Sometime during the long hot summer of 1962, between my academic success in Miss Ackley’s fourth grade class and the beginning of Mrs. LeMay’s fifth grade class, I first saw Jeannie and Thea Appleby. I didn’t actually meet them until fall, but I surreptitiously observed them from a safe distance during the month of August. Too painfully shy to introduce myself, it never occurred to me that they might be lonely, too.
In retrospect, I like to characterize the era as Late Howdy Doody-Early Jack Kennedy. I was ten years old, gawky and caught in between epochs of my own. Sitting alone on the front porch one scorching afternoon, I was contemplating the feasibility of a bike ride. My utilitarian old blue Schwinn had become somewhat of an embarrassment. Though reliable, it was heavy and matronly and difficult to ride uphill. Its blue paint had oxidized to the dull gray of an old, beat-up junkyard car. It was old when I got it and though I was pleased to have a two-wheeler of my own, I wanted a newer, slimmer model. I wanted shiny paint. I wanted sleek tires.
I was fashionably bored, having perfected the lethargic affectations acquired during lengthy summer vacations from elementary school. I wanted something to do, but it was extremely hot. Very tanned from two weeks at the beach, I examined the contours of my long, outstretched legs and wiggled my brown toes in my summer sandals. The atmospheric glare made my limbs go in and out of focus, and my eyeballs burned in their sockets. I squinted at the white-hot light reflecting from crystalline pieces of aggregate embedded in the concrete. The path sparkled like diamonds from our porch steps to the street, where it merged with the glittering sidewalk. I drowsily envisioned the movie version of the Emerald City of Oz. San Bernardino, California was anywhere but Oz. An old railroad town about one hour east of L.A., it was midway between the city and Palm Springs but nowhere in particular.
Our house was situated about half way up a rather steeply inclined street. While I might enjoy coasting breezily down the street, it would take considerable effort to ride back up in the heat. My friends and I frequently pedaled to the top of the street where we began a Kamikaze descent down the incline. At the bottom, we either successfully maneuvered a wide right turn at the corner where the Wallace’s lived or careened down an even steeper incline, exploding like projectiles into oncoming traffic. The wipeout risks were very high. A dry, itchy scab on my right knee testified to a recent miscalculation of time, space and a poorly misplaced patch of loose gravel.
My family had lived in this house for two years. It was brand new when we moved in and had four bedrooms and two bathrooms. My parents now had their own private bathroom and no longer had to share their private moments with three kids, but I no longer had free access to my mother’s make-up drawer and all its glamorous contents. Unless she wasn’t around, I had to invent a pretext to be in her bathroom, like looking for a band-aid or something medicinal, like rubbing alcohol. I had recently learned about menstruation and was very interested in the box of Modess napkins under her sink.
I had liked our first house in California. It was a classic version of the little box house built everywhere to house thousands of returning WWII veterans. Easily and rapidly built, these nearly identical dwellings appeared en masse almost overnight, forever changing the California landscape. Populous suburbs with bouncy names replaced silent fields and orange groves. The resulting baby boom expanded exponentially through the 50’s and produced an equally populous generation that obligingly fulfilled its promise as the true master race, at least for a while. When this mass reached adolescence, it would throw all the prosperity showered upon it during its childhood back into the faces of its progenitors and seek spiritual, though not necessarily financial individuality elsewhere.
Before coming to California, we lived on Long Island in New York. My father, whose still boyish face gazes out of photos from that era, left everything he knew to accept a business proposition tendered by an old buddy. He arranged a pre-move reconnaissance mission to California and bought a house, while we waited back on Long Island. As luck would have it, he found one with its backyard replete with mature fruit-bearing trees, fulfilling a whimsical childhood dream. This desire for fresh fruit and sunshine was activated many years earlier by the sentimental image of a fully fruited orange tree featured on a postcard. His mother sent this benign little note from Florida, where she was visiting relatives, and apparently ignited my father’s appetites like a heat-seeking missile. He would live someplace where oranges grew on trees. He paid $14,000 for the little brown house, and we moved west.
Its back yard was large enough to accommodate my mother’s clothesline, my swing set and various peach, orange, plum and lime trees. It had a nice lawn adjacent to a concrete patio on which sat my parents’ chaises lounges and the wood a picnic table that hosted our birthday parties. Its windowless garage, sized to house one car, was detached and set back from the street behind a large gate. Even on cool days, it smelled rather musty, like laundry soap and cardboard boxes. On rainy days, it smelled like our beagle, who peacefully snoozed there in lieu of more habitual occupations.
When my mother opened the side door to transport laundry, rays of light penetrated the darkness to reveal tiny, delicate motes of dust floating in the air along with an occasional dog hair. My father always parked his car in the driveway, and the gate was rarely open. So, unless my mother was washing clothes, the garage doors were closed. Its opaque darkness inspired scary stories and provided a great spot for hide ‘n seek, though we weren’t supposed to play there.
Despite a distinct lack of architectural edginess, these houses symbolized American boldness. Each unabashedly reflected the personal tastes of its owner, frequently distinguished by a vivid color of exterior paint. With no intrusive homeowners’ association to demand conformity, street after street of jellybean colored houses radiated a kitchy, scrappy charm, like tinker toys come to life. Though our house was a sedate brown with white trim, had anyone been asked to conform to a benignly, tasteful beige palette, the offending party would have been invited to move to Russia. Everyone could afford a rose bush or two, and they exploded like popcorn every spring. Camellias floated in decorative glass vessels. Dogs and children ran loose in the street.
Everything about this new neighborhood was wonderful except that we were almost the only Jewish family living there. Our neighborhood in New York had been entirely Jewish. In general, my parents’ interactions with the neighbors were superficially friendly and child-oriented. Because I played with the neighborhood kids every day, I was the one to explain why we didn’t have a Christmas tree or lights on our house. My pithy declaration that “we’re Jewish” was deemed insufficient, and the blue-eyed, gentile faces of my schoolmates appeared more puzzled than ever. As I was not yet able to articulate my personal cosmology, I struggled hard to find an appropriate explanation.
I was pretty confused about things, too. Once when my grandmother was visiting from New York, I asked her if she loved Jesus. Her response was less than enthusiastic. After a lengthy remedial lecture from my mother enumerating every extant Jewish relative, I began to realize that this issue could become a very big social problem for me. Fortunately, in between Christmas and Easter, nobody paid much attention, and play went on as usual.
In the summer, my mother entertained large groups of elegantly dressed married women in dresses who were accompanied by nice husbands in suits. A hot, dozy afternoon in the desert would slowly ripen into a balmy, heavy twilight, the sort that had compelled my father to flee New York winters for this Beulah land. These affairs were nothing like our cake and ice cream little kid birthday parties, where everyone frothed over soda pop and frosting. This was for grown-ups, young married couples who still courted each other on Saturday night and exuded the potent scent of bottled-up sexual desire finally legitimized by marriage. This is what my father and uncle had fought for in the Battle of the Bulge.
Preparations began days before. As evening approached, platters of food appeared on the kitchen counter. My father carried bags of ice from the car. I listened for the sound of his feet on the steps and waited to hear the screen door slam. I watched with pleasure as he fired up the tiki torches that illuminated the fruit trees.
Following the heavy scent of Shalimar down the hall to my parents’ room, I watched my mother putting the finishing touches on her make-up. She didn’t wear much, but I loved to watch the way she poised her mouth and pressed her lips together when she applied her favorite red lipstick. She wore a black, sleeveless shantung sheath and high heels. She had probably been to the beauty parlor again that afternoon for a comb-out, though she had a standing appointment with Dorothy every Friday morning. She turned to me and smiled, reminded me of our bedtime agreement and left me to await her guests.
Though the streetlights on the corner had snapped on, the pavement and concrete sidewalk would continue to radiate heat for hours. Voices could be heard through the open windows of houses nearby. In a light, cotton nightgown, I danced across the front yard, the evening grass prickly cool and deliciously damp under my bare feet. Giddy to the point of nausea, I was permitted to stay up past my bedtime until some of the guests arrived. I glowed with the anticipation of a beauty pageant contestant. I had very long hair that my mother braided every morning to prevent tangles. Unbound in the evening, it rippled sensuously down my back toward my knees. Tiny sprigs of grass clung to my bare soles. Twirling in circles, my tan arms outstretched, I released my solar heat back to the atmosphere and impatiently awaited the arrival of grown-up company.
One by one the cars arrived. Wheels crunched to the curb and engines stop. Doors slammed. Laughter echoed, and greetings were exchanged. The front porch light snapped on. Moths and insects instantly fluttered, their wings beating hard against the light fixture. My mother called my name. I paused a moment to take one last look at the dark silhouette of the mountains and briefly scan all the small houses that lined our street. I held my breath. She called again, and I ran up the steps and into the house.
The living room was brightly lit. Clean ashtrays rested conveniently on all the tables. No toys were visible. Back in my room, I heard the clickety-click of high heels on the sidewalk grow louder as each couple approached the front door. Men were handsome in suits. My mother’s friends wore tightly fitted, sleeveless dresses with full floaty skirts or sheaths with deep back V’s and sweet-heart necklines.
Standing on my bed, resting my elbows on the windowsill, I watched this glamorous processional of tailored dresses, each fitted around firm young bosoms and small waistlines. Patent leather pumps, small pocket books and light-weight wraps completed these outfits. Underneath this splendid exterior, flesh was buttressed and squeezed by tight girdles clasped to sheer stockings. Bras carefully molded malleable breasts into perfect points that gently protruded between carefully sewn darts. All this majestic preparation just to stand on the patio and willingly ruin pointy-toed, high-heeled shoes on the wet grass in our back yard.
My younger brother was already sound asleep. I would be allowed to say goodnight before being permanently exiled to my bedroom. If I wanted to spy later, I would have to sneak into my parents’ bedroom, because their window looked into the back yard. Mine faced the street. I would eventually fall asleep, lulled by the white noise of chattering ice cubes, sophisticated laughter and conversation of married adults. Gently wafting fumes of cigarette smoke floated in the open windows along with the night breeze.
Our family doctor and his wife always attended my mother’s parties. Because I associated him with the stink of formaldehyde and annual vaccinations, I had to suppress an urge to flee whenever I saw him. His office was situated in an old house that, along with its neighbors, had been a brothel in the years before and during the war. Transformed into a healing center of another sort, I always dreaded that long walk up his front steps, despite his ever-smiling nurse.
Because he also made house calls when I was sick, I was wary of his arrival, even at social occasions; he had been known to combine the two. Though this was a party, and I was not sick, I didn’t quite trust his smiling approach. It was never certain that he wouldn’t withdraw a horrible metal syringe from his coat pocket like some crazed maniac and stab me before I could get away. He drove to work in a tiny black Volkswagen beetle until he bought a Rambler station wagon in which we would all go for Sunday drives up the mountain to Lake Arrowhead. His son, Sammy, was one of my best friends. He and I celebrated our birthdays together every year. I loved how their pug, Berry snored as loudly as my grandmother. I ate my first taco in their old house, the one they eventually sold to Mr. Taylor, who would teach my advanced placement high school English class some years later.
I can still taste it, the astringency of childhood memories, as sharply surprising as the sting of chlorinated water in my nose. These fragmented memories are codified in my senses, each so clearly delineated, yet as ethereal and insubstantial as a manner house ghost.
When the last guest left, and the front door clicked shut for the last time, the silence would automatically awaken me. I would listen to the murmur of my parents’ voices through my closed bedroom door. Sometimes they would open my door to check up on me. I would receive whiskey scented kisses and fall asleep again. On Sunday morning, my father would graciously make pancakes, waffles or French toast while my mother slept.
Eventually my youngest brother was born. The original business partnership had soured, leaving my father scrambling to support a wife and three kids. So, he bought a new enterprise and a new house. Though larger and only several blocks away, it seemed light years from the fruit-filled bower with its swing set, clothesline and scary garage. I was nearly eight years old.
This second house was less carefree than our first. My parents arranged to have it landscaped by a professional. It had lots of shrubs but no rose bushes or fruit trees. I was allowed to have the walls of my room painted a very light pink. My mother bought contemporary blue vinyl couches that I accidentally tore almost immediately. We had a regular cleaning lady.
I liked this new house. My room was bigger and looked out at the mountains, but I had few friends. My one true friend, Kim lived across the street. Though this neighborhood was similarly comprised of working class families, I was older, and the anti-Semitic rhetoric had grown meaner and more personal. I couldn’t have been more obviously “other” had I walked to school with a yellow star on my sleeve and answered the teacher in Yiddish.
Kim and her family were away on vacation that hot August afternoon, and I didn’t know when she was coming back. I would dutifully peek through the window in her front door several times daily looking for evidence of her return, but the house remained palpably empty for nearly a week. The floor, impossibly shiny and spotless, revealed no signs of laundry, toys or anything suggesting that they had returned to resume the mess of daily family life.
Every day for a week, I stared at Kim’s empty house, waiting for their car to pull into the driveway. My achy longing intensified daily, though my friend could be very frustrating when she was actually around. A placid, peaceful child, she was content to sit on the couch in her pj’s and watch Saturday morning cartoons until mid-afternoon when they would be replaced by cowboy movies. I hated to sit around indoors like I was sick. Always edgy to find something interesting to do outside, I would start campaigning hours before my friend would become sufficiently motivated to get off the couch, change out of her pajamas and dress to go out. I always found this repetitious Saturday routine extremely annoying. However, when she did finally manage to fully engage the day, she was wonderful company, gentle and sweet. We would play together until dark.
It was after one of my surveillance sorties that I noticed two unfamiliar girls walking along the sidewalk in front of her house. I had never seen them before, but decided immediately that they must be sisters. One was taller and presumably older. Her body had begun to curve softly in response to the hormonal flux of puberty. Convinced I would never reach puberty and was destined to look like a spider forever, I nonchalantly glanced down at my own flat chest. With disgust, I assessed my ridiculously long arms and legs and burned with shame.
I eagerly anticipated social betterment when I was permitted to drop accelerated math and join the average class, but my longings for acknowledgment and acceptance remained basically unrequited. The one noticeable benefit was that I no longer cried over arithmetic homework at the dinner table every night. When those two trains left Chicago, their destinations were no longer of any concern of mine. Despite the lukewarm outcome, math failure remained my greatest social success.
I remained seated on the porch step. The sun glowered from high in the sky. A diaphanous dragonfly floated by on a tiny thermal heat wave. Opalescent as a gem, it disappeared into the glare. I rubbed the scab on my knee and watched the sisters make that right turn at the corner near the Wallace’s house. It was rumored that Denny Wallace’s cousin was either Jan or Dean of the duo, Jan and Dean, who recorded Beach Boy-like music in the early 60’s, but I’d never seen either of them. Denny wore a crew cut and had a crush on my friend, Kim. He frequently wandered up the street for a visit when we were outside skating and would climb the tree in her front yard so as to observe us from a socially safe distance.
Once again the street was quiet. I listened as electrical currents crackled like lightening along the wires above my head. A starling rustled a branch in our Magnolia tree. The pockmarked remains of the gopher holes were nothing more than slight indentations in the grass. I wondered where the gopher had gone. For weeks my father had employed every known scientific and magical tactic to get rid of it, but it was very persistent. Secretly, I cheered for the chubby gopher and missed it when it finally went away. I enjoyed watching its shiny black nose shove up mounds of dirt as it quarried under my father’s pristine lawn. One day it simply vanished, and my father neatly filled in the hole and replanted the grass.
The family who lived next door to my friend, Kim, was also away on one of their frequent camping trips. We played with their little girl only occasionally, because she was younger than we were. Her name was also Kim. Her mother taught home economics at the local junior college. Her father taught “shop” at the junior high. Once I was invited camping with them for a weekend. It was a fairly tight squeeze in their camper at night, but I had a pretty good time. Kim and I only had to be separated once. I stared at their thick ivy ground cover into which, it was rumored, a rattlesnake had recently been seen to disappear. I tried to imagine my own mother preparing dinner over a campfire and winced. Other than grilling steaks on the barbecue, my mother would agree to cook outside only if necessitated by the outbreak of a third world war. I think she might have started one herself if obliged to bend over a fire in the ground. I cracked a sardonic smile and wondered again about those sisters and who they might be.
From inside the house I heard my mother trying to soothe the loud cries of my baby brother. She sounded frustrated. I was hot and bored enough to go inside, but boiling alive on the front porch was better than witnessing a tantrum. The baby had been sick with pneumonia a few months earlier, and my mother had become generally unsympathetic and preoccupied.
She wasn’t too happy to have us around so much during the summer, either. My brother and I attended summer camp one month. The rest of the time was dicey. Holding the cranky baby, my mother would announce to my brother and me the very first day of summer vacation, “The first person who says ‘I’m bored’ will go directly to summer school.” I went to summer school once. I never made the same mistake twice.
My friend Kim finally returned the following Wednesday. It was late afternoon when she came across the street. I had about given up. We clasped each other like the last act of Tosca. After that, summer continued its languid passage. I remained intrigued by the two new girls in the neighborhood. The next time I saw them, they were walking in the opposite direction on their way up the street. They passed by on our side of the street, and I got a better look at that eye patch. I happened to be standing behind a tree, and once again, went unnoticed. I followed a safe distance behind and saw them turn right onto the dirt road that led to a small, old house. A shack really, it was built at the far end of a large, uncultivated lot that was filled with tall, green grasses during winter and spring. In the summer, these wild grasses dried into wheat-colored weeds that matured into spiny tumbleweeds.
The house was serially inhabited by a variety of nondescript families that never stayed too long in our neighborhood. They rented rather than owned property, but I didn’t understand that then. Mostly indigent and transient, they anonymously moved in and out of our neighborhood. Their children might attend my school for a year or so, but they were never in my accelerated classes. After a few months, they usually moved away. If they stayed for the entire school year, they were rarely seen again in the fall. They usually disappeared sometime in late June or July, and the house would be empty again until fall. Amid the final joys of summer, the mysterious sisters were temporarily forgotten.
Kim and I finished the summer surrounded by bags of new clothes from the local department store. Owned by very wealthy people my family actually knew, I would see them in synagogue during High Holy Days and wonder what it was like to be that rich and own all the stuff in that store. They lived in a very large house on a street called Valencia that faced the country club golf course. The store had a mezzanine level that offered both a restaurant and a lunch counter. My mother and I, and later my girlfriends and I, would spend a half-hour or so at the counter refreshing ourselves during shopping sprees. Sitting on bright red vinyl stools, we’d enjoy soup and a sandwich along with something to drink. My mother usually revived herself with coffee so we could continue the serious business of fall shopping.
The store had several floors, and we proceeded methodically from floor to floor. Junior and women’s dresses were upstairs. The glove counter and stockings were on the ground level near the side street entrance to “E” street.
I always wore out before my mother, but we were motivated to find that one perfect dress or skirt or blouse, and we usually did. I loved to accompany my mother to the glove counter that radiated its lovely money-like leather scent all across the room. I was allowed to purchase white, cotton gloves, while my mother wore kid.
In those days five dollars bought a beautiful pair of patent leather Mary Janes that emitted a wonderful fragrance when the shoebox was opened. Sadly, I was only allowed to wear them for special occasions that were usually religious, so my school social life never benefited as I hoped it might. I had to wear ugly corrective oxfords with white anklet socks to school to remedy some obscure problem with my hip joints. Apparently, they weren’t hinged correctly, and my toes pointed in the wrong direction. It was rumored to have been the result of wearing flip-flop shoes to the pool at a pivotal point in bone development.
I was allowed to select either black suede or white leather and would wear that pair for the entire school year. Of course orthopedic shoes connoted another grave social impediment, and I cried at the shoe store every year until the sixth grade when I finally wheedled my way into black flats with no socks. I got terrible blisters the first day but was as proud and dignified as the Modess lady.
On the first day of Mrs. LeMay’s class, I was reservedly hopeful though prepared to take my usual place in the social hierarchy. I tried not to look down at my shoes. I think I had chosen black suede that year. Deeply inhaling that slightly sour classroom smell of stale wet sponge, paste and eraser chalk, I turned blandly in my seat to see who else had been assigned to my accelerated class. It was a fourth-fifth combination, the smartest kids in both grades. Aside from the absence of the more average kids, I saw mostly the same smart kids from the fourth, third and second grade.
I was about to turn my attention to something Mrs. LeMay had written on the board when I noticed that seated by herself in the back of the room, apparently unruffled by her newness or appearance, was the little girl with the black eye patch. Mrs. LeMay introduced her as Jeannie Appleby and said that she would be in our class this year. Everyone turned to stare. I don’t remember whether she smiled or not, but I did. She remained as composed as the sphinx.
I don’t remember when I actually spoke to her the first time. I have no visual imagery or memory of an initial conversation. My actual memories of Jeannie and her older sister, Thea, are actually quite fragmented and discrete, but the feelings they engendered stay with me to this day. I do remember that Jeannie was a sweet, loyal little girl who never seemed to see the ugly things about me that others saw. She didn’t care that most of the other girls didn’t like me much. They never talked to her either, though she didn’t seem to notice or care.
Jeannie assumed friendship as easily as a cat assumes her position on a comfortable cushion. I had an open invitation to visit at her house anytime I wanted. She and I often walked home from school together. One day we were laughing at something, and I realized our heads and shoulders leaned in toward each other just like sisters.
On Saturday afternoons, I would take my Barbie dolls in their fake patent leather case and walk up the dirt road to the Appleby’s house. Until they lived there, I had never been invited inside. I was too afraid of hobos to walk up the road and look into its windows when it was empty. I had only viewed it from the street, a small single story, wooden building that looked like it belonged in an old western or a National Geographic ghost town. I think it had a front porch. I usually went around to the back door that entered directly into Mrs. Appleby’s kitchen. It had a wood-framed screen door that always slammed, even when we were careful. She always seemed glad to see me, and I always felt welcome. She never asked me whether or not I believed in or loved Jesus. I don’t remember Jeannie or Thea ever mentioning religion. I think I remember a Christmas tree in their living room, but perhaps it’s my imagination.
Mrs. Appleby was usually accompanied by their large basset hound, whose name I have routinely remembered and forgotten over the years. It occurs only when I’m not actually looking for it and eludes me when I am, like a foggy apparition. Somehow, that dog’s name is still important to me. The dog slobbered profusely all the time, and while I loved his delight at my arrivals, I couldn’t bring myself to touch those long strands of saliva that dripped from his jowely dewlap. Mrs. Appleby would wipe his jaws clean of spittle frequently, and he was devoted to her for it. He followed his mistress around wherever she went but also frequented the tree where we played just outside the back door.
It was a very large, old tree that cast a wide circle of very dense shade during the hot summer weather that frequently lasted until November. I don’t think the tree had much grass beneath it, but that was where Jeannie and I set up our Barbie doll props and would play together for hours.
I had received my first Barbie, a lovely thin-waisted doll, from my Aunt Sheila the summer I was sick with hepatitis after second grade. Actually, I missed the last six weeks of second grade and was stuck in bed until late August. I was shocked that some of the meanest neighbor kids came to my bedroom window to visit from time to time.
My beautiful doll, whose hair was pulled into a tight black ponytail, wore a black and white striped maillot bathing suit with black high heels. Actually, she could only wear high heels, as her feet were permanently shaped to conform to that particular footwear silhouette. I was not yet allowed to wear high-heeled shoes, and I was delighted that she could only wear them.
The following year, my father took me to the local Fedco store to buy a second Barbie. I knew precisely which version of this homogenized female I wanted, the one with the platinum blonde bubble and pink lipstick. After walking up and down the Barbie aisle in the toy department, I found the last one. She was in between a Barbie with a red ponytail and one with a brown bubble. I was exalted. She was mine. I suppose she was supposed to look like Marilyn Monroe, but I was unaware of my icon’s icon.
I don’t remember the particulars of Jeannie’s Barbie or whether she had more than one. Like Meg and Beth March in Little Women, we sat quietly for hours playing with shoes, hats and clothing. We arranged hair, told stories and created romantic vignettes. Barbie has been severely criticized by educators who believe her distorted figure facilitates eating disorders among formerly robust little girls, and perhaps it does. For me, those afternoons represented a childhood idyll that I will forever cherish. If Barbie is simply the common denominator that brings like-minded girls together, as she was for us, feminists have nothing to fear. During the single season the Applebys lived in that house, I was accepted in that come-as-you-are kind of way that warmed me like my grandmother’s old flannel sheets.
Thea was too old to play with Barbie dolls, though she would sometimes come visit us under our tree. She drew horses on a white paper tablet, beautiful and muscular horses with sinuous curves and forcefully defined features. I had been trained in the English riding style since second grade, and for several years, thought I might actually be a horse. However, try as I might, I could not actually draw anything that actually resembled one. My horses lay flat on the picture plane, kind of reedy looking and out of proportion. They lacked the energetic life force that differentiates a good representation from an average one. Thea’s horses looked as if they might leap off the page. I frequently wished that she would give me one to keep, but I was too shy to ask her. I often wonder whether she kept any. She was so unassuming in the way she just effortlessly dashed them off, one after the other. Her features never revealed any artistic doubt. Serenely she just drew and drew.
My memory of Thea is as remote as she seemed to be. While she didn’t exactly join our girlish games, she was always nice. She never mocked our child’s play. She smiled at our games and went about her business. In my fantasy, the two sisters never fought, though I’m sure they did. I just don’t remember, or don’t want to. I only remember the three of us sitting under the tree, cooled by its canopy of dense branches, enjoying casual pastimes that couldn’t remotely anticipate electronic devices.
I don’t remember whether Thea had any friends from our school. Perhaps she went to the junior high and didn’t go to our school at all. She always seemed comfortable to be by herself or with us in a somewhat tangential way. She had an ethereal contentment I found compelling, because I was always self-conscious and uncomfortable. Perhaps she was simply detached, because her family moved a lot, and she was afraid to form attachments. I envied her sanguine calm and wished I, too, could float above the wretched and clumsy choreography that characterized my puerile attempts to secure peer acceptance and approval.
Mr. Appleby worked at the air force base that employed many people in our town until the government closed it many years later, further facilitating the continual decline of our community. I think he worked on airplanes or jets in some capacity. Perhaps he was a mechanic, perhaps some sort of engineer, perhaps a test pilot. I don’t remember. He came home from work at about the same time every day, a little after 5:00. I was always shy around men and never really said anything to him and don’t remember whether he ever said anything to me. He simply accepted my presence and nodded when he walked by.
I remember him being tall and thin. I envision him wearing a jumpsuit-type of work uniform. I think he had a sort of crew cut, but maybe I’m mixing him up with a movie actor in a role that reminded me of him. I don’t remember whether he drove a car or a truck, but we would hear him chug up the dirt road toward the house in the late afternoon. Surrounded by a cloud of dust, he would drive past our tree and park just beyond where we played. The sky would be darkening, and I would begin to pack up my belongings to go home for dinner.
If the Appleby’s life in San Bernardino were staged as a play, Mr. Appleby would be portrayed by the long and lanky Sam Shepherd. He would look and behave like the ruggedly sexy test pilot in the film, “The Right Stuff.” Mrs. Appleby, who sort of resembled the farm-wife mom in Lassie, though a bit less frilly, would be played by Angelica Huston or Meryl Streep. A strong and independent couple, they would never really assimilate into any community where they lived during Mr. Appleby’s military career. They would all move easily about the world in the wake of powerful jet exhaust.
Viet Nam was cranking up and insured years of work for airplane personnel. Mr. Appleby would always be employed. He would work his daily shift and return for dinner at 5:00 p.m. wearing dirty clothes. He would spend the evenings with his family.
Mrs. Appleby made nice smelling dinners, and I may have eaten there a few times, but again, I don’t really remember. I do remember having long conversations with her in the kitchen while she tended to her chores and the dog’s drool. She never seemed angry or frustrated with dirt and messes like my mother was. Her kitchen was an easy place, and they were easy people.
The Applebys didn’t care how I dressed or whether I wore corrective shoes, though I think I wore sandals in the summer. They smiled when I arrived and waved good-by when I left. I was not expected to be smart or witty or anything but polite. I learned what it was like to completely forget myself.
Sometimes I would walk toward their house through the tall weeds rather than up the road. The dried stalks snapped under my feet, releasing insects and a scratchy scent that made my throat itch. In late fall the leaves began to fall from the play tree, and the remainder of the dried weeds in the front field were flattened by the howling Santa Ana winds that blew hot every spring and fall. Roaring though the Cajon pass that connected our valley with the high desert, the winds were compressed to a high temperature during their journey and then exploded into our valley with tremendous force. With nothing to impede them, they blew away anything that wasn’t nailed down. Garbage cans flew down the street along with tumble weeds, newspapers, toys and heavy dust. Sometimes it was almost impossible to walk home from school against the wind. We would lean forward into the gusts to see how long they would support our weight.
In response to the winds, these eroded stalks released their seeds and gently bowed to the inevitability of death and the tiny sprouts of green that would emerge with the winter rains to replace them.
Winter’s shortened days required us to play indoors, and we would arrange our dolls and their belongings on the floor in the Applebys’ small living room. I don’t remember any distinctive possessions or furnishings. Maybe I was so relaxed there, their belongings just seemed incidental. Certainly, it would never have occurred to them to get rid of their slobbering dog to protect their furniture. I liked this about them very much. Their house was very unlike mine, and their family was very different from my family.
While I liked my mother’s pretty possessions, I didn’t always like how important they were to her. I recognized that it was my destiny to become more like my mother than Mrs. Appleby, and I knew that I would have possessions that might sometimes matter more to me than the comfort of other people. Despite this deep personal knowledge, I allowed myself to freely absorb the essence of this environment, because I knew I would never see it again up close. I knew I would ultimately live my life among people who shared my mother’s values and that I would often feel trapped by their rigid expectations, but I also recognized my destiny.
After the school year ended, the Applebys moved away to Riverside, another inland city about twenty minutes away. I was very sad to see them leave, and I think Jeannie and I may have written letters to each other for a while. Once in early fall or very late summer, Mrs. Appleby picked me up and drove me to their new house on a nice street and took us swimming somewhere that afternoon.
When I got into the car, I saw that Jeannie no longer had to wear her eye patch and she gazed at me bilaterally. She had grown prettier, or maybe she was prettier than I remembered. Her eyes were clear and bright, though I don’t recall their color. I think they may have been brown. She and I sat in the back seat of the car during the drive back to my house in San Bernardino, and I was very happy. Mrs. Appleby’s car gears made a grinding sound that was very pleasing to me. My father would not let my mother drive a car that made such sounds.
On the drive home, I wore a still wet bathing suit and was wrapped in a damp towel. Hot summer air blew in the open car windows drying the damp hair on my neck. I felt simultaneously hot and cool, like an ice cream sundae. Wisps of dry hair blew across my face and into my eyes. I made no effort to remove them, allowing them to blow as freely as the wind. They obscured my vision of the trees and mountains along the route home, like an Impressionist painting. I was still happy when Mrs. Appleby dropped me off at home. I think I could have stayed in the backseat of her car forever, feeling the warm air against my cool, damp skin. My mother met me at the car. We both waved good-by as they drove away down the street.
I never saw Jeannie or Thea again and have no idea what happened to them. I suppose I got busy in Mrs. Broadfoot’s sixth grade class. My grandparents would soon move to California from New York, and until I left home for college, I would sink into the old, worn flannel sheets on the twin bed in her guestroom whenever I needed solace and comfort.
I don’t know whether the Applebys stayed in Riverside or moved away again the following summer. I don’t know whether Jeannie or Thea went to college like I did. I don’t know if they married and had families, traveled around the world, accomplished great things or were content to do office work. I wonder whether Mr. and Mrs. Appleby are still living. I wonder whether Mr. Appleby’s hair turned white like my father’s, whether he became sinewy and shrunk with age.
I wonder whether Jeannie and Thea are still alive. Even though I’m still considered rather young, several of my contemporaries have already died. I wonder where they live. Did they find more joy than sorrow. Have their wishes come true.
I don’t know where they lived before I knew them and have no idea where they went. They arose from the ethers of childhood, loomed largely for a while and then receded again. Living in their Pipi Longstocking house in the field with the big tree, they left an indelible mark on my life. Either way, they have been my ghosts for nearly forty years, children forever walking up and down the streets and fields in the blinding summer light of 1962.