Imagine you are Wallace Stevens in North Park

A step closer to suburbia

He had hoped for a while that he would turn out like Wallace Stevens, plodding to the office every day, turning down the rides that neighbors in station wagons offered.
  • He had hoped for a while that he would turn out like Wallace Stevens, plodding to the office every day, turning down the rides that neighbors in station wagons offered.
  • Image by Russel Redmond

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when Army was playing Navy at one o'clock on Channel 10, but all the football talk was on the Chargers-Eagles game the following day, Mike Conklin was supposed to help some friends move their belongings from a grand apartment to a modest, first home. "Move Carrolls — 9:30 AM" was the note that Mike had scribbled on the calendar above his bed, the calendar he consulted many times a day, as though it were a friend or a roommate.

This year — 1980 — was the year in which Mike was going to decide if he should continue in his present line of work, free verse, or go full-time into bar-tending, or social work, or something. With only one month left in the year, he was still undecided. But one thing he'd learned, anyway, was the usefulness of a wall calendar in running his life. Each day's square was big enough for writing one or two appointments — no more. That kept the busy-work down. For this reason alone he figured the Cody's Calendar of Contemporary Poets was one of the best buys he'd ever made.

A yellow, lift-gate truck was abutting the lawn outside the shaded apartment. Chairs, cushions, lamps, looking sadly ordinary in the outdoor light, like street clothes in a dressing room, had been marshaled on the grass near the truck. From half a block away the scene was picturesque — a homestead under spreading leaves — but the sky had been smudged with distant brush fires in the previous few days, and Mike could see it was going to be too hot to enjoy the backdrop, unless it turned into something like that of a beer commercial, which was likely, but not for a while.

He arrived, somewhat late, to a greeting of standard jokes on how to avoid work. He winked at Donna Carroll, not with anything sneaky in mind, but because the two of them had chastely shared an apartment when they were new from college, and he could never see her without smiling*at the afterimage of her black-and-white place settings: the plates, saucers, cups, napkins, sugar bowls, and creamers. Nearly everything she owned or cared for was black and white, and it had occurred to Mike in one stoned moment that the woman, though not color blind, saw the world mentally in shades and not colors.

Her parents were there, of course, as were her brothers and her husband Jerry, a former ballplayer who looks a little like Pete Rose and a lot like Orson Welles. Mike enjoyed Jerry for the disgusted look he displayed at afternoon parties, when he would rather be watching a game and drinking beer from mugs he stored in the freezer. His afternoon wedding at La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla had been the first of several that had crowded Mike's calendar, this year especially, with a new sense of obligation and significance. It had begun when Donna accepted her vows with a ringing "I certainly do!" Her decisiveness had gotten a laugh from the audience in the heavy-timbered room, but from where Mike was standing, in the heat of a window, she had sounded less funny than triumphant, and he had not laughed.

"Want a beer?" said Donna as Mike entered what had been the dining room, empty now but for some potted cacti in the corner.

"Is there one?"

"Plenty," she said and jerked her head toward the refrigerator. He knew the way.

Loading the truck went fast as soon as the heaviest pieces had been moved, and everyone worked steadily at filling the cracks in the cargo. Jerry saw to it that his private store of wine went over to the house in his BMW; the television went in another car; the kitchen utensils in Mike's. Most of the men drove in caravan fashion, while Donna and her mother stayed at the apartment to finish cleaning, and Mike returned to his apartment for what he hoped would be a quick phone call to Laurie, his love.

He parked in a metered space and hoped for the best. The key in the front door, the chill, morning odor of the stairs, the paper his neighbor had dropped at his threshold were phenomena that got past his senses and then were lost. His strategy, as he was forming it on his final approach to the phone, was to apologize for not having called the night before, but to hold his unassailable excuse in reserve (he'd been working) and let her dig it out of him, make her appear at least to pry for it, and then stand aside while the weight of his righteousness tumbled past her like a runaway boulder. Then it would be her turn to apologize; the apology would be tasted and then accepted; perhaps she'd even take him out to dinner.

"Hello?"

"I'm sorry, Laurie."

"Where were you?"

As always, the crisis had come more quickly than he expected, and before he'd had a minute to recover his momentum, the ground beneath him had shifted and left him lying face down in the wrong. They talked for half an hour. That is, they made sincere noises about themselves and each other, and probably created some good between them, in the way that interesting words emerge in Scrabble, but who remembers them from one game to the next? He promised to call her later and apologized again. And then he hung up with the relief one feels after sitting through an examination, when it's too soon to care about the grade.

"Late again. Conk," somebody said when he arrived with the kitchen things and a case of Budweiser and Natural Light. As someone had mistakenly stowed the cable scrambler in Donna's car, there was nothing to do but unload the truck until the women arrived with the box that was needed to get a clear picture on the TV.

The unloading went faster than might have been expected, because Mike as well as Jerry knew the layout of the house. They and Donna were acquainted with the previous owners, and with the owners before them. Three couples had consecutively sold this house to one another, each taking the extra profit from the realtor's fee, and giving back a little on the price.

The house sits up from Juniper Street in North Park on a square of lawn girdled by pink cinderblock. The gables above the front door and window make the house look slightly exotic — English or Bavarian. The porch is smooth red concrete, the walls are loaf-brown, and the roof has a high medial spine with hips sloping fore and aft.

Mike thought it hadn't changed much from owner to owner. When he carried a box to the back of the house, his track shoes squeaking on the wooden floor, he looked into the rooms on either side for details left by the former occupants: wallpaper, an ornamental fan, windowsills painted in fruity colors. No — the house had hardly changed. It hadn't had time to, really; each of the couples had bought it for their first home and had kept it only a year or two. The first couple had traded up to a white ranch house with a swimming pool near Kensington (it was robbed while they were still moving in), and judging from the shrewdness with which they handled all their business arrangements, real estate being principal among them, Mike expected they were pleased with the move. The second couple had started their divorce this year. Thinking of other acquaintances, too, Mike had noticed that after buying a house, a couple's next choice was to trade up or break up. Perhaps this was because houses transform their owners and not vice versa; or at least they impose themselves sternly on the future.

Mike heard Donna's dad and brother talking loudly in the living room. He walked in to find them laying plans to move the front door and replace it with a picture window. He wondered if such a change would matter much compared to the change he expected to see in Donna when she nested within walls of her own. Then he took a beer from the refrigerator and wandered into the backyard, looking for something to do. Jerry was in a lawn chair, in the shade, asking advice on how to tear out the pepper tree. It was a question which Mike (who had no advice) took to mean that Jerry boy had already begun to transform into a different, familiar sort of creature.

He was turning into a suburban husband; that was the plain truth, and Mike dreaded to see it because he knew soon enough it would happen to him, too. Mike's trouble was that his schooling (he kept telling himself) had prepared him for something different. He had spent more than a few semesters abroad, had smoked Gitanes, had laid linoleum in the Dordogne, and had with no encouragement whatsoever read La Deuxieme Sexe — experiences which had left him with the sentiment that he should rise up like an orchid through the bog of his more distant past. He was, however, and he knew it, a thoroughly suburban guy. This slightly exotic house might someday be his house, and he might as well get used to the shrubbery, the sidewalks, the campers, the works.

Of course the suburban aura would sparkle if his poetry were good, for then he could claim to have worked against it in polishing his craft. He had hoped for a while that he would turn out like Wallace Stevens, plodding to the office every day, turning down the rides that neighbors in station wagons offered, until they knew not to offer any more, and all the while creating poems whose magic came forth in a footstep rhythm. But no matter where Mike lived, or how he tried to write, no editor bought his stuff. With the rejections, he had only begun to realize how tricky this art thing is, which calls on one to love so much that seems rotten and embarrassing.

This intimation was brought home to him during the Thanksgiving holiday, when he had driven to L.A. with Laurie. They had been getting along fairly well. He was on the verge of asking her to marry him, since she had gotten him to admit that nobody but her had been able to stand his childishness for four years running, and never would, because she loved him more than anyone. Moreover, he'd admitted that he was hooked on her loving, and then had extended the metaphor to the point where he was “flopping on the deck." His taking her home for Thanksgiving was tantamount to a proposal, in his eyes anyway, because this was his family's most important holiday, at which he had never appeared with anyone so portentous as a girlfriend.

The dinner was to be at his sister's house in Redondo Beach. As she'd moved there recently, Mike didn't know where it was and they took the wrong exit from the freeway, finding themselves in his old neighborhood. But there was no rush; they were three hours late for the meal. “Show me the house you grew up in," Laurie said, turning down the Billy Joel tape.

“Naw."

“But you're always talking about it."

“So?"

“So I want to see it. Please? I showed you mine."

“Ha. Your tract house with the filter-shack next to the swimming pool where you used to screw your boyfriends."

“Did I show you that, too?"

“Unimpressive, Laurie. Totally unimpressive."

"Then you have to show me yours," she said. “Be fair."

The house, he figured, lay in their general direction, and the next thing he knew he was judging which street would be best from which to approach it. He hadn't seen it in seven years, since his parents had sold it.

The stone pines bordering his high school had grown. His dad, a teacher there, had worn a fistful of keys on a chain that uncoiled with a zip and then snapped back. There was a feeling he used to get in the afternoon, walking home from school, that somehow had to do with the shadow of a chain-link fence, and he was getting the faintest sense of it again when he slowed for a yield sign that must have been new.

“I'm not going to like this," he said.

"What?"

"This is already a bummer."

"No it isn't," she said, kissing his cheek and clicking the front of her glasses against the edge of his. "Not for you. You love being depressed."

"Not funny."

"Then why are you smiling?"

"Shut up."

He rounded the last corner and pulled to the sidewalk. It was just as he expected.

"To elaborate is no avail, learned and unlearned know that it is so," he quoted.

"To this she made no reply.

"Whitman," he said — and turned to her.

"I can see which one it is," she said. "The adobe one with the four chimneys?"

He scowled at it: a wallet-size photograph. The house had once been shrouded in trees: saucer and cling peaches, a plum, an enormous mimosa. Someone had cut them all down.

"Everyone feels this way," she said lightly. "Think of all the people who go home and find a 7-Eleven or a Hoagey's where their houses used to be. You're lucky. Somebody just built an ugly apartment in your front yard."

"Seen enough?" he said.

"Have you?"

He pulled away and drove the car exactly in the middle of the street.

"You're taking up the other lane," she said.

"I know."

"Conk," she said, as tenderly as the name allows.

"Please don't make me explain my feelings," he said.

"That was mocking!"

"Listen, if you leave me alone, I'll cheer up in a minute. Is that a deal?"

"It is if you really do it," she said.

A minute later he said, "The thing that pisses me off is that I can't describe it." So she told him not to try.

Arriving late had the advantage of letting them eat in peace (they watched the end of the Dallas-Seattle game) instead of making conversation with the throng. The disadvantage was that there wasn't much beer left in the refrigerator, but Mike drank what he could. He told his sister that her house reminded him of a hen: white and squat, with protective eaves jutting from the sides.

"A hen," she said. "Right."

From what he gathered, it was hell living in an old house with no heater and with a garden hose where the showerhead was supposed to be. "And when I first moved in," she said, "I looked at the bedroom and went — 'Whoa, no! It's right next to the kitchen.' But now I like it. I made the landlady an offer but haven't heard back. Don't expect to, really. She's old and wants to keep the lot. Plus, the basement's full of stuff she's storing for her kids."

"Right," he said, setting his beer can down in the kitchen sink and looking at the trail of ivy in the window, the vine trying to root against the glass. Houses, he thought, keep memory from evaporating, like fixative in scent. When he looked back, he never saw an image of what he had been doing at a particular time; he saw a door handle, or part of a clothesline through a window. And where he had wanted his future to grow from what he had done, and nothing else, he knew that it would be forwarded from where he had lived.

Laura was brilliant at the party, as Mike had expected. He had a theory that many women possessed a reserve of energy that held their faces up at parties, and this accounted for the hardiness of political wives who were thoroughbreds of this type.

Laurie's cheerfulness lasted all the way home. As they were merging on the freeway in Hawthorne, Laurie exclaimed, "See that guy in the car next to us? I think I knew him in high school. But don't honk. I don't want him to see us. Oh my God — he's cleaning his ear again with his finger. That's him. He was always doing that in high school. Can you believe that? I can't believe it. Some things never change."

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