Everything of mine was old when I was a kid. My bed — the frame, mattress, box spring, sheets, those itchy wool blankets; my second-hand clothes; the scratchy, low-pile carpet in my room.
But, really, it wasn’t just my stuff — everything was old. Our TV, the furniture, my grandparents, the fans, the trees, the house.
I lived in an ‘historic’ area of an East Coast suburb. I knew it was a place that drew some sort of envy, the way people would differentiate it from the rest of the town. But, to me, it was just old.
My house was supposedly in a history book at the library, and my neighbors’ house, somehow, used to be the barn for the horses my house’s owners kept back before cars even existed, or something. Grandma always told people that; it made the house important.
We had a gravel driveway, making it hard to ride a bike on or run barefoot on or do anything driveway-related on. There were no sidewalks, or very few, and the enormous old houses were miles apart, or felt that way.
I wanted to live in one of those places like my friend Jenny lived: the streets were lined with brick houses; most of them had very little grass between them; all of them looked alike; and the sidewalks were nearly wide enough for two Big Wheels to ride side-by-side. On top of that, Jenny got to eat Spaghettios and hot dogs for lunch. Her floors were covered with soft, plush carpet through all the rooms. There was air conditioning in the summer. And, she had new curtains and a matching comforter for her bedroom.
Jenny’s older brothers and my uncle David were friends, and they liked to fix up old cars. Sometimes, her brothers would come to our house and help David work on his cars. My uncle had three old cars: a late 50s, dark blue Volvo; some unremarkable car that was Bondo gray; and, a ’67 or ’68 white, convertible Camaro SS with blue interior — the most beautiful car I’d ever known (or at least it was, until the night a Trans Am [with that gold eagle emblem on the hood] crashed through our fence and into one of my dad’s favorite old holly trees).
By 1980, that Camaro and my uncle had lived through a garage fire, an off-road crash into a barn while David changed the dial on the radio, and a few other calamities I wasn’t allowed to hear about.
I had a small obsession with the Camaro. The growl of the engine, the gloss of the paint, even the faded baby blue of the seats spoke to me. I imagined myself driving it, using to make my escape: screaming out of the driveway, gravel shooting from under the tires as it turned onto the road. Of all the oldness around me, it was the only old thing I felt I understood — it was the key to freedom.
Physically, I was never allowed near the Camaro. I tried to get near it. I walked past it I asked David, nicely, if I could just sit in it. Just sit in it. David would smirk his answer and tell me to fuck off. And I would fuck off, but then I’d ask again later. Differently.
I’d ask later if he needed help with whatever the hell he was doing with the Camaro. Because, if I was helping, maybe he’d let me sit in the car. But he never did. He was always working on the engine. Or polishing the chrome.
I’d do the same to my old hand-me-down bike, using SOS pads to scour off the rust. My bike was always rusting; it was old.
David was out a lot, but when he was home, it was torture. As much as I looked up to his car, I didn’t look up to David. He was the youngest of my mom’s siblings; only 13 when I was born. I knew David was this cool asshole — he swaggered in his tight, white jeans, had tons of friends, girls fawned all over him, and,even though he couldn’t sing a note, he starred in his high school musical. Thing I hated was: he enjoyed tormenting me. I never saw Jenny’s brothers treat her that way, so I’m not sure why I thought this, but I figured he was just treating me like his little sister. I did not want to be his little sister.
He’d whip me with wet towels; yell at me to change the radio dial then yell at me because I did it too fast; chug all the milk from the jug, put the lid on it, then stomp on it so the lid would fly and smack me. He’d grab the remote from my hand when I was watching something, change the channel, and laugh when I told him he was being mean. His favorite joke was that I was adopted and no one was going to tell me but him. And, I did sort of wonder if it was true — of all the shit he did, I couldn’t figure out why he would lie about that.
When I was about eight, my mom yelled at him during dinner — she actually yelled at him at dinner a lot, but this one night I remember she said, “David, can’t you ever be serious?”
He said, “I am about some things” and looked at me in a way that made me feel weird inside and made my cheeks burn.
I lost my appetite, but had to finish my dinner or else sit at the table until I did.
He spent a lot of time with my little brother. My brother called him Unc. My brother got to sit in the Camaro and hang out in David’s room. He had a lot of stuff in his room — cool toys, the best albums, Day-Glo mobiles, posters that lined his walls from floor to ceiling, crazy statues, a tall shelf of old beer cans, a chess board covered in mismatched corks, huge glass bottles filled with coins, and tons of Mad magazines.
Sometimes, David would let me come into his room and look at his stuff. His room was across the hall from mine.
He had a lot of girlfriends, but none came to the house except for one. My mom would always say this girl was “the one.” So, I asked David if I could be the flower girl when they got married; after all — I had experience in the role: I was the flower girl at both his sisters’ weddings and my dad’s dad’s second wedding. But David said they weren’t getting married yet and when they did, I definitely could not.
One time he took PCP and walked around the house naked yelling “I see God.” My grandparents eventually laid hands on him and prayed, sure that he’d been possessed by Satan. When the PCP wore off, David told them they were right.
When the doorbell rang I hadn’t fallen asleep yet. The creaking silence of the house after midnight was suddenly disturbed by the thudding of my grandfather’s, grandmother’s, and father’s footsteps through the halls, down the stairs. A deep, muttering carried from the foyer to my room. More footsteps and murmurs, light switches clicking, and soft conversations in the kitchen. I couldn’t make out the words but it didn’t matter. I didn’t know how I knew, but I knew.
In the morning, my father told me that David hit a patch of ice and lost control of his car. The Camaro collided with a telephone pole a few dark, curving, hilltop miles from our house. David went through the plate glass windshield; his head hit the telephone pole. After being helicoptered to shock trauma from the field at my elementary school — just one large block from our house, my 22-year-old uncle had died.
Dad told me not to tell my three-year-old brother and to please go play with him in his room. From the third floor of our house, where Mom and Dad and my brother lived, it was nearly impossible to hear what the adults were doing on the first floor. So my brother and I built towers with wooden blocks, drove Matchbox cars in and out of mazes, and, as he giggled and I smiled and played along, I tried to ignore this enormous secret, and my growing apathy, that sat in the room with me and my brother.
A few days later as my mom was settling him down for a nap, my brother asked if he’d see Unc later. My mother finally told him David died. For three days, we’d lied to my brother about David’s death. Which wasn’t that hard — at least for me, strangely. I just didn’t talk about it. It was just one more thing I didn’t say. The adults talked quietly when my brother was around. Though my grandmother, an easy cryer under normal circumstances, cried ceaselessly, I didn’t cry; I didn’t really feel the need to.
Mom took pictures of David’s room; she made a photo album for my brother so he wouldn’t forget his Unc. She said she’d never seen David’s room that clean. And it was clean and everything was in its place: bed made, clothes put away, every trinket, statue, poster perfectly situated. Within the month, David’s room was packed away, some things donated, some things divided among the family. We had a memorial service and my dad led it. He cried as he spoke, and I cried for my dad.
No one ever picked up David’s ashes.
I got new curtains, a new comforter, and a nifty pillow cover later that year. They matched and were floral. The rest of my room was still old. I’d gotten some of David’s old stuff, too.
At night, as I lay fighting the fears that kept me from sleep, I’d sometimes cling to the sounds, projected by the crisp air, of distant car engines, growling like the old Camaro, down shifting and accelerating — their engines slowing them to somewhere, pulling them free from something.