Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Fog-Shroud of Memory

We were lost.

We were driving through a foreign city.  Eugene, Oregon.  It was a city foreign to our present, but so familiar in our past.  Nearly 30 years ago, Jean and I had lived here, worked here, gone to school here, given birth to two children here.  Why did nothing look familiar?  Had the city changed, or was it us?  Our memories were blurred by the soft, unfocused fog-shroud of memory, as omnipresent as the clammy mist which blankets western Oregon.

We'd just driven two days from our home in Montana as part of a mini-book tour for Fobbit.  Coos County, Oregon was kind enough to select my debut novel as its annual county-wide Title Wave Read (a mind-blowing honor for a first-time novelist).  Over the next two days, I was scheduled to visit public libraries and speak to high school students about my dual life as a soldier and a writer.  Before we hit the coast, however, we had one stop to make.

We pulled into Eugene, trying to find our past.  Eugene is a college town fueled by its passion for track-and-field (it's where the legendary Steve Prefontaine lived and died).  It's a liberal city known for its eco-evangelism (ground zero for both tree huggers and loggers), but it's also a relatively quiet place.  People go about their business on the moist streets without too much pomp and circumstance.  It's a small enough community to be shaken to the core by a murder: seven months before Jean and I moved there, Diane Downs shot her three children in neighboring Springfield.

Eugene is where our marriage grew up, taking its first toddler steps.  I enrolled at the University of Oregon in the fall of 1984 and got my bachelor's degree in English three years later.  As I mentioned earlier, we were broke as a joke in those days, rationing our gas, riding our bikes wherever we could, pinching pennies, shopping the supermarket specials like they were a military campaign.  We were young, we were just a few inches above the poverty line, but we were happy.  Now, thirty years later, we were determined to find personal landmarks from those days.

We cruised the streets and nothing looked familiar.  "This is weird," we kept saying.  "This is so freakin' weird."

Finally, between the two of us, we managed to piece together the general location of our first house.

"I think it was on a street named for a president," Jean said.

"I know there was a convenience store on the corner just down the street--a Dairy-Mart or something like that," I said.  "I remember there was a huge cow on top of the sign which kept spinning around.  I always wanted to go in there and ask if the cow ever threw up.  Never worked up the nerve to do that, though."

We moved to Eugene in January 1984, less than a month into our marriage.  We drove over Santiam Pass, bringing everything we owned with us in a U-Haul truck.  It was the smallest U-Haul available because at that time "everything we owned" consisted of a waterbed, a large hanging lamp with a fringed shade, a Mickey Mouse phone, a few boxes of clothes and the wedding gifts we'd just received.  We came over that pass in a wet snowstorm, descended into the city, and found a house to rent.  The landlord, a man only a few years older than us, looked at his new tenants with scorn and arrogance.  He saw us for what we were: two naifs with bottomless dreams, but a shallow bank account.  When he handed over the lease agreement, he did so reluctantly.  The security deposit and first month's rent almost completely wiped us out, leaving us $75 for groceries and gas.  (Jean just reminded me that I spent $60 of that on a necklace for a Valentine's Day gift.  What a romantic fool!)

Since we couldn't afford furniture, I "built" chairs, tables, and an elaborate sofa out of the packing boxes, stuffing one inside the other multiple times to strengthen them.  I spent an entire day making this cardboard furniture set and when I called Jean into the room, the look on her face was priceless.  I might be one of the only guys on this earth to win a girl's heart with cardboard furniture.

Our first kitchen, furnished with the finest in cardboard furniture

We smiled now, remembering those early days of ours.

I snapped my fingers.  "Hey, I just remembered--there was a Bi-Mart nearby.  Google that."

Jean punched "Bi-Mart" into her smartphone and gave me the address of the nearest store.  We pointed our car toward the eastern side of Eugene, then turned down 18th Street.  Gradually the fog started to burn off, landmarks became vaguely familiar.

"I remember this park," I said, pointing out the window to an expanse of grass, trees, swingsets, a running trail.

"Oh, yeah," Jean said.

"Remember how we started an exercise program?  We told ourselves we'd go jogging every night."

"I remember it didn't last," she said.

The reason it didn't last was because one month into our marriage Jean got pregnant.  One night after jogging once around the park's trail, Jean bent over at the waist, breathing hard.  "I can't do it," she panted.  "I feel like I have cement blocks tied to my feet."

Was that the same night we locked ourselves out of the house?  (The house we now couldn't find.)  My memory--or maybe it's just my imagination--tells me it was.  I remember going around to all the doors, twisting the unyielding knobs with my hand, and even tried prying up the bedroom window.  Then I started worrying someone would see me there in the dark, a sweat-suited figure trying to break in, and would call the cops.  Getting in trouble with the law, however innocently, was the last thing I wanted in this new relationship.  I was still in the Impress-Your-Lover phase of marriage.

"It won't budge," I told my still-breathless, sweating wife.  I dropped back to the ground.  We stared at each other in the dark, two frightened, unsure lovers who'd done a simple, careless thing--forgetting to put a key in their pocket before a nightly jog--and who now faced the embarrassment of calling up their landlord--a fussy, grade-A asshole--and asking him to come to their house and unlock the front door.  We'd only been living in the place for two weeks and now look, we'd barred ourselves from the few worldly possessions we'd brought with us from Wyoming.

We walked two blocks to Dairy-Mart and, because we didn't have any change for the pay phone, asked the night clerk if we could make a call.  Outside, above our heads, the cow spun itself into a dizzy vertigo.

Thirty years later, we crawled past 1920 Hayes Street at 5 miles per hour (Jean was right, though she never would have guessed Rutherford B. Hayes--who the hell ever remembers that President?).

You know that scene at the end of Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston rounds the corner on the beach and sees the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand?  Or how Atlanta looks to the zombie-survivors of The Walking Dead?  It was the same effect on the two of us as we looked at our first house, three decades after we left it.

The front lawn was a wild overgrowth, the siding was dingy, there were cracks in the sidewalk.  It was as if a jungle had grown up around that house, the earth trying to swallow it in a clutch of dirty vegetation.  In fact, Jean and I weren't even sure this was the right house.  We snapped a photo on our smartphone anyway, then drove on.

We felt so old, so wealthy, so...superior to our younger selves.  Those two sweet, distant versions of us really had no clue what lay ahead of them.  Back then, we were so bound up in neuroses, financial anxieties, and just plain ignorance that we couldn't even feel life happening all around us--not even during what should have been a funny, rom-com moment of locking ourselves out of the house.  We drove on, clucking our tongues at 1984 Us.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the checkerboard of streets around downtown Eugene, desperately, stubbornly trying to find the birth home where our two sons came into the world.  We Googled "Lucinia Birth Home," but since it had closed years ago--probably pre-internet--we came up empty.  We called the OB-GYN department at Sacred Heart Medical Center: did anyone there remember Lucinia?  The twenty-something female voice on the other end acted as if we were asking to speak to George Washington.

Defeated, we drove out of the city toward our second home, confident we could at least find that place.

In February 1984, unemployed and down to our last couple of dollars with nothing to show for the second month's rent, we were forced to leave 1920 Hayes Street.  The smug landlord was disappointed but not surprised when we told him of our failure.  Through our church pastor, we'd heard of a boat-and-RV storage place out in Santa Clara which was looking for a couple to serve as caretakers for the yard.

We got the job, which required us to be on the property 24/7 (yes, that means seven days a week with no respite).  It provided a house with utilities and paid $400 a month.  It was manna from heaven and we gobbled it up.  We worked that job for two years (eventually, we successfully lobbied for one day off a week) and built our marriage on that financial stability.

($400?  Ha!  Three days ago, we spent $300 on a vacuum cleaner and went out to eat an $80 dinner at a local restaurant without batting an eyelash.  We would have been unrecognizable aliens from the future if those younger selves had seen that).

We made that house on Awbrey Lane our home.  That first hot summer, with Jean in her third trimester, we stripped all the paint off the kitchen cabinets, and even though we found a cheap wood bordering on plywood underneath we stained the cabinets and looked on our work with pride.  I set up a writing studio in the upstairs hallway, a short passageway with sloped ceilings which prevented me from standing up straight, and I wrote poetry, short stories, and half a draft of a really terrible novel.  We got to know our customers, the owners of boats and RVs, and always got a laugh after Mrs. Cobb came in to pay her monthly storage bill.  Mrs. Cobb was in her seventies and had a thin frizz of hair which stood up, as if the follicles were electrocuted, in an airy nimbus around her head.  Her hair was so thin, we could see her gleaming skull beneath the afro.  We might have laughed, but we felt sorry for Mrs. Cobb and always spoke more gently when she was in the office.  That house on Awbrey Lane was where Jean puked her way through a first pregnancy, where we adopted our first pet (a hypertensive mutt we named Caleb), where we decorated our first Christmas tree, where we brought our first child home from the birth home and lay in bed holding hands as we listened to our son suckle softly in the dark.

As we drove out of Eugene to Santa Clara two weeks ago, all of these memories rolled over us like a white-foamed wave striking rocks on the coastline.  We were more confident of this address, we were sure we could find this one page from our scrapbook waiting for us at the end of Awbrey Lane.  We drove with fear and curiosity.

If 1920 Hayes had been the vine-choked future of Logan's Run, then seeing the present-day Eugene Trailer and Boat Storage on Awbrey Lane was like walking across the atomic wasteland of Hiroshima.  Our memory of the place had been reduced to rubble--scorched earth--and something new had risen in its place.

The House on Awbrey Lane, 1985: our first garage sale
Awbrey Lane, 2013
Where once a house--built in the 1930s and weathered, sure, but still charming--had stood, there was now a double-wide trailer where the caretaker had her office and living quarters.  Where once tall trees had sheltered the house, there was now bare, too-sunny landscaping.  I remember once, back in 1985, hearing an odd noise outside in the trees at night.  I got dressed and, flashlight in hand, investigated.  I shined the beam up into the branches and nearly dropped the flashlight when a family of raccoons hissed at me.

Now it was all gone, our memories leveled by bomb-blast.  We got out of the car and introduced ourselves to the manager of the storage yard, a pleasant woman in her fifties. She'd been here for seven years, she said, and the place had always been like this.  I looked at the ground around the trailer, denuded of grass, and remember how I'd once seen a rat--large as a puppy--running across the lawn away from the house and how my heart had seized up because our infant son was sleeping in his crib at the time.  The garden bed we'd once tilled and planted--ambitiously too large for just the two of us, so large that watermelons rotted on the vine--was now paved over.

It was almost too sad and weird for us to see our first real home--the one where we'd lived for two years--erased like this.  We turned to go, exchanging pleasantries and names with the woman.  "Oh, Abrams?" she said.  "I've seen that name on some of the old invoices.  Every now and then I'll run across your signature."

Jean and I got in the car and pulled out of the driveway, smiling, marveling that the 30-year-old ink of our signatures was still on the books.  The past hadn't completely forgotten us, it seemed.

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