The Night I Lost My Childhood - Fiction
In the fall of 1970, I was eleven years old and preparing for junior high. It had been a tumultuous summer, beginning with my parents’ divorce and my mother and I moving into a small, two bedroom house along a shaded street on the east end of town. I could feel the footsteps of my teenage years marching closer and with each surrendering sunset I yearned for day I could make my own decisions.
Under the spreading oaks of Sycamore Street, nestled between the well-groomed hedges of neighboring houses, sat the battered ranch that was the Anderson place. The yard was a knot of overgrowth, its darkened brick covered with moss and vines. The roof was a checkerboard of missing shingles and its dark windows held torn screens and cobwebs thicker than my shoestrings.
I had learned from Ricky Bradley—the only other kid on the block, that the house had gone neglected for nearly two years, and his father had thought about purchasing the house just so he could have the nuisance razed.
So you can imagined the stir that was caused when newer cars, with out of state tags began pulling into the driveway, and then one day the for sale sign—rusted and weathered—was plucked from the ground, igniting a whirl of rumors that came and went like the sudden activity in the driveway.
The porches buzzed with gossip. The new owner was said to be the reverend who had been seen with the realtor, then it was the clean cut newlyweds who had shown up with their parents. Whoever it was had some serious work to do. Ricky and I were tossing a football in the when a white Dodge Polara lumbered to a stop and then pulled into the driveway of the house that had been the source of the gossip on Sycamore Street.
Porch rockers came to a halt and curtains spread as white and gray heads peeked to get a glimpse of the large man helping his wife and baby out of the car.The first thing I noticed about Carl Hoarsely was that he was enormous. Not obese, but strong. He was built like a football player yet had a bright smile that put me at ease.
Over the course of the next few weeks, all eyes, and ears, were glued to the changes at the Anderson house. The roofers arrived early one morning ,and from then on each morning began with a thundering barrage of hammering. Then came the brick mason. An electrician came calling. Each morning brought with it a steady stream of dusty work vans and dented pick-up trucks. Tom’s Plumbing, Taylor Brother’s Contractors, Jeff’s landscaping.
But most of the work was done by Mr. Hoarsely himself. The front door was propped open with a broken cinder block to allow a procession of grimacing men carrying faded counter-tops, broken chairs, shelves, and at least one piano, to file out of the house. Ricky and I stood in the street, the ball on my hip as we watched with astonishment as the scene culminated with the youngest of the bunch, with forearms bulging, heaved a kitchen sink the size of a bathtub onto the top of the pile as high as our heads.
Pitching a rusted vent into the junk pile, Mr. Hoarsely dabbed his forehead with a bandanna and then looked to us. “Hey fellas. You two want to help us out?”
I looked to Ricky who took a few steps back in retreat.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve got a pile of junk in the basement that needs to come out to the curb. I’ll give you guys $5 a piece.”
Thoughts of my mom’s warnings about strangers gathered in my head. But this was a neighbor. Weren’t we supposed to be friendly to neighbors? Besides, I could use five bucks. I shrugged. “Sure.”
“I’ve gotta get going,” Ricky said, clapping for his ball. Suit yourself, I thought.
I followed Mr. Hoarsely around back where he jiggled and jerked on the sliding glass door until he was able to get it on track and slide it open. We stepped into the basement, the air cool and dank, Mr. Hoarsely waved his hand as thought to clear the webs of musty air.
We began with the big stuff. A roll of carpet, large yard bags full of trash, old chairs, some boxes. The basement was partly finished, and the mounds of trash must have been sitting for the entire time the house had been empty.
“So what’s your name kid?”
“You a ball player?”
After several trips, I tossed a rusted mop bucket on the heap out front. The midday sun sat on my shoulders, warming my back as Mr. Hoarsely emerged from the basement with a ten speed bike.
“Don’t suppose you want this old thing do you?”
He rolled the old Schwinn to me, the tires were flat and the seat was covered with a film of mildew, but it was nothing I couldn’t fix. The bike sat high, the cross bar to my chest. Strands of cobwebs twisted and tangled in the spokes as the wheels turned. I wondered how I would even manage to climb onto it.
“Yeah, sure. If you don’t want it that is.”
“No, I think you’d get more use out of this than I would.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon toying with the bike, turning it upside down onto the seat and handlebars and lubing the chain with oil. I was pumping air into the tires when my mother pulled into the driveway. She stepped out of the car, craning her neck and grimacing at the long run in her stockings.
“Hey Frankie, what you got there?”
“My new bike. Mr. Hoarsely gave it to me. I also got five bucks for helping him clean out the basement,” I said, an air of pride in my voice.
She looked down the street in the direction of the junk pile out on the curb, and then her gaze came back to me, stopping at every house along the way.
“That's the new family, right? You were in the basement with him?”
“Yeah, he’s real nice.”
She furled a brow, the corner of her mouth instinctively curling towards a smile. “Well, I’m not sure you should be in basements with strangers. Why don’t you come inside and I'll get dinner ready.”
Even before the divorce my father’s job put him on the road for weeks at a time, so dinners at my house had always been informal sit downs between the two of us. My mother wasn’t the type to cry and feel sorry for herself, besides, she was much too stubborn to give my father the satisfaction. Instead, she'd occasionally invite friends over to join us. Usually I'd become lost in adult talk and escape to the living room to watch the games. But that night something was on her mind. She smoked a cigarette, clearing her throat as I worked at a slab of pork chop on my plate.
“Frankie, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be going down to the Anderson place, not until we are formally introduced.”
I nodded, but only to appease her. I wasn’t a baby anymore and knowing that she had to work the next day I had already promised Mr. Hamersley—Carl he had told me to call him, that I would assist him with yanking out the leaky toilet in the half bath. I wasn’t missing out on another $5. I was well on my way to becoming a rich man by the time school started.
She exhaled a plume of blue smoke and I heard her say, almost in a whisper, “Some of these old crows around here are going to flip.” I had no idea what she meant.
The next morning I was up and eating a bowl of Wheaties when my mother, freshly lathered in her familiar flowery fragrance, readied herself for her shift at Tisdales, the woman’s fashion store at the plaza. Her part-time work was now full-time after the divorce, but she trusted me to be alone at the house.
Before she left—as though privy to my ploy, she suggested we get ourselves acquainted to our new neighbor. I begrudgingly agreed and to my utter embarrassment, my mother--complete in her herringbone dress and dangling earrings--walked me down to Mr. Carl’s, as I had taken to calling him, toting the ominous fruitcake we had found while unpacking back in May. I trudged along at her side, the bike clicking beside me as I pushed it down the street towards the noise and dust escaping the opened front door.
I leaned the bike against the cedar tree out front and my mother and I stepped inside, knocking on the doorway as two younger men were uprooting a scraggly carpet from the hardwood floors. They stopped cold as we entered, still holding the frayed layer of beige and glistening in sweat. I looked to my mother, who offered a smile and said hello. They waved silently; their faces were two of complete befuddlement.
I was mortified. Showing up to the job site with a girl, my mother no less, was enough to line my forehead with a film of perspiration. Finally, the taller of the two nodded to me just as heavy steps lumbered down the hallway. Carl appeared, greeting me with a boisterous hello, his demeanor changing as he saw my mother and her fruitcake at my side.
“Oh, uh. Hello.”
“Hi,” my mother said, thrusting the hideous gift towards Mr. Carl’s midsection. “I’m Stephanie Connelly, Frankie’s mom.”
The two workers looked at each other, something between a smirk and a scowl playing on their faces. Mr. Carl took the offering; his large hands engulfing the rock hard door stop as he smiled graciously. “It’s a pleasure. I’m Carl Hoarsely, and thank you for this, uh..” He lifted it closer.
“Fruitcake,” my mother interjected. “Just something I put together to welcome you to the neighborhood. I also wanted to ask you about this bike. Frankie says you gave it to him?”
“Yes, uh, we found that old thing in the basement while we were cleaning up, didn’t we Frankie?”
“Yep, I told her that you said I could keep it, but..”
“Well, I just wanted to make sure. He’s not getting in the way is he?”
“Not at all ma’am, he’s a big help. If it’s okay with you that is?”
“Yes, of course, he needs to be productive. Well I’ve got to get to work. It was nice to meet you Mr. Hoarsely.”
“Carl. And thanks again for the cake,” He said, sizing up his next door stop.
I walked out with my mom, unable to hold in the “See!” escaping from my mouth. My mother turned to me, her eyes as gold as the waking sun.
“You be sure to stay out of the way Frankie, okay? I’ll see you this afternoon.” She bent down to give me a kiss on the forehead, and to magnify my embarrassment, Ricky’s dad drove past the Anderson house. I watched his head turn in an effort to keep his stare fixed on us outside the doorstep. I was too concerned with the guys inside seeing my mother kiss me to think anything of it. I didn’t know much of anything then.
It took Mr. Carl maybe a month to get the house in a livable state. I helped out on the weekends, cutting grass and moving furniture, making a killing in the process. By then, Mrs. Carl and the baby were all moved in and had even come over for my mother’s lasagna on the last Saturday before school started.
I wore a blue striped oxford shirt and a stiff pair of jeans that morning. My hair matted and greased so that my pesky cowlick would behave until at least lunchtime. I was all nerves and excitement on that warm September morning, arriving late at the bus stop for the first day of school.
Jogging up the street, I yelled to Ricky as the large yellow box lumbered down our street, turned around and arrived to pick us up. I hadn’t seen him around for the last couple of weeks; he’d gone off to church camp and then went on a Labor Day vacation to end the summer. .
As we boarded, I started to sit when Ricky slung his bag down in my place. Taking the seat behind him, I leaned over the giant seat to ask about his vacation.
He tossed a distant shrug in my direction. I chalked it up to him not being a morning person. At the next stop, as the bus plodded forward, he lifted his head over the seat, his face brazen and his voice low.
“Sorry Frankie, but my dad doesn’t want me hanging around with nigger lovers.”
My first thought was that I had mistaken what he'd said. Living in Virginia, I’d heard the word before, from the redneck kids who liked to swear at the park, or even from the adults fishing the river with missing teeth that whistled when they spoke.. But as I registered his words—the ease in which my friend had looked me in the eye and said it—a gripping fear enveloped me.
The bus jerked forward, chugging along on the route to the school, each stop blurring with the next in my disjointed state. I stared at the back of the seat in front of my face as the bus filled with kids. Fresh faced kids, sunburned kids smiling and chattering with first day jitters. I looked up as a rail thin boy took the seat next to Ricky, and they struck up a conversation about baseball. It was a conversation I had had with Ricky Bradley a hundred times over the summer, but everything had changed.
My first week of junior high floated past in a daze. I forged excuses and my mother drove me to school. I made a few friends and found my way around campus. Sixth grade wasn't all that bad. In the evenings Ricky stayed hidden indoors, doing his homework I was told. I wobbled down street on my new bike, my feet dangling as I stretched to pedal the giant bike. I still helped Mr. Carl when I could, not that he needed me.
The new roof and gutters transformed the house, along with the pruned trees and trimmed grass. By October, the colorful mums burst from the mulch beds, and Mr. Carl had even but in a brick path from the drive way. The days were crisp and cool as fall swept through the trees, its winds littering the street with a carpet of red and yellow leaves.
On a Friday night, after spending the evening helping Mr. Carl in the basement, I gorged on mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese and fell into bed a little after 9, listening to the Cardinals’ game on the radio as she did the dishes in the kitchen.
I’m not sure what woke me later that night. It may have been the sound of the truck growling in the street, the crashing glass, or the ear piercing scream. I jerked upright in bed, my eyes adjusting to the dark, focusing on the orange glow pulsing on my wall. Shaking my head, I shuffled to the window and my heart thumped into gear.
The blaze jerked and flapped in the night, perilously close to the Cedar tree in Mr. Carl’s yard. I heard my mother’s steps and met her in the hallway.
“Mr. Carl’s house is on fire!”
We dashed out to our porch, the brisk night air pressing cool on my face. A few of the neighbors were standing in their front yards, still in their robes with hands stuck to their faces, whispering amongst each other. My mother jerked away from my hand, bounding for the fire, which I could see was not coming from the house but was on the lawn.
I crept towards the house, the street cold and harsh on my bare feet. I stopped at the curb, raising my head to the burning cross snapping and crackling as the flames whipped angrily into the sky. Mrs. Hoarsely stood on the porch, incoherent and hysterical with her baby in her arms. My mother embraced her, telling her it would be okay, asking if they had called the fire department.
Mr. Hoarsely emerged from the dark, dragging a hose towards the glowing crucifix erected in the mulch bed, his bare chest shined under the warmth of the flames, as he battled the fire with a small stream of water. His face was gripped with anger, and I stood paralyzed by the scene, confused but at the same time knowing something evil had transpired.
When the fire truck arrived, the cross was smoldering in the grass. Mr. Hoarsely continued to spray it with the hose in the dark, where it sizzled and smoked under the streetlight. The police arrived and spoke to Mr. Hoarsely in hushed voices, more officers arrived and asked him to remain calm as his booming voice bellowed over the hum of the trucks and commotion. The charred cross was loaded into a pick-up truck and hauled away and my mother and I drifted home where I laid in bed with thoughts and questions that would stand unanswered for years to come.
I stepped out onto porch the next morning finding the neighborhood still and quiet. The vivid sky was a wash of blue, as though attempting to rinse the morning of the night. Rolled newspapers rested in the driveways, the lawns glittering with grass splashed with moisture. The colorful trees were steeped in brilliant morning sun.
The cross had been removed by the fire department, but not before stamping the grass with its embers. I was staring at the t in the yard when Mr. Carl stepped out front, his face devoid of its usual smile.
“Hey there Frankie.”
Hey Mr. Carl. I was just coming down…”
A large box truck rumbled between the cars parked on the street, its brakes screeching as it maneuvered into the driveway. I looked up to Mr. Carl, the dark rings under his eyes swollen and tired. He put a mammoth hand on my shoulder. “Sheila says she can’t stay here.”
I searched for words but nothing came. It was too much. I couldn’t sort through the heaviness in my head. My mother had mentioned something about us moving as well during breakfast. I looked at my feet, my mind unable to come up with any reasoning for what was happening.
“Can’t the police do something?”
He sighed as though he wouldn’t know where to begin explaining such things to me. “Look here Frankie. You’ve got a good heart. Don’t let this world ever change that okay? Things won’t always be this way.” The two young men emerged from the truck, glaring at the houses as though ready for confrontation. “You should probably run home as not to cause your mother any trouble. “
I nodded slowly, part of me knowing that I couldn’t have understood the reasons adults did the things they did. For the first time in my life I didn’t want to grow up.
We bid the Hamersley’s farewell that week and just before my mother and I moved (she had no desire to be around people who could do such things), the Anderson house went back up on the market, this time in much better condition than before.
I attended a different school and eventually life went on. I grew up, went off to college and got a job. Later I got married and started a family. I tried to teach my children to love their neighbors and the world they live in. And as I've watched them grow into adulthood, I hope they do the same for their children.
Often times when I work around the house I smile as I think back to that fall of 1970. When Carl Hamersley taught me how to hold a hammer and drive a nail, how to read a tape measure, how to laugh and enjoy a day's work. Other times I shake my head and take a sudden breath when I remember the night I learned of the evil that men can do to one another.