During that long drive to northern California, bumping along rutted old Highway 99 through the San Joaquin and then Sacrament Valleys, locked between endless produce trucks, I kept telling myself how tough he was, invincible in fact. Once I saw him, he and I would find a way to beat this, the way we always tackled problems. My mind flashed back to a long forgotten memory. I was eight, my brother six. We had come home from school to an empty house. We stood side by side, looking out the window, waiting for my mother or step father to pull into the driveway, but no one came. I made up my mind to find them—I took my brother by the hand and we went outside to search. We walked for blocks, and somehow I spotted our old hunched over black Dodge parked in front of a neighborhood bar. We crawled inside the car and waited. I don’t know what brought me to that place, or the circumstances afterward, but in my memory I saved him. Now, once again, I would take his hand and lead him to a safe place. He counted on me. We were a team.
I arrived in my hometown of Marysville late in the afternoon and stopped at a gas station to call Denny’s house for directions. About an hour later I found the turn off outside Browns Valley and followed it to a long dirt driveway through dense woods. As soon as I parked in front of the rambling wood-frame house, two goats jumped off a wrap-around front porch and ran to greet me, hopping onto the hood of my Civic, then off again, frolicking, kicking up their heels. Three large dogs bounded up from the stables, barking loudly, tails wagging. Spock barked in response, but cowered and ran under the car when I let him out. My sister-in-law, looking tired and defeated, opened the front door and invited me in.
The years passed, he gained two sons, divorced, remarried, and acquired three more adapted sons. He became a supervisor at his job, purchased a little ranch in the foothills, bought a couple horses, some goats, chickens, and acquired a menagerie of dogs and cats. This big red-headed Irishman never did anything half-heartedly. He approached every endeavor with passion—whether it be coaching a women’s softball team, watching Giant’s and Forty-niner’s games, or working his little ranch. He laughed a lot, drank beer, sang out loud, always arrived late for family get-togethers, but arrived with a flourish.
The stuttering began in our little house on the dead end street. At least that is when I first became aware of my brother’s speech impediment. I never thought about it before, but there on Murphy road the stutter became pronounced. When someone asked him a question or he tried to explain things to my mother, each word became an agonizing struggle. Observing the impatience on my mother’s face, my body tensed, my hands became fists as I bit my tongue and swallowed the words I wanted to say for him. Denny stammered, slowly and painfully pulling each word out. I wanted to scream, “Leave him alone. Can’t you see how hard this is for him?”
For the first time my brother and I did not attend the same school. I was now a freshman and he still in elementary, a small, rural school with grades from kindergarten through eighth—the first time I couldn’t look out for him. Two years later he would follow me to high school, but by then I had become a self-involved teenager, wrapped in my own angst, thinking of no one but me—me—me.
“I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.”
― Adrienne Rich, Twenty One Love Poems
I packed lightly, hurriedly, bringing only my dog, Spock, and a few changes of clothing. “Come soon,” my brother said when I talked to him on the phone. “There isn’t much time.” His voice, weaker than I remembered, chilled me with its tone of finality. Once on the road from northern New Mexico to northern California, I drove from dawn to dark, stopping only when I needed to grab a quick bite to eat, relieve my bladder, and walk my dog.
I went only as far as Flagstaff that first night, snowfall and darkness forcing me to search for a Motel 6 or any cheap, dog-friendly place to stay. The next night I rested in Needles, California, a desert town on the edge of the Mojave usually smoldering in torpid heat, now seemed cool and inviting. I had to stop one more time, outside of Stockton, California. My brother; my voracious, fun-loving, exuberant, over-the-top brother was sick. Cancer. Melanoma. The worst kind. In my mind’s eye he still stood six foot two, burly, big-boned, full red beard and head of curly hair with a smile that could melt the glaciers in Antarctica. Not dying, battling, I convinced myself. I refused to accept death as an option. We had gone through too much together, managed to survive so many crazy escapades. “He can beat this, they’ll find a treatment that works,” I repeated to my dog, Spock, as the old Honda Civic crawled over Tehachapi Pass, through the wind farm and on its way to Bakersfield.
Well, to make a long story short, Tommy and I got engaged my senior year. He graduated a year ahead of me, and having even less opportunity for college, joined the Navy. Tom hitchhiked home from Texas, and we got married in Reno, Nevada four days after I graduated. His uncle and my mother drove us there and served as witnesses. I wouldn’t be eighteen until July. That summer I worked on the hop ranch in Wheatland until I saved enough money to take a Greyhound bus to Millington, Tennessee where Tom had been transferred for aircraft mechanic school. I became instantly removed from everything familiar in my life, ill-prepared for marriage, and especially for children, and scared. But that’s the nature of new beginnings, and we learn along the way.
There’s no going back to that house at the end of a dead end street. The second flood, the one in 1997, carried it away along with everything my mother owned. It had been her home for over forty years. She died a few months later, having nothing to go home to. I’ve often wondered what dreams she kept locked inside her heart.
My best friend was not poor. Her family had plenty of money, and she was generous. Best of all, she lived out in the boonies in a beautiful ranch house near me. Marilee had a ‘58’ red and white Chevy Impala. We cruised on weekend nights, crossing over and back from Marysville to Yuba City, picking up a twenty cent hamburger with Swiss cheese at Shan’s and ending up where the crowd gathered, in the Andy’s Drive-In parking lot. That is where we met Tommy and Dale, the Wheatland boys, chatting up the cute little roller-skating waitress. This was a time of unbelievable innocence. We did not smoke, drink, or do drugs. The guys sometimes had a pack of Lucky Strikes folded in their tee-shirt sleeves. After a football game, some of them headed for the dredger ponds, those deep cold pools of water where gravel had been scooped out, with a few six packs of beer, but not the girls, at least not the girls I knew. The most we ever did was park at the golf course and make out–never allowing things to go “too far”, if you catch my drift.
Like I said, I didn’t live on Murphy Road for long. Nights I’d retreat to my bedroom, close the door and try to muffle the sounds of Gun Smoke blaring on the TV while I listened to the local radio station and fiddled with homework. Shan’s Bandstand dedicated songs, and I, forever hopeful, yearned each night that someone would dedicate a syrupy sweet song about teenage love to me. Never happened. I hardly ever dated, could count on one hand. Who would want to drive ten miles out of town down a dead-end road, even though gas cost about twenty-five cents a gallon? There were a couple cruising-make-out fiascoes, and then the big one, Junior Prom/Senior Ball. After that I met Tommy, a Wheatland boy, and in my junior year all my yearning found a focal point.
Don’t get me wrong. I had friends in high school, wonderful friends, and I played the part: cheerful, spirited, outgoing and fun to be around. But I knew I didn’t fit. I would never be invited to one of those pool-parties on the right side of town, was always a wall-flower at dances—couldn’t dance, couldn’t sing, couldn’t play a musical instrument, had no family connections, no hopes for college, and was dirt poor. I wanted to dress like the popular girls—tweed wool skirts, cashmere sweaters with matching socks rolled down just right above brown and white saddle oxfords. I longed for straight, manageable hair and a flawless complexion. Instead, I tried to hide my blemishes with Cover Girl, tamed my wild hair with rollers, wore my cousin’s hand-me-downs, and put on my happy face.
I just got off a conference call with the acquisitions editor in Seattle and my developmental editor in New York It looks like this is for real! But, I almost blew it.
I was incredibly nervous at first. I had to dial the long distance number, then a bridge number, then a pin. The problem is I don’t have long distance service and use a calling card. My cell phone does not get service in my house, so I used the calling card. The telephone couldn’t handle all those numbers and continued to cut me off. I was supposed to call at 10 am. It was ten past, so I grabbed my cell phone and ran outside to the back alley and sat on a cinder block by the dumpster to make my conference call. No shoes. I got through and thankfully they were very nice and understanding about my near third country status. Still, you don’t keep editors waiting on your first meeting.