, and I was fortunate enough to have my swing set beside the fence, where I soon enough was able to pump my legs hard enough to get me up high enough to see over the top and into their yard, if only for brief moments at a time. He was the biggest man I had ever seen and my mother, whenever she referred to him, also had to refer to his odor, which she said was so strong that it forced my grandaddy to leave a meeting of the Rotary Club one fine summer afternoon.

The man and his wife had company when the weather turned hot. Laughing couples sat around the side of the pool holding onto bright plastic tumblers while the wife ran in and out with trays of food and he floated heavily in the middle of the pool on an orange raft. Every now and then I would hear the spring of the diving board followed by a loud splash and I would run to the fence to try to see through but the slats were woven too tightly and it was impossible to get even the slightest foothold to climb up and look over the top. So I resorted to my swing which meant that not only did I see them each time I swung as high as I dared to go, but that they also saw me popping up and peeping over.

Beyond this house with the basket fence and beyond our unwanted neighbors to the other side, my world became vague, at least in terms of the people who inhabited it. I believe this had less to do with the fact that I was six or seven than it did with me already preferring my own company. I certainly knew the land well enough. Lincoln Avenue was broken on each end by cinder roads which in the summer were sprayed with oil to keep the dust down and which were sheer hell on bare knees and soft palms whenever ones bicycle skidded off balance. One of these roads went over the tracks towards the river and towards the BBF, home of the Satellite Burger. The other went through the creek and under the tracks and me and my grandaddy took this road to the hardware store on Saturday mornings, or taking it in the other direction, it led me to school.

I do remember a little girl, who lived a few doors down and who was the smallest in a clump of many children. I came to know her when her daddy moved away and my mother became friendly with her mother. I recall her name as Sally, though I most certainly could be mistaken and what I remember most about her was that she asked me how my grandaddy had died and when I said he died of a stroke, she caught me off guard by asking me to tell her what a stroke was. I had just learned that death was not something one talked about. I certainly did not dare to question my mother about how her father died. The balance of things seemed much too precarious. So when Sally wanted to know the specifics I simply shrugged my shoulders and she supplied the answer by slashing the air with a make believe claw, hissing at me, catlike, which made me think of tigers and wild animals and violent things for which I had no name.

Perhaps the clearest recollection I have of any human being from this, my first neighborhood, is of a man who did not live in any of my grandaddy's red brick houses and I truly do not know where he came from but one summer morning very shortly before we were to move away, I discovered him digging a ditch behind the back section of the redwood fence. He was working with a small crew of men and I believe I must have struck up some sort of conversation with him, though Lord knows what I might have said. I am certain that I singled him out. I remember him as thinly muscled and fair and though his portrait changes, miragelike, as my memory of him grows older, I will always see his eyes as serious and his face, smiling. I remember going back into my house and coming out with my brothers boy scout shovel which I certainly was not supposed to have, and I worked along side this man, at least as much as a child could.

I don't know what in the world he or the other men must have thought of this strange little girl who so much wanted to help them dig their ditch, but I remember no funny asides which older people often share when they think a child is being clever or cute and which they seem to think a child will not notice them doing. It seems important to me now that it was he who came to the edge of my yard. I discovered him there, back behind the houses in the field which I claimed as my own. It seemed natural that I should work with him, and that I was accepted into their group so easily seemed to prove that I belonged there, digging into the soil and releasing the smell of the earth, sweating along side them and laughing in comraderie.

I did my best, working my hardest beside him for two days. That on the third day I should run to join him only to find him gone somehow did not surprise me. I stood on top of the broken soil where the ditch had once been, stood on top of the shovel smooth clumps that now filled in the hole and though I missed him, I knew he had to go, and I realized I had known all along that he was going, knew it even while we had worked together and though I suddenly understood that I would never see him again, I also understood that it would somehow be alright if I should cry.
© Copyright 1997, Kelli Willingham, All Rights Reserved.
See the poem, Juice, in this quarter's issue,
written in response to Kelli's reading of this story. --egh

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