by David W. Berner
My mother handed me a long stick that had fallen to the ground from a high branch of one of the two maple trees in our backyard and tied an old sheet to the end of it. Wrapped up inside was a blue tee-shirt, a pair of shorts, and white tube socks.
“And you’ll need this,” she said, tucking my Flintstones toothbrush into the makeshift rucksack. “Put the stick over your shoulder and you can carry everything nice and easy.”
Mom led me to the front door and out to the front stoop. She turned my body to face the street, patted me on the head, touched my shoulder, and said, “Good luck out there.”
With a tight scowl and teeth clenched, I looked like a miniature hobo with a rotten disposition. I stood defiant on the concrete stairs. No one’s gonna to tell me when to runaway. Not even Mom. I’ll decide. After a few reticent moments, I stepped to the walkway and took the shortcut between the big evergreen trees in the front yard and down the neighbor’s driveway. From the sidewalk, I looked back toward the house. Mom was still on the stoop and now she was waving.
I was mad. Mad that I had to practice my simple addition tables, mad that I had to clean my fish tank, mad I that had to go to bed so early to be “ready for school”—mad, mad, mad. It was 1964, I was a 7-year old, and tired of the rules. I’d miss my dog, but I had to go. It was time. It was an intolerable life, and I was ready to break out on my own.
Part of running away is to evoke sadness in those you leave behind. I didn’t want my mother giving encouragement about this decision; I wanted her to be devastated. Cry. Plead. Tell me how much she was going to miss me and how unbearable it was going to be without me at home. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Mom was all for my adventure into the big world.
I remember it as a rather warm day. I think I was wearing shorts. Probably one of those horizontal striped tee-shirts that all the boys wore back then and canvas tennis shoes with the laces most certainly undone. The street was empty of people, a car or two parked at the curb. I remember hearing birds. This is going to be great, I thought. I am off and free. My stride was confident and rebellious. I walked with a swing in my step. But about three houses up the street, I stopped. I don’t have any money.
My plan was to duck inside Friend’s Dairy, a little corner grocery four blocks away, and buy a pop for the road, a quencher for the beginning of my long passage into the big world. I turned and looked to my house. The view was obscured, but I could see that Mom was no longer on the front porch. Should I go back?
“You’re home already?” Mom asked as I stomped through the front door.
“Can I have a dime?” I scowled.
“Little tough out there in the world, huh?”
Mom reached for her purse. In a small change wallet she found three dimes and handed them to me. I stuffed them in my pocket and turned and walked out the door, saying nothing.
“You’re welcome,” Mom said.
I was back on the sidewalk and heading up the street. I did not look back this time.
* * *
My fascination with oceanography kicked in when I was about eight years old. I liked the idea of having to go hundreds of miles away to get to an ocean. I wanted seahorses but ended up with angelfish in a rectangular fish tank with a pump that hummed and produced bubbles in the water. In second grade I wrote a story about a Cyclops living in the depth of the dark sea. In middle school I was cast in a play. Don’t remember which one, but the experience changed my plans. Now I wanted to be an actor and go to New York or Hollywood. I heard Sly and the Family Stone at a school dance, and the beat made the girls twist their bodies. I could be a musician, I thought. Travel the country playing on stage. I joined the school band. I played the trombone. Not exactly an instrument that attracts the girls, so I switched to the piano and learned guitar. I started listening to Steppenwolf albums. I was certain I was going to be a rock star. Late at night I listened to faraway radio stations on my little black transistor. Big voices from Chicago, Detroit, and New York came out of the tiny speaker—John St. John, Dr. Don Rose, Wolfman Jack—all so daring, interesting, and millions of miles from home.
* * *
The soda pop cooler at Friend’s was just inside the front door. It was the kind that let you snatch out a glass soda bottle from a metal mechanism after dropping a coin in the slot. There was an opener attached to the side of the cooler where the correct placement of the bottle and a flick of a wrist would rip off the metal cap. I chose a Coke and took a swig. A small glass case near the cash register held penny candy and packets of baseball cards. I counted my money. Not enough left for cards, but I could buy a strip of candy buttons and a small pack of Necco wafers.
“Where you headed today?” Mr. Friend asked from behind the counter.
“I’m going on a trip,” I said, handing him the dimes I had remaining.
“I see,” he said.
“Big trip,” I said.
“You wouldn’t be running away, would you?” he asked, pointing at the stick of belongings I had leaned against the pop machine. “Kind of looks like you might be.”
I reached for the brown bag of candy he had placed on the counter and tucked the pennies of change in the front pocket of my shorts.
“It’s a big world out there,” he said.
I folded the bag as tightly as I could and stuffed it in the homemade rucksack.
“Hope you have more money than just those pennies. The candy will only last a bit, you know?”
I placed the stick on my shoulder and walked out the door.
“It’s a big world,” I heard Mr. Friend say behind me.
* * *
I was accepted to the University of Pittsburgh, but I wanted to go where my girlfriend was going—Clarion State, a college about a hundred miles from where I grew up. I had no idea what I was doing when it came to choosing a school. My parents didn’t either. No one else had been to college in my family. No one on the street where I grew up had even thought about it. Some who’d graduated with me or a year or two before had taken jobs at the steel mills. Others became mailmen, cops, and shoe salesmen.
After graduation from college I starting applying for jobs far away—Alaska, Michigan, Alabama, California. Nothing stuck. My first radio job was at a small station in McKeesport, a depressed and sad steel town in Western Pennsylvania about twenty miles from home. But after a few years of work there and later in downtown Pittsburgh, I was hired at a radio station in Chicago. I never thought twice about taking that position—big city, big job, new adventure. The night before I moved away, my mother was stoic and proud. My father cried. It was the first time I had seen his tears since his mother’s funeral.
* * *
I wandered along Churchview Avenue near the volunteer fire hall, the corner pizza place, and along the sidewalk across from the big Victorian house next to St. Albert’s Church where the nuns lived. I’d seen these places from the car window when Mom drove to the grocery store or when Dad and I took a drive to get gasoline at the service station. Now I was walking by them, and they were different up close—bigger, more interesting somehow. It was exciting being out there alone, on my own time, trekking my own expedition. I was just a few blocks from my house yet so far away. I might as well have been strolling the streets of Paris, shopping the bazaars of Morocco, climbing the mountains of Tibet, none of which I had learned about yet at my young age. I turned the corner at Melrose Street near the old cemetery and walked along the chain link fence. It was an instinctual move, as if my mind was on automatic pilot set to a predetermined destination. I was now traveling aimlessly, unaware of my direction. I had made a big circle around the neighborhood—walked a total of a quarter of a mile or so at best—and now was no longer traveling farther from my house, no longer walking away from home but instead, walking back.
* * *
After marrying, moving to Chicago, and raising two sons in Illinois, there wasn’t much else that drew me back to my hometown. There were trips to see the parents at Christmas and visits for a few days in the summers to see an old friend or two, but I had said my goodbyes and was building a life elsewhere. My sons loved it back there, however. Nanny’s house, my old home, was a special place of laughter, baking cookies with grandma, and animals. My mother always had a dog. My sister lived just down the street and she’d take the boys to Kennywood, the big amusement park, the local swimming pool, fishing at the state park, mini golf, and the batting cages. It was a good place for all of us during those years. But in time, things changed.
When my father died from cancer, my sister moved back to the old house to help my mother. A few years later, my mother’s health suffered. My sister took a leave from her job to care for her. When Mom died, my sister took possession of the home, but after the grief of losing Mom and Dad and mounting health problems of her own, my sister lost her way. Depression and a lifelong just-below-the-surface addiction to alcohol crept insidiously into her life. The house fell into disrepair and soon was lost to foreclosure. The home I grew up in was gone.
It was many years before I returned to Pittsburgh. My divorce was finalized, and my sister was now in and out of my life, depending on what stage of rehab she was clinging to. The boys had grown up and the Christmas visits and cookie making were things of the past. I had kept in touch, albeit infrequently, with an old Pittsburgh friend who urged me to come back to town for a few days and take in a Pirates game. Both of us were big baseball fans. Plus, I had a new woman in my life, and there was a deep-down part of me that wanted her to see my hometown, something I’m not sure I completely understood. Leslie and I made the trip in the summer. We stayed in a cliff-side rental home on Mt. Washington, overlooking the Monongahela River and the city. Leslie was surprised and impressed with the steep hills, switchback streets, and the views. We attended the game, had dinner with my old friend, and tried and failed to meet up with my sister who never responded to my repeated phone calls. On the day we were to leave, despite some reluctance and melancholy, I asked Leslie if she’d come with me to my old neighborhood, to Vernon Avenue, to the old house, the one I hadn’t seen since it had been sold years before in a sheriff’s auction.
The street’s 1940s era brick and wood-framed homes were built just a few yards from each other; close enough to see the color of the neighbor’s couch from the kitchen window. Concrete stoops led to big front doors. Some houses had newer additions—upstairs bedrooms or closed-in porches that had once been open. There were a few houses that had been neglected. Overgrown bushes invaded broken walkways; chipped paint and cracked concrete block foundations were like the age lines of old men.
The home where I grew up is on the right-hand side of Vernon Avenue about a tenth of a mile from where the street begins and at the point where it starts to steepen. Because of the slight curve of the street, you can’t see the house until you are directly in front of it. The house would only fully appear before me at the very moment I was on top of it. We moved closer, and my grip tightened around the steering wheel.
How bad could it be? How sad could it look? My last memory of the house was when my sister lived there alone a few months before the sheriff’s office ordered her to leave. At the time, the white siding was worn and discolored, the front door’s black paint, peeling, the iron railing up the front steps, rusting, the wooden sash windows no longer closed tightly, and my mother’s favorite lilac bush in the front yard had been nearly choked dead by weeds.
With the house five hundred feet away, I slowed the car to a near stop and allowed it to drift forward down the hill on its own weight and momentum.
“I’m not so sure about this,” I said, slumping a little in the seat.
“It’s okay,” Leslie said.
The car curved gradually around the turn.
“Oh my,” I said.
I parked near the driveway and looked through the car window.
“My house.” I cupped my hand over my mouth. Leslie touched my arm.
The three overgrown evergreen trees in the front yard had been removed to allow the front door to accept the southern sun. The old white siding had been replaced with elegant gray, the color found on the homes of Nantucket. Fresh white windows gleamed bright. There was a new garage door and a new railing on the big side porch. The uphill concrete driveway had been repaved and a geometric stone retaining wall kept the front yard from tumbling to the walkway. My mother’s lilac was gone but the lawn was green, trimmed, and free of weeds.
“Someone good lives here,” I said and stepped from the driver’s side door.
The old mailbox had been replaced with a shiny new one. Are those fresh shingles on the roof? Is that a newly bricked chimney? A pair of fancy white lantern lights framed the front door. The house number—3138—had been expertly carved into a wooden sign attached to the base of the front porch railing.
“It looks well kept,” Leslie said.
I wanted to reach out and touch the old home, to wrap my arms around it, to hold on. Instead, I stood by my car in the street at the front of the driveway, careful not to get too near, as if being polite, sensitive to the home’s personal space. It had been years since I had been here—this neighborhood, this street where I grew up, where my parents grew up and never left, where my grandmothers lived, where my friends and I sold apples from my home’s backyard, door-to-door in a red wagon, where footballs had been tossed and baseballs thrown, where I had flung a hobo rucksack over my shoulder and taken off on my own. I could see my father at the top of the driveway, wiping grease from his hands after changing the spark plugs in his car, my mother on the porch, watering the hanging baskets of red germaniums, my sister sitting on the front stoop, sipping from a can of Iron City beer, listening to the Pirates on a portable radio.
I took two photos with my phone and texted them to my sons. The old place is looking good, I wrote. I am so happy.
A homecoming is an overused theme, like the plot of a sentimental Lifetime movie, but those corny storylines come from truth, something real. There are deep roots in the soil here, generations in the dirt. Still, as I stood at the bottom of the driveway with my eyes on the front door, I was reminded of what it’s like when you unexpectedly run into an old friend and find there is little to say, when all you have in common is what came before.
I drove away in silence, Leslie at my side, but feeling as if others were there with me, sitting in the back seat with the windows open and the air rushing in.
READ MORE IN THE CONSEQUENCE OF STARS DUE OUT 2019
David W. Berner is an award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster. He has written several books of memoir and fiction. His novel, A WELL-RESPECTED MAN, will be released 4/5/18. His memoir, ANY ROAD WILL TAKE YOU THERE, won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for Indie Non-fiction. He has been honored at the Chicago Library Foundation Carl Sandberg Dnner, and has been the writer-in-residence at the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park and at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando.