When you’re 12, change has a spectacular allure all its own.
Moving from Modesto, the parched armpit of California — an oasis of brown canal water, dairy stink, and slaughterhouses subtly stowed amid housing tracts and secreting an atmosphere of horses, sheep and truck-struck deer as they render from critter into something else entirely — to some mysterious mudhut outpost among the tall trees? It seemed like a grand adventure.
The destination seemed irrelevant. While Eureka remained a fog-ridden dreamscape from my earliest childhood memories, I sought change. Aware that I had a vast enclave of Eastern European relatives there, a city’s worth of Poletskis from every walk of life, with a loving grandmother to boot, I was eager to try the new town on for size and make a new life there.
I craved adventure, that’s all. And the grieving that came with abandoning all the friends I had known, all the haunts and clubhouses, all the ballfields and riverside trails where I’d plied my summers, the drive-through theater and massive mall, Crow’s Landing Road and Laird Park with its moss-laden recesses yearning to convey their mysteries? These treasures occurred to me only too late.
After loading up the Ford Escort with almost everything we owned, including my massive collection of Stephen KIng novels and a dresser full of shorts I’d never use again, we creeped out of Modesto along McHenry Boulevard, beaming as the road became an undulating stretch of state highway and eventually merged onto a massive arterial freeway that carried us north to the fog bank..
In the low-slung houses and dilapidated apartments we left behind were all the friends I’d ever made, the modest apartments and houses where I’d formed all the memories I thought worthy enough to lug around in my meaty head, and where all points of pride and embarrassment in my life combined to construct my fledgling identity. Nothing would ever be the same.
Hours later, I remember passing Garberville the first time, and driving into a massive wall of water vapor just south of Scotia — an impenetrable avalanche of fog that swallowed the Escort and reduced visibility to mere feet. Trees loomed over the car on either side, their corrugated trunks disappearing into the low clouds, and I feared them. They seemed to judge me and reject me, a flatlander suddenly unbidden in the hills. I felt claustrophobic.
After that I slept, and woke to the feeling of my stomach rising toward the car roof as if I’d been cut loose from gravity: the Harris Street Hill as we approached Harrison Avenue would remain a joy ride for many years to come.
Then we banked a hard right, goosed the engine up a stark incline and rolled into a clearing beneath dripping redwoods. A little, two-bedroom shack was there, wet and slathered with moss, half off its foundation and cold like a dead man’s hand. My sister, who had offered to let us live with her, stood in the doorway with my niece and nephew shyly darting between her legs.
This was home?
Later that night, after the little kids — but not me! — were off to bed, even the TV commercials seemed alien. Talking work boots selling cars? Corky who? Where in the hell had I landed, and where would I end up?
The answer would be slow in coming. Over the next few weeks and months, misery descended and rain poured from the sky. I forgot what the sun even looked like. The cousins I’d been told about never materialized. Friends were nowhere to be found. I read books one after the other, discovered Tolkien, explored the forest behind the house and one day made a discovery.
Deep under the sodden house, half-buried in a plain tin box, I found a small stack of $5 silver certificates. They came from the 1920s and 1930s, and were obviously stowed there for safekeeping. I felt like a thief and a hero all at the same time as I freed them from their prison. Research revealed the bills to be relatively common and not worth much if anything more than their name value, but to me the mystique was balm to my soul.
In Modesto, I’d been a follower. I’d always picked friends who provided me with adventure without requiring much from me in return. I had never been good at being alone, and hated above all things to be left alone. I was incapable of entertaining myself. That winter, though, as I waited for the new school semester to start and my social life to begin again in another school among kids who seemed as alien as Alf to me, I was forced to reckon with the solitude and find a means to control my rising sense of panic.
The muddy acreage behind our house became my sanctuary. I dug holes intermittently across the property, half hoping to come across more treasure or even domestic odds and ends from families that had come before. Strangely, I eventually hit the jackpot.
A long-buried garbage pile, left long ago by previous residents of our house, yielded a strange and wonderful collection of artifacts: old medicine bottles, tin cans, broken tools, nails by the dozen, a clamp rusted shut by decades of moisture and mud in the gears.
I cherished each of these things even as I continued to pine for home. I read books, stomped all over the yard, dueled the trunks of the massive trees that surrounded our house, and grieved.
From Modesto, I eventually received two letters. These came in response to several I’d sent lamenting Eureka and the rain. The first seemed earnest and fun, full of neighborhood gossip and good humor. The second was short, terse, and obviously forced. I knew immediately my friend’s mom made him write that second letter, and any further correspondence from me would be a giant pain in his ass. Message received.
The collection of baubles and trinkets from the midden pile continued to grow. I set them up along the window sill opposite my bed. There also I put my favorite books, and nearby I ceremoniously hung the 49er poster given to me by my older brother.
In addition to the friends I’d left behind, my brother Greg also stayed in Modesto. He had turned 18, found a job and was less than thrilled with our parents plan to uproot and move across the state. He opted instead to move in with Grandma Cathy, where he’d live for the next several years.
About a month after we’d moved, he came to visit. At first he ignored me and spent his time catching up with Mom and Dad and Sister, rationalizing his decision and reassuring them that it had been the right one. Soon though he dug into his duffel bag and emerged with a pair of boxing gloves. He threw one at me and disappeared out the front door.
Under the dripping canopies of all those thousand-year-old trees, he put a glove on my right hand and showed me the best way to pivot and punch. It felt good to dig in and swing, the blood hot and quick in transit through my body as my fist again and again made harsh contact with the palm of his hand. Pop. Pop pop.
Soon, we were sparring. The bare hand we could only use to block, and the glove was meant for soft jabs. Each connection was a point, and we’d play to ten. We were well into the third round when my nephew ran out of the house with a roll of toilet paper streaming behind him.
My sister, ever in pursuit, reached for him frantically before he launched himself off the porch. She missed.
Greg, though, had his attention diverted. Both hands fell to his side as the little boy streaked past. Suddenly, tears filled my eyes and unexpected anger rose up. My jab became a roundhouse sucker punch and I knocked him back onto his ass, his mouth falling open and dripping a string of blood. He was too surprised to be angry, and I suddenly wanted him to stay with me, with us, so we could conquer this new world together..
Though we’d never been affectionate, I jumped on him then, fierce and tired, squeezing him as hard as I could while trying to stifle tears.
“Whoa, man,” he said. “What’s the matter?”
I had no goddamn idea, and still don’t. I sensed my sister mouthing words over my shoulder and soon my brother’s resistance turned into a tight hug back. “You’re all right, little brother. You’re alright.”
I was, though it took me several more years to realize.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at email@example.com.