Trouble next door.
“I pushed away and we stood in the soft wet dirt of the shoulder, staring at one another. Suddenly, he lunged forward …”
D. J. Lee’s searing memoir of bullying, aspiration, and teenaged hormones appeared in BROAD STREET’s “Bedeviled” issue in winter/spring 2015. It has been praised for its gritty portrayal of anger and confusion in the 1960s — an era when a house on a cul-de-sac and a trip to Disneyland represented elevation in social status, and a struggling father might try to impress his family with an easily stolen heirloom. The essay was recognized with a Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize series.
We are proud to present it here in its entirety, specially formatted for the web.
Dale Flynn had a vendetta against me. Every day in fifth grade, he chased me from the bus stop on 208th Street to the cul-de-sac where we lived, a distance of two blocks. He caught me by the shoulder, whirled me around, pushed me to the ground, and punched me. I screamed, he let go, and I bolted for home.
This was the 1960s. The cul-de-sac was in a gritty suburb in Seattle, a place of strip malls, grunge bands, and big industrial buildings. The mothers stayed home while the fathers worked low-income jobs. One sold shoes. One was a Baptist preacher. One was killed in the Vietnam war. Dale’s father, old Mr. Flynn, a beefy man with a crew cut, didn’t do anything. My father complained, “He’s a cheater, he’s not crippled,” because Mr. Flynn was on government disability for a shoulder injury. Our backyard faced the Flynns’, and we’d see him working on a fence as if he were in perfect health.
One day in the spring, when Dale chased me out of the bus, I threw my body against his and gouged him in the face. His skin tore like tracing paper. Blood seeped from his cheeks and spread onto my white blouse.
I pushed away and we stood in the soft wet dirt of the shoulder, staring at one another. Suddenly, he lunged forward and grabbed the hood of my parka. I let it slide off my shoulders and ran.
I wouldn’t have to worry about Dale anymore, I thought, but as I turned into the cul-de-sac, a new concern set in. The parka was supposed to last me through the next few winters. My parents didn’t have money to buy a new one every year.
At home, I washed Dale’s blood off my blouse as best I could and shoved it in a corner of my bedroom. I never did get the stain out. I looked for my coat along the street the next few days. I didn’t find it, but my parents didn’t seem to notice. I thought I was safe until one day, as I walked out the door into a thick Seattle rain, my father asked about it.
I washed Dale’s blood off my blouse as best I could and shoved it in a corner of my bedroom. I never did get the stain out ….
“Dale Flynn took it,” I said.
“Goddammit,” he said. His neck grew thready lines and he stomped around. Normally when his temper flared, he spanked us. But he didn’t touch me that day. “Get in the car,” he said, and drove to school, where he talked to the principal: “My daughter should be able to walk home from school without getting beat up. It’s your responsibility to end it.”
The principal, a tall man with a distracted look in his eyes, said, “I’ll do what I can.”
Dale stopped chasing me for a few weeks, and when he started again, I didn’t tell my father. I resigned myself to the fact that nothing ever changed. And then something did. Maybe because I was older and stronger, I was able to outrun Dale most of the time. When he did catch me, he tackled me and pinned me to the ground as usual, but instead of punching me, he let his face hover a few inches above mine, our eyes locked.
I began seeing him in a close-up way all the time. When he was in a desk on the other side of the classroom, I noticed his velvety hair and his soft flannel shirts. Sometimes I let him catch me. When he lay on top of me, he was light, as if his bones were partly hollow, like honeycomb.
— — — — —
We — my parents and three younger brothers — lived in Seattle while my father traveled around Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana in our station wagon, selling oil to auto parts stores. Much later, when I was eighteen, he would quit traveling and move the family from Seattle to Spokane. Wanting a better life for the family, he bought a plumbing store that he ran himself. But for much of my childhood in Seattle, he scanned the want ads for businesses to buy. Once, he found a dry cleaners up the road, a shabby place made of corrugated metal that I didn’t want to be associated with.
But we never even stepped inside, and anyhow, I wasn’t too worried, because he had a habit of getting excited about a place one week and forgetting about it the next.
One Sunday, when I was eleven, my father saw a gas station and convenience store with an upstairs apartment for sale in Mount Vernon, twenty miles north of our house. He wanted to check it out the same afternoon. He told our mother to gather up us kids, and as we drove, he talked about how we would sell our house, my mother and I would run the store, and we would live upstairs while he kept his sales job. After a few years, he would build a big new house out back. I imagined myself working as a cashier after school, earning my own money, and spending it on a glossy black stereo with silver dials. I felt giddy and enlarged, as if something had burst through the concrete skies of Seattle.
We pulled up to the storefront and a wizened man, knuckled with arthritis, greeted us. Inside, the building had cement floors and amber Formica counters. My brothers and I scanned the shelves: empty cardboard boxes with Hershey logos and cans of oil. Outside, the rounded gas pumps in pastel colors were flecked with shiny spots where the paint had chipped. Upstairs, the apartment reeked of mildew; the whole place was more cramped than our tiny house.
I resigned myself to the fact that nothing ever changed. And then something did.
My father didn’t need to think about whether or not to pursue the opportunity. We could all see that it wasn’t an opportunity at all. After that, he quit looking at the want ads and put more effort into his traveling-salesman job. He came home one evening and announced, “I’m going to Mexico City.” The company had chosen him, instead of the other salesmen, to attend a convention. His promotion gave me hope. Several years earlier, I had been afraid of Dale Flynn. Now, I was afraid of being poor. I may have been a little jealous, too. My father had opportunities to escape.
The afternoon he returned from Mexico, he summoned us into the dining room. He sat a gray suitcase on the table, popped it open, and unloaded a wooden puzzle, a marble chess set, candy that looked like crystalline rocks, a reed flute, and leather bullwhips. My brothers and I had started to fight, saying, “I get the puzzle,” and “The chess set stays in my room,” when our father said, “What do we have here?” He drew a small velvet bag from the suitcase and handed it to our mother. She pulled out a chunky silver necklace, heavy with dozens of turquoise pendants. The stones seemed alive, like eyes with tiny veins.
“What is it?” I said.
“A squash blossom.” He said it was worth five hundred dollars in the U.S., and he bought it for fifty in Mexico. “This one’s special.” He pinched the center stone between his thumb and finger. “It has a black onyx at the center, like a bull’s eye.”
Our mother, who had grown up wearing hand-me-downs, was shocked by my father’s extravagance. We’d seen her resist superfluous gifts before.
She shook her head and held her palm out in a gesture that meant stop. My father ignored it now. He stood behind her and clasped the necklace around her tiny neck, but it was me he looked at.
“You’ll inherit this when your mother dies,” he said. “It will be our heirloom.”
He said that as the only girl, I was going to inherit the job of keeping the necklace safe. I would give it to my daughter, who would in turn give it to hers, so that hundreds of years from now, the family would know he had given it to our mother. The necklace was meant to pass love from one generation to the next.
My hands grew cold and clammy as he talked. I wanted to appreciate the sentiment, but how could I ensure the heirloom was safe in a future I couldn’t imagine?
Later, I stood in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom watching my mother take off the necklace. She replaced it in the velvet bag, and then put it in the special drawer where she kept black lingerie from her honeymoon night, a horse bridle from the mare she sold to marry my father, and a cork box that preserved photographs of her deceased father. She didn’t open the drawer often.
How could I ensure the heirloom was safe in a future I couldn’t imagine?
That night she was wearing her long black hair in a ponytail, a peach sweatshirt covered in paint stains, and loose jeans. She was part Indian, and it showed in her pointed cheekbones and black eyes. Those eyes communicated the subtlest forms of disapproval and love. I was afraid of her in ways I never felt with my father.
“Why aren’t you going to wear it?” I said.
“I don’t want to lose it,” she said, shyly.
— — — — —
Two years later, the summer I entered seventh grade, the cul-de-sac changed. In the evenings, the Flynns and their friends shattered liquor bottles in the street. At night, old Mr. Flynn and his boys roared like moose in their backyard. One family found their dog dead in their front yard. Another’s lawn furniture went missing. Whenever our family drove out of the cul-de-sac, the Flynn boys yelled, “Fuck your family,” and flipped us off.
One day, our parents drove us to Mukilteo beach with a picnic of Cheez Whiz sandwiches, apples, and Kool-Aid. It was a typical Seattle day, the sun overrun by clouds, a stiff breeze, and the taste of the sea in the air. My brothers and I looked for crabs and built sand castles that fell apart as soon as we stood them up. Our mother read a novel. Our father helped us fly kites.
That evening, we pulled into our gravel driveway to find our front door gaping open. My brothers and I piled out of the station wagon, but our father waved us back. Our mother swayed back and forth as she cradled our youngest brother, an infant. Her eyes were fretful behind cat’s-eye glasses. My father walked into the dark house alone. After a few minutes, he emerged, saying, “Everything looks okay.”
If we all contributed our extra change, he’d take us to Disneyland when it reached two hundred dollars. We knew we were getting close.
Inside, my brothers and I turned on the T.V. in the family room. Our mother floated in and sat for a while. For some reason, it occurred to her to lift the family savings jar that sat on top of the console. My father had put the blue jar there and told us if we all contributed our extra change, he’d take us to Disneyland when it reached two hundred dollars. We knew we were getting close. Now, as our mother held it, we could see it was empty.
The robbery shuddered through each of us differently. My father stomped around swearing. My mother ran to her room with the baby. My brothers grinned, as if they were on a detective show. I thought of all the times I’d dropped coins into the community jar that I would rather have spent on myself.
I walked around observing things I hadn’t noticed in a long time: the metal clock with paisley swirls sent to us by our aunt who lived in Singapore; the creamy wallpaper with the gold fleur-de-lis pattern; a reproduction of Paul Klee’s Head of Man I used to stare at when I was banned to the couch as punishment. Seeing it made me realize I didn’t really know what was in our house anymore.
My mother screamed from her bedroom. We rushed to her. The baby was on the bed, and all the things from her special drawer lay on the floor. They looked sad, like my Chatty Cathy or my brothers’ Hot Wheels, which we didn’t play with anymore. In her long-fingered hands she held the velvet bag that had protected her squash blossom. It was limp.
Two cops came to our door that evening and took notes as my father talked. “I can tell you who did this,” he said. “The Flynns and their no-good friends.”
The cops asked if anyone saw the Flynns enter or exit our house. What about the necklace? Did anyone spot them with it? Had they left anything behind that would identify them? The cops had been to the neighborhood before, trying to arrest the Flynns. They wanted evidence this time. We had none.
The cops shook their heads and walked away.
My father went silent as he pitched back and forth in our rocking chair.
— — — — —
The diary I kept that summer was a gift from my mother. It was a small book with a lock and key.
I wrote about the fights she and I had — not unusual for someone my age — and my father’s efforts to keep me under control. He took me fishing on Lake Stevens and to the arboretum, where I learned to name local plants.
I described the day my father installed a tetherball pole in the backyard. He cemented it next to the ladder leading to my brothers’ treehouse. In the evenings, instead of watching T.V., he volleyed the ball with me while my brothers climbed trees above us. Usually, after I beat him several times, he went inside and I joined my brothers in the trees, but I couldn’t get into their make-believe world of guns and battles the way I used to. I longed for a life beyond family.
I wrote in my diary about my job. A woman who tended bar on Aurora Avenue had hired me to babysit her two daughters on weekends. Her closet was full of lamé blouses, rhinestone belts, and fishnet stockings. After I put the girls to bed, I paraded around the house in her clothes. On paydays, I walked straight to Fred Meyer to buy imitation versions of her wardrobe, like the mushroom-brown suede purse with the fringy bottom.
We gathered in a wooded area to drink, smoke pot, and make out….
Once, I wrote about Dale Flynn. I had been at a party where some kid’s lenient parents had bought kegs of Budweiser and we gathered in a wooded area to drink, smoke pot, and make out. I had just peed in the bushes and was pulling up my jeans when there was Dale, slouching against a tree.
Perhaps we would have started talking if one of his brothers hadn’t have shown up.
“You have a nice ass,” Dale said as I walked away.
I also wrote about the time I wiggled into a denim minidress, combed out my wavy hair, and slung my fringed purse over my shoulder, where it swished against my bare leg. When my mother saw me, she told me I had to stay home and babysit my brothers. “No,” I said. “I’m going out with my friends.”
Sexuality tingled in every pore and my sense of duty lay dormant…. Some part of me believed that learning to fight my way through life was as thrilling as it got.
My father, who was sitting in the rocker, wadded his newspaper. “Mind your mother,” he said.
But I couldn’t obey her. Sexuality tingled in every pore and my sense of duty lay dormant. As I walked past, my father got up and stepped in front of me. “You’re not hanging out with those good-for-nothings.” I tried to scoot around him, and he grabbed my arms to hold me back. I screamed, “No! No! No!”
This was what I was saying out loud. Inside, I was saying, You’re not going to stop me. Even when he threw his arm up to backhand me across the face.
I wrenched free and scuttled behind the sofa, crouching. I became aware of my mother banging pans and of my brothers’ voices in the kitchen. My father was scrambling around the sofa when my mother’s voice broke through: “Leave her alone!” I fled to my room and hid in the closet and cried.
After a while, my father opened the closet door. “Come out now, Sis.” He said this in a firm voice, but it was soft around the edges. The name “Sis” was a term of affection. It signaled my role as big sister to my brothers. It was also his way of apologizing and telling me he would protect me with the same fierceness with which he punished me. I understood that he was imparting skills, ways of fighting. Some part of me believed that learning to fight my way through life was as thrilling as it got.
“Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” he said. I crept out of the closet. “We love you. We want what’s best. That’s all.”
He would protect me with the same fierceness with which he punished me….
I limped to the kitchen, where my mother held a pan of cookies at the counter. She didn’t look at me.
My brothers swung G.I. Joe figures to and fro in the air to the rhythm of my sobs.
— — — — —
Wilcox Park, a mile beyond the cul-de-sac, had a flag pavilion where my friends and I hung out that summer, playing at being adults: applying lipstick, talking about sex, and gossiping about the inferiority of girls outside our clique.
We were there one afternoon when a strange girl, more womanly than any of us, walked by wearing a squash blossom necklace.
I told myself it couldn’t be the necklace. This was Seattle. A lot of people probably owned necklaces from Mexico.
Nonetheless, I related the story of our robbery to my friends, and we started getting worked up enough so that I summoned the nerve to approach the girl.
She was now sitting with a group of her friends in a circle on the grass. I stared at her shirt — delicate calico flowers against a sheet of white. The neckline, plunging into her cleavage, exposed the necklace. It was my mother’s. The black onyx at the center seemed to wink at me.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” she said.
“I like your necklace,” I said. “Where’d you get it?”
“My boyfriend.” Her voice was haughty and defensive.
She ran her fingers through her long red hair.
“Is it Dale?” I said.
“What’s it to you?” she said.
“Nothing,” I said. But it was something to me.
At home that evening, Nixon’s saggy face and the Watergate hearings blared into our family room. The hearings gave me a headache, men with slick hair and dark suits speaking in halting sentences and sitting in one place for hours. Yet I felt connected to the hearings because my parents followed them closely.
My father often told us to pay attention to the courtroom drama. “This is making history,” he would say. My mother felt sorry for Nixon. But my father insisted, “He’s a crook.”
I wanted my mother to have it back, yet I didn’t want to relinquish the peculiar power I felt….
I said nothing about the necklace that night. I wanted my mother to have it back, yet I didn’t want to relinquish the peculiar power I felt. I held evidence that Dale’s girlfriend was wearing a stolen gift. And I knew more than my father about the whereabouts of the heirloom. The information was better than having the necklace myself.
Weeks went by and I stayed silent. One afternoon, I walked the cul-de-sac, scanning the curve of houses, some painted and mowed, others with old tires or mattresses decorating the yards. The sky was freakishly blue. Mount Rainier lay somewhere beyond the cul-de-sac. I just couldn’t see it.
Before I knew it, I was standing in front of the Flynns’. Dale’s angular face peered out from behind the curtains. He waved me to come up, so I did. He cracked opened the door, bare-chested and wearing holey jeans that rode his bony hips.
“Wanna play foosball?” he said.
A heavy lamp shaded the corner. Two girls I didn’t recognize mingled with Dale’s brothers. I was betraying my parents by being there, knowing full well that Dale had taken the necklace, but I pushed those thoughts away.
Dale nudged me to the table, and I grabbed the handles, pushing the plastic men back and forth until the ball whizzed past me. I turned to look for it; when I turned back, the game was over. I’d lost.
Things sped up.
“Where you goin’?” He squeezed me tighter with one arm and, with his other hand, angled my chin toward his face. “You’re not getting away that easy.”
Dale put a beer in my hand, and I swallowed the foam that spilled over. I was aware of him behind me. He hooked his arm around my waist, pressing his groin into my back. His arm had a faint scar running from wrist to elbow. I wanted to lean into him, to feel him at my core, but I wasn’t ready. And then I heard my father calling my name. “I have to leave,” I said.
“Where you goin’?” He squeezed me tighter with one arm and, with his other hand, angled my chin toward his face. “You’re not getting away that easy.” He put his sticky lips to mine. I moaned.
I managed to twist free and run for the door. As I did, I heard his brother say, “Leave her alone. Bitch ain’t worth it.”
I felt strangely hurt that Dale didn’t chase me.
— — — — —
For the next little while, I tried not to think about him. Then one day, I saw him at school. I smiled at him. He turned up the corner of his lip like he didn’t know me.
The next morning at the family breakfast table, I said, “I know where Mother’s necklace is,” and I told them about the girl at Wilcox Park. My mother got a sharp look in her eyes. My father sat quietly, his face and body tensing up. He left, and when he came back a half hour later, he told us that he had gone to the Flynns’ and told Dale the necklace better be back that evening.
Within the hour, Dale and a friend came into our yard and leaned against our back fence.
“Give me the necklace,” my father said.
Dale spat on the ground near my father’s feet.
“Get off my property and stay off,” my father said, his voice raised a pitch. The boys didn’t move.
My father put out his hands and shoved the friend, knocking him backward. The boy hit the ground, scrambled up, and ran off. My father grabbed Dale, twisted his arm behind him, and held Dale so that he couldn’t move.
“If anything happens to my children or my property ever again,” my father said to Dale, “I’ll come after you. I don’t care if you had anything to do with it or not, I’ll hold you personally responsible. So pass the word. You leave us alone or I’ll come looking for you.” He let go, and Dale ran.
My father didn’t mention the incident the rest of the morning, but I felt calm, reassured, confident that he had taken care of the neighborhood mischief once and for all.
One of the cops winked at my father….
That afternoon, the cops came to our house with their notebooks. Dale Flynn was pressing charges against my father for assault.
My father sat in the rocker and folded his hands as if in prayer. “They were on my property. I told them they should leave, and if they didn’t, I’d have to escort them off.” His eyelids grew heavy and his voice crawled. “I’m sorry if he hurt himself leaving my property.”
One of the cops winked at my father. They snapped their notebooks shut. We followed them outside, standing in a semicircle around their patrol car. That’s when we noticed the windshield was covered with saliva, dun white with brown speckles.
“Fuckers,” one of the cops said.
As I watched the Flynns strut down the cul-de-sac away from us, I knew we’d never get the heirloom back, and I despised Dale for it.
— — — —
We lived in the cul-de-sac for a few more years before my father moved us out for good.
The Flynns left us alone. Nixon’s face disappeared from the news, as if the Watergate crimes had never happened. I started high school and made an effort to get along with my parents. It was easier than fighting them.
On the Fourth of July of my sophomore year, I realized how I really felt about Dale. My family gathered in the backyard, where our father had filled a red wagon with tubular things that looked like push-up ice cream bars and, when lit, popped into a splash of light. Though I hated the abrupt bursts of fireworks, and I wanted to leave, I knew better than to spurn family events.
I stayed until I heard yelling in the distance.
There was a crack, like the sound of a limb being broken from a tree trunk….
Following the sound, I came to the tetherball pole and the treehouse. With time the pole had slanted and vines covered the treehouse, but the ladder stood strong. I climbed.
Someone yelped. It was Dale. In the Flynns’ porch light, I saw him with his father, an old man, shirtless and covered in hair. Mr. Flynn’s chest was yellow-brown. He yowled, “Fucking pussy!” There was a crack, like the sound of a limb being broken from a tree trunk, and then Dale was holding his hands to his bleeding nose.
He seemed so helpless. I wanted to call someone, but there was no one. In that moment, I saw how closely mine and Dale’s lives paralleled one another. It was as if he were taking a beating so that I didn’t have to. I wish I could say that I was mature enough to feel guilty. I didn’t. I felt lucky. But I knew I still had a lot of fighting to do to make it out of the cul-de-sac.
I sat for a few moments watching as Dale and Mr. Flynn moved into the shadows, punching and swaying. Then I climbed down and didn’t look back.
— — — — — — — — — — — — —
D. J. Lee’s creative work has been featured or is forthcoming in Narrative, The Montreal Review, Vela, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. The author of three books of literary history and editor of three critical collections focusing on the nineteenth century, she is currently completing two memoirs: one about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana, one about motherhood and the Arctic. She blogs regularly at http://www.debbiejlee.com.