…heard the people who live on the ceiling scream and fight most scarily;
hearing that noise was my first ever feeling that’s how it’s been all around me…
Joe Strummer/Mick Jones
Had a friend named Michael when I was seven or eight, first kid I knew whose parents were divorced; he told me, I remember, one afternoon up in the treehouse my dad built in the woods behind our house. Not many kids I knew talked about serious stuff like he did, either.
At some point, heard my mom telling somebody, another adult, something his mom told her, about how she’d had to quit her job to look after the kids because the sitter’d been doing something sitters aren’t supposed to. I didn’t think too much about that, at the time.
Once, I slept over a couple nights. Had never been in a house like that…bare and run down…cheap toys lying all around, mostly broken…holes in the walls his mom plastered over herself…told my mom some bachelors lived there before, and punched the holes with their fists.
He lived there with his mom and two little brothers, and the guy who lived with his mom…dark beard and ponytail, tattoos, kind of quiet, soft-spoken when he spoke at all…had a workshop in the basement and an ashtray shaped like a hand with a middle finger sticking up at the back. Nowadays, I’d call him a biker, though I don’t remember if he actually had a motorcycle. Michael and one of his brothers, a year or so younger, looked a lot alike…skinny white kids with long stringy hair down to their shoulders…first boys I ever knew with long hair. But his other brother, who was maybe three or four, had dark skin and an afro. Michael, when I asked, said he just came out that way.
The first night I had dinner with them, that brother spilled some milk, and their mom turned beet red, stuck a big fist in front of his little eyes, said see this? this is gonna go right in your face.
Late that night, hearing footsteps in the dark hallway, she shrieked, high pitched and threatening, through the door…then, opening it, said oh, it’s you in a voice turned suddenly gentle and soft, and pointed me toward the bathroom.
The next day, Michael and I jumped up and down in a pile of leaves his brother’d raked, scattering them all over the yard. His mom yelled, said we’d better get up every last leaf, and we started raking.
After a while, with most of the job done, I was eager to get back to playing. Said I doubt she really meant ‘every leaf’…speaking with the smooth nonchalance that grew naturally in my world. But Michael stiffened, looked terribly serious, said when my mom says every last leaf she means every leaf and kept working. He lived in his world, and knew it.
…remembered this story a while ago (putting a rough version up at Yoga for Cynics last fall)…it occurred to me I’d never told it to anybody, including my parents…