While I was growing up, my family lived in a quiet Midwestern neighborhood of bungalows and two-story clapboard houses, sheltered and serene. The most exciting thing that had ever happened in town was when the Shell station off Highway 60 blew up because someone lit a match. Otherwise, people watched the elm trees grow tall, weeded their gardens. Housewives met in their kitchens over morning coffee. Quietly, however, within our protected atmosphere a provocative event was stewing
It was a sweltering 1963 summer, a few months before Kennedy’s assassination. Jerry Shouts and Teddy Ericsson were neighborhood boys two years my junior, and in one day they became blood enemies. It was a 100-degree July day after lunch when they’d name-called across adjoining yards. Jerry had a habit of drooling, and inadvertently spitting when he talked; Teddy’s clothes bore the bedwetter’s telltale stench of ammonia, so they both had ample fuel for insults. Conflict often begins with bad manners and escalates to ridiculous acts of destruction. Jerry nourished this fever by running a half-circle over the sacred lot line that divided their yards. Teddy, enraged and still having trouble pronouncing his Y’s, shouted, “Get out of my lard!”
Jerry only smiled at him, his well-moistened lips pulled up, smug. Muggy weather hurried the fight’s evolution into a major hostility, so that by late afternoon it had become a life-and-death matter. Most wars are about greed or position. One man wants another’s land, money, or power. He has a distinct belief that his people are superior, but deep down he also has a fear that he’s somehow deficient: If he could conquer something his deficiency would disappear. Likewise, Teddy didn’t want Jerry’s feet to touch his yard; he wanted to outstrip the competition.
I was ten years old, scarcely aware of the imminent conflict. I returned home from a quick climb through the maple and willow saplings behind our house. In our backyard I’d watched a wood turtle dig a shallow hole in the sand, and I planned to return to watch her lay her eggs. When I rounded the corner of our house, I was fascinated to see Teddy’s and Jerry’s fathers fighting on the Shouts’ gravel driveway. Although these grown men had played softball in the street together the week before and had seemed to enjoy it, they were now intent on killing each other.
A few other neighborhood kids gathered to watch. Frightened and excited, I stood at the edge of the driveway, holding my breath. I felt I was about to become privy to the secret information adults shared. I was sure adults had hidden lives filled with rich conversations and noble intentions beyond childhood barriers. My pregnant mother arrived at the edge of the arena, carrying my brother James in her arms. “Oh, they’re so childish,” she said. “Come inside.” With a look, she forced me into the house, warning me to stay away from the windows. It was as if our house was in danger of an air raid.
Because I was curious, because I could never let a question go unanswered, because I was going to be a writer some day (I’d begun my first novel the month before), I slipped up to my bedroom, stood on the dresser, levered myself onto the high windowsill’s edge and pushed my nose against the screen. The scene unfolding on a ground of yellowish-orange gravel traced out like a compass. Mr. Shouts, red and sweaty with exertion, straddled Teddy’s father, who lay under him. Mr. Erickson’s prematurely balding head pointed north and his back pressed into the driveway. Their sons watched from the sidelines. Jerry’s lip trembled a little, and a string of drool escaped from the side of his mouth. Teddy’s red hair and freckles shone like blood.
Mrs. Shouts arrived home wearing the pearls, high heels, and navy sleeveless dress she always wore to do Saturday’s grocery shopping. Her whole being, from the long bony angles of her face to her seized fists and firmly planted heels, was determined that Mr. Shouts would win this fight. The fathers were still young enough to go to Vietnam, had been drafted and had they been called. They rolled together in the gravel, while the boys and Mrs. Shouts watched silently; her body was tense and anticipatory in the hot, still afternoon. Across the street the Nelson’s sprinkler made slash-slash-slash sounds and laid a wet half-circle of rubber-scented hose water on the street. The edges of the green yards dripped with large, elegant elms. Teddy’s father rolled to the top and straddled Mr. Shouts, whose face had brightened to rival the color of my mother’s garden poppies. Mr. Erickson hauled back his fist for a face punch.
Teddy muttered a horrified cheer: Come on, Dad!
Teddy’s father stiffened and his arm went limp and fell to his side. Mr. Shouts heaved out from under him and they both stood up. Negotiations began. Mr. Shouts insisted on determining a confrontation line, the lot line that neither family could ever cross. They shook on it, treaty-style. Mr. Shouts had suffered a scraped elbow. Teddy’s father seemed uninjured, yet his clothes and face were smudged with yellow driveway dust—the stain of cowards. Teddy and his father went home by way of the street. Mrs. Shouts, a Piggly Wiggly grocery bag in each arm and high heels clicking on the sidewalk, followed her husband and son into their house. The neighborhood sank into an eerie postwar silence. In a few minutes the Shouts family seeped through their house and emerged whole on the back porch, where they ate a victory snack of half a sliced watermelon. From the outside, their home appeared ordinary and peaceful, guarded by two giant, neatly trimmed arbor vitae flanking the front door. But now I knew it was all a cleverly constructed illusion. There was no such thing as peace on earth. After that, no more outward wars erupted, but no friendships did either.
The two families stayed mired in their angry thoughts and beliefs about the past.
In our back yard, the mother wood turtle laid her papery eggs, and now deep into summer she was nowhere to be seen. I pulled away part of the soil that covered the seven eggs and watched the babies struggle inside their temporary home, eggs rocking in the soft brown sand. Pushing against the inside with its blunt nose, one turtle broke through its shell, revealing the wide eyes of a baby in the head of a snake. With wise expressions, each bright new carapace an intricate bejeweled fingernail, they broke out of their shells and crawled from the shallow depression like heroes. Living on land they didn’t own — but in some genuine way they did own our yard more than we did — they could cross all boundaries simply because of who they were. And maybe that was the way to do it, escape, and have life stripped of the narrow neighborhood borders it seemed to entail. Soon, the turtles scattered and were gone, perhaps to the Blue Earth River or the sapling woods. Except for the trees, I was alone.
I first saw images of war in Life Magazine. The year was 1963, and violence and death suddenly surrounded us. When the magazine arrived every week, a new, violent world entered our house via glossy, colored cover photos of the country’s slide into the Vietnam War. Around my birthday, an issue arrived with a cover photo of Vietnamese soldiers being herded into a small boat, bound neck to wrist with coarse ropes, and the pages inside revealed a dozen vibrant images of violence and human degradation. In June, the horrific photo of the self-immolating Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc, completely in flames on a street in Saigon, crossed over our doorsill. Later that month, news of the assassination of Medgar Evers, with photos of his wife and young son in funeral attire, came to us in brilliant color. In November, my entire 5th grade classroom was struck speechless by the announcement over the PA system that President Kennedy had been shot. We sat silently in the classroom, not knowing what to do. Later, I would examine a picture of the Kennedy children and of his widow, in mourning at his funeral. These pieces of a new puzzle arrived in my family’s mailbox and settled on the coffee table with no comment.
My mother placed rectangular cut-glass decanters filled with tinted water on the windowsills to add some glamour to our sparsely furnished living room. The evening after the fathers’ fight, my own father returned from his insurance sales trip to Redwood County. After dinner and dishwashing, I seeped into the living room, where he was pacing as he often did, around and around his baby grand piano that I polished weekly with lemon Pledge and a diaper. I told him about the fight, hoping for an answer to the riddle of the neighbors’ behavior. I was sure that my father, who’d told stories of being on a Navy ship during World War II as a Pharmacist’s Mate, would know why they’d done it.
“Why were they fighting?” I asked. “Why were they so angry?”
My memories are often fragmented, rife with misunderstanding and half-truths, yet that conversation I’ve held onto like a spider silk, so fragile that, while I know it exists, it becomes more and more transparent with time. It has thinned down to one line. Under his bristly crew cut, my father’s face turned grave, as though he knew all about conflict. “Always walk away from a fight,” he said in his pointed way. He stepped over to the piano, pulled out Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2, and began to play. The answer, the entire story, was poised at my father’s fingertips, waiting for him to tell it. Strains from “Leibestraum,” “Claire de Lune,” Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” and the distinctive crispness of Gershwin’s, “Concerto in F” flew out the open windows and spread over the neighborhood. The music didn’t stop anywhere.
Within the music’s tales were gentleness, struggle, tension, loss, hope and finally resolution. Also, there was love.
I sat above on the carpeted stairs, looking down into the living room. The sunset threw a gold glow into the room, and the decanters of water on the windowsill trembled blue-purple-rose, splashing reflections on the wall. My father’s somber face and closed eyes echoed the serious intent of the music racing through me, etching a trail in my chest like a hot knife through a crust of snow. The notes writhed with a life that could not be controlled.
My imagination enhanced the maple burl wood patterns in the coffee table below until they were people, mountains, castles, horses and forests. I invented the tale the music and the burl wood and I told it together. With music, something was present in the air that you could know and feel, but there was also another a mysterious presence that held a more spacious counterweight. An invisible perspective completed the harmony, like a reverse shadow containing a different personality. It was this ulterior identity, its boundlessness and subtlety, that intrigued me.
When I asked my father about property lines, he took me to the Blue Earth County Courthouse and we sat at a massive wooden table, the marble floor radiating an icy cool that seemed left over from the frigid winter. We paged through the large-leaved plat book showing the properties of the neighborhood mapped out, each family home and yard divided by blue lines into small rectangles denoting individually owned plots. He pointed out our yard, the properties of the Shouts and the Ericksons; each family’s holding was so narrow and minuscule that it seemed unlikely anyone would argue and fight over such a thing. After that, the implacable lot line, and all the other property lines in the neighborhood, violently defended or not, couldn’t be forgotten or erased. Yet it was not the property lines themselves that bothered me.
It was how people thought about them.
It must have been around the time of that neighborhood fight that Donna Nelson, whose father was the junior high school principal and beloved by the neighborhood but hated and feared by pubescent roughnecks, said to me in a taunting voice.“My dad makes more money than your dad!” She was blonde, with watery blue eyes, one year my junior. We sat cushioned by the thick lawn of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, and to emphasize her point she reached over and yanked out one of my leg hairs. She was expecting an argument, but I couldn’t figure out why she was telling me this. Maybe I was supposed to get angry, but I didn’t feel that way, only curious. Indeed, I felt wonder at the whole topic of competing incomes. I’d never even thought about it.
When I confronted my father with the question that evening in our living room, he said, “Well, he probably does.” He didn’t seem at all disturbed. Over the years, he’d worn a circular track in the green living room carpet, his upper lip in the grip of his lower teeth, creating a mask of anguish, his fingers never still as he nervously picked at his cuticles and paced. Would he be able to sell enough insurance to support all six of us? He never talked about his worries, yet his torment often filled the living room, making it hard to breathe.
There were times I stepped over the lot line. Jerry Shouts’ garage floor was an immense ashtray of soil and cigarette butts from his parents’ habit. Jerry and I traced childish designs with the toes of our shoes there. The wall we stood next to was covered by a whole hide of a black bear that his father had supposedly shot and killed.
“Why doesn’t your father smoke?” he asked, his voice taunting.
My white Keds turned gray as I engraved a deep furrow in the dirt, and I knew we’d have to soak them in Hilex bleach to get them white again. “He quit. My father didn’t want us to smoke, so he stopped when I was five.” The bear hide exuded flecks of white dust, like particles of dead skin against the black fur, the hide smelling faintly of chemicals.
“Why did your dad kill the bear?”
Drool ran out the side of Jerry’s mouth and he rubbed it away with one grubby hand. “I don’t know.”
“So why don’t you ask him?” I felt a small surge of satisfaction.
But sometimes I stayed on my side of the lot line, waiting at the edge of Jerry’s driveway for news or inconsistency because now I was onto him and his family.
I was venomously onto to the whole neighborhood, with their lot lines.
Jerry’s family was Catholic and he believed all of it. Each week he would confess to me about going to confession, tell me how many Hail Mary’s he’d had to say while gripping his rosary and wearing freshly pressed church clothes. Fridays, that summer, he got into the habit of calling gleefully over the lot line when I came outside: “It’s Friday today. We’re having fish for dinner!” He liked the stability of having a predictable schedule. He liked being part of the Catholic religion. I guess he also liked fish.
My family didn’t have any particular schedule to our menus. Both my mother and father cooked. My father prepared the more exotic borshts, head cheeses, fresh pizzas, chop sueys and chilis, while my mother usually cooked substantial suppers of meat, vegetables and potatoes. My mother was Lutheran, so on Sundays we dressed in our church clothes and were duly toted by my father to Sunday school at the Lutheran Church, where other mothers, who temporarily became Sunday school teachers once a week, drummed liturgical ideas into our heads.
“Why do you have to eat fish on Friday?” I once asked Jerry.
“Because the pope said so,” he said, swelling with conviction in his sneakers and saliva-smeared t-shirt.
One Friday morning, the air holding that peculiar neighborhood scent of warm green elm leaves and cooked soybeans, Jerry paused in his driveway and waited for me, his fragile figure bursting with news. I asked with my newly acquired wryness, “What?”
“We’re not having fish for dinner.”
“Why not? I thought you had to.”
“The pope said we don’t have to anymore.” He must have felt it then, too, the strangeness of the sudden shift in perspective, from conviction to nothing.
Little discrepancies trickled in, one story leading to the next like a thin trail of bread crumbs that grew into a whole bakery of loaves. We were at war, and if the lot line was a point of view, then so was war. War was sometimes subtle, but sometimes overt and cacophonous. The war shown in Life Magazine was a sensory kaleidoscope of color and shape and sound. It was stimulating, and it triggered emotions like rage. Rage was not a thought, it was a runaway train. Too much of it could change your brain. If you were immersed in it, it created the physical sensation of buzz. Much later, soldiers and journalists I spoke to in Bosnia and elsewhere would tell me about the electric heroin-like rush jagging through their bodies while immersed in combat. Buzz is what I felt looking out of the window at the fathers fighting that day, and probably what the battling fathers and everyone watching them felt, too.
School began. When my teacher gave an assignment to write about our families, I went home that night and tried to find something interesting to write about. My mother was cooking dinner, baby James resting on her hip. My father was away for the night again, selling somewhere in Red Wing or Blue Earth County. My brothers were children. We went nowhere, except within our neighborhood: the Piggly Wiggly store, the Wonder Bread store to buy cases of day-old bread for the freezer, Roosevelt Elementary (our school a block away), or Fandre’s grocery at the bottom of the hill to buy penny candy. There was nothing interesting in my family to write about.
So I wrote a fake story, a fiction that exaggerated some of the facts and created others to make us fascinating. When I handed in my story, I felt exhilarated and free. Though I don’t remember the story now, I felt at the time that it was even better than the ten-page novel beginning that I’d been writing in my notebook. A few days later, my teacher returned our stories, holding mine for last. With severe lips and sharply pointed chin, she held my story up to the class. “You lied,” she said. “You lied about your family!”
On the paper was a red “F” for all to see, while throughout school I’d only received A’s. I scrunched down in my seat, trying to become smaller. My friend who sat behind me told me much later that she saw the back of my neck turn red and then white before I disappeared under my desk. After school, I folded the story as small as I could and stuck it in the pocket of the plaid jumper my mother had sewn, knowing I’d have to show it to my parents that evening. They would be ashamed of me, and I was beginning to feel ashamed of myself. As I walked the block home from school, two of my classmates rode their bikes up, stopping in front of me and blocking my way. “Liar,” one said.
“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” said the other.
“Why’d you lie?” one asked.
I couldn’t speak. They bedeviled me for a while longer, and when they got no response, they pedaled off down the street. I was standing next to the neighbor’s low stone wall. I took the paper out of my pocket and tore it into as small pieces as I could, until I held a handful of confetti. Some of the concrete had fallen out of the wall between the stones. I balled up the pieces of my story and shoved them into the hole in the wall. Then I went home and crawled under the bed, sobbing until it grew dark. My mother and father tried to lure me out, to find out what had happened, but I couldn’t tell them. I never told them.
With the lot line irrevocably adhered to, and stories of war and violence in the news more prevalent, boundaries had solidified. Though I didn’t know what to call my feelings at the time and I didn’t know how to express what I felt about the oppressive rigidity of the lot lines and people who considered them as more than they meant, I knew what I was seeing stifled people’s creativity and emotions and kept real feelings in a box. Those feelings were trotted out on occasions, but not with genuine intentions. The turtles had shown me that lot lines were as lie, no matter how sharply drawn they appeared on paper.
Early one morning at the end of summer, the sunrise bubbled through the haze created by the soybean processing plant. I tied up Velveeta cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches in a red bandana, knotted the bundle to the end of a stick I’d collected and shaped with a kitchen knife the previous day, and hoisted the stick onto my shoulder like Huck Finn. I set off for a new life. I made it to the forbidden train tracks a few blocks away, where the Soo Line Railway crawled and grumbled past the high school after its wheat was unloaded at Hubbard Mill. The doors were open in the red, primary blue and rust-colored cars like inviting mouths, showing the plank-wood floors and enormous rooms that could be easily jumped into. After passing through our town, the train would graze counties to the east, stream across the Minnesota border past the Great Lakes, moving in a sure easterly course to the sea, which I had never seen.
That day, the track gleamed, as empty as two unplucked strings, where Jefferson’s nickel face could be (and had been on many occasions) easily and irreversibly flattened by train wheels into an unidentifiable silver disk. Being eager to leave the house, I’d arrived at the tracks too early for the train. The blackberry brambles lining the tracks hung with spider webs sparked with morning dew. A stream of smoke piped from a tiny fire next to the tracks. A man with short whiskers sat in the weeds, stirring something in a can over a fire of sticks. Possibly he and others like him were reasons my parents didn’t want any of us to go near the tracks. Another man sat nearby on a rotting log, rifling through his duffel bag. The smell of food was in the air and they were about to partake of a meal. I had my cheese sandwiches, but it was too early for lunch. I considered their lives romantic.. They rode the rails from town to town with their friends, never stopping for long in one place.
Choosing whether to stay or go.
Choosing to accept a place or find another more suitable.
Choosing to think what they wanted to think, with no one telling them any different.
The tracks stretched out like a never-ending line of sewing, a seam with no end, the panorama wider than I could guess.
“Hey, girly,” the one stirring said. The soup, or beans, or whatever it was, boiled furiously. “Want some?” He dipped into the can and held out the spoon. His eyes shone with a pearly light that I’d never seen before in anyone’s eyes, and his voice rang with clear sincerity. The other man, in a ragged plaid shirt and grease-grimy pants, came over to the fire from his duffel bag.
“Girly?” he said in a gruff voice that seemed unused. His face was deeply hewn, almost impossible to look at for long.
Because his gaze was too intense, too prolonged, his eyes holding no light, I was frightened. “No, I have my lunch,” I said, turning away, my heart pounding, and I walked away slowly so as not to give away my fright. I felt the men’s eyes probe my back. When I got beyond their view, I ran. I ran for home, the stick with my sandwiches bouncing on my shoulder, home to my paradox, a neighborhood where I felt safe, but where I didn’t fit in.
The neighborhood boundaries would never disappear, and now I wasn’t going to, either.
I couldn’t express what it was that was bothering me, though I knew. There seemed to be one choice: to fit in and be part of the lie, or to live in another way. But that way was unknown, with no maps or guidelines. It was as though a battle was raging, and one might mistake it for social propriety, or for learning the rules.
But the struggle ran deeper than that: What is point of view other than maintaining a position?
If you can hold it for a while, it feels true. If you can convince someone else it’s true, it feels truer. Everyone pretended to each other that there was nothing going on, thus setting in and sealing the lie. There were two tracks, at least, one that was what everyone accepted but was not necessarily true, and the other one that held a freedom of thought that would allow you to be aware of many possible truths, not forcing you into a way of thinking that wasn’t your own.
Without knowing it, people seemed to be involved in a struggle with an invisible authority that wanted to channel and mold their thoughts. The force itself had its own rigid border that, once installed in a mind, held a plan for what were acceptable thoughts and what were unacceptable ones. The problem was that the fixed nature of the rules repelled the wide creative field required to make something new and original. The force for containing thought was like a virus; it was as if some deadly disease had gotten inside everyone and they seemed not to realize it. Life Magazine, life in the neighborhood, the turtles and my father’s music had shown me how pervasive a stricture it was. When I tried to explain all of this to my mother, using my limited nine-year-old vocabulary, she said I was being dramatic. Though I tried to reject the virus, over the years I learned that I had set for myself a formidable task. This virus, this force acting on human life, was unrejectable. It was in me, as it is a part of all of us. As I grew into adulthood, I would many times discover that though I could deflect conflict with other people, I could not always resist war with myself. I would lay down lines and trespass against others, at times not knowing why. And I would come to understand the neighborhood fathers and their conflict, even when I’d sworn not to.
Ana Christina Peters is a novelist and creative nonfiction writer, with an MFA from Vermont College. Her early writing about Bosnia was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship and New Millennium Writings’ First Place in Nonfiction Award. Her recent writing includes a novel about Hmong refugees, The Soul Caller, and a completed memoir, The Bridge Jumpers, which is anticipating a publisher. She is now at work on a science fiction-fantasy novel. She lives in South Korea where she is Visiting Professor at Kyunghee University. Visit her website: anapeters.com, and follow her on Twitter at @Anawritesmemoir.