by Norman Prentiss
There’s an invention for today’s dog owners called an invisible fence. It’s basically a radio signal around the perimeter of the yard, and if the dog steps too close to the signal, it triggers a device in the animal’s collar and delivers a small electrical shock. Perfect Pavlov conditioning, just like I learned back in ninth grade psychology class. But it seems a bit cruel to me. The dog’s bound to be zapped a few times before it catches on. Dogs aren’t always as quick as we are. Hell, growing up we had a mongrel lab that would probably never have figured it out: Atlas would have barked at air, then -zap!-. Another bark and charge then -zap!- again. I loved that sweet, dumb animal.
Still, I guess for most dogs the gadget would work eventually. Inflict a little pain and terror at the start, and then you’re forever spared the eyesore of a chain-link fence around your front lawn.
“The Big Street”
When I was growing up, my parents invented their own kind of invisible fence for me and my sister. All parents build some version of this fence—never talk to strangers, keep close to home after sundown, that kind of thing. But my parents had a gift with words and storytelling that zapped those lessons into my young mind with a special permanence.
My father taught Shop—excuse me, Industrial Arts—at Kensington High School, so I guess that’s where he built up his skills with the cautionary tale: don’t feed your hand into the disc sander; keep your un-goggled eyes away from the jigsaw blade, and other Greatest Hits. But listen to his rendition of that old stand-by, “The Big Street”:
He walked me and my sister Pam to the divided road on the north end of our community. I was six, and Pam was three years older. He stopped us at the curb of McNeil Road, just close enough where we could hear the cars zip by, feel the hot wind of exhaust or maybe get hit by a stray speck of gravel tossed up by a rear wheel. A half-mile down, on the other side of McNeil, was a small shopping center: a single screen movie theater, Safeway grocery, People’s Drugs, and a Dairy Queen, among other highlights. In the other direction visible from the top of this hill was Strathmore Park, with swings, monkey bars, and a fiberglass spider with bent-ladder legs. We could visit these wondrous places anytime dad drove us there, but we were never, ever, to cross the Big Street on our own.
“Now, let me tell you about a boy who used to live the other side of the road,” our father said. “About your age, Nathan. He crossed back and forth over this Big Street all the time.” He swung his arm in front of him, parallel to the road. “Looks like a pretty good view of the road in both directions, doesn’t it?”
We both craned our necks and followed the swing of his arm. Pam nodded first, and I did the same.
“Well, you’d be wrong. Some of those cars come up faster than you think.” As if to confirm his point, a blue truck rattled past. “When you do something a lot, you get pretty confident. Over-confident. This boy, he’d run across early that morning without a hitch, like usual. On his way back, he was standing right where we are now. Looked both ways, I imagine, or maybe he forgot that one time—we don’t know for sure. What we do know . . .”
Dad dropped to one knee, the toe of his right sneaker perfectly aligned with the edge of the curb.
“See right there, where the gutter doesn’t quite match the road? Not too close, now, Nathan.” He stretched his arm out like a guard rail, and I leaned against it to peer over. The blacktop of the road had a rounded edge, about an inch higher than the cement gutter, but the asphalt was cracked or split in a few places. One spot, it looked almost like somebody’d taken a bite out of it. I guessed that was where Dad wanted me to look.
“His foot likely got caught in that niche, and the boy tripped into the road. The black van might have been speeding, might not. But it wasn’t entirely the driver’s fault, was it?”
I swallowed hard, my throat dry. I’d have loved a Misty or a dip cone from Dairy Queen, but I sure didn’t plan on crossing the Big Street to get it.
“See that dark patch in the road?”
I leaned forward again, and my T-shirt felt sweaty where my chest pressed against Dad’s outstretched arm.
“County trucks cleaned things up, best they could, but you can’t always wash away every trace of blood.”
A shadowy stain appeared beneath the rumbled flashes of painted steel, chrome, glass, and rubber tires, a stain wet and blacker than the grey-black asphalt, in which I could almost distinguish the outline of a boy, just my size.
“I’d heard the story before,” Pam told me that afternoon. We had separate bedrooms in our small house on Bel Pre Court—a luxury a lot of our friends didn’t enjoy—but I was in and out of my sister’s room all the time. She even let me use the bottom shelf of her bookcase to store a few Matchbox cars, a robot, and a plastic astronaut.
“Really? Did you know the kid who got hit?”
“No, I heard it before from Dad. Two years ago.”
Pam had fanned baseball cards in front of her on the bedspread. She’d invented this game of solitaire: traded players, constructed her own all-star teams, grouped them in batting orders, then shuffled the cards to start again. Often she waited long minutes between each shift of card, as if the game required intense, chess-like concentration. She never could quite explain the rules to me, but I didn’t mind: I wasn’t that keen on sports like Pam was, and I was happy she still managed to talk with me while she played.
“The kid wouldn’t need to cross the road,” Pam said.
“All the good stuff’s already on his side. Movie theater, playground, burgers and ice cream. Why cross?”
I hadn’t thought about that. “Maybe he had friends over here.”
“Nope. The friends would all be visiting his side, where the fun stuff is. They’d be the ones who got whacked by the black van.”
She said “black van” in a sing-song voice. I didn’t understand why she’d make a joke, go so far as to imagine more kids killed while crossing McNeil Road.
“I saw the stain on the road,” I said.
Pam switched two baseball cards, then flipped another one face down. “Probably a car broke down on the side of the road, leaked a little oil. Check our own driveway, and you’ll find a few stains there, too.”
“Not like that stain,” I said.
“He showed us where it happened, Pam.”
Pam had pretty much destroyed our father’s story with logic. She was three years older, obviously a little more worldly than I was. But I don’t think I was naive to side with my Dad. More than logic, it was the story that convinced me. The confirming details of the cracks in the asphalt, the boy-shaped stain on the road, summer’s heat and the rushing cars making me dizzy—just like must have happened to the careless young pedestrian in Dad’s account. Maybe it wasn’t true, okay, but it could be true if somebody didn’t follow the rules. Accidents happen. We may not all have friends who’ve chopped off a digit or two with the buzz-saw in Industrial Arts class, but if a couple circles of red marker on the shop tile, scrubbed into faded realism after hours, help the teacher point the next day and shout, “There! There’s where the fingers rolled off and bounced like link sausages onto the floor!”—well, strictly true or not, such lessons are worth learning.
No way was I going to cross the Big Street on my own.
The next summer, Mom staked a claim to her own span of our invisible fence. Dad came up with most of the stories, so in retrospect I’m grudgingly proud of Mom for thinking this one up.
A deep stretch of woods formed a natural barrier behind our house. Dad had a few gems about kids getting lost, bitten by snakes, or swollen and itchy from a patch of poison ivy—all of which generally kept us from setting up camp in there. We wandered into the woods sometimes, peeling bark off trees, flipping logs to look for ants or pill bugs, poking a stick at a rock to make sure it’s not a bullfrog. As long as we didn’t go near Stillwater Creek, we didn’t get in trouble. The creek had its own persuasive power: it was muddy, shallow, and stank of sulfur, so Pam and I steered clear without being prompted.
But Mom, overcautious, decided we shouldn’t venture into the woods at all. One rainy day, she called us into the living room where she typically sprawled out on the sofa and watched her “plays” on CBS. “Turn down the television, would you? I’ve got something serious to talk with you kids about.”
With the rain outside, and the shades pulled down, the living room was pretty dark. The main light source was the television, which reflected a kind of campfire glow on Mom’s face as she talked. “There are dope fiends in the woods,” she told us. “I heard about them from Mrs. Lieberman.”
I have to explain a few things about my Mom before I go any further.
When I was three years old, my baby sister was born. I remember playing with her, in particular a game where Pam and I lined up plastic bowling pins around the rim of Jamie’s crib. She’d wait for us to finish, then knock them over with her tiny fists, and laugh and laugh. That’s mostly what I remember, the laughing.
Jamie had to go to the hospital when she was about fourteen months old, after a really bad cough developed into something more serious. Apparently they put her in a croup tent, a plastic covering that kept away germs and allowed doctors to regulate her oxygen. I never visited her in the hospital, but my parents later told me how much Jamie hated that tent. I imagined her beating at the plastic covering with her fists, but too weak to laugh or even breathe.
I don’t remember what my parents said the last night they returned from the hospital. I know they must have agonized over how they’d break the news to us, my Dad no doubt holding back his natural tendency towards the grisly, giving us the soft version of Jamie drifting painlessly off to sleep and never waking up; how babies were innocent and always went to heaven, so she’s with God now, and we’ll always have our memories; Mom convincing us that we’re all right, that we’d never get that sick, and Mommy and Daddy would always be there to protect us, and nobody’s dying, not anytime soon that’s for sure, we promise; and all the time both of them trying not to cry themselves, knowing if they messed this moment up it could haunt me or Pam for the rest of our lives.
I know they worked really hard on what to say, and I’m sad I don’t remember any of it. But I was only four, and memory keeps its own protective agenda for a child that age. Just the bowling pins, and the laughter.
There’s a Polaroid of me and Pam taken the day of Jamie’s funeral. Pam’s in a frilly peach dress, holding a small bouquet of daffodils. I’m wearing a tan suit—a handsome little gentleman, in a heart-breakingly tiny clip-on tie. We’re standing next to the grave marker, which has a hole in the center where Pam will soon place the daffodils. According to my father, before Pam had the chance to fit the stems into the grave marker, I kneeled down to peer deeply into the hole. “Jamie’s down there,” I said, then waved. “Hi, Jamie!”
But I was talking about my mother.
After Jamie’s death, not right away, but gradually, my Mom became more and more withdrawn. She didn’t have a job, and never learned to drive, but she used to go shopping with my father, or went with us on day trips to visit relatives in Silver Spring or Tacoma Park. She also maintained a small garden out front, and played bridge twice a week with neighboring housewives. After the tragedy, she told Dad she didn’t feel like talking with family about Jamie, not for a while at least, and somehow that ended her drives to the grocery store, as well. The bridge games slipped to once a week, and then just the gardening. And then not even that.
Agoraphobia roughly translates to “fear of open spaces,” but that’s not exactly right. It’s a kind of depression that, in my mother’s case, at least, was more about avoiding interaction with other people. Dad and Pam and I were the notable exceptions. She didn’t want to see anyone else, and she didn’t want anybody else looking in—which explained why she lowered the living room shades, even during the middle of the day. Eventually she refused to leave the house for any reason—certainly not for the psychiatrist visits that probably would have helped her, if people hadn’t frowned so much on therapy in those days, or if my Dad had been strong enough to force her into treatment. His version of “strong” was letting her have her way, adding cooking and cleaning to his breadwinning duties, with Mom on occasional assist with the child care when absolutely necessary.
But more often than not, it was us kids doing things for her. Mom spent most of her time on that sofa, to the point that it’s hard for me to recall her in motion. Certainly she must have moved from the bedroom to the living room on occasion, definitely needed to use the bathroom like the rest of us. But mostly things were brought to her: a cup of water with ice and a bendable straw; Diet Rite Cola in the tall glass bottle; two peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch, the crust removed; and a small plate of Oreo cookies with a mug of milk for her afternoon snack. She had a remote for the television, but mostly watched the soaps and local news on channel 9, and if either Pam or I were passing nearby when she wanted to switch, she’d have us turn the channel.
Mom’s other entertainment was newspapers, with a special fondness for the crossword puzzle and the Word Jumble. She’d store the day’s puzzle folded over like a napkin on her TV tray, next to a plate of food, and worked during the commercials or during an especially slow-moving plot on As the World Turns or The Edge of Night. Some days she didn’t finish the puzzles, or didn’t skim her way through the rest of the newspaper sections. Stacks of newspaper piled next to her beside the sofa, beneath the TV tray, and at her feet; Mom could never keep straight which stack was the most current, so when Pam asked for today’s Sports page or I wanted to read the comics, we each had to choose a pile to sort through.
Dad taught summer courses. Even between terms he went to school on a nine-to-four schedule to use their shop equipment for woodworking projects he solicited via purple, mimeographed ads stapled to telephone poles throughout our neighborhood. All for the extra money, of course, but just as likely because the day-dark house bothered him in ways it wouldn’t bother little kids who didn’t know much better.
At least, not usually. But that overcast, rainy day when Mom told us about the dope fiends, the bleak, shadowy living room gave her words the chilly certainty of a midnight-whispered campfire ghost story.
“The police found needles in the woods,” Mom said. We stood next to the couch and Mom sat up, a striking change from her usual horizontal posture. “Just thrown on the ground where kids like you could step on them in your bare feet. They found rubber tubing, also. These dope fiends tie tubes around their arm to make the veins stand out, then use the needles to inject drugs into their bloodstream.” She lifted her crossword-puzzle pencil and mimed jabbing it into her forearm.
Due to my twice-yearly doctor visits, I was already plenty scared of needles. I never escaped without some vaccination or another—for polio, German Measles, chicken pox, whatever. After losing Jamie, Mom wasn’t taking chances with me or Pam. I hated the awful tension when the nurse squirted a faint arc of fluid over the sink before she plunged the stinging needle beneath my rolled-up sleeve. The needle was too long and thin; I worried it could snap off inside my arm and hurt forever.
The idea of tying a tube around your arm sounded even more complex and painful to me. Who would do something like this on purpose?
Fiends, of course. A much better word than “addict” for kids. The word addict scares adults, because it’s all about loss of control—our fears that we’d drink or gamble or screw against logic, throw money we don’t have into greedily programmed machines or wake up late mornings with a monstrous hangover and an even more monstrous bedroom companion. Kids don’t fear addiction (they don’t have much control over anything to begin with); better for them to visualize some tangible bogeyman, like the monster under the bed or evil trolls who live beneath storybook bridges.
“I know you kids would never be foolish enough to try drugs,” my mother continued. “But if you run across a group of dope fiends, they may force their drugs on you. Chase you down, and whoosh!” She jabbed her pencil in the air towards Pam for emphasis, then towards me; I jumped back in nervous reaction.
“The police haven’t caught any of the dope fiends yet, so they’re still out there.” She pointed at her main sources of information: the television, in its rare moment of flickering silence; disorganized towers of newsprint; and the end table telephone, her daily link in epic half-hour conversations with her two remaining friends, Mrs. Lieberman and my Aunt Lora. “If I hear anything more, I’ll let you know. Until then, I want you both to stay out of those woods.”
I nodded first, without waiting to see Pam’s response.
This was before a president’s wife told us to “Just Say ‘No’,” before “Your Brain” sizzled sunny-side-up in an MTV frying pan. But even then, in the post-hippie 1970s, drugs were dialed pretty high on a kid’s panic-meter. I was too young to grasp the concept fully, of course, and stirred my own fears into the mixture. When my mother mentioned the “paraphernalia” found in the woods—hypodermic syringes, rubber tubes, empty glass vials of medicine—she may have said something about medicine caps. Or maybe the “dope” idea was suggestive enough. My third grade mind somehow latched onto caps, conflated it with the image of a cartoon child in the corner of a schoolroom, a pointed dunce or dope cap rising from his head. I imagined predatory older boys donning these caps as the proud symbol of their gang. They patrolled the woods behind our house, seeking new initiates—would toss syringes like darts at your exposed arms or neck, then would force you to the ground and press their ignorance into you, lowering it like a shameful cap onto your struggling head. Ignorance was even more terrifying to me than needles. I was a slightly
overweight boy, uncoordinated at sports and generally unpopular at school. To be stupid—to be unattractive and awkward and picked-on and stupid—was the worst fate I could imagine. Smart was all I had.
And yet I was stupid enough, later that summer, to let Aaron Lieberman and my sister talk me into visiting those woods to search for abandoned needles.