by Anne Panning
I grew up in a family that did not listen to opera. We did not have dozens of good books lying around the house. We also did not travel anywhere beyond the borders of Minnesota, nor did we converse about politics, philosophy, or art. Instead, the culture I was exposed to had more to do with our small town of Arlington, what was on TV that week, my mom’s sewing, my dad’s souped-up, old junker cars, and my two brothers’ continual hunting exploits. From a young age, I was fed Johnny Cash and Elvis, Charlie’s Angels and Wheel of Fortune, baked-bean-and-hamburger sandwiches on white bread, and lessons in how to scour the Sunday newspaper for the best coupons, never minding the headlines and what was going on in the rest of the big world. To this day, my mother peels through the inky sections of the Sunday paper, tosses them to the floor, and pulls out the glossy K-Mart and Target ads, which she reads thoroughly and with great care. Only later does she go back and see who bombed who or where the latest natural disaster took place. In this way, her top priority is still intact: how to survive in the world with very little cash.
* * *
During the early years, my father worked steadily as a barber, and although he didn’t do badly, it’s impossible to talk about our money woes without also mentioning his drinking. He had the perfect set-up for a drunk: a private barber shop with lulls throughout the day, right next to Beanie’s Bar and right across the street from The Municipal Liquor Store. His shop was connected to John’s Shoe Box, and I remember going in there through the back door and fingering the rubber-smelling, fuzzy-suede Kid Power sneakers, all laced up and placed at an angle on carpeted podiums. John Sheer, a large red-headed bachelor, gave us deals: shoes for haircuts. His head was round, his belly was round, and his feet were huge. I think he was also a drunk.
My father’s barber shop was on the west end of Main right before the stoplight. It gave me great pleasure to walk up there after school, spy the rolling pole of red, white, and blue, and see him standing inside, legs spread, slightly hunched, the scissors and comb tangled in his fingers and held out at eye level, as if ready to create a masterpiece. He looked distinguished in his mint green smock and pointed goatee, like a chemist or a doctor. There were mirrors everywhere, and once inside, I could spin around and look at him in back, in front, from the side. Those mirrors were huge.
When I opened the door to his shop, the scent of warm, old-man hair overwhelmed me. These were farmers, day laborers, and their heavy denim jackets hung on the hat rack, coated with feed corn, sawdust, and animal hair. Their pinched red faces turned to me and nodded. I stepped through the infinitely fine mixture of gray hair on the floor, careful not to rile it, and my father not only said hello, but announced me to everyone.
“Hey, Annie’s here! This is my daughter, Annie. But sometimes we call her Gertrude. We don’t know why. Isn’t that right, Gert?” He would spin his customer to face me, and the man would inevitably smile, wink, and give me a quarter. But everyone knew me. I knew everyone. And likely everyone knew my father was a little bit drunk, but they didn’t care. I would ask for some money to run down to Rexall Drug to buy a chocolate Charleston Chew, and my father, in mid-haircut, would open his small wooden drawer, peel out a wrinkled dollar bill, and press it into my hand.
“Aw, come on, L.P.! You have to give her more than that! Come on. Cough it up.” The old men would razz, and I would get more. Sometimes a five. Besides, money was nothing sacred to my father. You have it, you spend it. He never held back from me, and it was that generosity, as well as his utter disregard for bills, payments, savings, that led to his demise. He just didn’t care. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough money not to care. Before he got home each night after work, he would have spent almost the entire day’s profit in the bar, buying not only himself, but everyone there, round after round of watery tap beer. Everybody loved him, and who wouldn’t? Free drinks, cheap haircuts, and antics, jokes, and performances that lit up an otherwise dark and dismal town.
* * *
My mother did not stay at home, as I so badly wished she did, but worked several jobs all the time. She worked in a corn factory, at a clothing store, at a drug store, at Fingerhut as a sewer. Once, I came home from school and found her drinking iced tea at the kitchen table. I was thrilled to see her, but instantly knew something was wrong. Her left finger had a load of white gauze rolled around it, and when I asked her what happened, she said the machine had sewn right through her finger. In a sick way, I had to see. “Can I look?” I asked, and she peeled off the cocoon. Her perfect oval fingernail had a hole right in the center, as if it were drilled in, and the whole area had turned yellow and blue and black. A big dark red blister bulged out the end of her finger like a small balloon, and she said she would have to drain it with a needle. I wanted to watch that, too, but my mother said it would be too disturbing for me. I held her hand carefully in mine, turning it over and over, and saw the hole on the bottom of her finger where the big industrial needle had exited. With her other, good hand, my mother smacked the table and began to cry. I shuddered, was made to realize my mother did not have an easy life. Nor, it seemed, did my father. This new knowledge rained down on me like bad weather. How to seek shelter? How to escape? This is when, it seems, I fell into books.
* * *
The Arlington Public Library was not really a library, but a room in the back of the police station. It was about as big as my parents’ bedroom, but somehow, as I’d slip past the staticky police radio in the front, sneaking my way into the library, I found a sense of belonging and peace. The room was paneled and had three, free-standing shelves of books; one rack of magazines boasted Teen, Teen Beat, Seventeen, Young Miss, and Redbook. The check-out desk was a folding poker table, and most of the books were old with crunchy cellophane covers that crackled and threatened to tear when you opened them. Others were paperbacks with smooth, plastic covers; I held them to my cheek. I found Judy Blume there, Paul Zindel, Norma Klein, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote. When I first cracked into these books, I knew there was hope, and I knew that I, too, wanted to write. Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on my Eyeball remains for me, structurally, a true model.
Florence, the volunteer librarian, got upset when I tried to take too many books out at once. She was an old woman with blonde hair and blue tint glasses; she was skinny and had cigarette-stained teeth. Her voice was gravel. “If everyone takes out that many books, there won’t be enough to go around.” She often wore pink slacks and plaid blouses, untucked. She was tall and wobbly.
“But I can read them all over the weekend,” I would say. “I promise. Please. I really will.”
Begrudgingly, she let me take stacks of books home, and I walked quickly down Main with my hair swinging, my hands pressing books up against my chest so they wouldn’t drop.
* * *
I didn’t have a quiet, solitary childhood of books and reading, though, but grew up fighting and struggling with my siblings. There was Jim, my older brother by one year, who from a young age loved to kill things just to see them fall over. He wore camouflage pajamas, shot at robins with his B.B. gun, and had a trapping line set up in High Island Creek, where he would snare dozens of wet, muddy mink and gray muskrat. To this day, he shoots inconsequential animals, such as squirrel or pheasant, wraps them in plastic, and stores them in my parents’ deep freeze in the basement. He doesn’t eat them, and every time I go back to visit, looking for a steak or a brick of hamburger in the freezer, I come across the frozen startling carcasses unexpectedly; I hound him about it. “If you’re not going to eat them, why hunt them? You shouldn’t hunt just for sport, Jim, you should hunt to eat.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he’ll say. “Like you know.”
We disagree on almost everything still: equal rights for women, death penalty, abortion, education. How did we come out of the same womb, I sometimes wonder, the same environment? How could this be?
* * *
My younger sister Amy, I was convinced, was adopted. With her white-blonde hair and green eyes, she didn’t fit into our family of browns. She also had a deep indentation in her chin, earning her the nickname “Butt Chin,” which, I, as evil older sister, would chant right up to her face over and over until she cried. But she was the tender heart in the family. Even if you had eaten all of your own snack up, she’d give you hers. She couldn’t, and still can’t, bear for people to be left out or teased.
Growing up with her was like growing up with an attachment to my own body. We slept in the same bed for most of our lives, arms and legs laced in a sweaty tangle, blue-veined eyelids quivering in similar dreams. We wore the same Garanimal outfits, scrubbed with the same washcloth, protested the same bedtime. We also got identical haircuts for years: short, feathery pixies, which showed off our eyes, my mom said, and our nice, long necks. I still have a photo of Amy and me asleep in bed, and when I study it, recall the sweet physical intimacy of those years, I long for her ragged, breathy snoring, her heavy arm tossed around my waist, her familiar scent—like walnuts and dried roses. And our lazy early morning talks in bed, voices still scratchy, quiet, and low like little old women.
* * *
My younger brother Mike was a “mistake” baby, born when the three of us were all eleven years and older. We lived in the trailer court when he was born, and there was hardly room for four kids. I would often take him out in the stroller, feed him Lemonheads and malted milk balls, and read him big, bright books on the lawn of the cemetery, which the rear of our trailer faced. When he got older, I let him climb on the big granite slabs, ride them like horses, while I lounged luxuriously on the grass, reading nineteenth-century novels in the sparkling sunshine among the dead.
I was always taking care of him, and explaining things to him; I considered my role as much his educator as his babysitter, and tried to steer him away from sports and hunting, and towards more solitary, rewarding pursuits such as butterfly catching or journal keeping. “God, Anne, you’re lucky you didn’t turn me into a fag,” he has told me later in life. Somehow, my influence wasn’t as strong as I’d thought. As soon as he was old enough, he entered the rough wild world of boys I only witnessed from a distance, and left me and my books far behind. To this day, he remains homophobic and a great killer—like my older brother Jim—of small living animals.
* * *
Of all the places our family lived, the trailer court occupies a dominant place in my memory. I learned to love to read there, but also learned about class divisions and poverty. I learned to ride a bike there, and learned that the Indians and Mexicans were exiled to the trailer court because the rest of the town didn’t want them. When I was about nine, I played with one of the Indian girls, Arlotta, who had a dirty upper lip, long dark hair, and wore her brother’s clothes. We couldn’t have been more different. She was tough, outspoken, boyish, and I was quiet, shy, and probably a little prissy. She went barefoot, wore plaid boys’ pants, and tank tops; I wore matching flowered shorts sets, jelly sandals, and ponytails. “Even though we aren’t rich,” my mother used to say, “my kids are still going to look nice.” She sewed all our clothes on her old Singer sewing machine: ginghams, checks, stripes—a mayonnaise jar of buttons. I can still see her now with a tape measure strung around her neck, thread held between her teeth, hands absently fingering through an old Sucret’s tin of straight pins.
Right away, Arlotta and I became friends, would walk arm in arm down the tiny gravel street between the trailers, and would talk down all the rich girls in school. But one day she simply vanished. The door to their tiny blue and white trailer was left hanging wide open, and everything was gone. I remember poking my head in the door and seeing the depressing dark paneled walls, the dark green worn carpet, and smelling a rich corn-like odor, like burnt tortillas. Two days later, I watched a big red semi-cab pull the tiny house away. That’s how it was in the trailer court: a place to stay until something better came along, even though our family lived there from the time I was six until I was twelve. Memories, blazoned.
* * *
As I got older, I felt a great need for solitude and separate space, which the skinny crackerbox trailer didn’t allow. It was a 14’ x 70’, one of the bigger models, but had the linear set-up of a long train car, cramped and narrow. I was forced to share a bedroom with Amy, a tiny cave at the very end of the trailer, which overlooked the public cemetery. I was cruel to her—I remember this with regret—and insisted on drawing boundaries to keep her out.
One cold winter day, school had been canceled because the plows couldn’t get out to the roads. We had all listened to WCCO around the kitchen table, until finally ours was announced. “Arlington-Green Isle, public and parochial, will be CLOSED. Repeat, will be CLOSED.” I jumped up, fists in the air: a whole day to myself to read and dream. My parents both bundled up and pulled on felt-lined snowmobile boots, then set out, grumbling, for their jobs, on foot. Still in pajamas, I ran back to my room and dove back under the covers, book split open, pages down, to where I had left off. But Amy wanted my attention. She bounced on the bed, sang me songs, tickled my feet, brought me juice and spilled it, all of which sent me into a prepubescent hysteria.
Without saying a word, I got the roll of masking tape from the junk drawer in the kitchen, unraveled a sticky, fishy-smelling strip of it as far as I could pull, and ran it down the very center of our room: down the dark paneling, across the Raggedy Ann quilt on our cast iron bed, down over the mustard shag, and back up again on the paneling. “You have to choose,” I said, “which side you want.” Amy was about eight years old; I was eleven or twelve.
“But—” she said, nervous. One side had the closet, full of The Sunshine Family and Barbies; the other side had the door, a way out. “You pick,” she said, jumping back and forth over the tape-line on the bed. “I don’t care.”
“But, Amy,” I said, exasperated, “you have to care. This is important. We each have to be individuals.” I leaned against the closed door—thin, hollow, smashable—so my brother wouldn’t hear.
Amy leapt off the bed like a frog, her pale face freckled and chirpy. “I know!” she said. “How about you can have the whole room and I’ll just sleep here! I’ll come in only in the nights. Okay, that’s what we can do.” She stood in front of me, hands crossed at her chest.
I almost fell to my knees, sad and torn. There was no dignity, I thought, to being poor. I left her in there and spent the rest of the afternoon in our scrunched-up living room under the afghan, watching it snow. I fantasized heavily about my girlfriends’ big houses on Main—solid, wooden staircases, stained glass windows above the front doors, thick painted windowsills where their moms would set leafy spider plants and fragile Precious Moments statuettes.
I wanted that, too. I wanted a house that was cemented to the ground, to stay, not one that was on wheels, like ours, propped up on cinderblocks, as if poised and ready to roll away.
I lay reading the rest of the day, my head hanging off the edge of the couch, my legs jacked up high in the air. My brother watched stock car racing on TV, my parents at work. Outside, the wind howled and blew icy, sculpted snowbanks against the aluminum siding of our trailer. We could hear precipitation glazing onto the metal.
* * *
School offered some solace, though at the same time, further cemented in my mind the division between the haves and the have-nots. Consequently, I was an excellent student. I learned at a young age how to be very quiet; I was good at it, and found protection in silence. If I didn’t speak, no one would notice me or the fact that I lived in a trailer, didn’t have a telephone, wore homemade clothes, and got free government-issue lunch tickets because my parents made below-poverty-level income. From my own self-created distance, I could observe people better, and study their behavior.
In fifth grade, I actually began taking notes about people—I don’t know why or what for, but I derived great pleasure from my secret observations. “Today Mindy wore rust corduroy Levi’s and a pearly-buttoned western shirt. Her hair is long and thin, like mine, but she has no bangs. I think she should have bangs. Her face is round and flat, and bangs would make her softer. When she laughs, she always puts her hands on her hips, making her seem kind of like a mother. She lives on a farm in a Brady Bunch style house, and all the kids have pig noses. Her body is long and wavy like a noodle.” I kept the notes stashed in the back pockets of my jeans, and when I got home each night from school, I would paste them into a large notebook labeled, “Stories.” I can see now I was probably soothing myself from my own unfulfilled desires, but in a way, also storing up a hoard of details to be used later on.
In sixth grade, my big lemon-headed teacher, Mr. Hultgren (also wrestling coach/driver’s ed instructor/German club leader) read us a book a month, out loud, “to teach you the value of listening,” he said. Where the Red Fern Grows. Little Women. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Go Ask Alice. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (which properly shocked and intrigued me). Being read to every day, hearing his gruff but gentle voice float words across the room while the radiator hissed and filled the room with sleepy warmth, triggered something in me. I watched snow hit the windows and slide down like spit. Cars looked fierce and foreign on the street. Images became acutely clear, as if I had been given new eyeglasses, and could see the outline of bricks for the first time.
My note-taking was brought to new heights by adding flips of the imagination. I would watch Mr. Hultgren read to us, and simultaneously would fabricate his inner life and destiny in my notebook. “You wish you had not married your wife, Marie, but your college girlfriend, Sylvia, who got pregnant by someone else while you were still dating her. You said you could never forgive her, but now you can’t forget her. Your favorite food is canned peaches, even though everyone else thinks they’re gross. Your worst fear is being paralyzed from the neck down.” He never caught me at this, thank god, but continued giving us novel after novel, month after month—days of fictional exploration for me.
In seventh grade, Mr. Hislop taught our class speed reading, and I’ve never read the same since.
In eighth grade, my math teacher, Mr. Grove, was old and deaf and pretended to descend stairs behind his desk: a crowd-pleasing optical illusion. I did poorly in math.
In ninth grade, I discovered theatre, and fell in love with the gift of pretending I was somebody else.
In tenth grade, horror and tears. My parents couldn’t afford driver’s education classes for me, and thus, even though I was sixteen, I couldn’t get my license. My ticket to acceptance had been torn to shreds. I told my parents I would starve myself. I talked to no one. I didn’t go to school for days, but my father, aware of my complete and utter depression, took me out driving late one night in his rust-red VW Bug. It was a stick shift and I was bad at it, but once I got rolling on the highway—cool, soybean-field air whipping through the windows—we both relaxed. The lights of town faded in the distance, and the only sounds were wet, black crickets chirping in the ditch, and the puttery tremble of the backload engine.
“Yep, this is the life,” my father said, then yawned and lit up a cigarette. It glowed, a small orange disc in the dark, and crackled when he inhaled. It wasn’t exactly the life I had in mind, but I didn’t want to, simply couldn’t, break the moment. He was doing the best he could. And then we ran out of gas.
* * *
By this time, we had at last transcended the trailer court and had moved to a big, old, and somewhat decrepit five-bedroom Victorian house on Main Street on a corner lot. It was over one hundred years old and, I later learned, went to my parents for the insanely cheap price of $14,000 (even though, unable to get credit or a loan, they had to borrow it all from my Grandpa Pader). The house felt like a savior to me—finally solid ground, a real wooden door, a sprawling front yard, and the biggest and oldest tree in all of Arlington, a monumental maple, in front of which all our prom, high school graduation, and Easter photos were taken. My bedroom, which I thankfully did not have to share with Amy, was painted pale peach, and had long, narrow windows with wavy glass that stretched all the way from the ceiling to the floor; the walls slanted in on both sides like a barn. The floor was gray linoleum, but I vowed to myself that soon it would be covered in sweet, plush, lilac carpeting. I also would have the walls papered in a violets-and-green-vine-on-cream design. I would get all white furniture, instead of the hodge podge garage sale stuff I owned in black, green, and beat-up browns.
I remember sleeping there that first night, in the heart of a fierce January blizzard, and feeling, for the first time in my life, truly sheltered, cocooned, protected on all sides by old weathered planks of wood, puffy scratchy lengths of insulation, smooth horse-hair plastered walls, and underneath it all, a solid cement foundation holding it steady. Nothing could get me. I was not poor anymore. I couldn’t sleep that night for hours, but lay there gazing at the streetlights and the wet, lonely street.
But the house was old. After weeks of adjusting to its new owners, the house’s little nuances began to emerge. Bats in the summer. An uneven, sloping kitchen floor. A bathtub, no shower. Astronomical heating bills. Separate faucets for hot and cold, and thus, no warm water. Painted shut windows. Broken this, falling-apart that.
* * *
My parents, never having enough money to really, truly repair and remodel, offered slapdash, jury-rigged solutions, which my father was famous for. In fact, after the barber shop was closed for good, and after the defogger broke down in his old Plymouth, he yanked out the dashboard, installed his old barber shop neck vacuum, and arranged it so that the snakelike, quivering white tube blew cool air onto the windshield. Amazingly, it worked, even though it wasn’t exactly pleasing to the eye, and looked like some sort of secret intelligence submarine radar device. The same went for our house, in which could be found countless duct-taped fix-jobs and utility-stapled hold-togethers. Even from the outside, chipped white paint flaked off the house like snow in every season.
I lived for the solace of my room, which, oddly, did not have an actual door. There were many attempts made: colored beads, an old quilt nailed over the frame, a vinyl accordion fold-open, but for some reason, perhaps the frisky den of cats my mom has always kept around the house, the doors never survived too long. But I tried to make the room a home. I’d inherited the cast-iron bed I used to share with Amy, as well an old white painted dresser with black knobs. The best piece of furniture, though, was a small white study desk with a dainty, matching chair that used to belong to my mother. She said I could use it to write all my “big stories.” When we set it up in my room, facing the southern windows and all that flooding sunlight, my mother ran her hands over the desk top as if it were a baby or a work of art. It had been hers since she was a little girl. “You know,” she said, “I love this desk.” Or something like that, which I promptly ignored and shooed her out of the room. The lilac carpeting and floral wallpaper never materialized, but my mother did find me a small lavender desk lamp, and I spent many hours hunched over its small pool of light at the white desk, writing stories and papers at the desk, hoping to emulate my beloved idol, Truman Capote. And my bookshelf, although small, was packed with new library books every week. In the end, there was always the privacy of words to get me through the worst, and it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve since become an English professor, still taking refuge in thick paperback novels and scribbled, frantic pages of notes no one but me will ever see.
* * *
Several years ago, after getting our master’s degrees, my husband, Mark, and I had a yard sale in Ohio, and sold all of our things, making ourselves mobile for a year in China. A group of women showed up before the advertised 8:00 a.m. start time, and began rummaging wildly through our stuff. They instantly laid claim to the big pieces of furniture, while Mark and I, hungover and scrambling for coffee, called out random prices from the kitchen window. One woman, a young mother, was thrilled to get my small desk and matching chair for a wondrous twenty dollars. She drove away, smiling and waving, with the furniture roped down in the back of her little red truck. Surprisingly, I felt no loss. I watched our secondhand couches, chairs, and dishes disappear without a trace. Mark and I slept that night, four hundred dollars richer, on sleeping bags in the living room of our empty rental house, without even a fan to cut the heat; that had been sold for five.
Later, as we were loading up the Datsun with our minimal possessions, my mother called from Minnesota to see how things were going. “I hate to ask,” she said, “but do you think you could throw that little white desk and chair on the luggage rack of your car or something? It’s just...well, my parents gave that to me when I was twelve and I told them I wanted to be a writer. It sort of has special meaning to me. But if you can’t fit it, it’s no big deal…”
I froze, stunned. I had no idea of the desk’s importance to her, or if I did, had figured it no longer mattered. I instantly felt a pit of regret in my stomach. Not only had I painted the desk many layers of high gloss forest green, but it now belonged to a strange woman in Ohio who I could never track down, even if I tried. In my haste to reinvent my life again, clearing out clutter to make way for a year of foreign travel, I had sold the desk off without a thought. Now, too late, I grieved: for her, for me, for the little bit of shared history we could not recover.
* * *
I currently have three desks in my study at home: one for teaching preparation, one for my own creative writing, and one for the computer and printer. I rarely think of my mother’s lost desk anymore; on rare visits back to Minnesota to see my parents, the issue thankfully never comes up. The importance of the desk has eroded over the years, but what has not eroded still creeps its way into my consciousness, under my skin, inside my heart: the unshakeable feeling of being poor. I thought that once I’d reached a certain level of escape from the poverty I used to know, there would come a certain transcendence. Perhaps for a while there was. Or perhaps it was fun to pretend I had become someone new. But I felt, and continue to feel, as if I will always be “found out.” Case in point: as soon as I began my position here in upstate New York as an English professor, an older Shakespeare colleague asked my husband and me to go sailing on his yacht on Lake Ontario. This kind, congenial man had no idea of the weight of this invitation to me. Flustered, I said yes, then panicked. “But I’m a trailer court kid!” I wanted to confess. “I don’t know how to yacht!” We ended up going, fudging our way through, but the day was as filled with worry as it was with pleasure for me.
Years later, things continue to emerge and unsettle. Just the other night I was at a small, intimate dinner in honor of a visiting poet, a Renaissance scholar and prize-winning intellectual with small clear eyeglasses and fine linen clothing. As we spooned our soup politely, talk turned to all the time everyone at the table seemed to have spent in Florence, Italy. I had never been there—have never been to Europe at all (to be fair, yes, I have traveled and even lived abroad, but only in Third World countries—alas, my penchant for and comfort with poverty). I focused in heavily on my soup, but it was French onion, and I hated onions. I wanted to melt into a puddle and disappear. As everyone continued to talk about Florentine art historians they knew, I realized that no matter how hard I tried, there was simply no entry for me into the conversation. I wanted to say, “Look, the reason I’m not contributing anything here is because I have never been to Florence and am actually feeling pretty trailer trash because of it, so if you’ll excuse me.”
Of course I did not say this. I’m good at covering, dodging, redirecting conversations to more all-inclusive topics, but occasionally the limitations of my class background still pop up, and when they do, I can feel my face flame with shame and my heart pound. I long to be an anti-intellectual at those moments—denounce my PhD, my connection to academics, and talk about silly inconsequential things like movie stars, television programs, and simple local gossip.
When I was in The Peace Corps-Philippines, I hooked up with a group of Filipino artists, writers and musicians, and ended up playing guitar and writing my own songs. One of my early attempts was called “Poverty’s String,” and although I could not for the life of me recreate the chords anymore, I clearly remember the chorus was about the “cost” and loneliness of being poor, the “string” that is forever tied around us.
It strikes me now, all these years later, that I had a lot of audacity singing about how poor my family was when all around me the poverty was rampant, extreme, even fatal. But there was an affinity and an understanding between me and those artists that I haven’t felt since. I feel they “got” me and I “got” them. Here, back in my own country, my allegiance is uncertain. I cannot go back to the trailer court; I have driven past the very lot where our trailer used to be parked, and felt nothing much more than tired when I saw a new beat-up trailer with thick plastic flapping over the windows in our space. But I cannot seem to assimilate fully in the world of the well-heeled and the sophisticated either. Somehow, I always think, people will know, and in an odd way, I want them to. But I don’t. But I do.
Recently, someone wrote a newspaper article for the Rochester paper about people who have lived or live in trailer courts. I was interviewed, and found myself giving up details freely, talking about it with an almost spirited sense of freedom. Not long after, I was at a dinner party of academics and intellectuals and was introduced to a woman I had never seen before. Surreptitiously, after she heard my name, she pulled me aside and talked furtively to me. “I read that article,” she whispered. “I can’t believe you outed yourself.” She, too, had lived in poverty, in a trailer court, but had married up, moved to a wealthy suburb of Rochester, and effectively buried her past. There was a sense of longing in her eyes, but also a wariness: how could you? She had become a scientist with hard edges, though I could sense a softness in her, a fragile warmth. We parted amiably, but did not exchange phone numbers or even pretend that we might get together. I find myself thinking of her often, and wondering why she’s still trying to hide. But of course, I know.
This is how it is: the pall lingers, the shadow lurks. Even now, when the wind blows hard against my big house at night, when the windows shake and tremble in their sashes—I keep my eyes open in the dark, waiting.