Most of us have a few really brilliant images from childhood that stand out inexplicably: the dead fly and cobweb laden view of a windowsill, the flaky pattern of an old couch, the legs of a carved wooden chair, the vinyl siding of someone’s house you played at once. These memories are like guideposts in the world of our childhood memories. They are strikingly personal and, as a result, seem to make up a significant part of our personalities. Would we be the same people without the grey memory of the interior of grandma’s car on a rainy day?
Usually, we are certain of these memories. They are mundane enough to not warrant questioning them. Yet, some images remain because they cannot be reconciled with the world we have come to know. The striking orange of the fox in the backyard, the bruised tornado on the horizon, were they actually there or did our childhood imagination blend with reality to create a false impression?
One such uncertain memory I had was of a kid name Chad Tagavor. Chad had a presentable fatness to him. He was big, but well-proportioned enough that no one would have teased him for being fat. His chubby face and wide back seemed to fit him, even at a young age. Chad had a big dimple in his chin and wheat-colored hair chopped into a bowl. He was the kind of kid everyone liked.
Before the day he cut himself on the slide at Dibble Elementary, I don’t know if I even knew his name. I had only just arrived at the school a few weeks before, an incredibly shy kid who spent my recess periods slinking around the edges of the playground, turning over and examining the Flintstones chewable vitamins I’d pocketed, feeling guilty for hiding them when my mom wasn’t looking. I’d roll the slate-colored Barneys and red jasper Wilmas between my thumb and forefinger before finally pitching them in the weeds, which only made me feel worse.
My mopey playground routine didn’t often take me near the large play structure at the center. The confabulation of slides, ladders and monkey bars seemed to have been intended for other kids. I had worked up the courage once, but when I reached the top, amazed at my own audacity, there had been a Charon in Keds asking some kind of admission to the slide. “What will you give me to go down the slide?” He’d asked. Finding nothing in my pockets but a Bam Bam and two Dinos, I turned around and climbed down without saying anything.
When I walked by the structure, I’d watch the other kids climbing it and leaping from it, shouting at each other, like pirates besieging a ship. I wondered how they could be so comfortable acting like this when, for some reason, I was so worried about being noticed or drawing any attention to myself.
I was in first grade and Chad was in third. Having been at Dibble for over two years, he was more comfortable with the place, but even on his first day, he probably ran right up to the monkey bars and started swinging, yelling and challenging other kids to chicken. Chad existed in the realm of big kids, which, when you’re six, is anyone a grade older than you. Second and third graders were big kids; anyone above sixth grade was an adult. It seemed impossible that anyone should ever live so long to be a sixth grader. I couldn’t fathom what it must’ve been like.
I didn’t know any big kids, but I heard their names called brashly across the playground, so I knew many of their names without having a face to put them to. The day I saw the blood smeared on the reflective metallic surface of the twisty slide and heard the name ‘Chad’ whispered by those who had crowded around, I only had a vague notion of the person this name was meant to recall.
This is the memory: I was at the edge of the playground. I heard someone, a kid, yell. A few of the matronly teacher’s aides who worked the playground were running, which they never did, their whistles swinging back and forth on their stalwart necks. Kids were gathering around the base of the twisty slide. I walked over, staying at the back of the crowd. It was a sunny day. The metal of the slide was so bright it hurt your eyes and dappled and smeared over the metal was more blood than I’d ever seen. “Chad,” the kids around me said. “Cut his hand,” they told each other. “The slide.”
In my memory, the blood was incredibly copious, but it was probably just the sight of the blood, of someone else’s blood, in such an unexpected place that made it appear of a much greater volume. As well as I knew that, I could not succeed in changing the memory to correspond with the reality and Chad Tagavor remained the legendary kid who was nearly exsanguinated by a slide.
Because Chad was a few grades ahead of me, I only saw him one year in every three. He left Dibble just a year after I got there. Three years later, he was in his last year at Frost Elementary when I first arrived to the school, which again, due to the unreliable nature of memory, I am only able to picture under a barrage of heavy rain.
Perhaps as a result of these incessant rains, at Frost Elementary, I gradually got over my shyness and became a loud-mouth. I shouted out stupid things in class at almost every available opportunity. I didn’t pay attention to the principal exports of Peru or to the Pythagorean Theorem. I didn’t do well in school at all after discovering that the sound of my peers’ laughter was every bit as gratifying as an ‘A’ on a quiz and much easier to procure.
After challenging teachers for a few years, I started challenging my peers. I rebelled against fashion and anything else that seemed superfluous to personal, creative growth. I listened to punk rock records, complained about ‘the system,’ stopped changing my clothes and told most people, either directly or indirectly, to leave me alone. In the midst of this quixotic teenage rebellion, Chad Tagavor appeared again as an employee of the McDonald’s on West Avenue, out by the highway.
I’m thirteen, ordering a Big Mac with no meat from him. His navy blue visor with the golden ‘M’ is squashed down on his head. He is still big, a big kid; it’s the first time we’ve ever talked. When I see him behind the register, my mind races back ten years to retrieve the corresponding picture. I see the blood and hear the kids saying “Chad” and “cut himself bad.” I put in my order. “A Big Mac,” he says, “with no meat?” It’s not mean or anything, just perplexed. He can’t help but to share the flagrancy of the order with his coworkers. “Hey, guys,” he says, turning to his coworkers “I got a Big Mac with no meat over here!” I wonder how he can be the same person from that afternoon, the blood on the twisty slide. How can I be the same person? I want to ask him if he remembers. Instead, I mutter something about how he should try it sometime, the Big Mac with no meat, that is.
Chad, being three grades ahead of me, graduated from high school my sophomore year and, in the ensuing chaos of my late adolescence, I forgot all about him, the slide, the blood, the McDonald’s, everything. Some memories disappear like that. It’s like they’re not relevant anymore and become replaced with more immediate information.
I graduated from J-High and barely managed to get into college. I did my best to reform. I convinced myself that all I ever wanted was to be independent and I shouldn’t squander something so hard won. While everyone else was cutting classes and partying, I sat in the 24-hour diner, chain-smoking, gulping down coffee and studying like I’d never studied before. I knew I was way behind most of my peers academically. Even when I worked really hard, I still got mediocre grades, but they were grades I could be proud of and this was enough to encourage me.
I went to a large university with a prominent student culture. Thursday to Sunday, the student ghetto was filled with meatheads carrying 24-packs and mini-skirted girls over their shoulders. In the coldest winter months, the girls waited outside in lines for the night clubs wearing baby doll tops and short shorts, up to their ankles in snow. For an entire year, the song Hey Ya was constantly playing from one frat porch or another, setting the mood for beer pong or some kind of drinking contest.
I decried this sort of student life from behind my overflowing ashtray and mess of papers at the diner, but once a week, the temptation couldn’t be resisted and I’d gather up my books, tip the waitress, go home, call up my friends and head down into the nest of beat-up couches placed in front yards, red plastic cups, sticky floors and people shouting ‘Whoooo!’ for no reason.
I graduated from college and started applying to graduate programs, having enjoyed my four years of sitting in diners, chain smoking and reading. While I was waiting to hear back from admissions offices in Colorado and New Mexico, I bumped my hours up and started working full time.
Through college, I’d had a slew of lousy jobs. I had worked in one of those gas stations in which the attendant is stuck in a tiny glass box. During the day, the customers could enter the box and pick out their own sodas and cigarettes from the cramped displays, but after 9 pm, everything switched over to a cylindrical window; you rolled the money in and the cigarettes and change rolled back out. It was one of those gas stations that’s constantly lowering its prices before the competition and, occasionally, has lines around the block. There’s a certain type of person who’s willing to wait in line that much to save 15 cents a gallon—usually they’re not very friendly. But the job hadn’t been too bad. There was always lots of free coffee and I could read between costumers.
After I graduated, I picked up a job working at a bookstore. We were allowed to take home books if the spines weren’t the creasing type. Again, there was plenty of free coffee, and it was usually possible to linger in the stock room with a book a little while longer than necessary if the place wasn’t too busy; if the boss caught you with a book, he’d only ask what you were reading and if it was any good.
In the evenings, I went out a lot. I was 22 and I found the neighborhood bar scene much more manageable than the university parties had been. I worked the 2-10 shift at work, so I never had to be up early and I always got out in time to meet everyone at the bar. It was one of those beautiful times in my life when I never seemed to have to wait for anything. When you get older, all the waiting wears you down a little. When I want to go out and do something in the evening now, I’m always ready to go before it starts; after I’ve sat around a while, I lose the ambition to go. Back then it wasn’t like that, if anything, I was usually a little late to things.
I had no car and the bookstore was about a 45 minute walk from my neighborhood. Some nights my friend and ex-roommate Ella would pick me up from work and we’d go down to the bar together. We did this a lot because we had established a ‘dream club.’ I don’t think ‘dream club’ was what we actually called it, but the idea was to meet once a week and share our dreams. I recalled from some psychology class that when you have a reason to remember what you’re dreaming about—like when you know you’re going to have to report on it—you tend to remember your dreams much better.
As hippified as ‘dream club’ sounds, it was really just an excuse to hang out in the bar and drink copious amounts of Labatt beer, which we called ‘Labatt’s’. Back then, Labatt’s was still considered a domestic draft beer in Michigan. A pitcher of the stuff was like 3 dollars.
The bar we went to had this ceiling fresco, a painting of a blue sky with white clouds. It was sort of recessed, like a dome in a church. It had lights around it and the lights changed color. When I’d had too many Labatt’s, I’d start staring at it, watching the colors change and thinking all kinds of nonsense.
Ella and I had gone to high school together; she had dated one of my friends and we had all lived together for a while until they broke up and she moved across town, over where all the students lived. She didn’t seem to mind the drive back home, even after a few pitchers of beer. Sometimes, I worried she’d get pulled over, but, in addition to never having to wait, I didn’t really worry about much back then. It just didn’t seem worthwhile to worry about things.
Part of never having to wait, was always telling everyone else to be early. I did this in a half-intentional way. Technically, I got out of work at 10, but we never really left the building until a little after, like 10:12 or even 10:20. When I came out into the parking lot, Ella’s little white Honda started up from its place at the curb. I swung the door open and ducked in. “Hey.”
“You always tell me 10. You never get out at 10.”
“Nice to see you, too.”
“From now on I’m never coming here until 10:15.”
“Sometimes I get out at 10.”
“Yeah, well, then you can wait.”
The bookstore was separated from the rest of the city by a tangled housing development, a golf course and a park with a marsh in the middle of it. It was just outside the city limits, but it looked very suburban, the kind of place with those long sweeping sidewalks that no one ever seems to use. We drove past the golf course and, crossing Grand River, back into the city. I tried to pry a few dream details out of Ella, but she wouldn’t budge until we got to the bar. It was a warm night and I stuck my arm out the window and let it sweep up and down in the wind.
Situated as it was between the lifeless tracts of vast university housing and an old working class neighborhood, Blondie’s, the bar, did a brisk trade and even on a Thursday night, the place was packed. We managed to walk in right as a group got up from a booth. “Labatt’s, right?” I asked and headed over to the bar.
The clouded dome overhead was changing from red to green to blue and back to red. I was trying to decide which color looked best, but I couldn’t make up my mind. Each color seemed to suit the clouds in a different way. We had discussed our recent dream fragments which led us into speculation as to their source. From there we talked about our lives, our jobs. Ella was working in a veterinary clinic and she talked a lot about the dogs that came through the place. I told her what everyone in the house was up to and complained about the GRE process and grad school, as I had been doing for months. By the time our talk had turned to the future, I was staring at the colored dome. There were two empty pitchers on the table and another 2/3rds full.
“Well, which one do you want to go to?” Ella asked from somewhere behind one of the empty pitchers.
I tore my attention away from the dome where I’d been chasing the question around for a few minutes without finding an answer. “I don’t know. I’ve never been to any of the places. New Mexico sounds interesting, but I don’t know. When I think about moving away, I have this vision of sitting on a bed in an empty apartment, staring at the wall, forcing down that feeling you used to get when you were a kid and had to spend the night at someone’s house; you know, when it was getting late and everyone was getting ready for bed, that feeling that you weren’t going to be able to go home and the vague fear of spending a night lying in the dark wide awake, feeling like you were the only person awake in the world.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. So why not stay here?”
“Naw, it’s time to go; ya’ know? Wayne is the only school I’ve heard anything from. I got in, but I don’t want to go, maybe I will but I doubt it. I’d be like 28 by the time I finished the program. I don’t want to stay here that long. What about you? Did you decide on anything yet?”
“I think I’m going to keep working for a while. I feel like I’ve been in school forever already. I might just move somewhere else and work for a while.”
As it got later, more people came into the bar. I knew some of them; Ella knew others. We abandoned our booth and went to table hopping. On the little stage in the back, someone started playing guitar. It seemed like the harder I tried to pay attention to the music, the less I heard it. After a few songs, it was like all I could hear were the conversations taking place around me. I went looking for Ella and found her laughing with a group of her coworkers. She introduced me to them, but in the dimness and confusion of the bar after midnight, I only nodded to the vague shapes before me. I asked Ella how she was getting home.
“What do you mean?”
“You shouldn’t drive.”
“Yeah, but I will.”
“You know you can stay at the house.”
“I know, but I’d rather just go home.”
“Alright, well I’m going to go in a minute.”
“Hold on a sec. I’m going too. I can drive you back.”
I lit a cigarette and tried to nurse my beer, but once you’ve made up your mind to leave the bar, it’s hard not to feel impatient with the place. I got tired of waiting and went and sat down with some other people, someone kept pouring me beers from their pitcher and after a while, I forgot I had wanted to leave.
Ella and I bumped into each other right after last call. We split the half of a pint I still had and tumbled out into the night.
A light wind had picked up and as we walked over to the car, I felt it blowing all the cigarette smoke out of my hair. The blood was singing in my ears and the cool air felt sobering. It felt so good, I lit another cigarette. It was my last one.
I was going to walk the five blocks back home, but Ella told me just to get in the car. I didn’t resist but asked if she could take me over to the gas station I used to work and get a pack of cigarettes. The place was only about two blocks away.
I pulled the door closed and we drove out of the parking lot, under the highway overpass and, coming out of the dark, red and blue lights flew out over the car and flooded the interior. A cop car was pulling us over. Without saying anything, Ella pulled into the gas station parking lot two blocks from the bar.
Ella was pretty calm while we sat there with the red and blue lights floating over us. I was looking for a penny she could suck on. I knew it didn’t work, but it seemed better than nothing. I couldn’t say anything when she muttered, “I’m so fucked” because I agreed with her. I thought about the car getting towed and walking home alone. It made me feel terrible and I wished I’d made more of an effort to convince Ella to take a cab or something.
The cop started walking over. The cruiser’s lights were still flashing behind and with each flash his shadow sprang out past the hood of the car, like it was overeager to reach us. We both stared straight ahead, as if we were still moving the way guilty people do.
“Alright, guys, let me see licenses and some registration,” The cop was leaning down to the window. His voice sounded relaxed, like he acknowledged that the whole thing was just a charade we all had to go through.
“Sure,” Ella said, trying to sound stolid and still looking ahead, probably trying not to breathe beer fumes all over the place. She took a wallet from the console and easily pulled out the driver’s license she’d been using all night at the bar. She handed this up through the window and then reached over and opened the glovebox. It banged on my knees and I pretended to be hurt to try to lighten the situation.
Ella was still rooting around looking for the insurance when the cop’s voice suddenly boomed. “Ella Jacobs? Ellie? Ben Jacobs’ little sister? It’s me Chad!” I leaned forward to glance out the driver’s side window. Ella still had her arms up on the steering wheel so it was hard to see the cop’s face, but I saw he’d taken off his hat so she could see his face better.
“We went to school together!” The cop exclaimed. I was friends with your brother!” Then he leaned forward a little, trying to see who else was in the car. Seeing me he exclaimed, “And you’re the kid who ordered the Big Mac without out the meat! God, I’ll never forget that!” He chuckled a little like I had just made the order again.
“Holy shit, Chad,” Ella exclaimed. “You scared the crap out of me! I didn’t know you were a cop.”
“Yeah,” he said, dropping his tone a little, “it’s alright work. Listen, I pulled you over because you didn’t have your lights on. You just came out of the bar parking lot and it’s closing time. It also reeks of alcohol in this car. I’m not gonna’ give you a ticket or anything. If you want to try and blow and you’re under, I’ll let you drive home, but if not, you’re going to have to leave the car here and call a cab. Is that alright?”
Chad was leaning in the window, letting his fingers rest over the door. His palms were hanging down just under the window. A little white scar ran about an inch down the meat of his palm. The memory came back to me. I was six, standing at the edge of a group of kids, there was blood on the twisty slide. Everyone was saying ‘Chad’ and looking around.
I thought about pointing out the scar. I thought about saying ‘I remember when you got that.’ But there was no way to bring it up. It would’ve been too personal, besides, I couldn’t really be sure it was even him. I just stared at the scar hanging down over the doorframe and remembered the feeling of Flintstones’ Chewables in my pocket, like gritty little pebbles.
Ella took the breathalyzer, probably more for novelty. Chad let out a little chuckle when the thing beeped the result back. “Yeah,” he said, “you’re going to have to leave the car here. He offered to call us a cab, but I told him that I lived nearby and that we’d walk. He still seemed impressed to have run into us. The way he acted, you would’ve thought we were old friends or in another country instead of just thirty miles up the highway from where we’d grown up and had all been kids together.
We said good bye to each other and Chad drove away. I walked across the parking lot, over to the little glass box of the gas station I used to work in. It was well after 9 pm so I had to use the cylindrical window. I rolled the money and the cigarettes and changed rolled back out.
On the walk back to the house, I told Ella about the slide and the blood and how I used to be so quiet.
“Yeah,” she said, “that’s all pretty hard to believe now.”
“Yeah, I guess it is.” Then I added, “You know it’s funny, he thinks of me as forever being the kid
who ordered the Big Mac with no meat, and for me he’s the kid who cut himself on the slide. It’s like we’re both stuck in time.”
“Well, not anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“Now you’re probably going to be stuck in this moment for each other. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah, at least if I run into him again, we’ll be able to share the same memory now.” I said, sorta’ laughing the way Chad had earlier.
In the little neighborhood between Kalamazoo and Michigan Avenue, we walked past the slumping porches and the Oldsmobiles parked at the curbs. In a pool of streetlight at the intersection of Mifflin and Prospect, a cat walked slowly past. Someone yelled a few blocks away and the cat stopped and looked over its shoulder and then continued on its way like nothing had happened.