childhood, index

Let’s say you stand beneath the garish yellow light and ask for something you have always wanted. Let’s say you hear the sound of your own voice asking. And you hear:

car alarm in the distance. Doors closing and then opening again.  

That was the year of the fire. We stood in our nightgowns on the sidewalk and watched smoke billow from the roof, thick and black. No one knew who started it but later we learned about the woman who let the gas run from her stove for hours. And then,

and then what is one match lit in darkness?

What is a childhood?

A red brick building six stories high. The darkness of stairwells. Dreams of falling down them, endlessly falling.

A playground in the back, not shaded, exposed to hot sun. We could see tar paper hanging over the sides of the roof. So hot and so bright it looked like it was melting. Was it melting.

Metal framework of swing set. Metal slide. Hot beneath naked thighs. So often alone.

That we could not take care of our cat. Cat would be given away. She came and circled me, sat in my lap as if she knew what we were considering. I am a cat. How easy it would be to send me

back. Back to the night of the fire. Night of smoke and catch in the breath. Hot and cold at the same

time. That winter, snow so deep, we swam through it.

Beloved park across the street. Ancient trees. Duck pond. How far it stretched. We could walk the length of it. We walked for hours.

Let’s say you go back. You take someone with you. Someone you love, or want to. Press your face to the glass at the front door. Tiles in the entry way still the same as you remember. Yellow petals unfurling on a field of white.

What is a childhood?

Was not learning to ride my blue bicycle. White basket, woven plastic, pink ribbon tied to the handlebars. Left leaning against the wall in the dank basement.

Was my father’s height and how he stooped, bent over as if to examine something he had dropped on his shirt.

Lottery tickets extracted crumpled from his pockets and then staying up late enough to watch the late-night drawing, write the numbers down.

And then his closet empty.

And then Wednesday afternoons at the Wendy’s drive-through, burgers and fries wrapped in paper. Rosary hung from the rear-view mirror of his burgundy car.

Reading the dictionary on the floor in the hallway. Orphan: a child whose parents are dead. Orphanage: a place where orphans are looked after.

I was sick for days with fever. Cold cloths held to my skin. A bit of soup or crackers. Ginger soda and tepid tea.

What is a childhood? Soft rolls and crumb cake after church on Sundays.

And the shore, always the shore.

Walk to the boardwalk after dark. Electric light. Carousel and fortune

teller: Here is something you should know.

The windows of the haunted house glow orange. Flickering. Is there smoke pouring from the windows.

Let’s say you ask for things you know you cannot have. Electric train. Red wooden rocking chair. A doll with jet black hair and eyes.

What did he leave? A jar of buttons. A photograph of himself in uniform. He is smiling.

Buried it all under the branches of a broad tree by the duck pond. Drew arrows in the dirt with a stick so I could find my way back.

What is a childhood?

Wide trunk of oak tree and fallen bark. Acorn caps bruised the knees. A certain kind of wind that colored the sky, that darkened it.

Throw pebbles in the pond, watch the rings.