The House on Archer Avenue
What I remember most about the house on Archer Avenue during the time of my youth was the steady drone of noise, a continual assault on the ears that barely took a break to sleep, and some nights not even then, what with Dad’s snoring. I also remember the twin paths of birth and death winding their way through my existence with a persistent dread, co-existing and sometimes feeding off each other, and no matter which reared its head, and both did, there was lacking a connective tissue between them and my own world, these strange feelings creating within me a sense of isolation. If love was delicate, then life was even more so, because even when love ends, life continues; when life ends, well, it’s over. Of course no one just comes to that conclusion; you need to feel it and experience it, and for me it began, I used to think, when Baby Wagner came to live with us. But maybe it began even earlier, when I first heard the word “death” and wondered exactly what it meant; I had to wait years before I could understand it.
Grandpa died when I was only four years old and I didn’t attend his funeral. Instead, I played with my new Christmas toys while a babysitter watched over me. He was my mother’s father, and, from all the stories I heard, a good man and a talented one, a painter who never really had any financial success with it because he was busy raising a family, and who had time for such fancies, dreams of riches? I never cried over Grandpa, and today I barely remember him; that’s how young minds work, they hide unpleasantness. What I did notice was that we were short one person and the noise level remained the same; maybe Grandpa was mute? A year later my oldest sister, Patty, got married, and the house was emptier still; my grandparents had lived downstairs and we upstairs, and in two years’ time (really only fourteen months), two people were gone from the house, and I was starting to get my first taste of silence. It was short lived, though, because my grandmother always seemed to be yelling, and noise came from my four other siblings, too, and then there was Mom and there was Dad, both of them adding to the mix as well, to the point where I had no escape.
That wasn’t true; I did have one, a small corner of the house where dreams were imagined and stories were told. On the far edge of the living room, beside the flowery print sofa that reminded Mom of summer even when it was winter, I had been given my portion of the world, where I could set up my toys and re-enact battles with Army figurines, or try to capture the Joker with the help of Batman, Robin, the Lone Ranger, any hero who was readily available. On cold winter days, and even on some rainy spring days, I could be found scrunched on the far end of the room, nearly out of sight but always in earshot since there was always some dialogue or action, guns blazing or explosions going off, my own way of fitting into the noisy household. During the summers Mom would kick me out, and it was almost like I was taking a vacation with my toys, tossed in the great wilderness that was our backyard. These were treacherous times for my beloved characters because no one was safe on any given day. Still, Batman could meet his maker on a Friday afternoon and be up and ready for a new adventure the following Monday, his fate solely in my fickle hands. I was eight, nine, ten during these goings-on, and by this time another of my siblings had gone, my sister Laura, off to college. Also, by now the house had been converted into a one-family structure, and Grandma joined the rest of the household by taking command of what was once the first floor’s master bedroom, now a two-room suite that gave her some privacy. Not enough, though; I used to use her bedroom window sill as a jumping off point for the Lone Ranger and Silver, and Grandma would rap on the closed window, pointing to the mystery novel she was reading, a sure sign I was disturbing her. The Lone Ranger, secure atop his horse, was suddenly able to fly during those times, far away from Grandma’s prying eyes and the peeling paint of her weathered sill.
It was one of those hot summer days in July that the first of a series of “arrangements” would be made—that’s the word Dad always used. I had been left in Grandma’s care, since my brothers and sisters were off with friends and Mom was at work and so was Dad (but he always was) when the phone rang and I realized no one else was around (or awake, in Grandma’s case) to take the call. It was my brother-in-law, Ronald. He said someone should get to the hospital because Patty was about to deliver.
At age nine, I hadn’t yet grasped the concept of babies and how they were born. “Deliver what?”
“Isn’t anyone else home, Georgie?”
Georgie was a babyish nickname that I’d yet to outgrow, mostly because Ronald insisted upon using it; he wasn’t the only one, but I liked to think it gave our relationship some solid footing. Now wasn’t one of our shining moments. I told him Grandma was asleep, but that she was supposed to be watching me.
He seemed even less placated by this news than by my having answered the phone. Ronald finally pried Mom’s whereabouts out of me. He hung up without saying goodbye, and that was the last I heard of things until midnight, when, alone in my room with the lights off and my breathing steady but nervous, too, and unsure why, the headlights of my Dad’s gold Impala appeared in the driveway. I got up from bed, hanging out on the landing of the front stairs, and listened as my parents walked inside.
Grandma was waiting at the door for them, her hair in curlers and dressed in a lime green housecoat that she always seemed to wear at night; maybe she owned a lot of them. Grandma, even though she was tiny, could be an intimidating woman, like when she chased me away from the window, sometimes without her false teeth in place so her lips curled inward. Even today that’s how I think of her, but on that night, all I saw was my mother’s mother open up her stringy arms and hug her daughter, while my Dad endearingly touched Mom’s shoulder, rubbing her back. All three of them stood there in silence, a rare sound, and I felt scared all of a sudden, feeling as though something bad had happened, and all I could remember was the phone call from my brother-in-law earlier that afternoon. I still associate silence with bad news, as though no one has the right words to say so they don’t say any.
Admittedly I was a naive child and certain parts about the human condition evaded me, but that night I learned something all species have—instinct. Death was in the air; it hung high above Mom and Dad and Grandma and threatened to curl its way up the stairs and attack me. I scuttled back to my room unnoticed, closed the door, turned off the light, and buried myself under the covers. I stayed that way for about an hour, waiting for someone to come and tell me what had happened. No one did, because I was a kid, just nine, and first of all I was supposed to be in bed, but more importantly, I was too young to understand the concept of death. And even though I’d never known death in its true sense, being so young when Grandpa died, death for me happened every day, whether it was Batman meeting his maker or a field of Army soldiers on the wrong side of cannon fire. Of course, the next day, they were all fine, healthy, and strong and ready to fight another day.
That wasn’t true in real life, not for my sister Patty.
We had a new baby in the house a few days later, the start of a new generation.
* * *
I’m told we hadn’t had the cries of a newborn in the house since I was brought home, the youngest child who was now well on his way to adulthood, or at least the fifth grade come fall, and so when Baby Wagner came through the vestibule in the front lobby that Thursday morning, he quickly embraced the family motto; he cried, and once again noise returned to the house on Archer Avenue, something begun long ago in another era.
Grandpa, whose name was Lester Louis Ulrich, was a first generation American whose own mother and father came from Germany and Ireland respectively. He was raised in the farmlands of upstate New York and once dreamed of leaving the small-town life for big-city excitement, him and his paintbrush, but these were the thirties, and you just didn’t do that kind of irresponsible thing back then, not if you had any common sense, and Les Ulrich was nothing if not a practical sort. He knew he owed his parents much, for always having a meal at the table and running water and happy, laugh-filled nights where the elder Ulrich’s watched as young Les applied charcoal to paper and gave life to the images that lived inside his mind. During the day Les helped maintain the farm, with the fall harvest and the spring replanting, and in between there was upkeep and companionship to his decidedly old-world folks. And when he met young Marion Broadbent at a local town picnic, he became besotted with the dark-haired beauty, and soon they were courting, and soon after that they were married and she moved in with her new husband, who still lived with his aging parents at the farm. The four of them thrived in that close-knit community for many years, through the birth of Les and Marion’s daughter, whom they named Penelope but nicknamed Pippa after a relative who died on the journey to the new world; Back then tragedies like that affected every family, and each family remembered them in their own way, and mine chose to honor her this way. And so my mother became Pippa, a name she always hated.
In the fifties, Grandpa, his painting dreams long forgotten, along with some of the locals in our village of Lincoln Point, found a plot of land, and construction on a new development began, the population starting to grow in this once-remote region. It was here that years later, on an autumn day that held such a chill you needed to hold someone close, Mom and Dad came upon the house on Archer Avenue. Having grown up on the farm, Mom loved the idea of a new home, a new life in the heart of the village. The farm was on the outskirts of the town, and the new house, big and proud with its three stories and big porch, was in the newer section of the village, spreading east of the downtown marina and the shores of Lake Ontario, right smack in the middle of Archer Avenue. Over the years the house on Archer Avenue would become the Denton family compound, its many rooms to be filled with new generations of Dentons, of which my Dad was one and so was my Mom, by marriage, I guess, and so was I, the youngest, following five other kids who saw fit to enter the world way before me; the next closest in age to me was my sister, Joyce, and she was older by five years. In fact, the house was at its breaking point, with all the bedrooms occupied and seemingly all the others, living, dining, kitchen, basement, never without the sound of a member of the Denton/Ulrich clan, and so when Baby Wagner came home that morning, new arrangements had to be made.
Dad, whose name was Fred, came by my room two mornings before Baby Wagner cried in the vestibule, the morning after Grandma hugged Mom, and he found me awake reading an Archie comic book, a funny one I’d read many times but today found lame and defiantly unfunny. I couldn’t laugh, not with the occasional whisps of crying filtering through the vent system, from Mom’s room and from Grandma’s room, too, way downstairs at the other end of the house. He knocked on the door once and entered before I could reply, and as I saw his face, aged seemingly overnight, I realized he hadn’t gotten any sleep and immediately felt guilty because I had and because now I was reading the funnies, even though they weren’t living up to their name.
Dad was dressed like he was going to work, his dark hair slicked back with some kind of hair tonic, and he smelled like he’d just shaved. He was average height, about five nine, and he still looked pretty good for a man nearing fifty, I thought.
“Hi, George,” he said, sitting on the edge of my bed. He appeared to be searching for words, not just any words but the right ones. Instead he asked me, “What are you reading?”
I shrugged. “Stupid comics. Mom doesn’t like them.”
“You like them?”
I shrugged again; this time he knew I wasn’t being entirely truthful. “Yeah, I like them.”
“Good. Keep reading them and keep liking them. That’s what life’s about, finding things you like and sticking with them—long as it’s not bad, you know what I mean?”
I wasn’t accustomed to Dad being so philosophical, and so I accepted his words as truth and told myself I’d do my best to live up to them. It sounded like good advice, after all.
“Look, George, something bad happened yesterday. But I think you know that, don’t you? You’re pretty good with your feelings and you can tell when there’s a shift in the house, can’t you? Yeah, you’re my George, my sensitive George.” With that he tousled my unruly brown hair, made a worse mess of it than my pillow had over the course of the night. I brushed it back into place, tried anyway, and while I did so Dad went on to explain what happened, sparing me certain details so as not to scare me. Patty Denton, who married Ronald Wagner and became Patty Wagner but still remained my sister, had died during childbirth, which I was told was less common these days than when my Grandma or Mom were having kids, but still it happened and it happened yesterday, to Patty, to our family.
“What about the baby?” I asked. I’d seen Patty’s big belly and had been told she was carrying a baby and I was excited when I heard it, months ago, and I’d been eager to see the newborn, maybe have the chance to hold the little guy (or gal, what did I know?) in my arms.
“It’s a boy, and he’s doing fine. He’s staying for a couple days in the hospital so the doctors can look him over and the nurses can feed him and so we can figure out what we’re going to do about him.” He paused looking ready to cry, and I wondered then if I’d ever seen my dad cry before and decided I hadn’t. I realized I hadn’t cried either, and I wondered why. “Arrangements need to be made,” Dad said.
Those arrangements were twofold: details for Patty’s funeral came first, then decisions about what was to become of Baby Wagner, who was yet to be named. I learned why later that day, when I was sitting beneath the big old Elm tree in the backyard, my toys around me but lacking an adventure for the day. Joyce, who was a tall, gangly girl of fourteen with dark blonde hair and braces, came out of the back of the house and plopped down beside me, nudging me with her shoulder.
“Mom wants to call the baby Pat,” she said without preamble. “You know, like after Patty but only with a boy’s name.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” I said.
“Dad thinks Ronald should decide on the boy’s name. But Ronald isn’t in such good shape, not according to Mom, and so she said in his state of mind he’s liable to come up with some strange name, when the boy should have a strong name.”
“Pat’s a strong name?” I asked. It didn’t seem to have done my sister much good, but maybe it worked better when it was a male name. She didn’t answer my question, and I didn’t seek any answer, and together we sat under the Elm, picked at a couple leaves that had fallen down in the night’s breeze. The veins that ran through the leaves made the otherwise smooth green leaf bumpy. After a while, Joyce got up to go, and before she could go I asked her a question. An important one, I thought.
“What kind of a question is that,” she threw back at me. “Did I cry?”
I nodded. “I just want to know.”
“Our sister died.”
“I know,” I said, “but there’s a new little life. Patty did good, ’cause the baby is fine and that makes me want to smile.”
“Well, don’t let Mom catch you smiling.”
“Okay,” I said, and then tossed the leaf down on the ground, where it covered Batman, a shroud.
I found out later that night that we were going to be having a funeral and something called “calling hours,” which made me nervous, since this whole thing (in my mind at least) had started with the phone ringing. I’d avoided Mom the entire day, not wanting to say the wrong thing, not wanting to upset her, and finally she came to me at bedtime, after she’d been holed up inside her own room, and when she sat down on my bed, tucking the sheet beneath the mattress, she actually managed a smile.
“It’s good to feel like a mother,” she said. “That I can help my child.”
And then she just started crying, right there at my bedside, her body quivering and the light from the nightlight casting her moving shadow upon the far wall, and I simultaneously watched both of them move, body and shadow, their syncopated rhythm, their shared pain. And then I leaned over to hug her, in the process pulling loose the sheet she’d just tucked in, and I said so just before I hugged her, and then she burst out into laughter and held me tight, so tight I thought she might be trying to return me to her womb, to forever protect me from the world. Together we rocked, and I stole a look at the far wall and saw both our shadows move and I smiled, like I’d done earlier that day, when Joyce had warned me not to. But Mom was glad to see it.
“Too many sad faces in this house. Stay happy.”
“Can I ask a question?” I asked.
“Well, you just did, and that didn’t hurt, so I guess another one wouldn’t.”
Mom sometimes spoke in riddles, and I just accepted her reply as a yes. So I asked her if Baby Wagner was going to be named Pat, and Mom’s answer was stunned silence, especially when I followed up with my own follow-up.
“I don’t think it should be, Mom. Patty was one person, and her baby is someone else. So he should have his own name.”
Mom bent down, kissed my head. “You’re very wise, George.”
Before she left I stared up at her, at her blonde hair, which she readily admitted to coloring; “To keep me young,” she’d said, and I guess after you’ve given birth to six kids, you can do whatever you want. Except save your own child from its fate. She left then, but not before she tucked the sheet back under the mattress, and for the night I was encased in a different kind of womb, still somehow protected by my mom. I fell asleep and didn’t wake until nearly eleven the next morning, when a car with a damaged muffler pulled into the driveway. I scampered out of bed, saw that it was my sister Patty’s car, a battered old blue Nova, and for a second I imagined I had dreamed the events of the past couple days. Ronald, Patty’s husband, instead stepped out of the car, a suitcase in his strong arms, and I wondered why he was carrying it. He lived only two towns away, close enough that he’d never before needed to stay overnight at the house on Archer Avenue.
I took up my perch on the landing of the front stairs as Ronald entered the house and shook hands with my Dad, a greeting I’d always known them to do, despite having known each other so many years; it struck me as formal and distant and not the behavior between a father and the man who had married his daughter.
“So, you’re taking Pippa up on her suggestion,” Dad said.
“For now, yeah, I think it’s best, Fred.”
And for the second time in two days, I heard Dad say something about having to make arrangements and I sat for a long time on those stairs trying to figure out what he might have meant. What I learned was that if you wait long enough, answers will come to you, and it was only a few hours until I learned what those “arrangements” were. Ronald Wagner was moving into our house, and with him was coming Baby Wagner, his son; they were taking over my room, and I would be moving in with my brother Pete, who was sixteen and barely said a word to me, me being a pesky brat (in his eyes).
“It’s only for a short while,” Dad said, “probably just the summer.”
But summer was only two weeks old, the big July fourth holiday barely over, and for a boy of nine that can be a long time, especially when it meant sharing a room with someone whose favorite activity was glaring at you, that is, when he wasn’t choosing to punch you in the arm.
“Can I sleep out in the tent tonight?” I asked.
“Not tonight, George,” Dad said, “Let’s get through the next few days. Change affects us all, and we all have to do our part. Pete, too.”
More philosophical advice from Dad, and I realized that what he was doing was taking charge of the situation, a role no one else seemed to want, not Grandma and not Mom, both of whom shuttled back and forth to the hospital that day, cooing over Baby Wagner, whom I’d yet to meet. All I knew was that a lot was happening in a very short amount of time, and it was almost as if the Earth had shifted, like a strong wind had whipped up and knocked it off its axis. That afternoon I played inside when a summer rain storm passed, Batman and Robin captured the bad guy, a guy who found the Batcave and decided it was just cool enough to live in. As for the Lone Ranger, well, he was left in the darkness.