Knocking at the Door In the Middle of the Night

I was sixteen and out of gas on the side of Van Lanen Road and it was 1:3o in the morning. This was long ago in the 1980s when the world was new, before cell phones, when if you ran out of gas there was no easy way to contact anyone and you had to save yourself with just your wits, of which I had few. I had miscalculated how far the 1972 Chevy Impala station wagon I shared with my brother could travel with the needle on E. I thought I could make it all the way home, park the car in the driveway, go to bed, let my brother discover its need for fuel tomorrow on his day with the car. I was fifteen miles short. And now I was on the gravel, sitting in the dark, beside a fence, a farm, fields running off in every direction leaving me alone under a very big, black sky.

It didn’t occur to me to be worried. I got out and started walking. I knew where I was: when I was very little, my father would put me in a tiny seat on the back of his bicycle and ride up this Van Lanen hill I was walking down at 1:30 in the morning. He huffed and puffed and called it heartbreak hill.

I got past the farms and their endless corn fields and I saw a few houses. But they were all dark, shut down for the night. Back then I was very careful not to believe in God, but I suppose I was making some requests of the night and whoever or whatever might be listening: thanks for the houses, but could you show me one with a light on? And then there was one: a little place, rambler, one of the first of what would become many new suburban houses built on a tiny piece of what used to be cornfield. One window was lit.

Middle of the night, on silent feet, out of the darkness I stepped to their door and knocked. At the time I thought nothing of it, other than to hope I was knocking loud enough, hoping they could hear me. Now, thinking back on it, I wonder what I would do if I was the one inside the door at 1:30 in the morning and suddenly comes a stranger knocking out of the darkness. They opened the door.

They were a young couple. He stood at the door. She remained on the couch under a blanket. The light I had seen was somewhere in the back of the house, the living room was lit only by the television set, her face was blue in the glow of a paused VCR tape.

I explained the situation. He offered their phone, led me to the kitchen where it hung on the wall above the counter. If he suspected me of anything other than the truth, he didn’t let on. He watched me dial, listened to me tell my brother he had to come get me, then left me sitting at the counter alone in his kitchen while he went back and got under the blanket with the woman and started the VCR tape again. Sometime later my brother arrived. I said “Thank you,” they said “OK”. I walked out the front door into the future.

A lot of that future has become the past. I think of that couple. They might have been 30. They let me in and we paused together briefly in that house of theirs like strangers waiting at a bus stop for our different busses to come and take us wherever we were going.They lived their own lifetimes while I lived mine. If they made it this far, that young couple of my memory is in their sixties now. They were just starting out, now they’re starting the wind down. An old couple. Maybe sitting together on a different couch. Maybe not together anymore but thinking of one another sometimes. Maybe gone altogether.

 

 

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Books and Blasphemy

For a few years I kept all my books in the garage. They were on a bookshelf, not stuffed into boxes. But, yes, they were in the garage.

My mother gave me grief about it. I was raised in a household that respected books. We weren’t allowed ever to throw books no matter how angry we were. Once my cat killed my goldfish and I threw the cat across the room. Nobody said anything about it. But throw a book and I’d end up getting a real earful and I’d have to apologize for my error in judgement.

Our home was dominated by an eight foot wide, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that held hundreds of volumes. A walk through our house was a slalom course around piles of books, all of them in various stages of being read by someone.

Books, literacy, these were our religion. We did not blaspheme against books.

Once at Waldenbooks in the mall the cashier was one of my father’s students. When the cashier saw his professor standing in front of him, he wanted to win favor. He told my father that if the book he was buying was damaged the store would have to give it to him at a discount. It wasn’t damaged, my father pointed out. The cashier, his student, took the book from him and ripped the front cover off. “Fifty percent discount,” he said.

My father walked out. Blasphemy.

Which is why I’ve never forgotten this and can’t figure it out, even 38 years after it happened: My brother, my mother and I went to Seattle that summer. My father stayed at home. I don’t know if he wanted to go but couldn’t. I don’t know what conversations may have occurred between my father and my mother before we left. I don’t know what other adult sources of stress or disappointment might have been happening in their lives at that time. All I know is that we three left for Seattle, and he stayed. And when we got back three weeks later, one night I looked at the giant bookshelf and some of the books looked different. When I pulled them down I saw that they had BB’s stuck in their spines. We had gone, he had stayed. At some moment, for some reason, he had sat on the couch and shot his own books full of BB holes with my BB gun, or my brother’s. We didn’t keep any BB guns next to the couch. He’d have to have gone to get a gun from our bedroom, then take it downstairs, sit down on the couch and take aim at the books. What did those books do to warrant being shot full of BB’s?

I don’t know.