It is August 11, 1978. A humid morning succumbs to another blistering New England afternoon. Potbellied cumuli gather low on the horizon in an otherwise pristine cobalt sky. Colleen is twelve, three years my senior, an insurmountable chasm of days standing between us. I am already madly in love with her. She lives next door on Walter Street in Worcester, Massachusetts. For fifteen years, our bedroom windows will stare unblinkingly at one another across ten yards of space. Blue eyes (of course), a demure grin, tan legs, and a habit of staring straight through me when she speaks. From time to time, a tiny cluster of heat blisters forms on her lower lip like a welcoming galaxy.
“Can Ritchie walk to the store with me?” Colleen asks my mother. We are standing in my small kitchen. My sister is playing on the floor. Golden light leans through the screen windows. My memory paints this moment like a Vermeer.
There must be a split second of panic for my mother as she decides. The store is a mile away and I’ve never walked this far without an adult before. Colleen’s request challenges the very frontiers of a boy’s permissible geography. Is this okay? Even I don’t know the answer. But I am praying, pleading in silence, for my mother to say yes.
Why Colleen requests me to accompany her confuses me beyond logic, though I’m wise enough not to interrogate such confusion. After a long pause, my mother slips a dollar into my hand and tells me to be careful. A tether snaps.
While we are gone, Colleen’s father will suffer a massive heart attack and die in their living room. The margins of childhood will be forever defined by this hour-long walk to the store and back. And though I will be only a peripheral actor, a bit player in this tragedy, Mr. Gearin’s death will haunt me, too. This hour, even today, stands in sharp relief to almost every other.
Anne Carson writes, “We live by tunneling for we are people buried alive.” Why do we continue to tunnel? Why don’t we simply breathe in the dirt and forget? Are we digging for meaning? For connection? Salvation?
In childhood, the exceptions stood out. The most vivid days were the occasional ones, when routines snapped and I was estranged from the habits of life. Maybe I’m tunneling for these.
How an overnight storm piled snow beneath my bedroom window like huge pillows. The floor heater creaked as I woke and, with frigid feet, crawled to the window. There, below me, was a landscape transformed. I climbed back into bed and listened to the whip of snow against window, my mother turning a radio in the kitchen. I held my breath until I heard: school or no school.
Or the summer day when I was five and the Fowlers’ house was struck by lightning. It was my mother’s birthday and we were next door. Colleen was there, Kelly, Cathy, Shawn, and Mrs. Gearin. Our fathers were at work. An awful boom rattled the walls. We raced to the front door and gazed into the street. The facade of the gray, two-story house literally had ripped away from its frame, so that I could see into the upstairs bedroom, as if looking into a life-sized dollhouse. A fireman leaned out from the smoldering second story, inspecting the damage. The black sky snapped again. Terrified, I reached for my mother’s hand.
Colleen’s father has given her money for a handful of things. Bread, butter, a carton of milk. We follow long meandering sidewalks past the houses we know. Walter Street could double as a Dublin phone book: Baxter, Doherty, Farrell, Fowler, Gearin, McCarthy, Murphy. We curl down Paradox Drive, moving silently in front of the Bermans’ brick house, Elkinds, Jacobsons, and Flannagans. Past Sansoucy’s quarry. When we turn left onto Beaconsfield Road, we enter a terra incognita. The same songbirds chirp and the same shade cools our skin, but these front doors are unfamiliar.
What do we talk about on the journey out? If there’s a cruelty to time, it’s the erasures, the things we lose. What does Colleen wear that day? What does her voice sound like? I forget the name of purple wildflowers that we pinch between our fingers. I forget even the name of the store we are walking toward. But I remember feeling grown up beside her. I remember how easy it is talking with Colleen, and the strangeness of this sensation, because, at nine years old, shyness and silence are my default positions around girls. What mixture of tenderness and warmth does Colleen radiate that gives me the confidence to be myself? How does she draw me out? A word comes to mind: grace.
Twenty minutes speed past and we enter the store. A blast of air conditioning cools our sweat, brings a relief like water. We separate here, me to spend my dollar and Colleen to gather things for her father, who, at that very second, is taking his last breath.
Thomas Wolfe writes, “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” What ghost returns? What orients the jurisdiction of memory? Why is time as ungainly as the growing feet on a young boy?
I had a happy childhood.
Under certain wind conditions, I could smell Mrs. Sheedy’s simmering marinara sauce from two doors down. I watched the same wind turn elm leaves from green to silver as a storm approached. The sky seemed endless, full of possibilities. White vapor trails rulered across the blue as jets descend into Logan or, further south and east, into JFK. I identified them all, a taxonomy of flight: 747, L-1011 and DC-9. The planes’ contrails were as distinctive to me as faces, as nicknames.
Nicknames were a mark of respect on Walter Street. Orson, Shed, Burger, McMurphy, Sadness, Bessie. The “Big Kids” were teenagers when I was nine. They watched out for me with a tolerance and concern that, even now, seems uncommon. Somewhere along the way, they christened me ‘Head’. To have a nickname at nine amongst teenagers felt like a laurel wreath, a brass trophy with arms upraised on a pillar of marble.
Our families were Irish and Italian, Catholic and Jewish. We stood a single rung above blue collar. We shared the liminal space of upward mobility: close enough to the mills of the BlackstoneValley to still smell the grease but far enough out for new bikes and above ground swimming pools. Life was intuitive, and instincts of the body overruled the brain.
Colleen and I meet back near the cash registers. Inexplicably, my father appears. He stands in line with us. He is on his way home from work and he offers us a ride.
“I’ve got to grab a couple of pizzas first,” he says. “I’ll take you guys home if you want.”
Why do I decline my father’s offer? How do I know this is the right thing? How do I know that a half-hour walk with a twelve year-old girl contains more mystery than the convenience of a ride on a hot day?
I follow Colleen up Pleasant Street. Cars whir past. It is a Friday afternoon and people are heading home early. We move past our school, the red-bricked Tatnuck Elementary, dormant for a few weeks more. Colleen will start middle school in the fall. I will be going into fourth grade.
We turn the corner, cut through the fire station driveway, and then begin to climb back up Beaconsfield Road. When it snows, this stretch of road is the most treacherous. Potholes and cracked humps of concrete mar the surfaces. Someone is sealing a driveway. The smell of asphalt rises on a breeze.
Surely I am aware of Colleen, of the proximity of her, though I have no idea what to do with such feelings yet. We ascend the steepest half of the road, past run-down American Four Squares, freshly painted Tudors and CapeCods, all of them inhaling this summer day through open front doors.
Our legs straining, Colleen points to a path and we take it. The three years between us have widened her intimacy with place. She knows the paths, the shortcuts, better than I do. One more hill before home, this one through a wooded boundary between the neighborhoods. We are in shade, beneath a verdant stand of tall trees, following a footpath.
“The point of departure must be unyielding despair,” Pattiann Rogers writes. “We start from the recognition of that point to build the soul’s habitation.” Was this the work we were doing that day—building a habitation for our future souls? Why did the walk have to end? Why couldn’t we have just kept going, beyond our homes, back out into the woods?
Other days come back. I’d gone fishing with my friends at Cook’s Pond. Tony, Chris, Randy, Dean, Eric, Glenn, Mark. We baited our hooks with worms and watched orange and white bobbers float across the dark surface. A bobber sank. Someone hauled a fish ashore. We stood around rejoicing the catch until Glenn stuffed a lit firecracker in the perch’s gaping mouth. The slimy fish flopped in the dirt as we all laughed, waiting for the bang. But the wet wick fizzled out. Our curiosity about the world was confused, mixed with a cruelty we all assumed we would forget. Not to be deterred by failure, we grabbed an insulin needle from Mark’s lunch pail and began injecting fruit punch into the fish’s spine. It didn’t die, but contorted into a palsied horror. The fish’s back curled around, an anguished arch that I’ve never forgotten. We slipped the deformed creature back into the pond and watched as it corkscrewed into the depths, blowing up tiny bubbles.
My grandfather taught me to fish. My first catch was a ten-inch bass that I wrapped in plastic and kept in my freezer for six months as some sort of morbid trophy. My grandfather also gave me a brass 20mm cartridge from a ship in the war. A Japanese Zero had strafed their deck. Navy guns fired back.
“I saw a captured Jap pilot once,” he told me. “The little guy was shaking. He thought the Americans were going to chop off his head. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he asked for a cigarette.”
My grandfather placed two fingers up to his mouth and made a puffing sound with his lips. Why does this memory return so clearly?
The first model I ever built was a 1/48 scale Japanese Zero. It took a week to assemble, from start to finish, but the shiny Japanese fighter plane never measured up to the one pictured on the box cover. Globs of glue piled up at every joint. Thick brushstrokes of silver paint defaced the wings and fuselage. One of the orange ‘rising sun’ decals tore down the center. Still, I was damn proud of completing it.
In time, my bedroom became a crowded menagerie of airplanes in flight. Suspended on monofilament fishing thread, an F-4 Phantom, loaded with heat-seeking missiles, banked left. An A-10 Thunderbolt, gear down, lined up on short final over my bed. A Russian Mig-21, red Soviet stars on its tail, climbed out on patrol.
Colleen brushes back thorny bramble as the path continues. We are almost home now, just a few hundred yards left. We cross the Edinburghs’ front lawn, and slip through their side yard. The grass is worn flat and gray-brown. The path skirts along the edge of the Deans’ house with their lush gardens. A red, wide-plank fence defines the yards. The Deans own the florist’s shop in Tatnuck Square. Every year at Halloween, the Edinburghs pass out nickels while the Deans pass out baskets of treats, whole candy bars, caramel apples wrapped in red cellophane. From here the path jogs right, behind the Markowitzs’ house. They have a two story game room that I’m never allowed inside. Once, I left a banana peel in their yard by accident. Mrs. Markowitz knocked on the front door, insisted I come back and retrieve it.
Wild flowers and tall grass gives way to a copse of white-barked birch trees into the Sheedys’ backyard. Mr. Sheedy is an air-traffic controller. His wife loves Elvis Presley. They have a son, an old dog, but no car. Yellow taxis take them to the grocery store, to work.
Are we still talking as we approach the Bessettes’ huge front lawn? The Bessettes are my neighbors on the other side. They were the original family on Walter Street. A large field, remnant of the original farms, wraps behind our backyards. Crab apple trees line the field. Once, they planted and sold Christmas trees in the field, a whole grove of evergreens like a perpetual holiday.
Colleen and I stop in the shade of a flickering birch. We are so close to the end. The air smells humid, the afternoon light beginning to soften.
Emerson writes, “All loss, all pain, is particular; the universe remains to the heart unhurt.” Loss radiates out from the center of this moment. The innocence that is Childhood cannot escape unharmed, despite what Emerson says.
In front of us is an ambulance in the street, lights flashing. A fire truck idles further down. There is an indecipherable second before either Colleen or I can register what’s happening.
We inch forward. The distance from where we spot the flashing lights to my front door is no more than thirty yards. To cross this ninety feet of space is to cross a galaxy.
Perhaps the great shame is that I only think of myself. Is the emergency at my house? Who is the ambulance for? I feel a twinge of relief when I realize that whatever is happening, is happening next door. I’ve forgotten that Colleen is just inches away.
Why don’t I take her hand? Why don’t I at least say something? Of course, I am nine. What possible words do I possess?
The most amazing thing is that we keep walking. In lock-step almost. Neither one of us breaks into a run. Neither one of us thinks to turn around. We simply walk forward in silence.
In the driveway is my father, still in his work clothes. Half the neighborhood stands together on my front lawn. The scene appears almost festive except no one is talking. No one is smiling. They all turn toward us as we approach, but no one speaks.
We come astride my front steps. Colleen stops, but I keep walking toward my father. He is, of course, safety. He can orient the confusion for me. A second later, Cathy, Colleen’s older sister, appears in my front door. Her face is red and swollen. My mother is standing behind her.
“What is it?” Colleen asks. She is so brave then, standing alone, apart from the rest. Just a twelve-year-old girl asking for an explanation.
“It’s Daddy,” Cathy says to her from behind the screen. “He’s dead.”
Then my mother does what I’ve failed to do. She comes down the stairs and takes Colleen in her arms, brings her inside. The screen door closes. I stand next to my father and the others in the driveway. We watch and wait.
Chekhov writes, “Happiness is something we never have, but only long for.” I disagree. I’m certain that I had a happy childhood. But perhaps happiness can only be understood when it’s held up against sadness. Contrast defines and focuses the feeling, and this happens slowly, after decades. On that bright summer afternoon, I learned something about love and joy, something about death and sadness. I caught a glimpse of life that I have never forgotten.
I walked a mile from my home with a girl I loved. Neither one of us knew what that walk would mean. We never could have guessed at the way world would suddenly change by the end. And more than any other, that single hour taught me about the precarious, precious and magical nature of being alive. How it can turn in an instant. How we never know what’s waiting.
Childhood was an island unto itself, sacred, broken, pure. Those days were both a paradise and a prison, as all such islands must be. Memory was the penance, forgetting the sin. I’ve left out so much. So much has disappeared, like, cumulus clouds and the smell of asphalt on a summer afternoon. To snare even the outline of such things demands the habits of organized lunacy.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of Vermont College of Fine Arts students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including short stories, memoir, craft essays, interviews, and book reviews, has been published or is forthcoming at Hunger Mountain, upstreet, A Year in Ink Anthology, Descant, New Plains Review and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.