Chapter Three (Royal Oak)
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I grew up in Michigan, Royal Oak, Michigan, ten miles north of Detroit. That was how the main roads got their names — by how far north of Detroit they were: Ten Mile Road. Eleven Mile. Twelve Mile. Like that. Starting down by the Detroit River, Woodward Avenue cut across each of the Mile Roads clear out to the lakes we went to in the summer; Orchard Lake, Cass Lake, Walled Lake. That was what you did in Michigan. You swam in lakes in the summer and ice-skated on lakes in the winter. The farther away from Detroit you got, the better the neighborhoods became. I lived a block from Ten Mile myself, not far from the Detroit Zoo.
Royal Oak was famous in the thirties and early forties as the home base of a radio program put on by a guy named Father Coughlin. Father Coughlin was a Catholic Priest whose virulent anti-Communist, anti-Semitic tirades went out over the airwaves to every city in conservative America from the pulpit of the Shrine of the Little Flower. The Shrine of the Little Flower was on the corner of Twelve Mile and Woodward. According to my grandmother, anyone who listened to Father Coughlin ought to have been stood up against a wall and shot.
Not long after I was born, the Catholic Church pulled the plug on his radio program. Practically speaking, I don’t think my birth had much to do with it, but you couldn’t convince my grandmother of that. She thought me getting born was the cat’s pajamas. She spoiled me rotten and doted on me to distraction. Not much happened in Royal Oak after that. It was known for a while in the eighties as a hotbed of deranged postal workers. Now the only thing famous about Royal Oak is it’s where Jack Kevorkian lives.
I had an idyllic childhood. There were kids of every ethnicity under the sun on my block; Welsh kids, Polish kids, English, Irish, French, German, you name it. Well, there weren’t any colored kids, of course, or Japs or Chinks or Mexicans — and all the Jews lived over in Huntington Woods. That was just the way things were.
We built forts in trees, dug forts in the ground, played kick-the-can, knocked the street lights out with slingshots, had block parties on Halloween and hung out American Flags on the Fourth of July. Everybody knew everybody else. My whole family, including my grandfather and my grandmother, all lived in a big mournful-looking old house with a coal furnace and a fireplace and a backyard full of trees and a side yard full of trees — elm trees, oak trees, and a big black ash with a blue jay’s nest in its uppermost branches. Morning glories climbed the chimney, clinging for dear life to the gritty red bricks with their tough little green sucker feet.
My father put up storm windows in the fall and took them down in the spring. He had a system. Nobody else knew what it was. My mother tended her peony beds, pruned her rose bushes and kept the spirea trimmed. She picked lilacs and lilies-of-the-valley and made them into bouquets and put them into carnival glass vases on the mantle and at either side of the window seat in the dining room.
There was a cherry tree in the backyard. Cherry blossoms blossomed in the spring. Bumblebees hovered among them. White butterflies landed in them. My grandmother baked cherry pies. I picked the cherries myself. I climbed up onto a rickety old paint-splattered ladder with a big stainless steel sauce pan. The cherries plinked and echoed inside the pan for a while, then got quieter and quieter as the pan filled up and up, higher and higher.
Beyond the cherry tree were my mother’s whitewashed clothes poles and my father’s horseshoe pits and my grandfather’s vegetable garden. My grandfather grew tomatoes and rhubarb and radishes and green beans and a row of sunflowers. I ate tomatoes off the vine, while they were still warm from the sun. When I bit into one, it popped. Hot tomato juice dripped down my throat, soaked the neck of my T-shirt, turned cold, dried, left tomato seeds sticking to my chin.
My grandfather chewed Red Man Tobacco and listened to the Cleveland Indians on the radio because he was originally from Canton, Ohio. He brought me home Clark Bars and Butterfingers in his lunch box. He let me chin myself on his biceps, rubbed dandelions on my cheek to find out whether I liked butter or not, and got killed by a car on Main Street, across from Sid and Wally’s. Sid and Wally’s was a beer garden. My mother and my father and my grandmother all told me that my grandfather was color-blind, as if that was supposed explain everything, but it didn’t. It didn’t explain anything. It didn’t make any sense. He’d been color-blind all his life. He had to know a red light from a green light. Red was on top. Green was on the bottom. I didn’t get to go to his funeral.
There were ups and downs, but my idyllic childhood went on and on, summer after summer — fall, leaves, winter, snow — spring after spring. There were hand-painted pictures of Bambi and Thumper on my curtains and gold lariats on the blue blanket on my bed. I believed in Santa Claus until I was eleven. I still believe in the Tooth Fairy, but that’s only because I saw her with my own eyes, flitting around my pillow one night. She looks kind of like Tinkerbell, but she’s way more serious, and shy. Every year, when it finally got to be the middle of June and my birthday rolled around again, I got so excited I made myself sick.
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The only really pertinent thing about growing in Michigan, however, is that I flunked government and didn’t graduate from high school. Mrs. Miller flunked me. She called herself “Mrs.” Miller, but everyone knew she’d never been married.
The first day of class she pushed herself away from her desk, stood up, licked the tip end of a little nub of chalk, wrote “Mrs. Miller” in chubby white letters across the center panel of a clean slate blackboard, dropped the chalk back into the chalk tray, dusted her chubby white hands together and said, “This is U.S. Government. If you flunk Government you don’t graduate high school.” Here she paused to let the idea of not graduating from high school sink in awhile, then said, “I’m Mrs. Miller.”
Chalk dust hovered in shafts of morning sunlight.
Mrs. Miller pushed her glasses deeper into the indentations at either side of her chubby nose, gave herself a hug and asked, “Are there any questions?”
Nope. Not me, Mrs. Miller, we all said silently. There wasn’t so much as a smirk. We didn’t even think things that might have made us smirk. She was on the lookout for smirks. She was on the lookout for thoughts that might lead to smirks. Row by row she zoomed in on us, one by one, bristling at the possibility that some mental retard might, however fleetingly, look like he or she was in any degree of doubt about the marital status Mrs. Miller had chosen to bestow upon herself, and row by row, we watched the second hand click its way around the face of the clock and listened to the last of the chalk dust settle onto the floor. Finally, she almost smiled and said, “Good.”
What Mrs. Miller got out of her thirty-year teaching career was those first few minutes at the beginning of each new semester when she had twenty-five fresh little half-formed souls to bully into corroborating the lie of a lifetime, and what we got out of being in her class was a visceral appreciation of the better part of valor and self-control enough to last us at least through the rest of puberty. We would have gone along with anything. She could have called herself Marilyn Monroe and we all would have sworn up and down that we saw Joe DiMaggio dropping her ass off in front of the school that morning.
But the truth was that Mrs. Miller wasn’t married and hadn’t ever been married and wasn’t bloody likely to ever get married, and the reason for that was that nobody liked the old bat; whereas I, on the other hand, well, everyone had always adored me since the day I was conceived — which was no doubt the real reason she flunked my ass. Out of spite. She didn’t say so, of course. She said she flunked my ass because I slept in class and didn’t do the work.
That was what she told my mother, at any rate. But what would you expect her to say? That she was jealous? Pfssh. She wouldn’t have admitted she was jealous any more than she would have admitted she’d never been married — besides which, it was all actually my mother’s fault, anyway. She was the one who used to read out loud to me before I was born — long rambling passages from Anna Karenina and Kristin Lavrensdatter and The Good Earth. It wasn’t my fault that the way I learned how to learn was by listening, but what that meant vis-à-vis Mrs. Miller was that I didn’t take notes in class or anything, just leaned back in my chair and listened and presumed what was worth knowing would stick in my mind and what wasn’t wouldn’t take up limited space. Sometimes I listened with my eyes closed.
Mrs. Miller accused me of sleeping while she was explaining some rigmarole about the separation of powers.
“Wasn’t that why people even came to this country?” I frowned convincingly. “To have religious freedom.”
“Nice try,” she said, but flunked my ass anyway.
I had to take another semester of high school when my family moved to California. Then, even though I wrote a paper that correctly predicted that Kennedy would win the 1960 presidential election…and by how many electoral votes from which states (including astutely allowing for voting irregularities in Cook County), the crew-cut Nazi government teacher at the high school in California almost fucking flunked my ass that time, too, and I almost didn’t graduate again.
I still have nightmares about it. I find myself stuck in long, complicated dreams of living the rest of my life in one great big endless government class with Mrs. Miller standing over me like Winston Churchill in drag, wagging a churlish, spiteful, self-satisfied finger in my face, telling me that I never will know the separation of powers from the separation of church and state. I wake up in cold sweats…but the only thing that really matters about any of this is that that was how I got to know Elliot Felton. If Mrs. Miller hadn’t flunked my ass, none of this would have ever happened.
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Elliot was my friend. We were in a drama class together at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, California. His parents were Mormons. He’d grown up in Salt Lake City but had moved to San Mateo when his father was transferred to the San Francisco office of the FBI the previous year.
By the time I got there, Elliot already had something of a reputation. He’d almost killed one of the school’s star football players, for one thing. It was an accident, I found out later, but almost killing an all-conference defensive end gets you something of a reputation whether it was an accident or not. Then he got the part of Clarence Darrow in “Inherit the Wind,” won first prize in an art contest put on by The San Mateo Times and started going steady with Dru Davidson, the cutest girl in the senior class, all while he was still just a junior. Obviously there had to be something sort of cool about the guy, but nobody seemed to be able to figure out quite what.
Yeah, he could draw pictures and act, but the only thing he ever really did was shuffle up and down the hallways in a pair of dusty Wellingtons, never saying a word to another living soul and smoking close to three packs of Camels a day. Rumors flew. People thought he could read minds or that he knew voodoo or that he could hypnotize people. How else could he have gotten Dru Davidson to go steady with him? He must have put some kind of whammy on her. Dru dumped him the summer before I got there, but Elliot had something of a reputation when I first got to know him, nonetheless.
The second week of school we had to do a scene together in drama class. Why I signed up for a drama class I’ll never know. Elliot and I were complete strangers to one another — and total opposites in every way. The drama teacher, Donald Ralston, just sort of arbitrarily stuck Elliot and me up on the stage together. Well, it seemed arbitrary, but I think Ralston thought Elliot and I might “do each other good.” He seemed to think Elliot was some kind of budding genius but the only thing he could have known about me was that, thanks to Mrs. Miller, I was a year older than everyone and seemed to have a chip on my shoulder.
He was right about the chip. I mean, not to change the subject or anything, but not only was I a year older than everyone, I didn’t belong there, period, not in high school or California, either one. I’d already been on my own the whole summer, working on a yacht down in Newport Beach, and had no intention of ever going to any kind of school again, let alone back to high school.
I barely remember how it all happened. I was having a hard life, I remember that. I’d been having a hard life ever since my girlfriend in Michigan dumped me and went to New York to get rich and famous. She did, too — get rich and famous, that is. Well, somewhat rich and famous, I guess. I don’t know how exactly one measures these things. She ended up thinking quite a lot of herself, if that’s the criterion.
Her name was Donna McKechnie. You don’t hear much about her anymore, but for a while there, she was the hottest ticket on Broadway. She won a Tony Award for her role as Cassie in A Chorus Line and did all kinds of movies and TV shows and things. She was “The Rose” in The Little Prince and Sam Malone’s girlfriend on Cheers. I think she may even have been elected “Miss Turnstile” of the New York City subway system at some point — but that all came way after I ever knew her. She dumped me right around the time that Ritchie Valens song about some chick named Donna dumping him was playing on every radio and jukebox in the country. There was nowhere you could go to get away from it.
I really didn’t want to get into any of this, but it’s true, and probably even sort of pertinent; ever since dear old Donna dumped my ass, I really never have been quite the same — so I guess I ought to go back and start with that.
The Multimedia version has music by The Mills Brothers, Jimmy Boyd, Chuck Berry and Ritchie Valens, but this voice only video chapter ain’t bad all on its own. Watch it and see: