The house smelled like an old attic, of rotting wool and Vicks VapoRub. Decorated in 40’s era décor with green swirl sculpted carpet, bamboo patterned wallpaper and art deco light fixtures, the house didn’t feel ours when we moved in. When my sisters and I ran through the bedrooms gleefully claiming dibs on which would be ours, I feared being scolded by the former owners hiding in the closet. It didn’t matter that they were dead.
Christine and I chose rooms on the main floor; Yolanda, Mom and Dad on the second. Compared to the places we had lived for last few years overseas, we were now living in the White House. It had a large family room, a workshop and a laundry room in the basement with a laundry chute that funneled clothing all the way from the second floor bathroom. I amused myself dropping clothes, toys and an occasional cat through the chute. With Mom’s infrequent chore schedule, it assured an ever-present landing pad from the volcano of dirty laundry.
Nestled against a bluff overlooking the Puget Sound, we had an unobstructed 180-degree view of the water and on clear days we could see across the San Juan Islands all the way to the Olympic Mountain range. Often I would sit on the deck over the garage listening to Jimmy Page slowly strum the chords to Stairway to Heaven, and watch the sun go down behind the mountains. I’d think of how cool it would be to have someone here with me to watch the sunset. Christine and Yolanda were there, but they didn’t count.
Dad setup a Ping-Pong table in the family room and Christine and I began an era of epic matches. Flying bodies lunged to reverse the flight of stray balls to the other side of the table. Even if I missed my kill shot, redemption came from hitting Christine in the thigh. Aside from Ping-Pong, I fed my incessant appetite for TV by sneaking down to the family room after bedtime. I stayed up late to watch Johnny Carson and sometimes even Tom Snyder if I could stay awake. I didn’t always understand what they were talking about but it made me feel grownup to hear the jokes and conversation. I also spent time in the shop sifting through boxes of old pipe fittings, tools and baby food jars filled with every imaginable screw and bolt, all left behind by the previous owners. The containers fed my imagination and I experimented with building model boats from scrap wood, outfitting them with whatever I could find on the shelves.
We had moved into the house at the beginning of summer so we had time to adjust to our new surroundings before school started. Mom got a part time job in an office, Dad found a job as a hospital administrator in Snoqualmie and we joined a local church. At first I didn’t want to attend the youth group meetings but after sitting in on a few, I became friends with the pastor’s son who practiced martial arts and idolized Bruce Lee. I liked him instantly and decided to stay. He also introduced me to smoking dope on the first youth group weekend retreat I attended, rolling a joint late one night after the chaperones had gone to bed. Stoned out of our minds, we stared at our cuticles imagining the solar systems they contained while listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. We also celebrated communion on Sunday morning with Coca Cola and cold pizza. The chaperone’s discomfort with the irreverent Eucharist affirmed us of our choice.
The tension between Mom and Dad paused for the summer of 1974. They were getting along well which made everyone happy. Dad even surprised us with a trip to Vancouver, B.C. We toured Gastown, ate at an Indian Restaurant and went to Stanley Park. There were real smiles behind the laughter and I didn’t want it to end, as if getting to the bottom of a milkshake and loudly sucking on the straw for the last remnant of shake. I peppered Dad with pleas to stay one more night but he did not budge. As with all pauses, they don’t last and we headed home in silence. Soon after, Mom and Dad were arguing again. The tension drove each of us to seek our own refuge, and I realized how abnormal normal was.
My refuge came through hanging out with Patrick, a friend I’d met at school. An unlikely pairing given his six foot four height next to my five foot five, we found commonality in the same corny sense of humor and amused each other with pranks and stupid jokes. Patrick also had an insatiable appetite for sex and basketball, though he could never quite get far enough to accomplish the former, giving him a perpetual case of blue balls. We’d go out on the town in his rattletrap ’62 bug with an overturned bucket for a passenger seat and try to pick up girls. We always struck out, ending up back at his house late at night to raid the freezer for ice cream. I spent the night regularly and began joining his family regularly at the dinner table.
A large Catholic family, Patrick had six brother and sisters. I fit between Patrick and his younger sister Siobahn, the fifth and sixth kids in the household. At dinnertime I sat at the end of the table next to his mom who kept my plate full of casseroles, mashed potatoes and other comfort food, the type I rarely got at home. After dinner, his dad would challenge us to a pepper eating contest.
“You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” his mother counseled, patting my hand.
I tried it one once anyway and made the mistake of wiping my eyes when they began to water. My fingers still had the pepper juice on them and I couldn’t see for an hour. His mom chastised his dad for goading me into it and doted on me while the rest of them laughed. I felt more cared then than I could remember in a long time. So much so that when I had my wisdom teeth pulled, Patrick picked me up from the surgeon’s office and took me to his house. I laid on the couch, his mom cooing over my swollen cheeks while watching cartoons. I didn’t give a thought to going home or if Mom and Dad had any concern until they showed up to take me home. Dad looked nervous and Mom looked hurt. We drove home in silence while the pain throbbed in my jaw.
Dad’s behavior began to spin out of control, like cooking full dinners in the middle of the afternoon. I would arrive home to cold dinner on the table and Dad weeping and carrying on about being unloved. I’d try to ignore him while watching afternoon cartoons and then I’d lock myself in my white paneled room listening to Zeppelin’s Kashmir at full volume to drown out his sobs. I would still get sucked into his stories, however. Like the time he showed up with his car wiped out on one side. He explained how a large rockslide had pushed him off the road, almost killing him. Wondering why Mom did not seem to care, I became angry with her for not reacting. It would not be until decades later when I would learn this lesson; how those around us bear the brunt of our impaired realities.
I began leaving the house to find my escape, hanging out in Schmitz Park watching the older high schoolers get stoned. They offered me a joint after showing up a few times. I didn’t want to smoke it but being too afraid to look like a wimp, I took a long drag on the stubby hand rolled cigarette. I immediately began coughing uncontrollably, hardly able to catch my breath. We all cried together — they out of laughter from my reaction, and mine from the lack of oxygen. I didn’t return to the park for a while after that.
At home, the tension had not let up and at dinner one evening Mom announced that the family would be going to therapy together.
“Her name is Margaret,” Mom informed us. “She is going to help us with our communication.”
“Do we have to go?” I asked, shooting a look to Dad for support. I don’t know why I bothered. A pushover since returning from overseas, Dad looked uncomfortable with the idea and he didn’t speak up. He rarely did anymore.
I didn’t know what to expect from the visit, though I became hopeful when we drove into the parking lot of the condominium complex built on a pier over the water. I thought anyone who lived in a cool place like that couldn’t be all that bad, imagining how cool it would be to have a hole in the floor for fishing. Margaret, a large woman with an even larger peroxide beehive hairdo and overly caked makeup, looked a cross between Marie Antoinette and Ernest Borgnine. Quizzing us kids on our school, friends and hobbies, Margaret wrote copious notes. I replied to her questions captivated by her hairdo, imagining what could be hidden in the blond mass. Perhaps a mouse, or a bird I thought. The towering mane wobbled as she acknowledged my comments with overly dramatic responses.
“You don’t say? Really? Isn’t that nice?” She offered me cookies and I began to warm to her. I even asked Mom if we had to go back.
“We’ll see honey. Your father and I are going to see her for a while. Surmising Margaret harmless, I shrugged my shoulders and let it go. That lasted until Mom and Dad began parroting advice from their counseling sessions. “Margaret says…” became the catchphrase. “Margaret says you shouldn’t finish all the food on your plate – it’s perfectionistic.” “Margaret says you should make your own lunches for school.” “Margaret says you should do your own laundry.” The constant refrain nauseated me; they were so gutless.
Soon we started having family meetings every Sunday after church at Margaret’s request. They were boring and I hated them. At one meeting, Mom announced that the lights being left on and the constant TV watching had to stop. “We are in an energy crisis after all,” Dad stated rationally. “From now on, whoever leaves lights or TV on will be fined 25 cents.” The kids responded with a chorus of groans.
“Why do I have to pay fines?” Christine argued. “Rick is the one who always leaves the lights on.”
“Then it shouldn’t be a problem,” Mom reasoned. “And if you find a light left on, you can charge him the fine.”
“Really? I can fine him?” she asked, her face brightening.
At first I thought the fines were the stupidest idea I’d ever heard of. I began to endure repeated fines levied against me by the family, paring my allowance down to a paltry few dimes on a weekly basis. After one particularly rough family meeting when I ended up owing money, I determined things had to change and began fighting fire with fire. I followed Yolanda and Christine around the house the entire following week, conspicuously making notations in the pocket-sized spiral bound notepad I found buried in the kitchen junk drawer. Carefully scribing “Fines” across the top in neatly spaced block letters, I struck out for redemption, hunting unsuspecting family members. Finding no luck catching Mom and Dad off guard, I turned my attention to my sisters. One afternoon, I hid from Christine in the hallway leading to our bedrooms. Waiting in silence, my heartbeat pounded as my pencil hovered above the steno pad, waiting for her to leave the room.
When the hallway became quiet I rounded the corner and almost ran into her. Leaning against the wall with her finger poised over the light switch, she smirked definitely as her finger flicked the switch.
“Fat chance,” she quipped.
“Stupid,” I yelled back.
“Get outa my face,” she yelled as her door slammed in my face.
I then turned my sights to Yolanda, following her around the house. Being easy pickings with her oversights, I proudly read off my list of fines at the next few meetings. She usually didn’t have the money to pay up so I agreed to trade chores in exchange for working down her indebted servitude. This too did not last, as Christine clued her in on my strategy. When my collections began to dip below my accrued fines I resorted to outright fabrication, scribbling fictitious energy offenses in my note pad minutes before family meeting started.
“You’re lying,” Yolanda accused, crying at the money she supposedly owed me.
“Enough,” Dad interrupted. “This is getting out of hand. Let’s suspend the fines for awhile and see how we do,” he announced, stealing a glance toward Mom for approval. She shrugged her shoulders and we never talked about fines again. I turned my attention to the new TV.
The color TV a recent luxury, we had inherited the old Curtis Mathes from Grandmother Clow, dad’s mom. We hadn’t known her well and the last time we visited her in the old person’s home in La Jolla, she could hardly see us or understand what we were saying. I had to repeat every sentence at least twice. When Grandma Clow died her TV ended up with us along with some furniture. It all smelled old, like the house.
Dad initially put the TV in the family room in the basement, but after Mom kept catching us staying up late watching it, they put it in their bedroom on the second floor and locked the door. Undeterred, I set out to break into their room. Unsuccessful at picking the door lock, I decided on a bolder approach by donning my track spikes and climbing out the bathroom window on the backside of the house. Clambering over the steep pitched shake roof I climbed through their bedroom window, fortunate to find it unlocked. Elated, I let the girls in the room and we negotiated on which shows to watch. My favorites were The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch, mainly because I had a crush on Shirley Jones and Florence Henderson, but I didn’t tell them about it. The weekly ascent on the cedar shakes continued and we traded watch duty, sitting on the windowsill listening for the catering truck horn in our ’62 Valiant as it rounded the hair pin corner above our house. The escapade lasted for a month or so until Mom walked into the room one day catching us red-handed. We’d left Yolanda on lookout and she had become absorbed in the show. None of us heard the horn.
“How did you get in the room?” Mom asked, her brow puckered in annoyance. “And why are your track shoes here?” she added, noticing the shoes on the sill. She puzzled for a moment, staring at the well-worn path of holes leading out the window and around the dormer. Then it dawned on her how we were getting in the room.
“Aydios mio Ricky!” she exclaimed, shaking her head.
“What’s going on?” Dad asked, walking in a few moments later.
“Your son has been climbing the roof,” she snapped, grabbing up the shoes and turning them over to examine the spikes while she shook her head.
“Oh Lord,” Dad muttered, examining the path of puncture marks. When he didn’t know how to deal with a situation, he would say, “Oh Lord.” He said it a lot more often these days.
“We’ll discuss this at the family meeting,” Mom said, shutting off the TV with finality and kicked us out of the room.
Without the TV, I quickly became bored and started snooping around the wall of moving boxes we had packed into the crawl space beneath my bedroom. I discovered the space went a lot deeper than I had realized. Burrowing through the boxes on my hands and knees, I inspected the hidden space behind the barrier. This is cool, I thought. A bare light bulb with a pull chain lit the space and I fashioned a fort behind the wall of boxes where I could lay in the cool dirt and no one would know about it. The fort became my private getaway where I escaped to read my Richie Rich and Swamp Thing comic books. I stared at the advertisement for Sea Monkeys on the back page of the comic books and imagined being occupied for hours watching them play and entertain me, just like it showed in the pictures.
In spite of the therapy, Mom and Dad kept fighting. Surprisingly, Dad did most of the arguing while Mom remained silent. Occasionally she would respond, her singsong accent rising and falling through the kitchen floor I would tunnel deeper into my private space to shut it out.
I read through my dog-eared stash of comic books dozens of times, imagining the life of Richie Rich. Cuthbert the Butler would be at my beck and call. Anything I wanted would be mine and sunshine would follow me everywhere like with Richie. One evening as the Mom and Dad’s fighting subsided into a silent standoff I stowed away in my secret hiding place. With my flashlight flickering across the page, I heard a drip. Or had I? Almost undetectable, I held my breath to listen thinking I had imagined it.
Doiip. There. Definitely a drip. Putting the comic book down, I turned onto my belly and directed the flashlight into the darker recesses of the crawl space. Slicing the darkness with the beam, I found the source — an old iron pipe that ran between the floor joists. I concentrated the beam on a joint in the pipe that had rust built up underneath it. As I held the light on the joint, a pregnant drip formed under the pipe until it separated. The droplet splashed onto a small puddle that had formed on the top of a box. It contained a plastic model of the USS Constitution. I had started the model last year with Dad, but never finished it. The pipe must have been leaking for some time onto the mildewed and soggy box. I crawled on my belly to reach the pipe and fingered a small valve at the top of the joint, locating the leaking water. Water began running down the heel of my palm, under my forearm and into my armpit. I crawled out of the space in a quandary over what to do. I didn’t know how to fix the leak, yet to tell Dad meant revealing my private space.
I resolved to fix it on my own, returning to the leak with a candle and matches. Lighting the candle, I dripped melted wax onto the leak and worked the warm paraffin into the valve with my thumb and forefinger. After repeating the steps a few times, I rested against the wall of boxes to see if the drip had stopped. The candlelight danced across the dirt floor as the flame popped and sizzled. Molten wax pooled around the wick and I became captivated by the transparent puddle. Mesmerized as I tilted the candle left and right, hot wax spilled onto my fingers. Burning my skin at first, the pain quickly eased as it hardened and cooled. The wax cracked and fell away as I moved my fingers.
A faucet turned on and the pipe shuddered in response, breaking the solitude. Anticipating a drop to form, none did. The leak had stopped yet I went to bed that night wondering if it would start again during the night. I slept restlessly, imagining I could hear the drip through the floor.
The wax repair did not last. The next few visits I still found water leaking from the valve and the pipe had formed a healthy wax stalactite by now from the repeated attempts to stop the leak. Frustrated, I retrieved a wrench from Dad’s toolbox determined to fix it for good. Pinching the valve securely in the jaws of the wrench, it resisted as I tightened the threads and then suddenly it turned too easy. A fine spray began drenching my hands and the sub-floor above the valve. Worse than when I had started, I now felt out of options. The water flowing fast now, I had no option left. I had to tell Dad. Retreating from the growing pool of water I ran upstairs to tell Dad, tracking muddy footprints up the stairs and through the kitchen. Explaining what had happened, I revealed my hiding place to him. I pointed to the leaking valve with the flashlight. Dad squinted, peering at the dark stain growing under the floor.
“It’s getting everything wet Dad. My models and everything!” my voice squeaked.
“How did it happen?” he asked with a pained expression.
“I don’t know. It just started leaking.” I explained how I’d found it and my attempts to fix it with the candle wax. I left out the part about the wrench.
“Oh Lord,” Dad sighed.
I checked on the leak daily after that, hoping it would somehow stop on its own. It didn’t. The puddle had grown to a sizeable lake, reaching the bottom row of the wall of boxes. The cardboard drank the water like a dry sponge and the stacks were collapsing upon themselves as the bottom row disintegrated into mush. A ripe, musty odor permeated the crawl space. Desperate, I grabbed a sock from the laundry room floor and crawled through the puddle to reach the pipe. I tied it around the leak, which stopped the spray however the striped tube sock quickly became soaked and it kept on dripping. Within a few days light green fuzz covered the underside of the sub-floor and spread amongst the boxes. Even so, I kept holding out hope that the leak would stop on it’s own but it didn’t. My private getaway gone for good, the dull knot of acceptance lingered as a reminder of lost sanctuary.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it though. The leak tormented me, as I lay awake at night consumed with the steady drip and sour smell of the dank floorboards beneath my bed. I shivered, imagining the dampness invading my room. The pipe kept leaking. Mom and Dad kept fighting, and our family crumbled like the boxes.