We sit on the newly built front porch of one of the houses on my street—a street of squat, sided homes for people a step up from trailer living—behind the motorcycle dealership, the pawn shop and half a block from the Mission Mart. The porch winds around the front and sides of Abigail’s house and has cut outs of hearts and flowers. Abby’s own design.
All summer, she and her husband Scooter have been putting the porch together piece by piece, because they can’t afford to hire a carpenter. Late into the night, the whine of saws and the thump of nails keep the neighborhood awake. Sometimes music, the Smashing Pumpkins singing “1979,” or their daughters’ electric guitars screaming through open bedroom windows. When I moved to South Hill (the name of our little neighborhood; as in “Why would you live in South Hill?”), I saw the blond one in the street, juggling, her brother rollerblading circles around her in his Pearl Jam T-shirt. Outlaws in this road where everyone else tries so hard to be respectable and can only instead hide their alcoholism (Roger and Courtney next door), their thievery (Bettie, arrested for skimming from the doughnut shop where she worked for 10 years), their weirdness (Bobby, a 10-year-old on the corner who likes taking Polaroid snapshots of other boys’ butts).
I stick my feet up on Abigail’s unpainted railing and drink a beer. Beside me is Joe, who brought bratwursts from his night job bartending at the Pub I. During the day, he drives a school bus and works part-time at Mitsubishi while he waits to get on “the list” that will give him a union wage and benefìts. “Aren’t they great?” Joe says, when I bite into my dog and bun. “Didn’t I tell you?” Joe is balding and wears aviator frame glasses. He might be anywhere from 25 to 40; thin and pale and buffeted by so many gusts that he’s always blinking. His two sons, both under the age of 8, sit on the porch behind us, squirming like octopi as they eat from flimsy paper plates. His wife left him for a trucker, who left her for a waitress—and now she’s moved back in, according to Abby. “Poor Joe,” is Abby’s refrain. “Such a nice guy to be married to a bitch. She can’t be a woman, the way she abandons those kids.” The 5-year-old latches onto anyone, me included, clinging like fluff on a sweater. He does this now, tugging at my waist, leaving ketchup finger marks on my secondhand Liz Claiborne shirt. He’s light as the spine of a feather. Not substantial like Paige, my daughter, who fights with Abby’s son Clay over a chip that’s dropped on the wooden planks.
“Your daughter likes Clay now. Last week it was Ryan. She plays my sons for fools. And they love it. Why is it that they’re happiest when you’re toying with them?” Abby puts a hand on her big hip, draped with flimsy tie-dye. Her teen-ager daughters, progeny of the marriage with the rich lawyer, tell her she ought to dress like Mama Cass and come with them up to Chicago when they party with the Smashing Pumpkins. Nia, the youngest daughter, is said to be dating one of the Pumpkins, though she hasn’t yet turned 18. There was a picture in Rolling Stone, Nia moving down a sidewalk like a runway model, arm in arm with this musician who appears to be a china doll. Nia has decided not to go on to college, though she was offered a scholarship at the Art Institute. Instead, she’ll go into public relations.
“He wants to marry her, “Abby tells me. “I used to look like her. I used to be that thin.—Hey, Scooter! Didn’t I used to look like an actress? I looked like, who’s that girl on ‘Friends’?”
“I dunno,” I say. I never have time to watch TV; between my daughter, my fiance and grad school, time spirals away like graffiti down a toilet.
“Uh-huh.” Scooter exchanges a look with Joe before flipping a burger on the grill. They both snicker.
Nia gets out of the purple car shared by her and her sister, walks up the dirt yard carrying a sack. (The yard is dirt because, while the hearts are carved in the porch railing, the sod hasn’t yet been laid, or the roof redone, or the siding put on the front of the house.) Nia moves like a specter in ballet slippers; her hair is white and clipped like a smooth flapper’s hat, her shirt over white shorts is a shade of lime green never found in limes. Her brows are arched lines like those of a friend of my mom’s 30 years ago, her lips a bauble of pink. “School bores her,” Abby says as Nia coasts up the steps. “Bored me, too. That’s why I’m here with a master’s degree and four kids. The administration kept telling me how to teach.” Abby puts out an arm as Nia starts to pass. “Whatcha got for us?” she says, peering into the sack.
“Shoes,” says Nia.
“Why don’t you try them on and show us?”
“No thanks, Ma.” She keeps going, the door slapping shut behind her. A mottled cat in the kitchen window looks at me. It would all seem cozy, but for the boards propped beside the door, the chain saw on the ground, the sawdust. This is the second summer for renovations, the second summer I’ve lived here. I think they may have started the summer before.
“She’s a size 5. My feet were size 5 when I was in art school. I always went barefoot. I worked with the De Koonings. They came for a semester of workshops. I was the youngest in the class; I got out of high school early and was a protegee. A protegee. Smart as Nia. Smarter than Nia. I was a latter-day hippie, but I had to give all that up.”
Husband. Children. I know the arc of this story. When I was young, I used to think it was an excuse. My friend Daisy, never sending out her writing, never following her dream of schmoozing Toni Morrison in New York. “How can I?” she’d said. I have the kids. Megan, wife of a regional novelist, novelist herself, the novel never revised, never mailed, still living its lovely fantasy in a file drawer: four kids and a job as a reporter. And what happened next? When Daisy’s children grew, she was tired from working as a saleswoman to pay her debts, and wrote only chatty essays for the newspaper; and Megan devoted herself to a million causes and no longer needed to free those characters. The characters died; had died long before. Well, Daisy died of cancer. And me? I have a daughter now, and no husband, and am trying to take my comps, and have a monumental debt, but characters still come knocking, making their demands, and I can’t turn them away. I’m irresponsible. This is what I think as I look through the heart-shaped hole cut into this wooden railing. I live in a rental house. I’m “on the verge” of being engaged, which means I probably will be but might not be, to a divorced professor who lives in a rambling ranch house in Normal. I have to write my dissertation, and find a job, which may mean actually getting a job but might not. I have a mound of school loans and a kid who needs a suit for the swim team. I don’t know where I will live next year.
“I didn’t used to live this life. I had a house by the lake,” says Abby. “A beautiful home in the country. Brick. A screened-in porch. Five acres and from the living room, our bay windows, you could see the duck pond. I taught art at Knox College.”
Maybe we aren’t listening. We know this story already. Scooter sits on the raised steps, his feet on the dirt where more bricks will go. His dirty finger follows the carved imprint in a brick. 1910. He looks like a grown-up little boy, the way his blond hair enfolds his face like a bowl. He looks like his sons.
“He gave me everything,” Abby says. “And what’s the view here? The Pilgrim Heritage Church.” She waves her arm at the spare white house down the street with its hand-lettered sign and nothing even close to stained glass. The minister’s wife stands atop the church steps while her two daughters run along the sidewalk. All of them, even the wife, wear their long brown hair in two neat braids, without ribbons.
“They’re friendly enough,” says Joe. “The minister and his friend, they come help me move my branches when I trimmed the tree. So I helped them dig up that back lot for parking.”
“They ain’t bad people,” Scooter agrees. “Just got a little too much religion.” The minister’s wife looks over at us, then down into her tiny black purse, as if she’s searching for money or Kleenex. Then she closes it. I imagine I hear its snap, like my mom’s purses I played with as a kid, with the big ’50s clasps. And she stands with her gloved hands folded over the strap.
“Her ears are burning.” Joe wipes ketchup off his face with the back of his hand.
“They’re a bunch of wacko fanatics. A cult!” Abby laughs. “Wouldn’t be surprised if they’re in there praying to E.T.—Ryan!
Pick that bun up! Do you think I made this porch for you to get mustard all over it?” She walks over and whacks him on the side of the head.
“Yeah, you want mustard on it,” mutters Ryan, but picks up the bun. He sticks it on my daughter’s plate, to get a rise out of her. Paige slugs him.
“The church is all right,” I say. On Wednesday evenings, I look through the windows of my house and watch the worshipers go in and out. (Sunday mornings, my daughter visiting her dad, I’m at my near-fiance’s, lying in his big bed, both of us thinking about not being at church.) I’m always surprised by how loud they are, how their arguments carry down the block, and the sad awkwardness of the children when they play games in the vacant lot beside my house. In their white shirts, stiff dresses, they jut the plastic bat, swing madly at the whiffle ball like swatting at gnats. A friend who’s into true life murders told me that David Hendricks, off the hook for maybe possibly killing his family, had gone to that same church. I want to take the pious little girls into my house and cut their hair, let them wear jeans, and play Beck and Al Green so that they might learn rhythm. Are they allowed to dance? The girls in front of the church whirl like tops until they fall into piles of skirt on the sidewalk.
“Look at that house across the street,” Abby says. “What an ugly porch. They want a porch like mine. They want one an artist built, because they know I designed this. They used to live in a trailer court. They never went to school. My mother still calls and asks why I live this white trash life. Why are you with that man who works at Mitsubishi? Why don’t you teach at the university? It’s so’s I can raise my kids. And my husband is a good man. So what, he’s not educated.”
I catch a look at Scooter. But Scooter never speaks. He stares into the flames on the grill.
“We’re better than the trash across the street,” she says. “There’s not even any comparison.”
“My house is junky,” I venture. “I don’t own it.”
“But you’re going places.” Abby gets this glassy look in her green eyes. She squints at me, like she can’t see well out of her glasses. “When you get out of school, you and Paige can buy a house. Maybe that one. Maybe down the next block.”
But I won’t stay here. I’ll marry and move to the good part of town. Into Normal, the decent section of this doubled city, leaving behind Bloomington, rent, broken toys and the way I grew up. At my fiance’s, the beer’s in bottles. The bratwurst isn’t stolen.
The kids run off the porch like a pack of dogs, thumpthumpthump in big tennis shoes, to the vacant lot. “I’m it!” one yells. “You’re it!” In the neighborhood where my fiance owns his house, they don’t play tag. Or red rover, or hide and seek. The neighbors are old. The yards don’t go far enough. Flowers might be disturbed.
What’s the matter, Paige?” I hear one of the boys yell. “Don’t you want to get dirty?”
“Thing is,” Abby goes on, “my ex, Mister Lawyer, Mister Money and Good Life, he beat the crap out of me. Shoved my head through a window. I ran in my daughter’s room to get away. Never figured he’d follow me in there. But he did. He shoved my head through the window. See?” She lifts her brown bangs. There it is, a scar like a white thread lacing her forehead. “If the blinds hadn’t been shut, he would’ve decapitated me.”
I’m not sure I see the logistics of this, but I believe it. “A violent man,” Abby says, nodding calmly, like making an observation about soup. Oh, it’s hot. It’s got noodles. “An evil man. I was OK before that. He tried to keep the money. But I got support. Took him to court. Threatened to kill me. Said I was bad for the kids—in court, he says this. Not a good man. Not like Scooter here.”
Scooter nods: He’s heard it all. His eyes have deep bags, the only things that make him look his age. He looks at Joe. Maybe he’d like to kill her sometimes, too. That’s the look. It’s a joke. Joe laughs and sticks his feet up on the railing.
“You won’t be allowed that once I get this thing painted.” Abby swats at Joe’s feet.
“I guess I need more to do,” she goes on. “Once I finish this work. I could go back and teach. Like you. I was a good teacher. I got ideas. I’m innovative. I challenge kids. But this house takes up all this time. And Scooter. Working three jobs. What a hard-working man. Taking care of his kids. My mom doesn’t understand. So we don’t have money. So what.”
At the end of the block, the grown son of the Vietnam vet who owns the motorcycle shop revs on his Harley. Vroooom, a rage of testosterone. The son used to live next door to me, before he got kicked out for not paying his rent. He used to stand in his yard, looking toward my living room window.
He tears down the street. One of the kids jumps back from the curb.
“Charlie,” says Abby, shaking her fist at the motorcyclist. “His dad needs to put him on a leash.”
“Charlies gonna get himself killed,” says Joe.
“I’m going to do it, if he hits one of the kids,” says Scooter. Though he doesn’t look like he could kill bugs.
“Who needs money?” says Joe. “We have bratwurst.”
“Working people share.” Abby leans against the post, arms crossed, glasses sliding a little down her nose. Flecks of green paint dot her arms. “That’s why I watch Joe’s kids for free. The kids down the street. I give up my art for kids.”
And never has to leave her porch, I think. What would it be like, to spend a lifetime on a porch? Enclosed by wood, hearts and tulips? My grandma lived that way, in her country house with its chimes and flowers, its water pump because for awhile there was no running water. I grew up that way, enclosed by a family-built porch railing, listening to my aunt and mom and grandma gossip while they drank coffee, waiting for the men to pull up in their pickup trucks. Then the women would clean fish, skin the hunted animals, wrap the flesh in white freezer paper.
“So where you been keeping yourself?” Abby says. “We don’t see much of you.” Accusing. Abby is lonely. Starved for smart conversation.
“Well, I have to study for comps, and teach, and grade papers, and take Paige to swimming meets, and spend time with Doug and … ” I trail off. They’re all three looking at me enviously. Pissed. Like I’m showing off. On the way out. Working for the way out. Selling out. It’s not the union label. They’re working on their porch.
“You must be busy,” Abby says.
“It’s not that much fun,” I add. “I mean, it’s a lot of work. I’d rather be home, hanging out with Paige.” And I mean it. But yet. Being a kid: Long summer days of soaps, “The Match Game,” Bill Cullen, of novels I’d read five times because there was no getting anyone to make the drive to the city library. Of watching the heat shimmer in front of my face, listening to the lawn mowers, the water in the sink, the saw like the sound of the chain saw down here at Abby’s while my family put together its life, their porches, their cool places to sit. And then stopped. And looked at each other.
“I would love to stay here with you all,” I say, drinking the last of my Budweiser, which has that warm aluminum can taste that reminds me of summer. I put the can to my forehead. I have no air conditioning in my little house. I’m tired as Scooter who will be laying more brick before it gets dark. And my porch is leaning, and needs swept. My fiance’s house, it doesn’t have a porch, but looks directly out on a cul de sac. But his railing wobbles, which I find reassuring; like there will still be things for us to fix together, and to build—his good Normal life, it’s not so perfect. “But I have, you know, like this thing I have to write on,” I say, feeling as embarrassed and ashamed as I did as a kid when I left my family there to talk because their stories started sounding so much the same, and I needed, so much needed, new ones.
“I’m sure glad I don’t need to bother with that whole kiss-ass system,” says Abby, brushing her hair back from her forehead as she turns away. “Hey, Scooter, looks to me like you got that brick a little crooked.”
“Oh. What?” says Scooter, and he will fix it, and fix it again.