Clickety, clackety. The rhythmic sounds of the train wheels echoed in my soul, lulling me to sleep on the nearly empty train. The monotonous “whoosh,” pause, “whoosh,” pause, “whoosh” of one tree after another passing by my coach window, reminiscent of the bars on a prison window somehow, didn’t help. As I drifted off to sleep, leaving the clickety, whoosh, clackety, whoosh behind, my mind drifted to one of the many books I read while I was in prison.

Thomas Wolfe was wrong,” a little voice whispered in my ear. “You can go home again. And that’s where you’re headed. You’ll prove you can go home again. You’ll see Lucy, . . .” My head slumped against the train window. If my eyes were fluttering in counterpoint to the trees or the train wheels, I wasn’t aware of them doing so. I was standing on the sidewalk outside my childhood home.

7412 Clover Lane. We moved there when I was nine, after my mother came back from the war. She used her GI bill to help buy a home, and we moved from the inner city, called the slums by some, the ghetto by others, to suburbia.

A little white house, with a white picket fence. There was the concrete driveway, leading up to the detached 1.5 car garage. And the five-foot-tall sumac tree outside my bedroom window. Asphalt shingles on the roof, green shutters beside the windows. And our own sidewalk, leading up to the green front door.

Best of all, the toilet was inside the house. No more trips to the far end of the back yard to open the creaking door, step through the miasma of several days worth of stank to sit on the wooden bench with a hole in it. And I even knew, at nine years old, that this was called a ranch-style house. It was all on one level.

On top of all that, this was a single-family home. Not like the duplex we left behind to move here. Just my mom, my dad, my grandma, and me. Each with our own little bedroom! And who cared that we all shared the one bathroom. It was inside!

Clickety, clackety, bump. I don’t know if there was something on the track or not, but whatever made that weird noise also jostled me awake. I looked around, brown eyes peering from heavy-lidded eyes. I didn’t see anybody else in the railroad car, so I drifted off again.

We even had a swimming pool. Well, it wasn’t just our pool - it was a community pool, and it belonged to the entire suburban neighborhood. It was in the wide-open field right behind our back yard. Two minutes after I walked through the gate in our back fence I could be at the swimming pool. And the sign? It didn’t say “Whites only.” It said, “This pool is only for the residents of Sumac Lane Development.”

I was a little bothered by that the first time I saw it. So I asked my mom “Momma, isn’t it kind of unfair to tell people who don’t live here they can’t use our pool?” She explained that the people who lived in Sumac Lane paid Homeowners Association dues, and those dues paid for the pool maintenance and the lifeguards. So it wasn’t really unfair. I stopped worrying about it, and just used the pool, every day in the summer. Just like all the other kids in our new neighborhood.

That’s where I met Lucy. She went to the swimming pool every day in the summer, too. And she was on the swim team, so I joined the team. They told me I had to try out first, though. I wasn’t as good a swimmer as any of the other boys, or girls. But I could dive better than any of them, off the 1-meter diving board we had in our pool. I still couldn’t be on the team unless I swam too, so I joined the relay team and swam the breaststroke. I could hold my breath and do an entire lap underwater.

“Hooterville. Next stop Hooterville.” The conductor’s strident voice pulled me from my reverie. My stop was right after Hooterville, so I decided to stay awake. It wasn’t very far from Hooterville to Mason. I was getting a little excited now, anyway. And nervous.

I left the train in Mason and looked for a taxi stand. There was one cab still standing there, a Radio cab. “How interesting,” I thought. “I get the cab that is black and white, instead of yellow.” I don’t think they had Radio Cabs in Mason when I left.

I headed over to the cab. Some fellow with swarthy skin, a mustache, beard, a turban, and a thick accent was driving. “How much to go to Clover Lane? And back to downtown after that?”

“Hop you in,” he told me. “I run meter.”

“But do you know about how much it will be for a round trip?” I asked.

“Meter tells us. Maybe $25 dollar. Hop you in. I no cheat.”

I smiled at him as I opened the back door and tossed in my small suitcase. “I don’t think you cheat,” I assured him. “I just wanted to make sure I can afford it.”

“No afford, no go there,” he advised me. After I climbed in after my suitcase and buckled in he started the meter, and we headed out of the train station. Once we got on State Highway 53 he started talking.

“You from where?”

“California,” I replied. I wasn’t ready to tell the first stranger I met in Mason the name of the city - San Quentin.

“You actor?”

“No. I’m not an actor.”

“You look like actor. Denzel Smith, maybe.”

Groaning inside, I ignored his mashup of two famous actors. “Law enforcement,” I told him. Not really a lie; being an inmate puts you in law enforcement circles, and you do work while you’re in prison.

“You bounty hunter? You big, strong, like Dog.”

Somehow I didn’t think Dog the Bounty Hunter would appreciate the comparison. Come to think of it, neither did I. But I kept quiet. One of the many lessons I learned in the big house. We rode in silence, into downtown Mason. And there we stayed, driving by businesses, stores, townhomes, rowhouses, a huge mall, schools, churches.

When I thought we should have been out of town, on Martin Way, the cabbie turned right, across from another strip mall.

“Is there another Clover Lane?” I asked, puzzled.

“Only one. We almost there.”

We drove past apartment complexes on one side, row houses on the other. No swimming pool, no open fields, nothing I could recognize. When we stopped at a four-way stop I noticed the street signs. We were on Waterford, turning left onto Clover Lane. That felt right, but nothing looked the same. After we turned, he pulled up in front of a pale blue house with a stone fence and a giant oak tree in front of one of the windows.

“Wait here,” I told him as I stepped out of the cab and looked at the tree. It was right about where my Sumac tree used to be, in front of a window that would have been my bedroom. The number in gilded letters on the mailbox read 7412.

It was still a ranch-style home. There was still a driveway. The 2-car garage was now attached to the main house. So much was different.

I turned in a full circle. None of the houses looked familiar. The neighborhood didn’t feel right. I bent over to ask the cabbie a question.

“Who lives here now?” I asked him, foolishly.

“I know this how?”

“What kind of people live in this neighborhood now?”

“Same kind people. Some tall, some short, some fat, some skinny. Why ask you?”

I hesitated. “I used to live here,” I told him, taking a deep breath.

“Go door knocking you want know more. Meter running.”

“Don’t go anywhere,” I directed the cabbie. “I’ll be right back.” I got out of the cab and looked up. The neighborhood was part of the city now, that was obvious. Light blasting up made it hard to see the stars. I could count the few that were visible; fifteen. I walked back to the intersection of Waterford and Clover Lane and looked left.

There was still a hill there. The hill where I got to going too fast on my new 3-speed bicycle and hit the front hand brake first. I flew head over heels and over the front wheel, landing on the pavement and skinning up my arms and my knees.

I looked south down Clover Lane, away from our house. Nothing looked familiar. I looked west along Waterford, back where the pool used to be. The pool where Lucy gave me my first kiss. No pool. No Lucy.

I headed back to the cab, looking the other way up Clover Lane, past the Radio cab. No Lucy, no David, no Ralph, no Miriam. All long gone.

Shaking my head I walked back to the cab and climbed in. “I guess Thomas Wolfe was right,” I mumbled.

“Thomas Wolfe you friend? You go see him now?”

“No, I’m not going to see him now. Just take me back to the train station.”

July 21, 2020 22:37

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