My parents’ house was almost empty. The movers placed some things in storage. The rest, items my parents could live without, were being sold today piece by piece. They needed extra cash to help pay for the move. It was a tag sale inside my family’s home, strangers shuffling through rooms, eyeballing furniture and bric-a-brac. Then, by the end of the day, just one more suburban tract house owned by the bank. My mother couldn’t bear it so I came to pick her up for the weekend while my father oversaw the sale before shutting the door behind him for good.
I parked on the street in front of the mailbox and waited. I wanted no part of this surreal event either. Were I to wander inside a houseful of strangers looking for bargains my gut instinct would be to start tossing bodies like a crazed bouncer. I did not have the financial means to bail my parents out of this mess. I gripped the steering wheel tightly and just stared out the window.
To see my mother’s face was to view my own 19 years later, the cut of her jaw, the bridge of her nose, the same blue eyes. I was her only child and knew exactly why she was taking so long to come out. She was saying goodbye to the place, visiting rooms she’d once decorated, bidding farewell to birds and squirrels she fed each day in the backyard. Hers was a wildly beautiful creativity that eventually unhinged itself through drugs and depression. I was hoping for a quick getaway when I first arrived, but instead I waited. There was always time for one last tour.
That cherry tree planted in the middle of the yard was a housewarming gift from my great-grandmother. Just beyond its thick branches was the window to my room, where I dreamed awfully big dreams, suffered my first hangover, and lost my virginity. The hallway light was usually on while I slept as a kid. My mother would come home late from her shift as a waitress, doggie bag in one hand, wad of cash in the other.
“Remember those football cleats we put on layaway?” She held the money up to the light. “We can pick them up tomorrow.”
On the opposite end of the house was the den, where the family dog died in my arms and choking sobs spilled out of me. In the kitchen sat an old rotary phone long since disconnected. It once rang in the middle of the night and shook the whole house. “Dad . . . I got jumped tonight driving the cab. Can you get out here?” It was a part-time college job that went horribly wrong. I still don’t know how he did it, pounding the back of the ambulance before it left and screaming my name. My God, I thought. How did he find me so fast? It wasn’t even possible.
Then, years later, by that worn-out spot of grass next to the drive was where my father and I fought like demons, an unnatural act that will haunt the rest of my life. I don’t recall the exact moment when my parents became partners in drug abuse. It may have developed over time, or perhaps it was always there, carefully hidden from me. But after that fight the two of them simply shut the door, drew the shades, and quit the whole thing.
Cocaine has a way of possessing human souls, inhabiting them completely before running them straight into the ground. It was no longer my parents I was pleading with and screaming at to go for help. My mother was incoherent. My father was plain evil. I stayed away for two and a half years. The only news I received was when bills arrived in the mail for credit cards I didn’t have. My dad and I shared the same name.
It was the house that would come to offer the tiniest shaft of hope. One holiday season I buzzed through the neighborhood to check for signs of life when I saw it, a sad little string of lights blinking back at me like some wayward ship signaling through the fog. I watched them twinkle for a good five seconds or so as my car sped up the block and out of sight, the quickest family Christmas ever.
When I was younger and still capable of hero worship I would track down the haunts of great authors, their houses, pubs, and hotels. I’d stand on sidewalks or sit in my car for minutes at a time and wait for the magic to start. Now? How ’bout now? It took me years to come to my senses, realizing I was just staring at fragments and shells of other people’s lives.
Yet even today I persisted in old habits. The classroom where I taught in Brooklyn this past year had the Empire State Building perfectly framed in one of its windows. I ate lunch each day sitting atop a desk just taking in its majesty and waiting for Kong to appear. In the afternoon I would drive past the house where “Sophie’s Choice” was filmed. The place was large and gorgeous but never once did I glimpse the profile of Meryl Streep in any of its windows. It was just a pretty house in a quiet Brooklyn neighborhood.
So the thought of knocking on a stranger’s door one day, asking permission to glimpse my own life’s shell, left me greatly distressed. After college I made the mistake of doing my student teaching at my old high school. I would rattle around hallways in the early mornings, passing old lockers or staring out at the football field until it meant almost nothing. In time, it just became the building where I was learning to teach. I didn’t want that to happen to my family’s home. I wanted to keep the magic intact, if there ever was any to begin with. I swore that as soon as my mother got inside the car we would pull away for good and not look back.
When a relative called after nearly three years to tell me my parents were sober and slowly making a comeback, I didn’t know how to receive it. There had been other comebacks in the past. What was so special about this one? I made tentative arrangements to visit my mother at the facility where she was being treated for her depression. She had been undergoing something called electroconvulsive therapy, an intense treatment that could leave her suffering from amnesia. I knew very little about it other than the horrific “Cuckoo’s Nest” images I conjured in my head. The three of us sat in the visiting room like strangers and chatted. My mother looked tired and haunted.
Her roommate was sneaking boyfriends in late at night and my father was trying to have the room switched. I remembered how gently he tended to her and how much older they both looked. It was going to be a long way back.
I started to visit regularly. The therapy seemed to be working, and my mother went home. We slowly morphed back into a family, could even poke fun at ourselves a bit. “Hey, Pop, remember that time on the front lawn? Good times, boy, good times.” They met my fiancée and came to adore her. She, in turn, couldn’t believe these were the same people I needed to stay away from for so long.
Life was returning to normal except for that one constant of nearly 40 years. My dad had refinanced the house just prior to their troubled years. The money had long been spent and the new mortgage subsequently exploded. Now they were in their 60s, healthy and clean and sober, with two weeks left to vacate the premises.
My mother finally emerged from the house with my father in tow, carrying her things. I could see strangers behind them in the doorway darting back and forth, while more cars pulled up to the curb. I took my mother’s bag and nodded toward the house. “Have they picked us clean yet?”
My dad smiled as if I was being overly dramatic, as if our home wasn’t filled with jackals and grave robbers haggling over jewelry and silverware. “It’s just crap,” he said, “a bunch of junk we don’t need. We’re moving on, pal. This is a good thing.”
With the three of us outside all at once and the house crawling with strangers, the property was already taking on a foreign look. My mother and I walked over to the car. Across the street was a neighbor’s house that had been filled with girls when I was a kid. Occasionally, they would invite my younger lunatic self over for a movie. Directly opposite their television was a window framing my house in the exact way I would one day view the Empire State Building.
I always wondered what those girls thought of the family across the street. Over a stretch of four decades they saw me concuss my head flipping over handlebars or jumping off the roof. They had ringside seats to an epic front-yard brawl and watched ambulances light up the sky as they carried my mother off to detox programs.
Shouldn’t we be leaving something behind, I thought, slowly accelerating from the curb, something other than buried pets and a collapsed swimming pool? Maybe a plaque of some kind: The embattled McGeever family slept here from 1973 to 2011. The parents had their demons. Their kid was wild, with delusions of grandeur. But they loved each other hard, survived the whole damn thing, and were very much American.
J. Bryan McGeever’s stories have appeared in Hampton Shorts, Newsday, Confrontation, and Thomas Beller’s “Lost and Found: Stories From New York.” A graduate of Stony Brook Southampton’s M.F.A. program who grew up in Port Jefferson Station, he teaches writing and literature in the New York City public school system.