Overhead, the blue sky hung, thick as a quilt; like tufts of cotton, the puffy white clouds dotted the sky on that hot summer day. In the air around me, the scent of fruit rotting in the nearby orchards assaulted my nostrils. I scrunched my nose up as a swarming fly zoomed in for a landing and I pushed down harder on the pedals of my bicycle, eager to reach my destination.
It wasn’t every day that I got such an unexpected reprieve -- an afternoon to hang out with my friend Casey Ayers -- and I didn’t want to waste a minute of it. Casey and her four siblings lived just down the road and around a corner from our house, probably less than a quarter of a mile. Sometimes it seemed to take forever to get there, but today, for some unknown reason, the wheels of my bike didn’t sink into the hot asphalt. Instead, they smoothly sailed along as if my bike tires had sprouted wings.
I rounded the last turn in the road, catching a glimpse of Casey’s blond curls pulled back in the familiar ponytail; I waved ecstatically. She jumped down off the fence and ran toward me, her mouth agape to release her shout of greeting. I pulled into the yard and jumped off the bike, tossing it down against the bushes that jutted out near the stoop. We hugged and then ran quickly through the back door and into Casey’s room, tucked away like a lean-to in back.
As the oldest girl, she had the biggest half of the room, divided from her younger sister’s space by a thick curtain hung on a rod. But today, her sister Cary was nowhere in sight. We threw ourselves onto the bed in a burst of glee and immediately started whispering our secrets to one another. At twelve, we had our whole adolescence ahead of us and we couldn’t wait for all the excitement to begin.
We read Casey’s latest issue of "Seventeen," oohing and ahhing over the outfits, the hairstyles, and the makeup. Her eyes huge with anticipation, Casey opened a top drawer in her dresser, showing off three different shades of lipstick lying neatly in a row, just waiting to be sampled.
After we’d tried all three shades in turn, examining our faces with the lights on and then with them dimmed, we finally set them aside, satisfied with our experiment.
One of the best things about Casey’s house was her mother. Mrs. Ayers didn’t bother us…not ever. She stayed in the front part of the house, doing whatever she was doing…Cleaning or sewing or baking. When she made cookies, the scent wafted down the hall to us, beckoning us out to the kitchen. Then, and only then, did Mrs. Ayers appear, wearing a big smile as she placed a big plate of cookies and a pitcher of milk on the table. Then, disappearing into still another part of the house, we were on our own again. She really respected our privacy.
Sometimes we watched TV in the living room while we ate our snacks.
After a blissful afternoon of just hanging out with Casey, I rode my bike more slowly back toward my house. Like a magnet sucking me backward, I had to fight against the pull away from home and back to Casey’s, where the scents of baked goodies and the cozy warm voices still hung in the recesses of my mind, enticing me. Ahead of me lay the heavy darkness of Father’s stormy moods, mixed in with Mother’s nervous silence as she rushed around to try and head him off at the pass. And we’d all be called into service. Trying to keep Father from going into one of his full-blown tantrums, we scurried about like so many mice trying to appease the cat.
On most days, I had to babysit my three-year-old brother Kevin. Not that watching him was such a chore, really; he was actually pretty cute and his adoration felt kind of neat.
He’d follow me around, hanging on my every word, and calling out: “Look, Sylbie, see my tower! I can make it bigger. Look!” Or, “please, Sylbie, push me higher in the swing. I want to fly!”
He couldn’t say my full name, Sylvia, but I kind of liked his version.
I rounded the last curve in the road and on the final stretch, I stood up in the pedals to move myself along faster. I might as well get back and face whatever waited for me.
I strained my eyes toward the front of the stucco ranch house as it came into view, but something was off. I could see Mother running around near the edge of the bushes, calling out something, her frantic movements clearly visible as I pulled into the driveway. And behind her, Father stomped, his face glowering, and when he caught sight of me, he yelled. “Sylvia! Where is your brother? And where have you been?”
My heart in my throat, I braked, dropping the bike where it landed.
Running toward Mother, I felt the roaring in my ears…that sound signaling horrific events to follow. “What’s the matter?”
But before Mother could reply, Father approached, glaring and shouting: “Your brother is missing, that’s what! And you…What were you doing while this was going on? You know that it’s your job to keep track of Kevin in the afternoons. Now, because of your irresponsibility, he could be hurt…Or worse.”
“But…” I started to sputter out my defense, but Mother pierced me with a glance.
Puzzled, I stopped in my tracks, but a familiar feeling of betrayal sprang up. So, this was how it would be, then. Followed by a calm acknowledgement of reality. Meanwhile, we all started searching, including my older brother George, who at fifteen, worked days in the fields helping to bring in the crops.
Father jumped in the pickup truck with George and they took off down the road. I started searching in all of Kevin’s hiding places, from the old fig tree out back, the one with low welcoming arms and those big bulging knots on the trunk that offered purchase for little feet. Down beyond the small family orchard of trees, the ground sloped, and there the irrigation gate yawned, a magnet for curious little people; as I approached, I closed my eyes, whispering a small prayer as I peered down inside. When I didn’t see him there, I sighed gratefully and pushed on.
Over to the left, on the side of the hill, George and I had dug foxholes one year, proud of ourselves when we’d achieved a hole deep enough so that we could hide inside. But when I’d descended into the hole, clutching my favorite doll, George had hooted me out of there: “No dolls allowed,” he’d declared, even as I cringed at my banishment. Of course, later that night, we’d both gotten a whipping from Father for messing up the smooth hillside.
We had to fill the holes in before we went to bed that night.
Remembering those foxholes, I checked, just in case Kevin had gotten a similar idea, even as I told myself that he was way too little to do anything like that.
I guess that it must have been an hour or so later that the neighbor boy, Ralph Coventry, came riding up with Kevin on the handlebars of his bike, waving and shouting. But it felt like much longer. And when we saw Kevin, looking unhurt…dirty, but apparently none the worse for the experience…We breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Of course, I knew that my punishment would be long. But the relief at seeing Kevin again took over and I felt the big knot in my throat slowly disappear. We listened to Ralph’s story of how he’d found Kevin on the side of the road a short distance past Casey’s house and halfway to the canal, and how he’d been crying frantically. Ralph told of how he’d chased away the four bigger boys who had pummeled Kevin, scaring him half to death. And each of us must have had the same thoughts: If not for those same bullies, Kevin might have made it to the canal. Where he’d planned to look for frogs.
So, as Mother gave Kevin his bath, settling him in for the night, we thought all was well. And even though I still raged inside at being blamed for the mishap -- since I’d had Mother’s permission to go to Casey’s house -- I thought: Well, at least he wasn’t hurt badly. Everything will be okay.
But the next day, when Kevin came to the breakfast table, he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) speak.
My parents, being who they were, didn’t seek professional help. Not even when the muteness went on for a week, then two; and finally, in September, we all went off to school again, leaving Kevin behind, alone in his world of silence. It was almost as if life had gone on without him and everyone just started to accept that Kevin didn’t speak anymore. Like he’d acquired a limp or something. My parents’ only response was to submit regular prayer requests at church.
Looking back on that time in my life, I would come to have two thoughts about it all. Oh, yeah, that was the year that Kevin stopped talking; and that was the year that Father really started hating me. The two events were forever after inexplicably connected in my mind.
And then, suddenly, about four months after the events of that summer day, Kevin spoke.
He said nothing that would explain his mysterious silence for all those months; after all, he was still too little to really understand much of anything. But just as suddenly as he’d stopped talking, he resumed his language, almost as if he’d taken up where he’d left off.
His first words were “Sylbie, please get me a drink of water.” We were so happy and excited and joyful -- and from that day forward, after I’d hugged him tightly, giving him the biggest drink I could find -- I vowed that I’d never again resent my chore of watching him. And I became the eagle-eyed big sister, checking on his whereabouts like a sentry guarding the troops.
Nothing would ever again happen on my watch!
Nobody talked about that day afterwards, not even about the fact that Father blamed me. But it was something that I felt whenever my parents looked at me. Eventually, I wore the guilt like an old familiar sweater.
I saw Ralph at school every once in awhile, and there was something about the way his eyes slid away when we ran into each other; something about his mannerisms that bothered me.
I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe he was just embarrassed at the hero label we’d pinned on him that day. As I watched him slouching around the hallways, his head down and his hands shoved into his pockets, I thought to myself that he was such an unlikely hero, after all. He was the kid who ditched school regularly, who was caught smoking behind the gymnasium, and he kept the teachers off balance with his surly attitude and his even more troublesome behavior.
He fought all the time with other kids, and finally, as we were starting eighth grade, he was kicked out of school indefinitely for smoking weed.
I didn’t see Ralph again for another couple of years, and by then, he’d been in juvy twice.
By the time I started high school, Casey’s family had moved to New Mexico. Jeri Beckett took on the role of my new best friend, with her bright red curls and freckled face, her glasses sliding down her nose whenever she got excited. She was a scramble of arms and legs in perpetual motion. I’d known her for years, actually, but we’d had a falling out in seventh grade. Now I couldn’t even remember what it was all about. But starting ninth grade, after a long summer of work and no fun, I felt so ready for something familiar…Someone I used to trust. And Jeri filled the bill.
As we walked along the corridors hugging our books and chattering nonstop about everything and nothing, I felt real again. As if I belonged. And every once in awhile, I rode the bus home with Jeri to her house where we curled up in her room secretly reading True Confessions and giggling. And her mother, like Casey’s, hovered near the edges of our world, coming forth with snacks and dinner on TV trays, and then disappearing into the background.
Like some kind of perfect TV mom.
One morning in late fall, I walked toward the high school from the bus stop, shielding myself with my stack of books as the wind bit through my lightweight jacket. As I hurried forward, my head down, I ran smack into a tall figure approaching from the opposite direction.
I stopped dead in my tracks as my eyes slid over the imposing specter of Ralph Coventry.
He grinned at me, but it felt like a leer as his eyes skimmed over my body, and feeling naked and exposed, suddenly, I hunched up in my jacket, clutching the books to my chest even tighter. “Why, if it isn’t little Sylvia Barbour! Who let you out of the tower today?”
Feeling my face turn bright red, I defensively shot back. “Well, Ralph, who let you out of juvy?”
Now it was his turn to look embarrassed, but instead, he shrugged and pulled a cigarette from behind his ear, leading my eyes to his slicked back hair and tough, bad boy exterior. Then, in one swift motion, he pulled a match from some other hidden place and I watched in fascination as he cupped his hand and expertly lit the cigarette. I found myself falling into place beside him, matching his stride, as we seemed to be headed some place, away from the school. By now, I liked the way his eyes trailed over my new curves, glittering with that suggestive dark secretiveness that lurked behind his eyes.
We turned in abruptly at the old diner, Harper’s, strictly off-limits, but Jeri and I had cast our glances at the screened-in front porch every time we walked by, secretly longing for a glimpse of what lay beyond those mysterious doors. We’d heard all kinds of stories about the place…In there, kids smoke and drink beer openly…There’s a back room for necking and playing pool…The owners turn a blind eye to all kinds of stuff.
Now I was about to find out! Ralph held the door open and I stumbled in. Even in late fall, the daylight outside was so much brighter than in these dimly lit rooms. But once my eyes had adjusted, I glanced around curiously, almost furtively. Inside, the front room contained long redwood tables and benches. A jukebox near the back wall blasted an Elvis tune and near the front, a small counter separated the main room from the small space where a large man stood operating the soda fountain. A haze of cigarette smoke curled upward and through this cloud I moved slowly toward the nearest bench and sat. Stunned, I swept my gaze around once more, just in case I’d missed something.
Then I searched for the doorway to the mysterious back room. In disappointment, I realized that there was no back room. Just this ordinary, rather unappealing front room. So much for the myth of the infamous Harper’s!
But I pretended to be impressed, anyway. Ralph slung his legs over the bench opposite me, still smoking his cigarette. He gazed into my eyes and then, almost like an afterthought, he chucked me under the chin.
“Wanna coke? How ‘bout a cigarette?”
I shook my head at first, but then, suddenly, a huge feeling of longing swelled up inside….Maybe I just wanted this place to be the way I’d always imagined it, some kind of den of iniquity, so I nodded. “Sure, I’ll have a coke…and a cigarette.”
He grinned then, revealing a broken front tooth, and as he lit the cigarette, handing it to me, I stared at it for a minute before slipping it between my lips. I blew out, watching the smoke curl upward. Then, in a burst of bravado, I inhaled. And coughed. Now Ralph threw his head back in a big guffaw, but as if to soften his mockery, he chucked me under the chin again. “It’ll get easier,” he promised.
He ambled toward the front of the room and I watched his swagger, fascinated.
When he came back with the cokes, I sipped mine slowly and tried another hit off the cigarette. I liked the harshness and the pungent flavor of the tobacco and I felt so bad. I felt braver, then, and started chattering away as Ralph silently smoked, occasionally sliding his eyes over my face and downward. I shivered inside and for a brief moment felt a little clutch of fear.
But there was something I wanted to know. And maybe Ralph had the answers.
“Ralph,” I began, keeping my eyes focused on the glowing end of my cigarette and concentrating on the inward pull as I inhaled. “What really happened that day? You know, when you found my little brother by the side of the road? I always thought there was more to the story….”
He averted his eyes quickly, narrowing them into little slits, and when he looked back at me, he studied my face as if searching for hidden danger. And then his face changed, flattened, and he casually responded. “It was just like I said, back then…I found him, with those boys beating him up…”
“But there must have been something else that happened,” I persisted. “I mean, Kevin was, like, traumatized for months afterwards. Doesn’t that seem weird?”
Shrugging, his face darkened, successfully concealing whatever might be going on underneath.
“Maybe you shoulda taken him to a shrink,” he offered, and then his face clouded over, as if seeing something all over again. As if, somehow, it had all flashed before his eyes.
He swung his glance back to me and he lit another cigarette. As he inhaled, he slid his eyelids into this dreamy, half-mast position, and I thought he must be imitating some bad boy from the movies…James Dean, maybe.
Then, jumping up, he headed toward the jukebox and spent several minutes studying the offerings.
I watched him from that distance, with his bravado, his swagger and his whole persona, and suddenly, I caught a glimpse of something else about him. All that stuff he shows is just an act. Hot air and surface stuff. Underneath, who knows? A deep, dark secret, that’s what.
We listened to a couple of songs and then headed out of there.
A silence and a chasm of distance fell between us. We separated at the back fence of the campus, and as I waved in his direction, I saw his eyes closing off from me and he looked at me as if I’d turned into a stranger. Or, maybe, I’d always been a stranger to him. But just for a few minutes in that forbidden place on that fall day, we’d connected. And for a second, I’d caught a glimpse of the secrets churning up from deep inside, ready to be revealed.
But the moment passed, and the answers I sought continued to elude me.
Several years later, I hustled through the courthouse hallways where I now worked full-time, earning money for my part-time classes at the community college and buying time until my real life began. My job carried me from floor to floor of this ancient building. In the bowels, so to speak, I slipped out of the elevator, heading to the Coroner’s office that seemingly lurked in a dark, out-of-the-way basement space. Then upwards to the more prestigious offices of the Chief Administrator on the fourth floor, where I typed in my little cubbyhole, offering my services to whomever needed them.
My official assignment was to the newly created office of Civil Defense and Safety.
One day, entering the elevator heading upward, I saw a familiar face. It took a few minutes before I recognized Ralph. Long lank hair hung to his shoulders and a beard covered the lower half of his face. Only those same dark, slanted eyes peering out at me rang the memory bell.
I studied him surreptitiously, waiting for any sign of recognition from him, taking my lead from him. He couldn’t be in this building for anything other than trouble, I decided. The courts on the fifth floor, probably.
He seemed to be furtively studying me, as well.
And then the doors opened onto my floor, and hesitating for just a second, I stayed put. My curiosity won out and I decided to hang in there for the whole ride. When he exited on the fifth floor, I followed along, trying to look as if I had business up here.
“Hi, Ralph,” I ventured, watching for his reaction.
“Hey, Sylvia,” he responded, tossing his hair out of his eyes and peering at me with the vestiges of that old bad boy persona. “You work here, then?”
Nodding, I continued peering into his eyes, waiting for some kind of cue from him. He slouched, now, instead of swaggering. All of that bravado seemed long gone and I felt sad, somehow. “How have you been?”
“Same old, same old,” he replied cryptically. “So, do you have more questions for me today?”
Puzzled, I recoiled slightly, and then, as if the years had suddenly fallen away, remembered our last conversation on that autumn day, ‘way back in the late fifties, when we’d shared a moment in the “den of iniquity”. In all the years since, I’d occasionally brought out the memory, like the contents of a time capsule, reliving the moments and pondering the unanswered questions.
“No,” I shook my head. Somehow, that long ago time seemed best forgotten. My brother Kevin had gone on with his life; he seemed happy. All of us had moved past that summer.
“Well, you were right, you know.”
“What do you mean?” I studied him more closely, then, in this day in the mid-sixties, that misty time that followed the toppling of Camelot, characterized most distinctively by student unrest and campus protests. And I saw something else about Ralph that day. He had morphed into a totally new persona. His tough edges had softened into a harmonious essence, like a spiritual layer underneath his craggy features.
“Peace, sister,” he spoke then, apropos of nothing, and as if he could read my thoughts.
I waited for whatever revelation might appear, afraid, suddenly not sure that I wanted to know whatever Ralph had seen that day. Whatever Kevin had experienced might be best left hidden from view. “It’s okay, Ralph, I think I’d rather not know.”
He frowned, then, as if confused, but stubbornly pushed ahead. “Well, it’s been like a weight on me all these years, you know,” he rambled on. “That poor little guy, with all those boys pounding on him, and doing that terrible thing to him…” His face took on a glow, then, as if he were seeing some kind of vision. Gesturing with his forefinger and fist, he seemed to be struggling for the right words. “They, like, tried to do him,” he whispered finally. “But I think I got there just before -- they were just getting started -- but he was so scared, just lying there with his pants down around his ankles…” His eyes darkened and it looked as if he’d gone somewhere deep inside himself. Then, turning to me, he asked: “Is he okay, now? Has he ever talked about it?”
I shook my head, stunned, fighting with the odd buzzing sound in my ears and thinking: No, he didn’t just say what I thought he said. I struggled to shove the images aside, focusing instead on Ralph’s question. Now I wished that I hadn’t pursued any of this. “I think he’s probably forgotten all about it,” I spoke, managing to find my voice. “He’s happy, he’s in junior high, now. He’s a cool little dude.” As I said the words, though, a part of me stood back, assessing this new information and checking it all out against what I thought I’d known about my little brother. Superimposing these new facts, I shuddered. What had I done, then? Unfettered a sleeping giant?
Ralph had retreated to a place deep inside himself and he paused, looking away from me and toward a closed door. I could see now that we stood outside one of the courtrooms. Ralph turned to me, then, raising his fingers into the familiar peace sign. Then, wordlessly, he disappeared into the hall of justice where his own fate would be meted out.
I stood there, stunned by his revelations, shivering on the edge of this quandary. What now?
But I had been well trained by the family in which I’d grown up -- "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." In light of this new information, though… well, I thought about the psychology classes in which I’d enrolled at the local college, replete with all kinds of insights. And a warning flash, a red flag, seemed to pop up near my line of vision. But like the properly socialized member of the family group known as The Barbours, I stuffed the new feelings of anxiety and self-doubt down underneath all the accumulated layers of denial.
I wondered what had motivated Ralph to spill his guts at this particular moment. What could possibly have nudged him toward this revelation after his repeated denials in the past? There hadn’t been time to probe any of this, since he’d spoken and disappeared in a flash. Almost as if he hadn’t been there at all. Had I imagined the whole thing, then? Maybe he was on some weird trip. How reliable could his memories be, anyway, after all this time? And in response to the barrage of unanswered questions, I managed to push the information aside, treating it as unverified and therefore, possibly invalid. Yes, I reassured myself. There’s really no reason at all to believe anything that Ralph just said! And I sighed with something akin to relief.
And in the years that followed, when I looked back on that summer, the one so shrouded in silence, I puzzled over all the details of that day. I mentally reviewed the subsequent months with Kevin, locked away behind a veil of secrecy, literally silenced by the events of that day. And finally, I examined all the years afterwards and how my curiosity about those events had compelled me to probe away at the encompassing layers, finally releasing this unwanted burden. Did these unverified facts free me, then? Or did they only create more confusion and add to that niggling guilt under which I still suffered? Should I talk to Kevin about it, asking him if he had any memories from that day?
In the end, I pushed the decision away, promising myself I’d think about it tomorrow.
I only occasionally think of it these days. When I’m at a family gathering, I cast my eyes toward Kevin, with his lovely wife and two beautiful children. He looks happy and content. I don’t see any leftover angst, nor do I ever hear any mention of that long ago time. My own life is moving along successfully now, too. I have my own wonderful marriage and a beautiful teenage daughter Stephanie.
Most of the time, I gloss over my childhood, seeking instead to focus on the present and the future.
I bolster myself with self-affirmations, the new fad of our generation, and while we may still have our occasional self-doubts, we are the “Me Generation,” after all. Now in the eighties, as never before, we are flourishing. We have moved beyond the political activism of our youth, embracing these, the lucrative times of our lives. Acquisition of the bounty and satisfaction of our personal needs is paramount. Denial is worn like a second skin for some of us, especially those of us who are the graduates of the newly labeled “dysfunctional family.” We congratulate ourselves on our ability to put the past behind us, reveling in our newly discovered insights, which we wear like badges, along with our monetary successes.
Sometimes, late at night when I’m alone, the familiar anxiety resurfaces. But then I add up my gifts and delete the nagging images, shoving them aside into those dark, inner recesses of the mind.
I tell myself: We’ve survived, we’ve transcended the ghosts of the past.
We are golden.