While passing through my childhood neighborhood on the way back
from a job interview, I stop at the house I grew up in and tell the owners I want to buy their garage door. A man
slams the front door in my face, but I knock again and he opens it. His tie hangs loosened around his open collared
white shirt. Heís probably taken the train up from the city and has just sat down for dinner a few minutes ago,
just a regular business guy with a start up family who has to break his ass to make it all work. His two kids and
wife are watching me from behind him. Probably she works all day as well. I want to tell them Iím not dangerous,
that I know every corner of their house, that my childhood lurks in every crevice, though that probably wouldnít
be a good idea.
"Please listen to me," I say. "When I was six it was 1971 and my mother and I painted flowers,
peace signs, and the words ĎLove and Peaceí on that garage door. It was late summer, August probably. I remember
it clearly; itís one of my most vivid memories in fact. When I was ten it was 1975 and my parents put this house
on the market. The first thing they did was paint over the flowers and the peace sign and the words."
"Itís a strange request mister, and weíre eating dinner now," he says.
"Strange request? Yes, okay, Iíll give you that." Then I remember how my mother outfitted me with
a little painterís cap that she had folded and tied out of a rag. And my father was also out back digging an irrigation
ditch at the low point of the yard to prevent it from flooding whenever it rained hard. He was shirtless, skinny
and tall, sweating, and his black body hair stuck to his skin like paintbrush bristles.
"Come back tomorrow," this young father says, "and weíll see what we can do. But Iím not making
any promises." And he closes the door again. I take a look down the driveway and there it is, same garage,
presumably with the same garage door. Theyíve put a hoop up over it so their kids and the kids in the neighborhood
can play basketball. Thatís good, I think. We should have done that, but werenít big on athletics or kids bouncing
basketballs all day in our driveway. I wonder how many layers of paint are insulating the flowers, peace sign and
words from the abuse of these kids. Itís white or off-yellow--itís getting dark out so I canít quite tell--with
scuff marks all over it. What I failed to tell the owners of 66 Quinby Avenue is that I now live an hour-and-a-halfís
Even so, I return the next day at around noon, with my pickup. I knock on the front door and ring the bell of
the house I grew up in but thereís no answer. I wait, knock again, ring again, and still thereís no answer. I walk
around and peer in through a set of windows, but the place is empty and dark inside. Behind one of the closed windows
a fat calico cat is stretched out on the sill in the summer light. When it sees me it rolls over and arches to
expose its soft underside. A cat, thatís also something we didnít have.
I back my truck down the driveway, take out my tool kit and ladder, and get to work. It doesnít take long to
remove the door from its track and because itís articulated, it folds into fourths and slides neatly into the back
of the pickup. I take a piece of my stationery, write them a note thanking them for the door, and slip $100 in
cash with it into an envelope. This is money I donít have, cash I took out of an ATM as an advance on my Visa.
A damn good deal for them. I put the envelope in their mail slot and start the drive home.
When I get there my son Alex is out back getting ready to launch an Estes model rocket. "You wonít be able
to get that back if you launch it from here," I tell him. "Wait until Saturday and Iíll take you out
to Robinís Field. You need lots of space."
He ignores me for about a minute during which time I stand there waiting for his acknowledgment like a lonesome
clerk awaiting his next task. "Iím experimenting," he finally says. "Iím gonna find an ant and stick
it in the nosecone. Itís like when they launched the dog into orbit. We just learned about it. Were you born yet?"
"I donít remember. I donít think so. Anyway, they let the dog die," I tell him. "The Ruskies.
They never planned on getting it back." Alex stops his myopic hunt for an ant and looks at me.
"Die? It never came back?" He stares at the ground blankly. "My antís gonna come back though,"
he says, turning over a small stone and raking the dirt beneath it with a stick. I head inside.
My wife, Nadine, is in the kitchen frying up chicken livers and onions, which--along with boxed macaroni and
cheese--is all weíve been able to afford. Iíve been out of work for about six months now and the moneyís all but
gone. Luckily, Nadine makes a little off the books cash cleaning houses during the day and Iím about ready to join
"Rice?" I say to her.
"On the stove." I lift the top off the pot and thereís the clumpy Minute Rice, the scourge of my life.
"Tomorrow night Iíll make some good old fashioned rice," I say, "instead of this freeze dried
She scowls. "Same story I get every night."
"I will, I swear it." Alex comes in and I tell him to wash his hands. I set the table as my wife finishes
I married too young. That much Iím sure of. Nadine is still beautiful, still young. She was my first love, my
only love, is the only woman with whom Iíve made love. A sprinter in high school, sheís managed, seemingly without
effort, to keep her athletic looks. Meaning sheís slim and tenacious, wiry and strong. But lately Iíve noticed
some new lines, worry lines, around her eyes. Iím their cause. One of those inexplicable laws of marriage says
that spouses can grow distant, that they can lose sight of the qualities that first drew them together in perceived
inseparability. First loves have a certain pungency as well, a juvenile association with the discovery of sex and
intimacy and shared lives thatís bound to grow old fast. Our son, product of one of many lusty nights Nadine and
I spent with each other during winter break from our respective colleges, is the one who will pay the price when
we split. Alex will be the loser, that we both know, and yet neither of us have addressed it directly.
We sit down at the table and eat in silence. Alex is thinking about the dog in space, starving, suffocating,
or freezing, Mission Control--or whatever the Soviets called it--observing the blips of its last heartbeats. Just
a dog, just an ant. I shouldnít have said what I did about it. Poor kid. I was about his age when my mother and
I painted the garage door.
After dinner I stand in the kitchen alone and wash the dishes. I hear a muffled British voice coming from the
television in the living room and know that Nadine and Alex are watching "Nature," David Attenborough
describing the mating rituals of Peruvian butterflies, or something like that. I stare out the open window above
the sink. It faces our backyard and blackness. The night is steamy and though the windowís been open, the kitchen
is unbearably hot and the air is still; not even the slightest current comes in through the screen. Over the sound
of the television the crickets sing. A mosquitoís been buzzing me all along, a hypodermic needle with wings, as
I imagine it, thatís found its way to me.
When Iím done with the dishes, I sneak out, carrying with me my work gloves, wearing a thick thriftshop workshirt
that has "Ambrose" embroidered on the pocket. Outside, by the shed, I set up.
Knee-high in thistle, I work illuminated by a lamp on an extension cord and the dim light coming from the house.
The Interstate hums a half-mile away. In the thick summer air its sound carries well. I brush a light coat of paint
stripper on the garage door, which Iíve propped up on the outside of the tool shed. A spider living in the joints
between the garage door segments falls victim to the paint remover fumes. It withers, its legs interlocking like
spiked teeth around its aspirin-sized body, then is still, except that it rotates one way then the other on a single
strand of web, its last bit of life transformed into kinetic motion. A moth or two circle the lamp on the ground
a few feet away. The fumes form an insecticidal shroud around me. Nothing comes close, but I hear the tiny buzzings
and the flutter of rice paper wings in the dark all around me. After a half-hour the first layer of paint, a kind
of piss yellow, blisters and falls away with a little light sanding. Thereís another layer, of gray, beneath that,
and it too falls away with some work. Beneath it is white and I can see beneath that some faded figures and letters,
bright colors trying to break through.
Iíve now been outside in the dark for several hours but nobody seems to care that I havenít returned to the
house. The televisionís still on, I can see, throwing its muted multi-color flashes against the living room ceiling.
Probably Alex staying up late, which I shouldnít permit. I suppose Nadine can see me from the bedroom window and
she considers that Iím involved in yet another innocuous project that has nothing to do with getting us out of
debt or nullifying the marriage, or at least trying to satisfy our sexual needs. Very carefully I remove the layer
of paint that obscures the flowers and peace sign and words. It comes off slowly but beautifully, flaking away
in dime-sized flecks, revealing the bright fuscias and yellows, the innocent, youthful blue, the peace sign in
black. Itís all there, just as I remember it. Mom was my age, I was Alexís. I step into the darkness, away from
the work lamp, out of the fumes, because I want to see how this remnant of my childhood looks framed by the night.
It is displaced, ludicrously propped up in the tattered present.
A mosquito buzzes past my ear. No doubt it will drill into me and painlessly extract some blood for its sustenance.
In this, I believe, I am a good find.