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July 16, 2005

Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter VIII
You Make Me Feel Like Dancing

[Previous chapters here: as noted before, these are non-sequential chapters which will tie together eventually with a story line. I'm sure a lot of you recognize some of these stories. I guess I'm fictionalizing parts of my glory days for the book.]

Continue reading "Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter VIII
You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" »

July 15, 2005

Suburbia: Tales of Affliction, Chapter VII
You Would Even Say it Glows

[Previous chapters here: as noted before, these are non-sequential chapters which will tie together eventually with a story line. Also, I'm looking for a new name for the book. Suggestions welcome.]
In my mother’s attic, I find a battered box; strands of Christmas bulbs snake from its opening. The flashlight beam bounces against the box and the lights glitter like new snow under moonlight. I feel wintery all of a sudden, that magical kind of wintery, where the whole season exists in snow globe of Christmas and snow.

I pull a few lights from the box. They are at least thirty years old and some of the bulbs are cracked and faded. The bulbs are huge, by today’s standards. My mother’s street is already alight for the season, each house strung with carefully placed, tiny white lights that hang like strings of icicles from eaves and gutters. It’s supposed to pretty. Charming. Quaint. But Christmas is none of those things. Christmas is merry, joyous, loud and fun. Christmas is colorful. I think back thirty years or so and I remember stomping through snow as we walked the neighborhood, the red, green and blue lights that adorned the homes on our street giving off a glow of excitement. The neighborhood was lit up like a Lite-Brite board and just being part of that, just walking around and bathing in the color made you feel it in your heart, in your stomach even, the whole anxiousness of waiting for Christmas morning, the butterflies in your stomach as you wondered if this would be the year you got the stereo system, the glorious feeling of being free from school and homework and how we owned those winter streets, filling them with the sounds of snowball fights and skitching and off-key Christmas carols. And it was all because of the colored lights; they gave the night the right atmosphere, the one where winter and Christmas held such possibility. Now? I look out the small attic window and see those white lights from one end of the street to the other and it looks like an airport runway. I want to go from house to house handing out colored bulbs, shouting like some deranged elf hell-bent on making the proper arrangements for Santa or...or what? I imagine a child answering the door and there I am in a Santa cap, holding a basket of colored, huge bulbs and I’m untangling wires, spitting my words out at the poor kid who just wants to slam the door in my face, but I stick my foot in the door and scream: Santa’s not going to come down your chimney, little boy. You know why? BECAUSE YOU HAVE WHITE LIGHTS ON YOUR HOUSE!

Continue reading "Suburbia: Tales of Affliction, Chapter VII
You Would Even Say it Glows" »

July 14, 2005

Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter VI
A Jug of Wine and Thou

[I'm changing both the title and the format of the book, which is really of small consquence to you. Just thought I'd share. Here's another chapter and thanks to those who read]

My grandfather was big wine drinker. A wine connoisseur, he was not. Just a drinker. He kept his wine in jugs; glass, gallon sized jugs that he hid all over the house. My grandmother would snoop around each day, opening cabinets and moving books to see if she could spot the hidden wine. I think almost every fight they had - and we are talking daily - was over the wine. Grandpa drank it morning, noon and night. Before lunch, with dinner, sitting in the yard, watching Lawrence Welk - any occasion called for a glass of hearty red wine.

Grandma hated the drinking. She hated the singing that came with the drinking. At about seven o’clock every night, you could stand on the corner of Kingston and Ramona and hear Grandpa sing “When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie.....” followed quickly by grandma screaming something in Italian, words that I didn't understand but my mother told me to never repeat.

Grandpa shared his love of wine with his grandchildren. He’d pour a bit into our glasses during dinner, mix it with Coke, and then whisper in our ears to never ever tell our grandmother. We drank the whole glass down each time ("whole glass" being about one ounce), and even though there was barely enough to get us the least bit tipsy, we would run around for the rest of the evening like we were drunk.

********

We’re sitting at Grandma’s table; there’s me, my sister and six or seven cousins. Grandpa has his jug out and, per usual, pours us each a small glass of wine. Grandma walks into the kitchen and sees us sitting there, in Alla Salute! pose, ready to drink. She glares at grandpa, a long, evil stare, and you know that she’s silently damning him to hell or conjuring up evil curses.

Grandpa snickers, doesn’t even give Grandma the satisfaction of acknowleding her evil stare. He just picks up a peach and pairing knife and starts slicing. He drops one slice into each of our glasses and then looks at grandma, smiling.

"It's just fruit. They're just having a treat," he says.

He gives us a nod and we all follow his lead; we dip our fingers into the glasses, pull out the wine-soaked peach slices, and slide them into our mouths as if they were the greatest treat on earth. Which they just might have been at the time.

Grandma goes ballistic.

“You dumb bastard!” And now it’s not even a matter of Grandpa giving wine to us kids, it’s that he defied her with the wine drinking at all. She lets loose with a string of unintelligible Italian curses (though I do recognize one that was loosely translated as “go fuck yourself”) and for some reason I notice that it's 6:50 and Grandma is ten minutes ahead of her screaming schedule. Grandpa hasn't even started singing yet! This is both shocking and unnerving. The routine of the 7:00 Sing and Yell Show is shot to hell and we all - me, my cousins and my sisters as well as two aunts who come running into the kitchen - know that this isn't going to be an ordinary five minute tirade.

Grandma reaches across the table and grabs the jug of wine before Grandpa can react. We watch in horror-movie vision, with our hands over our eyes, peeking through the web of our fingers, not wanting to see, but having to see, just so we can tell the story to all the other cousins later.

In one deft, practiced move, Grandma swipes the jug away from the table, towards the sink and pours the wine down the sink drain. It's like watching blood being poured from a wound and one of my aunts screams, as if it's the blood of Jesus Christ himself being spilt, which is when I have the absurd vision of my grandfather as a martyr, hanging on a cross, sacrificing himself for Italian grandfathers everywhere who aren't allowed to drink their wine in peace. It's not even the loss of the wine that's so horrifying; there are a hundred more jugs just like it hidden away in the garage. It's the act of draining the wine from the bottle, the balls of my grandmother to take that one thing, that one joy my grandfather has and discard it like that, right in front of him, while muttering “Va fa 'nculo!” in a voice that's a close imitation of a snake hiss. We're freaked out and Patty whispers that maybe we should make a run for it, but then Grandma stalks back to the table and turned on us.

She waves her hands at us and I focus on her skin, the way it dangles from her fingers in fleshy folds. I tune out the tirade and instead wonder if Grandma’s bones are shrinking or if her skin is growing. I tune back in just in time to hear her say:

"Now you will drink every bit of that wine in your glasses!”

Huh? Was she talking to us? After all her bitching and screaming about Grandpa giving us wine, now she's forcing us to drink it? From the sound of Grandma’s voice, it's supposed to be some sort of punishment and I wonder if it's directed towards us kids or towards Grandpa, whose empty wine glass has zero chance of a refill and he’s now being forced to watch all of us drink what was left of the jug. I look to my aunts for help, but they've already scuttled back to the living room, away from the maddening scene.

“Now! Drink it!”

We all lift our glasses and drink the wine down, afraid of what grandma will do if we don't follow through. You might think thisis a good thing, but none of us had ever drank a full glass of wine before, with or without peaches. After three sips the wine burns my throat. One of my sisters gags and my cousin George sobs instead of drinking.

“You can’t leave the table until you are all done.” Again with the wagging skin and bones. She points a floppy finger at my grandfather.”And you, you can’t get up until they are done, either.”

I get it now. She's punishing us for being on Grandpa’s side, for playing his little wine games and winking conspiratorially at him when he showed us how to dunk the peaches and feign nutritional content. If only I had lurched from my chair and proclaimed “Grandma’s right, wine is bad for you!” at the outset, I would be in the living room with my aunts, watching Wheel of Fortune. Instead, I swirl the wine around in my Bugs Bunny glass (formerly a Bugs Bunny jelly jar) and contemplate which grandparent should really have my loyalty in this fight. Grandma, with her loose skin and torrent of curse words and spilled blood, or Grandpa with his hanging jowls and five o’clock shadow and desire to turn his grandkids into alcoholics.

Just then, Grandpa starts singing.

When the moon hits your eye like a big-a pizza pie, that's amore!
Patty quietly chimes in with the follow-up That’s amore!

Grandpa grins. Grandma scowls I sing:

When the world seems to shine like you've had too much wine, that's amore!

We sing, sip our wine and watch Grandma turn a angry shade of purple. When we drain the glasses, we slam then down like cowboys in a saloon and head into the living room, feeling a little bit drunk for real this time. We leave Grandma and Grandpa alone in the kitchen, waging their wine duel.

A couple of months later, the whole fiasco is forgotten amid new family scandals and holidays. One night, my parents ask Grandpa to come over and babysit while they go see Chuck Berry at the Westbury Music Fair. Grandpa shows up at 6:00 sporting a jug of wine. What kind of parents let a man carrying a jug of wine babysit for their kids, grandfather or not?

Ten minutes after my parents leave, Grandpa and my youngest sister are sound asleep in front of the tv.

“Let’s taste the wine,” my sister says.

Not having learned my lesson from the previous wine incident - which ended with me needing five St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children to get rid of the wine headache - I agree.

Afraid that Grandpa or Lisa will wake up and spot us stealing the wine, we haul the gallon jug into the bathroom. We attempt to pour the drink into the little Dixie riddle cups (“What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence?” is a lot funnier after a few sips of homemade wine) missing often, and soon the bathroom floor is littered with used riddles and magenta puddles.

I really don’t know what happened after the fourth round of “Time to get a new fence, hahahhahh!” I’m pretty sure it involved my parents coming home to find Grandpa and Lisa still sleeping in the living room, and Jo and myself sound asleep on the bathroom floor, our pajamas stained with red spots, cups everywhere, the toilet spotted with splattered vomit.

Of all the lessons learned through Grandpa’s drinking habit the only one that has stayed with me is that red wine will give me a headache.

Oh, and don’t let a man carrying a jug of homemade wine babysit your kids. Grandfather or not.

June 30, 2005

Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter V

Previous chapters here

V: Pissing in the Wind

Today marks day one of Exercise Plan V.75.2. I’m going to make this one work.

I’m supposed to start the day off with a long morning walk. Not one of those power walks, where a person walks so awkwardly they look like a crazed puppet. No, just a regular, albeit brisk, walk through the neighborhood. Two miles tops.

5:30 a.m. and I head outside. I'm surprised by both the warmth in the air and that it's not as dark as I anticipated at this hour. The birds are chattering, the squirrels are fighting over something dead in the road and there's a light rain falling, which is fine with me. I walk.

I’m thinking, this is so nice.. Peaceful. Relaxing. I’m excited at the thought of doing this ever morning. Getting in touch with nature and my thoughts and the world around me. I used to do this, many years ago. I try to remember why I stopped.

I’m a mile from home and I remember. I have to pee. My sister always says I should have a catheter inserted. I can't go more than half an hour without having to pee and I've already had two cups of coffee and a quart of water. I am a mile from home at six in the morning, and I have to take a piss. Badly.

I stand on the corner and resist doing the pee-pee dance. I go over my options. There are none. It's not like I can knock on someone's door and ask to use the bathroom. Maybe if I was on my block. But I’m on a foreign street that’s splayed with splits three times the size of my own house, all with stone steps and iron rails and a very “don’t bother us” air about them. Especially at six am. There are no stores open yet. I stand there cross-legged like a three year old and contemplate my fate. I think the birds are laughing at me.

It starts to pour. Out of nowhere, the sky opens up and drops a few buckets of liquid on me. The sound of the heavy drops hitting the pavement makes my bladder long to be emptied. Drip. Drip. Drip. Bladder water torture.

I start to walk east, even though my house is west, because I am stuck on one of those winding streets with no outlet and now I have to go the opposite way and all around before I can head back home. The downpour thins out to a steady drizzle. .Drip. Drip. I curse the skies. I look to up and I swear that one mocking cloud is shaped like a toilet bowl. I cringe. My bladder screams. I walk.

I find that if I walk fast, it exacerbates the situation and the urge to pee right there on the sidewalk, right in front of 242 Oakley with its concrete Virgin Mary, gets stronger. But if I slow down, I will never get home. I eye the huge hedges surrounding the house to my right. No. No. I cannot resort to that high school antic of peeing in someone's yard. I'm not a drunk teenager. I am a sane, sober adult. I. Will. Not. Pee. In. Someone's. Bush. Drip, drip, drip goes the rain. My resolve shrinks.

Ok, why am I doing this again? Why am I out here with the birds and the squirrels, while everyone I know is still snoring under covers? Because I want to lose weight, comes the pat answer. Because I want to be firm and trim. Really? I’m talking to myself now. Literally. Out loud. Maybe, just maybe, the only reason you’re standing out here wishing you had a cork for your crotch and thinking about peeing in your neighbor’s topiary is because just yesterday Brenda and Carla were standing outside in their size two jeans and clingy shirts and Carla was laughing about how she had raided her teenage daughter’s closet for clothes to take to Aruba? Hmmm? Could that be it? Yes, yes, I say and the birds scatter, and the squirrels roll their eyes at me and I think they’ve probably heard it all before. I want to go home. I want to go home and eat a giant cranberry muffin slathered with butter and put on my size ten jeans, after I go to the bathroom.

The sun starts to break through. Bright pinks and reds make their way through the line of clouds and behind the shades of sunrise is a brilliant blue sky. Vanish blue. The kind of blue that the toilet water in your mother's house is. That kind of blue. I cross my legs.

I go north one block and then turn west and I am headed in the right direction at least. I try not to think about toilet bowls. The wind kicks up and an empty Poland Springs water bottle flies by and hits me in the shin. Water. Liquid. Pee. I step in a small puddle and the sound of my foot hitting the water is amplified in my head. Someone's automatic sprinkler goes on. Water, water everywhere and not a toilet in sight.

I can finally see the side street I have to turn down. I'm close to home. My teeth are floating at this point. I remember how my mother used to say "I have to piss like a race horse" and I start wondering just how much a race horse pisses. This makes me walk faster, almost break out into a winning trot and my bladder jiggles and wiggles and begs for mercy. My eyes are watering.

Finally, my house is in sight. I chant out loud "please don't let anyone be in the bathroom, please don't let anyone be in the bathroom" and I sprint the last few steps, over the porch, down the stairs, into the house where, thankfully, my bathroom door stands wide open, waiting for me. I don't bother closing the door. I just pee, sighing orgasmically.

I go to the safety of my living room, cross "morning walk" off of my exercise list and think about buying a treadmill. Or a dozen cranberry muffins and a pound of butter.

Continue reading "Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter V" »

Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter IV

Previous chapters here

IV: The Woodchipper Whines on Wysteria Lane*

I get up at 4:30 a.m. most days. The first thing I do is throw on a sweatshirt and go outside. It's bitter cold out these days, but I find the coldest days produce the greatest sights in the sky. 4:30 a.m. is a great time to be out. The stars are incredibly clear. It is quiet, so quiet that when the train blows by the station about eight miles away, I can hear the horn wail. I can hear squirrels rustling through the trees and someone's garbage can lid being scraped down the street by the wind.

There are very few lights on in the surrounding houses. Not many of my neighbors are up at this hour, and for a few moments, I feel like I own the world. I walk around the yard, and head into my aunt's garden next door. There are statues in her garden, angels and mermaids and odd shaped animals and sometimes, in that early morning fog of thought, I wonder if I am dreaming or really standing outside.

Today I look up and see a huge, full moon. White, thin clouds move behind it and the light of the moon causes the clouds to become luminescent. As the clouds move, they give the illusion that the moon is racing across the sky. I remember when I was young and thought this to be true, that the moon moved with the clouds, the stars chasing it an stellar game of tag. I watch this scene until my neck hurts from looking up. By now the sky is getting a little lighter and the birds are starting to wake.

The inner enclaves of our suburb are still lush with trees. On the perimeters of the blocks, on the main roads, the trees are mostly gone. But here, in the nest of houses clustered together, the trees still stand. They are huge and foreboding in this light, their bare branches reaching out to the sky. The shadows make them seem a bit frightening, and when the squirrels bounce on the branches and make the trees shake, it looks as if those limbs are admonishing the squirrels for waking the tree.

I am in awe of those trees and the regal way in which they watch over our land. How long must those trees have been here to be that tall, that thick? They were here before the houses, before the land shifted from woodland to homeland.

*****

Across the street, five trees are being sacrificed for the O’Leary’s sun room extension. Carole O’Leary stands out on the sidewalk, hands on hips, a look of pride on her face as if she chopped down and hauled off those trees with her own bare hands.

I’ve been standing on my stoop for hours, watching the tree killers, watching Carole bark out orders, all the while pointing my camera at them. “Look at Annie, always with the camera,” I hear Carole say during a lull in the woodchipper whine. I want to record this, to capture the moment when a beautiful landscape turns into suburban blight. When it’s all said and done, when the trees are dust to dust, I put the lens cap on the camera and walk across the street.

“I never thought I’d get rid of those damn things,” Carole says.
“I liked them,” I counter.
“You would.”

Kaitlyn, the littlest O’Leary, stands on the front steps, staring her mother down. Her cheeks are splashed with dirty sawdust tears, her hands scratched and raw from when they had to physically pull her from the tree she was hugging.

“Kaitlyn liked them, too.”
“Kaitlyn’s five. She doesn’t know any better.”

I cluck my tongue at Carole, the way my grandmother clucks her tongue at me when I’ve said something utterly, wholly stupid. The woodchipper starts its whine again and I don’t hear what Carole says to me in response.

*****

I break from my moment of recall and look up at the trees again. I wonder if they are angry at what has become of their forest. Then again, they only look angry at this hour, in this season. On summer afternoons, with children climbing their branches and exploring the hidden forts the leaves make, the trees seem happier.

When it gets too cold to stay out anymore, when my breath makes long trails of steam in the air, I walk back through the garden, avoiding the stares of the angels and mermaids, and pause by my door. I point my camera at the sky, trying to capture 4:30 a.m. the way it looks in my mind. The moon, the clouds, the flickering stars, the statues and trees that seem to possess souls. I know it will never look on film the way it looks in my head. Nothing ever does.

Continue reading "Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter IV" »

June 29, 2005

Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter III

(Previous chapters here)

III: Ben Franklin and the Magic 8 Ball

Arleen is having a sleep-over tonight. I hate sleep-overs. I hate leaving the comfort of my own house, my own bed, my own stuffed animals that protect me all night. I know, I’m too old for that. But I have a feeling that when I’m old and decrepit, like twenty years from now, I’ll still be sleeping with Bunny and FooFoo.

I can’t take Bunny and FooFoo to Arleen’s house, but I can bring my own pillow, which smells like the toasted English Muffins, which smells like home and that should get me through the night. I don’t tell anyone I get homesick, even when I’m just two blocks from home and I can see my house from Arleen’s bedroom window and if the light in the kitchen is on, I can see my parents moving about, pouring a drink or getting a snack. Somehow, seeing my house from the distance of someone else’s house, seeing my parents or my sisters mill about the rooms when I’m not there makes me feel worse instead of better. It makes my family feel out of reach.

I go to Arleen’s despite not really wanting to. I lug my pillow and a plastic bag with pajamas and clothes for the morning. Mrs. Green greets me with surprise. “Annie! I didn’t think you’d be here. You never show up for sleep-overs!” I manage a grin a I squeeze past her. I hate Mrs. Green. She’s as wide as my father’s Lincoln and smells like she’s got bits of old food stuck between her fat rolls. She wears bright, floral printed house dresses that my mother calls mu-mus, but my sisters and I call moo-moos. The difference is all in the pronunciation, how you draw out the ooooos. The moo-moos make Mrs. Green look very tent-like and I imagine one of the Green kids crawling under the moo-moo with a canteen and sleeping bag.

The rest of the girls are already upstairs. I can hear the buzz of their whispers and giggles and as I round the stairs and head for Arleen’s bedroom door and I can tell by the tone of the buzz that there’s an argument brewing.

“I know there are such things as ghosts because my father saw the ghost of his father right after he died!”
“That is so stupid!”
“Are you calling my father stupid?”

I step into the room, throw my pillow and bag on the bed and slip right into the fray.

“My mother saw a pair of dancing shoes fly across her room.”
“WHAT?” This is said both collectively and incredulously.
“Uh huh. She saw red ballet shoes fly across her bedroom when she was just nine years old and the next day she found out her aunt died during the night.”
Lori snorts, “What does ballet shoes have to do with her aunt dying?”
“Her aunt was a ballerina.” I say this with an air of smugness. Lori, who is just about to say something stupid to rebut me, clamps her mouth shut. All the other girls sit there with their mouths hinged open. I do know how to make an entrance to a party.

“I’ve got goosebumps.” Tammy rolls up her nightgown sleeve to show us the prickly rise of flesh on her arms. “Let’s talk about something else.”

Arleen jumps up. “Ooh, I forgot. Mom bought me a Magic 8 Ball today!” She grabs the 8 Ball from her dresser and immediately everyone encircles her, touching the ball, wanting a turn with it. The next minute or so is a flurry of teenage hands, shaking, turning, grabbing.

“Will I marry Bobby Sherman?”
“Does Paul Carey really wet his bed?”
“Does my mother hide the Christmas presents in the attic?”
“Does Christie Sorrentino stuff her bra?

All the pat answers show up; Outlook not so good. It is decidedly so. Outlook good. Ask again later (which means ask two seconds later). My reply is no (which means try again). My older cousin has had one of these magic balls for months now and the cube of predictions circling in the blue goo holds no special interest form. What’s more interesting is the questions my friends ask and their reactions to the answers. As if this stupid paperweight of a toy can really predict the future?

Oh, I know. Like two months from now I’ll be standing in my cousin’s room, shaking the ball when no one is looking and asking it if my tits will ever grow. Outlook not so good.

Arleen comes up with a grand idea: We’ll ask the Magic 8 Ball if ghosts really exist. This lead to another discussion about all things supernatural. We talk about ghosts and vampires and shadows under the bed. This leads to a mini-fight, pitting those of us who believed in things that go bump in the night against those who are quite sure that the res of us were out of our minds. Or heathens. Arleen stands up and shakes Magic 8 ball.

“I’m going to ask it. We’ll settle this once and for all.”

I want to say: How will this settle anything? If you don’t believe in ghosts how likely are you to believe a toy? But I hold back. Once the 8 Ball told Lori she would get a kiss from Ray Cortland before the year was over, its power became undeniable, belief in ghosts and goblins or not.

Are there such things as ghosts?
Arleen shakes up that 8 ball with the same vigor that her father shakes martinis. Better not tell you now.

Well, that gives Tammy the heebie jeebies. She surmises that if the all powerful 8 ball does not want to tell us, its because....because.... ghosts are already in the room!

I grab the 8 ball from Arleen.
Are there spirits present here?

We hold our collective breath as I shake the toy, the blue goo forming foaming bubbles that obscure the words for a few seconds. And then the bubbles subside and the answer was revealed:

Yes - definitely.

Shrieks. High-pitched, teenage girl, glass-breaking shrieks.

Lori (whose mother hands out religious tracts to trick-or-treaters and tells Lori she will go to hell just for thinking about boys), grabs the 8 ball out of my hands and flings it across the room. Obviously, the thing is possessed because not only does it not break, but there isn’t a scratch or dent on it when Arleen retrieves it from under the bed.

The noise of the heavy 8 ball rolling on the wooden floor, plus Lori’s hysterical whimpering brings Arleen's older sister Cammie to the room, storming in, demanding to know what we’re up to. Lori’s crying by this time, and she announces to Cammie that we’re playing games with the devil. Lori points to the Magic 8 ball.

This thing? Cammie laughs. You think you can call out the devil with this stupid toy? Hang on girls, I've got something better for you.

And so we spend the next few hours learning the proper way to read an Ouija board. Well, most of us. Lori goes downstairs to sleep on the couch, away from us devil worshipers.

The Ouija board doesn’t hold the same mysterious aura for us as the 8 ball. It’s too easy to manipulate and Arleen’s a horrible speller, so we knew when the the triangle disc points to there being GOHSTS in the room, Arleen has something to do with it. Cammie senses our growing boredom and decides to go one better. We’re going to have a seance.

We decide to call upon on the ghost of Ben Franklin. Cammie figures we should start with someone benign and, besides, we were doing the Revolutionary War in school, so maybe he could help us with a few questions.

Lesson: Never call upon the ghost of Ben Franklin when the weather is ripe for a thunderstorm. No sooner does Cammie say (in a deep, spooky voice) Ben Franklin, if you are here, give us a sign, then a bolt of lightning lights up the night sky.

Wow. Five 13 year old girls screaming in unison can drown out thunder! I mean, Ben Franklin. Lighting. We all got it. It was a “sign” that made perfect sense.

I saw him, I saw him! Grace, a mousy wallflower of a girl who had remained quiet until now, is pointing towards the window, where the curtains are now billowing in the wind and the tree branches are scraping against the glass. He was there! I saw his glasses! He was smiling and it was evil! Ben Franklin is...THE DEVIL! Apparently, Lori’s evil-lurks-everywhere disease is contagious.

It’s chaos for a few moments as we all scramble to the window, looking for a sign of a bespectacled Satan. He’s nowhere to be found.

We start arguing as to whether or not Ben Franklin actually appeared at our sleep-over, or whether Satan appeared disguised as Ben. No one questions Grace's sighting; she saw something. Afer all, she’s the smartest among us and would never steer us wrong.

I decide to settle the argument the easy way. I grab the Magic 8 ball off the night stand and give it a shake.

“Was Ben Franklin here?”
Without a doubt the ball answers.

“Is Ben Franklin the devil?”
Don't count on it.

I have to say, that answer is a bit disappointing. The mere thought of Ben Franklin being an agent of Satan is too delicious to not believe.

Continue reading "Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter III" »

June 28, 2005

Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter II

Chapter 1 here.

II: "The Family" on Poppy Drive

People are under the impression that my father is in the mafia. I don't know what it is. So, we’re Italian. And he drives a huge and wide Lincoln Continental with spokes on the wheels and real leather seats. And he has a construction business. Yea, works with cement. People just assume that all those facts add up to I’ll make him an offer.

This has been going on for years and I don’t deny the rumors. I no longer confirm or embellish, but I don’t deny. I just raise my eyebrows or whistle when anyone asks about it. It’s too much fun to have people think that my dad could order a hit on them if they ever got on our wrong side.

Mom gives me a lecture on the whole thing. She doesn’t like being associated with the Mafia. She thinks it makes our family look ugly and vulgar. I tell her it’s just my friends. No one else believes it. Their parents don’t believe it. The principal doesn’t believe it....

“The principal?” Mom wears a wide-eyed look of shock that turns her cobalt blue eyelids into crinkly frowns.
“He mentioned it in passing.”
“Young lady....” I drift off. I can’t help it. It’s like the words “young lady” are the secret to turning off the part of my brain that hears adults speak and everything mom says is just a low buzz.
“......understand?”
“Uh...mmhmm. Gotcha.”

I am vaguely aware that she wants me to put a stop to the Mafia rumors. I reach back and poke my brain a bit to see if it can dislodge some of what she said and it functions as sort of a mental sausage maker; it packages everything mom just said to me and spits it out in one neat little package, which isn’t hard because it’s the only word-package mom ever makes in situations like this: “What will the neighbors think?”

I always want to ask her why she cares so much what the neighbors think. Half of them are related to us anyhow and they know all of our secrets and bad habits and dysfunctions. The other neighbors - Spider Lady, the Carrs, the Masons, the people who always leave their sprinklers on and waste our natural resources, the couple with the hot nephew, the Bergs - why would anyone care what they thought? They were an odd collection of hermits and religious nuts and swingers and cult leaders and....

It occurs to me - I have an almost grown up like thought here for the first time in my life - that maybe that’s all rumors, too. Maybe the Carrs aren’t Moonies. Maybe the Masons don’t see Jesus in their coffee cups, maybe Spider Lady isn’t really a witch. The hot nephew is real. I can attest to that myself. But who knows about the rest of the stuff? Maybe Spider Lady had a daughter like me once and she started the rumor herself that her mother was a witch and the rumor carried through the years and by the time the girl was in high school everyone in the world thought her mother was a witch so they came and took the girl away from her mother and tried to burn Spider Lady at the stake but she bolted the doors and shut the windows and spent the rest of her days mourning the loss of her only child and yelling at people to get off her lawn. Maybe. Is that how I want my parents to turn out? What if the real Mafia got wind of this rumor? What if some “family” thinks my father belongs to a rival family and they try to kill him?

I start to panic, the way I always do when my thoughts get ahead of my actions. I slow down the brain process by holding my breath and doing the nine times tables. When I’m done - I have trouble once I get past nine times five - the runaway thought train has come to a halt. But I know what I must do now.

I grab the first person I see, which is Nick, at the bus stop.

“You know, just so you know, ummm...my dad isn’t really in the Mafia.” I’m staring at a clump of dried November grass while I say this. I don’t look Nick in the eye, because it was Nick I told the most outlandish pretend Mafia stories to. Like the one about having to scrub blood and bits of flesh out of the trunk of the Lincoln one Saturday and how I did such a good job that some guy named Uncle Carmine gave me twenty dollars and let me see his gun.
“Right. Did he kill someone last night, so you’re trying to cover for him?”
“What? My father, kill someone? Nick, you know my father would never hurt anyone!”
“What about Evan Cameron? He threw him on the ground and then stomped on his hand!”
“Well, Evan knocked down my snowman on purpose. And that was like ten years ago!”
Billy Campbell shows up at the stop and Nick dismisses me.

This goes on all day. No matter who I try to confess to, they laugh and say “Yea, right. Whatever.” No one believes me. My father has become this larger than life figure, a godfather or at least sidekick to godfather who makes cement shoes for a living and sends enemies to sleep with the fishies.

I come up with this plan to have a bunch of people over after school to watch tv and hang out. I’m convinced that if they spend some time in my nice, normal, non-Mafia home, and see my parents do nice, normal non-Mafia things like watch the news and play Yahtzee!, they’ll be convinced that I’m a liar, my sisters are liars and my parents are just nice suburban folk who eat tuna casserole on Fridays and play cards on Saturdays and wash the car on Sundays. Boring. Normal. Routine.

I tell my father my plan. He doesn’t really care about the Mafia stuff. He thinks it’s a big joke and says my mother has no sense of humor when it comes to her maintaining our reputation as Norman Rockwell family. A reputation we never had, I might add. My mom suffers from delusions of Rockwell.

I get my sisters in on the plan. I convince them to tell their friends to come over, too, because the rumors have trickled downward from tenth grade to eight grade to third grade. Lenore, my youngest sister, hasn’t helped matters any by telling her teacher that our father wears pointy shoes and puts us in the kitchen corner and kicks us when we’re bad. She’s going to be trouble, Lenore. I feel sorry for my mom. Mafia rumors are going to be the least of her worries if Lenore doesn’t reign in her storytelling.

We ask dad to please explain to our friends that he is a law-abiding citizen. I think that’s the only way they’ll get it, if dad actually speaks up about it.

“Of course,” my father says. “Of course I’ll help put an end to that disgusting rumor. My reputation is on the line!” He pats us all on the head. I think he’s proud of us.

We all meet at 7-11, where I buy soda and several bags of chips, and then we march back to my house, a crowd of about ten kids all together. I’m nervous. I want so much to end this charade, to put a rest to the jokes about horse’s heads and bodies in trunks, to make my mother stop worrying about what the neighbor think. I feel like I’m doing the right thing, a grown-up thing and this gives me a sense of instant maturity. I may start wearing high heels and reading the business section soon!

We get to my house and I suck in my breath. Our friends have only an inkling of what’s going on. I’ve spent the last two days trying to undo all my lies, so they know I’m up to something, but there’s chips and soda with the 4:00 movie in it for them, so they’ll suffer through my lecture. My father is going to be so proud of me, I think. I am singlehandedly saving my family from the ruination of their good name and social status as perfect suburbanites.

The door is locked. Odd. I ring my own doorbell.

My father answers the door. He’s wearing a pinstripe suit and guido hat, looking like a cross between Al Pacino and Al from Happy Days. My friends giggle, some actually snort as we clamor into the kitchen. My father says, in an affected accent that’s half Brooklyn and half caricature, "I can't stay. Gotta go make some cement...,” wink, wink...“If ya know what I mean.”

Everyone, stares at him with wide eyes and slack jaws. Dad grabs his car keys off the counter, puts a scowl on his face and said "I catch anyone drinking anything but soda in this house, I take ya for a ride, capisce?" He struts out of the house, obviously confusing John Travolta with Al Pacino.

I feel a surging hatred for my father and I want to run after him, scream a million curse words, kick him in the shins for what he just did, for ruining everything I set out - so maturely - to do.

Everyone’s laughing. My friends, my sister’s friends, even my mother. Nick is doubled over, holding his stomach, heaving out great gulps of hysterical air. His laughter sounds like horses dying and normally I find that funny but now, now I was too mad, I was....

“That was the worst Mafia impression ever!”
“Yea, that was so LAME!”
“Hey, the movie’s starting and it’s Vincent Price week!”
Everyone runs into the den.

I grab a handful of chips and lose myself in The Fly.

Continue reading "Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Chapter II" »

June 27, 2005

Suburbia: Tales of Affliction
Part I

[a work in progress that has yet to be edited, chopped, rewritten seven times and tossed in the recycle bin. ].

Part I: Introduction

The Sycamore block starts at Cypress with the Pumpkin Man’s house and wends its way north for a slightly twisted quarter mile, ending at Alder with the House of Honda. There’s a small, enclosed world in this one little block, the nuances of which are visible only to those who live on it.

Unlike so many suburban blocks where the homes are all duplicates of each other, set apart only by the gilded numbers hammered onto the garages, Sycamore is a hodge-podge of houses. Perhaps 50 or 60 years ago it was one of those cookie cutter enclaves, a street of one story cottages seemingly made for small, nuclear families, cramped for even 1.5 children. As the years went on, the look of the block changed. People may not have had much larger families than before, but they had more things and wanted more space for their things. So they blew out walls and added on to fronts and backs and when they had no more room to push out, they pushed up and added on dormers with vaulted ceilings and spiral staircases and windows large enough for everyone to see in without meaning to.

Over time, Sycamore has become a tapestry of styles. Cathedrals are buttressed by make-shift splits, which are flanked by lengthy ranches, all interspersed with clumps of original cottages, untouched, un-pushed, unadorned with additions. There’s brick and siding and stone, enclosed porches and high, cement steps that are insurmountable in winter, circular driveways and blacktop mini-lots stuffed with three or more cars, full-on topiaries with sheared rabbits and unicorns and lawns that grow nothing but browned out fluffs of crabgrass. It’s the suburban version of a melting pot.

When we moved to Sycamore the real estate agent, as well as several acquaintances, led us to believe we'd be living on a quarter mile strip of PTA paradise. Block parties, get-togethers, families gathered on porches on summer nights, drinking home-brewed ice tea while their kids chased fireflies - you can have it all on Sycamore!

It took only a week or so before we figured out the dynamics of the block and realized that there were no barbecues or late night porch talks in their future. Was it us? Did we somehow exude an odor of “not yet ready for manicured lawns?” Was it our kids? Our lack of pets? What? What was it that was keeping the welcome wagon of Sycamore away from our house? Where was my fresh baked pie and invitation to sit on someone’s porch? I started to develop a complex. I spent hours standing in my front yard watching the gatherings down the block, trying to figure out why we weren’t fitting in.

****

I am - yet again - staring wistfully at the cluster of women gathered on the lawn of 412.

“Looks pleasant, doesn’t it?”

It's my next door neighbor, a nice woman with a nice husband and three nice, strapping young lads, none of whom are ever home long enough to make friends with. Their lives consist of constant trips to sports games, their house only a pit-stop. Their black SUV races into the driveway, spits out one son and his baseball equipment, swallows up another son and his hockey equipment, and disappears again. Today, Karen is home, taking a break from being a one-woman cheering section. She smiles knowingly at me. “It always looks better than it is, you know.”

“I thought it would be different,” I say. “I thought they’d welcome us with open arms and we’d join their clan. I mean, I knew most of these women already. I’ve lived in this town 40 years. I move on their block and they stop saying hello to me? What’s that all about?”

“It’s not you. No one on this end of the block has ever penetrated the invisible walls of The Seven.”

****

Start at the Cypress end of Sycamore, on the east side of the street. Walk four houses north. Count of the houses from there - 1, 2, 3, 4. Stop, cross the street and walk back south, counting off again. 5, 6, 7. Stop. And there you have it, The Seven. Seven houses that make up the gut of Sycamore. Not the heart; that belongs to Hyde across the street, who is teaching me how to prune my Japanese Maple. And not the soul; that belongs to the Pumpkin Man, whose yard bursts with orange every fall, who opens up his gates for anyone and everyone to have their pick of the pumpkin patch. No, those seven houses are the gut, the place where things churn and roll and turn to acid. Well, maybe it’s not the gut, but the Digestive Tract of Sycamore doesn’t flow as well.

They have a tribe of children between them, all over-fed and under-mannered. They are hulking, brooding brats, always hopped up on the steroid known as privilege, which their parents feed to them in large doses. As in, you are privileged. You are special. You don’t have to follow the rules of social decorum or the niceties of society because you are privileged. We RULE!

The tribe hangs out in the street, playing basketball, kickball or this odd game in which they just stand there in the middle of the road while you try to pass in your car. They take turns glaring menacingly at you, or waving to you in a mocking, sneering way until you maneuver around them and make your way home. The mothers stand around and watch this, gathered around the hydrangea bush at 413 like cackling witches at a coven. Either they don’t see their tribe engaged in the game of Bully the Neighbor, or they don’t care.

I stopped driving down that end of the block. I had enough of pebbles being kicked up at my car, of balls purposely thrown at my windshield, of gargantuan sized twelve year olds banging on my trunk. I had enough of driving past the parties in progress, watching the witchy women turn their heads as my car rolled past and turn back again without so much as a wave or a nod. They’re holding Margaritas and Pina Coladas and standing around in their short shorts and halter tops, their 40 year old bodies stuffed into their teenage daughter’s fashions, and when they laugh, I imagine they are laughing at me and my jeans/sweatshirt combo, me and my brownish lawn and children who aren’t hulking androids, me and my lack of margarita making friends to share my non-existent porch with. A barrier has been erected starting at 412, an invisible electric fence that shocks me every time. I finally figured out, a year later, to go a different way and avoid the shock. I’m a slow learner.

I pull out of the driveway facing the other way now, and Karen waves to me, her husband waves as he packs the car with football equipment, Hyde waves as he shuffles around his yard, the Asian kids with the souped-up cars and thumping beats wave. I may never have Margaritas on a front porch with these people, but at least they have the courtesy to acknowledge my existence.

When I talk to my friend about this, my friend who lives in another town on a tree lined street where they all take turns with the snow blower in the winter, she laughs.

“Do you think your street is unique? We have four houses at the end of our block that I want to dynamite. They refused to join our block party last year and had one of their own the day before ours! Their kids have made a conscious effort to ignore mine since they were little. It’s like there are two different worlds on the same block and we’re not allowed to enter theirs.”

I give this more thought. I ask a few more friends about their block dynamics and get the same answers from almost everyone. This is suburbia, one woman tells me. What did you expect?

****

I spent most of my life living on a street that was crowded with relatives. Our yards were connected, our lives intertwined. But we opened those yards up to everyone. Every kid on that block became part of our family. I thought it was like this everywhere. I suppose I grew up insulated, cocooned from the rest of the world. To me, suburbia meant running barefoot through the grass with your cousins, huge pasta dinners on Sunday afternoons, parents who would never let their children be rude to neighbors. Social stratification was reserved for the school playgrounds; at home, on your block, you treated everyone the way you wanted to be treated. You pretended to like that jackass who pulled your hair in the hallway because how else would we have enough kids to get a basketball game together? You tolerated the bitchy girl, the smelly boy, the kid who picked his nose and ate it because these were the people you lived with, the people who made up your kickball team, who told the best jokes, who always had firecrackers in July, who ran barefoot through the grass with you in a race to get to the sprinkler first. On school days, you went back to hating each other. At home, on the block, you were one. I spent my whole life thinking this is how it worked, this is how suburbia was defined.

I was wrong. Not only wrong, but deluded. I let the cotton-candy visions of my childhood block out all the horror and terror of growing up suburban. My mental battle with the Sycamore Seven has stripped away the fluff and sunshine of my childhood and, in many ways, has made me question the dynamics of all the groups I’ve belonged to in my adult life, from PTA to Mommy and Me to the book clubs and workplace committees.

Suburbia isn’t a place. It’s an affliction.

[The stories that follow are all fictionalized accounts of my life in the suburbs. All names and streets have been changed to protect myself.]