The year America turned two-hundred years old, my family quite suddenly slid about half a century backwards, to a time before indoor plumbing and universal electric service. Those things still existed for most other people–for everyone else I knew, in fact–but not for us. We lost the only home I’d ever known, half of a modest duplex on our little burgh’s Main Street, the rent for which, though only twelve dollars a week, had become somehow unmanageable. Grudgingly my grandfather (who hated my father for derailing the fortunes of his, my grandfather’s, oldest and most promising daughter) signed over, for the sum of one dollar, the deed to a sixteen-acre plot of land on a lonely dirt road, and a month after the great American Bicentennial celebration died down, my parents boxed up most of what we owned and stored it somewhere it would never be seen again, loaded the remaining absolute necessities into the back of my uncle’s truck, and veered off into the American Dark Ages.
Technically, I suppose we only slipped as far back as 1949: that was the vintage of the compact travel trailer that became our new home. It was manufactured by a company called M-System and, I found out many years later, in its day was marketed as “Thirty-three feet of modern American living.” It was just six feet across, which wasn’t at all unusual for “residential coaches” one might quite easily expect to tow behind a powerful, well-built American car on a trip to, say, the Grand Canyon in 1953. At one end of the trailer sat the convertible living/dining/kitchen area, at the opposite end a small bedroom, and in between, separated from both ends by sets of pocket doors, the master bedroom, which was comprised of a platform suitable for a full-size mattress beneath and above and across the narrow corridor from which were built an impressive array of cabinets and drawers and two slim closets. In its way, and depending upon your expectations, it was a model of efficiency. With its unique oval corner-wrap windows and laminate interior, I imagine it fetched a hefty sum the day it rolled off the lot. Considering that this period marked a stretch in which we were reduced to a single vehicle, I suspect my father traded his beat-up pickup truck for our new home (I offer this theory in anticipation of the question, “How ever did your father procure such a gem?”).
It was early evening when we left the now-empty old house for the last time. My father drove us into town, in the opposite direction from where I knew our new home to be, and took us all on an unannounced trip to McDonald’s. I remember we sat around one of the low outdoor tables while my mother went inside to order us food. She came out a short time later with one sack in her hand and a beverage carrier that held four small drinks. We each got a hamburger and an orange-drink, and my brother and I split one small fry while my sisters split the other. My parents didn’t eat. Ordinarily I would have relished this rare treat, but I was far too preoccupied. I can’t speak for my sisters and brother, but I hummed with excitement because this was the sort of wholesale change that couldn’t help but turn into an adventure–and because, to date, I had yet to experience anything entirely new that wasn’t also considerably better.
After dinner we drove around for what felt to me like more time than it should have taken to get to the new place, which may have simply been a trick of my ever anxious mind: profound impatience was my most consistent childhood vice. I suspect, though, that not only was I correct about our meanderings, but that it was by design: for obvious and uncomplicated reasons my mother wanted us drowsy almost to the point of sleep. When we finally did pull off the road and bumped our way slowly up through the field, it was full dark, the sort of dark you only find on moonless, starless nights in places far from the ambient glow of cities. There was no driveway, and so my father had to follow the headlights as they picked out the dual tracks worn into the matted hay by the few vehicles that had come this way of late: our car (twice), my uncle’s pickup, and the truck that had delivered the trailer. I could just barely make out the shapes of my sisters and brothers in the backseat beside me, their heads bobbing in slumber (not me, though: even then I was a superlative insomniac). At the top of the hill my father nosed up near the trailer door and left the car running, the headlights illuminating his way inside, where he lit a lantern. My mother roused the others and we followed her into the trailer and down the skinny hall, and without even the nickel tour climbed into our assigned bunks and accepted our goodnight kisses. I lay awake half the night, feeling too gypped to sleep.
All would be revealed in the light of day. Pretty much nothing in the kitchen worked as intended because we had neither electricity nor running water. For reasons that I’m sure made sense to my father, he’d had the trailer deposited in a spot as close to the woods and far from the road as possible, which meant the expense of sinking the requisite poles and running power lines from the road to the trailer far exceeded what little my parents could scrape together in that first year on the hill. We were also too broke to have a well drilled. Instead, we rinsed out gallon milk jugs and carted them down the road to my aunt’s house, filled them from her hose, then lugged them back up the road (the universe’s soul-crushing law that light loads go downhill while heavy ones must go up being in full effect). In place of a refrigerator, we kept perishables in a cooler that, of course, had to be replenished with ice constantly. My mother cooked our meals on a Coleman cook stove, the kind people take camping. For light, we had kerosene lanterns, candles, and flashlights, which we used sparingly because batteries were expensive. When the cold weather hit, my father fired up a small kerosene heater that to this day I still can’t believe didn’t kill us in our sleep.
Without running water, obviously, we had no bathroom–well, no conventional bathroom. In a sense, really, we had two bathrooms, as would befit a family of six. A few strides beyond the tree line into the dark pine forest behind the trailer, my father somehow managed to dig a deep enough pit, over which he constructed a simple platform with a hole in the center of it. He built a rickety bench, screwed a toilet seat to it, erected the remnants of an old tent over the platform–you know, for privacy, as well as a sense of style–and there’s your outhouse. Of course, this was Maine, where for at least a few months out of the year the prospect of dropping your pants to do your daily business with nothing but a torn and musty strip of canvas protecting you from the elements was less than ideal. As luck would have it, the floor space of the trailer’s back bedroom was slightly diminished by a tiny room, two feet wide by three and a half feet deep (oddly enough, roughly the dimensions of the desktop at which I am currently sitting as I write this) the designed purpose of which was in fact a bathroom. The fixtures had been removed by the time the trailer came to us, but no matter. My father managed to procure a commode intended to be used by the handicapped, the infirm–an aluminum frame that housed a plastic toilet seat, under which one simply placed a bucket. Inelegant, yes. As gross as gross can be, certainly. An effective stop-gap remedy, more or less. I can tell you this: rarely has a second-grader been more enthusiastic about getting his ass on the school bus in the morning, if only to poop in the comfort and convenience of the communal boys’ bathroom.
I’ll admit, there was a noteworthy downside to the bucket bathroom: it sat in the same room where my brother and sisters and I slept. Before we moved in, my father constructed two perpendicular sets of bunk beds out of scrap two-by-fours and plywood. Mine was the top bunk on the back wall of the trailer for no other reason than the fact that, at the age of seven, my scrawny frame was little more than half the thickness of my huskier siblings, none of whom would have fit comfortably in the space between the bunk and the built-in overhead cabinet. The rear window, which abutted my bed, had been shattered in transit and hastily boarded up with insufficient concern for water-tightness. I often awoke in soggy bedding, which I only mention because it means there’s no way to accurately gauge when I finally stopped wetting the bed. All the plausible deniability in the world means nothing: like Jimmy Carter’s confession regarding adultery, I have committed bed-wetting in my heart. Also in my bed. (I wish I could say that’s where the real shame lives in this story, but I can’t because it isn’t.)
I spent the first few weeks asking my mother, not just daily but incessantly, when I could expect to see my stuff again, specific stuff like my Fisher Price jumbo jet (and the plastic-headed wooden passengers and crew that went with it) and my SST replica of the rocket car in which Evel Knievel attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon (based on the performance of the toy version, I could see why he failed). Depending on the balance between her fraying nerves and that day’s array of necessary but nearly futile tasks, my mother’s responses spanned the range from “We’ll see” and “If you ask me that one more time I’ll make sure you never see any of your goddamned toys again!”
With the start of school approaching, I let myself believe the return to a comparatively civilized environment would conjure something approaching normal. But none of it–not seeing my friends, not dining on free hot lunch, not the relative comfort of radiated heat and well-lit rooms–left me feeling any better. I became a daydreamer and a loner (which I suppose is simply another way of saying I was on the road to becoming a writer). As day after day fell behind me with no glimmer of a change in our circumstances, I found myself more and more prone to spending my recess periods wandering the perimeter of the school playground alone, conjuring scenarios of miraculous windfalls: a long-forgotten rich uncle, a winning lottery ticket found on the side of the road, a benevolent millionaire who asks me for directions and is so impressed with the contrast between my shabby clothes and my grace and wit that he offers me a small fortune on the spot. Those were the sunny day fantasies. On my darker days (and there were many), I imagined my parents the victims of a horrible accident, and my subsequent adoption by a family with, at the very least, a working refrigerator and flush toilet. Even then I knew precisely what was wrong with entertaining thoughts such as that, but they crept into my head nonetheless and took on more than a hint of urgency as time wore on.
Two years after we moved up to the hill my mother gave birth to her fifth and final child, my younger brother, the one who would establish me, finally, as the middle child. Compact though it was, his crib consumed most of what little floor space we’d had in our already cramped bedroom. All things being equal, he was a pretty good baby, but that didn’t stop me from developing and nurturing an unhealthy level of resentment toward him: it was as though I’d been sitting in a slowly but inevitably sinking rowboat, and then somebody tossed me a cinder block.
A year after my brother’s arrival, we ascended from the M-System trailer to an adjoining tarpaper shack, connected to the trailer by a primitive plywood and timber breezeway with a not unexpectedly leaky roof. By then my father had been employed by the town for a couple of years, tending what we used to call the dump but which was officially referred to by the name that essentially clarified my father’s role there: landfill. Day after day the townspeople would back their cars up to the mound that had been steadily building since just after sunup and toss their household waste onto the heap, and at day’s end my father, in a massive Caterpillar bulldozer with front-end loader attachment, would push it all into a neat, compact pile and then cover it over with dirt. It was not by any stretch lucrative work, but for a man with an eighth-grade education and ambition to match, it was close to the best he could hope for. Between that, food stamps, and charity food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas, we managed to stay fed. We even scraped together the money for electricity and, if not exactly running water, a drilled well with a line running to an old hand pump bolted to a large porcelain kitchen sink that drained through a hole in the floor. The lone heat source was a rusty woodstove that was vented by a section of stovepipe that poked through an unsealed hole in the roof. My parents slept on the foldout couch downstairs, while my brothers and sisters and I slept on an assortment of creaky cots and slim mattresses in the loft. In the summer months the sun on the corrugated tin roof more or less baked the air right out of the upper floor, creating an ideal habitat for the sinister-looking black and brown wasps that would drop from the ceiling to nestle in our sheets. In winter, the upstairs frequently filled with smoke from the constant downdrafts spawned by the unchecked winds that blew down over the trees from the top of the field. The essence of my perpetual insomnia took on the quality of vigilance during our years in the shack, as now I was quite certain the means by which we managed to stay warm would constitute the manner in which we all perished.
People whose births fall shortly after Christmas often grow up with diminished expectations regarding their birthdays: after December 25, people are just worn the hell out. In poor families, people are worn out but also entirely tapped out. I was born ten days after Christmas, and as you might imagine, in those lean-to-leaner years my birthday took on an air of irrelevance, at least by the standard of what had once been my hope. But no matter how bleak things got, my mother would always manage to procure something, however strange or small, to wrap and present to me on my special day. One year it was a snap-together plastic model of a pea-green Edsel (can you imagine a more metaphorically appropriate discount toy?), another year a straw cowboy hat I proudly if unwisely wore to school in spite of the fact that it was sub-freezing early January. On my tenth birthday, my mother gave me a ceramic bank in the shape of a sad clown. It was cheap and poorly painted and thus easy to see why it had made its way to the super-discounted clearance shelves. Still, it was mine, and my mother had chosen it just for me, and so I loved it. Apparently my little brother admired it as well and pleaded with me to let him hold it. I told him in no uncertain terms that was not going to happen. I say he was a good baby, which he was, but as a toddler, he could be kind of a whiny dink sometimes. This was one of those times, and because our mother was standing nearby, washing the dinner dishes in quickly cooling water she’d had to heat on the stove, and because by that time in the evening her patience for anything short of complete acquiescence was nil, she barked at me to let my brother hold the goddamned thing. As I passed him the clown, I muttered just loud enough for my mother to hear, “He’s going to break it.” My brother stuck out his bottom lip as if to say, “No I won’t,” and, the briefest of instants later, his chubby fingers failed to match his bravado, and my clown bank shattered into more pieces than could have ever been glued together to make it whole again. To her credit, my mother owned her mistake immediately, promising over and over (as she simultaneously shielded my brother from my potential wrath and swept the shards into a dustpan) that she would get me another.
That was the day–the very moment, in fact–that I realized there are different forms, different qualities of belief. I had watched my mother work too hard, watched her do too much for us with too little, not to believe she meant what she’d said. And yet, I had seen too many pieces of what I thought was our life fall away to believe what she’d said was true. The toys and books and keepsakes that had been packed away never to be seen again were inconsequential in terms of what they were, but they mattered to me as talismans of the circumstances to which I once believed we would eventually return. The big things–the house that becomes a trailer that becomes a shack, the car that dies and takes up permanent residence in the yard, the well-water that when it finally comes tastes like a mint’s worth of old pennies have been soaking in it–accumulated and took on weight exponentially, until I was left with the remnants of what I longed in vain to believe, rubbed raw by the cruel certainty of what I had to believe. I was just ten years old that very day, and I said these words, to myself, in my head, because to whom could I have said them out loud and expected it make even the smallest bit of difference: Nothing that is lost or broken is ever found or fixed or replaced.