Bouncing in Place
The summer after I turned nine, I spent the month of July mastering the art of bouncing on a red rubber Hippity Hop in my aunt and uncle’s driveway. Marilyn and Phil lived in a neighborhood of paper mill workers, on a broken asphalt street between the grocery store and the Catholic church. The road wasn’t broken back then, but 37 years later, after cycles of Maine winters and spring thaws — in a town so broke it had to close its own school system — it certainly is.
Every weekday morning, my parents woke my little brother and me before sunrise and loaded us into the backseat of a rusty two-door sedan. The exact make and model elude me now. My father owned a series of rusty sedans, including one that required a length of rope to secure the passenger-side door. Whenever he took a left-hand turn, he shouted, “Hold on!” The person riding shotgun gripped the door handle and hoped for the best.
My parents dropped me off at Marilyn’s house, a green clapboard two-story with a dormer window and a sun porch out front. They delivered my brother to a different babysitter across town, down past the cemetery, since Marilyn didn’t like to watch boys. Afterward, they drove 10 miles north to the shoe factory, where my father cut leather into segments and my mother stitched and glued those segments together. They made penny loafers mostly, purchased by college students and preppy city folks. No one in my family, as far as I can tell, ever owned a pair of these shoes.
Inside Marilyn’s home, the air smelled like laundry soap and oatmeal. I curled up on the living room couch for a few more hours of sleep, pulling her crocheted afghan up to my chin and gazing at the slow ooze of a tabletop lava lamp until my eyelids sagged like broken window shades. When I woke, she fed me deviled eggs or Special K for breakfast; I hoped for the latter, preferring soggy flakes to mustardy goo. When she wasn’t looking, I smashed the eggs into the underside of my plate, then scraped them into the trash.
In my hometown, which rests at the falls of the Androscoggin River, lunch is called dinner and dinner is called supper – a nod to the French Canadians who settled the place. Marilyn started preparing supper right after breakfast. She unwrapped a package of chicken parts, procured from the local butcher shop, and trimmed away the fat and skin. Then she stewed everything in a pot, every now and then lifting the cover and releasing a plume of thick, poultry-scented steam.
Later, we went out to her vegetable garden in the backyard and knelt in the soft brown soil, gathering lettuce and cucumbers for a salad. The air smelled like rotten eggs, thanks to the bleaching agents used at the paper mill. I stretched the front of my T-shirt over my nose and picked, careful to avoid inchworms, which were bad for the garden, and ladybugs, which were good. When our bowl was full, we carried it inside and washed the lettuce leaves at the kitchen sink, in water so cold it made our knuckles ache.
Each afternoon, Marilyn poured herself a sugar-free Lipton iced tea and kicked back in the recliner to watch her soaps. Days of Our Lives first, then General Hospital. I watched for a few minutes too, just to see what Bo and Hope were up to. Then I went outside to find something else to do, something that didn’t involve amnesia or a love triangle.
The neighbors – the Dubords, the Legeres, the Chicoines – all had older kids, teenagers who worked summer jobs or hung out at the swimming pool in town. I wasn’t big enough to go to the pool on my own, so I ended up in my Uncle Phil’s garage at the bottom of the driveway, where my older cousins had left roller skates, basketballs and a slew of toys they’d outgrown.
Uncle Phil worked, too; not at the shoe factory with my parents but at the paper mill, where a giant smokestack spewed a cloud of toxic chemicals. At the end of each shift, fine white ash coated his car in the employee parking lot. There was no point in washing it off, it’d just come back tomorrow. The smell, the pollution – it was all part of life in our corner of Maine, something we noticed but didn’t get too upset about. The Androscoggin River, once named one of the nation’s most polluted rivers, often ran brown and foamy. Fish died from lack of oxygen, yet we drove over it and alongside it every time we went to school, work or church. The river fed the mills, which in turn fed our families.
Back then, my uncle’s garage seemed an endless cavern of darkness and dirt. Going inside felt like going underground, like escaping reality or stopping time. I studied his tools, his mason jars of loose screws and nails. I ran my fingertips along the dulled teeth of the handsaw he hung on the wall. His garage held an entire world, a place where he could fix things like a jammed-up lawnmower or a flat bicycle tire. These days when I look online and see photographs from a realtor’s website, I see a simple green-shingled shed, barely big enough for a single car.
In the pictures, the garage door is closed, but I can still smell the air inside. It’s earthy and dank – a mix of soil, concrete, and dried-up motor oil. That odor carried the essence of my uncle, who kept a grease-stained rag in the back pocket of his work pants and lavished black pepper onto his green beans at the supper table. Every afternoon, when he got home from work, he set his gray lunch pail on the kitchen counter and asked me the same question.
“Guess what,” he said.
“What?” I responded, playing along.
“Love makes the world go ’round.” Then he smiled wide and tired, his eyes crinkling at the edges until they practically disappeared.
While Marilyn watched the soaps, I lingered in the garage, breathing its damp and oily air, searching for something to play with, something to pass the hours until my parents got out of work. A jump rope. A hula hoop. A pair of Romper Stompers or a pogo stick. These novelties that would show up years later on Ebay for five times their original cost. I grabbed the Hippity Hop, a giant rubber ball you bounced with your entire body. I pulled it from the shadows, away from the spiders and centipedes, and dragged it by its handle out of the garage, to the top of the driveway where the pavement was smoother, better for hopping. I hoisted one leg over each side, the thick red rubber tacky against the backs of my thighs.
Then I jumped.
As the cicadas buzzed high up in the maple trees, as the smokestacks belched their toxic stench, I pushed my feet into the gray asphalt and bounded into the air. The neighborhood became a kaleidoscope of blue sky, green grass, gray houses and black power lines. I bounced over and over, counting my hops, seeing how many times I could jump without falling. 10 times, 20 times. 50 times! With each hop, I felt suspended and buoyant, as though I were floating between one life and another.
I never wanted to work at the paper mill or the shoe factory, but I would end up there anyway – for two summers in college, filling orders for those penny loafers. I’d wake before dawn, braid my hair to keep it out of my face, and spend eight hours in the dusty, windowless warehouse, where the vibration of conveyor belts at first gave me headaches and later faded into the background, unnoticeable until quitting time when the boss finally turned the belts off. By lunchtime, I felt sweat-soaked and sun-starved, but I just kept going, kept counting the days from May to August, when I could finally pack my own rusty car and drive past the river one last time.
I jumped even more. 100 times. 200 times. My thighs burned, but I didn’t care. I kept going, kept jumping, imagining myself higher than the smokestack, higher than the smog and ash. Maybe I could jump up to the birds and the airplanes. Maybe I could bounce on a star.
My town always felt quiet and familiar, safe in its simplicity and routine if not in its industrial toxicity. But I wanted to know what waited out there, beyond the boundaries of the river and the western Maine mountain range, past the factories and the churches and the constant smell of sulfur in the air. I didn’t want to make shoes or paper. So what did I want to do? Who could I hope to be? A writer. A teacher. A painter. A dreamer.
The whump, whump, whump of the rubber ball must have been hypnotic, because before I knew it, the rusty sedan returned, my mother behind the wheel now, my father in the passenger seat, a cold beer between his knees.
Then I turned 10, and everything changed. My brother and I stayed home alone during summer vacations. No more mornings with Marilyn, no more excursions into Uncle Phil’s garage. Instead, I became the sitter. I buttered toast for breakfast and mixed macaroni and cheese for dinner. I answered the phone and folded the laundry. We did the dishes, too. Me, washing. Him, drying. After our chores were done, we played outside with the kids on our street, mostly cops and robbers but sometimes hide and seek and football, too.
Something else happened that year. My cousin Mario – Marilyn and Phil’s second son, only eighteen years old – shot himself with a hunting rifle in the upstairs bedroom of their home. My father got the news the next morning. It was the first time, maybe the only time, we ever saw our father cry.
I was too young to understand the whole story, but between the phone call and the funeral, I collected a few details. There was a girl who’d broken up with him. A stolen chainsaw and some trouble with police. A tense night at Marilyn’s house and of course, that shot. The next day, kids with older siblings whispered about it at school, about my cousin and what he’d done. Adults worried their teenage children would do the same thing.
Aunt Marilyn never spoke about it. Not in front of me, anyway. She focused on the things that needed doing, the meals that needed making. Uncle Phil spent more time in his garage, probably asking himself what would make the world go ‘round now.
He still asked me, and I still played along, but his smile – the one that crinkled his eyes – never looked the same.
What makes the world go ‘round? Hell if I know. In our town, we don’t dwell on such things.
We just keep on going, keep on doing, keep on hopping along.
Wendy Fontaine is a writer and writing instructor in southern California. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Compose, Full Grown People, Hippocampus, Passages North, Readers Digest, River Teeth and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter, @WendyMFontaine.