Hawxhurst Road, Circa 1981

The GirlsBY DARA AMCHIN UNDERBERG

We have been tucked in, pleaded with, and threatened. “Go ahead and stay up all night,” my father said before closing the door, “but don’t you dare get out of those beds.” As usual, I am not tired. I am eight years old and I think I have insomnia. I have smuggled into bed whatever book I am reading that day, either a Beverly Cleary or a Judy Blume. Sometimes, I plan to read all night. I pull the blanket over my head and get lost between the pages. In the bed across the room, my younger sister Samantha is murmuring, a low mumble muffled by the blanket over my head. Samantha is six and is always kvetching about something. Now, she’s trying to talk to me. It’s distracting. I yank the blanket back so I can get a good look at her.

“What do you want?” I whisper with a warning in my voice. This better be worth interrupting me for.

“Can I sleep with you?” she asks cautiously. She already knows the answer.

“No”, I snap. I avoid letting Samantha sleep with me because she snores. She tosses and turns. During the night, she winds herself in the blanket, leaving me shivering while she lies snug, looking like the Indian papoose in my social studies book. I look over at Samantha. She’s pushed her pink quilt to the foot of the bed and is crouched, like a compressed spring ready to soar off the bed and onto mine if given the chance.

“I can’t stay here!” she whimpers. She brushes her stringy bangs away from her eyes. She needs a haircut but begs Mom to make her ponytails or braids and has somewhat convinced her that pulling her hair away from her face is a solution. But unlike my hair, which is gravy thick and hangs solemnly down my back, Samantha’s hair cannot be tamed. Silky-straight, it slips out of the clip, rubber band, or whatever has kept it corralled and returns to the wild within an hour. A few months from now, Mom will trick her into a Dorothy Hamill bowl cut.

The sound of her whining reverberates around the bare bedroom and I imagine that I can see waves of sound bouncing off the black plastic garbage bags and cardboard boxes that line the walls of the bedroom. Some of these boxes and bags will never be unpacked. We have a lot of stuff. Suddenly, I feel like looking for Baby Vicki who must be suffocating. I haven’t seen her for a few weeks. Baby Vicki is my favorite doll. She has eyes that open and close and when you turn her over she cries. Her molded plastic toes curl like a real baby’s do when it fusses.

The light in the hallway is on, which means that Mom and Dad are still in their bedroom watching TV. They must be halfway through Dynasty by now. Fortunately, they haven’t heard us talking. I turn to Samantha and try a tough love approach: “Now you listen to me, I’m right next to you. Don’t be such a baby. You can too sleep in your own bed!” I am a drill-sergeant in a Strawberry Shortcake nightgown. But she’s already made a mad dash for my bed and wormed her way under the quilt. Our blankets both have a print of a girl in sundress and bonnet and are identical except for the color. As with many of our clothes and toys, they were gifts from our grandparents. Mom let Samantha choose first and she took the pink one so I got stuck with the ugly, yellow one. Now she’s not even using it!

Burrowed into my yellow blanket, she wriggles next to me then flattens her body like a plank and grasps the edge of the bed with one hand, just in case I decide to try and push her off. She holds a fistful of my nightgown in the other. She is wearing a brown t-shirt with a faded iron-on appliqué that may or may not once have been Donald Duck; her white underwear has loops of pink elastic around the legs. I give up on trying to read. Instead, I turn my back to her and pretend that I’m asleep so she’ll leave me alone. For what must be an entire minute, there is silence. Then she says:

“Can I sleep on the inside?”

“No!”

Samantha and I have this theory that whoever gets to sleep on the side of the bed next to the wall is the one who’s safest from monsters. And let’s face it: monsters could attack at any time. Reason dictates that should the monsters decide to get us, they will choose to eat whomever is closer to the door first, providing ample time for the other to escape. So the order of things is crucial. Samantha rolls over me and, for a brief moment, manages to wedge her bony body between the wall and me. But I am stronger and chubbier. I barrel over her, gaining leverage against the wall and squeeze her into the dreaded next-to-the-door spot. She becomes frantic. Soon, we are pushing into each other and banging into the wall and the world becomes a frenzied, four-legged battle. Just then, Dad flings open the door surprising us mid-struggle. Without removing the lit cigarette from his mouth, he bellows at us. Samantha freezes, and I seize this opportunity to point the finger.

“Samantha won’t sleep in her own bed!”

“Why won’t you sleep in your own bed?”

“I’m scared!”

“Well, you better get in your own bed before I give you something to be scared about!”

Mom appears in the doorway, a shadowy shape in a red polyester jumpsuit, the kind with the seam down the front. Dad draws on his Kent King and then pinches it in the fingers of one hand so he can smooth his moustache with the other. He is waiting to see if Mom will back him up. Mom sighs. Dad can yell, threaten, and declare punishments. But as soon as he leaves, Mom steps in and reverses the sentence.

“Just let her sleep in your bed!” she says, exasperated. Dad waves his hand at us, as if to say, “You girls make me nuts.”

I don’t argue because now I really am tired. My limbs feel heavy. Mom leaves the door ajar prompting us to holler, “Close it all the way!” We don’t want to tempt any monsters to enter our bedroom by leaving the door open.

“Alright? Not go to sleep!” Mom shuts the door with a click. I turn my back in a huff. My head feels light. Samantha laces her arm in mine and gives me a quick squeeze. I squeeze back. This is code for: “I love you.”

I wake up later. No hallway light glows underneath the door, and the house is ear-ringingly still. I feel cold even under the blanket. Then I realize that I am cold because I am wet. I pull the blanket off, and in the night-light-illuminated bedroom, climb over Samantha and out of bed. I am drenched. A grayish spot covers her white panties and the bottom of her t-shirt is creased into dark folds; a dull stain spreads up the front, threatening to saturate Donald Duck. I make her stand up. She’s still got her eyes closed, either mostly asleep or pretending to be. I throw a towel down on the bed, peel the damp shirt and underwear off her clammy skin, grab a clean pair of panties from the mountain of laundry on the rocking chair and stretch open the legs so she can step into them. I change my own nightgown. This happens every time we move but I’m used to it. We move a lot.

This is what our new house is like: There is a large lawn split in half by a driveway that slopes down, like a ski slope, a bunny run. It sits in the middle, oblivious to the fact that a car or a child’s bicycle could go careening into its belly at any moment. This white house does not blink its big bay window. From the road, I play Chinese jump rope or hopscotch with Stacy, the girl who lives down the street. Directly across from the house, the neighbor’s old husky and I have a staring contest. I always lose. When I look back at him to see if we can play another round, he has lost interest. He ignores me until the next day when he has forgotten, when I am foreign to him again.

Next to this house with the husky dog is the Coyles’. They have a beautiful house compared to ours. It is honey brown with wood siding and a deck out back where they barbecue in the summer. They have a finished basement with bookshelves crowded with back issues of National Geographic. I play with Tom Coyle, the oldest boy. Everyone thinks that we are boyfriend and girlfriend but that’s not true. Mostly, we just hang around in his basement and he shows me his coin collection and I show him my “Female Faces of America” stamp collection.

In our house, the refrigerator is in the basement because the kitchen floor is too weak to support it. The basement is scary except for when my Dad is there. There’s a pool table that takes up almost its entire area. Dad teaches me how to shoot. But then after a year or so, the landlord fixes the floor and the fridge comes upstairs and the pool table disappears and we have to make up our own games. But we still can’t drink the water or cook with it–none of our neighbors can either. So on the weekends, I ride with Dad and two dozen plastic gallon milk jugs to a natural spring down the road and I pass him the empty bottles and carry the full ones back and plunk them down into the trunk.

There is a giant tree in front of our house. I don’t know what kind it is but it’s huge. We love this tree, my sister and I. It is too tall to climb but we love to stand under it and peek at the sky from under its massive bulk. The trunk is far too wide to get our arms around. One year there is a gypsy moth caterpillar infestation and we put some tape around the tree. The idea is that the gypsy moth caterpillars will get stuck in the tape and won’t reach the leaves. And the gypsy moth caterpillars get stuck all right. They get stuck and fill every conceivable place on that think strip of tape. And new gypsy moth caterpillars march right over their fallen comrades to green leafy victory. One day from the kitchen window, I see a deer emerge from behind the house and nuzzle the trunk. Our house is surrounded on three sides by acres of woods. Sometimes Dad takes Samantha and me on nature hikes and points out the different birds flying overhead and identifies the animal tracks lodged in mud beneath our feet.

Samantha clings to me, follows me across the street to Tom’s house.

“Go home,” I tell her, waving my laminated collection book in the direction of our house.

“We’re gonna be busy talking about stamps. You’ll just be bored.”

“No, I won’t!” she protests, but I slip behind the screen door into the Coyle’s house before she can follow.

When I come home, Samantha isn’t there.

“Where’s your sister?” Dad barks. He’s sitting in his armchair in front of the TV, watching the Giants pummel the Steelers.

He is paranoid that we will be kidnapped at any moment. “I will not let my daughter become a statistic!” he says whenever one of us asks to ride our bike to the end of the road. I shrug.

“Go find her!” Mom says urgently. We’ve only been here a couple of weeks–she could be lost. She doesn’t know the area that well.”

“Don’t come back without your sister,” Dad says over the game.

I find Samantha and another kid squatting in a ditch a few houses down, vigorously working a hole in the dirt. Each has a stick. Her purple jelly shoes have been tossed to the side of the blacktop. When she stands up, I see that her blue fleece skirt and matching top are dusted gray with ditch grime.

“Let’s go.” I say.

“Scott!” The kid is summoned from across the street. He wipes his grimy hands down his white tee and tan shorts.

“Uh, I gotta go eat dinner.” He runs off in the direction of the voice. We walk home.

“Dad’s getting pizza. Go play downstairs until he gets back,” Mom says. We take the wooden steps slowly, careful not to slip through the cracks in the exposed steps. Now that the pool table is gone, there’s plenty of room for making up dances. I slide a cassette tape into the boom box I won at the mall. I own six tapes including albums by Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and the soundtracks to the movies “Grease”, and “Flashdance.” I got them by taping a penny to the back of a coupon cut from Parade magazine. I press play and fast forward to “What a Feeling” from the “Flashdance” soundtrack so we can reenact the audition scene. I twirl around with my hands in the air then do some crazy fast moves with my feet. My legs look really cool with my red wool legwarmers over my spandex leggings.

“Ok, that’s the first move. Try it.” Samantha follows. But she’s not doing it right. So I correct her.

“Goood,” I say, trying to say it like Ms. Butler at dance school. “But not quite. Try it again.” Samantha crosses her arms, walks away, and slumps to the floor.

“Hey!” I say, “We’re not done here!”

“I’m not doing it anymore.”

“No, no! C’mon, you have to finish the dance. ” I can’t do this dance without her. “Alright, you can make up some moves. OK?”

The basement floor sends ice through our bones, so we wear socks or tights. One day we realize that the floor is also slippery against our shimmery tights. Samantha sits down with her legs extended and I pull on her stretchy hosiery until I have enough material to wrap around my hands. I run backwards and Samantha glides along on her butt like a tobogganist. If I run fast enough, I can let go and she will slide. Samantha bumps to a stop. She smiles.

“Do it again!”

But I am tired, so we switch to playing with the tape recorder. I press record and we pretend that we speak another language. This language is marked by intonation, so we know how to answer each other. We raise our voices for questions and talk fast and shake a finger to express anger. We pretend to argue in babble into the machine for a few minutes, then one of us presses rewind and we play it back and roar with laughter. We press record again and act sillier and rewind the tape again and play it back again. We are laughing so hard our bellies hurt.

Before we moved to 24 Hawxhurst road, we lived at 48 Pawtuxet Avenue, the house in Round Lake, the Oakland avenue house, and a 2-bedroom in an apartment complex called Lamplight Village. It was at Oakland Avenue that I learned to ride a bike. It was a pale yellow-and-pink girls’ model called, “the yellow rose of Texas” and it had a banana seat. I also had my first (and last) birthday party featuring a piñata.

The weekend before we emptied this rental, Mom and Dad held a garage sale. They sold baby clothes, a juicer (never opened), curtains, and junk like doll clothes, wigs, and Tupperware. While Mom scotch-taped a paper sign to the telephone pole at the foot of the driveway and Dad dragged boxes out of the garage, I strolled the length of the bridge table looking for interesting articles to play with. Samantha sat on the lawn singing a song she had made up about rocks while pretending that it was really the two rocks in her hand that were singing. I spied the waffle iron. It had two plates of cold bumpy metal connected to cracked wooden handles. At the tip of the wooden handle was a loop of leather. I lifted it up with both hands and slipped my finger through the loop. My cousin Brandon had all the Star Wars figures and the Millennium Falcon spaceship. This waffle iron looked like a spaceship! I started to spin in a circle and the iron took flight. I grabbed tight to the leather loop. If I spin faster, I thought, I can make the spaceship fly. In the blur, I saw Samantha walking toward me.

“Whatcha doing?” She edged closer.

“Watch out!” I said, but she continued to move toward me until…SMACK! The iron hit her on the bone, barely missing her left eye.

“I told her to watch out!” I said to Mom and Dad but they just shook their heads.

I tagged along with Mom when she first viewed the house at 24 Hawxhurst Road in Monroe, New York. It was the fifth house that Mom and Dad had rented since leaving Brooklyn four years earlier.

“Do the kids go to the North Main School?” Mom asked the realtor.

“No, all the kids on this road go to Pine Tree Elementary,” she said, “but it’s a great school.” The realtor lived down the block.

“I don’t mind going to a new school.” I say to Mom. She looked so happy about finding this place that I didn’t want to ruin it.

“Are you sure?” she asked me. It was already December and that meant that I would have to change schools in the middle of the year.

“Well, I was thinking that maybe I would like the kids in my new school better.” I didn’t say much in school, but that didn’t prevent the kids from making fun of me anyway. I was prone to nosebleeds and was constantly afraid my nose it would start up during class. As a precautionary measure, I carried a crumpled tissue in each pocket of my jeans.

Samantha is the first one to celebrate her birthday in the new house. Mom and Dad have instructed me to conduct party games for the guests, a rag-tag group of seven-year-olds. Wearing bathing suits and Rainbow Bright paper party hats with itchy elastic strings under their sweaty chins, they stand around, looking expectantly at me.

“Duck, Duck, Goose!” I announce. But they just shake their heads.

“That game is for babies,” says one girl, hands on her hips.

“Peek-a-boo is for babies” I correct her. “Let’s go–make a circle!” Duck, Duck, Goose kills ten minutes but the girls get bored quickly and I blank. Then I remember a game that Eunice, our babysitter taught me one day before Samantha came home from school. I didn’t really understand it. It actually seemed mean, but I didn’t think an adult–especially not my devout Christian babysitter-would teach me something mean. The idea is to get the participants to form a line. The group pretends they’re a train and choo choos around the bend (in this case, the tree) to pick up one passenger at a time. Those waiting for the train don’t see what happens. The first person in line steps behind the tree and gets a kiss from the person in front of them, the conductor. The last person gets a smack. We play this game only once. I am the conductor. My sister, the birthday girl is last. But when it’s her turn, none of her friends want to play anymore. But I still have faith that the game will be a hit.

“It’s just a game,” I say. They look at me, unsure. As if the big girl were trying to trick them. But I am the one being tricked. So, I do it. I am in charge of the games. The games have to go off without a hitch. Samantha bounds up. I hesitate for a second, but then I slap her on the cheek. Not too hard. But my sister has a flair for drama. She runs into the house, crying hysterically.

Dad walks out to where I’m standing. He grabs my arm and pulls me toward the car. We take off in his ‘85 Ford Escort, cherry red. The backseat is cluttered with paper coffee cups festooned with the Greek diner motif. Crumpled orange Reese’s peanut butter cup wrappers blanket the floor. A rolling red dumpster. We head down the road, get to the end of Hawxhurst and then turn onto the highway. I am with a madman. He hates me. I didn’t do anything wrong. Okay, maybe I did. But I didn’t mean to.

“What did you do?” Dad is screaming at me the same way he does when he stands over a puddle of fresh urine and screams at the dog.

“Nothing” I say quietly.

“Answer me!” Dad screams through clenched incisors. Dad is half deaf; his right eardrum shattered at the firing range of the Corrections Academy. Dad is deaf and, unfortunately for me, I mumble. His face is blotchy and deep wrinkles score his forehead. Dad has the unsettling habit of gritting his teeth when he’s trying to make a point.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” I say. He doesn’t hear me, thinks I’m ignoring him, slams on the brakes. We are on a country road flanked on either side by woods. I see no houses, only the seam where road meets wilderness.

“If you don’t tell me why you hit your sister on her birthday, you can just get out of the car right here!”

I am old enough to know that he won’t do it. And he is sane enough to know that he won’t follow through. But we go through the formalities just the same. I don’t cry, but even if I do, it never works to evoke sympathy from him anyway. I sit silently.

The wheels screech as Dad makes a U-turn and drives us back the way we came. We return to the house and I step out of the car and walk back slowly. Samantha has recovered but is blotchy around the eyes from crying. On her cheek she wears four red marks the shape of my fingers. She sits on the grass with the party guests, playing happily at Smurfs. They tilt the stiff plastic molded figurines side to side, and use high voices.

“You can play with us,” Samantha offers generously. “But you have to be the monster that chases the Smurfs and then eats them.”

“No thanks,” I say.

I don’t remember the exact details of the move to 24 Hawxhurst Road. It’s no longer clear who carted us girls around, if we had a moving truck, or if we just loaded up the car for the trip from one side of town to our new rental on the other. But there were tears, bickering, screaming, and sullen silence. By the end of the day, we were exhausted. On the last trip of the day, Dad carried in the heavy corn plant and stood in front of the door waiting for my mother’s direction.

“Ellen, where do you want this?” She had her back to him and was rummaging through one of the boxes. “Hel-lo? Turn around and tell me where you want this!”

“Any-where” Mom snapped back, icily. Dad’s face turned red. He dropped the barrel-sized planter on the floor and stormed out the door.

“Good, leave you big baby!” Mom yelled. We heard the car door open and slam shut and the engine hum and fade as it rolled away from the house. Fat drops of rain began to splash against the bare bay windows of the living room. Mom turned on the radio and set it on top of a box next to the one she was unpacking. She sat on a low stool in front of the open box. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor wrapping a string I had pulled off my sweater around and around my finger. The radio was in the middle of a news report. John Lennon died today after being shot in front of the Dakota…. I looked over at Mom. Whether it was the stress of the fight or the news on the radio, Mom had stopped unpacking and was sniffing hard into a tissue pressed against her nose. With the other hand she leaned forward and turned up the volume on the radio. The music started up again. Samantha was sleeping–stretched on the couch, cocooned in her pink puffy jacket. Her saddle-shoed feet hung off the edge. Imagine all the people, living for to-day…

“A beautiful soul was just taken from this earth,” Mom announced. As if on cue, the rain dried up. It was getting dark outside and the living room was dusky. I curled up next to a box, my eyelids heavy. A blue and blurry sleepiness weighed me down. The next thing I heard was the car crunching over gravel. Dad pushed open the screen door with a copy of

“Double Fantasy” tucked under the arm of his padded denim jacket. He looked at Mom.

“Did you hear?”

Mom stood up and Dad wrapped her in his arms. I ran over and hugged the backs of their legs. The moving was over for the day.

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