When I was six years old, I found a ten dollar bill underneath the cushions of the couch. I gave it to my mother of course, knowing, I was sure, that it was some sort of prize. A treat that held so much promise of something fun that would happen for her or me or my brother.
She told me many years later that the ten dollar bill was all the money we had that week. That she bought food with it. That she fed me and my brother and herself.
It’s deceptive to tell the story that way. It’s not as if my older brother and I would not have eaten if I hadn’t found that ten dollar bill. There were cans and boxes in the cabinet. My mother would get paid soon.
And my mother had family. Her brothers and sisters and her mother and father.
We went to their houses all the time. We played there. Often, we ate dinner there.
In my earliest memories, my brother and I live with our mother in an apartment complex on the edge of Tacoma. William and I play in a large, deep ditch that’s been dug at one end of the complex, a ditch where more apartments are about to be built.
Some days, after we’ve been playing, we look under the cushions on the couch to find coins so that we can walk to the 7–11 a few blocks away to get drinks and candy.
By the time we are in kindergarten and first grades, we’ve moved to a small house near the school, and my brother and I walk each morning. It is six blocks or so to Sherman Elementary and we walk it together.
It is a neighborhood of very small houses, some of them not very nice, with cars being worked on in driveways and boats on trailers parked on front lawns.
We know every house along the way, it seems. Every bush you could hide in. Every house with a dog that would lunge at the fence. Every mean adult who would yell at you if you even stepped near their lawn.
There is a house that for sale for awhile and I remember my brother and I talk about how our dad could maybe move there. And then he wouldn’t live so far away.
For the most part when I was a kid, I saw my dad only a couple times a year.
When my dad was in town, we’d often drive up to Seattle to see his brother, which meant we’d play the game where we counted trucks.
“Got it, pulling the trailer,” I say. “Twenty-nine.”
I remember that Friday, driving to Seattle in the gray rain, me and William and my dad counting trucks. Cars and trucks pushing toward us on the southbound side of the freeway, hitting the shallow pools of water on the pavement and splashing the water into the grass in the median and the grass alongside the road, the big, fast semi’s sometimes sending high arcs of white water as far as the dark woods past the shoulder.
“Got it, green, with the hay,” William is saying. “Thirty-one.” He is leaning forward from the back seat, the knees of his small body on the edge of the passenger seat, his forehead and hands almost touching the rearview mirror.
It’s 1974 and no one wears a seatbelt.
My dad rolls down the window and throws a cigarette butt into the wet air. He takes the plastic-covered pack of Winstons from his shirt pocket, slides out another cigarette and lights it, the smoke rolling slowly against the inside of the windshield.
We count semi’s pulling cut timber. Pick-ups and flat beds carrying yellow forklifts, rusted boilers, bundles of gray-black wire.
“Got it, carrying the cement,” William says from behind me, near my ear. “Twenty-two.”
The three of us would all stare ahead, ready to count, trying to get the most trucks by the time we reach Seattle. Pick-ups and semi’s are allowed, but my brother and I insist vans and buses aren’t real trucks. Jeeps aren’t trucks. Tow trucks aren’t trucks. No one ever asks why.
“Got it, blue. Got it, green,” William yells. “Twenty-four, twenty-five.”
There is again and again the slide and hit as the windshield wipers kick in front of us.
We’ve already talked about school and how we’ve been since we last saw my dad in the spring. Now we aren’t talking much. We watch the road. We count.
And as I remember it, we were happy, all of us, just to play our game.
“Got it, blue on the overpass,” I yell, leaning forward against the dashboard. “Twenty-nine.”
“It wasn’t perpendicular to us,” William yells.
Only trucks driving perpendicular to us or driving in the opposite direction of us are allowed. Another rule.
William touches my arm without looking, says quickly, so evenly, “Dad’s losing now.”
William is just two years older than me, but he remembers when our parents lived together. I don’t remember that at all and it’s hard for me to picture.
Thinking back, William often talked to me about dad when the three of us were together, talking about him in the third person, using dad’s name as if he weren’t there.
“Dad is taking us to Seattle,” William would say. “Dad is losing the game now. Dad, he has to leave.”
There was a restaurant called Gordon’s that my brother and me would go to with my mom, a fast food place where we’d sit on the hard plastic benches with the table between us and it’d be dark outside, raining, late at night after she’d gotten home from work.
I realize now that my mother went to Gordon’s when she was in junior high, leaving Mason Junior High across the street to go to Gordon’s for lunch and probably on the weekends, because she only lived a few blocks away.
You realize that now, when you’re older and maybe you make too much of it, how she goes there as a kid, then takes her kids there later.
We’d get home from Gordon’s and after awhile me and my brother would go to bed but often my mom would stay up watching our big black and white Zenith television in the living room, lying on the couch and covered up in a big pink blanket. Sometimes when I got up in the morning the blanket was still there and she’d slept there that night and to think about it now, I have to remember that she was maybe 26 then, single and without much money and back in her hometown, a city she’d left and returned to only after she got divorced. She was sad, probably, and lonely, and shocked that her marriage had failed and unsure what she would do next, no college education and these two boys to take care of.
Three years later, my brother would move away to live with my dad.
Ten years later, I would move to Virginia, a place, I often announced, that was as far away from Tacoma as I could find.
I don’t necessarily feel great about how all this worked out for her.
On weekends we go with my mom to my Auntie Debbie’s house, William and me playing with Debbie’s younger daughter while Debbie and my mom talk. My mom and Debbie sit at the kitchen table and have drinks while me and my brother and Debbie’s daughter drink cans of diet pop. Pop with flavors like grapefruit or strawberry or cola and all with that diet taste, which always makes me want something more to drink.
When it is dark we play hide and seek in the backyard. We are probably nine and eleven then. We play serious hide and seek where you climb under wet bushes or up the damp bark of a tree and where the best trick sometimes is to stand still against the fence or the side of the house and the person looking is trying so hard, staring so intensely at the bushes and under the deck, that he or she somehow doesn’t notice you.
Debbie isn’t really my aunt. We just always call her that. My mom and Debbie sit in the kitchen laughing and telling stories about a class reunion or stories from back in junior high when they met each other. They drink scotch and waters and talk and all of that is deceptive to tell, because in truth my mom never was a drinker like the rest of her family. Or even a drinker like Aunt Debbie, who would sway and slur by the end of the night.
Sometimes when I ask my mom, she gives me a taste of the scotch. It is bitter and pale and bad.
“Just a sip,” my mom says.
We stay at Auntie Debbie’s till late and me and my brother ride home in the cold back seat of that big green car my mom had for a lot of years, before she got a new job that let her get a new car and let us move from the little house we rented to one that was a little bigger. I remember the car was a Plymouth and had rough vinyl seats that didn’t warm up till we were already home.
Sometimes at Debbie’s her older daughter is there. She seems much older, like an adult, though I know now she was only 15 or 16. She is very nice, although sometimes she and Debbie argue, the way mom’s and their teenage daughters do.
I remember a couple times when Tricia is there but my mom and Debbie isn’t, when they’ve gone somewhere for a few hours, and Tricia is stuck watching me and my brother and Tricia’s little sister, who is actually her half-sister.
With the parents gone, Tricia pulls out cigarettes and sometimes she opens a beer. Tricia looks different then, and sounds different. She gains a few years when the parents are gone.
It reminds me of a few years later, when I am maybe eleven, and me and a friend re being babysat by his older sister, and her boyfriend comes to the house and we all go for a drive. It is an older car, maybe a Pontiac or Oldsmobile with the big doors and bucket seats that you have to pull hard on to lean them forward so you can climb into the dark back seat, and we drive around for awhile, across town, to some neighborhood I don’t know, and we pull up at someone’s house and just the sister and the boyfriend go inside. “Stay here and shut up,” she says to us, and they come back in 10 or 15 minutes, smelling different, like pot I sort of understand then and know for sure years later, and then we drive around some more, the boyfriend and the sister drinking beer, and me and my friend, we just talk some, quietly, and ride with them, until finally, just a few minutes before the parents, we get back home.
I had many nights like that. With cousins. With friends and their brothers or sisters. Strangely quiet, foreign nights where I rode along in the back seat as if the teenage kids driving where actually adults. Nights where I was watching all that happened. Nights where it seemed like I could have been in very bad trouble but instead I just sat, listening, and what I remember most about those nights is how it seemed like I was alone.
Still, as an adult, when I walk into a liquor store, I feel like I’m doing something illicit.
Still, when I see a police car driving behind me, I feel like I might get pulled over.
Still, when I enter a restaurant or a bar or even an airplane, I feel like I am younger than any adult I see.
When I was eleven, my dad moved to Wishkaw, a very small town about an hour and a half from Tacoma. My brother and I would visit my dad there every other weekend.
There was no email back then. There were no cell phones. Before my dad moved to Wishkaw, I would maybe talk to him every few months, standing in the kitchen, holding the big, heavy phone, wanting very much to talk to him, but struggling to find something to say.
Now he lived in Wishkaw and at least I would see him in a week or two.
The house was out in the country, on the edge of the woods. My brother and I would run through those woods and play in the creek that ran near the house and at night we’d have dinner with my dad at the table near the living room. We would play on the grounds of the big high school nearby, running through the football field and buying Cokes from the machine near the gym. I remember once there was a game of donkey basketball at that high school, some sort of fundraiser with adults riding donkeys around the gym trying to shoot baskets at the rim, all these dads and moms in the gym and so many kids around, yelling for them. We would eat dinner at the table, me and William setting the table and Dad telling us how to hold our forks and knives. And I remember that when we’d drive down to Wishkaw from Tacoma, the three of us would play the game where we counted trucks, semi’s and pick up trucks that were driving near us or past us or that we saw in restaurants or parking lots along the way, and the three of us would be screaming, yelling as we saw a truck, counting loud and fast and claiming each truck we saw, and whoever got the most trucks before the ride was over, that’s who would win.
In Tacoma, we moved again, from one house near our school to another. We’d walk by the old house every day on the way to school.
The old house hadn’t rented yet and so some days, if I wasn’t with William, I’d use my key to go into our old house. I’d go down the alley and sneak over the fence and go in the back door, the way I always had when we’d still lived there.
It was a small house, with blue and green carpet and a light green refrigerator and my mom’s room and the room William and I had shared.
I’d just walk around, or sometimes sit down in the middle of the empty living room, staring at the empty room, thinking about what it had been like to live there.
It was about a year after he’d moved to Wishkaw that William and I got to my dad’s house and it was filled with boxes.
I can’t remember if he told us he was moving before we got to the house or only when we got there. It doesn’t necessarily matter. But it’s a detail I’d like to know.
I remember being in the house and I had a marker and was writing room names on the boxes.
Living Room, Kitchen, Bedroom, Bathroom.
He was moving to Alaska that week.
My dad often used to say to us that he knew my mom was a better parent. That’s why we lived with her.
When I was in my thirties and back home in Tacoma for a couple of days, I saw an old family photo of all the cousins. I saw me and my cousins and we were little kids, so much younger than I remember us being in elementary school, and I looked at the photo for a minute before I recognized my brother William, another little kid in the photo, with dimples and blonde hair, and back then it was never like my brother was a kid at all. William, who the last time I saw him was getting a cheap meal and cheap booze in the basement bar of a VFW in Tacoma even though he’d never been in the military, and whose three kids, teenagers now, who live with my mom, they seem okay, I don’t know how, but, at a glance, they seem fine, and after I had a beer with William at the VFW and after I’d left and gotten in the car, I really thought I might cry. An adult. In the dark, gravel parking lot of a VFW. But I thought I might cry.
Eric Barnes is the author of the novels Shimmer, an IndieNext Pick from Unbridled Books, and Something Pretty, Something Beautiful from Outpost19, which The Millions called a “remarkable book … where cars are freedom, stories are everything, and home is thick with ghosts. ” He has published nearly thirty short stories in Prairie Schooner, The Literary Review, North American Review, Best American Mystery Stories, and elsewhere. He is the publisher of newspapers in Memphis and Nashville that cover business, politics and most things in between. He hosts a news talk show on public television, and, many years ago, graduated from the MFA writing program at Columbia University.