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Life Among Loose Nails

The first bedroom I remember was burn-your-eyeballs pink.  It was one of three in a small frame house on the edge of Denver in the shiny new suburb of Cherry Creek. The street at that time was mostly vacant lots in various stages of build.  After school my younger brother and I would play in the dugout basements, jump off the unfinished staircases, and play tag among the loose nails until well after dark.

At our house, an intrusive brick planter separated the front entry from the small living room. From there, a straight hallway with a wooden floor led to the bedrooms. A vivid memory is that of my brother and I sliding Whiskers the cat down the hallway until she tired of our abuse and scrambled, claws clicking on the wood, to her safe place under a bed.

Behind the house, spidery juniper bushes lined a gravel parking area where my father’s 1947 Chrysler lived. Its hunchback form sunk into the gravel like a dark green slug. It was old with cracked plastic seats and a musty smell even on a hot dry day. Along the back fence was a small wooden structure we called the  clubhouse where the neighbor girl and I would pretend-smoke by rolling up facial tissues in notebook paper into the shape of large cigarettes.

As pink as my room was, my brother’s was an equal intensity of blue. My mother did not have a flair for design or color palettes—or cooking or gardening or cleaning. Instead, she and my father were particularly good at going to church—4 days a week, and then some. They tugged my brother and me along as we were too young to have a say or much of a thought about it either way. That would come years later.

One Sunday I remember being carried out for a spanking slung over my father’s shoulder like a bag of fertilizer. It was a long walk from the front row pew, where we always sat, to the outside steps. The memory would haunt me for years as church members would laughingly remember it in their fond-memory stories—the day Pastor L. carried little Debbie outside while she wailed, “Daddy, I’ll be good…”.

At Cherry Creek Elementary School I was an outcast due to the religion of my parents. What horrible parents didn’t let their kid celebrate Christmas or birthdays or Easter, for christsake! Bunnies. Eggs. Candy! Every day I went to school wishing it would end. At recess, I sat on the cold ground up against the tall red brick walls and learned to turn inward for entertainment and solace. I wonder now, is an introvert born or made?

My father liked to make up simple rhymes to commemorate important events; our move to California was to be a family turning point related to income and money I guess because we never had any. All we can be in ’63. More than ten years later we were still going to turn things around, “Come alive in ’75.” Banal poetry perhaps, but later, after their deaths, my brother and I found the love letters and poetry he had written to our mother for years. Imagine that; he saw something special about her that we did not.

The catalyst for the move from Colorado to Southern California was one of the church’s new recruits—a middle age divorcee who formed an attachment to my father. I suspect many women did; he was the nice guy—the pious man with words of wisdom for every treacherous thought. Donna offered up low cut flowered blouses that pushed up small breasts stretching the limits of little buttons, skinny pale legs dropping from stretch pants cut at the knees and a dirty blonde and perpetually swinging pony tail. She would bounce up to my father after his sermon and request his counsel on one of her many problems. Soon she was calling our house in the late evenings saying she was having a personal crisis and needed to see Pastor L right away. My father went to see her on one of those evenings. He wasn’t gone long but I remember my mother being upset. Within weeks he announced that we were moving to California.

I may have been too young to know the whole story but all that hunkering inward at the base of the brick school walls gave me time to think—to watch, observe and learn a few things about human behavior. Sadly the acts perpetrated on a childhood playground differ little from those in adulthood.

Who isn’t a survivor from the wreck of childhood?
Nicole Krauss