My primary high school vocation was to drop my backpack on the piano bench and watch the sun set through the windows of the living room.
Gently slumped beside a spindly creek, it was a pleasant enough home to the unfocused eye. Akin to a kindly guidance counselor with worn-out corduroys, the cerebral steering wheel soft and pockmarked with age.
No two pieces of pine met without a little breathing room in between. Awkward eaves askance, wood heat that never warmed the whole place unless you were sitting directly on the stove. There were bittersweet hallucinations of chopping holes in the walls to create currents, beckoning warmth to the icebox bedrooms upstairs.
I tried my best to abide in the basement — Helheim. The floods of summer would give way to ice slicks in winter. I slept with all my clothes on, fingerless gloves flipping Neil Young album sides, a can of Old Milwaukee cracking underneath two sleeping bags and the tentacles of a million scratchy sheets. Nevertheless, I needed the appropriate space to display my sick glow-in-the-dark Pink Floyd tapestry.
The neighborhood, Brook Hollow, had originally and obviously been christened Skunk Hollow. The whole stretch of town off Wheelock Street had been built on an ancient skunk mating ground. The spirit and size of these beasts was off the charts. (On our first Halloween, there was a critter on our porch that I was certain was just a wayward fourth-grader, waddling and sugar drunk.)
The smell became so powerful and overwhelming that the entire community developed an immunity. We weren’t even aware of our thoroughly off-putting odor until distant relatives visited, their faces full of disgust.
Rolling hills, dangerous intersections. And skunks.
The only time it all felt right was in early fall. When the wraparound windows were filled with lifeless falling leaves and the decaying day’s sideways tangerine light. I would sprawl on the bony thrift store couch and think about toothpaste commercials and college-educated women who could see beyond my gawky ways. Half-blind and wishing for the power to control time, about having my friends gather round me in my final, noble hours of fighting an incurable bout of seasickness.
Throughout his life, I saw my father a handful of times a year. Even with his brevity and short stature, he invoked bone-rattling fear with thunderous anger. As kids, I remember us all running from him and looking back in terror, holding hands, holding all we could carry — as if he were the unfunny Godzilla incarnate.
My first insurrection was in the autumn when I was sixteen. Drowsy powerful words, delivered softly. Something I’d figured out in all that lazy sunshine.
“I’m not applying to Yale.” Seven syllables that might seem innocuous and simple to most bystanders. But my father crossed two lanes of traffic, in and out of the emergency lane at eighty miles an hour, skimming the ditch that ran along 89, narrowly missing a semi and back into traffic for a silent, fuming ride all the way to Boston. He never looked me in the eye again.
It is true. I did not go to Yale. I didn’t even finish college. I burst out the door of a speeding tan sedan and fell wildly through most of my life.
Be that as it may, I still know there is a brilliant blue sky overhead. And this seasonally insane sunlight that I’ll never stop trying to define.