To evoke the first place I lived, I try to remember the first adult words I understood, the scrambled way toys and furniture were as important as people, the terrors that came with the dark. Those things stay with you like the tattered visions, the legends without context, borne by a wanderer returned from a land of giants and twisted magic.
I am that wanderer many decades away from childhood and trying to arrange memories in what seems a coherent order. I do this knowing that certain memories defy rational order. I remember eyes staring into mine from the bottom of a pond and women sitting in my mother’s kitchen playing solitaire with photographs.
Looking to bridge the gaps between my current old age and the postwar 1940’s, I dig out fragments of plays, stories with tattered endings. The ones who wrote them – my mother at age thirty-five- me at twenty-one are themselves remote mysteries.
We lived when I was small in a horseshoe shaped apartment house the locals called “Fodom Cout.” Just recently, I learned that “Fordham Court”, looking bright and spiffy, stands to this day on South Street in Jamaica Plain in Boston.
Boston stories usually devolve into baseball. Long before my time the building was owned by the man who owned the then successful Boston Red Sox and who had originally hired Babe Ruth. It wasn’t he who sold the Babe to New York, but maybe the place had a touch of a curse or magic when I first lived there and when I may last have visited it.
My earliest memories are of my mother. In the first coherent one I’m, maybe, two and sitting on what I believe is her dressing table, with a woman who is familiar to me though now I can’t remember who she is. The door opens and my mother, Kae, enters her dressing room in Portia’s court costume from Merchant of Venice.
She was an actress back then. My father, John, too was connected to the theater and so were all their friends. None of them had children. I was a novelty and pet, sat on laps, said the enigmatic things small children say.
One winter night with company present, my mother remembered the wash on the line up on the roof. She and a friend went up with a basket, came back with sheets and clothes stiff as boards. This included a pair of my pajamas – ones with feet. They leaned them up against the wall and, without a cue, I shook a frozen sleeve like that was its hand and won wild applause.
Going down the center aisle of the church one Sunday, I saw packed pews, turned, saw the choir crammed into the loft and said in the clear voice of childhood, “It’s a full house!”
Once I was using a windowsill as a stage, the curtains as theater curtains. Empty glasses served as actors. I opened the curtains and moved a bottle of beer from the wings to center stage. Someone said, “John Barrymore, to the very life of him. The boy has the makings of a director.” And everyone laughed and hugged me.
But by then I was five going to kindergarten and had at least an inkling of what I was doing.
It’s the time of my unreason that haunts me, the time before I was as human as I’ve managed to get. Men were around. My father was back from the war. But as a kid I lived largely in a world of Irish and Irish American women. I scarcely knew anyone else.
Mom, my father’s mother, lived with us, so old and white haired that I confused her image with that of George Washington. She was born in the late 1870’s in the Fall River of Lizzie Borden, the home of the textile mills. Mom had started working in the mills at the age of ten and never quite grasped the world in which she found herself.It was her belief that both parties in a telephone conversation had to hang up at the same moment or risk an electric shock. “I’m hanging up at my end,” she would say. “Best hang up on yours.”
Lots of my instinctive reactions I can trace to those years. Mom was a bleeder – from her nose mostly but also her fingertips. Once, a needle, probably from the old mills, all rusty and bloody from wandering her system for decades, came poking out from the end of an index finger. I don’t wince at the sight of blood, except my own.
Once my mother and her two sisters and I stood on a sidewalk on a winter evening with cars rushing in all directions along South Street and up and down the Arborway. Horns blared and streetcars clanged. Red lights turned to green and others did the opposite.
In the middle of it all was a cop directing traffic in the growing dark with a whistle in his mouth and white gloves on. It was him that my mother and my aunts Maureen and Dee were watching. He was a pal of my Uncle Bill, the cop. Somewhere he had noticed my aunt Dee, the youngest sister in the family and expressed an interest in meeting her.
Back then I accepted everything as it happened. Now I wonder if he knew he was under scrutiny. I don’t recall that he looked our way. But a car stalled and with just the use of one white gloved hand he pushed it to a curb. “Just one hand” my mother and aunts exclaimed. Dee, as it turned out, married another guy.
Twenty, thirty years later cruising the Hudson Piers, I’d see guys pose under streetlamps, in moonlight reflected off the river and I’d remember that young cop and the show he put on for my aunt.
I think I was no more than four, probably a bit less, that I was brushed by the dark. My parents brought home my brother Larry. I’d never seen a baby close up. I stared at Larry in his basinet with his clenched fists and red face as he cried and cried. Then he went back to the hospital and never returned.
He died of a stomach blockage and was buried in a small white coffin. I heard adults talking about this. I didn’t cry. It’s a gift of childhood that kids understand none of this. My mother sat in the kitchen with photographs and postcards arranged face up in front of her and cried. She never acted again.
Tears will move me, even my own.
Our neighborhood was near the well-to-do Arborway where the houses looked down on you from tall sloping lawns. The Arboretum was a wood, a park, a wonder with hills and trees as far as your eye could see if you were real small. It was owned by Harvard and devoted to the study of fauna but open to the public.
Adults had to take you across wide streets to reach it. But once there rabbits scurried across paths, jays screamed and in the spring and fall, ponds would be covered with ducks and geese. In winter big kids would skate. Adjoining the park was a chapel with cloistered nuns and you could hear them all praying, sometimes singing.
A kid with both his grandmothers was very lucky and I had both of mine. One day my mother along with her mother and her aunt took me to the arboretum. They sat on a bench near a roadway. I think this was just after Larry’s death. They spoke to my mother in whispers. I was allowed to wander but not too far. A pond with lily pads and cattails was nearby.
I stood on the bank looking down and eyes stared back at me. Breeze-rippled water made the pale face below seem to move and I ran back to the bench with a babbled tale of eyes.
The three women arose. I went first and pointed. My mother gasped. Her mother and aunt stepped between the water and us. These thin, white-haired women had been born and raised on the bleak Aaron Islands when Gaelic was the first language and life was thin and tough.
“A calf,” said one.
“Poor dear,” said the other.
“How did it get here?” my mother asked holding me tight. My grandmother looked up. All eyes followed hers. She was staring at the Harvard Labs at the top of the hill.
I have a snatch of memory of my aunt and grandmother talking to an Irish cop on the street with much gesturing of heads in the direction of the building and the pond. He nodded and set off to do who knows what.
As that went on my mother held me while talking to me. “That poor animal that drowned, I saw myself in his eyes. He was like a child. “You should never have had to see something like that. We’ll make all of that go away.”
She was my world. But she told the story, my story really, of the drowned calf and my fright to friends and relatives. She wrote a poem that used the incident and a play in which a woman says to her child,
“I don’t want you to wake up in unfamiliar houses in strange beds full of coats and not know where you are just because your father dragged me to a party and I had no one to take care of you.
“You won’t see familiar faces distorted with anger or fear, leaning over you in the dark and won’t have to be afraid because there’s a bitter smell on someone’s breath.
“You don’t understand now but you will. I want you to have a childhood without terror. I want you to be safe.”
I remember my mother talking about the cloistered convent and saying, “It must be wonderful never to have to go out and see people you don’t want to see.”
My father said, “I don’t think you’d like it. They don’t talk either.” And they both laughed.
Some years after Fordham Court, when I was eleven or twelve, I revisited the old neighborhood for the first time. One Saturday in Fall, spontaneously and unsupervised, a bunch of friends and I walked from Codman Square in Dorchester, down Washington Street and across Blue Hill Avenue to grubby Franklin Park. We went through the zoo and into threadbare woods as dark and wide as Sherwood Forest to a bunch of city kids.
To my surprise we emerged and hour or more later onto the Arborway and I caught sight of Fordham Court. We went into the Arboretum. The Harvard labs looked down from the hill. No eyes looked up from the water.
But a bunch of guys, fourteen or fifteen years old, stood on the other side of the pond. A single mallard, unable to fly, hid in the reeds. They poked it with sticks, chased it out. One kid had a BB gun and raked the bird with shot. They got it ashore and cut its head off. Blood spurted. When that was done, a kid held the duck by the tips of its wings.
They knew we were intruders and stared at us. They were big and scary. It was getting late in the afternoon. We split for home.
I knew better than to tell my parents where I’d been. But the image of the headless bird with its wings spread replaced the eyes looking up from the bottom of the pond. And this story was mine, not my mother’s.
In Fordham Court the bedroom windows looked out on the courtyard and the windows on the other wing of the building – not much to see. But outside the kitchen and the living room was a world of wonders – an anachronism then, a lost world now. The alley below me was lined with a tall blank-faced wooden fence. When TV appeared and I saw Our Gang comedies from the ‘20’s there was always a big board fence at the back of the set. It evoked the everyday life in the early 20th century city that I’d seen out that window
Beyond the fence were backyards, one of which contained a chicken coop complete with a strutting white rooster. To the right was open ground and an embankment where railroad tracks bore long, fascinating freights and flashing streamlined passenger trains inbound to Boston or outbound to New York. And between the houses and the trains was a trolley yard full of yellow/orange cars and a barn for the Hood Milk horses. Old tired nags, as I’d see them now, but gigantic, scary beasts as I watched them one after another be hitched to wagons in the morning and unhitched at nightfall.
A leftover effect of the Depression, the War and a conservative city’s reluctance to change was the presence of horses. This was my father’s old neighborhood and he had hung around barns and livery stables as a kid. I remember him taking me into downtown Boston and the Faneuil Hall Market. Before the highways made that impossible, farmers came into the city on horse drawn wagons. Great, tired animals would breathe steam and sometimes make sparks when they smacked their hooves down on the cobblestones.
My father taught me stuff he believed a city kid had to know, not to walk close behind or before them, how to pat the nose with a downward stroke going with the animal’s hair.
My father had served in the Army Air Corps in Italy, had flown thirty missions. He sometimes wore a leather flight jacket. He had a crew cut and so did I. He took me to the bright, loud barbershop: guys talking boxing, razors buzzing, and the long mirror reflecting the barbers and men in the chairs.
My jacket got removed and I was wrapped in a striped cape, lifted way in the air and down onto a raised seat on top of the barber chair. Up above the mirror was a radio broadcasting, “The Big Serial” an unending kids’ action adventure show that came on late in the afternoon. I was scared by the shooting and whooping. “Injuns!” someone shouted, “Get inside the house.”
I thought he said “Engines!” and imagined trains off the tracks and rampaging through the streets with their horns whooping. I started to cry. The barber smiled and said, “Don’t pay no attention, kid. They’re fulla baloney. Someone turn that thing off.”
I cried but stayed still and let him cut my hair. He gave me a lollypop when we were finished. But my father wasn’t happy with me. I had embarrassed him.
About that time I went to kindergarten and was allowed to go out by myself. Was made to, I think. I couldn’t cross any streets was the rule. I stayed on my block. A girl in my class lived next door and I sometimes played with her. I fell in with Joey, a tough kid whose mother didn’t believe in kindergarten.
I saw stuff. Streetcars, the square, old-fashioned kind, ran on South Street. Dogs roamed free. One got run over, yelping and rolling in the road. I don’t think I quite understood what had happened.
Because the stables were there and because this was still not the modern world, a couple of the kids in the neighborhood had pet goats that stayed in the stable. They had goat carts they used to drive on the sidewalks and empty lots.
My mother was on the phone one day so I only heard part of the conversation and only understood it years later. Her mother told her that the Hood Milk barn in her neighborhood had burned down. Horses and all the Shetland ponies that pulled the ice cream carts had died. Homeless horseflies were all over the place.
A bit later, just before we moved away from that neighborhood, my father took me down to the stable behind the house. He met a guy he knew and we watched those poor old nags being led onto trucks.
My father told me they were going off to a farm where they’d be happy. He and his friend were talking far above my head.
“Everyone says Hood decided to go over to milk trucks after that fire,” The guy said, “But Hood was converting anyway. I heard that the fire was for the insurance.”
And I saw one of the kids with a goat cart – a big kid maybe ten – crying because with the barn shut down he couldn’t keep the goat.
Around then I was told we were going to move and I don’t remember being upset.
Years ago I found a story about Fordham Court and me that I probably wrote when I was around twenty-one. By then I’d left Boston and was in a college writing class.
I can’t say if the visit actually happened or how much of it was invention. It comes from a time when I was losing myself in the slippery mix of speed and booze. But it was written just a few years after the events it recounts with all the intensity and truth of a dream.
The Night and The Day
Tracks on a Boston Street on a drizzly evening catch the light of the streetcar coming towards the Chevy with me in the back seat. It clangs its bell and the driver drifts to the left to let the trolley pass.
The driver’s called Bro. I’ve never met him before and he doesn’t talk. Next to him is a guy I’ve known for a couple of years. He’s called Ty and a bunch of other names. He got busted and for a while we hadn’t seen each other. Now he’s back in my life. I work part time in the library, the same as when he first knew me. Out of nowhere he walks in and says he’s called Tony, which is stupid. He’s not Italian. The two of us are Irish and everyone says we look like twins.
Tony’s not talking much. We met in Copley Square that evening because there’s someone he wants me to meet. And he gives me a down, a Seconal, to stop my being jumpy. As Ty he kind of seemed like an imaginary friend and in lots of ways he still does.
I’m eighteen and in college. My family had moved from Boston to Long Island in New York. There are relatives; there are family friends, people I know. But I’m kind of lost and broke and at loose ends, living in a dorm with strangers. And the cops are down on cruising.
Bro drives us past a big brick Catholic Church and something that feels like a memory tickles the back of my brain. Makes my head loll around.
“I know this place,” I say, “Jamaica Plain. I lived here.” No one says anything. It’s dark but stores are still open, windows lighted. Stuff looks familiar thirteen/ fourteen years after I moved away. It’s like déjà vu.
We pass a barbershop that looks familiar. And I remember the radio on the high shelf and the giant trains running wild in the streets. I connect the incident to my father losing interest in me.
Bro spots a parking space and we slide into it. Tony says, “We’re here,” and we both get out. Bro stays behind. We’re in front of an apartment house built around an oval court. It’s all as familiar as a dream.
“I used to live in this building,” I said. “Fordham Court.” Tony sticks another Seconal in my mouth and I swallow it.
Instead of going into the court and through the front doors, Tony leads me around the side of the building and down an alley. “Ed wants us to use the tradesman’s entrance because we’re trade,” Tony says. I recognize the high wooden fence on one side, the doors on the other.
“Who’s Ed?” I manage to say. Speaking’s not easy. “How does he know me?”
“He’s a queer I met a month or so ago. He’s OK. But I got a girl up in Revere that I’m seeing.”
“A girl?” He’d shown me gay life in Boston, at least the kind that involved kids, when we were sixteen.
He rings the bell. A head pops out a third floor window then disappears and the buzzer sounds. We’re going up these wooden stairs and I can remember hearing the milkman come up them early in the morning with the glass bottles clanking in the metal carrier and it occurs to me to ask, “What did you tell this guy?”
“I said, if he liked me, he was gonna love you.”
And we’re on the third floor, which I seem to remember is where I lived. The door opens onto a kitchen and I’m kind of confused and dizzy. But I see this guy, nice enough, tall, losing his hair, in a shirt and tie.
He’s staring at me and Tony is introducing us.
“What is this, your brother?” Ed says. Like I said, back when Ty and I first knew each other everyone thought we looked alike. Tony says something, Ed slips him some bills and the next thing I know Tony’s gone and Ed asks me if I’d like something to eat or drink.
And I shake my head and he’s got his hands on me. But it’s ok and I’m kind of not there. Later I have no clothes and he gets me off and then it’s another time and he’s riding me which I don’t let guys do. But I’m not connected enough to say stop.
Then it’s light through the front windows overlooking the courtyard. Ed’s asleep and my head hurts and my ass and I pass out again. When I wake up the light is brighter. I can hear Ed’s taking a shower. I’m still high. My clothes aren’t around. I get up and walk down this little hall that I remember as gigantic. It leads to the living room and light’s coming in the windows. I go over and look out. It’s morning and guys are painting a wooden house down the street. Nobody is raising chickens in the backyards.
The train line is still there on its embankment. They have a garage now where the stable was. The streetcar yards are there but with newer cars and not as much track as I remember.
Something moves at the corner of my eye and I glance into the kitchen. My mother, looking like she did when I was a little kid, sits at the table with her sisters and her aunt and both my grandmothers. They’re playing with cards that on closer look are actually photos of people in the family. I see one of my father in velvet knee britches when he was maybe ten and one of me standing in the living room as I am. None of them look my way.
“Putting on a show for the neighbors?” Ed asks and I realize I’m right in front of a window. My clothes are in the bathroom. He leads me there. “I’m driving downtown, can I give you a lift?”
I nod and shove my clothes on. There’s money in my jacket pocket. I walk back to the kitchen. The women don’t look up.
Ed takes my arm, says, “We’re going out the other way.”
On the stairs I tell him, “I used to live here.”
“So you said last night.”
I wonder what else I said and if it’s why he doesn’t want me to disturb the women in the kitchen.
Over the years and many readings, that story always leaves me with the sensation I’m on the other side of an iron gate with only a glimpse of the land of giants.
Richard Bowes is nominated for a 2015 Nebula Award. His most recent novel, DUST DEVIL ON A QUIET STREET was on the 2014 World Fantasy and Lambda Awards short lists. His novelette, “Sleep Walking Now and Then” is a Nebula nominee.
His publications include six novels, four story collections, seventy short stories. He has won two World Fantasy, the Lambda, Million Writers and IHG awards. Recent and forthcoming appearances include: Datlow’s The Doll Collection, Tor.com, Farrago’s Wainscot, Uncanny, F&SF and the anthologies Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2015, Year’s Best Gay Stories, In the Shadow of the Tower.