We had a cat. Coco. Briefly.
And a dog, Randy. But he chewed furniture.
Dad made us all try liver and onions once and if we didn’t like it we didn’t have to eat it again. None of us ate it again.
Every Fourth of July the front lawn was packed with neighbors as my uncle shot off fireworks he picked up in the city. I remember still the way the air smelled of smoke and something like eggs.
The way every Christmas Dad would plug in the Christmas tree lights before we were allowed to go downstairs. Our “piles” of gifts, separated, wrapped. That afternoon the small dining room table was crowded with relatives. And how we sprayed fake snow through stencils on the mirror above the couch and on the squares of the bay window. Outside there was snow. Deep. And later I’d go out wrapped in wool and use a bucket to build a snow castle. And inside the Three Wise Men walked from the left side of the mirror to the right.
How Little League dominated my summer. I played for the Wildcats and wore a purple t-shirt and jeans and Keds. The way I couldn’t hit to save my life, so Dad promised me ice cream every day for a week if I got a home run. The way I got a home run.
And when six, I sweat under the hot lights of the television studio of Beachcomber Bills Television Show on WPIX in the city, and I sang “Zip a Dee Doo Dah.” I left with a Knock Hockey game and my brother and I would strap the plastic hockey sticks to our heads and hit the plastic puck around the basement. The “Superman” television show album they gave me. The joke I told on television for all of Metropolitan New York:
Me: “Why are there fences around graveyards?”
Beachcomber Bill: “Why?”
Me: Because people are DYING to get in.
The way I hit “Dying” because I thought no one would get the joke. The way no one ever again let me forget that joke.
The small turtles in the pan in the den downstairs on the shelf below the window.
Men lined up on bicycles for the block party parade. The drinks in their hands. Someone playing 78s. Andy Williams.
The way our neighbor Joe, a boxer, bent his head when he talked. The way he could dive into the four-foot pool without using the ladder.
The way my friend Charlie and I would run from his house to mine. The deep snow of then. The long days of summer of then. Chalk on the sidewalk. Puddles at the curb. The cool grass on my back one winter afternoon when I looked into the sky and to this day I swear I saw my grandfather’s face come through the clouds.
The next day my grandmother on the couch crying. My mom telling her how my grandfather was such a good man.
The way I remember my dad was upstairs a long time.
Mom and I on a bus in town and at one of the stops was a circle of hippies with long hair and beads protesting the war. The way they looked so cool in tye-dyed shirts. The old ladies on the bus shaking their heads.
How I can still remember the names of every family in nearly every house on the block. The way when the occasional blackout hit in summer, people would stand outside at dusk and talk at the corner next to our house. “They have lights on Euclid.” “None on Massachusetts.” “It seems like all of East Lake and Philadelphia are out.”
The way I knew either Mom or Dad fell asleep watching television because I could hear the sound of static from the set when all the channels went off the air. And in the morning Dad took the train to work. And I would walk to the school next door. My brother with the white guard straps across his chest standing in the crosswalk. The way he made me stand on the side when I crossed the line walking home from first grade.
The way rain sounded on the awning on the side patio. The hedges. How even today the sound of rain on canvas makes me feel like I did when I was eight years old; somehow safe despite the occasional storms.
Then on weekends we started driving further out on the Island and would walk through empty houses, and I’d collect papers with the house layout on them. How in school that year, my third-grade teacher, who didn’t like boys, would yell at me for showing the house papers to my friends.
How I really liked a red-haired girl who was in my class since kindergarten, and I didn’t want to move. How the papers with the house layout smelled like the new houses, and I liked imagining which bedroom was mine. And how when holding the paper of the house we ended up buying, I knew even then at eight years old I’d never see the red-haired girl again so I made her a card and wrote “I love you” in it but I was afraid to give it to her so I threw it at her in the hallway that last day.
The way I knew I probably didn’t handle that very well.
How I couldn’t wait to watch that first moon-landing. And to watch the Mets on the television in our new home. The State Park, the arboretum, the Great South Bay. And I would make friends like you do when you’re nine. How Charlie and I wrote letters for a few months and then we drifted apart and where he is now I have no idea.
The way it was only twenty-two miles to our new home but it might as well have been a thousand miles. The way that even though we went back to East Lake Avenue to visit a few times, we never really went back like I thought we would.
The way that’s the way I learned we never go back. We just don’t.