In the summer of 1979, my parents and I moved into what, in retrospect, I would call “Home.” Home was a white-washed ranch house on a one-acre property in Botetourt (pronounced “BOT-uh-TOT” by locals) County, Virginia. Its notable feature was a wrap-around, two-storied porch built of grey slate, over which, every summer, teeming generations of black ants would traverse. I was a gleefully homicidal boy, as most boys are, so I devised various ways to dispatch the ants. The most effective method, as well as the most fun, was to take a volleyball (likely stolen from my mother’s classroom—-she coached volleyball for a time) and bounce it against an unsuspecting ant, its flattened self clinging to the surface of the ball as it sailed upward to my grip. A good bounce would take out four or five at once, the ball pocked with ant bodies.
The Jesuits once devised memory palaces for the mind, with the recollected inventory of a particular castle or monastery serving as the blueprint for a treasure house of memory (read J. Spence). “Home” is my weak equivalent, as the inventory of this house, which I can still recall vividly, is overstuffed with memories. The front door let onto the living room, with its dark-brass wood stove (a babysitter of mine, a neighborhood boy named Tommy Duffy, once spent the evening slumbering behind the stove. I would check up on him every half-hour, to make sure he was all right, then went back to my reading); this was the room in which I first heard Sgt. Pepper and Hot Rocks and Endless Summer, sitting in an overstuffed black armchair wearing a pair of enormous Yamaha headphones whose earpieces, made of vinyl, were slightly fraying. It was also the room in which a traveling Christian encyclopedia salesman guilted my mother into buying a book called Bible Stories That Live for her inadvertently irreligious child (this was a blue hardcover that reeked of something cloying—-camphor or peppermint—-and had dippy illustrations of smiling hippie Christs and immaculately bearded patriarchs. The illustration of Christ cleansing the temple, my favorite moment of righteous anger for Christ, looked like a Bee Gees LP cover.)
The living room gave onto a long hallway, off of which were three rooms: my parents’ (always out of bounds, though once, when I was sick during the summer, my father carried me to the room, lay me on the enormous bed and turned on the air conditioner—-I felt like a dauphin), my own, and a room between them, painted bright yellow, which we called the “sewing room.” My mother did actually sew in it, for a year or two. There was a secret passage (well, a closet) between it and my room, which delighted me, as I was Narnia-obsessed at the time.
Then a small kitchen; a living room with the television, which only got two channels; a stairwell to the basement, lined with shelves on which my mother stored canned zucchini and tomatoes (another short-lived project, as with the sewing); the basement itself, a room the size of a ship’s galley, with a washer/dryer and a stack of newspapers, which I would dig through at the end of every August, so as to catch up on a summer’s worth of comics when I came back home. There was a larger basement room, separated from the proper one by a metal door; it had an earthen floor and seemed like a place where one could be imprisoned. It troubled me that my parents had this option, though they never had cause to use it.
Our house was on a slight slope, separated from the road by a small creek and a bridge, over which one night our neighbor’s daughter, Kelly, drove her car. It was late, she was drunk. The car, taking the turn too sharply, sailed through the air, landing on the far side of the creek. She pulled herself out from the car, bleeding from a dozen scratches, and crawled and staggered up to our house, waking up my father and begging him not to tell her father what had happened. My father tried to tell her that this would be difficult, as the car was lying in a heap, its engine still turning, in his creek, and that already lights were on in the Peters house. But it has always stayed with me that she went to us first, and I remember her sitting in a heap in the living room in her crumpled party dress, crying, her face smeared with blood. She was a terrifying incarnation of teenage drunken consequence, and poor Kelly is likely why I was essentially straight-edge until I went off to college.