Memoir excerpt (entire book - one year: 1960)

C 2006  Jim Blake There is a commotion in the side yard. My eight-year-old sister Regan rushes up the decayed front porch steps, bangs open the screen door and stands in the living room hollering: “Mommy, they’re holding Blinky upside down! The mean boys in the playhouse won’t leave!” “Jimmy! Come down here and tell your friends to put the turtle down and go home,” my mother Molly hollers. “Tell them to leave.” These guys, whoever they are, can’t be my friends. My only friend so far, Jerry Herron, left hours ago. “I’m busy, Mom!” I said, hoping the matter would evaporate without my involvement. “Do not call me Mom! Address me as ‘Mother’. I am not now, nor will I ever be your ‘Mom’. I’m your mother! Do you understand me?” Mom placed her tattered paperback sci-fi novel on the coffee table and walked out to the playhouse, a six foot by eight foot wood and canvas structure built by ‘Uncle’ Bud two weeks ago, just before school started. She pokes her head through the canvas flap over the doorway. Mel Prince and Skip Calvin are sitting low on the upturned milk crates that Bud picked up from the local grocery. They are sixth graders, one year ahead of me. I have seen them at school and seen their schoolyard intimidations from a distance. They are both smoking. “It’s time for you boys to leave,” Mom said in her most civil tone. There was a brief pause. “Go fuck yourself,” said Prince, in a quiet, menacing tone, exhaling smoke with his words. He is just over five feet tall with a greasy, blond duck’s ass haircut. Mom drew back from the doorway in shock and fear as if hit by a wrenching blast of pure ammonia. “You can’t talk to me like that, you little monster!” “Get yer snatch back in yer house. We’ll leave when we’re fuckin’ ready, you skinny fuck,” said Calvin, the shorter of the two with a buzz cut and a crooked nose. Mom withdrew in fear and amazement and walked quickly around the house and back up the front steps. She called me from the living room. “Jimmy! Get down here this minute!” she said, in an uncharacteristically shaky voice. “Get those two little bastards out of my yard! They called me the ‘F’ word! Get out there and defend your mother! You’re the man of the house now. I want those boys out of my yard immediately. Go out there and tell them!” I walked out the front door and very slowly around to the playhouse. I could see two shadows against the canvas walls. I had thoroughly absorbed my mother’s fear into my guts, heart, and brain. I stood in the doorway of the smoke-filled playhouse. I tried to settle my shaking. I had never seen either Mel Prince or Skip Calvin this close. I felt like I was invading their territory. Prince and Calvin were bathed in canvas piss-colored yellow light. “What the cocksuck do you want?” said Prince. “Uuummmmmm, hi guys! How’s it goin’? That’s our turtle Blinky you’ve got there,” I said, very quietly. “Eat shit you fifth-grade fuck,” Calvin said, looking down at his black, floppy oversize motorcycle boots and stubbing his cigarette out on Blinky’s back. I was too frightened to speak. I stood in the doorway another few seconds frozen in fear. Prince flung his lit cigarette into my chest and I returned to the house. “Did you get those little bastards to leave?” asked mother. “Umm, yeah, I guess so.” “What do you mean, you guess so? Are they gone?” “They said they were going to leave soon.” Prince and Calvin moseyed away and the problem evaporated. I was saved further humiliation and a possible beating. Most of the guys in Perry Flats with older brothers were a problem. *** Spokane, Washington, is the “Heart” of the Inland Empire. It is the Lilac City. It is early autumn. We have lived in this neighborhood for one month and I have already been shot in the ear with a load of hard, spit-wet peas by a boy unknown to me as I walked past the Farmer’s Market with my thirteen-year-old sister, Teresa. I was shocked and in considerable pain from this unprovoked, close-range, walk-by attack just across the street from our house. It set the keynote for life in this neighborhood, this part of town. I didn’t retaliate for the attack. I said nothing. If Teresa didn’t notice and I didn’t say anything then I wouldn’t be a known coward for not answering the assault, just a coward in my nine-year-old heart. Perhaps not quite as bad, but word gets around on these matters. I was quickly learning that there was a menacing pall over the Flats, unmistakably present on the most radiant, crisp autumn days, the cold, clear, snow-crunching days of winter, and during the fragrant, warm, windy days of spring. It was always dangerous outdoors and sad, dramatic, and more than a little crazy indoors. The address on Perry was our twenty-fifth since my birth nine years previously. There would be forty by the time I started high school. We moved for a variety of reasons, but primarily because my father’s job changed or my mother was entering or exiting a mental institution. We lived with different relatives, with a foster family and in two institutions for children that were stops between homes where either my mother alone, my father alone, or both parents were present. By the time we moved into the house on Perry, my parents had been divorced for two years. This was a very big relief. They were both vicious fighters, screamers, scratchers, sluggers, knife-wielding crazies who never missed an evening of trying to damage one another when in the same house. All of the moving provided an immense variety for growing minds, new cities, new smells, new trees, new weather, new friends, new enemies, all new—all the time. The only real downside to the perpetual variety was the increasing density of phonics. School was like a big splotchy collage where some subjects got repeated over and over and others fell through the cracks. Where was I when my peers were learning what an adverb is? I missed adverbs and also gerunds. I averaged 2.6 schools a year until fifth grade in Perry Flats, then continued that average until high school after we moved from Perry. There were sixteen different schools by the time we settled down for my high school years. Why did my father’s job change so much? He had a short temper, an enormous ego, overweening pride, and five years of physical and emotional trauma in World War II. He was very hard of hearing from his wartime heroics. This volatile combination made it difficult for him to submit to authority. He was a brilliant and well-loved leader of men but as soon as he had to follow, he was caught in an emotional meat grinder that chewed him up and sent him off to a new job. There was always an authority figure whose “asshole he wouldn’t piss up if his guts were on fire.” Why was my mother coming and going from mental institutions? She was a severely neglected and abused child. Her immense beauty and promiscuity and innate loathing for men made her a center of turmoil. She was a very magnetic force who drew people toward her and charged them full of energy, much of it destructive. The year we lived in Perry Flats was a year of relative calm for her--a year of recovery from a decade in hell during which she attempted suicide four times. It was the jump from a bridge in Richland into the Columbia River in 1955 that got people’s attention in ways that the slashed wrists failed to do. ***

A ’54 Chevy convertible slows down alongside me as I approach our house on Perry Street. It stops several feet ahead and a guy leans over to the passenger side. He’s clean-cut, looks like a member of the Kingston Trio, a college man, Gonzaga. “Hey there young fella!” he says, in a friendly tone as I walked near his car. I stopped and turned towards him. “How would you like to earn some money?” “What do you mean?” I said. “I’ve got a paper route opening up in a few days, ‘Chronicle,’ ever heard of the ‘Spokane Chronicle’?” “No.” “It’s the afternoon paper. I’ve got a real nice route opening up, s’got your name on it, seventy subscribers plus or minus. If you can hustle you can add new customers every week. You could easily make twenty-five or thirty dollars a month. My name’s Dave, by the way, what’s yours?” “Jim Blake.” “I like the ring of it.” Dave was very persuasive. Thirty dollars a month seemed like an enormous amount of money for a fifth grader. I couldn’t imagine how it could be true but he seemed to be honest. Dave handed me a document to sign and I took it with enthusiasm. “Have your Mom and Dad sign this and I’ll stop by tomorrow to drive you over to the distribution shed.” “My Dad’s not here.” “OK, your Mom.” The last time I recall receiving any money at all was two years ago. A that time, my allowance was twenty-five cents a week and it was enough to keep me entertained throughout a weekend. Thirty dollars a month was beyond imagining. Mom would be very happy. ***

I met district route manager Dave the following day in front of our house after school. He drove me a mile up to the IGA supermarket parking lot. The newspaper shack was about the size of Regan’s playhouse but not nearly as menacing. It was painted dark green and had a plywood front panel attached to the overhanging eave with a screw hook. There were twelve or so boys horsing around waiting for their Thursday pep talk before dispersing to their nearby routes, most of them within a half-mile radius of the shack. I was introduced. Being the new kid wasn’t so difficult. I was beginning my ninth grade school. I was the center of attention for a few seconds, then Dave began a brief spiel emphasizing the importance of signing new subscribers and maintaining excellent service to all present subscribers. When he finished, Dave drove me to my street corner with Ron, a tall, gaunt boy of fifteen. This would be Ron’s last day on the Trent Street route, and my first day. Dave dropped us off down on Trent, a block from the mighty Spokane River. We were more than two miles from the shack. This was the most remote of Dave’s routes. It was by far the most complex, with its many cul-de-sacs, apartment buildings, dead-end roads, isolated houses on large properties, and an ever-changing cluster of bars, cafes, and auto repair shops along Trent Street. Ron had all of the addresses written out in his scribbly scrawl in dim pencil, one per page in the route book. This ratty assemblage of pages would be my only connection to my customers, the key that held the secrets of the labyrinth that was my route. By the time we loaded up Ron’s airy, fraying canvas bag with the freshly folded papers and set out, it was early evening. Ron didn’t have much to say as we trudged along. He would grumble about someone always being late with their $2.25 per month payment. He groused about people’s pretending not to...........